I don’t think I have ever met an analytical philosopher who endorses the long-outmoded idea that teleology is found in nature. There is a strong precedent for this, in that the principal cause of the overwhelming success of natural science (which perhaps embodies a key lesson about what is verifiable in experience) is its abandonment of Aristotelian notions like substance and final cause, in favour of examining what turned out to be a ubiquitous phenomenon in the natural world: patterns of physical interaction now described by laws of physics and other fields. In philosophical terminology, these patterns are the real relations known as extrinsic formal specification.
You can imagine my enjoyment, then, when I discovered Ralph Austin Powell, a thinker who understands better than most the real and experiential bases upon which empirical discoveries rest, and yet who endorses the idea that teleology is found in nature. I’ll briefly skirt the common misnomer that final cause is always extrinsic to substances (e.g. the idea that God is the final cause of the world, or that architects design buildings) – what is of interest here are final causes intrinsic to substances, since extrinsic final causes are either obviously present (as in the case of an architect designing a building) or generally held to be beyond the bounds of experimentally verifiable experience (as in the case of whether humanity exists to love God and to enjoy him forever).
What follows is a summary, in seven steps, of Powell’s argument in “From semiotic of scientific mechanism to semiotic of teleology in nature“, Semiotics 1986.
Step 1: Science models causal systems, not the intrinsic nature of things
“[T]he biologist speaks of “gene pools” and ‘*homeostatic systems” which are specific causal relational systems but which do not determine the intrinsic nature of life. The physicist speaks of the duality of particle and wave which are causal relational systems whose duality excludes any determination of the intrinsic nature of matter.”
Step 2. Causal systems are directly and immediately experienceable effects of bodies
“Scientific Mechanism is a direct immediate experience of real specific systems of causal relations, whose species is specified by bodies in actual relation. The relation’s specification is an extrinsic effect of the bodies in relation, just as the causal relation itself is a connection between individual bodies, not itself an individual body.”
Step 3. Natural science’s overwhelming success is due to it modelling solely systems of extrinsic formal specification, not the intrinsic natures of bodies
“In agreement with modern philosophy after Kant, it seems to me that the success of modern natural science was basically due to an epistemological discovery. For me that discovery was that causal relational systems specified by action and passion are the sole nonchance mind independent realities which can be directly and immediately experienced. Natural science primarily intends to discover specified causal systems without concern for the intrinsic nature of bodies in relation. It has vastly simplified the main object of its methods.”
Step 4. Causal systems impart attributes to bodies in a system
“Since causal relations have no intrinsic nature (being totally relational to something else) their coming and going neither adds nor subtracts anything intrinsic to the bodies which they affect. Still the coming of a causal relation adds a new dimension to the body’s reality since a causal relation is something real. For example, when the measuring weights on a scale bring the scale to equilibrium with the body being weighed, the causal relation of equilibrium is a new reality in the measuring weights. This new dimension is somehow distinct from the measuring weights since it adds something which lacks intrinsic nature, being totally relational. Yet while the causal relation is present it is not only inseparable from the measuring weights, it is not even a distinct physical part of them, since it lacks an intrinsic nature that could add a new physical part.”
Step 5. Causal relations between bodies permits us knowledge of some of their intrinsic attributes
“Now pure relativity cannot exist except as specified by the intrinsic nature of some body. Hence, the proved existence of the extrinsic specificity of some causal relation necessarily proves the intrinsic nature of some body whence that extrinsic specification derives.”
“[T]he individual bodies extrinsically specify the causal relation only because of their intrinsic specification. Hence the extrinsic specification of causal relations always reveals indirectly the intrinsic species of the bodies which are their extrinsic specifying causes.”
6. Bodies’ intrinsic relativity, implied by causal relations, is their teleological order
“Now the intrinsic specificity of a body whereby it either extrinsically specifies a causal relation as agent to patient or as patient to agent is its teleological order. For it constitutes the intrinsic relativity of one thing to another.” [That is, a body has an attribute because it is a “being towards” another, that is, it only has a nature in this respect in virtue of its relativity to another entity; as such, it is not absolute or merely a thing “in itself;” rather it has a telos defined by the relation.*]
7. Teleology is in nature
“[From (3) and (6),] intrinsic relativity is the fundamental philosophical meaning of teleological order in nature. Hence the proved existence of a mechanism anywhere in nature proves also the existence of a teleological order because of the intrinsic relativity of the bodies involved.”
* This remark makes the claim that at least some attributes of physical entities are relational and not absolute; for a theory that all physical entities are constituted entirely relatively – that is, in Powell’s terms both intrinsically and extrinsically, and to go further still, intended as a reduction of the Aristotelian notion of substance – see this paper. To apply Powell’s view to the theory in the paper would establish that physical entities are teleological “all the way down” and not just at their edges.