Telos and the Evaluation of Belief Systems

One of the challenges that my epistemological model faces is the question of how to evaluate competing belief systems.  As someone has recently pointed out to me, I am basically a skeptic when it comes to claims of metaphysical knowledge, particularly those derived from rational arguments.  I think we all inherently hold to a system of beliefs, one that we arrive at for numerous reasons, but I am doubtful of the claim that we can definitively know most of those beliefs to be true.

How, then, can we evaluate competing systems of beliefs?  When confronted with a new world-view that conflicts with our own, what can we do?

Similar to a previous post, some recent studies of Aristotle have shed light on a possible way of answering this question.  The disclaimer here is that I’m not convinced yet that this is indeed how I would answer this question.  Nor am I convinced that this solution is a complete answer to the question in the sense that it solves all the problems around how to evaluate competing systems of belief.  However, I think its a possible partial solution that is worth considering, so I want to explain it briefly here:

Aristotle writes a lot about various types of causes, one of which Aristotle referred to as the final cause or telos.  This cause is the goal of a thing, what it strives to be and to do.  Aristotle believed that all things possess such a telos, something taken for granted for much of the history of Western thought since his time but generally not accepted today.

What is more interesting for our purpose, however, was how Aristotle thought we could discover a thing’s telos and how he thought we could use telos as an evaluative tool.  Aristotle believed that by studying the way in which categories of things functioned we could discover the goal of all the things in that category, and that by discovering this goal we could in turn measure how well an individual specimen of the category accomplished said goal.  So for example, Aristotle studies Greek dramas as a category and determines that their goal is to strengthen virtue through the experience of the emotions aroused by observing the actors on stage (which gives us a closer view of our own lives and selves).  After discovering this goal or telos for Greek dramas, Aristotle could evaluate an individual drama and determine if it was actually accomplishing this goal (or if particular pieces of it were contributing to or detracting from this goal).  Thus, the critical endeavor is in part based on evaluating whether what the thing claimed to do and what it actually accomplished lined up with one another.

I think that such a method has the possibility of helping us to evaluate different systems of belief.    This model could function on numerous levels.  So for example, since I spend a good deal of time studying religion, we can study how Christianity as a whole functions and may perhaps come to the conclusion that the goal of Christianity is to operate as a vehicle for redemption in the relationship between God and humanity and the relationships of people to one another.  Then we can examine if the specific specimen of “contemporary mainline American Christianity” which has been alternatively described recently as moralistic, therapeutic, deism or as indistinguishable from secular liberalism is actually accomplishing this goal (something over which there would be, I’m sure, much debate).  The theory would be that the extent to which the specific function of “contemporary mainline American Christianity” lines up with the broader goal of working for the redemption of humanity to God and one another is the extent to which it stands as worthy of consideration as a viable belief system.

The obvious problem for this method is that there will be debate about what the goal of particular belief systems or disciplines are (not everyone will agree with how I have categorized the goal of Christianity, nor will everyone agree with my characterizations of the goals of philosophy or history, for instance).  So this doesn’t seem to answer all our questions (at least not yet), but its an interesting thought on how one might at least attempt to evaluate various belief systems apart from definitive metaphysical knowledge.

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5 thoughts on “Telos and the Evaluation of Belief Systems

  1. Just some initial off the cuff thoughts: So, it seems like this might be a pragmatic twist on the coherentist idea of truth, where the idea must not only be logically consistent within itself, but must also be consistent in the effects it claims and what it actually effects. Interesting! It wonder, though, if all belief systems could be evaluated with this model. Is it possible that some belief systems do not actually claim to have aims/ends/effects in themselves? Also, it might turn out that even when you can identify a belief-system’s aim, it isn’t possible to determine whether it is being achieved or not (How could one actually evaluate whether Christianity is redemptive?) Further, wouldn’t the evaluative system have to claim some belief-system of its own, which could either beg the question regarding the evaluated belief system (by being similar) or rule it our before the evaluation even happens (by being so dissimilar it cannot account for what the evaluated belief system is claiming).

    1. Thanks for the comment, friend! Some very interesting objections. The first two I think are dead on. My initial reaction to the third objection was to think that this proposal was intended to get around the problem of the evaluative system imposing its own norms on the system in question by making the evaluations hinge on the system in questions own terms (able to deliver on its own claims). But on further consideration I wonder if the objection is actually asking whether such an “evaluation on its own terms” is possible from an outside perspective. Maybe you can elaborate?

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