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Teleological Measurements

Measuring Life Activities

By Thomas M. Miovas, Jr.



Within Objectivism, the term “teleology” refers to the fact that some things that exist are alive and capable of acting towards sustaining their lives by a process of acting towards a goal (the means) to further promote their life (ends). It does not apply to the universe as a whole, since there is no evidence the universe is alive and acting towards anything, and it doesn’t apply to some sort of historical force in man’s life as if all of history is aimed at achieving some end. The term teleology basically identifies the fact that a living entity must act in a manner consistent with its nature in order to gain values so that it can continue to live its life. Ayn Rand gave the basic identification of life as self-sustaining, self-generative action; in other words, a thing is alive if it is capable of acting in a manner to promote its continued existence. At this time, this only applies to biological entities, as no one has come up with any sort of artificial life, like a self-repairing robot of some sort. By the very nature of life, to stop acting towards the goal of living one’s life is to begin a process of decay, at least for man. While some living beings can go into a state of suspended animation or hibernation and metabolic shut-down, man is incapable of doing this and must continuously act towards the goal and purpose of living his own life by pursuing those things which are life-promoting.

In her discussion of teleological measurements – the method of measuring if something is promoting its own life or not – Ayn Rand settles on one fundamental means or standard by which to judge teleological processes : Does the living entity gain more time to live its life by doing what it does? Because life is self-sustaining and self-generative action, and because time is a measure of motion or action (from Aristotle), she integrates the concept of life and of time and realizes that time is the most fundamental way of measuring if something is alive or not. So long as it still has time to promote its life and can go through the process of generating the actions necessary to live its life, then it is still alive.

While time is the more fundamental means of measuring life processes, there are certainly a whole host of means of measuring living processes. For example, for man, one can measure profitability of a business enterprise and realize that to make a profit is to live one’s life. Or one can measure the calories taken in versus the calories used up versus calories still remaining to be used. Or one can measure the energy / power still available after acting to gain a value and what one gets out of having that value in terms of joules or other energy / power units of measurement. Or one could find other means of finding a suitable means of measuring the action of gaining / keeping a value and what one gets out of it, such as the pleasure of enjoying a great work of art. However, as Ayn Rand points out in another article on inflation, whatever means are used to achieve a value and to promote one’s life, it still takes a certain amount of time to engage in that life promoting activity and it takes a certain amount of time to get ahead of the cost curve, making time the fundamental consideration of all living activities.

One thing that has to be realized about any type of integrated to the facts philosophy, such as Objectivism, is that a range of integrated measuring units are involved in figuring out anything having to do with living one’s life. But as with any other measuring system, the units of measurement are convertible into one another readily with the right terms of conversion. For example, given the amount of money I make at my job, I can say it costs me about one half hour to be able to afford a fast food lunch. So, one can take the dollars earned per hour, and the cost of the item into account, and figure out how much time one must work in order to be able to have lunch; and by eating that lunch, one can live for many hours if not days (in emergencies) without dying of starvation. Similarly, if one knew the exact amount of calories one burns by doing life promoting activities, one could convert the units of calories into units of time, and say that one takes a certain amount of time to gain / burn / save calories in order to act towards one’s goals.

The point is that while Miss Rand settled on time as the primary measure of motion for living entities, this unit of measurement can easily be converted into the other ones, so it is not as if she was saying we can measure life activities in units of time and only units of time. It’s just that time is a non-scientific unit of measurement and familiar to everyone, whereas calories and energy and joules and other units are more scientific and require a specialized knowledge, which isn’t necessary to make a valid philosophical point.

But man is more than just a physically living entity. He needs more than just bodily sustenance in order to live his life. Man has a consciousness – he is aware of existence and aware of the state of his body; and his consciousness is volitional, one must engage one’s mind intentionally and by a direct act of will. A man living his life is not automatic short of his physical metabolic processes; he must decide to continue to live his life, and the primary motivation of him living his life is the pleasure he gets from living his life and enjoying his life-promoting values. A man incapable of enjoying anything would not have the desire to continue to live. And it is by means of the pleasure pain mechanism that a man can directly experience his state of living; if he is living well, he feels pleasure, if he is not living well, he feels pain. And it is the experiencing of pleasure that leads him to want to continue to live his life. This gives rise to yet another unit of measurement, the aspect of feeling pleasure at achieving a life-promoting value.

In essence, since man is alive and has a volitional consciousness, the effort or time necessary to gain or keep values that promote one’s life can be measured in two broad ranges of units: time and pleasure. That is, one can measure the added time / energy one has to continue to live one’s life after gaining a value, or one can measure the pleasure promotion necessary to continue to want to live one’s life after gaining a value. For man, enjoying one’s life while in the process of living one’s life and seeking those values is crucial so that he will be motivated to continue to live his life – thus projecting future activity of living one’s life in terms of the desire to continue to live. But even this can be converted into time, as in the idea that one would want to feel the pleasure of having that value in one’s life for a very long time – i.e. one would want to kiss one’s lover for an extended period of time since it is an enjoyable experience; or one would want to have that perfect statue in one’s living room for a very long time due to what it leads one to contemplate and to enjoy in that contemplation. So, I think in all cases, converting the units of measurement into time is possible.

Using time to measure life processes is a universal approach to measuring life promoting activities because it takes time to gain values, it takes time to utilize them, and it takes time to enjoy them properly.

For a great book that discusses the metaethics of various types of ethics, I would recommend "Viable Values" by Tara Smith. metaethics is the relationship between one's conception of reality and one's ethics.