Teleology; Life and Goals

By Jonathan Awesome

What is it that sets organisms apart from all other entities? What makes a thing living? What is life? When we observe the various kinds of organisms, from bacteria to plants to fish to men, we can observe very little in common   Jonathan, it may be that  my being trained in biology  makes me baulk at this statement. to all beyond this; they act. But they are not alone in possessing this quality, it is common but not exclusive to them. Planets orbit stars, stones fall to earth, river flow, volcanoes erupt; none of these are living beings. The actions of organisms contrasts to these in important ways.

The difference between the actions of inanimate matter and that of living things is to be found in the nature of the kinds of causes involved. For the inanimate the cause of an action is an outside force, something acting on it antecedent to its own action. I have trouble also with the phrase “its own action”. it sounds too much like it is responsible for its movement , although you have stated otherwise.  When a plant absorbs water to hydrate itself, when a fish darts under cover to avoid being eaten, when a bear kills another animal to eat it they are all acting with the cause of their action being some future state. Their action is generated from within rather than without. Such a future cause is a goal and the goal underlies each of these is the life of the acting organism. Actions cannot be CAUSED by the future. Small fish INSTINCTIVELY swim for cover if a shadow falls on the water above them. I have some small fish that were hatched in a trough  in my back garden. They have never witnessed any of their fellows being eaten , but they still swim rapidly into the weed when they see me or my shadow falls on the water.

A goal does not need to be a conscious goal (it could not be for an unconscious living thing). A conscious goal is a purpose; it is a cause of an action to be attained by the successful execution of that action with the difference that this kind of goal is a goal known to the acting entity. For a plant absorbing water is a purely mechanical process. For a man building a house is a choice taken as an optional, consciously undertaken means of meeting some requirement imposed on him by his nature and the nature of the world in which he lives. A man knows why he acts for the most part, he chooses his actions and his goals; a man has purposes.

From the moment that mere chemical reactions become self replicating and self sustaining entities goals exist and the fundamental goal of all actions of such entities (with few exceptions) is the attainment of what each entity needs to live.

[The process by which organisms become more advanced and better able to survive is the inheritance of beneficial mutations. When the first instance of a given mutation emerges any action it causes in the organism is not goal directed but accidental; the organism acts as it does because it developed in a way which caused it to. It did not develop to act in that way because such actions had previously aided the survival of the organism's ancestors, allowing it to be passed on. It was not passed on. When such an action does get passed on because it aided an organism in surviving and reproducing it then becomes a goal directed as it is from then on performed by the preceding generations because it helps them to] CORRECT                                                       

Mutations CAUSE new behaviours in individuals. If the new behaviour is beneficial to the individual then, by natural selection, the mutation responsible for the  behaviour can become established in the species gene pool. A mutation may occur many times over many years in different individuals, but until a mutant individual finds itself in a particular  environment that presents the mutation  with an opportunity to express itself, to the organism’s advantage, it is useless. If the behaviour happens to solve a problem posed by a new environment,then the solution,for that individual, existed before the problem. Therefore, the behaviour is not goal directed, the environment merely presents the mutant gene an opportunity to usefully express itself.

The above is the process by which goal directed actions emerge from accidental actions caused by random mutations. Such accidental actions are also one exception to the actions of organisms as goal directed with the goal of life at the root. Another such exception is that, not of actions of organism without goals, but of goal directed actions without life as the root. The actions of people, who must choose their actions (leaving aside unconscious biological processes) by reasoning and thus can make errors and choose self destructive actions, are the other exception (when the goals chosen are self destructive).

That human beings can be either the rational animal or the suicidal animal is what ties this study of life as goal directed action (teleology) to the study of how we should act if we are to live and live well (flourishing being a high degree of living). That man needs a set of principles to guide his actions in order to flourish is the fact which leads us to the next subjects in this logical chain which rests on this one: meta-ethics and ethics.

There are two apparent exceptions to life as goal directed actions with its own perpetuation and quality as the goal. The first is suicidal or otherwise self destructive actions taken by organism (other than man). Such things as the male praying mantis being eaten while mating are only apparent exceptions since such actions are taken because previous instances of the same behavior brought the organism into existence. It must act in such a way for the same reason which allowed it to exist, that it and its ancestors were thus programmed because it aided in reproduction.

The other apparent exception is the goal directed action of non-living entities. We create many machines which act and can act in very complex ways. And their actions have purposes, the ones we give them, the reasons we created them. This is a case of a problem for which a solution  has been found - the problem preceding the solution. The solution is a goal orientated activity (the building of a machine), which is not the case when we consider the evolution of life.

These are not, however, alive as their actions are not self generated. We generate their actions. The concept of life remains no broader or narrower in scope than the actual referents; it includes living things and only living things while meeting all of the other requirements of a valid concept mentioned elsewhere. Life is, in essence, self generated goal directed action.