Nature is a Work of Art

Telos is Greek for an “end” or function, which helps explain why something exists or why its previous actions occurred: in order to serve that function.  Telic action requires some kind representation of the goal that helps achieve it.  In short, teleologists argue that ideas, or something like mental concepts or thoughts, cause events in a way wholly different from the way that objects cause events (atoms, molecules or larger bodies hitting each other and/or reacting).

Assuming that the universe cannot think (and there is no god to do the thinking for it), philosophers and scientists first ruled out telos as a cause in the processes of inanimate nature, which, it was believed, simply proceeded mechanically, according to the laws of physics. For a while it was still accepted that people (if not all animals) did act purposefully, that is, did and said things in part caused by the representations of goals, in a non-mechanistic way somehow beyond the known laws of physics. But as time went on, it was argued more and more that even mental acts and thoughts were strictly mechanical events—electro-chemical interactions in gray matter. Accordingly, purposeful animal behavior was also eventually pretty much ruled out by science, and the final nail was hammered into the coffin lid of teleology. How could one argue that nature was purposeful if even humans were not?

This situation lead to all sorts of arguments about the nature of human responsibility.  How could one be blamed for or take credit for any thing one did, if every action was determined by the laws of physics and was effectively inescapable? I will not be taking up such an unwieldy issue in this book.  My aims are more modest.  Instead I will explore a related issue: not ethical responsibility but aesthetic responsibility.  How are new meanings and forms created? And who or what process is responsible for the new creation?

Art and teleology are intimately related. This is so because teleology involves representation, design, and meaning. Perhaps aesthetics and teleology are actually the same formal discipline.  To say nature is teleological is to say nature works like an artist. To say something is a work of art is to say it is teleological.  This helps explain why representation, design and meaning (in other words, art) came under attack with the “demise” of teleology.

In the late 20th Century, artists and writers, who had always been creators of worlds, were no longer considered responsible for their actions, creations, or meanings.  However original they might seem, what they did was just the inevitable product of their interacting matter. With the supposed end of authorial intention,  the romance that used to attend the artist walked out of the cold-water flat one morning without leaving a note.

Art was replaced with something that was called “art” but was not artful in the teleological sense.  Paradoxically and with great confusion, the (then apparent) end of teleology redefined what kind of “art” could be considered “intellectual,” “sophisticated,” or “artistic” by critics, students, academics, and professionals. Purpose was associated with religious narratives and with superstition. It became unfashionable to represent the world in a teleological way.

In a teleological narrative, all the events depicted, or at least the key ones, are chosen and included because of the way they reflect, refract, or prefigure a general theme of the story or the end of the story, the resolution of a problem. There is usually progression or development.  Events exist in the story because of the purpose they serve. 20th Century non-teleological so-called artists decided instead that “realistic” representation should capture a world in which the parts did not relate to a whole. Characters in non-teleological novels wander aimlessly and seldom undergo change, either for better or worse. Many things happen to them that don’t seem to add up to anything. Some so-called artists thought that indeterminacy at the quantum level disproved teleology so they set about making worlds that mimicked the true “reality” of the quantum world with its inherent unpredictability and chaos.

In 20th Century “arts,” accordingly, if there was to be any organization in a work at all, it was appropriate to leave up to the reader, viewer, or critic to “create” it by imposing his/her own interpretation, tinged, of course, with knowing and delicate irony. The reader became the authority. In the visual “arts,” the idea that the artist should try to control interpretation or try to plan or design a composition was considered gauche. Painters starting representing things thrown together, not put together for reasons. Intentional organization was out.  The word “organization,” which has “organ” in it, is virtually synonymous with functional design, teleological design. Many, many visual “artists” abandoned perspective, color theory, and composition. Some writers, particularly poets, abandoned grammar and syntax. Representation itself—its aims, its uses, its good—was called into question.

Teleological representation was wrongly associated with dogmatic values and morals, with religion, and, during the cold war era, with propaganda. Even the pure formalism of abstract Modern art, which was supposed to represent and abstract something real about the world, eventually began to be discounted. This led to the popularity of non-representational art, which, it so happens, is more difficult to judge than representational art because, well, it doesn’t represent anything; there is no basis for assigning value. Savvy capitalists seized upon the opportunity and began aggressively promoting value-free art, art that could not be judged according to the amount of representational skill necessary to create it. Something called the “artworld,” made up of the products of MFA mills, glossy magazines, and pretentious galleries, emerged with its own arbitrary and completely conventional—that is, ungrounded—language. Anything the artworld said was “good” was good, even if it was interchangeable with art outside the artworld, which was said to be “bad.” In this way gallery owners were able to print their own money, as it were. Fake sales of an artist’s work drove up the price tag of all his or her work. Of course, the gallery had already contracted to purchase all the artist’s work at a small fraction of what they would sell it for. During the 1980s when these sort of abuses reached a height, skilled artists who realized what was going on created a slogan targeted at those who had been lured by the promise of becoming an art celebrity: “It’s the dealer, stupid,” acknowledged that it was the dealer who was the real artist, a money artist.

Doubtless there are all sorts of other reasons—political, economic, social, philosophical, and aesthetic—for the way the art and literary worlds developed in the 20th century. Most people active in the arts were probably pawns of the economic machinery (even as they helped create and maintain it) and blissfully unaware of the debate about teleology and intentionality. I suspect that most just learned to copy a popular style. Anxious-to-please students of art and literature probably only repeated what they had heard, slogans such as “process is preferable to product,” without really knowing that teleology had been associated with “product” and very wrongly disassociated from “process.” These values and prejudices were known generally as “postmodernism” and “deconstruction,” conveniently ill-defined labels that denoted what the important people were saying was sophisticated, smart, and stylish.

I will speak plainly. I do not like non-teleological art. Not only do I think it inexcusably boring, I think it false. Nature is a work of art, and there’s no good reason why art, representing nature, should not appear artistic, by which I mean intentional and purposeful.

I am not an advocate of Intelligent Design, which, insofar as I understand it from what very little I have read, seems just a round about attempt to argue for a supernatural Creator. There are no gods in my cosmos. Nature is creative, but there is no Creator.  Nature is self-organizing. When I say “creative,” I mean progressively more able to make more complex and awesome things, like us, not quite by pure accident, but by availing itself, in the way that artists do, of the ordering tendencies of chance.

Although telos has been variously interpreted throughout history, I make the argument throughout this book that it has consistently involved chance. This goes directly against the predominate grain of contemporary thought that associates teleology with rigidity. While I admit I refine telos, as I will show, my definition is implied, latent or prefigured, in every definition from Aristotle’s on.

To say nature is a work of art (sans Super Artist) requires a new understanding of what it means to act intentionally and of what it means to say that nature’s processes are teleological. Fortunately for me there is at hand a burgeoning field of research that sees the issue completely anew.  This “field” is actually a collection of loosely interacting individuals that work under various names: complexity scientists, neutral evolutionary theorists, emergentists, complexity neuroscientists, system theorists, synergetic researchers, cyberneticists, biosemioticans and pansemioticians. Don’t be put off by these labels.  I intend to keep this as non-technical as possible.

I want to speak to generally educated audiences—people outside the circle of academic obscurants—to those of you who get annoyed at disjointed movies or who are baffled by reports of child-like paintings going at auction for more than you could ever hope to make in a lifetime of hard and thoughtful labor. You no longer have to feel embarrassed that you just don’t “appreciate” such things. Obscurity is a tyrant that bullies its critics into silence. The only thing one can say is, I don’t understand, more or less shouldering the blame. But it’s not that you don’t get it. Either there’s nothing there to get or you did get it, you just didn’t think it was interesting enough to be the “it” every one is so excited about. So you said nothing. We’ve all been respectful, let others have their opinions and tastes. I’ve been guilty of this too, working uncomplainingly in the arts now as I have for fifteen years. But I’m breaking that silence now. Art, I think, is our most precious resource, our source of inventiveness and our means of progress, and we cannot afford to let it sink into dullness (as Alexander Pope imagined) out of a self-damning respect for other people’s opinions and a polite reluctance to say to an artist, But your work is indistinguishable from work that requires neither skill, talent, serious thought, nor effort (other than tedious)!

With this book I will likely offend some of my own colleagues and (very good) friends who enjoy postmodern irony and like very, very “difficult” work that you can’t really understand. They will defend the aesthetic experience of “bewilderment” and “confusion” which, I happen to agree, is an essential precondition of poetic experience. But I think it’s the making sense of the world anew which is truly poetic, not the destruction of sense.  Poesis, from which “poetry” is derived, means making not unmaking.

That’s about as much as I intend to say about the movements known loosely as “postmodern.” To recount and rebuff their ideas here in detail would do my reader a great disservice since they are obscure and boring—infamously so—and I want a larger audience than they invite. My topic is difficult enough without adding more difficulty to it.  Another reason I will not be offering a more than a cursory summary of the criticism is because, to be quite honest, I have not spent the time everyone claims is required to get it completely. (How convenient for its practitioners for these works are generally long and far too dull to finish.) Oh but I know the theory well enough to know its not worth the time. I passed the required graduate exams. I read Jacques Derrida’s Grammatology to page 200 or so, at which point I hurled it across the room. It was clear enough he had got teleology and Charles Sanders Peirce, an American Pragmatist philosopher and semiotician, on whom he had based some of his ideas, wrong.  I am glad that I couldn’t get through that book, glad I didn’t understand him, and most of all, glad I did not acquire his vocabulary and style.  And at the risk of inviting even more criticism from my peers, most of whom have the deepest respect for ideas I cannot even fathom, I admit I know next to nothing about Lacan.

Fortunately, postmodernism is quickly going out of style as I write.  There are more than a few who have attempted to salvage it by calling what I do postmodern, saying yes, that’s what we meant. But I disown you all. The one thing I have in common with postmodernists is, perhaps, a rejection of an essentialist conception of selfhood (i.e. a static identity, predetermined by nature). But who doesn’t these days? Similarities pretty much end there because they did not attempt a new definition. I, and the others I work with, do. And this is a profound distinction that affects the way we stand in regard to ideas of value and the creation of value.

Postmodernism is being blamed now for much of America’s woes, its lack of standards, its nation of drifters. I will not quite go that far, little as I like my Derrida.  But I will say that academics in the humanities took such an ironic stance to their own subject that they deconstructed themselves out of respectability. The project has backfired. Few people like us these days. I know. I feel the chill settle at PTA meetings when it is discovered that I am a doctor of Philosophy, not Medicine. What use are we in the humanities? We need to prove to everyone that art and literature are important, as important as science, if not much more so, to understanding the world.

Maybe there’s hope that we academics can redeem ourselves yet. While those who have invested their careers in postmodernism are still defending it, the “hip” audience is gone.  Organization, form and beauty are making a comeback in the visual arts  (due largely to economic causes, not ideas)  and no one seems to remember why it was so uncool before. Such is the nature of fads. There is an intellectual vacuum left by the retreating theory and I intend to fill it.

–from my forthcoming book, The Biologist’s Mistress


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