The Teleological Explanation


There are numerous problems in the modern philosophy of mind that revolve around the explanation of human actions. According to one school of thought, comprising of determinists, materialists, and behaviorists, the behavior of human beings is not different from the behavior of similar classes, as it is explained in natural sciences. Another school, comprising of the ordinary language philosophers, mixed teleologists and libertarians, opposes the first school by holding that actions can never be explained mechanistically, in relation to causes. According to this school, an action can be described only in relation to its ends, as represented by the agent’s intentions. Consequently, according to teleologists, actions cannot be reduced to a sequence of movements that the agent might or might not execute when performing certain actions. Current paper compares and contrasts the mechanistic (the first school of thought) and teleological explanations (the second school of thought). In addition, the paper also explores some of the reasons why Aristotle advocated for teleological explanation, as opposed to mechanistic one.

Get a free price quote

1st time order 15% OFF
Order for: 00.00 / 00.00

Teleological Explanation

Aristotle is often regarded as the pioneer of teleology, despite the accurate term originating during the 18th century. Nevertheless, according to Thomas and Thomas, if the term implies the use of ends or objectives in natural science then Aristotle was a critical pioneer of teleological explanation. Thomas and Thomas pointed out that teleological concepts were common among the precursors of Aristotle. However, Aristotle strongly discarded their view of extrinsic causes, such as intelligence or God as the chief cause of natural events. Aristotle regarded nature itself as an internal principle of transformation and as the end. Consequently, Aristotle’s teleological explanation emphasizes on what is inherently good for natural substance themselves. Nonetheless, the analysis of Aristotle’s categorical approach and explanation provided in his scientific works indicated that his aporetic methodology to teleology influences a middle course via tradition oppositions between explanation and causation, materialism and mechanism, naturalism and anthropocentrism, realism and instrumentalism.

Mechanistic Explanation

This explanation holds that the universe can be best comprehended as a completely mechanical system. According to Thomas and Thomas, mechanists acknowledge the attainments of the scientific revolution, in order to indicate that each phenomenon in the world might eventually be described in terms of mechanical principles. This implies that they could be explained in terms of natural laws, governing the motion and collision of matter. Therefore, it is justified to claim that mechanism is a form of systematic determinism.

Aristotle’s Doctrine of Causes

Aristotle uses the word ‘cause’ to mean an explanation for how things came about. The four causes refer to the influential belief in Aristotelean thought, whereby causes of things are classified into four crucial forms of answer to the why-question. According to Aristotle, human beings do not have adequate knowledge of a thing until they have grasped its cause. The first two causes of the four explanatory beliefs are referred to as material and formal causes. These two causes are a significant area in contemporary science. The other two causes are referred to as efficient and final causes. The final cause is the most significant for Aristotle’s teleological explanation, whereas the first cause, material causes is the most significant in mechanistic explanation.

Material Cause

This is the first cause in Aristotle’s order of listing of the four causes. It refers to the nature of the material forming an object. The word ‘nature’ in the definition implies that this cause is more inclined to mechanistic explanation. According to Thomas and Thomas, for Aristotle, the term nature applies to the material and the final object. Sensibly, the object existed in the material. While contemporary physics looks to simple bodies, Aristotelian physics view living things as exemplary. Nevertheless, Aristotle felt that bodies, including fire, air, water and earth, also exhibit some nature of having their own intrinsic source of motion, rest, and change. For instance, fire can lift things upwards unless it is restricted from doing so. However, man-made objects, such as beds and clocks, have no intrinsic nature becoming beds or clocks. According to Aristotle, material and substance are different. Thomas and Thomas added that matter has parallels with substance as concerns primary matter acts as the substratum for simple objects that are not substance.

Formal Cause

This refers to the form or design which when available transforms matter into a certain kind of a thing that can be acknowledged as being of that specific kind. Similarly, the parts of the explanation in formal cause delimit and constrain both application of concepts and conceptual development. Object descriptions in formal cause establish the conditions that the abstract form must satisfy. This is the same condition that certain experiential material must suit in order to be regarded as proper instantiation of the concept. Aristotle acknowledged that this is contentious and a difficult concept.

Efficient Cause

This cause is more linked to mechanistic explanation rather than teleological explanation. According to Thomas and Thomas, it refers to something that causes change and motion to commence or halt. In other words, efficient cause is simply the thing that brings about something else. The concept of change appears to go back to each beginnings of human conceptualization. Thomas and Thomas pointed out that it must have been a popular concept already during the days of Heraclitus, who placed it at the basis of the experiential world.

According to Thomas and Thomas, change is a relational notion. Consequently, it necessitates at least two segments of experience and a comparison. In addition, change also manifests the basic assumption of every conceptual analysis, that is, segments of experience, inasmuch as they reach the conceptualization level and rational definition, frequently seem sequential.

Final Cause

This cause is often claimed to be teleological. It refers to the objective, purpose, end or goal of doing something. For instance, health is the cause of exercising, and people exercise to be healthy. This also analogous for all the intermediate steps that are brought about via the action of something else as means towards the end; for instance, drugs are the means towards healing . However, things might differ from one another in that some are activities (exercising), while others are instruments (drugs). According to Aristotle, certain things cause each other reciprocally; for example, hard work causes fitness and vice versa. In reciprocal causation, one activity can act as the beginning (hard work) and the acts as end (fitness), and vice versa.

Reasons Why Aristotle Prefers Teleological Explanation

Aristotle preferred teleological over mechanistic explanation because teleological explanation has some element of chance or luck. Aristotle contrasted purpose with the manner in which nature does not work, chance or luck. In the actions of human beings, chance is tuche, while in unreasoning agents chance is automaton. Chance or luck is recognized among causes. An event happens by chance or luck when all the lines of causality converge devoid of the convergence being selected purposefully, and produces an outcome similar to the teleologically caused one. This is not possible in mechanistic explanation. Several things are said both to be and to come to be because of lack or chance. Therefore, there is a need to inquire in what ways luck or chance is present among the causes, and they are similar or different. According to Thomas and Thomas, everything attributed to chance or luck must have some definite cause; for instance, going by chance to the market and finding the product one wanted but he or she did not anticipate finding. Mechanistic explanation is systematic, it might not explain such a scenario, and that is why Aristotle advocates for teleological explanation.

The second reason why Aristotle prefers teleological over mechanistic explanation lies in the necessity. Mechanists restrict themselves to simple necessity, while Aristotle appeals in hypothetical necessity in addition to simple necessity. Aristotle distinguishes several forms of necessity, and it seems ambiguous on the surface how they associate with each other, or modern usage. In the posterior analytics, according to Thomas and Thomas, on the one hand, Aristotle draws double contrast between necessity based on nature and impulse, and on the other hand, Aristotle contrasts force and contrary to impulse. However, neither these mentioned passages provide a comprehensive list of necessity, which Aristotle appears to acknowledge.

Thomas and Thomas distinguished the main forms of necessity as simple necessity and hypothetical necessity. The simple necessity is the one to which mechanists restrict themselves. Thomas and Thomas pointed out that the present view places what is necessary in the production process. For example, the wall of a house essentially becomes a wall because its naturally heaviest components are placed downwards, and its naturally lightest components are placed upwards. In all other things involving the production for an end, the product cannot come to be devoid of the things having necessary nature. It is not because of the ‘things’, it is because of material cause. This is what Aristotle describes as hypothetical cause. In other words, hypothetical necessity is an outcome of necessarily influenced by antecedents. According to Thomas and Thomas, necessity resides in the matter, whereas the final cause is in the definition. Simple necessity or necessity in nature is one in which the both causes must be stated by the physicist, and the end is the final. The beginning commences from the essence or definition, as in manmade objects.


This paper has compared teleological and mechanistic explanations using Aristotle’s work. Mechanistic explanation holds that the universe can be best comprehended as a completely mechanical system, while teleological explanation focuses on what is inherently good for natural substance themselves. In terms of the Aristotle’s doctrine of four causes, the first cause, material cause, is more inclined to mechanistic explanation. The fourth cause, formal cause, is more inclined to teleological explanation. In terms of necessity, Aristotle prefers teleological explanation because of its hypothetical necessity. Mechanistic explanation has a restriction because of its inherent simple necessity characteristic. Whereas teleological explanation accounts for luck, mechanistic explanation does not. For Aristotle, this makes teleological explanation preferable over mechanistic explanation.


Related essays