Teleology, the ancient idea that processes tend to develop toward ends or purposes, has generally been denied in modernity in favor of material and efficient causation, which have been enshrined as the only valid causal modes. For most of premodernity, from astrology and divination to Judeo-Christian, Muslim, and Hindu eschatologies, to various streams of Confucian and Buddhist thought, final causation was usually interpreted as divinely ordained fate. For much of human history, people felt themselves to be parts of a vast and minutely choreographed cosmic dance acting out the will of a god or gods whose reasons were unknowable. Until the nascence of the mental mode, particularly in ancient Greek thought, the prevailing world view was one that largely precluded the idea of free will.[i] For ancient people, the supposition that one could challenge the will of the gods was hubris, a laughable arrogance unsupported by the evidence of fate’s apparent inevitability.[ii] To a great extent, the emergence of the modern mind was a reaction against this pervasive assumption of predestination in its many complex permutations, so that Descartes’ claim that the human mind, and not the mind of God, is the only thing that provides evidence of our existence (despite his attempt to reconcile this view with his Catholic faith), was a direct challenge to the hegemony of that mode of thought which located agency primarily outside the human mind. All of the ruptures, innovations, and discoveries of modernity, from the Copernican revolution to Kant’s “second Copernican revolution” to deconstructive postmodernism, can partially be described as a progressive evacuation of cosmic purpose into the human mind, which has come to be seen as the sole locus of consciousness and purpose in a purely material universe.
However, although there were numerous liminal intimations of final causation’s return percolating at the margins of the academically dominant positivism and materialism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including the attempt by many scientists during those centuries to reconcile science with religious belief, the idea of teleology began to reemerge in full force through the work of Hegel and the idealism that he largely mediated in the early nineteenth century. While there have been many legitimate critiques of the specific form that Hegel’s vision of final causation took, and many reactions to his role as perhaps the preeminent philosopher of that century, particularly in the Darwinian view of evolution, which carefully sought to extirpate all traces of teleology from its theory, the reemergence of final causation apparently could not be contained. In particular, the stream of thought running from William James and Henri Bergson through Alfred North Whitehead and numerous others has articulated a theory of teleology stripped of its premodern limitations by means of the profoundly rigorous analytical capacity developed in modernity. In this approach, teloi are not predetermined fates to which the individual must inevitably submit, but lures or attractors toward which individual or collective entities are magnetically drawn, though the specific forms of those entities’ ingression are not determined in advance.[iii]
Moreover, in the transrational conception of teleology, it appears possible for an individual or culture to avoid reaching its teleological destination by choosing to ignore the deeply felt affective demands that final causes make upon a body or a body politic. Odysseus, as one of the primary figures marking mentality’s nascence, through his far-flung odyssey, undergoing many trials and tribulations, was always apparently destined to return home transformed. But not all of us so completely fulfill our felt potential. Similarly, the modern mind, through its many complex and multifarious permutations, appears to be tracing a trajectory toward reunion with its ground of being in the reembrace of premodern modes of causation, though reframed and recontextualized by the individuated rational intellect. Of course, it is possible that this process may go off the rails, so to speak, though such apocalyptic scenarios seem unlikely considering the immensely long and consistent path that the vital impulse has trod thus far.
In addition to the philosophical reanimation of final causation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, physicist Erwin Schrödinger in his 1944 book, What Is Life?, suggests a complementary force to entropy, based on the work of Ludwig Boltzmann, which may be considered a previously undiscovered law of nature variously termed “free energy,” “negative entropy,” “negentropy,” or “syntropy.”[iv] Although E = mc2 is almost certainly the best-known formula in science, it is not as well known that this formula is the positive solution to a larger formula (expressible as E2 = m2c4) that also has a negative solution (E = -mc2) in which time can be interpreted as moving in reverse, which results in syntropy. Because time may be syntropically reversed on the micro scale at which the vital processes that produce life and consciousness occur, effects could be described as preceding causes, which draw the phenomena under consideration toward more ordered states. Schrödinger, fellow Nobel Prize winner physiologist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, and others have suggested that this counter-entropic force may be the mechanism through which something that looks very much like final causation occurs. However, despite the fact that syntropy has been affirmed in various guises by some of the most eminent scientists of the last century given its compelling theoretical and mathematical foundations, this discovery has often been ignored in the practice of science in favor of more conventional explanations (with some prominent exceptions, such as in the work of Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ilya Prigogine and philosopher Isabelle Stengers), perhaps in large part because it contravenes the prerationally adopted premise of monocausality.
[This post is an excerpt from The Dynamics of Transformation: Tracing an Emerging World View.]
[i] Whitehead writes in Process and Reality: “Modern physical science, with its dependence on the exact notions of mathematics, began with the foundation of Greek Geometry” (302).
[ii] Most ancient mythical and religious traditions exhibit an early form of compatibilism in which individuals have free will, but the gods also have foreknowledge of fate, or they control the events on Earth as they unfold, so while the idea of free will seems to have existed in germ, it was almost always superseded by divinely ordained fate until the nascent emergence of mentality in the Axial Age.
[iii] Although Immanuel Kant recognizes the efficacy of teleology in his Critique of Judgment (1790), he explicitly favors efficient causation over final causation.
[iv] Although some of the other terms are more conventional, I prefer the term “syntropy,” introduced by Nobel Prize-winning physiologist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi and mathematician Luigi Fantappie, as “negative entropy,” shortened to “negentropy,” is essentially a double negative naming a positive phenomenon, which Schrödinger aptly describes as an “awkward expression.” Entropy is a quantitative measure of lack of order, so syntropy seems the best term for a quantitative increase in order, definable as the conservation of information.