Teleology vs. Mechanism

by John Beloff

There is a whole cluster of problems in contemporary philosophy of mind that revolve around the question of explaining human actions. According to one school of thought, represented by miscellaneous materialists, determinists, and behaviourists, human behaviour is no different from anything else in nature in being subject to the same categories of explanation as figure in any of the natural sciences. According to the opposing school of thought, which includes both the ordinary language philosophers as well as assorted teleologists and libertarians, actions can never be explained mechanistically in terms of causes for the simple reason that an action can be defined only in terms of its ends, as represented by the agents intentions, and can therefore never be reduced to any sequence of movements which the agent may or may not execute in the performance of the action. Without an aim or intention, no set of movements could ever amount to an action; conversely, granted the aim or intention there is always an indefinite range of such movements that would exemplify the action in question.

Within the teleological camp, however, there is a division of opinion as to whether this analysis implies tht human behaviour is free in some ultimate sense that would contradict physical determinism, or whether the two positions are ultimately compatible and represent no more that two different ways of looking at one and the same set of facts, two different levels of explanation. The libertarians who believe in free will as a metaphysical reality, not just as a subjective experience, argue that actions are free in this absolute or contra-causal sense. The compatibilists or "soft determinists" on the other hand, argue that, while actions only become meaningful when interpreted in a teleological sense, this does not preclude the possibility that all the purely physical events involved conform to the deterministic assumptions of science. I shall now suggest thta considerations deriving from parapsychology may be relevant to the issue between compatibilists and libertarians.

Consider PK . One feature which stands out from almost any instance of PK that one could cite from the literature is the following: A certain end is achieved without the subject ever being aware as to exactly how it was achieved. Furthermore, even if the subject did know how it was achieved, he would be in no better position to succeed with the task than if he did not know. The task might involve trying to bias the output of an electronic random number generator, or it might be the healing of certain scars in the tissues of a living organism; what alone seems to be relevant is the setting up of an intentin to attain a given target. Given the end in view, it seems to make not the slightest difference whether the physical conditions, which govern the means whereby that end is to be realised, are varied, without so much as informing the subject, from one run to the next. This aspect of PK has always been familiar to parapsychologists, but, surprisingly, few before Schmidt have had the insight to realise its implications. Hitherto, the preferred way of conceptualising the PK situation was to suppose that PK was invariably accompanied by clairvoyance. The PK was responsible for the actual physical effects, but the clairvoyance gave the subject the feedback, albeit at an unconscious level, necessary to apply the appropriate pushes and pulls as required. The analogy with ordinary sensorimotor tasks scarcely needs stressing. However, the weakness of such a conceptualisation is not only that it is extraordinarily cumbersome, but it implies a degree of efficiency of clairvoyance for which we simply have no independent evidence from the experiments designed specifically to test for clairvoyance. For, unless we suppose that the subject's clairvoyance is exceedingly accurate, and can function moreover at the microscopic level, it would be useless in guiding the energy exchanges involved in the PK. An enormous simplification is achieved, therefore, if we drop this paramechanical model altogether and agree to regard PK as an inherently teleological process; in other words, as a process in nature in which the means are literally governed by the ends.

If this teleological model of PK were to be accepted, it would throw a flood of light on our understanding of the ordinary purposeful actions tht characterise human behaviour. Thus, when we raise our arm, we know no more about the specific nerve fibres that have to activated than Schmidt's subjects know about the construction of the RNG. In normal action, it is always open to the physical determinist to argue that what actually causes the relevant nerve cells to fire is not anything mental, i.e., the intention in the mind of the agent, but rather his specific brain state of which the intention is but a subjective reflection. In the case of a paranormal action, on the other hand, this option is cut off since, ex hypothesi, every physical link between the subject's brain and the target system is presumed to have been excluded. If the recent advances in PK research were to become more widely known and accepted and began to figure in the deliberations of philosophers, it would seem more reasonable to drop the supposition of a cryptic physiological determinism in th ecase of normal action and to treat alike the normal and paranormal case as not merely teleological in character (about which there is no dispute), but as radically teleological in nature.

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