Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Do we need two fundamental teleological concepts?

There are two teleological concepts: that of a telos and that of proper function. Each of them helps us make certain teleological judgments. Do we need them both? Could we, for instance, define the telos of a system as what is achieved when the system is properly functioning? Or define proper function as the achievement of the telos in a system and all its (relevant?) subsystems?

I don't know for sure that we need them both, but neither of the two specific proposals is correct. Consider the case of an excellent mathematician is striving to solve an extremely difficult mathematical problem, her mathematical faculties are all working properly, but she fails. It is not a necessary condition for the proper function of mathematical faculties that they be able to solve every mathematical problem there is. Both of the attempted reductions neglect the phenomenon that our teleologies can push us above our proper functioning. An excellent mathematician or athlete may already be functioning above our proper level of functioning, but nonetheless there will be telĂȘ that she doesn't have fulfilled. (Though, perhaps, we may want to say that all humans are mathematically and athletically defective, due to the Fall, in which case we could maintain that the mathematician is not functioning properly if there are any soluble problems she can't solve. But even if this view of humans is true, we could imagine that mathematicians of some other species are functioning properly and yet failing to solve problems.)

It seems that we need the concept of proper function to tell us what is good enough, what is normal. But we need the concept of a telos to supply us with comparisons between instances of proper function. The mathematician who solves and who fails to solve are both functioning properly, are both functioning sufficiently well, but the one who solves is functioning better--precisely because she achieves her telos in respect of that process. Or, alternately, we may say that both are functioning properly, but one is functioning merely normally and the other supernormally--again, a distinction that mere proper function does not seem capable of making.

Maybe there is a more clever way of relating the two concepts.


elliottroland said...

Perhaps the right way to think about this is to make a distinction between the telos of the person qua mathematician and the telos of the action of solving this or that mathematical problem.

More generally, we can talk about the telos of things and the telos of actions. Proper function seems to most naturally correspond the former of these two.

Given this, proper function would be definable in terms of telos.

Heath White said...

How about this.

The idea of a telos is the idea of a state in which a particular entity is flourishing or more generally has achieved its aim. The idea of proper functioning, on the other hand, comes in when we think about HOW the entity is going to achieve that telos. The picture is that there is some means or method or mechanism, some design plan, according to which the entity will function in order to achieve its telos.

An entity is properly functioning when it is working according to its design plan “about as well as can be expected” or something like that. If the design plan is not guaranteed to bring about the end then proper functioning does not entail achievement of the telos. And if the telos can be achieved by accident, or outside intervention/assistance, then telic fulfillment does not entail proper functioning.

It follows that there could be no such thing as functioning properly without a telos; non-telic entities cannot function properly or improperly. On the other hand there could in principle be an entity with a telos for which there was no corresponding proper function. If I understand it right, the Catholic doctrine of the beatific vision or union with God is like this: it is a telos of human beings but not one that can be achieved by any proper functioning on their part. There is no mechanism within the organism to achieve that end. (Insert complicated issues about cooperation with grace, etc.)