Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Four approaches to teleology

In his fine book Aristotle, Christopher Shields usefully distinguishes Aristotle’s approach to teleology from two others. Teleological eliminativism is Shields’ label for the view that there is no genuine final causality to be found in the natural order; the atomists Democritus and Leucippus would be two ancient advocates of this view. Teleological intentionalism is his label for the view that there is teleology to be found in the natural order, but only insofar as a divine intelligence has put it there; Anaxagoras would be an ancient representative of this view. Aristotle, as Shields notes, takes an intermediate position: there are final causes inherent in the natural order, but they do not require explanation in terms of a divine ordering intelligence. They’re just there in the nature of things. (This is so, in Aristotle’s view, even though we must affirm the existence of an Unmoved Mover who moves the world as its final cause; for what leads us to the Unmoved Mover is the need to explain motion or change, not the need to explain the existence of final causality per se.)

Andre Ariew, in his article “Teleology” in The Cambridge Companion to the Philosophy of Biology, draws a similar set of distinctions. The materialist, who corresponds to Shields’ teleological eliminativist, denies teleology. The Platonic teleologist, like the teleological intentionalist, affirms teleology but regards it as imposed by a divine intelligence from outside (e.g. by the demiurge of Plato’s Timaeus). The Aristotelian teleologist also affirms teleology but regards it as immanent to the natural order rather than imposed from outside. As Ariew notes, William Paley of “design argument” fame and contemporary Intelligent Design theorists are essentially Platonic teleologists.

These distinctions are very helpful, but they do not exhaust all the possibilities. For as I have noted, Aquinas rejects both Aristotle’s position and that of the Platonic or intentionalist teleologist. His position might be seen as a middle position between theirs. Like Aristotle, and unlike Paley and ID theorists, Aquinas regards final causality as immanent to the natural order. For Paley and ID theory, it is at least possible that natural objects have no end, goal, or purpose; they just think this is improbable. The reason is that they accept an essentially mechanistic conception of nature, viz. one which denies Aristotelian formal and final causes and models the world on the analogy of a machine. The bits of metal that make up a watch have no inherent tendency toward functioning as a timepiece; it is at least theoretically possible, even if improbable, that a watch-like arrangement might come about by chance. And natural objects are like this too: There is nothing inherent in any natural object or system – no essences, natures, substantial forms or anything else corresponding to such Aristotelian-Scholastic categories – by which we might read off final cause or teleology. The world might be like a collection of bits of metal that have by sheer accident come together in the form of something resembling a watch. It’s just that this is so highly improbable – so the argument goes – that the “best explanation” is that some intelligence arranged the bits that make up the world into their present purposive configuration, much as a watchmaker arranges bits of otherwise purposeless bits of metal into a watch.

Like Aristotle, Aquinas will have nothing to do with this picture of nature. For them, the world is not comparable to a machine – that is to say, it is not a complex arrangement of parts which have no intrinsic tendency toward the ends they actually happen to serve, and thus must be forced to do so “from outside” as it were. Rather, all natural substances have essences, natures, or substantial forms, and their final causes are therefore inherent or built-in. For Paley, it at least makes sense to think that the eye (say) might not actually be for seeing. It’s theoretically possible that the fact that eyes tend to result in seeing is an amazing accident. It’s just that, when we weigh the various explanatory alternatives, we find this one so highly improbable that we can rule it out. But for Aquinas, probability has nothing to do with it. The very idea that eyes might not really be for seeing makes no sense and is not even theoretically possible. If eyes are typically associated with seeing, then that can only be because it is in their nature to see. And that in turns entails that their natural end or final cause is seeing. We can know this just by considering eyes themselves, without getting into the question of their origin, divine or otherwise.

Unlike Aristotle, who leaves it at that, Aquinas thinks that the existence of final causes nevertheless requires an explanation, for the reasons sketched in my previous post on teleology; and he also thinks that this explanation must lie – not might lie, not probably lies, but necessarily lies – in the existence of a divine intellect which conserves the order of final causes in being from instant to instant. Here too, Aquinas’s God is not a “watchmaker” god who might have died off in the time that has passed since he finished his work, leaving his finely crafted timepiece to carry on without him. Without the divine ordering intellect, the order of final causes could not be sustained even for an instant.

As usual, the details can be found in The Last Superstition and Aquinas. The point is just that Aquinas’s position cannot be assimilated to that of either Aristotle or Paley. It is, again, a middle ground between them: call it Thomistic teleologism or Scholastic teleologism.

As the latter suggested label perhaps indicates, the situation here might usefully be compared to the debate over the problem of universals. Nominalism and conceptualism are essentially anti-realist positions, regarding universals as artifacts of language or the workmanship of the human understanding rather than having any objective basis. Platonic realism takes universals to exist entirely independently of either the natural world or of any mind. Aristotelian realism takes universals to exist only in the particular things that instantiate them and in intellects which abstract them from these particulars. Scholastic realism – the position of Augustine and Aquinas – takes what is in effect a middle ground position between Platonic and Aristotelian realism. Like the Aristotelian realist, the Scholastic realist affirms that universals can exist only in either their concrete instantiations or in an intellect. But like Plato, he also affirms that they nevertheless have a kind of existence beyond those instantiations and beyond finite, human intellects. For universals pre-exist both the material world and all finite intellects qua ideas in the infinite, divine intellect, as the patterns according to which God creates the world.

Nominalism and conceptualism, in their anti-realism, are comparable to teleological eliminativism, denying the objective existence of the phenomena in question. Aristotelian realism corresponds to Aristotelian teleologism: just as the former affirms universals but regards them as immanent, existing in their instantiations, so too does the latter affirm a kind of teleology, but only one existing immanent to the things that manifest it. Platonic realism corresponds roughly to teleological intentionalism: like Platonic realism, which regards universals as existing entirely separated from the material world, Platonic teleologism affirms teleology, but only as something which strictly speaking exists apart from the world rather than immanent to it. The patterns we observe in the natural world might lead us to postulate the existence of the Platonic Forms, but the Forms are entirely outside the world. Similarly, the order of the natural world might lead us to postulate the existence of Platonic teleology, but strictly speaking such teleology is – for Paley and ID theory, unlike Aristotle – not in the natural world itself but only outside it, in the mind of a designer.

Scholastic realism, then, corresponds roughly to Scholastic teleologism: Universals are immanent to the natural world, and therefore the natures of things can, at least to some extent and in principle, be known and studied without reference to their creator; and this remains true even though any ultimate explanation of universals and the things that instantiate them must make reference to God. Similarly, the final causes of things are immanent to the natural world and can, at least to some extent and in principle, be known and studied without reference to God – despite the fact that their explanation too must ultimately be referred to God.

Insisting on the immanence of universals and final causes is arguably crucial to avoiding the extremes of occasionalism and deism. For if we deny that universals and final causes – and thus natures and causal powers – are inherent to natural objects, then we are likely to conclude either (a) that there are no secondary causes, and God as first cause is really the only true cause of everything that happens, or (b) that since the world can continue to operate without inherent causal powers, it must also be capable of continuing in operation without the continued operation of the first cause. The first, occasionalist option tends in turn to approach pantheism, while the second, deistic option tends to lead to atheism.

I leave for homework the question of whether these inferences are strictly unavoidable – obviously they would need in any event to be fleshed out. Suffice it to say that there are theological as well as philosophical grounds to prefer what I have called the Scholastic position. As I have emphasized in TLS and elsewhere, there are scientific advantages too. For the further we go in the deistic-cum-mechanistic direction, the more we invite Humean skepticism about causality and thus threaten to make science unintelligible. While the further we go in the occasionalist direction, the less the world seems to reflect impersonal and predictable forces and the more it comes to seem in every detail comparable to the unpredictable behavior of a conscious subject – thus making natural science impossible. (As Alain Besançon has argued, a tendency toward an occasionalist conception of divine causality is part of what distinguishes Islam from Christianity – and this is no doubt one reason why natural science progressed in the West and stagnated within the Islamic world.)

23 comments:

Tweetie said...

"For Paley and ID theory, it is at least possible that natural objects have no end, goal, or purpose; they just think this is improbable. The reason is that they accept an essentially mechanistic conception of nature, viz. one which denies Aristotelian formal and final causes and models the world on the analogy of a machine."

I own three and have read two of the books you've written: Philosophy of Mind, Last Superstition, and Aquinas -which I've read several chapters of.

I really do find the references to Paley and the IDers' conceptions of teleology and nature as machine perplexing and, I confess, a little irritating -because the characterizations seem to me not true and more than a little biased. Which is really quite disappointing.

Oh, well....

Edward Feser said...

How, exactly? E.g. do you deny that Paley and IDers regard their inferences as probabilistic?

Anonymous said...

"do you deny that Paley and IDers regard their inferences as probabilistic?"

No. At the same time, it's my understanding that Paley and the IDers thought / think their inference[s] is / are, well, I guess I'd say unambiguous marks of design that man can perceive and apprehend among the myriad more ambiguous marks that can be known by the light of reason. In other words, the universe is designed, the biosphere we inhabit is designed, and there are marks, or signs, of that universal design that may be "scientifically" studied.

Or so it seemeth to me....

tweetie said...

"For Paley and ID theory, it is at least possible that natural objects have no end, goal, or purpose; they just think this is improbable."

It seems to me that Paley and the IDers don't suppose that teleology is more or less probable, but that teleology is real and that it is probable that man can discover marks or signs of that real teleology.

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Francis J. Beckwith said...

Nicely put, Ed.

The Deuce said...

The very idea that eyes might not really be for seeing makes no sense and is not even theoretically possible. If eyes are typically associated with seeing, then that can only be because it is in their nature to see. And that in turns entails that their natural end or final cause is seeing.

If I read this correctly, then under Aquinas's view, it's possible that the eye came about randomly, and wasn't intended for seeing, but is nevertheless for seeing inasmuch as it, by its form or physical nature, sees as opposed to doing something else (much as ice predictably cools things as opposed to doing something else). Am I right about this?

Mike Flynn said...

I read elsewhere once that expecting to find evidence of God in the minute examination of the details of nature is like expecting to find Frank Whittle by examining the components of a jet engine. The existence of Whittle is not an engineering problem; and neither is the existence of God a scientific one. It's not the apparent exceptions that demonstrate design, but the consistent lawfulness of nature. That is, Darwin's "laws" are better support for the Fifth Way than Behe's apparent exceptions. After all, gravity does not account for all motions; electromagnetism is also in play.
Just so, natural selection may not account for everything in biology. That doesn't make theokinetics the only alternative.

The difficulties Paley, Behe, and others have, coming from the mechanistic worldview, is that if material bodies have no innate tendency toward an end, they must be "nudged" toward those ends by an outside agency. Newton thought his universal gravitation required a God to nudge the orbits now and then. (The math describes an unstable system.) This becomes the modernist "God of the Gaps" game, in which theistic mechanists hunt for oddities that "can't be explained" while other mechanists go about explaining them, thus chasing the theists from one pocket to another.

But as then-cardinal Ratzinger wrote, we mustn't imagine creation as a tinkerer at a workbench, but rather in the sense that thought is creative. To have designs on something means to have plans or intentions [ends] for it. It needn't mean engineering drawings or schematics; not when you have commanded that "the earth bring forth" the living things.

Bjørn Are said...

Mike, loved your "Quaestiones super caelo et mundo".

Have you read James Hannam's recent book "God's Philosophers"?

Mike Flynn said...

Bjørn, thank you for the nice words. Did you also read the article that went with it? De revolutione scientiarum in 'media tempestas'? A glorious and likely ill-conceived attempt to imitate a medieval Question.

As for James' book, it arrived in the mail just yesterday, complete with autograph. I had gotten interested in the topic when I was researching for Eifelheim.

thomism said...

St. Thomas's understanding of the relation between teleology in nature and God is clearest in the definition of "nature" that he gives in 2.14 of the Physics: "nature is nothing other than a ratio given to things by the divine art, that the things themselves might act for an end". So far as nature empowers the thing to act of itself and to achieve goods (ends) that are goods solely for itself, nature is autonomous and can be studied as such; but a reference to God is still contained in it by definition. In this way, the relation between the autonomy of nature and the dependence on God is a matter of what part of the definition of nature one chooses to emphasize. The quasi-genus of nature is "getting goods for oneself (actively or passively)" the difference seems to be that this is a mode of participating in the divine; and the difference on top of this is that the participation happens by way of begin in motion.

James C

Bjørn Are said...

Mike, indeed, I read the article as well, very good!

Will any of this also be published in a book any time soon?

John Farrell said...

The difficulties Paley, Behe, and others have, coming from the mechanistic worldview, is that if material bodies have no innate tendency toward an end, they must be "nudged" toward those ends by an outside agency.

Exactly. Which is why Behe puzzles me so much. He needs to read Ed's book on Aquinas.

Mine just came in the mail....

Mike Flynn said...

Bjørn, no book, but there was an article in a UK mag Faith.

+ + +

Behe teaches at a university just up the road from here. Maybe one of these days I should just drop in an ask him.

There are two letters from Behe here that touch on teleology:
http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/03/correspondence-6

http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/07/augustseptember-letters-11

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Sarah said...

Mike Flynn said...

" ... It's not the apparent exceptions that demonstrate design, but the consistent lawfulness of nature."

"The difficulties Paley, Behe, and others have, coming from the mechanistic worldview, is that if material bodies have no innate tendency toward an end, they must be 'nudged" toward those ends by an outside agency. Newton thought his universal gravitation required a God to nudge the orbits now and then.'"

Well. Apparently my question is so cretinous that it doesn't merit an answer, at least not an answer from those who are so certain they're my intellectual superiors. Alrighty then.

St Thomas would never have stooped to so question-beggingly condescending to those with whom he disagreed and neither would Cardinal Ratzinger / Pope Benedict XVI.

So much for that good old Catholic charity and humility.

Edward Feser said...

Hello Sarah,

I don't understand. What question did you ask that no one has replied to? (I don't even see your name on any comment posted above.)

I should say re: my own occasional failure to reply to comments that it owes to nothing more than my being very busy. I apologize to those commenters who sometimes do not receive a reply. Please know that I do read and value every comment (apart from those made by the occasional troll).

Sarah said...

Dr. Feser,

I apologize. My first comment is identified as Tweetie's, the second as Anonymous's, and the third as Sarah's.

I understand that you're a busy person and I didn't and don't expect that because I asked a question you're *obliged* to reply! My no-answer comment addressed the comment of the person who used my question as a pretext to look down his nose at Dr. Behe, et al and begged the question.

I honestly do not understand why ID theory [or Paley's argument, for that matter] is antithetical to St. Thomas's teleological argument.

Aside from the quibble about your reference to Paley's and the IDers' conceptions of nature / teleology, the "four approaches" post is very beautifully written and helpful.

Again, I apologize for the confusion.

Sarah

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Mike Flynn said...

I honestly do not understand why ID theory [or Paley's argument, for that matter] is antithetical to St. Thomas's teleological argument.

Sarah, this may help
http://guweb2.gonzaga.edu/faculty/calhoun/socratic/Tkacz_AquinasvsID.html

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Edward Feser said...

No problem, Sarah. The main point of this post was simply to emphasize the differences between the approaches rather than make the case for their incompatibility.

Are ID theory and an Aristotelian-Thomistic approach incompatible? That depends on what one means by "ID theory." If one means simply "being critical of Darwinism," then, no, of course there is no incompatibility. Nor is the use of probabilistic arguments per se incompatible with A-T. From my POV there are two main problems, though: First, ID theorists seem happy to take for granted a mechanistic approach to nature and want to argue on those terms. No A-T theorist can accept that. Second, the way ID theory tends to model the concept of a "designer" does not sit well with classical theism. And especially when coupled with a mechanistic view of nature -- which implies a certain view about how God is related to nature -- the result is arguably positively incompatible with classical theism and tends instead in the direction of what is sometimes called "theistic personalism" -- something else which no A-T philosopher can accept. I intend to write up a post on this latter topic soon.

CrimsonCatholic said...

Your post here strikes me as getting at the heart of St. Thomas's view, and even St. Augustine's view (although as you noted in the following post, it may be more Augustinism that Augustine). I wonder if you can clear up a problem that I think is persisting in the interpretation of Aquinas.

In the following linked article, David Bradshaw appears to be linking the concept of divine ideas in Augustine and Aquinas explicitly to the self-thinking thought of the Unmoved Mover:
http://www.uky.edu/~dbradsh/papers/Concept%20of%20the%20Divine%20Energies.doc

In particular, Dr. Bradshaw says:
'My interest here is not in the Prime Mover as such, but in what all this implies about the meaning of energeia. In the Prime Mover we have a being which both thinks and is all possible intelligible content, existing as a single eternal and unchanging whole. The intelligible structure of things, however, is what makes them what they are. (This is the familiar doctrine that form is substance, articulated particularly in Metaphysics vii.17.) Thus one could equally say that the Prime Mover is present in all things, imparting—or rather, constituting—their intelligible structure, and thus their being. In light of all this, when we say that the Prime Mover is pure energeia, how ought we to translate that term? Activity? Actuality? Plainly the answer is both—and therefore neither. It seems to me that the closest we can come in English is to say that it is pure energy. Specifically, I have in mind the sense given in the American Heritage Dictionary as “power exercised with vigor and determination,” and illustrated with the phrase, “devote one’s energies to a worthy cause.” But of course no illustration drawn from ordinary objects will be adequate to the notion of a being that is pure energy, an energy that constitutes the being of other things.'

At the same time, let us note that Aristotle assumes that one can sensibly speak of what it is like to be the Prime Mover. For example, he states that its way of life is “such as the best which we enjoy . . . , since its energy (energeia) is also pleasure,” and he goes on to add that it “is always in that good state in which we sometimes are” (xii.7 1072b14-25). Lest we think of the identification of the Prime Mover with energy as a sort of physicalistic reduction, we must remember that it is a being with mental states in some sense analogous to our own. That there is such an analogy is presupposed in the identification of its activity as thought (noēsis), for thinking is something in which we too engage, although in an incomparably more partial and limited way.'

When Dr. Bradshaw subsequently says that "Since the beatific vision is strictly an act of intellect, it is no more a personal act than is the Aristotelian theōria upon which it is modeled," this seems to be what he has in mind.

I take serious issue with that statement, and my argument would be exactly that it blows by the distinction from Aristotle that you pointed out, in that the Unmoved Mover is not an explanation of final causality in Aristotle but it IS in Aquinas. But it also neglects what Aquinas DID take from Aristotle contra Plato, i.e., that the ideas are not independently existent.

While I don't fault what Dr. Bradshaw has said regarding the Eastern interpretation, equating the ideas with Aristotelian energeia and distinguishing them from the essence, I would fervently disagree with the claim that Aquinas is instead simply adopting Aristotle's noetic claims regarding the Prime Mover.

If you have time, I'd be very curious to know your opinion, because as you may well know, Dr. Bradshaw is frequently cited as authoritative for those who reject Catholicism in favor of Eastern Orthodoxy. I personally know of at least one person who has converted to Orthodoxy from Catholicism and at least two others contemplating it, and this seems like a very bad idea if it is based on what seems to be a fundamental error in interpretation.

Thanks for reading,
Jonathan Prejean