Thursday, September 24, 2009

Teleology revisited

Over at his own blog, One Brow (who sometimes comments on this blog) responds to my recent post on the Wright-Coyne-Manzi debate. I appreciate his thoughtful remarks, but I must say that I find his post a bit frustrating. He admits that he has not read The Last Superstition, but puts forward criticisms of its arguments anyway – criticisms that I have already addressed at length in the book! I know that some readers think I drop references to TLS into various blog posts simply as an act of self-promotion; and if it helps to sell a few copies, I certainly don’t mind. But the main point is always to indicate to interested readers where certain issues relevant to the topic of a post have been addressed at greater length. I cannot reasonably be expected to recapitulate the arguments of TLS every time I revisit one of its themes. That’s why people write books: To develop at length arguments and ideas that cannot adequately be dealt with in shorter contexts (e.g. blog posts).

Anyway, one of One Brow’s comments that I would like to address here concerns the central topic of the post to which he is responding, viz. the way in which talk of “algorithms,” “information,” and the like in biology evinces, if it is meant seriously, a tacit commitment to the reality of teleology or final causes. One Brow says:

terms like algorithm and information means [sic] very different things when applied to biological objects or other non-human-created systems than to computer programs. Algorithms are merely cycles enacted and altered by external stimuli and ended, if at all, by other stimuli (possibly external or internal), while information represents how easily a string can be compressed by interpretations [sic] functions that are not aimed specifically at that string. Neither concept has any recognition of teleology or lack thereof, they are statements of content, not purpose.

The problem with what One Brow is saying here – if I understand him correctly, anyway – is that he is just mistaken in assuming that his claims are necessarily inconsistent with the claims I made. And what this reflects is a basic failure to understand what the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) tradition means by “final cause" or “teleology.” (Like Coyne, One Brow seems annoyed that defenders of Aquinas are always complaining that critics don’t understand his arguments. And yet rather than show that the charge is false, the critics’ responses only ever seem to provide further evidence for the charge! What can I say? Don’t blame the messenger, guys…)

Let me make some general remarks about what the A-T tradition does mean, then, before coming back to One Brow’s comment. If you are going to understand Aristotle and Aquinas, the first thing you need to do is put out of your mind everything that you’ve come to associate with words like “purpose,” “final cause,” “teleology,” and the like under the influence of what you’ve read about the Darwinism vs. Intelligent Design debate, Paley’s design argument, etc. None of that is relevant. If you think that what Aristotelians or Thomists mean when they say that teleology pervades the natural world is that certain natural objects exhibit “irreducible specified complexity,” or that some inorganic objects are analogous to machines and/or to biological organs, or that they are best explained as the means by which an “Intelligent Designer” is seeking to achieve certain goals, etc., then you are way off base. I realize that that’s the debate most people – including writers of pop apologetics books – think that arguments like the Fifth Way are about. They’re not. Think outside the box. “What hath Thomas Aquinas to do with William Paley?” Nothing. Forget Paley.

In fact Aristotle and Aquinas are concerned with something far less high-falutin’ than all that. The core of the A-T “principle of finality” can be illustrated with the simplest sort of cause and effect relation you might care to take. As Aquinas sums it up: “Every agent acts for an end: otherwise one thing would not follow more than another from the action of the agent, unless it were by chance” (Summa Theologiae I.44.4). By “agent” he doesn’t mean only conscious rational actors like ourselves, but anything that serves as an efficient cause. For example, insofar as a chunk of ice floating in the North Atlantic tends, all things being equal, to cause the water surrounding it to grow colder, it is an “agent” in the relevant sense. And what Aquinas is saying is that given that the ice will, unless impeded, cause the surrounding water to grow colder specifically – rather than to boil, to turn into Coca Cola, or to catch fire, and rather than having no effect at all – we have to suppose that there is in the ice a potency, power, or disposition which inherently “points to” the generation of that specific effect. That the ice is an efficient cause of coldness entails that generating coldness is the final cause of ice. And in general, if there is a regular efficient causal connection between a cause A and an effect B, then generating B is the final cause of A.

Now already I can hear some readers – for example the sort, like the sands of the sea for multitude, who made snotty and uncomprehending remarks in response to Manzi’s response to Coyne (as you’ll find if you can stomach plowing through Coyne’s combox) – sputtering replies like the following: “So what divine ‘purpose’ is the ice supposed to serve, then? To chill our martinis? To give furriers a market for their products? What superstition! And what about that iceberg that sank the Titanic? What about hypothermia, frostbite, and the ‘brain freeze’ I suffered through the last time I had a Slurpee? Where’s the omni-benevolence of your Flying Spaghetti Monster sky-god now, huh? HUH?!

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Slow down, and calm down. Nobody said anything about either human purposes or divine purposes. Indeed, there is nothing whatsoever in the specific claim under consideration that has anything to do with “purposes” at all, if what is meant by that is the idea that the ice or the coldness serve some end beyond themselves in the way that a bodily organ functions for the good of the organism of which it is a part, or a machine serves the ends of its designer. To be sure, each of the latter examples would involve teleology of a sort; but it is not the sort in question here. The claim so far is only that where there is an efficient causal connection between A and B, then generating B is the final cause of A in the sense that A inherently “points to” B or is “directed at” B as its natural effect. That’s it.

So far, then, nothing has been said about either “design” or a “designer,” because the point has nothing to do with design. Nor does it have anything to do with complexity, “specified” or otherwise. We’re talking about ice here – ice! – not the bacterial flagellum, eyeballs, or any of the other hoary chestnuts of the Darwinism-versus-ID dispute. Indeed, we’re talking about something many naturalistic philosophers have come to endorse in contexts far removed from philosophy of religion or the Darwin wars – albeit without realizing that they are more or less reviving a Neo-Scholastic philosophy of nature. When a mainstream naturalistic philosopher like David Armstrong speaks of the “dispositions” physical objects possess as manifesting a kind of “proto-intentionality,” and when a mainstream naturalistic philosopher like George Molnar argues that the causal powers of material objects exhibit a kind of “physical intentionality,” they are certainly not claiming that there is an intelligent designer who made the world with certain ends in view. But they are (even if unwittingly) more or less stating in modern jargon what the A-T tradition meant by the principle of finality. (As usual, see TLS – and, now, Aquinas – for more.)

As Christopher Martin notes in his important book Thomas Aquinas: God and Explanations, modern philosophers tend to think that, where teleological arguments for God’s existence are concerned, getting from the existence of teleology to the existence of God is easy, but establishing that there really is any teleology in the natural order in the first place is difficult or impossible. But as Martin also notes, this is more or less the reverse of the view taken by thinkers like Aquinas. For Aquinas, it is easy to show that teleology exists; for without it, efficient causation becomes unintelligible. (As I have noted many times, the moderns’ abandonment of final causality is the source of all the puzzles about causation that have plagued modern philosophy since Hume.) What takes work is showing that the existence of teleology entails the existence of God. After all, Aristotle himself, even though he firmly believed both in final causality and in the existence of an Unmoved Mover, did not think that final causality needed an explanation in terms of the Unmoved Mover, or indeed any explanation at all. He took it to be just a fundamental feature of the natural world; his argument for the Unmoved Mover begins instead with the existence of change or motion, not the existence of teleology.

Aquinas disagrees with Aristotle here. But, just as when arguing for the existence of teleology, so too when arguing from the existence of teleology to the existence of God, Aquinas does not appeal to “irreducible complexity,” to the way biological species are adapted to their environment, to the “fine tuning” of the laws of physics, nor to any other of the evidences emphasized by modern proponents of the “design argument.” Nor does he argue from a purported “analogy” between the universe and the products of human design. Nor does he weigh probabilities or argue “to the best explanation.” Again, you need to put Paley and Co. completely out of your mind. And again, the basic idea is much simpler than all that. It is essentially this: For a cause to be efficacious – including a final cause – it has actually to exist in some way. It’s not just that for A to be the efficient cause of B, A must exist – as it obviously must – but also that for B to be the final cause of A, B must also exist, in some sense, otherwise, being nonexistent, it could not be efficacious. Hence for the “coldness” that the ice generates to function as a final cause, it has to exist in some way; for an oak to function as the final cause of an acorn, it too has to exist in some way; and so forth.

Now there are only three options here: B must exist either in the natural world; or in some Platonic heaven, as a Form; or in an intellect which “directs” A towards B as A’s natural end or goal (as a carpenter has the table in his intellect as the end or goal of his hammering and sawing). Now by hypothesis, B does not exist in the natural world: the whole point is that the coldness that the ice will produce, or the oak that the acorn will grow into, have not yet come about but are initially merely “pointed” to by the ice or the acorn. Nor does B exist as a Platonic Form – at least not if, like Aquinas, one endorses moderate (or Aristotelian) realism about universals, instead of Platonic realism. The only place left for B to exist, then, is in an intellect; and it must be an intellect that exists outside the natural order altogether. For the causal relations in question are totally unintelligent: ice and acorns do not have intellects, nor is there any intelligence at the level of the even more fundamental causal processes studied by basic physics and chemistry. And all the intelligence that does exist within the material world – in us, for example – presupposes the operation of these unintelligent causal processes (since the existence of our bodies, and thus of us, presupposes them). So, there is no place left for the intellect in question to be than outside the natural order. That is to say, all the causal relations that exist in the natural order exist at all only because there is an intellect outside the natural order which “directs” causes to their effects.

Obviously this line of argument raises all sorts of questions: Why accept the metaphysical assumptions underlying the argument? Why assume that there is only one such intellect directing efficient causes to their effects, or that it has all the various divine attributes? Why should we believe that an intellect could be something outside the natural order, and thus something immaterial, in the first place? All good questions, and all dealt with in The Last Superstition and (in greater detail) in Aquinas. But the point for now is to give a sense of how very different is the argument summarized in Aquinas’s Fifth Way – and like all the Five Ways, it was only ever meant to be a brief summary, not a self-contained one-stop proof – from Paley’s “design argument.”

In particular, in addition to the differences already noted, there is this crucial one: To reject Paley’s divine designer is ipso facto to reject the “design” Paley claims to see in nature. But to reject Aquinas’s notion of a divine intellect is not ipso facto to reject the existence of teleology. One could instead adopt Aristotle’s view that teleology is just a basic feature of the natural order requiring no explanation. To be sure, this may not be a defensible position at the end of the day – that teleology ultimately entails a divine intellect is precisely Aquinas’s claim. But the point is that, as Aquinas acknowledges and Paley and his successors do not, the inference from teleology to an ordering intelligence is not immediate. There is logical space for an alternative understanding of teleology, and it requires significant philosophical work to rule that alternative out. Establishing the existence of teleology in the natural order is a necessary condition for the success of an argument like the Fifth Way; it is not a sufficient one.

Now, let me return, at last, to One Brow’s remarks. One Brow says that to describe natural selection and other natural processes as “algorithmic” is simply to note that they are “cyclical.” And what he means by this, I gather, is that they embody regular causal patterns (in particular, patterns of what Aristotelians call efficient causation). Competition between species leads to changes in the gene pool, planets tend to orbit stars in patterns roughly conforming to Kepler’s laws, and so forth. But there is, One Brow says, no “purpose” being served by any of this. The purpose of natural selection is not to lead to better organisms, because it has no purpose; and the purpose of planetary orbits is not to generate seasonal changes on the planets themselves, because they have no purpose either. A causes B in a cyclical pattern, with no external purpose being served by that pattern; and that’s that.

If this is what One Brow means, though, he is not saying anything that is incompatible with what I have been saying. For whether natural selection, planetary orbits, or anything else serves a purpose in the sense in question is irrelevant to the existence of teleology. The claim isn’t that the fact that A causes B in a cyclical pattern entails that there is some plan or purpose outside the cycle that the pattern exists in order to further. The claim is that the mere existence of the cycle is all by itself a manifestation of teleology. The argument isn’t “A tends to cause B; therefore there must be some purpose outside of both A and B the realization of which this causal relationship exists in order to further.” It’s rather “A tends to cause B; therefore, causing B must be inherent or natural to A.”

If that claim sounds obvious and trivial, then terrific: You’re starting to understand Aristotle and Aquinas, because it’s supposed to be obvious and trivial. Or rather, it would be trivial if not for three factors: First, if Aquinas is correct, this obvious and seemingly trivial fact cannot be explained unless there is a divine intelligence directing causes to their effects. Obviously that is a substantive claim, not a trivial one. Second, when you work your way up through ever more complex levels of material reality, you find correspondingly more complex manifestations of final causality or teleology, and in the case of human beings this has significant moral implications. (Indeed, from an A-T point of view it is a precondition of there being any such thing as morality at all.) Third, what is obvious and trivial to common sense has become obscured by 400 years worth of intellectual squid ink, as modern philosophers have moved ever farther away from the classical tradition and indulged in ever more bizarre exercises in what P. F. Strawson called “revisionary metaphysics.”

One Brow also denies that attributing “information” to natural processes implies the existence of teleology. But there are two problems with this. First, if he means that “information” in the technical, Claude Shannon sense doesn’t by itself entail semantic content of the sort we associate with purpose, then he’s right, but that doesn’t undermine the claim at issue. For where A carries Shannonian information about B, that is only because there is a causal connection between A and B, so that we are back to the original A-T point that such an (efficient) causal connection presupposes final causality.

Second, it is not at all clear that scientists who speak of “information” and the like really do confine their usage to the narrow, Shannonian sense of the term. As John Searle (among others) has complained for decades now, fast-and-loose computer science and information-theoretic talk pervades contemporary intellectual life, and has afforded materialistic explanations (e.g. of the mind) a specious plausibility they would not have if the relevant terminology was used more precisely. The thing is, some of this talk – that is, some of the talk that attributes something like semantic “information” to material processes – is by no means unmotivated. As Daniel Dennett likes to say, there are “real patterns” in nature underlying the “intentional stance” we find it useful to take toward certain natural phenomena. And that these patterns seem to require an intentional or semantic description is evidence of even richer levels of teleology than the sort I’ve been describing in this post.

Such richer levels of teleology – in complex inorganic systems, in biological phenomena, and in human thought and action – are, from an A-T point of view, certainly real. And they are, of course, the sort that Paley and Co. tend to focus on (though even here their understanding of teleology is very different from the A-T conception). But I have focused on the most rudimentary sort of teleology – the sort manifest in even the simplest causal connections – because that is all that is required for an argument like Aquinas’s Fifth Way.

37 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi,

Interesting post thanks. You mention "proto-intentionality". Is that compatible with "nano-intentionality" as mentioned here?
http://telicthoughts.com/nano-intentionality-and-molecular-autonomous-agents/

Thanks

One Brow said...

Dr. Feser,

Thank you for the polite and considered response. I can certainly appreciate how annoying it is to feel you have outlined yhour ideas completely and compellingly, but no to be able to access their full power in the space of a blog post.

I don't think I had your argument precisely, but I believe I was closer to it than you may have realized. I'll try to get more of my homework done on this before crafting a more serious response.

On the specific point of information, Shannon theory might be a good choice for loooking at how neurons communicate to the next neuron, because it is devoted to information and compression as a transmission. However, for information that resides in a linear storage unit I find Komolgorov-Chaitan information theory to be a better model.

BenYachov said...

>I don't think I had your argument precisely, but I believe I was closer to it than you may have realized.

I reply: I have actually read TLS(unlike some of us). So trust me when I say you where not even close IN ANY WAY.

You are in effect arguing with the Neo-Paley IDer's & wrongly assuming Dr. Feser endorces their flawed philosophical warrents.

>Having read up just a little on what Dr. Feser means by action and potentiality, this strikes me as being pure doggerel.

I reply: "Doggerel" is a derogatory term for verse considered of little literary value. What does literary value have to do with the PROFOUND philosophical differences between A-T classic philosophy vs Mechanistic philosophy?

Fancy pose does not make or break truth & Reason. You just don't have a rational response so you go to your fallback position of radical kneejerk skepticism.

>The questions of why the universe exists and operates the way it does do not ever need to end, and they certainly do not end simply because we have an Unmoved Mover or Uncaused Cause.

I reply: These questions are all very profound but irrelavent to the 5th way as expounded by Aquinas.

If you had read TLS you would know former Atheist turned Deist AJ Flew was profoundly influenced by his rediscovery of Aristotle & the defense of the 5 ways found in the book REDISCOVERY OF WISDOM by Conway.

NONE OF WHICH was ever addressed by his Atheist critics.

This skepticism at all costs meme of yours seems to me to be profoundly anti-intellectual.

George R. said...

"After all, Aristotle himself, even though he firmly believed both in final causality and in the existence of an Unmoved Mover, did not think that final causality needed an explanation in terms of the Unmoved Mover, or indeed any explanation at all. He took it to be just a fundamental feature of the natural world; his argument for the Unmoved Mover begins instead with the existence of change or motion, not the existence of teleology."

I don’t know where your getting that from, Ed. Aristotle knew that, since the final cause was the cause of causes, it was necessarily prior to all matter and agents. Therefore, in his Physics he says that even if one were to assume that the entire cosmos came about by chance, as was the opinion of certain Greek philosophers, nature, i.e. that which is for the sake of an end, and reason, i.e., the intellect conceiving, willing, and ordering toward the end, are necessarily prior.

thomism said...

Doc,

I think you can raise the bet on One Brow's evolution claims too. As you explain teleology, one can say the diversity of the species over time, which is inseparable from any theory of evolution, is a purpose in St. Thomas's sense- and one he happened to insist on. I wrote a post on it today.

(look at me self promote!)

James Chastek

One Brow said...

Ben,

How very kind of you to mention my heterodox word choice, which apparently has left you unable to see any meaning in my paragraph, and to tell me about what I was speaking, even though I said it was otherwise. It's refreshing to see your vacation has not altered you.

Oee of these days you'll have to explain to me why reflexive skepticism is wrong? Should I be reflexively accepting of anything other people write? Or, perhaps, you would recommend the reflexive acceptance of a particular group of people only?

Outside of that, I really didn't see much worthy of a response in your comment. Feel free to fill in some details for your claims sometime, though.

One Brow said...

thomism,

I read your post, and it is an interesting point of view. I'm not sure why it would affect arguments regarding evolution in any fashion. The reasoning yo connect too seems chosen to fit the notion of diversity ratherbeing based on fundamental priciples.

MikeT said...

As John Searle (among others) has complained for decades now, fast-and-loose computer science and information-theoretic talk pervades contemporary intellectual life, and has afforded materialistic explanations (e.g. of the mind) a specious plausibility they would not have if the relevant terminology was used more precisely.

Indeed. If most of them actually understood Computer Science to the degree that even most undegrads do, they would understand how phenomenally complicated the human body, especially brain, is from an algorithmic perspective.

What I find amusing is that they know enough to throw around words like algorithm, information, etc., but not enough to know other terms like "concurrency" and "hard real-time." The human brain is a massively powerful, highly concurrent hard real-time system if you want to delve deeper into Computer Science terminology.

BenYachov said...

>How very kind of you to mention my heterodox word choice, which apparently has left you unable to see any meaning in my paragraph, and to tell me about what I was speaking, even though I said it was otherwise. It's refreshing to see your vacation has not altered you.

I reply: Your words above are high prose & are beaming with literary merit but as per usual are absent of any intelligent design(pun intended) or substance. My vaction as not altered me in the slightest. I still have unlimited contempt for ignorance & sophistry.

>Oee of these days you'll have to explain to me why reflexive skepticism is wrong? Should I be reflexively accepting of anything other people write? Or, perhaps, you would recommend the reflexive acceptance of a particular group of people only?

I reply: Rather skepticism should be governed by reason & knowlege not kneejerk reflex. If Dawkins says that A=B in the theory of evolution it is more reasonable to suppose he is right vs Ray Comfort(who knows nothing of evolution) saying A does not = B in TTOE.

That's just common sense. Why is that so hard?

One Brow said...

Ben Yachov,

Thank you for your heart-felt words regarding me and my prose, and I will absolutely value your words with all the esteem that is their due.

I agree that people who have deeply studied an issue, and shown competence in understanding its ideas, are desrving of more respect than those who have have met neither criterion. I certainly hope Dr. Feser, as an example, has not felt my disagreements have meant that I think he is anything less than a thinker of high caliber and a highly knowledgable person, with whom I have some disagreements nonetheless. I know I am learning more from him in this area than he is ever likely to learn from me.

George R. said...

Ed,

To reinforce what I said above, let me quote another passage from Aristotle, in which he determines how things that are by chance inhere in things that are by nature:

It is clear then that chance is an incidental cause in the sphere of those actions for the sake of something which involve purpose, Intelligent reflection, then, and chance are in the same sphere, for purpose implies intelligent reflection. (Physics, Book II) [my emphasis]

Surely Aristotle understood that teleology in things was not “just a fundamental feature of the natural world;” for he not only argues that purpose implies intelligence, he even uses it as a principle of demonstration.

UnBeguiled said...

Dr Feser,

If you have the time and inclination, I would be interested in your thoughts on this short post on metaphysics by Massimo Pigliucci.

http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2009/09/ah-metaphysics.html

BenYachov said...

One Brow,

No argument there.

Eric said...

Professor Feser,

Excellent post! Very helpful indeed.

By the way, I just picked up my copy of 'Aquinas' and am looking forward to getting through much of it this weekend.

"I know that some readers think I drop references to TLS into various blog posts simply as an act of self-promotion; and if it helps to sell a few copies, I certainly don’t mind."

Ah, then you'll be happy to hear that TLS was mentioned by Justin Brierley on his UK radio show 'Unbelievable' two weeks ago when he read my e-mail on the air. I can see it now: in no time we'll have 'TLS: The Movie' and Aquinas action figures!

Edward Feser said...

Hello George,

Yes, the final cause is the cause of causes, and chance presupposes nature and thus final causality. I'm not sure why you think that much conflicts with anything I said. The claim was not that final causality is not central to our explanations of natural phenomena -- of course it is, indeed that was my whole point -- but rather that final causality itself does not in turn need, in Aristotle's view anyway, an explanation in terms of a divine intelligence. That's not something I made up; that's just the standard understanding of Aristotle. He was wrong about this, in my view, but that was his view.

Re: the passage you quote, as the context makes evident, the "purposes" he is talking about are the sorts of ends involved in human action, which do of course presuppose intelligence. He's not talking about final causality in inanimate nature, which he definitely would not claim presupposes intelligence.

Edward Feser said...

Hello anonymous,

At a brief glance it looks like "nano-intentionality" is in the same ballpark, but I'd have to read these folks more carefully to say for sure.

Thomas said...

George,

I think we have to be careful about taking that part out of context. The Physics does not at all say that the Unmoved Mover consciously sets out the ends at which things aim. It seems to be the other way around; all things, insofar as they are actual, participate in pure act (that is to say, God), and are most actual when they contemplated reflectively. However, the things at which they aim typically arises out of the activity by which they hold themselves in being; that is, the ends of a thing proceed directly from the sort of thing they are, rather than being "assigned" by God (though I'm not sure that's a fair way to characterize Aquinas).

George R. said...

Ed wrote:

Re: the passage you quote, as the context makes evident, the "purposes" he is talking about are the sorts of ends involved in human action, which do of course presuppose intelligence. He's not talking about final causality in inanimate nature,

I’ll concede that an argument can be made to defend that interpretation; so I’ll leave that passage aside for now.

But I'm not done yet: At the end of Chapter 6 in Book II Aristotle writes:

Now since nothing which is incidental is prior to what is per se, it is clear that no incidental cause can be prior to a cause per se. Spontaneity and chance, therefore, are posterior to intelligence and nature. Hence, however true it may be that the heavens are due to spontaneity, it will still be true that intelligence and nature will be prior cause of this All and of many things in it besides.

Now if Aristotle supposed that nature did not imply intelligence, why would he consider both nature AND intelligence to be prerequisite for the heavens to form spontaneously? Wouldn't nature alone have sufficed? Might it not be because he understood that nature depends on intelligence?

Edward Feser said...

Hello George,

As the context of that passage makes clear, Aristotle is talking about spontaneity vs. chance at all levels of material reality, not just the universe as a whole. (Cf. the charming example a little earlier on about the guy who takes a walk in order to loosen his bowels but fails to do so.) And what he is saying is that spontaneity and chance are less fundamental than intelligence and nature. He isn't saying that in every single case it is both nature and intelligence that underlie chance and spontaneity.

Indeed, in the sentence just before the passage you quote, he says "Spontaneity and chance cause outcomes which either intelligence or nature _could_ have caused, but which on this occasion have a coincidental cause" (Waterfield translation, emphasis in the original). Notice he says "intelligence OR nature": sometimes it's intelligence (as in the deliberate choices of human beings) and sometimes its nature (as in the acorn growing into the oak because it is in its nature to do so). And sometimes it might be both (as when we deliberately choose something that we're naturally inclined to choose). But they needn't in his view always go together. Certainly he is not saying anything at all in this section to the effect that a thing's having a nature in the first place must itself be explained in terms of a divine ordering intelligence. The question of why things have natures just isn't what is at issue.

Conor H. said...

One Brow,

As a regular reader of this blog, I for one would like to thank you for your dissenting comments and, moreover, for your unfailingly civil tone. While I disagree with quite a bit of what you've written--especially within "The Illusion of Plausibility" post-- never once have I seen you resort to invective or bomb-throwing; and though I believe your arguments incorrect, they are always made in good faith. Your gracious response to Dr. Feser's post is but the latest testament to your good character. The blogosphere could use more like you.

Conor H. said...

As an addendum to the above comment, One Brow, I can't reccomend Dr. Feser's "The Last Superstition" enough. If the final two chapters of that book won't convince you of the falsity--nay, incoherence--of the "naturalistic" world-view, nothing will. It certainly certainly convinced this devourer of pop-sci volumes (i.e. Zimmer, Dawkins, and, to a lesser extent, Davies) that such books were 25% hard science, 75% metaphysics.

George R. said...

Aristotle:
Hence, however true it may be that the heavens are due to spontaneity, it will still be true that intelligence and nature will be prior cause of this All and of many things in it besides.


Dr. Feser:
As the context of that passage makes clear, Aristotle is talking about spontaneity vs. chance at all levels of material reality, not just the universe as a whole.

It is obvious that in this sentence Aristotle is referring primarily to the universe as a whole (“the heavens“ and “this All“), and only secondarily (as an afterthought) to the things in it; and he is explicitly requiring that intelligence be prior to the former. I do not see how one can give this sentence a contrary meaning.

Moreover, where he speaks of either intelligence OR nature being causes, he is using the word “intelligence” in a different sense. In these cases, it is the kind of intelligence that exists IN nature, along with nature; and in this sense nature does not depend on intelligence. Absolutely speaking, however, nature depends utterly on intelligence.

Lastly, why is it, do you think, that Aristotle is always saying that nature is just like human art (“like a doctor doctoring himself“)? How could they be so much alike if intelligence was the cause of one but not the other? What’s worse, you seem to argue that Aristotle thought that nature might not have had any cause at all! No, surely he knew that intelligence was the cause of both; but the supernatural intelligence was not explicitly discussed because it fell outside the subject-genus of his Physics.

UnBeguiled said...

"Competition between species leads to changes in the gene pool"

Nearly right.

Changes to a gene pool occur because of competition within a species, not between species. As Gazelles get faster, so do cheetahs, yes. But the gazelles compete with each other to get their genes into the next generation, not with cheetahs.

It is not so important that a gazelle outrun a cheetah, as it is the gazelle outrun his herd mates.

(This aside correction in no way impacts Dr. Feser's argument.)

(If I was hiking in the woods with Dr Feser, and a grizzly bear started chasing us, I would run. Not expecting to outrun the bear, that would be foolish. I just need to outrun Dr. Feser.)

One Brow said...

Conor H.,

Thank you for the kind words. I'll have to see what I can do about obtaining a copy of TLS, if for no other reason than to make sure I understand the context of the discussion as well as possible. I can't simply purchase one at this time, unfortunately.

Right now, it seems like two of the main arguments outlined in the book that I would have an issue with are the impossibility of an infinite chain of contemporaneous causes and the pre-existence of the effect (as a potential) be necessary for the efficiency of the cause. In particular, I am always dubious of arguments set up as a dilemma or a trilemma. However, I'm going to think about these issues more before I comment further.

Edward Feser said...

Hello George,

First of all, I do not think you are reading that passage carefully enough. Take Waterfield’s translation, which is, I think, a little clearer:

“The upshot of this is that however much spontaneity is the cause of the universe, intelligence and nature are bound to be more primary causes; and this applies not only to the universe, but also to plenty of other things as well.”

Now, is his subject here the specific question of what accounts for the universe considered as a whole? And is he saying that there is a sense in which “spontaneity is the cause of the universe” considered as a whole, even if not the ultimate cause? Surely not; he would not say that the universe as a whole was in any sense caused by spontaneity (whatever that would mean), either in time (since he thinks the universe had no beginning) or continuously (since he doesn’t think the Unmoved Mover moves the world as a whole through spontaneous events – again, whatever that would mean).

No, evidently, the words “however much spontaneity is the cause of the universe” are elliptical for “however much spontaneity is the cause of [things that happen within] the universe” or maybe for “however much spontaneity is the cause of the universe [and/or things that happen within it].” And in the same way, “intelligence and nature are bound to be more primary causes” is elliptical for “intelligence and nature are bound to be more primary causes [of things that happen within the universe]” or maybe for “intelligence and nature are bound to be more primary causes [of the universe and/or things that happen within it].” In other words, he isn’t talking here about the question of what causes the universe as a whole, whether it must be a divine ordering intelligence, etc. His subject is rather (as we might put it today) whether randomness in its different forms is a more basic feature of the universe than order or goal-directedness, and he is denying that it is. The question of why this is so – is it because of a divine ordering intelligence, etc? – is not on the table here.

Second, you undermine your own case when you say that there is a sense of “intelligence” in Aristotle in which “Intelligence … exists IN nature, along with nature; and in this sense nature does not depend on intelligence.” For your argument was originally that the use of the word “intelligence” in this passage entailed that Aristotle must think that a divine intelligence is the ultimate explanation of the existence of final causes. And now you’re acknowledging that “intelligence” need not refer to an ordering intellect after all, but rather merely to something internal to an unthinking natural object or process.

Third, we are in any event now getting well away from the subject. My claim was that Aristotle, unlike Aquinas, does not think that the existence of final causes per se points to a divine ordering intelligence. My claim was NOT that Aristotle does not think, at the end of the day, that the world as a whole is explained by a divine intelligence. Of course he thinks that: He argues, after all, for an Unmoved Mover, and he thinks of the Unmoved Mover as intelligent. But he argues for this conclusion on the basis of motion, not on the basis of final causes. So let’s cut to the chase: Are you claiming that Aristotle endorses an argument like Aquinas’s Fifth Way, specifically? Because that’s all I’m denying – and, as I’ve said, this is not some novel view of mine, but just the standard understanding of Aristotle.

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Bobcat said...

"why is DI monotheistic, rather than manichean, polytheist, pantheist, etc etc? EF doesn't really address that"

Actually, he does, in TLS. In brief, the only candidate to serve as a DI is pure act, and there would be nothing to individuate one pure act from another; hence, there can only be one "thing" that is pure act, and so the DI, for which something that is pure act can be the only candidate, must be unitary.

George R. said...

Ed,

Just to clarify what I meant when I said that Aristotle usually used the term “intelligence” in the sense of that intelligence that is found “in nature” and “along with nature,” I was referring to human intelligence. This is the kind of intelligence that is found in the natural world. I was not suggesting that nature itself possessed intelligence.

Regarding your question of whether I believe Aristotle endorses an argument like Aquinas’s Fifth Way specifically, I’d respond that, while he may never have explicitly made the same argument in his extent writings, it is by light of his own principles that Thomas’s conclusion is made evident.

Besides, it always seemed to me that whenever Aristotle discussed purpose in nature, he was always implying divine intelligence.

Anonymous said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s5c06mFPFLM&feature=related

(watch from 1:38-end)

I wanted to hear some reactions to the comments made in this video by this this repudiable living scholar on Plato and Aristotle. Specifically on his remarks about the lack of compatibility with Aristotelianism and modern scientific inquiry. A bit of a side note here, I remember watching this exact clip when I was younger but did not have a clue what they were talking about. My father had these shows on tape and I remember sitting down and watching them with him and asking him, "Do you even understand what these guys are talking about?"


(Christopher)

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Dianelos Georgoudis said...

Ed Feser explains that according to A-T if an efficient cause A (e.g. ice) points to or tends to cause a final cause B (e.g. colder water around it) then, if A exists then B must also exist *in some sense*. I think this is obviously true. Now, Ed continues, “by hypothesis, B does not exist in the natural world: the whole point is that the coldness that the ice will produce [has] not yet come about but [is] initially merely ‘pointed’ to by the ice”. But why can’t a naturalist argue that B exists in the natural world in the sense that it is present in the low temperature of the ice as well as in the natural law about the diffusion of heat? A Thomist may argue that this is not the “sense” they had in mind, but the naturalist may argue that this is the sense they had in mind when they agreed that if A points to B then B exists “in some sense”. And if the Thomist insists that the only sense of existence allowed is of actual existence, then the naturalist may respond that B does not at all exist in this sense.

Perhaps Ed’s argument is that we shouldn’t evaluate A-T from the point of view of naturalism, but from the agnostic point of view. But to do this we should compare A-T’s view according to which final causes exist in actuality, to naturalism’s view according to which they don’t exist in actuality. After reading TLS it seems to me that Ed’s argument then is not so much that A-T’s premises are superior to naturalism’s premises by themselves, but that they turn out to be superior when one considers how well a philosophy built on A-T’s premises works when compared to a philosophy built on naturalism’s premises. But if this is Ed's argument then his current post is misleading, because it tries to justify A-T's premises by themselves.

One Brow said...

Well, I've acquired a copy of TLS. I've finished the preface and started the first chapter. I'll be doing a series of articles on it, I think. Expect the first in a couple of days.

Tony said...

Dr. Ed,

I am puzzled about one aspect of your argument. Consider the final cause of ice in the ice making the surrounding water cooler: does the existence or non-existence of a natural being matter in this discussion? I mean, it is a heck of a lot more obvious in talking about an acorn, which as a natural entity has a unity of being, than it is about, say, a rock. The rock can be cut in half without changing anything critical about it, because it has no internal cause of unity - it is one only in an accidental sense. It has no nature as a rock. Therefore, any action the rock does it does in reality by reason of all of the parts of the rock doing them, not because some underlying "oneness" pervading the rock urges the rock toward some end.

Unfortunately for your example, ice appears to be in just the same condition. A lump of ice is not an integral whole. What "it" does as a lump to cool the surrounding water is really the aggregate of what its parts do. But the problem here is that heat is understood simply as the average kinetic energy of the molecules. So if the cooling that the lump of ice does is in reality reducible to simply the average lower kinetic energy of its constituent molecules compared to the surrounding, what do we say about the final cause here? Do we say that each lower-speed molecule has a final cause of imparting a lowering of speed to another higher-speed molecule? This seems a stretch as an account of final cause. Especially when the average observed consists of a lot of outlier events, such as a low-speed molecule hitting a still lower speed molecule once in 10 times, as well as hitting a higher-speed one 9 in 10 times.

Do we have to stick to the natures of things that have natures in talking about final cause?

Edward Feser said...

Hi Tony,

Check out the discussion between Lydia, Bobcat, and me in the combox to the mirror post over at the What's Wrong With the World blog, where we get into this very topic:

http://www.whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2009/09/teleology_revisited.html

One Brow said...

The first part of the review is posted.

Tony said...

Yeah, I read that, and I still wasn't quite sure the point was clear. I think that the issue would be much clearer by speaking of something that does have a nature, and an aspect of its operative powers that hang on that nature. Ice has the nature of water whether it is a big lump or small lump, so if the ice tends to do something in virtue of its being water, then the teleology will be more manifest than the example of the lump of ice cooling its surrounding.

Take a lead pipe. It's nature as lead is what makes it softish (and it doesn't matter how big or small a sample you have, it retains the same characteristic), so something it does in virtue of that soft-metal character is something we can speak of in connection with the final cause for the lead's acting.

The whole thing becomes even more clear when you involve living things, because they clearly have a principle of unity as well as an irreducible unit that is visible and known. If you stick to plants, then the false identification of final cause as intention does not arise.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dr. Feser! I wonder if you've seen this documentary called "OBJECTIFIED"? It seems to touch a bit about material causes and final causes. Here's a short clip http://youtu.be/J_9n0SIxO6c