A doctor (while giving me a physical) recently said to me that we needn't have to look for teleological explanations for my condition. I looked at many web sites, but not one could provide a simple and succinct definition of what a teleological explanation means. All the definitions seemed to be written in a sort of philosophical "double talk" involving ends, purposes, design. I have to believe that a very simple and universally understandable definition exists. (As Einstein once said, genius is taking the complex and making it simple.)

Here is an example sentence from the New Yorker magazine "One natural objection to the search for Dyson spheres is that it presupposes an endlessly consumptive technological teleology". What does teleology mean in that sentence ?

Here is another example sentence from Slate: "Committed to a teleology of progress, albeit open to the reality of historical irony, this liberalism lacks a visceral sense of the tragic." What does teleology mean in that sentence ?

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    "Teleology. A teleology is an account of a given thing's purpose. For example, a teleological explanation of why forks have prongs is that this design helps humans eat certain foods; stabbing food to help humans eat is what forks are for. A purpose that is imposed by a human use, such as that." basicknowledge101.com/pdf/Teleology.pdf Good Luck.
    – Kris
    Dec 10, 2019 at 13:07
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    "I looked at many web sites, ...." Let's know where you looked, what you found and how the definition was not clear enough to apply for you.
    – Kris
    Dec 10, 2019 at 13:09
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    It seems to be an overused word these days, often used where "purpose" or "direction" (in time) or "goal" or "guiding principle" would suffice, but good dictionaries give a reasonably clear explanation. The second sentence you cite (from Slate) is terrible writing, though. merriam-webster.com/dictionary/teleology
    – Stuart F
    Dec 10, 2019 at 14:02
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    @WS2 No. The teleo- refers to telos, an end or goal. A teleology or a teleological argument focuses on real or presumed end-results, or on ways that something tends toward a particular end. The idea of destiny is teleological, for instance, since it presumes an event (an end or goal) is preordained. Dec 10, 2019 at 16:19
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    What is the phrase 'philosophical "double talk"' supposed to mean here? Teleology is a term whose home is in philosophy, so it is to be expected that an account of its meaning will be philosophical in nature. Such an account is bound to involve 'ends, purposes, design', because that's what the meaning of the term involves. There may arguably be some 'double talk' in the specific examples of its use that are quoted here, but that's not the fault of the term, or its definition.
    – jsw29
    Dec 10, 2019 at 16:27

1 Answer 1


If your doctor said:

we needn't have to look for teleological explanations for my condition

then perhaps s/he was saying that you didn't need to appeal to your body's designer / Designer to explain your condition. (I'm giving an alternative depending on if you are a naturalist as opposed to theistic. A naturalist like Charles Darwin or humanist like David Hume would take the little d. A theist like Sir Isaac Newton would take the capital D.)

The Wikipedia article (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teleological_argument) says:

The teleological or physico-theological argument, also known as the argument from design, or intelligent design argument is an argument for the existence of God or, more generally, for an intelligent creator based on perceived evidence of deliberate design in the natural world.

For the New Yorker article, "an endlessly consumptive technological teleology," one could perhaps substitute "teleology" with "argument from design." Perhaps the sentence is saying something like, "People object to the search for Dyson spheres because it assumes that the aliens creating these spheres did so in order to satisfy their need to design these spheres."

(And I will leave the Slate sentence untouched, agreeing with the commenter.)

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