Source: Prof Michael Sandel, Justice: ..., Episode 09: "ARGUING AFFIRMATIVE ACTION

52:21: We grew up and and we’re talked out of this way thinking about the world. 52:30: But here's a question: Even if teleological explanations don't fit with modern science;
52:37: even if we've outgrown them in understanding nature;
52:42: isn't there something still intuitively and morally plausible, even powerful;
52:50: about Aristotle’s idea that the only way to think about justice,
is to reason from the purpose, the goal, the telos of the social practice?
And isn't that precisely what we were doing when we were disagreeing about affirmative action? 53:07: You can almost recast that disagreement as as [sic] one about what the proper appropriate purpose, or end 53:19: Of an university education consists in.
53:23: Reasoning from the purpose or from the telos or from the end,
Aristotle says: That’s indispensable to thinking about justice.

I know that the bolded is a protasis; so Prof Sandel isn't claiming it.
Yet how can the bolded possibly be true?

I'm unversed in science and philosophy, but does the following exemplify teleologic reasoning?: Math often requires working BACKWARDS from the desired result. For example, to prove an inequality, you may manipulate the desired inequality into something simpler first. Then reverse all backward implications ( 2 => 1), and justify each (now forward) implication (ie 2 <= 1).

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    i think it boils down to materialism vs. metaphysics. if there is room in your worldview for metaphysics, there will likely always be teleological questions nagging when one observes the remarkable order and development in the Universe. if there is no room for metaphysics and all that there is is material, searching for purpose in final causes may seem like a fool's errand. (but i still think the materialists leave more difficult questions unanswered, and when they do, it is their act of faith.) Apr 4, 2015 at 19:35
  • Yes, if materialist leaves more difficult question to people, how would you deal with the object which you can not have the direct access, and which is not important as far as we are social beings? Here I would not feel anything since the philosophy, and its disciple science, to me need to be comprehensible by human words to human beings if I was said it is our faith.
    – user13955
    Apr 4, 2015 at 21:12
  • @bristow-Johnson: that's a good way to put it; in reverse, though I think its a falsification of its purpose, is to accept materialism because it's non-teleological. Apr 5, 2015 at 17:17

4 Answers 4


"Teleological explanations" are partially boogey man in contemporary science and philosophy of science. It's a shorthand used to mean bad science that was driven by the idea that everything moves towards the sun. Part of the reason is that at one point, Newton's explanation of gravity was somewhat controversial as was the heliocentric view of the solar system. These were considered to contradict "teleology."

This is not necessarily connected with what teleology as philosophy ever really meant, but it is similar insofar as teleology means that things are moving towards their telos (end).

Thus, what Sandel is saying is that "we are no longer ignorant in our understanding of science and now understand science in terms of mechanics and modern physics".

But then Sandel rightly captures that justice involves ends and the means by which we work towards those ends which is a type of teleology.


Modern science pursues the data, and is pushed forward by observations of gaps between theory and observation. So it seems to me that modern science is powerless relative to teleological concerns, not opposed to them.

What teleological explanations generally contradict is multiculturalism. And the author may see modern science as the shared ground for a multicultural society. So there is a perceived gap. But it is only apparent.

The real problem is that one cannot argue the purpose of an institution without an agreed goal, and far too often our goals are determined by past Christian culture, which we do not want to allow to continue to exclude the broader range of current culture.

U.S. hospitals, for instance, are a schizophrenic compromise. They have a Christian teleological basis, as most are founded by Roman Catholic orders, other churches, or ethnic protection organizations. But they have a modern Capitalist means of support. Without the embedding that determined their form, neither approach can be pursued logically.

We have a system where the poor both cannot pay and cannot be turned away, and where the rich and the working class both pay the same, until the latter become poor. So overhead costs skyrocket and the system becomes complex, internally conflicted, and wasteful. We have tried to take an institution and burden it with inconsistent teleological and economic goals. We cannot leave them as strictly religious institutions, because it seems exclusionary, nor can we integrate them as normal secular institutions, because we traditionally think of health as a divine gift or a community obligation.

Education has the same problem. To what degree is education about proper behavior. In that case, who gets to define proper behavior. Can it include fitting into one's sex role, or meeting other obligations that tradition and religion suggest, but capitalism and civic duty do not require? Can you then pay for that with public money?

Science can contribute nothing to this, and creates none of this conflict. But it is symbolic of the place where we expect culture-agnostic solutions to come from. We need another one.


This is a complex question which really cannot be treated here in a manner that it deserves.

Suffice it to say that Science is quite commonly treated as though ontology is flat; and what I mean by this is that there is only one fundamental kind of thing. ie atoms or genes or fields.

But ontology isn't like this; at different scales different ontologies obtain; and in some sense interdependent.

It is no good having atoms if all they ever form are some kind of indeterminate gas - we need stars and chairs and cuckoos; in that sense they are not basic.

It's quite possible that with a sufficiently sophisticated ontology that teleological explanations do obtain - for example Hegel constructed one: the self-actualisation of Spirit.

Unfortunately, our common philosophical framework is formed out of the presuppositions of Science - which pointedly won't go for teleological explanations; part of this stems from its historical development in a Christian Europe; and it's clashes with the Church as a novel source of knowledge and thus prestige; and where a teleological explanation would allow 'God' back in.

Another source of unease is the global context, when much more ways of thinking needs to be taken into account - the philosophical schools of Buddhism and their critique of a substantitive world.

It's also worth noting that Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, pauses briefly to consider that there maybe no final causes, only to dismiss it as incoherent - and this in the context of considering evolutionary theory, spontaneity and chance.

Kant, also said that the 'argument from design' should be treated with some respect; not being easy to dismiss; however this should be distinguished from simple-minded claims of Intelligent Design.


Whether or not teleology is included in pursuits of empirical knowledge (like scientific knowledge) depends on whether or not, for any particular explanandum, a teleological explanans is an inference to the best explanation. If two explanatia for the same explanandum are equally probable then, by virtue of lex parsimoniae, the less ontologically superfluous of the two is the better explanation. An example can help to illustrate how teleology has been excluded from scientific pursuits of knowledge.

Lightning is more/less likely in places with higher/lower atmospheric convection than others yet, regardless of whether or not Zeus makes any lightning at all, it is most likely that there is lightning today if Zeus makes lightning whenever he is mad and if Zeus is mad today. Yet, it is implausible that "Zeus makes lightning whenever he is mad and he is mad today" truly explains that there is lightning today, because it is highly improbable that Zeus is mad today (regardless of how likely it would be that that there is lightning today if Zeus makes lightning whenever he is mad and if he is mad today).

A no less plausible explanation for the lightning today (than an argumentum ad Jove) is that today's lightning was the making of unintelligent natural phenomena, which is plausible because it probably is a fact due to it being true a posteriori on many prior known occasions (whereas "Zeus makes lightning whenever he is mad and he is mad today" is not and has never been known a posteriori).

Moreover, "unintelligent natural phenomena" makes for a better explanation than an argumentum ad Jove because, by virtue of Ockham's Razor, although Zeus might make lightning daily by increasing atmospheric convection daily, to include Zeus in an explanation (of how a natural phenomena caused the lightning today) is unnecessary to explain, sufficiently, today's lightning, which necessarily requires some mention of natural phenomena but does not necessarily require any mention of Zeus. It would be excessive to appeal to Zeus; argumentum ad Jove is not as ontologically parsimonious.

More significantly, however, is that lightning is not proof or evidence of telos.

[I've answered charitably, because to ask how it possibly can be true that "teleological explanations don't fit with modern science" is to ask how it cannot necessarily not be false that "teleological explanations don't fit with modern science." I'm assuming the inquirer is not dogmatically espoused to a particular metaphysic in which it is impossible for modern science to be ateleological.]

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