The Important of Teleological Thinking

There was a time in the history of the Western world, no one would do, think, act on anything without considering the purpose and end for which he is doing, acting, thinking that way. There were a time people thought in term of end and purpose. They did not do something because they have the capacity and means to do. They did something because they wanted to accomplish something that elevates the human person to a more flourishing state. So, their thinking was not simply people oriented, it was specifically human dignity oriented. At that period, leaders and thinkers could see a little further than their own toes. Their needs were not put before the human race’s needs. Scientists and philosophers of old would not do something merely because it brings pleasure to people. However, since Descartes came up with his method in the 16th century, conceiving actions in term of end and purpose have been going downhill. Scientists and politicians do and say things because they want to fulfill their own selfish interest, be it fame, wealth and power. They no longer conceive things in term of Aristotle’s four causes. The point I want to stress here is that without those four causes, especially the last one, we cannot be anything but a boat on the deep sea without a captain. In this imbroglio, we are nothing but sheep without a shepherd, or wayfarer without a destination.

What are Aristotle’s four causes and do they make sense? The first of the four causes are the Material cause: “that from which a thing comes to be. Material cause is the raw material (matter) out of which something is made. For instance, in the case of human being, our material cause is body. In the case of a table, it is wood. The second of the four causes is the Formal cause is the form i.e. that which makes matter a particular type of thing. What allows us to recognize something as a particular type. In our case, our soul is considered the formal cause. For a table, it is its shape (eidos). What allows us to recognize human beings as human being is because they possess a soul. The soul allows us to look a certain way (upright posture), and act a certain way. The formal cause is what allows us t distinguish a table from a chair though they are both made of woods. We recognize and are able to identify a table because of its shape—its formal cause. The third cause is the Efficient cause. It is what initiates something, or what brings it into existence, or as Aristotle put it, efficient cause is the source of the primary principle of change or stability. An artist who creates a piece of art is the efficient cause of that piece of art. The person who comes up with the idea of a great business plan is the efficient cause of that business. And the fourth cause is the Final cause. It is the end, the purpose (telos) for which something is made. The final cause allows us to ask ‘what something is for’. What we considered at this stage is the ‘why’ of a thing. What is the why of a table? What is the why of a human being? What is the why of the universe? This can be asked about anything.

Now what interests me and the reason why I am writing this article is because our culture, apart from some Christian’s groups, completely rejects this way of thinking. As a result, we are having all the confusions we currently have in our conception of arts, ethics, traditional understanding of marriage, friendship etc. As soon as we return to this way of thinking, all our confusions and unending arguing everything would make sense. Sadly, not knowing the ultimate why of something does not hamper us from doing the thing, but deep down something fundamental is lacking. For example, even though I may not know what I want to accomplish in writing this article, I can still write an awesome article that speaks to many. It may happen that this article helps someone to see the light, but the disaster it causes later may surpass the few people it reaches. Its disastrous consequence may outdo any good help it may bring. Now someone may say that I could never predict all the consequence of an action, be it an article, a scientific discovery, or a sentence I utter. I agree. Our limited mind can never see all the consequences of an action. However, some of the consequences are so evident, no one can say they could not see them coming.

Thinking teleologically gives shape, meaning, and direction to a story, be it our story, an imaginary story written in a book, or a story heard on the radio or TV. If we turn on the TV for the 5pm news and find a reporter explaining something, would we get the point he is making without knowing why he is telling the story. Had Dante not understood ‘why’ Virgil wanted to take him through hell, purgatory, and heaven, would he actually trust him through these scary roads? Had M. L. King, M. Ghandi not clearly defined their purpose during their respectives civil right movement, would they have accomplished anything? If a business owner does not define his long and short term goals, could he really prevail in this competitive market? Goal/purpose/end defines the direction we go. We don’t go to Europe by going through the North Pole, or the Bermuda triangle. Ask C Columbus, he will tell you that if one wants to reach India, they have a specific direction they need to follow otherwise that person will end up in the Americas. Our society has lost its sense of purpose. As a result, relativism and terrorism rule. It is purpose that helps people to flourish or accomplish ultimate happiness, or leads them closer to the true, the good, and the beautiful. Nothing should be done because we have the capacity to do it. This has been the failure of most scientists in the last century. They believe because they can do something, they must do it. Something should be pursued only if it helps human beings to be more human. Otherwise, it should be abandoned even if we have the means to do.

Do you think our (governments and churches’) plans include elevating the human person to a higher standard of being human?

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