Thursday, April 8, 2010

“Nothing but”

Take a few bits of metal, work them into various shapes, and attach them to a piece of wood. Voila! A mousetrap. Or so we call it. But objectively, apart from human interests, the object is “nothing but” a collection of wood and metal parts. Its “mousetrappish” character is observer-relative; it is in the minds of the designer and users of the object, and not strictly in the object itself. “Reductionism” with respect to such human artifacts is just common sense. We know that cars, computers, and cakes are objectively “nothing but” the parts that make them up – that their “carlike,” “computerlike,” or “cakelike” qualities are not really there inherently in the parts, but are observer-relative – precisely because we took the parts and rearranged them to perform a function we want them to perform but which they have no tendency to perform on their own.

But now consider claims like “Consciousness is ‘nothing but’ a complex set of electrochemical processes in the brain,”“Living things are ‘nothing but’ aggregates of physico-chemical processes,” “Water is ‘nothing but’ H2O,” and so forth. Claims like these – indeed, reductionism about natural kinds in general – are, I think it will generally be acknowledged, not in line with common sense. For the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) metaphysician, they are not true either – not even the claim about water. “H20” abbreviates a description of the chemical micro-structure of water, but for A-T essentialism, macro-level substances are not reducible to their micro-structure. (See the relevant sections of Oderberg’s Real Essentialism for a useful discussion.) A-T analysis is holistic rather than reductionist; a whole can be analyzed into its parts, but the parts in turn cannot properly be understood apart from the whole. And the end-directedness characteristic of natural substances – conscious purposes in the case of human beings, biological functions in the case of living things in general, causal tendencies in the case of inorganic phenomena no less than organic ones – is inherent to them rather than observer-relative or imposed from outside, and irreducible to patterns of efficient causation.

But leave all that aside; obviously, the A-T view is controversial. The point for now is that, to make reductionism about natural kinds plausible, one must substitute for common sense some alternative picture of the natural world – in particular, a picture on which every feature of a natural substance is either entirely definable in terms of the features of its parts or can be interpreted as observer-relative. That is to say, one must substitute for common sense the idea that a natural substance is a kind of artifact. One must think of plants and animals, solar systems and galaxies, as comparable to (say) mousetraps, watches, or outboard motors.

And that is, of course, exactly what the “mechanical” conception of the world that the early modern philosophers put in place of the Scholastics’ Aristotelian philosophy of nature made possible. The world was reconceived as a machine or collection of machines. Break a natural object down into its parts and identify the efficient-causal relations holding between them, and you know (so the moderns claim) everything there is to know about its intrinsic nature. Anything irreducible to this – such as final causality or end-directedness, or a “formal cause” over and above the sum of the parts – is extrinsic to it, observer-relative, whether the observer is a human being or a divine artificer. For Aristotle, “art imitates nature” – that is to say, artifacts copy nature’s way of doing things, but only (of course) artificially since their parts have no inherent tendency to do what we make them do. The moderns reverse this – nature is for them a kind of “art,” in the sense that natural objects are to be modeled on artifacts rather than the other way around.

Early modern thinkers like Descartes, Newton, Boyle, and Locke were quite happy to associate a “machinist” with the “machines” they saw in the natural world. Hence they did not deny that things had final causes of some sort, since God had made them for a purpose. But the purposes were now as extrinsic to natural objects as the mousetrap’s purpose is extrinsic to the wood and metal that make it up, residing entirely in the mind of the divine artificer and in no sense in the things themselves; and for Descartes, these purposes are therefore as inscrutable as the divine will is. (For a useful brief account of the transition from the Aristotelian-Scholastic conception of purpose in nature to the modern “mechanistic” conception, see Margaret Osler’s paper “From Immanent Natures to Nature as Artifice: The Reinterpretation of Final Causes in Seventeenth-Century Natural Philosophy,” The Monist vol. 79, no. 3.)

It was bound to occur to someone that if the world is a kind of machine or artifact, it might carry on in existence in the absence of the machinist or artificer, just as human artifacts do. Now, given A-T metaphysics, such a “world without God” is impossible in principle. To be sure, a natural substance’s final cause is inherent to it, something it cannot fail to have given its nature or essence; and that entails (contra Descartes) that we can know a thing’s nature and final cause without adverting directly to God’s intentions. But this does not entail that a thing could exist, even for an instant, apart from God. That the prime matter (or “pure potency”) that underlies the natural world is actualized in just the way it is at any given moment requires a “purely actual” Unmoved Mover; that a thing’s nature or essence is conjoined at any instant with an “act of existing” requires an Uncaused Cause that is ipsum esse subsistens. (See Aquinas for the full story.) But when these Scholastic metaphysical underpinnings of natural theology were pushed aside in favor of the “mechanical” conception of the world, the stage was set for deism.

The sequel, naturally, was atheism. For if the “machine” can exist now without a “machinist,” maybe it has always existed without him. Maybe the machine is all that ever existed in the first place. The only question remaining is whether this is “probable,” whether it is the “best explanation” of the “empirical evidence”; and the metaphysically unavoidable God of classical theism is transformed thereby into the “scientific hypothesis” of William Paley and “Intelligent Design” theory.

More to the present point, the way was also opened to the ever more radical forms of reductionism and eliminativism that have characterized modern philosophy. If formal and final causes – Aristotelian essences or natures, and natural ends or purposes – do not exist either inherent in nature itself or in the mind of a divine artificer, the only thing left for them to be are projections of the human mind. There is at least constant pressure, given the mechanistic model of the natural world shared by modern dualists and materialists, modern theists and atheists alike, to regard natural substances as “nothing but” material parts related by patterns of efficient causality.

The results are often absurd and even morally obscene, though modern philosophers have found themselves increasingly happy to live with that. But the mechanistic conception of nature that leads to reductionism and eliminativism is in any event incoherent. For the mind that does the “projecting” in question cannot itself coherently be either reduced or eliminated (as Cartesian mechanists realize, which makes their position at least more sane than that of the materialist); and (as Cartesian mechanists do not realize any more than materialists do) the efficient causality the whole mechanistic model presupposes ultimately cannot be made sense of apart from something like the substantial forms and final causality the mechanist eschews. (See The Last Superstition for the full story.)

Into the bargain, the whole picture gives rise, when not taken in an atheistic direction, to a theology that is difficult or impossible to reconcile with the classical theism at the core of historical Christianity. And that is why A-T philosophers are often so critical of Paley-style “design arguments” and of ID theory – a subject I have addressed in several places, including here and here. (Since certain readers seem hell bent on missing the point, let me repeat a couple of things I’ve said many times already. The A-T critique of Paley and of ID theory has nothing whatsoever to do with Darwinism – Aristotle and Aquinas were not Darwinians, after all – and it has nothing to do either with any objection to probabilistic arguments for God’s existence per se. It has to do instead with the metaphysical and theological errors A-T sees as implicit in the methodological assumptions underlying Paley’s “design argument” and contemporary ID theory.)

In short, while the “world as artifact” model the early modern philosophers put at the center of Western thought was regarded by many of them as a means of defending the religious and moral heritage of the West, it was in fact quite the opposite. In reality it was, and is – if I may wax Marxian – the “objective ally” of deism, atheism, and reductionism. Hence it is simply not to the point to debate with Darwinians whether or not the cosmic watchmaker is “blind” (as Richard Dawkins would put it). The fundamental error – made by Darwinian naturalists and ID theorists alike – is to think of the world as a “watch” in the first place.

34 comments:

Crude said...

One thing I'm curious of here...

Has any philosopher ever gone in the other direction on this question?

I'll try to explain what I mean. I understand that the A-T claim is that a watch is an object with nothing but extrinsic purpose, while a (for example) cat has intrinsic purposes. And the modern mechanistic move is to say that purposes are in the mind alone (Another question: Does that mean cartesians are committed to the idea that intrinsic purposes DO exist, but only in the mind?), or don't exist at all - everything is a 'watch'.

But has anyone ever tried to say that even a watch has intrinsic purposes, and that it's a mistake to regard a watch in a mechanistic way?

The Uncredible Hallq said...

This is a really interesting post. I think the development of mechanism circa the time of Descartes is a fascinating subject, and I'd love to hear more in the way of recommended reading on the historical issues.

I don't follow what your saying about the issues from a contemporary perspective, though. It seems extraordinarily odd to me to say that the "causal tendencies" of a mousetrap are "observer-relative or imposed from outside." It's one thing to say that it couldn't be identified as a moutstrap apart from any outside purposes, but a moustrap assembled by a tornado going through a junkyard would have the same tendency to cause dead mice when the trigger is tripped.

Also, what do you mean by saying molecular behavior is "irreducible to patterns of efficient causation"? What a physical chemist will generally think of when he thinks of reductionism is this: given a complete physical description of the electrons and quarks in a chemical system, it is in principle be possible to use quantum mechanics to predict the behavior of the system. Is that what you mean?

j. christian said...

I second Crude's question. It's not exactly a pagan worldview, but couldn't the "all of nature is God" belief be accused of working in the other direction?

Anonymous said...

"That the prime matter (or “pure potency”) that underlies the natural world is actualized in just the way it is at any given moment requires a “purely actual” Unmoved Mover...

Using modern concepts, can you prove this?

"But when these Scholastic metaphysical underpinnings of natural theology were pushed aside in favor of the “mechanical” conception of the world, the stage was set for deism.

As a student from Cleremont, you must know of other forms of natural theology besides the Scholastic - process theism, maybe. In process, all this talk of mechanics is replaced with organism. I think you'd be well served to go look up your old class notes from Dr. Cobb.

Dentist's Son said...

Hey Chris....
shouldn't you be at the Freedom From Religion Foundation @ Madison, misinterpreting the Establishment Clause?
Where do you find the free time??

Nick said...

I think the most bizarre association that occurs in this dialectic is that which connects mechanism with naturalism.

No responsible naturalist of any kind should be a reductionist-mechanist. No Darwinist should be a reductive-mechanist. Darwinism is a paradigm case of non-reductive science, one which uses a variety of ontological primitives (the gene, the organism, the group) to do its explanatory work. Reduce any of these things to atoms and Darwinian theory utterly disappears.

So it is with any Naturalist: if they are genuinely committed to the ontology of "the sciences", they must accept a multiplicity of ontologies, not simply the all-too-simplistic one offered by certain Newtonian/Baconian visions. Science is centuries ahead of that kind of naive simplicity: no-one should accept it.

Anonymous said...

"Science is centuries ahead of that kind of naive simplicity: no-one should accept it."

Amen.

Look around, hear things like epigenetics and emergence on the lips and in the theorizing of a growing number of scientists who realize organism isn't explained in terms of atoms: the bioscientists depend upon the chemists and physicists on down, and the anthropologists and psychologists on up.

Anonymous said...

Yeah

Meanwhile, philosophers sit around and say 'I wanna play too, but I got nothing to bring to the game.'

TheOFloinn said...

Or perhaps, the scientists are starting to realize that certain philosophers were right all along. "Emergent property" is hand-waving. It stands in mid-air without a philosophical base to stand on. But it has always been inherent in the formal and final "becauseness" of nature. The medievals used to say that the nature of a thing would express itself in harmony with its environment. Nowadays they say "epigenetics". It's nice to see them coming home.

Why should it be surprising if, at the end of the Modern Ages, the Modern idea of science should collapse and a new, post-modern idea arise? Or that the new science should have a suspiciously Aristotelian tang in its sauce?

Nick said...

...I would caution very strongly against thinking that epigenetic phenomenon are evidence for an aristotelian metaphysic. Deploying this kind of argument against a naturalist is going to fail, because they will simply point out that epigenetic phenomena are just those non-genetic, inherited mechanisms that contribute to the development of a phenotype.

They are mechanisms, manifestations of efficient causation, not of final causation. A biologist is not committed to saying anything else.

Anonymous said...

I suppose an A-T says that the emergent phenomenon of traffic is the final cause of a car, and both share formal causation.

Whereas a scientist says that the important issues posed by traffic flow is studied pretty much in disregard of the automobile mechanism.

Other than trying to support assertion of an eternal soul, why do A-T people bother talking about science?

Crude said...

Because A-T is not wholly or even largely about an eternal soul, and has application in consideration of both the biological and the non-biological. Nor do the A-T philosophers I'm aware of treat A-T as science - they 'talk about science' insofar as they talk about subjects that science also talks about in different ways and with different restrictions.

Most also wouldn't talk about the 'final cause' of a car, for reasons Ed discussed re: watches. Though I still wonder about what others may say.

Also, I don't think any A-T philosopher would say 'epigenetics is proof of A-T!' - again, all the ones I've read point out that A-T is not an empirical theory, but a metaphysical view. Though certainly a commitment against mechanism and reductionism, and in favor of a holistic perspective, would fit in nicely with A-T views if taken seriously. And it won't fit in with some other views (there really are mechanistic, reductionist naturalists out there.)

TheOFloinn said...

I suppose an A-T says that the emergent phenomenon of traffic is the final cause of a car

No.

+ + +

One is reminded of Tolstoy's observation that to understand what makes a locomotive move we must study the laws that govern steam, bells , and the wind, until man discovers the ultimate cause of the motion in the steam compressed in the boiler. To which the historian Lukacs commented that it did not occur to Tolstoy to seek the cause of the locomotive's motion in the engineer.

Anonymous said...

Are you serious?

' A-T is not wholly or even largely about an eternal soul'

Please.

Crude said...

It's obvious to anyone who actually bothered to read up on it, anon. Hell, look as far as the original post for this thread: Ed doesn't say word one about a soul. He brings in an example of a subject mechanists and A-Ts differ on: Water. He talks about the 'natural world' writ large - which is appropriate, since for A-Ts formal and final causes are all over the place in nature, NOT just in application to the human mind or soul.

You may prefer to caricature it that way - go right ahead. You'll just happen to be wrong.

Anonymous said...

anons 2:57 & 3:34

Don't you understand that none of these clueless, smartassed objections are helping your case any? I mean, just from a PR perspective, wouldn't you like to at least have something *intelligent* to say in reply?

Ilíon said...

Didn't C.S.Lewis critique "nothing buttery?"

Edward Feser said...

Crude,

Well, there are systems like hylozoism (according to which everything is alive) and panpsychism (on which everything exhibits something like mind) which might have that implication, though I suppose a hylozoist or panpsychist might say that it is not the watch per se that has an intrinsic purpose but only its parts.

Hallq,

Thanks. There's a lot written on that subject. Off the top of my head I'd recommend, as I often do, E. A. Burtt's classic The Metaphyscial Foundations of Modern Physical Science. Among contemporary writers, look at the work of Dennis Des Chene, especially his book Physiologia. Margaret Osler (who I mention in the post) has written at book length on the subject as well, and Walter Ott's recent Causation and Laws of Nature in Early Modern Philosophy looks interesting too, though I haven't yet had a chance to read it.

Re: the moustrap, what I mean is that its function of killing mice, specifically, is observer relative; and something assembled by a tornado wouldn't have that specific function at all, though it would still have more general causal powers which would include the power to crush soft objects like mice. (Compare: a falling boulder has that causal power as well, but it is not intrinsically a mousetrap specifically.)

Re: irreducibility to efficient causation, what I mean is that from an A-T point of view, efficient causation itself presupposes (a rudimentary kind of) final causation and thus final causality can't coherently be analyzed away in terms of efficient causation (as e.g. philosophers of biology and of mind who propose "naturalistic reductions" of the notion of function attempt to do). Final causality is like J. L. Austin's "frog at the bottom of the beer mug" that is always staring up at us just when we thought we'd gotten rid of it. I elaborate in TLS and in Aquinas.

David said...

"If formal and final causes do not exist [the natural world is] “nothing but” material parts related by patterns of efficient causality."

The irony is that — as anyone who knows any philosophy at all will immediately recognise — "pattern" is just another word for "form", so far from excising forms, modern science depends on them more than ever. In fact, it's "efficient causality" that modern science has really abandoned; unlike in Descartes' day, there really is no satisfactory conception of efficiency at the fundamental levels of physics, nor is there even any need. All a modern physicist really needs is formulas.

David said...

"Has anyone ever gone in the other direction?"

Well, I have! (And no, I'm not a hylozoist or panpsychist.) It's because I can't tell the difference between a watch and a wallaby. (I mean, one is a watch and one is a wallaby, but apart from that...) They can both be reduced to their constituent particles — not just to particles, but certainly their ingredients exist as whatever elements they are; you can take them apart and put them back together. (Of course, putting the wallaby back together is tricky, if you want it to still work.) The wallaby was made by God, but then the watch was too — not solely by God, perhaps; but if I build the watch, God has to build it with me, because I didn't create the world and I cannot purely of my own will manipulate it. God has to cooperate in any physical action just as He must conserve the physical world in existence at each and every moment. (In fact, manipulating and conserving the world are really the same thing, from God's point of view.)

But not only does God cause the physical make-up of the watch, He also must cause its purpose; again, in cooperation with me, if I am the watchmaker, but it's absurd to suppose that I know that these pieces are a watch but God doesn't. Whatever I understand it to be, God does also, in fact He understands better: if I mistakenly think that I am building a toaster when I assemble my watch-pieces, it will not for that reason make toast. God knows what it really is (I could say, God's knowledge is what it "really" is; there is no difference). And if I ceased to exist, the watch could carry on without me, telling time just as well as before. God could see that it still tells time. Not that He needs it to tell time, but it still would, and thus its purpose must remain intact, quite independent of me.

Indeed, if the watch were assembled independently of me in the first place — say, by our lucky tornado — then it would still be a watch, because it would still tell time. The only possible source of its final cause is God, and to say that the "watch" in that case has no final cause is to say that God does not see it as telling time. (Which could only be if the "watch" does not in fact tell time; if it does, God is obviously cognizant of that fact.) So I would say everything has an "intrinsic" purpose, i.e. whatever God thinks it is. Since God is aware of all possible purposes to which anything could be put, all possible purposes are intrinsic in this way, which is why you can pick up a rock and use it to crush mice or roll dough or anything else a rock can do. (Thus adding, temporarily, an extrinsic purpose as well.) Something that had no intrinsic purpose at all could not be used for anything (we can't out-think God and come up with a purpose He does not already understand), and of course no such thing exists (unless maybe we think of it, say, as a potential, like pure prime matter).

Now I might be accused of abusing the term "intrinsic", but I don't think I've really said anything new here. (I hope not; novelty is a good sign of falsehood.) Maybe "intrinsic" is supposed to apply to things that only have a God-given purpose, as opposed to a man-cum-God-given purpose. Since God doesn't usually create timepieces, we can in practice distinguish artificial watches from natural objects or phenomena (like the sun and the moon, which after all, were created in order to tell the passage of time and the seasons...). But God could build a watch via a lucky tornado (of course there's really no "luck" to an A-T; God foresaw and planned the tornado from all eternity), and the only difference from my watch would be that God's watch doesn't have the extrinsic purpose as well. (Hm, until a person picks it up and says, Hey, I found a watch!, I guess.) (And also God's watch probably works better than mine, but God could build a poor-quality watch if He wanted to.)

Ilíon said...

David: "The irony is that — as anyone who knows any philosophy at all will immediately recognise — "pattern" is just another word for "form" ..."

Patterns are concepts, which is to say, mental constructs. So, indeed, patterns are forms.

Ilíon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David said...

Follow-up (here's where I risk some potential novelty...): there's an example (in TLS or Aquinas) of something like "the water cycle plus my left toe". This is supposedly not a thing, the way I am a thing, or the water cycle by itself. I don't really understand why, other than from an anthropocentric perspective. The form of "water cycle + left toe" is, platonically speaking, as good as any other; I can certainly conceive of that concept, and more certainly so can God. But for a form (like anything else) to exist, is for it to be in the mind of God. And this form is even instantiated (since the water cycle and my left toe do in fact exist in the world). So I don't see how it can be considered less a thing than anything else.

Perhaps I'm getting to caught up in the language: certainly this concept is not a useful one. Practically speaking, I can't do anything with "the water cycle plus my left toe"; nor theoretically speaking, does this odd form help me to understand any other concepts. So there's not much point in bothering to think of it as "a thing". If that's all that is meant, then fine. But from God's point of view, nothing is or needs to be "useful" [to Him]; everything is simply what He thinks it to be. To disallow certain combinations is arbitrary, a sort of mid-level-reductionism, where we say the "water-cycle" part of this [pseudo-]thing is a real thing, but not the whole.

You might say that the water-cycle (by itself) or me (as a whole, single thing) are more important than some other random slice of the universe. That is true, but again only from man's finite perspective. The notion of "a person" or "a watch" is useful to us, and so arguably that's what we should focus on. (But, hey, why be a philosopher if you have to be practical?!) God has no "focus", though. That's purely a limitation of finite minds that cannot think of everything, immutably, all at once. God's knowing/creating/conserving of this funny water-cycle-plus-toe in no way detracts from his knowing the water-cycle itself, or me by myself, or just my toe, or my toe+the Mona Lisa, etc., etc. To God, I am a thing, my toe is a thing, one atom in my toe is a thing, and so on, because He understands and conceives of them all on every level. In that sense, God is an infinite anti-reductionist.

Maybe I am more a unity than my toe because I can "do" more things, or have a more complex final cause, or something like that. But then I would be more a unity than a single electron, or a weed, which sounds fine. I would be less a unity than "mankind" as a whole community. I guess that's also fine, if we want to define it that way. A more likely definition if we follow this approach is to work around souls: I am a unity because I have one soul directing my activity, whereas mankind has many souls and is thus a multiplicity. On this view, the sun and a single electron in the sun would be equally [non-]unities. Again, that makes sense; it's saying that "I" and "the sun" and "the water cycle" are unities, but the electron or "water cycle+toe" are not that seems inconsistent to me.

anoa said...

What's to be gained by obsessing over forms, essences, patterns, etc.?

To give special meanings and purpose to essence seems like trying to force a high from near-beer: it only yields a headache.

Ilíon said...

Crude: "Has any philosopher ever gone in the other direction on this question?
...
But has anyone ever tried to say that even a watch has intrinsic purposes, and that it's a mistake to regard a watch in a mechanistic way?
"

David: "Well, I have! (And no, I'm not a hylozoist or panpsychist.) ..."

I believe Mr Feser is making a mistake at the heart of this essay ... and it appears to me to be related to, if not the very same, mistake of which materialists/atheists are so fond: materialistic reductionism.

A mousetrap (or a watch) *does* have an intrinsic purpose and/or nature which cannot be captured by the "nothing buttery" of reductionism, any more than the intrinsic purpose or nature of a human being can be captured by reductionistic "nothing buttery." To paraphrase C.S.Lewis (multiple places, including the Narnia stories), "To know what a thing is made of is not necessarily to know what the thing *is*"

Whether Mr Feser is making exactly that mistake (materialistic reductionism) in principle, it works out the same in practice: if followed-out consistently, it leads to such false beliefs/assertions as that "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts;" and belief in the efficacy of that favorite magical word of the atheists, 'emergence.'


E.Feser: "Take a few bits of metal, work them into various shapes, and attach them to a piece of wood. Voila! A mousetrap. Or so we call it. But objectively, apart from human interests, the object is “nothing but” a collection of wood and metal parts. Its “mousetrappish” character is observer-relative; it is in the minds of the designer and users of the object, and not strictly in the object itself. “Reductionism” with respect to such human artifacts is just common sense. We know that cars, computers, and cakes are objectively “nothing but” the parts that make them up - that their “carlike,” “computerlike,” or “cakelike” qualities are not really there inherently in the parts, but are observer-relative - precisely because we took the parts and rearranged them to perform a function we want them to perform but which they have no tendency to perform on their own. ..."

This isn't exactly true. There *is* a "mousetrappish" and it *is* in the mousetrap -- it's just not in the matter comprising the mousetrap.

And this "mousetrappish" is not, strictly speaking, observer- or designer- relative. Certainly, the mousetrap exists because a designer designed it and someone built it. But, the design -- the form, the "mousetrappish" -- is a part, the key part, of the mousetrap. It is the design which makes it a thing, which makes it other than, and more than, just a temporary concatination of atoms.

TheOFloinn said...

What's to be gained by obsessing over forms, essences, patterns, etc.?

Because it is the form that distinguishes one substance from another and gives those substances their particular powers. Hence, the focus in science on formulas.

For example: a sodium atom and a chlorine atom are composed of the same matter: protons, neutrons, electrons. But what makes one a metal and the other a halogen is the number and arrangement of these parts; that is, their forms. These patterns are not simply "ideas" or "mental constructs." An atom may not "look like" a Bohr model, but there really are nuclei, valance electrons, etc. But neither are forms or patterns themselves material. The arrangement is an arrangement of matter; but the arrangement itself is not matter.

Similarly, a petunia and a parrot are distinguished by their forms, which are not merely their physical structure, but the arrangements of their physical structure. These forms are encoded in their genomes, which are themselves composed of genes and non-coding sequences, and it is the number and arrangement of these genes that distinguishes one genome from another. At the deeper level, two strands of DNA are composed of the same four nucleotides; but it is the number and arrangement of these nucleotides that "tell" the DNA to construct this protein or that protein.

Ilíon said...

"These patterns are not simply "ideas" or "mental constructs.""

A pattern and an instantiation of the pattern are two very different things.

Dan said...

"A pattern and an instantiation of the pattern are two very different things.

Plato said that already!

Ilíon said...

Well and good. But, as far as I can tell, Plato imagined that patterns/forms are self-existent ... which is why I characterize (and annoy or even anger Mr Feser in doing so) Plato's Forms as "unthought thoughts."

David said...

Ilíon: It is the design which makes it [more than a] concatenation of atoms.

I'm not sure Dr. Feser is making that mistake – obviously the item participates in the form of mousetrappiness; the question is whether it participates in the "finality" thereof. I think part of the problem is that we have no good way to describe it other than the word "mousetrap", but that word implicitly attributes a purpose even when we want only to describe the formal cause. (I guess in general our language tends to be telic because we are goal-directed creatures in a goal-directed world. Our mathematical terms are, unsurprisingly, form-al; a "circle" describes a pattern without indicating what a circle is for. We lack a good word for "thing with a spring and a moving arm and a catch..." without referring to its purpose; and for a good reason, I'd say, even if it sometimes makes things awkward for philosophers!)

Yes, the design makes a mousetrap more than its matter; even more than its matter + form... that is, if some loose pieces somehow accidentally "fell" together into the form of a mousetrap, it wouldn't really be one. At least, that is the idea behind an extrinsic purpose: we can layer a purpose on top of the matter/form (either by deliberately building the mousetrap, or even by finding the accidental one and christening it as a mousetrap while it's in our possession and under our control... or even merely under our consideration). The catch is that it sure seems like an actual mousetrap even when it snaps alone in the forest with no one to hear it....

Or do you really mean that the formal cause and the final cause are the same thing? They do seem rather inextricable; this may be a difference between a purely Aristotelian view and (what I think needs be) the Thomistic view. It may in fact be the same difference that led Aquinas to conclude an ultimate Final Causer and Aristotle not to. In practice, there can be no formal cause for which God does not see the purpose [or all the possible purposes there could be], and thus there must always be a final cause as well. Actually, given that final and efficient causes are tied together, in some sense opposite sides of the same coin, could not the form be seen as another side of the purpose? (That is to approach the different causes as something which is the same thing in itself, and only looks different when we understand it in one respect or the other, from this side of the elephant or that.)

My opposite reaction is that there is one "real" final cause for a thing that is different from the other "potential" purposes that it might also be able to fill. After all, the whole point of a "final cause" is the end for which the thing was made; and while it's possible to build something to perform multiple functions, it's possible to build it deliberately for one purpose and leave whatever else it may be capable of possible, but not intended... except again, that's fine for we finite-minded humans and not for God. God can't be ignorant of the slight possibility (the way we are all the time), and once (fore)seen by Him, I don't see how He can "unintend" them in any relevant way.

Consider a pun: I can not-intend to make a pun simply because I fail to see the double meaning of a word. But I can also deliberately use a word with multiple meanings and intend just one of them... can't I? Why can't God then do likewise? Consider also transubstantiation; the Thomist has to say "this is [not] a piece of bread simply because God says it is [not], regardless of what form and matter is present". So cannot God equally say "this is not a mousetrap!" even if it has a catch and a spring and all the ingredients and arrangement of a mousetrap... and even though it is perfectly capable of trapping mice? Even perhaps, as it actually traps a mouse?? There's something funny going on here....

Anonymous said...

A-T is but one tool; head to the Plato-Whitehead counter and pick up some new stuff.

Find out how a real philosopher synthesises all that has come before.

Anonymous said...

Ilion:

This isn't exactly true. There *is* a "mousetrappish" and it *is* in the mousetrap -- it's just not in the matter comprising the mousetrap.

But, the design -- the form, the "mousetrappish" -- is a part, the key part, of the mousetrap.


It's not the -ish, man. It's the -ness. The mousetrapness is in the mousetrap.

Ilíon said...

Of course, I meant to type "mousetrappishness."

Edward Feser said...

It's not the -ish, man. It's the -ness.

That is absolutely fantastic. I want a T-shirt with that on it!