A reflection on the importance of the TELOS Program, by Peter Grice

I vividly recall the day, as a teenager, that I read the first chapter of Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis.

So provoked was I to contemplation that I couldn't tell you whether I even read any further.

What captured my interest so well was the observation[1] that our language in unguarded moments might reveal our deepest convictions – although we may be reluctant to take ownership of those beliefs. Provocatively, the kinds of matters that surface are the ones we consider most important.

Awareness of this “assumptive language,” as I have since learned to call it, serves to remind us of the tension between assumptions and reality. Most people want it resolved either way, despite the discomfort involved in exposing our beliefs to scrutiny. We may plead that perception is reality, yet deep down we know that the two can be in conflict.

Even babies figure this out. Perception is that the world is dark, warm and peaceful. Reality is a bright light and a slap on the buttocks. Perception is that mother pops in and out of existence. Reality is that she persists, even when she can't be seen.

Having our assumptions challenged by new data is just part of daily experience, and we seem to be hard-wired to forge and refine our beliefs in such circumstances.

Once a child has grasped that things exist and persist over time, they begin to probe the area of causes.

There they discover that not all is as it seems, since although water appears to come from a tap, it assuredly falls from the sky. Eggs appear to emanate from the refrigerator or grocery store, yet others beg to differ, claiming they’re put there by chickens. Furthermore, mystery of mysteries, even big people can be shrunk down to fit inside others!

The thing about any enquiry into causes is that sooner or later, if there's nothing on television, the chain of investigation leads back to an original cause.

Depending on a parent's answers, and given enough time, the young child may hit upon the ultimate question: “Who made God?[2] By this time the quest for truth has made a quantum leap, from rudimentary trial-and-error methods to full-scale interrogation of authority figures.

At this point many parents wish that wasn’t them. Surprisingly, it’s not uncommon for parents who don't believe in any Creator God to lead their child on to this question, after pretending that some things are made by God. Not cars and toys of course, but, if you please, things like trees and rainbows.

Why do people sometimes provide answers they don’t themselves believe?

Perhaps in this case they see that the child is seeking to make sense of the world in terms of a purpose for all things, and wisely discern that they're not quite ready to have their hopes dashed (surreptitiously delegating that privilege to formal educators!). Perhaps they really would like their child to remain open to this option as they seek out their own answers later on.[3]

Either way, the assumption that there is (or might be) a purpose behind all things continues to receive the attention of child[4] and adult philosophers alike.

Telos is a concept of rich heritage, meaning and application. Its Greek root “tele” means “distant” and enters English via such words as telescope and telephone. Telos emerges from the idea that a distant goal or end can be represented in the properties of an object. It is more explicit than just the concept of design. It entails that the designed object is purposely fit and oriented toward a designer’s goal, in terms of its form, function and other characteristics.

When Aristotle gave his considerable attention to explaining what causes things, he assigned telos the status of Final Cause. If something is made for a particular goal or purpose, he reasoned, that fact should be involved in any complete explanation. Clearly, the goal of making toast goes a long way to explaining the existence and construction of toasters.

The end, in a roundabout way, is the cause.

And the object – in this case, the toaster – has within it the means to pursue the end. When it functions that way, it is doing so normally and properly. Otherwise, it is malfunctioning and deviant. This concept of proper function is indexed to the teleological goal. It is not normal or proper for a toaster to explode, fry eggs, or plug a leaky ship. Any object without telos is also without proper function (or a prescription for behavioural norms). As such, the most one could say is that it is used conventionally or unconventionally.[5]

That’s all very well for appliances, but the question of the presence of telos in the universe at large, behind human existence, strikes a fundamental chord that reverberates across all of our lives. It is profoundly personal, since if human beings are created for particular purposes, then the fabled “meaning of life” must be about living accordingly – or more precisely, teleologically.

This application of telos to our lives gives character to the TELOS Program. Our students explore not only whether life has an ultimate purpose, but also how that may be outworked at a personal level. Telos in this sense is a positive orientation of the whole person, an ethos flowing from the conviction that life has transcendent purpose.

Yet such an outlook is doggedly resisted by the dominant public view of life’s origins, insofar as the theory of evolution is inherently naturalistic. Naturalism here is defined as the doctrine of “closed causal systems,” and what evolutionary mechanisms are specifically closed from, in principle, is the external causal relation described above: telos. Often stated in biology as the concept of goal-directedness, it is inadmissible to the theory, since natural causes lack the capacity for purposive goal-setting. An organism may be capable of teleological future-planning,[6] but this does not help because it is the arrival of the organism itself that needs explaining.

The field of biology, however, is thoroughly entrenched in the language of teleology. Within the field this is a well-known, frustrating problem. It is natural to think and speak this way, but one is not really supposed to believe that “hearts are for pumping blood,” or that the plates of a stegosaurus were “for” temperature regulation. The functions of things are not directed toward any goal. The toaster may happen to produce toast, but it’s not for making toast.[7] Outside the field, for the general public, teleological descriptions of life are widely repeated, without much cognizance that evolution is supposed to be strictly non-teleological.[8]

The effect of all this, is that most people give the outlook too much credit in the realm of human flourishing, mistakenly assuming that it proffers an ultimate, altruistic goal around which we all should cohere. Perhaps there is a sense of obligation to continue to promote survival of our species – after all, it seems that undirected processes have prevailed against impossible odds – yet the notion of prevailing is a projection of our own goals. We’re not obliged to take up any mantle of survival, since naturalism does not establish survival as a prescriptive norm, which makes it entirely optional.

However depressing it would be if naturalistic evolution turns out to be correct, in terms of the aimless, purposeless universe it presupposes and in some sense represents, clarity on the matter of telos is still important. It doesn’t help to perpetuate teleological language where it is actually quite illegitimate.

As already noted, children maintain a teleological presumption about the biological world, and adults who disagree may be tempted to sugar-coat negative implications for life’s meaning and purpose.

But somebody, at some point, has the responsibility to either disabuse children of the notion of telos at an appropriate stage in their education, if not to affirm it, or else finally, seemingly the preferable option, to objectively outlay the various considerations. The latter proposal would involve an awareness of teleological language and assumptions and an ability to deconstruct them.[9]

C. S. Lewis would certainly approve.

Questions of purpose in all things are on the lips of young children, as the hope of innocents. It seems that society’s response is vague and coy, at least for a while, yet residual enough to gradually dawn on a person in the negative. Those who are a bit slower to figure things out await more explicit denials upon greater exposure to the adult world.

Do we have, in this analysis, a glimmer of understanding into what plagues us particularly in our teenage years?

Enchanted questions from childhood such as “Why?” and “Where do stars come from? ” give way to the “Why should I?” language more typical of teenage disenchantment. “Because I’m the parent!” no longer satisfies, and is easily thwarted by an increasingly accurate claim “You can’t make me.

But notice the shift in the nature of the question. The quest for purposeful causes has been abandoned, and replaced by a quest – a demand – for moral justification. Language had always been laden with the imperative, “should,” but now it is injected with angst, at the sinking sense that it too will fail. The connection between real teleological purpose and real moral imperatives is too close for comfort.

Without prescriptive norms for my existence, how can there be standards obligating my behaviour? I can posit moral goods according to my desires and preferences, but I am not obligated by my own prescription. When my desires change, the standard conveniently changes with them.

This realisation is seldom articulated in precisely these ways, but whichever way it comes, everyone grasps it at some level. Cultural slogans and unstated values certainly help things along. The investigation usually ends in a predictable moral cul-de-sac: “Who’s to say?

Christianity offers an answer to this question, of course. The standard called “the good” is anchored in the very character of the Creator, and prescribed for us as bearers of the Imago Dei. The same good standard is transcribed into all creation, where the function of all things has teleological purpose, albeit tragically tainted by the effects of a curse.

So the issue of prescriptive moral norms turns on the question of telos.

And the question of telos is the great point of departure between two rival large-scale explanations (or worldviews), Naturalism and Christianity. Without telos, our lives are ultimately rendered purposeless and absurd. No wonder there’s no rush to explicitly teach this implication![10]

Our interest in the TELOS Program is to teach these connections, in accessible ways, through a worldview framework. We propose that there is a worldview with adequate resources to undergird our deepest transcendent longings. We investigate whether Christianity is actually true, in the objective sense, as opposed to something more dismissive such as “religious truth” or “true for you.” We look at good criteria for belief formation, such as objectivity and reasonableness – far better standards than popularity, preference and mere tradition.

We don’t believe that questions of truth lead inexorably to nihilistic despair.

We don’t believe that people, young and old, must settle for a disenchanted universe.

Instead we believe, and trust that our students will conclude, that the meaning of life inheres in fulfilling our created purposes. It therefore remains to embrace those purposes from Him, to choose life, and to live it meaningfully.

Christianity makes bold, far-reaching and controversial claims. It also makes claims on us. As J. Mark Bertrand has noted, a Christian worldview is not “an abstract of principles demanding assent” but instead offers “the biblical story as an encompassing narrative, a story within which we find our individual stories, eliciting not just adherence but profound identification.”[11] Greidanus asserts that this is true of any outlook: “All things human are in some way rooted in, or find their deepest structural framework in, a narrative or story of some kind.”[12]

As telos transcends us, both behind and before us, it also courses through us, beckoning us to become active participants in history’s true story. In being shaped by the vision of true purpose and ultimate ends, our life story is caught up in the Creator’s grand narrative.[13]

Telos draws us onward, outward, and upward.



    [1] Lewis developed an argument for God as necessary to legitimise the metaphor of our conscience as a moral compass (although he put it in terms of the classical concept of “natural law.”) As a compass, the conscience reliably points to an objective reference for moral goodness (and serves thereby to reckon wrongdoing as well). He noticed widespread appeals in human discourse to such an assumed standard. For instance, we often speak in outrage over a perceived injustice, because we believe an offender has violated some standard they were morally obliged to keep. Lewis reasoned that such deep convictions are exactly what you'd expect to find if the standard is real, and is the God of the Bible.

    [2] No doubt far less common in child-parent dialogue, is the terminus of an alternative line of questioning: “What violated nothingness?” In both cases, whether God or Nothing is posited as the original cause, we are approaching the limits of what finite minds can grasp. Nonetheless, we may still grapple with it via concepts we do grasp, and one such resource here is the dictum “ex nihilo, nihil fit,” meaning “out of nothing, nothing comes.” However hard it is to fathom an eternally existent Creator, the rival explanation seems impossible to maintain: just try to wrap your head around the logical absurdity of absence leading to the absence of absence.

    [3] This may help to explain why Christian schooling is not exclusively chosen by Christian parents. More broadly, however, it is indicative of society's solution to such thorny questions: relegate the matter to a private rather than public concern. The result is that we condition ourselves to remain silent, having constructed a moderate conversational taboo.

    [4] Recent research suggests that the assumption by children that there is purpose in all things is innate rather than culturally conditioned. See: Deborah Kelemen, Function, goals and intention: children's teleological reasoning about objects, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Volume 3, Issue 12.

    [5] Convention merely reflects trends of usage that could easily be otherwise. It is arbitrary with respect to the object itself, telling us nothing about whether an object is functioning properly.

    [6] Even this is called into question, for instance by some essayists in the volume Issues in Evolutionary Epistemology, due to the fact that telos should not be assumed to have gained entrance into human artefacts (such as toasters), without adequate explanation. This suggestion goes hand in hand with the naturalistic notion of hard determinism, where human free will does not exist. The questionable but logically consistent proposal is that we see human technology as shaped by the same nonteleological (blind) processes as ourselves.

    [7] Accordingly, the human brain is not “for” thinking reliable thoughts at all. Instead, its thinking is adapted (so it is theorized) for effectiveness to survival. This might explain sex drives, but it doesn’t explain science, nor provide any reason for thinking that evolutionary theory itself emerges from reliable thought. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga stated the problem: “Naturalism also lacks room for the notion of proper function for non-artifacts, and hence lacks room for the notion of proper function for our cognitive faculties. It therefore has no room for the notion of knowledge.” (The Analytic Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader, p356).

    [8] The teleological drive toward survival that is at the heart of the theory is therefore rather conspicuous, considering that it is simply assumed. The point of the theory is to avoid telos, not assume it.

    [9] It would also involve the pursuit of conceptual clarity in general, and clarity of right relations between categories of philosophy, theology and scientific method.

    [10] Even so, the absurdity of life and lack of ultimate meaning has been embraced by many philosophies, notably atheism, existentialism and nihilism. Embracing it has been commended as a virtue by atheist philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Nagel, and others, and cast as a “noble lie” by Dr. L. D. Rue. It remains the tacit implication of dominant secular worldviews.

    [11] Betrand, Review of Goheen and Bartholomew’s Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview

    [12] Gerkin, Widening the Horizons, p26.

    [13] “Scripture teaches one universal kingdom history that encompasses all of created reality: past, present, and future... its vision of history extends backward all the way to the beginning of time and forward all the way to the last day... the biblical vision of history spans time from the first creation to the new creation, encompassing all of created reality." – Greidanus, The Modern Preacher, p95