Darwinism & Final Causation I

I have been puzzling through some of Lawrence Auster’s many attacks on Darwinism:


& it strikes me that his real beef is not with Darwinism per se, but with something much larger: i.e., the reigning naturalistic consensus in modern science and philosophy, kick-started several centuries ago by guys like Descartes & Hobbes & Locke, & still ruling the roost today, according to which Aristotle & Aquinas were wrong: ends, goals, purposes, meaning – in short, final causes – are not fundamental features of reality, but mere illusions, in need of explanation in mechanistic terms of some sort or other.

Darwin did not create this consensus. He just accepted it, and seemed to many to offer a way to explain the most recalcitrantly meaning-filled & purpose-ridden phenomenon of all – i.e., life – within its terms.

The problem, as Auster points out, over and over again, is that Darwinists constantly help themselves to teleological language – i.e., the language of final causation – while denying that teleology is real. They insist that this language can be “cashed out” in mechanistic terms – but, every time they attempt to do so, they end up using…well, a great big bunch of teleological language in the course of their attempted explanations.

Would it surprise you to learn that I, unrepentant Darwinist that I am, think that he’s got a point? A very, very serious point, which you can find expressed with more philosophical sophistication and less rhetorical overkill in the writings of Edward Feser?


But, before I continue, I’d like to ask: have I characterized Auster’s views fairly? I think it’s possible that there may be a bit of overlap between our readership and his, so I want to ask that before I continue.

It’s so hard to be fair to people with whom you deeply disagree. And it’s so important to try.

4 thoughts on “Darwinism & Final Causation I

  1. I’m not studied in this, but it’s difficult to describe things without using language containing causation. It’s just the way people think and built into language. Still leftists *do* believe in some kind of teleology, atheist though it may be. They believe both that their victory is inevitable and that they must fight for it. They have a fundamentally religious mentality.

  2. Could this just be a way of describing things that is uniquely human? Humans like stories, perhaps are hardwired to like stories, and thus like to cast things in teleological terms.

    Even Dawkins in the Selfish Gene at times casts things in teleological terms, which he openly admits to doing because he says it makes the description more vivid although he cautions his readers that things are not _really_ this way.

    Perhaps this is a subset of Darwinian aesthetics — the fact that humans like things to be described in a particular way. It might also be why quantum mechanics seems to counter-intuitive to us.

  3. Excellent and timely subject. But not all philosophers of science argue against a direction in causal sequences. Some, like Ernst Mayr, tried to get the scientific community to distinguish between the sciences and between the various grounds for those directions. See ‘Teleological and Teleonomic: A New Analysis’ (Mayr, 1974):


    Also see his book, Toward a New Philosophy of Biology (1988), where he elaborates further in an effort to distinguish between teleological and teleonomical. Hope this helps.

  4. alfredwclark,

    >Humans like stories, perhaps are hardwired to like stories, and thus like to cast things in teleological terms.

    The problem is that the act of “casting things in teleological terms” is ITSELF an example of goal-directedness, and so this viewpoint just ends up relocating the teleology rather than getting rid of it.

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