My New Article: Teleology and Theology, Aristotle and Cognitive Science

From the abstract:

Recent research in cognitive science has shown that humans innately prefer teleological explanations. Children even go so far as to hypothesize the existence of a deity in order to justify teleological explanations. Aristotle also believed in the importance of teleology for human psychology. This paper investigates the convergence of ideas from the cognitive science of teleology with the Aristotelian understanding of teleology visible in the virtues of techne and wisdom. I argue that Aristotelian psychology and ethics is gaining empirical support, and that this could have important implications for science, philosophy, and theology.

So cut to the chase – what’s the point? Humans evolved to pick up teleology – the purposes of other humans, of tools, and of skilled behaviors. This same sensitivity allows us to ponder the purpose of our own existence and the purpose of the universe as a whole, as well as hypothesize a creator. In other words, this is a major part of what makes us capax Dei – capable of relating to God.

From a theistic perspective this is great – science has shown us part of the religious architecture of our minds, as aspect of what makes us homo religiosus. And equally, from an atheistic perspective this is great; theistically-inclined humans are just misapplying an otherwise perfectly useful cognitive bias – one used to figure out what another human is doing, their purpose, or the purpose of an object – to try to figure out something purposeless, the universe. But notice that the first move is a metaphysical one – the declaration that the universe is purposeful or purposeless. No scientific experiment can tell you the answer to that, it is an assumption, not a conclusion. The data can go either way, depending on the framework it is placed in.

I have to say, I really like this paper. I worked on it a long time. The peer reviewers said nice things about it. I could easily spend more time investigating this sort of work, and at some point I most likely will.

But, alas, one of my committee members always counsels me “Go for the deeper problem!” And so the deeper problem from the cognitive science of the virtues, at least from the standpoint of naturalistic ethics, is how to relate science and ethics – or, in more Humean terms, how to get “ought’ from “is.” So that is what I am doing now.

And then the deeper problem after that is how to let that knowledge make a positive difference in the world, both for the individual and everyone. Currently some of my applications are towards environmental ethics, bioethics and technological ethics more generally, and the ethics of space exploration.

All of this is because I want to know how humans ought to relate to technology. Technology is absolutely essential to our humanity. We lack hair (we need clothes) and our digestive systems are inadequate to eat many foods (we need to prepare and cook it). And yet technology can also be extremely dangerous. Human technology has now reached the point where it can begin to alter human nature itself.

To know what to do, we must first know who we are. Identity creates action. And then action creates identity. Transhumanists will argue that our nature is to transcend humanity. And bioconservatives will argue that that is impossible – that no matter what we may become we will always remain human. Natural law yields virtue and vice. What we think humans are will dictate what we think humans should do. We are manipulating creatures – what will we do when we finally come to target ourselves? In this century, we will find out.

For more info, see my page.

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