Books: The Biological Basis of Teleological By Harry Binswanger

by | May 18, 2002

This is an original, comprehensive treatise in the field of philosophy of science.

This is an original, comprehensive treatise in the field of philosophy of science.

Dr. Binswanger employs Ayn Rand’s epistemological derivation of the concept of “value” as the foundation for his thesis. He presents a theory to explain the meaning of goal-directed action—of teleology——and to identify the type of entities to which the term applies. Here is an excerpt, from the book’s Introduction: “There is an inescapable connection, I will argue, between life and goals. The actions of living organisms, even of non-conscious organisms such as plants, are goal-directed; the actions of inanimate objects, even of man-made devices such as ‘target-seeking’ torpedoes, are not “In deciding the proper scope of teleological concepts, the first step is to ask: what phenomena in nature gave rise to the formation of teleological distinctions were these concepts originally intended to mark? This will involve focusing on some paradigm cases of teleology—simple, clear, fairly non-controversial instances of action for the sake of a goal.

“Then I consider what becomes of these concepts in the light of a more sophisticated context of knowledge. I address the question of whether or not teleological concepts mark any essential distinction in nature, and, if so, precisely what distinction. Are the facts on the basis of which teleological concepts were first formed reducible to other facts of a more fundamental order? And, if so, what classes of phenomena should be included as teleological, according to this more basic understanding? “The steps in this program can be clarified by citing the process by which other pre-scientific notions have been developed into precise, scientific concepts. For example, biologists still divide organisms into plants and animals, even though this distinction originated with loose, ostensively defined notions having a slightly 35 different denotation than they have for modern biologists.

“Aristotle advanced our understanding of the plant-animal distinction by defining ‘animal’ in terms of the faculties of locomotion and sensation. Contemporary biologists, possessing a more advanced knowledge about living organisms, use a more fundamental definition of ‘animal,’ (heterotrophic metabolism) by which animals carry on the basic life-process of self-maintenance “Although the contemporary understanding of ‘plant’ and ‘animal’ makes the same general distinction as before, the contemporary definitions entail the inclusion of a somewhat wider class of organisms as animals than did the older definitions (e.g., sponges, corals, and protozoa are now included).

“This illustrates the general process by which a loose, pre-scientific concept can be expanded to denote a wider class of phenomena than it originally denoted. Such an expansion is prompted by the discovery of a new characteristic(s) which is more fundamental than those previously taken as defining. When that happens, it may be that some existents previously excluded from the class are now included, since they satisfy the new definition and are henceforth included in the class (see Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, chapter 5).

“My thesis is that certain teleological concepts can be expanded in this manner Specifically, I will argue that the concept of “goal-directed action” can be defined in terms of properties more fundamental than those unique to its original referents (man’s purposeful actions towards pre-envisioned ends), and that this new definition justifies the classification of all levels of living action—whether purposeful or automatic—as goal-directed.

“I will also argue that the proposed definition of ‘goal-directed action’ is not satisfied by inanimate processes. Goal-directed action depends upon a type of causation arising from the distinctive nature of life.

“In short, I will show that men, animals, and plants act for the sake of obtaining certain ends, but rocks, rivers, and machines do not.”

The Ayn Rand Bookstore (formerly Second Renaissance Books) is your source for books and lectures for those interested in Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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