Why is there a word “why”? (Quora)


It is often stated that science does not admit the term ‘why’ in its vocabulary, the reason being that it implies purpose (that is, teleology, a metaphysical notion originated by Aristotle). For example, a kidney (liver, etc.) is an organ that has a function, does some work, but it cannot be said that it – or anything else in nature – has a purpose. There is no divine plan!

Natural selection is a substitute for purpose: that which favours survival of a species. However, as soon as you consider that intelligence does exist in the world or the universe*, then there is but one more step to concluding that the universe is intelligent, and then teleology is back at the centre of things. Empirical scientists abhor the notion of ‘intelligent design’.

Teleological descriptions are unavoidable in biology, and even ‘function’ cannot escape such connotation. J.B.S. Haldane said, “Teleology is like a mistress to a biologist: he cannot live without her but he’s unwilling to be seen with her in public.”

* Is it not plausible to say that if there is a single being in the univers which is intelligent that means that the universe is intelligent? Of course, scientists will say that intelligence is an emergent property… of matter (that the greater comes from the lesser).

About amartingarcia

General surgeon (retired). Studied Western philosophy at U of Toronto. Afterwards interest turned to advaita vedanta and non-duality for past 20 yrs, plus a long interlude in Sufism coinciding with that period. Now contributing in ’Advaita Vision’ with regular posts and discussions.
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5 Responses to Why is there a word “why”? (Quora)

  1. I like the teleology as mistress quote. That’s great!

    I think the problems some scientists have with teleology come from external factors, not teleological explanation itself. For instance, Paley’s argument for the existence of God, Creationists, etc.

    • Right, but the usage of ‘teleology’ as a concept or description is quite controversial with most scientists, as you know, even though it appears to be useful as a short-hand term, so as to avoid more elaborate descriptions and arguments, particularly in evolutionary biology. Same with the term ‘function’, ‘survival value’, ‘evolution’, etc. I stay with Plato’s account (e.g. in Phaedo) even more so than with Aristotle’s ‘final cause’ , which is more naturalistic.

    • Right, but the usage of ‘teleology’ as a concept or description is quite controversial with most scientists, as you know, even though it appears to be useful as a short-hand term, so as to avoid more elaborate descriptions and arguments, particularly in evolutionary biology. Same with the term ‘function’, ‘survival value’, ‘evolution’, etc. I stay with Plato’s account (e.g. in Phaedo) even more so than with Aristotle’s ‘final cause’ , which is more naturalistic.

      • I actually wrote my undergrad thesis on Plato’s teleology. It was ambitiously titled “A Reconciliation of Science and Religion”…of course I ended up with something much more modest than that title suggests.🙂

        The outside examiner wondered why I hadn’t used Aristotle rather than Plato to make my case, and to be honest, I sense a lot of inconsistencies with Aristotle (I’m sure it’s just my reading of Aristotle and not Aristotle himself). Sometimes he seems to be very Platonic, other times he seems to be striking out on his own (naturalistic). I just have a hard time pinning him down. I want to say, “which Aristotle did you have in mind?” (I think I told the examiner “I just really like Plato.”)

        There’s an excellent quote in the Phaedo in which Socrates says, “My bones and muscles would have been in Megara by now…” something like that. There he’s discussing the problems of reducing motivation to mechanism or physicality.

  2. Good! We both seem to have some leaning towards Plato’s philosophy.Throughout Medieval philosophy at least a philosopher was either a Platonist (like Albert the Great) or an Aristotelian (like Averroes, Thomas Aquinas, and Abelardo). It is important to realize that Aristotle was a Platonist, more by ‘training’, being a disciple of Plato, than by temperament, don’t you think?

    The quote of Phaedo you refer to is from Phaedo 99. On 97, while quoting Anaxagoras, Plato wrote, ‘mind in producing order sets everything in order and arranges every individual thing in the way that is best for it.’ This is the same as the concept of ‘saguna Brahman’ (Brahman with attributes) in Hinduism: the giver of order in the universe, i.e., cosmological laws, also in behaviour, etc. (Dharma).

    I have been considering writing something brief about whether Plato was a non-dualist, given his highest principle: the Good (even absolute Beauty). Consider that the successive categories under the ‘dividing line’ are reflections of what is above it, serially so in a symmetrical order. I once wrote an (unpublished) paper suggesting this.

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