Chemical teleology

Teleology examples
A depiction of Ernest Schoffeniels' excellent 1973 descriptions of the misuse of teleology in zoology, sociology, and physiology, and chemistry.
In hmolscience, chemical teleology refers to the usage of teleological argument, typically of the Aristotelian final cause variety, in the explanation of chemical phenomena, either in the form of subtle purpose-like descriptions of atomic and molecular behaviors found in modern chemistry textbooks and or, in respect to human behaviors, “emergent” chemical teleology theory, according to which teleology is argued to be an emergent property that arises at some point in evolution, theories which tend towards the use of ontic opening arguments.

The following diagram shows that while at the chemical level, reactions are described teleologically free, human chemical reaction descriptions tend to be replete with teleological framed reasoning, which dates back to the reasonings of Aristotle:
chemical teleology


In 1973, Ernest Schoffeniels, in his Anti-Chance, gives a good overview of the misuse of teleology at the chemical, zoological, and social level.
In 2007, Vicente Talanquer found, through his 2007 dissectional study of eight leading US college chemistry textbooks, that the mindsets of many leading American chemists are filled with subtle "teleological" explanations of chemical behavior, found particularly used in descriptions of the the second law, Le Chatelier's principle, and the octet rule (Abegg's rule), many of the examples he fines being so subtle they are difficult to detect. [1] An example of subtle textbook chemical teleology is the following statement:

Atoms react in order to maintain stability.”

Though subtle to notice on first pass, the reason it is teleological, according to American psychologists Deborah Kelemen, Joshua Rottman, and Rebecca Seston, noted for their 2012 study on the use of "purpose-based reasoning" among professional physical scientists, is that the statement "violates temporal constraints by treating an entity's consequence as if it could be its own cause in a backward causal fashion." [2] The bullet point findings of Talanquer's textbook chemical teleology study are as follows: [1]

● Teleological explanations are in fact present in chemistry textbooks and they normally occur in explanations about transformations.
● These types of explanations are used to justify why submicroscopic particles adopt certain configuration (structure) or why certain substances react in a particular way (process).
● The occurrence of teleological explanations is tightly linked to the existence of a rule, principle, or law that governs the behavior of the system, and that explicitly
or implicitly implies the minimisation or maximisation of some intrinsic property (e.g., total energy, entropy, free energy). This law or principle tends to provide a sense of preferred direction in the evolution of a transformation.
● The metaphorical “purpose” assigned to chemical systems that warrant the use of teleological explanations is frequently that of attaining stability or equilibrium
(i.e., systems “strive” to become more stable or reach equilibrium).
● Teleological explanations in chemistry have pedagogical value because they help to provide an explanatory reason for the occurrence of a particular chemical

Second law
In more detail, in respect to the second law, Talanquer explains as follows: [5]

“The second law only describes the characteristics of the final state attained by an isolated system that undergoes a process. The law states that the entropy increases during the process and reaches the maximum value possible given the existing constraints. The law DOES NOT state that the system "has a tendency", "seeks to", "desires to", or "wants to" achieve such a state. However, in educational talk it is common to express the law as if there was intentionality in how the system changes.”

This is a very interesting point of view indeed. Talanquer states that he found teleological statements, in respect to the second law, in Peter Atkins and Loretta Jones 1998 General Chemistry: Molecules, Matter, and Change.

Octet rule
On the octet rule, Talanquer cites the following usages of teleological explanation: [1]

“Main-group elements tend to undergo reactions that leave them with eight outer-shell electrons. That is, main group elements react so that they attain a noble gas electron configuration with filled s and p sublevels in their valence electron shell.”
— J. McMurray and R.C. Fay (2003), Chemistry [6]

“To form bonds, main group elements gain, lose, or share electrons to achieve a stable electron configuration characterized by eight valence electrons.”
— J.W. Moore, C.S. Stanitski, and P.C. Jurs (2005), Chemistry: the Molecular Science [7]

In commentary on how these octet rule statements would be restated non-teleologically, Talanquer commented the following: [5]

“Atoms or molecules do no react "in order to" or "so that" they can attain an octet or an stable configuration. That is the outcome of the process. Electrons are exchanged randomly between particles in a system. However, the likelihood of the exchange in one direction is not the same as the probability of the reverse process. This probability is determined by many factors, such as the strength of interactions between electrons and protons, electrons and electrons etc. As a result of these random exchanges, the system ends adopting a new configuration that is the most probable given the existing constraints.

This clarification seems about right.

Le Chatelier principle | Free energy minimization
The following 2013 non-teleological Le Chatelier's principle, statement clarification by Talanquer, however, seems off: [5]

“The same type of thinking can be applied to the chemical processes in equilibrium. For example, when pressure is applied on a reacting system in chemical equilibrium, the system does not shift towards reactants or products "so that" or "in order to" counterbalance the effect of the change. What happens is that the change in pressure affects the probability of the forward and backward chemical processes going on in the system. The change in pressure affects the probability of collisions for the backward and forward processes in different ways. As a result, the likelihood of one process becomes higher than the other. There is NO DRIVE to attain a new equilibrium state. There is only particles randomly moving and interacting, involved in competing processes with different probabilities.”

Although he doesn't admit to it completely, namely in saying there is no DRIVING FORCE, which is paramount to saying that "force" does not exist, he does admit to a belief that to use the term "drive" in chemistry, physics, and thermodynamics is teleological. In short, something seems off in Talanquer's argument here, although, at this point, it is difficult to put a finger on it. The issue seems to need reconciliation in the exchange force view of chemical change and free energy minimization is the measure of reaction spontaneity.
teleology (emergence)
The gist of the so-called "emergent teleology argument", namely that while it is agreed that teleological governance does not exist in the periodic tablehmolscience period table shown here, indicating the number of active elements found in an average animated human—that teleology can "emerge", as some type of causative force, in the form of an "emergent property", according to certain ontic opening arguments, at a certain point backwards in the evolution timeline or great chain of being, which thus explains the nature of, e.g., why a woman cries, image from a 2013 blog on “The Purpose Problem”, namely "asking oneself sooner or later about the purpose of being alive", by American English professor turned big questions science philosopher Brock Haussamen. [11]

Emergent chemical teleology
Several authors in recent years, namely Alicia Juarrero (1985) and Terrence Deacon (2007), have used Belgian chemist Ilya Prigogine's far-from-equilibrium theory of bifurcations to argue that "teleological properties", while not existing at the atomic-chemical level, can "emerge" in the form of "emergent properties" at a certain threshold of evolution, supposedly at about the imaginary life from non-life threshold, somewhere at the 3.85 billion years ago point in the great chain of being. [9]

This point of view however can be shown to be fallacious. Specifically, following the 2007 Vicente Talanquer argument, above, with insertion of the above 2007 Terrence Deacon and Jeremy Sherman chapter header definition of "telos", we have the following:

Atoms or molecules do NOT react "in order to" or "so that" they can attain a [projected end, purpose, goal, achievement, or realization] [or] an octet or a stable configuration. That is the outcome of the process.

Then, with the insertion of the Robert Sterner and James Elser 2000 ecological stoichiometry definition of a human as a "human molecule", with a quantifiable 22-element "human molecular formula", according to which "whole organisms [are considered] as if they were single abstract molecules" (a definition and formula now found in two ecological textbooks and two ecology encyclopedias), and or the Libb Thims 2002 chemical thermodynamic definition of a human with a quantifiable 26-element "human molecular formula", according to which humans are defined as a "26-element energy/heat driven dynamic atomic structure" (a definition and formula now found in one thermodynamics textbook, one ecological engineering dissertation, and one book), we have the following:

Human molecules (people) do NOT react "in order to" or "so that" they can attain a [projected end, purpose, goal, achievement, or realization] [or] an octet or a stable configuration. That is the outcome of the process.

This is a very interesting philosophical perspective indeed—one that seems to be the correct view—and one that seems to require a mental re-working of sorts or a reconceptualization of standard "because" answers to "why" questions, throughout the intuition systems of the modern thinking world.

Some, such as Deacon, however, to note, would, in the face of this straight-forward logic, like to maintain that human molecules (people) are somehow different in "nature" from that other molecules, animate or not, governed by Talanquer's so-called non-teleological chemistry, and to maintain this false belief employ a number of ontic opening arguments, Ilya Prigogine's bifurcations, Manfred Eigen's hypercycles, Stuart Kauffman's autocatalytic closures, etc., and looped recursive arguments, e.g. "circles of reactions", "constraints", etc., in attempt to erect a vicariously unstable scaffolding on which to argue that Aristotle's final cause argument exists in modern physical science, and somehow "causes" the feeling of human purposeful behavior, but that it does not exist for the hydrogen atom, when, for instance, it bonds with oxygen to form water.

The following circa 1932 Socratic dialog between Irish science translator James Murphy and German-born American physicist Albert Einstein on the question of free will and freedom (see: Einstein-Murphy dialogue),, might well shed some light on the above "chemical teleology" discussion: [12]

Murphy: I have been collaborating with our friend, Planck, on a book which deals principally with the problem of causation and the freedom of the human will.

Einstein: Honestly, I cannot understand what people mean when they talk about the freedom of the human will. I have a feeling, for instance, that I will do something or other; but what relation this has with freedom I cannot understand at all. I feel that I will light up my pipe and I do it; but how can I connect this up with the idea of freedom? What is behind the act of willing to light the pipe? Another act of willing? Schopenhauer once said: Man can do what he wills, but cannot will what he wills.

The Schopenhauer quote here, to note, comes from German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s 1839 Essay on the Freedom of the Will, which in turn is based on his mentor German polyintellect Johann Goethe’s 1809 human chemical theory of the affinity force theory behind the will, the gist of which was elaborated on further by Schopenhauer as follows:

“The will of the copper, claimed and preoccupied by the electrical opposition to the iron, leaves unused the opportunity that presents itself for its chemical affinity for oxygen and carbonic acid, behaves exactly as the will does in a person who abstains from an action to which he would otherwise feel moved, in order to perform another to which he is urged by a stronger motive.”

which comes from his 1844 second volume The World as Will and Representation, wherein he cites German chemist Justus Liebig's description of the reaction of damp copper Cu in air containing carbonic acid H2CO3, the balanced reaction of which is as follows:

 2 CuOH + H_2CO_3 \rightarrow Cu_2CO_3 + 2 H_2O \,

To continue with the Murphy-Einstein dialog:

Murphy: But it is now the fashion in physical science to attribute something like free will even to the routine processes of organic nature.

Einstein: That nonsense is not merely nonsense. It is objectionable nonsense.”

Related to this, Einstein, in his 1932 “My Credo”, also commented the following:

“Strange is our situation here on earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose.”

Hence, in sum, it is "objectionable nonsense" to apply teleological causation theory to inorganic nature, i.e. non-carbon based nature (e.g. silicon reactions) as well as to organic nature, i.e. carbon-based nature (e.g. human reactions), and hence it would thus seem to be the case the idea of "purpose", that just like feeling of "free will", is something that needs to find reconciliation not in Aristotle's final cause, but rather in the nature of the force—specifically the exchange force—that mediates one's "seeming" sense of divine purpose, as Einstein put it. This is a large issue to grapple with, to say the least, but at least one stated in outline.

Thermodynamic teleology
In 1981, American biochemist (chnops-chemist) Jeffrey Wicken penned an article on how thermodynamics and in particular statistical thermodynamics with its "appeal to certain ends served by irreversible processes", all of which are based on the quantification that the equivalence value of all uncompensated transformations will tend to increase until equilibrium is reached, which results in concepts such as heat death, entropy maximization, and free energy minimum, etc., have some kind of Aristotle "final cause" feel about them, if worded in the proper way. [10] Much of Wicken's argument, however, is slanted in wording and descriptions of thermodynamics, and hence off base.

Atheists vs. theists | Biasing
In 2011, American anthropologists Bethany Heywood and Jesse Bering conducted a semi-structured interview of atheists and theists about important autobiographical events; the following is the abstract of the results: [3]

“Overall, results indicated that differing levels of cultural religiosity (i.e., whether participants were from the relatively religious USA or the relatively secular UK) did not affect the tendency to reason teleologically. As predicted, explicit religious beliefs had an effect in that atheists gave significantly fewer teleological explanations than theists; however, half the atheists (n=17) gave at least one teleological response and more than three-quarters (n=26) gave a teleological response or admitted feeling conflicted between teleological intuitions and more rational, naturalistic explanations for significant life events. We interpret these results as suggesting that basic theory-of-mind competencies underlie the propensity to reason teleologically about major life events.”

The "admitted feeling conflicted between teleological intuitions and more rational, naturalistic explanations for significant life events" comment seems to give way to the view that there is something missing from the modern educational process, in respect to the reconciliation of this conflict of views?

In 1948, Robert Clark, an old earth creationism defending chemist, to cite an example of the theist side of the fence, in his Order and Chaos in the World of Atoms, defended anthropomorphism (and supposedly teleology) as a useful teaching method, as follows: [13]

“In attempting to popularize and explain the essentials of chemistry it is very difficult to avoid anthropomorphizing the atoms at times. There are certain critics [e.g. Vicente Talanquer] who believe that this is an unpardonable crime. They claim that the public should never be told that an atom ‘likes’ this or that, or that it ‘wants’ to do anything! It is, however, somewhat difficult to see how their point of view can be defended. Modern chemistry is filled with notions of this character; indeed, many newly coined technical words are decidedly anthropomorphic—a fact which is usually concealed discreetly hidden by the use of Greek instead of English. There is surely no great gulf fixed between the older chemists [e.g. Empedocles] who spoke of atoms as ‘loving’ or ‘hating’ on another and the modern physical chemists who use such terms as ‘lyophilic’ [solvent-loving] and ‘lyophobic’ [solvent-hating].”


The following are related quotes:

“Fundamental teleology is a dead option in physics and chemistry.”
— John Hawthorne and Daniel Nolan (2005), Bellingham Summer Philosophy Conference [8]

See also
Charles Beard

1. Talanquer, Vincete. (2007). “Explanations and Teleology in Chemistry Education” (abs) (pdf), International Journal of Science Education, 00(0):1-18.
2. Kelemen, Deborah, Rottman, Joshua, Seston, Rebecca. (2012). “Professional Physical Scientists Display Tenacious Teleological Tendencies: Purpose-Based Reasoning as Cognitive Default” (pdf), Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1-10, Sep 10.
3. Heywood, Bethany and Bering, Jesse. (2013). “Meant to Be: How Religious Beliefs and Cultural Religiosity Affect the Implicit Bias to Think Teleologically” (abs), Religion, Brain, and Behavior, May 17.
4. Deacon, Terrence and Sherman, Jeremy. (2007). “The Physical Origins of Purposive Systems”, in: Embodiment in Cognition and Culture (editor: John Krois, Mats Rosengren, Angela Stiedele, and Dirk Westerkamp) (§1.1, pgs. 3-26). John Benjamins Publishing.
5. Email communication with the Libb Thims (20 May 2013).
6. McMurray, J. and Fay, R.C. (2003). Chemistry (4th ed) (pg. 230). Prentice Hall.
7. Moore, J.W., Stanitski, C.S., and Jurs, P.C. (2005). Chemistry: the Molecular Science (2nd ed.) (pg. 332). Brooks/Cole.
8. Hawthorne, John and Nolan, Daniel. (2005). “What Would Teleological Causation Be?” (pdf), Bellingham Summer Philosophy Conference.
9. (a) Roque, Alicia J. (1985). “Self-Organization: Kant’s Concept of Teleology and Modern Chemistry” (abs), The Review of Metaphysics, 39(1):107-35.
(b) Deacon, Terrence and Sherman, Jeremy. (2007). “The Physical Origins of Purposive Systems”, in: Embodiment in Cognition and Culture (editor: John Krois, Mats Rosengren, Angela Stiedele, and Dirk Westerkamp) (§1.1, pgs. 3-26). John Benjamins Publishing.
10. Wicken, Jeffrey S. (1981). “Causal Explanations in Classical and Statistical Thermodynamics” (abs), Philosophy of Science, 48: 65-77.
11. Haussamen, Brock. (2013). “The Purpose Problem”, 3.8 Billion Years: Reflecting on the History of Life, Blog, Apr 21.
12. (a) Zucker, Morris. (1945). The Philosophy of American History: The Historical Field Theory (clouds, pg. 7; no duality, pg. 531). Arnold-Howard Publishing Co.
(b) Planck, Max. (1933). Where is Science Going? (pg. 201). Allen & Unwin.
(c) James Vincent Murphy – Wikipedia.
13. Clark, Robert E.D. and Saunders, R.E.D. (1942). Order and Chaos in the World of Atoms (Amz) (pg. vii). Dover, 1948.

Further reading
● Thims, Libb. (2013). “Juarrero, Deacon, Nonreductive Physical Materialism, and Chemical Teleology” (review) (pdf), Journal of Human Thermodynamics, 9(6):77-112.

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