Crítica, Revista Hispanoamericana de Filosofía, Volume 10, number 28, April 1978
Explicaciones teleológicas en biología. Panorama actual y antecedentes históricos
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Margarita Ponce T.
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

Abstract: The aim of this paper is to present the actual treatment the philosophy of science gives to the problem of teleological explanations in biology.
In science we find a peculiar language called ‘teleological’, which uses the typical words ‘goal’, ‘purpose’ and ‘function’. The term ‘teleological’ refers to a goal which organizes, explains or makes intelligible some entity or operation. It is a reminiscense of a point of view which has been overcome in factual science, so that teleological explanations have almost disappeared in physics and chemistry.
Some philosophers believe that we lack a formal criterion to distinguish teleological from non-teleological language, and the only way to know we are faced with such a language is the presence of certain typical words and sentences. Some other philosophers do not agree with this opinion. Although it is true that a formal criterion has not yet been well established, an increasingly formal treatment of the problem of teleology has been evident, specially during the last fifteen years.
The ambiguity in the meaning and application of the so-called ‘teleological’ terms has made it necessary to distinguish between teleological and functional statements; even though some authors continue to apply the word ‘teleological’ to both types of statements.
The words ‘goal’ and ‘purpose’ are used in teleological statements, and they refer to a future event which explains in a causal way, the existence or the configuration of a given thing. A close connection exists between goals and means. This teleological language applies to intentional behavior as well as to entities and processes where there is no consciousness involved and which can be understood through the concepts of ‘fitness’ and ‘evolutionary unit’.
The explanatory import attributed to teleological language is a matter of controversy: some analysts hold the opinion that it is a truly scientific language, whereas others consider it has only a heuristic value. The most radical philosophers of science argue that the use of teleological explanations creates ambiguities and confusion. They think that terms such as ‘goal’, ‘purpose’ and the ones alike, are psychological or anthropomorphic extrapolations.
Teleological statements cannot be properly translated into non-teleological ones. Those who think that they can, are actually refering, even in an implicit way, to functional statements. The central problem is this: are all functional statements teleological?
The primary meaning of ‘function’ is “the operation of a thing”. It is equivalent to the Greek word ‘ergon’. In this sense, understood as the operation or as the consequence of the operation of an entity, the term ‘function’ may appear in statements which have nothing to do with goals and purposes. They are ‘teleologically neutral’ and can be translated into other statements in terms of effects or results. They can be used properly in all sciences.
‘Function’ presents more sense to the analyst: (a) Under one interpretation, it describes some recurrent activity or some behavioral pattern in an individual or in a group. In this sense, the function must help to the ‘proper functioning’ of the organism. It is an evaluative sense of ‘function’. (b) There is also the perspectival sense of the word ‘function’: under this other interpretation a function is considered through its operation in a given system. These senses of ‘function’ are not teleological, but problems start to arise when we try to translate them into causal terms, and when we try to translate them into causal terms, and when we try to determine the kind of entities to which they apply. Some others consider that they are just a subclass of teleological functions.
In conclusion, a function is teleological if and only if it contributes to the achievement of an end or purpose, and if this end explains the presence of the functional item in a system. On the other ahnd, all purposes are functions, but there are functions which are not goals nor purposes.
[Margarita Ponce]
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