University of Notre Dame
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Teleological Realism in Biology

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posted on 2011-07-11, 00:00 authored by James Alan Barham
The concept of purpose, together with the closely related concepts of normativity and agency, stand at the crossroads of three academic disciplines: the philosophy of action, the philosophy of biology, and the nexus of theoretical biology and cognitive science that is concerned with the theory of the 'organization' of 'autonomous agents.' Unfortunately, there has been very little cross-fertilization among the literatures of these three disciplines. As a result, the philosophical literature tends to work with a scientifically outdated image of living things as rigid 'machines.'? This results in a picture in which only human beings (or at most the higher animals) can be properly ascribed purposes and agency in the full normative sense. From this perspective, we appear to be faced with an unappealing choice between eliminating teleology and normativity from our picture of nature altogether and understanding these phenomena as they are manifested in our own human form of life as floating free from any grounding in the natural world. The scientific literature, on the other hand, tends to misuse 'teleology,' 'normativity,' 'agency,' and related terms, mistakenly ascribing such concepts to 'autonomous agents' conceived of as subject only to the ordinary laws of physics. From this perspective, the true depth of the difficulty involved in understanding what makes living systems distinctive qua physical systems becomes occluded.

In this dissertation, I investigate the possibility of constructing a realistic view of immanent teleology in biology. I proceed by exploring each of the three literatures in turn, with the goal of finding a middle way between the extremes of eliminativism and dualism. The argument proceeds by analysis of the concepts of teleology and normative agency, by reflection upon the explanatory structure of the theory of natural selection, and by review of some contemporary scientific accounts of 'self-organization' and 'autonomous agents,' as well as of other physical features of living things.

My overall conclusion is that the acceptance of teleological realism in biology is rationally permitted. In other words, teleological realism in biology ought to be viewed as a 'live option.'


Date Modified


Defense Date


Research Director(s)

Phillip R. Sloan

Committee Members

Grant Ramsey Vaughn R. McKim Leopold Stubenberg


  • Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Level

  • Doctoral Dissertation


  • English

Alternate Identifier



University of Notre Dame

Program Name

  • History and Philosophy of Science

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