Thursday, February 4, 2010

Spaemann on teleology

One of the main themes of The Last Superstition is the delusional character of the moderns’ project of banishing teleology or final causality from our conception of the natural world. As I argue in the book, not only have there never been any good arguments in favor of this project, there are powerful arguments against it, and I try to show how developments in contemporary philosophy and science only reinforce the judgment that irreducible teleology exists in nature from top to bottom.

It is the “top” level, though – that is to say, the level of human thought and action – that has always posed the most obvious barrier to a thoroughgoing teleological eliminativism. Consider this passage from Robert Spaemann’s recent essay “The Unrelinquishability of Teleology” (in Ana Marta González, ed., Contemporary Perspectives on Natural Law):

De-teleologization is inconclusive because it is itself a human endeavor and therefore it is oriented towards aims. If the intentionality of human action is a victim of anti-teleological reductionism, then any theory, including the reductionist theory, will fall, as a systematic misinterpretation of itself. Nietzsche was conscious of this consequence. He considered that the end of the idea of truth had arrived, and an era of new myths had begun.

If we consider that authentic teleology, in the sense of Konrad Lorenz’s concept of fulguration, is not a fundamental category, but an emerging property, non reducible to its conditions of origin, then we must ask ourselves when this property appears for the first time. Normally, the answer is that it appeared with conscious human action. But this is misleading. Conscious action only takes place as a secondary appropriation or rejection of tendencies that have, first, a character of instinctive impulse. We are not stones that will and act; we are living beings that will and act. The decision to eat or fast is simply the conscious appropriation or rejection of that which is forewarned in hunger, and also somehow in the way of ‘tending-towards’. And wherever we go to aid non-human life, it behaves in a similar way. One can only aid a being that directs itself towards something, but is too weak to reach it. There is only teleology in human action because and insofar as there is a direction in natural tendency. (pp. 292-93)

The first paragraph summarizes the point well. Human action is inherently teleological – and this includes the mental activity of trying to come up with a way to banish teleological notions from our conception of human action. Hence the very attempt completely to banish teleology is self-undermining. Some philosophers have, of course, tried to show that human action need not be understood in teleological terms, but these attempts face insuperable difficulties, as Scott Sehon and G. F. Schueler have argued in two important recent books.

But even if such an attempt could succeed, we would still be left with human thought and the intentionality or “directedness” of the mind beyond itself that is its hallmark. Since to deny that there is any irreducible teleology in nature just is to deny that there is any inherent “directedness” beyond themselves in material objects and processes, a consistently anti-teleological position will necessarily be an eliminative materialist one, denying the existence of the mind itself. As we have recently seen, naturalists like Alex Rosenberg realize this. What they don’t realize, or don’t want to realize, is that their position is utterly incoherent (and that studiously avoiding words like “belief” changes this not one whit, as we saw here and here). As Spaemann puts it, such theories “systematically misinterpret themselves”; in this case, they present themselves as “scientific,” as “rational,” as best “supported” by the “evidence,” etc. – even though these very concepts too must be abandoned if we deny intentionality. Indeed (as Spaemann also notes, following Nietzsche) truth itself must be abandoned, and we are left with “new myths” – for instance, myths about “successor concepts” that will replace “truth,” “meaning,” “mind,” etc. in some glorious neuroscientific future that the eliminativist himself does not claim to be able to describe. This is even less plausible than Marxist tosh about how new communist man will “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticize after dinner” – and even more intellectually and morally corrupting.

Spaemann’s second paragraph is particularly interesting, though. Here he makes the important point that it will not do for the anti-teleologist even to concede that “directedness” exists at the level of human thought, while denying that it exists elsewhere. For at least where conscious choices are concerned, they are typically made against the background of pre-existing tendencies – that is to say, pre-existing instances of “directedness” – that are not chosen, and which we either consent to or resist only after they come into being. For example, I am aware of a desire for food that arises from a source outside of my control before I choose whether or not to act to get food or instead act to suppress the desire. The “directedness” of the desire exists before the “directedness” of the act I choose, and the former directedness also exists elsewhere in the animal kingdom even if the latter does not.

As Spaemann goes on to note, however, human beings and even the biological realm in general are by no means the only loci of irreducible natural teleology, since (as I also discuss at length both in TLS and in Aquinas, and have touched on in earlier posts) “the connection of causa finalis and causa efficiens is unrelinquishable. The concept of cause, in general, falls together with the concept of finality.” (p. 293) In other words, wherever A is the efficient cause of some effect or range of effects B, that can only be because generating B is the final cause of A. Otherwise there is no reason why A should generate B specifically rather than C, D, or no effect at all, and efficient causation becomes unintelligible – as indeed it did in modern philosophy, as the puzzles raised by David Hume make evident. (Again, see the works cited above for the full story.)

Spaemann notes as well that the concept of a persisting subject goes too once we abandon teleology, citing in illustration the bizarreries of Derek Parfit’s work on personal identity (and once again echoing themes from TLS). So too, Spaemann argues, does the concept of motion. No surprise at all to those who know their Aristotle, and in particular the theory of act and potency – closely allied to the notion of final cause, and still a live issue today, even if not always under that label. There is no end to the madness that follows from denying the existence of ends in nature.

38 comments:

bgc said...

This is an extremely important issue.

It is terribly diffcult to be sure what has been and is going-on in science - especially due to the time lag between something happening (like teleology being abandoned) and its working-through to the point of becoming visible and having consequences. This is obscured by overlapping human generations, and the sheer inertia of such a large social system.

But I sense that the removal of teleology has left a vacuum which is being occupied by whatever powers are dominant outside of science. That the elimination of teleology is unsustainable at a practical level (as well as being philosophically incoherent) - because humans are teleological beings they _will_ have a teleology; and if this does not come from within science, it will come from outside science.

Currently it has been normalized, in mainstream circles, that the direction and nature of science ought rightly to be determined by funding availability. This sounds odd, but for some decades, scientists have been primarily evaluated by their ability to attract research grant income, rather than by the validity of their scientific work.

In other words, the funders of science are implicitly acknowledged as rightfully controlling science. And this is precisely what happens. The whole direction and texture of science has come to reflect the (increasingly short-termist) needs of the big funders - government and various large commercial organizations such as pharmaceutical and equipment manufacturers.

This is a Chestertonian point: You cannot get teleology out of science - you can only replace one kind of teleology with another.

Dan said...

"There is no end to the madness that follows from denying the existence of ends in nature."

"I am not obsessive"

Takes one to know one?

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

On the one hand materialism sponsors abolition of teleology, on the other hand evolutionists tend to gloss over any technical difficulty (in the causa efficiens) by appealing to teleology (causa finalis) for an evolution.

Jime said...

In this interview, Richard Dawkins tries to explain "purposes" in biology and its difference with purposes in psychology:

When asked about his use of the term "purpose" in the case of DNA, he said:

'Purpose', of course, doesn't mean purpose in the same way that the purpose of switching on a kettle is to make a cup of tea... that is a feeling of a goal in mind. I want a cup of tea, so I'm going to put the kettle on.

The purpose of a bird's wing is to keep the bird aloft. It's a different kind of purpose, because it's not cognitively thought out. What it really means is that the bird's ancestors that had wings did, in fact, stay aloft. It was a good thing to do, so they had more children and so their descendants inherited the same wings.

More fundamentally, to say that the purpose of all life is to pass on their DNA means that all living things are descended from a long line of successful ancestors, where success means they have passed on their DNA. So, they are all very good at passing on their DNA and they all contain organs, apparatus, which can best be understood as fulfilling a purpose of propagating DNA. It doesn't mean that anybody actually sat down and thought that purpose out.


http://www.damaris.org/content/content.php?type=5&id=102

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

There he is explaining apparent purpose by "purposefulness" or "good-at-somethingness" of accidental previous results.

In other contexts an evolutionist may explain away apparent inexplicability of a series of accidents by the "purposefulness" or "good-at-somethingness" of future results.

Anonymous said...

I'm always amazed when people consider God-of-the-Gaps an adequate explanation.

Occasional Commentator said...

Anonymous @10:40,

And I'm always amazed when anonymous naturalists spout trite phrases and think they've scored some devastating point. Please, point out any "god of the gaps" reasoning in the post--assuming you actually read it, that is. I swear, Russian spambots have more substance than some of you clowns.

オテモヤン said...
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Jime said...

Professor Feser, in TLS you mention that "Forms follow function", and you give this example:

"The final cause of a thing is also the central aspect of its formal cause; indeed, it determines its formal cause. For it is only because a thing has a certain end or final cause that it has the form it has -- hence hearts have ventricles, atria, and the like precisely because they have the function of pumping blood" (p. 70)

It seems to suggest that final causes are temporally, logically and metaphysically previous to the formal cause.

In other words, the final cause has to exist FIRST (temporally, logically or metaphysically)than the formal cause.

My question is if it's actually compatible with the Darwinian account of evolution.

You have argue that it's compatible in several posts, but if the final cause of a heart (pumping blood) determines the configuration of atria, ventricules, etc. (the form), then it seems improbable that evolution will produce, by chance alone, precisely the forms or structures corresponding to the final cause of a heart.

Or perhaps final causes and formal causes are temporally simultaneous, even if final causes are metaphysically or logically previous to the forms?

I mean, if "forms follow function", the concept of "follow" in this context is purely logical and metaphysical, or it's also temporal?

Dan said...

From Wikpedia: According to Lamarck's long-discredited theory of evolution, anatomy will be structured according to functions associated with use; for instance, giraffes are taller to reach the leaves of trees. By contrast, in Darwinian evolution, form (variation) precedes function (as determined by selection).

From TLS: The final cause of a thing is also the central aspect of its formal cause; indeed, it determines its formal cause. For it is only because a thing has a certain end or final cause that it has the form it has -- hence hearts have ventricles, atria, and the like precisely because they have the function of pumping blood.

When observing the impact of Darwin or Aquinas on the advance of our understanding of the cosmos, which has been relevant?

In technology, as in everyday tinkering around the workshop when finding new uses and building novel things from what is available, as well as in the evolutionary advance of life and the whole cosmos via a process of fits and starts, we see forms evolving into new purposes.

Obsessing over ancient logic is naive at best, repressive at its core.

This is why there was a Vatican II.

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

Aquinas, sir!

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

Here is part of my writing against that mountebank Darwin

Occasional Commentator said...

I'm sorry, Dan, but your thinking in the above comment is simply confused. That passage from TLS was not attempting to give some evolutionary account of the heart's origin--it simply used the heart as an instance of final causality in nature. If final causes exist, then biological function would certainly be a prime example; but by no means would it exhaust the concept.

If you want to argue that final causes do not exit, or are a projection of the human mind (though how such a projection would itself fail to be an instance of final causality, I wouldn't care to guess), then great, do that. But make some actual arguments. Don't misconstrue the words of others and then sniff about "obsessing over ancient logic".

Dan said...

I find the resistance and obfuscation of open-minded criticisms offered here to be less than admirable, and quite transparent.

I think I said that Darwin would oppose Aquinas' (and Feser's) obsession with final causation, as do I.

Too many instances exist where the intended function of something is completely overshadowed by some other use that is accidental discovered for it.

OC, why must you misdirect the thrust of my thoughts to a heart pump quote from Jime of Feser?

I'll leave it to you to come up with examples of accidental discoveries of the type I mention. It may serve to open minds and break down some rigid beliefs.

Anonymous said...

"My question is if it's actually compatible with the Darwinian account of evolution."

Dr Feser's metaphysics is compatible with all possible facts about the physical world.

Occasional Commentator said...

Dan,

I gave you the benefit of the doubt in the previous thread--hell, even defended you from another commenter's inappropriate attack. But...


Obsessing over ancient logic is naive at best, repressive at its core.

Takes one to know one?

...Aquinas' (and Feser's) obsession with final causation...

...do not in my book constitute "open-minded" criticisms: in fact, they're barely a step above name-calling.

And it is all but impossible to NOT "misdirect the thrust of my [your] thoughts" because those thoughts are so rambling and unfocused. Is your issue with the supposed "obsession" two philosophers have with final causes, or do you take umbrage at the idea itself. If so, why? Name-dropping Darwin and digressing into some left-field aside about technology and workshops do not constitute an argument. My spidey-sense is telling me that you don't really understand what is meant by formal/final causality and are simply ranting against your own misconceptions. Prove me wrong, or this discussion ends here.

Crude said...

Dan,

"When observing the impact of Darwin or Aquinas on the advance of our understanding of the cosmos, which has been relevant?"

Frankly, Aquinas by a mile. In part because Aquinas was in large part building on the efforts of Aristotle, who in turn did tremendous things for science and understanding in much broader scope, and with effects felt to this day.

Your mileage may vary.

"I think I said that Darwin would oppose Aquinas' (and Feser's) obsession with final causation, as do I."

Even if that really were the case - honestly, who cares? Darwin was a man, entirely fallible, and was wrong or ignorant about many things. As were Aquinas and Aristotle, I'm sure. It's what all of them were right about that matters. And both (among others) laid out arguments and ideas that showed the importance of teleology and formal/final causes to this day.

Einstein was a strong critic of quantum mechanics. "Einstein didn't agree with QM!" isn't going to convince anyone to ditch the field. At least, it shouldn't.

"I find the resistance and obfuscation of open-minded criticisms offered here to be less than admirable, and quite transparent."

To be honest, your criticisms aren't open-minded, or even accurate for the most part. You've largely just sniffed that talk of final causes is "ancient" (but so is naturalism), made a glib reference to Vatican II (but what does that have to do with formal/final causes?), and gave an admonition that Darwin would not approve (but why should anyone care?)

anonymous said...

I agree with Dan for the most part. To paraphrase Feser's last post

If final cause is so undeniable, how come you simply can’t shut up about it?

Occasional Commentator said...

Anon @10:43 said:

I agree with Dan for the most part. To paraphrase Feser's last post

If final cause is so undeniable, how come you simply can’t shut up about it?


Now there's a fine specimen of logic. No more articles/research papers/grants for evolution: it's undeniable, you know. For that matter, let's do away with mathematics, quantum mechanics, and pretty much any other field of human knowledge. No need to expound upon them for the next (or this current) generation.

Seriously, you anon's (and Dan) are making this former naturalist deeply ashamed that he ever took part in such self-defeating nonsense.

Anonymous said...

"Now there's a fine specimen of logic. No more articles/research papers/grants for evolution: it's undeniable, you know."

Who says evolution is undeniable? Overwhelming evidence such that to withhold provisional assent is absurd? Yes. Undeniably proven? No.

It seems you don't understand science. Big surprise.

Occasional Commentator said...

Who says evolution is undeniable? Overwhelming evidence such that to withhold provisional assent is absurd? Yes. Undeniably proven? No.

It seems you don't understand science. Big surprise.


When did the local junior high-school's Skeptic Association get this blog's url? Anon, please re-read your original comment, my response, and then your completely uncomprehending retort.

(As an aside, you should probably capitalize the word "Science", as the misunderstanding of which is where your First Principles clearly flow.)

Edward Feser said...

Dan @ 10:40 and Anonymous @ 10:43,

Very clever. But as it happens, there'd only be a "gotcha" moment here if I had said that final causality was "marginal" and not worth taking seriously, and then repeatedly gone on about it anyway. Obviously I have never said such a thing.

Anonymous said...
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Edward Feser said...

I prefer to moderate with a light hand, but when trolls show up I'm happy to delete with abandon. Anonymous, take your high-school hijinks elsewhere.

Dan said...

Not so fast on that gotcha statement...

While you may not want your opinions of Aquinas to be marginal, it does appear that you sense otherwise as evidenced throughout this blog. When you fix upon and proceed to ridicule selected members of the sciences or your peers who DO see your opinions as marginal (the majority view).

Occasional Commentator said...

Not so fast on that gotcha statement...

While you may not want your opinions of Aquinas to be marginal, it does appear that you sense otherwise as evidenced throughout this blog. When you fix upon and proceed to ridicule selected members of the sciences or your peers who DO see your opinions as marginal (the majority view).


Even in my most "Enlightened" moments as a former skeptic, I hope I was never such a self indulgent jack-ass. Dan, your comments have all the intellectual weight of street graffiti. You do naturalism, scientism, materialism...hell, any -ism you try to defend a profound disservice.

Dan said...

OC

That's just it, I keep an open mind towards all the 'isms' out there. Nobody has got it completely right, or wrong. Things only get ugly when people get too absolutist.

Dan said...

OC

I almost forgot, how can I be a jack-ass in light of formal causality!

Edward Feser said...

Do I really need to explain it to you, Dan? Apparently so.

If someone says "X is marginal, not worth anyone's attention, etc." and then nevertheless devotes lots of attention to X, then he exhibits a certain measure of cognitive dissonance and is rightly accused of inconsistency.

But if someone says "Other people may think X is marginal, not worth attention, etc., but I think they're mistaken," and then goes on to devote attention to X, there is no cognitive dissonance or inconsistency at all -- indeed, he is acting exactly as one would expect him to act given what he said.

I know you're really attached to this silly "gotcha" point you think you've made, but it ain't gonna fly, so give it up. Here's an idea: Try making a substantive point free of snark, and maybe the other commenters will be more willing to take you seriously.

("But you were just snarky with me, Feser!" Damn right I was. If a commenter's got something serious to say, he'll get a serious reply. But if all he's got is snark, snark is what he'll get. And if he persists with the snark, what he'll get the next time is banned and his comments deleted.)

Jime said...

The purpose of my questions wasn't to create a sterile debate. Let's to stick to the issues, please.

We're busy, and I guess no one here wants to waste their time reading irrelevant discussions.

My questions are simple and straightforward, and they might be summarized like this:

1-Forms follow function.

2-If 1 is true, what does "follow" mean?

Does it mean that function is temporally previous or antecedent regarding forms? If it's the case, I think final causes (as applied to the example of the heart) are in tension with a Darwinian account of evolution.

Does "follow" mean that function is only logically or metaphysically previous or antencedent to forms? If it's the case, perhaps there is not tension at all between the final cause of a heart and darwinian evolution.

So my question is actually about if "follow" (as used in point 1) has temporal implications.

If it's the case, then the function of the heart (pumping blood) was temporally previous and antecedent to the configuration or form of the heart to satisfy that purpose; and if it's true, darwinian evolution seems to be plausibly false.

In my opinion, it doesn't refutes final causes in the sense of A-T metaphysics; rather, it refutes darwinian evolution, and hence it would support a neo-Lamarckian view or evolution, or perhaps some version of intelligent design as the efficient cause that brings about the final causes in biology. (Maybe professor Feser would disagree with this opinion)

Hope my point be clearer now.

Please, stick to the issues.

:)

Anonymous said...

Dan-

In the last post you asked what technological advances had come from A-T philosophy and theology, and in this one you've referenced a debunked predecessor of evolution. It seems to me that you might not be aware of what, exactly, Ed or Aquinas was saying about the Final Cause and teleology. Ed and the rest of us aren't claiming that teleology or FC are going to provide us with exciting new areas of research and technology. Final causes aren't being used as a "hypothesis" to "explain data." The point is that final causality, the "purposefulness" of certain parts of nature, is going to be inescapable, whatever we discover or learn about the natural world. That's what makes it metaphysics, rather than science. Please do not suggest that scientific inquiry is the only valid one either- such a view would be self-defeating.

I'd ask your forgiveness, personally, for the rudeness you've encountered on these threads (though with all due respect you aren't entirely innocent yourself) but, for instance, the rhetorical question you asked in the last thread about neuroscientific discoveries stemming from Aristotelian metaphysical concepts is tiresomely repeated to us Aristotelians in many forms, and it gets frustrating having to explain that new scientific discoveries aren't the point of what we're doing. We're also frequently met with contemptuous dismissals from the standpoint of "well if it doesn't provide me new technology etc. then I'm not interested," which is fine as a personal choice but isn't an argument at all.

Hopefully you find that answer at least somewhat informative.

Brandon said...

Dan said,

I think I said that Darwin would oppose Aquinas' (and Feser's) obsession with final causation, as do I.

If this is to imply that Darwin thought final causes should entirely be dropped, this would be incorrect, even setting aside the tendentious use of 'obsession' here. Darwin saw himself as restoring final causes to a well-founded place in biology, one that was free of the Paleyan notion of contrivance. Nor was he the only one. Asa Gray, writing in Nature, said of Darwin's work, "let us recognise Darwin's great service to Natural Science in bringing back to it Teleology:: so that, instead of Morphology versus Teleology, we shall have Morphology wedded to Teleology". This in fact fits with the comments in Origin on "Unity of Type" and "Conditions of Existence," which had been seen in exactly such terms as Morphology vs. Teleology, so one would expect Darwin to agree with Gray, despite having a less providential view of nature than Gray did. And agree he did; he wrote Gray and said that Gray had hit the nail on the head. And Huxley said similar things of Darwin's work. One might reasonably argue (and some would) that biology has shifted since Darwin, but if we are taking about Darwin, the view of the early Darwinians, including Darwin himself, was that the theory of natural selection made it easier to fit teleology into a rigorous and scientific biology, not the reverse.

In particular, Darwin saw himself as eliminating the problems created by the Paleyan conception of contrivance, which was simultaneously a special interference, extrinsic, and utilitarian (every contrivance designed for the happiness either of its bearer or of men); the first and the last of these were especially in Darwin's sights: he more than once attacks the position that the Creator intervenes more in biology than in physics (where there are constant laws) and the position that the stream of variation was itself beneficial by nature. And Darwin is certainly right on both accounts, for reasons considered both by him and by Aristotelians: a proper account of final causes insofar as it applies to biology has to be one that is not committed to either of these claims, that is, it has to be a non-Paleyan account.

I'm also somewhat interested by the attempt (in the Feb 7, 4:12 am comment) to contrast evolutionary adaptation (a la Darwin) with the acceptance of final causes in physiology; the two are entirely distinct things. Harvey, using an Aristotelian account of final causes to guide his research, discovered that the heart has the function of circulating the blood; this is a physiological conclusion based on how the cardiovascular system works, and in its basic outline it is as true now as when Harvey discovered it, despite advances in cardiology. The question of whether this system is such as to contribute to survival and reproduction, or how this system originated through chance variation, are distinct questions entirely. Nor is this distinction at all rare; it's the basis for the common distinction betwene physiological function and etiological function, for instance.

Occasional Commentator said...

Hi Jime,

It was certainly not my intention to sideline your questions. But when another commenter rips a brief quote from a book he clearly has not read, pairs it with a wholly unrelated blurb from wikipedia (of all places), and then casts aspersions on ideas he shows no clear understanding of--then yes, I'm probably going to speak up.

I'm sorry if you thought what followed was "sterile" and "irrelevant". Just realize that some of us are still trying to work through the thought of Aristotle and Aquinas and, not having recourse to vast libraries or an institute of higher learning, find threads such as this (along with the thoughtful comments often posted by folks such as yourself) an invaluable resource.

Anyway, it's late and I'm off to bed before I'm forced to change my handle from "Occasional Commentator" to "Just Shut the Hell Up Already".

(BTW, if you're the same Jime that runs the Subversive Thinking blog, then thanks for making all those videos and articles available.)

Anonymous said...

The Four Paws'

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JYvI_vtYeA8

Edward Feser said...

Thanks for that reply, Brandon. On that topic, Dan might want to look at Gilson's From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again, which has just been reprinted. He (and the Anonymous who made the "god of the gaps" reference) might also look at my earlier post "Four approaches to teleology" -- just do an on-site search -- to see why a defense of teleology does not necessarily entail wht they think it does.

John Farrell said...

Brandon,
Asa Gray, writing in Nature, said of Darwin's work, "let us recognise Darwin's great service to Natural Science in bringing back to it Teleology:: so that, instead of Morphology versus Teleology, we shall have Morphology wedded to Teleology". This in fact fits with the comments in Origin on "Unity of Type" and "Conditions of Existence," which had been seen in exactly such terms as Morphology vs. Teleology, so one would expect Darwin to agree with Gray, despite having a less providential view of nature than Gray did. And agree he did; he wrote Gray and said that Gray had hit the nail on the head.

This is superb. Is it available only in Nature's archives, or has Darwin's correspondence with Gray on the subject been reprinted in a book?

(Sorry for being late to this excellent post!)