Adapting our Language: The Problem (?) of Teleological Language in the Philosophy of Biology

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Hitchen, S.A.
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conference paper description
I take the problem of teleological language in Biology to be twofold. Firstly it can make problematic communication between those who are (broadly speaking) experts in biology, and those who are not. In order to explain the theories they aim to the expert must take one of two approaches; neither of which is foolproof. Either they must describe their theory in layman’s terms only or else do their best to make the language they use comprehensible to an audience with no prior experience of it. In this second case, whilst the words that the expert employs may be familiar, their particular use in this context is likely not to be. This is the root of our first problem. Secondly, the use of teleological language within Biology proves problematic if it is assumed that this necessarily brings with it certain theoretical as well as linguistic baggage and that we must take steps to counter any embodiment of teleological thinking. I am going to suggest today that some of the disagreements we encounter in the Philosophy of Biology can be resolved by accepting that we are not engaged in a competition for the prize of establishing the true meaning of the words we use. This competition falls foul of the fallacy that there is (and must be) something to which expressions such as ‘the meaning of the word x’ refer. This is the root of our second problem. I believe that the way forward suggested here both addresses and crucially can help to dissolve both of these problems. Turning from the meaning to the use of words allows us to see that there are various legitimate technical and non-technical uses of the one word each of which should be taken to carry with it only its particular baggage. Once we do this we can share the responsibility of making clear which use is in play and spend our time on genuine philosophical and biological problems instead of either identifying and resolving linguistic confusions or boxing at shadows.