In the shadow of the Matterhorn, a little while back, I got to thinking about a tendency humans have to claim that things happen as part of a preordained plan. Teleological thinking, as it is called, is the fallacious belief that things happens for an end purpose - by design, if you will. Current examples of it include the claim that coronavirus is god or nature’s way of teaching humans some sort of lesson, or that extreme weather events or diseases are caused by giving gay people equal rights, or that a person ends up a paraplegic so that they can become a leading advocate for the disabled. Thinking that the whole universe is designed the way it is, so that you can exist, part of a great metaphysical plan, is also teleological.
We were visiting the skiing hamlet of Cervinia, nestled below the craggy triangular outcrop of this most famous of mountains. In the morning, the sun would slide down the mountain face, turning the snowy slopes pink and sparkling. From our apartment, stuck in town with an unfortunate twisted knee, I watched on as people come swishing down the surrounding slopes, looks of terror or glee pasted onto their faces.
And the thought struck me, does the mountain exist so that cashed up adventurers can ski down its face? Of course not. Surely no one would disagree, would they? Neither was it designed with the specific intention to form a useful border between Italy and Switzerland. It wasn’t created for a particular purpose at all. That it has a purpose is not the cause of the mountain, but merely an application of human creativity.
But, and this is the kicker, what is true for mountains is also true for dinosaurs, virus’s, people, planets and everything else the universe serves up. Humans have evolved to make things with an end in mind. Nature does not. The mountain is created by the pressures of geology. Dolphins, plants and people exist in their current form due to the adaptive forces of evolution. No universal mind ordered a meteor to rid the world of dinosaurs so that mammals could evolve. A virus is not magicked up by a wicked thinking god, but by the opportunistic forces of nature. It is miraculous that we, with our human minds and complex brains are here, yes, but like the mountain, we are here because the conditions were right. The conditions were not created in order for us to be here.
We are the successful descendants of nervous monkeys; skittish and hyper aroused to the possibility of agency. Those of our relatives who were more blasé may have been right more often, but when they were wrong, it was with disastrous consequences for both them and their potential future generations. We survivors of anxious ancestors thus have a strong, evolutionary programmed habit to assign causes to events. Our brains are excellent at noticing such patterns (even when none exist) and categorising these experiences in the context of existing knowledge. Our chatty minds use narrative structures to create a “why” that fits best with our experiences and prevailing belief systems.
Humans live with awareness and imagination, and that’s a gift. It allows us to look at the stars and wonder, to make and appreciate art, to consider the plight of others and fight for their equality and to discover DNA, germs and quantum mechanics. But it comes with some downsides. Like uncertainty, fear and anxiety. Making sense of the world by assigning causation to things makes us feel safe and counteracts the anxiety of uncertainty. Such manner of thinking provides comfort and a sense of control in the world. It creates meaning and narrative. Unfortunately, however, teleological thinking is not only riddled with logical errors, in many cases it is based on morally bereft assumptions and beliefs - like racism, homophobia and misogyny. And as a result it also leads to a perpetuation of superstition and ignorance that causes real harm to real people.
Once, a long time ago, a religious fundamentalist told me that AIDS was god’s way of punishing gay people. I was 15 at the time and astounded both that anyone would want to worship such an entity or could countenance such an astonishingly baseless view of the facts. As an adult I realise that people’s belonging beliefs cloud their good judgement all the time, and this can have a real impact on the wellbeing of others in our society.
Conspiracy theories, creationism and cult-like health trends all emerge out of teleological thinking. Religious inspired laws and attitudes that preferentially harm women, children and gay people emerge from such dodgy thought processes. Children are denied life-saving blood transfusions or have to endure unnecessary medical procedures because of beliefs that arise from teleological thoughts. Not to mention the mental suffering guilt manufactures when such beliefs form the central tenant of your world view.
And yet, we are story tellers, and there is no getting away from that. Making meaning matters to our wellbeing, and is a fundamentally human thing to do. Finding meaning in what happens, however, is quite different to believing that things happen for a purpose. Knowing ourselves - our human biases and subconscious drivers, means, perhaps, that we can create better stories. Stories that don't lead to harm and suffering, oppression or cages. Stories that help us unlock the wonder of life and the flourishing possibilities of consciousness, in the face of life's inherent uncertainty.