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26 Jun

Robert Boyle and the decline of teleology in science

No longer did scientists think in terms of organisms: they thought in terms of machines. […] The 17th-century English chemist and philosopher Robert Boyle realised that as soon as you start to think in the mechanical fashion, then talking about ends and purposes really isn’t very helpful. A planet goes round and round the Sun; you want to know the mechanism by which it happens, not to imagine some higher purpose for it. In the same way, when you look at a clock you want to know what makes the hands go round the dial — you want the proximate causes.

But surely machines have purposes just as much as organisms do? The clock exists in order to tell the time just as much as the eye exists in order to see. True, but as Boyle also saw, it is one thing to talk about intentions and purposes in a general, perhaps theological way, but another thing to do this as part of science. You can take the Platonic route and talk about God’s creative intentions for the universe, that’s fine. But, really, this is no longer part of science (if it ever was) and has little explanatory power. “

Anglo-Irish chemist and philosopher if you please. And look out for theRobert Boyle Summer School.

From Does life have a purpose?, by Michael Ruse in Aeon Magazine, on the move away from teleology (the focus on the purpose of things) in science.

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