Friday, November 25, 2011

TLS and formal causes

The website Apologetics 315 kindly reviews my book The Last Superstition.  I’ll let you check out the nice things said about the book for yourself and cut to the reviewer’s main criticism:

Feser convincingly shows throughout the book that Final Causation is inevitable.  Even if someone might say they don't believe in it, no one can really escape it.  But once the Final Cause is firmly established, Feser tries to sneak in the Formal Cause as well, by piggybacking on top of it.  This seemed insufficient.  Based on what Richard Dawkins in particular has written, evolution itself undermines the Formal Cause.  He claimes [sic] that there is no static 'Form', because life is constantly and mindlessly changing.  Although Feser tackled the Final Cause aspect of this line of thinking extremely well, this reviewer would have liked to hear more about why Dawkins and others are mistaken about Formal Causality specifically.  Especially since so much rests on it.

A lot could be said about formal causes, and it’s true that I don’t say all of it in TLS.  (Useful recent treatments of the subject include chapter 1 of Eleonore Stump’s Aquinas, David Oderberg’s Real Essentialism, and James Ross’s Thought and World.)  But with all due respect to the reviewer, it is not correct to maintain that what I do say in the book amounts to “sneaking in” formal causes alongside final causes, as if the relationship between them were contingent.  It is not contingent.  For every irreducible level of immanent final causality in the natural order, there is necessarily a corresponding irreducible level of formal causality.  

Recall first that for the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) tradition, the fundamental sort of final causality that exists in nature is the “directedness” of an efficient cause toward the generation of its typical effect or range of effects.  It is similar to what contemporary writers on dispositions and causal powers like C. B. Martin, John Heil, Brian Ellis, Nancy Cartwright, and George Molnar have in mind when they speak, for example, of the way dispositions are “directed toward” or “point to” their characteristic “manifestations,” or the way causal powers are “directed toward” their characteristic effects.  Hence the directedness of brittle objects toward shattering, of soluble objects toward dissolving, of the phosphorus in a match head toward generating flame and heat, are instances of finality as that is understood in the A-T tradition.  The A-T view is that unless we regard such “directedness” or “pointing” as immanent or inherent to the natural phenomena that exhibit such dispositions and causal powers, we have no way of making it intelligible why they have the manifestations and effects that they typically do.  Causes and effects, dispositions and manifestations would become inherently “loose and separate,” so that any effect or none might follow upon any cause.  Such Humean fantasies are for A-T an inevitable result of the abandonment of immanent final causes.

Now with that much the reviewer seems to agree; or at least, he allows that TLS makes a strong case for this position.  But what he apparently does not see is that for a cause A to be inherently directed toward the generation of some effect B is just for A to have what the A-T tradition calls a substantial form -- the immanent principle by virtue of which a natural object carries out its characteristic operations.  To deny that A has such a principle is implicitly to deny that A is inherently “directed” toward any particular operations at all, and thus implicitly to deny immanent final causes.  But the notion of substantial form was the core of the Aristotelian-Scholastic doctrine of formal causality.  Hence final causality and formal causality, as those are understood in the A-T tradition, go hand in hand; to affirm the first is to affirm the second.

Another way to make the point is in terms of the distinction between act and potency (or actuality and potentiality).  A potency or potentiality is always a potency for some actuality; to have a potency is to be directed toward or to point to some outcome.  Hence the notion of potency goes hand in hand with that of final cause.  Now as I note in TLS, a thing has the potencies it has only because of the ways in which it is actual; for instance, a rubber ball has the potential to be melted at such-and-such a temperature only because it is actually composed of rubber rather than granite or steel.   And where the potencies a natural object has are concerned, it will have them by virtue of whatever makes it actually the kind of natural substance that it is.  But that is just to say that it has them because of its substantial form; for the substantial form of a thing just is the inherent principle that makes it actually the kind of natural substance it is, with the operations typical of that kind of substance.  To deny that a thing has such a form is to deny that its basic potencies (and thus its directedness toward what those potencies are potencies for) are inherent to it.  Again, immanent finality -- inherently being “directed toward” or “pointing to” some end -- goes hand in hand with formal causality.

Indeed, act and potency, substantial form, final causality, causal powers, essentialism, and so on -- all of these notions form a tightly integrated network, and an understanding of the precise nature of their interrelationships was something Scholastic writers gradually and carefully refined over the course of centuries.  It is no accident that the moderns more or less rejected this network of ideas as a whole when it rejected Scholasticism, and it is no accident that the revival of interest in dispositions, causal powers, and the like in the work of recent analytic philosophers like Martin, Heil, Ellis, Cartwright, and Molnar has gone hand in hand with a revival of essentialism and the appearance in contemporary metaphysics of something like the act/potency distinction (in the distinction between “categorical” and “dispositional” properties) and something like immanent final causality (in e.g. Molnar’s talk of “physical intentionality” and the common suggestion that powers and dispositions are “directed toward” their effects and manifestations).  The language is often different and the details are not always worked out the way the A-T tradition would work them out, but this recent work nevertheless constitutes a partial revival of the Scholastic metaphysical apparatus.  And that so much of the apparatus has been revived by writers with no Thomistic ax to grind is itself a further indication that bringing formal causality in together with final causes is not a matter of “sneaking” something in.  The connection between the notions is, as I say, necessary, not contingent.

Now, that much shows at most only that if you allow immanent final causes at all, you are to that extent committed also to formal causes.  But someone could admit this and still deny formal causes at the level of biology.  He could say, for example, that there is immanent final causality at the level of fundamental physics -- that basic particles, say, have causal powers and dispositions by virtue of which they are “directed at” or “point to” certain effects and manifestations -- but that there is no such finality at any higher level of physical reality.  And in that case, formal causes need be admitted only at the level of physics: Fermions and bosons, say, would have substantial forms, but trees, squirrels, and human beings would not.

But such a position would be plausible only if there were no causal powers at higher levels of physical reality that are irreducible to those described by physics.  And that is simply not the case; at the very least, such reductionism is highly controversial.  Whether even chemistry is reducible to physics is doubted by most philosophers of chemistryReductionism in biology and psychology are notoriously controversial.  Chemical systems, organic systems, and psychological systems have causal properties that are simply impossible (or, to put the point less controversially, at least extremely difficult) to reduce to the causal properties of their basic physical parts.   And even within the biological realm reductionism is more problematic than is often realized.  For example, the traditional Aristotelian view that there is a difference in kind and not degree between sentient life and vegetative life is routinely dismissed as a historical curiosity.  Yet even many naturalistic philosophers admit that it is at least extremely difficult to explain qualia in terms of insensate matter -- not realizing that they are thereby implicitly acknowledging that the old Aristotelian distinction has a serious metaphysical basis after all.  

[One reason why they don’t see this is that contemporary philosophers universally regard “the qualia problem” as a problem in the philosophy of mind rather than the philosophy of biology, and see it as a question of whether or not qualia, understood as “mental” properties, are “physical.”  From an A-T point of view this is entirely wrongheaded, and unreflectively presupposes a post-Cartesian conception both of mind and of matter.  If you think that the intrinsic nature of matter is more or less exhausted by the mathematical description given by physics and that anything that cannot be assimilated to this description exists only in the mind and is wrongly projected onto material reality in perceptual experience, then “qualia” are inevitably going to seem inherently both “mental” and “non-physical.”  But the Aristotelian regards modern physics’ description of matter as nowhere close to exhaustive, but rather as merely an abstraction of mathematical features from something which in its intrinsic nature is far richer than can be captured by mathematics.  Hence the Aristotelian is happy to regard qualia as material, in his sense of “material”; and where the mind is concerned, the material/immaterial divide has in the Aristotelian view to do not with qualia, nor even with intentionality considered as mere “directedness” -- even simple material causes have that -- but rather with intellectual activity in the strict sense: the grasping of concepts, the formation of judgments, and reasoning from one judgment to another.  See chapter 4 of Aquinas for more on this subject.]

Now, if there is irreducible efficient causality at a certain level of physical reality, there is also at that level (given what was said above) a correspondingly irreducible level of final causality.  For instance, if the capacity of a tree to grow roots is irreducible to efficient-causal activity within the physical microstructure of the tree, or if the capacity of an animal to have sensations is irreducible to efficient-causal activity in its nervous system, then the tree’s “directedness” toward the growing of roots and the animal’s “directedness” toward the having of sensations will constitute levels of finality irreducible to the finality exhibited by the components of the physical microstructure.  But then, given what was said above, there will also be levels of formal causality -- substantial forms -- at any such irreducible level of final causality.

Now, the Apologetics 315 reviewer appears to sympathize with my arguments in TLS to the effect that there is indeed irreducible immanent final causality at multiple levels of the natural world -- not only at the level of basic physics, but also with some higher-level inorganic natural processes, at various biological levels, and at the level of human thought and action.  But in that case he should acknowledge (given what has been said above) that such arguments indicate that there is formal causality at each of those levels as well.  Again, final causality and formal causality go hand in hand.

Nothing Dawkins says shows otherwise, because Dawkins lazily supposes (as, in fairness, so many other people do) that what makes something the kind of thing it is (i.e. its form) has something to do with its origin.  That may be true of artifacts -- a watch is a watch only because of the watchmaker’s intentions, since there is nothing inherent in the object itself that gives it its time-telling function -- but it is not true of natural substances.  If a natural substance has causal powers that are irreducible to those of its parts, then it has a substantial form.  How it came into existence -- special divine creation, natural selection, an infinite series of preceding natural substances -- is irrelevant.  To suppose otherwise is to commit one of many errors that follow upon the collapse of the Aristotelian distinction between natural substances and artifacts.

As to the suggestion that “there is no static 'Form', because life is constantly and mindlessly changing,” this sort of talk, though also very common, is just muddleheaded.  If species A gives rise to species B, that does not entail that the form of an A somehow morphed into the form of a B -- whatever that could mean -- but rather that organisms that had the form of A gave rise to organisms with a different form.  The form itself doesn’t change, any more than erasing a triangle from a blackboard changes the form of triangularity.  What happens in that case is that the matter which had the form of a triangle now has the form of a pile of dust particles -- not that the form of triangularity has itself changed, so that the geometry textbooks would have to be rewritten to make reference to dust particles instead!

So, the reviewer’s criticisms miss the point.  But he is right to say that TLS gives more explicit attention to final causality than to formal causality, at least in the latter part of the book.  The reasons for this are that final causality has been the main object of attack among critics of Aristotelianism and Scholasticism, and that among the various interrelated A-T concepts cited above, final causality is the most crucial.  It is not for nothing that Aquinas calls the final cause “the cause of causes.”  Deny that final causality is immanent to the natural world and the whole A-T edifice (the act/potency distinction, substantial forms, etc.) pretty much collapses.  Grant that final causes are immanent to the natural world, and the whole A-T edifice -- together with its implications for natural theology and natural law -- pretty much follows.  Which is no doubt one reason many people are so loath to grant it.

54 comments:

21st Century Scholastic said...

I still have some trouble understanding the notion of intrinsic teleology. It looks like the necessitarian view of the laws of nature (that Aristotle and Aquinas implicitly held) is incompatible with final causes since effects are necessary, and they couldn't be different from what they are.

Necessitarianism follows from the fact that 1) laws of nature are really the laws of natures and 2) every thing has the same essence in every possible world. As Alexander Bird has showed, for example, salt is necessarily soluble in water: if you change its molecular structure, coulomb's law and Newton's second law appraently end up in the trash (and, conversely, "the existence of salt necessitates the truth of coulomb's law" - Bird 2001, p. 269). So it's pointless to ask, "Why doesn't salt explode or turn the water into syrup when it's immersed in it, instead of dissolving?" (it would be like asking "Why does 3x2=6 and not 5, or 7, or 99?"!).

Prof. Feser affirmed that "this just pushes the problem back a stage, to the question of why the molecular structure has the particular efficacy it has rather than some other". But this looks both dangerous and false. Dangerous because Thomas' conception (for example) of natural law wholly depends on how things are, and their being necessarily what they are; for example, lying is necessaily wrong 'cause the end of our faculties of communication is to share the truth with others.
IOW, we would be pushing teleology outside of the natural world and treating laws not as abstractions from the natures of objects, but as independently existing things which exert causal activity on the world = the view of the early mechanists such as Newton or Kepler! Having denied the reality of essences, they had no choice but to "push" laws out of the material world, turning them into bizarre "abstract" objects created by God. This view is very different from the classical one.

21st Century Scholastic said...

Moreover, it is false because it seems any molecular structure cannot exist (and be what it is) without producing a particular effect. A match generates fire when struck, and not the smell of lilies, because the fine particles of glass contained in the head, when scratched, produce heat - which turns the red phosphorus into its white version and starts a complex reaction which lits the match on fire. No need to appeal to final causes here: the match does "that" because of how it is. (To produce the smell of lilies, for example, the match would have to produce the right kind of aroma molecules, which is obviously impossible - it just doesn't have the right structure to produce them) Ari and Thomas obviously didn't know anything about molecular structure and chemical processes, but we do. And as i think i've shown, if you're a necessitarian about laws as they were, this contradicts the belief in final causes and intrinsic teleology.
P.S. Note how this applies even to other examples of teleology such as DNA, which one could describe as intricate chains of efficient causes leading to the development of some phenotipic traits instead of others.

So i'm puzzled when Aristotle, in reply to Democritus, says that "Now [the operations of nature] are necessary, it is true, but yet they are for a final cause and for the sake of what is best in each case. Thus nothing prevents the teeth from being formed and being shed in this way; but it is not on account of these causes but on account of the end". How would this be possible? And, how could this be true??

TheOFloinn said...

Sounds like the finality is really really embedded in nature. That salt dissolves because of certain efficient causes does not rebut the view that these efficient causes combine to produce these results. It simply emphasized the tight connections between efficient and final and material and formal causation.

NN said...

@21st Century Scholastic

St. Thomas and Aristotle hold a very different view of necessity. In Book II Chapter 9 of the Physics Aristotle seems to hold that the only necessity (or at least the primary kind of necessity in nature) is that a end requires a certain kind of material to come about. Nevertheless, natural processes are really contingent: that is, the material and efficient causes do not, of themselves, necessitate any particular effect, an position validated to some extent by Quantum Mechanics.

Anonymous said...

Hello

I'd be very grateful if somebody answered to my ignorant questions.
I don't really get the natural law theory and its consequences on sexual morality.
According to natural law theory it isn't right to have sexual intercourse with same gender because there isn't any aspect of procreation. This I understand.

But is it wrong to have sexual relationship with infertile man or with pregnant woman, because then the procreation is impossible too. And what if your husband is infertile? Is it righteous to separate and find a fertile one?

Thank you

man with a computer said...

That's weird. You'd think that someone who accepts the notion of final causality would have no problem accepting the other three.

dguller said...

I think that the problem can be elucidated by looking at “baldness”, as per an analysis by Dennett. Say you start with a full head of hair, which is obviously not bald, and start picking one hair out at a time. At some point, the head that was previously full of hair becomes bald, but there is no precise demarcation where the head was not bald, and then you pull out a single hair, and then it becomes bald.

What this is supposed to show is that the idea that forms can be sharply demarcated from one another according to fixed essences is often misplaced, because there are vague grey areas where there simply is no precision. There are examples where something is clearly X, and examples where something is clearly not-X, but there is often a grey area between X and not-X. And if there is no clear demarcation showing where X becomes Y (for example), then the idea of fixed essences seems problematic.

When you look at evolution, the idea is that if you trace the evolutionary history of many organisms, there is not a clear-cut point where one organism evolves into another, but a gradual progression that only shows a demarcation after many reproductive events, much like pulling out hair eventually results in baldness, but we cannot identity when this happened.

Tony said...

"Now [the operations of nature] are necessary, it is true, but yet they are for a final cause and for the sake of what is best in each case.

I think Ari is speaking in shorthand here. A typical Ari phrase is that nature acts always or for the most part. This formulation clearly allows for contingency. There are some natural causes that act always, and others (especially complex ones that employ a multitude of sub-component stages) that act only for the most part. The form of a complex entity like a horse does not necessarily - i.e. with necessity and so with perfect success each time - rightly order and dispose all of the subcomponent causes into a perfect order; the horse operating under its form operates contingently.

Aquinas3000 said...

My main issue with the treatment of formal causes in TLS and Aquinas is substantial forms are often illustrated using what are actually accidental artificial forms (i.e a ball). You need to be careful not to label these "substantial forms."

Aquinas3000 said...

"No need to appeal to final causes here: the match does "that" because of how it is."

That is final causality... It is directed to that end because of the sort of thing it is. Of course if you are a different sort of thing then you will have different structure, that's just obvious.

Damien S said...

Ed

Have you seen Michael Gorman's paper The Essential and the Accidental?

He explains dispositions like an atom's proneness to bond by the more basic essential features of the atom - which is its number of protons.

So it would appear from his paper that the final cause (proneness to bond) is explained by the formal cause (the structure of the atom).

http://faculty.cua.edu/gorman/Gorman%20The%20Essential%20and%20the%20Accidental%20FINAL%20preprint.pdf

Water molecules are very similar. Many of water's properties are explained by the weak hydrogen bond between H2O molecules but this is only possible because of the peculiar structure of the H2O molecule in the first place.

NN said...

@Damien S

Since nature is a principle of motion and rest, it seems right to say that the essence gives rise to ends. Considered from the perspective of action, however, the reverse seems true: the simple conjunction of material and agent cannot explain the form produced, to explain this the final cause must be brought in. Thus, could one say that the formal cause is prior in esse while the final in fieri?

machinephilosophy said...

Aquinas,

I'm actually sympathetic to the 4-cause theory and even its arguments, although the jury is still out in my corner of the universe.

"final causality... It is directed to that end because of the sort of thing it is."

But why does it have to be described as "directed" instead of, say, "it tends to subsequent states , partly at least because of the kind of thing it is." "Directed" seems to already bias the issue in advance, unless I've missed some previous argument on this.

Aquinas3000 said...

I would see directed and tends as being the same thing. Or put another way if you preferred to use the word tend I wouldn't have a problem.

Hugh said...

"The form itself doesn’t change, any more than erasing a triangle from a blackboard changes the form of triangularity."

A low-level supporting example from my own experience:

Here in Australia, a few years back, you'd sometimes go to call someone and get this message from the phone company: "The number you have called is now changed. The number is now (blah blah blah)."

I understood perfectly what was intended, but I suspect not a few contributors to this blog would have the same reaction as I did to these words... "How can an number change? How can 5 become 3? 5 is always 5, in saecula saeculorum!"

So whenever I see someone shaking their fist at an (increasingly rare) payphone, I don't assume it's a marital breakdown going on. I'm thinking it could be a much more profound divorce between a T-A and a reductionist communications provider.

Excellent post as always, Dr Feser - it'll take me a few goes to read and digest.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous November 25, 2011 4:28

I think the difference between a) homosexual activity and b) sex between one man and one women, one of them being born infertile, is like the difference between a) eating something and then deliberately vomiting it up, and b) eating something and unwillingly vomiting it up because of sickness. Both are unnatural, but the one deserves blame the other pity.

Something is evil if it is against nature; and morally evil if it is deliberately against nature. Good, if it furthers ones nature and perfects it, morally good if it this done deliberately.

Anonymous said...

And in the case of sex between two different sexes, the sexual act by itself is natural, it is only the infertility which is unnatural. In the case of homosexual activity, every aspect of it is unnatural.

George R. said...

Ed writes:
As to the suggestion that “there is no static 'Form', because life is constantly and mindlessly changing,” this sort of talk, though also very common, is just muddleheaded. If species A gives rise to species B, that does not entail that the form of an A somehow morphed into the form of a B -- whatever that could mean -- but rather that organisms that had the form of A gave rise to organisms with a different form. The form itself doesn’t change. . .


This is rather nugatory.

It’s true that forms do not change per se. But if the subject in which the form inheres is subject to change, then the latter able to change per accidens. E.g. if water on a lake happens to be choppy, no one should then argue that the choppiness of the lake is a “static form;” for the subject in which the choppiness inheres, i.e., the water, is quite changeable. And as the wind dies down the surface of the lake will gradually become calm. The same is true for all accidental forms; for accidental forms inhere in determinate matter, and determinate matter is subject to motion. What Ed should have said is that the reason that substantial forms are “static forms” is because they inhere in PRIMARY matter, which is not subject to any motion whatsoever.

Anonymous said...

"morally evil if it is deliberately against nature."

So damming a river is morally evil.

How the hell do you know what is against nature?

Anonymous said...

"How the hell do you know what is against nature?"

By... investigating the question using reason?

George R. said...

Ed writes:

If a natural substance has causal powers that are irreducible to those of its parts, then it has a substantial form. How it came into existence -- special divine creation, natural selection, an infinite series of preceding natural substances -- is irrelevant.

This is somewhat misleading.

There are two ways by which a substance can come into existence: creation or generation. Natural selection is neither of those ways. Therefore, natural selection cannot cause a substance.

And neither can NS affect generation in such a way that a new substance emerges that previous generations didn’t produce. The reason is that all substantial forms, upon which all substances depend to make them what they are, are immediately from God. For, since substances constitute all of nature, and substantial forms are the cause of substances, it’s metaphysically impossible that substantial forms be caused by nature -- and a fortiori are they not able to be caused by NS.

machinephilosophy said...

Ed,

Superb and provocative analysis.

"for every irreducible level of immanent final causality in the natural order, there is necessarily a corresponding irreducible level of formal causality."

Now in what way, if any, would that be logically related to claiming that to know that there is some final cause is to necessarily assume a corresponding formal cause either simultaneously with or prior to knowing that final cause?

And do they correspond merely in the fact of their having a common effect?

I'm still plodding through Superstition, so this may still be ahead in my reading.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous November 26, 2011 2:55 PM

"So damming a river is morally evil."

I did not use the term "nature" in the sense of "untouched by humans", but rather in the sense of "essence". A river has no inherent powers or dispositions qua being a river. It is just a stream of water.

I should add that moral good and evil regard mainly human nature, especially ones own.

"How the hell do you know what is against nature?"

Observe the being in question and notice to what its powers and tendencies are ordered and you'll get a sense of its nature.

Anonymous said...

Notes

We know what a thing is (its nature) by what it does.

There is more than one kind of necessity. Check out the distinction between "antecedent necessity" (which concerns essence as necessarily having certain properties and the potential for certain kinds of behavior) and consequent necessity (which follows upon contingent givens). Being able to reason is an antecedent necessity in man. Charlie's desire for that piece of pie is a consequent necessity dependent on his existing (contingently) and being (contingently( in the presence of the pie.

machinephilosophy said...

"notice to what [a being's] powers and tendencies are ordered"

Isn't "ordered" already smuggling in teleology here? I made a similar comment about "directedness", and this seems like the same thing all over again somehow.

Also, are you saying that things like rivers are not "beings"?

I would say that knowing an object's nature is knowing a set of its successive states of being, and calculating probabilities (because contingency is a potential for change), however intuitively, heuristically, or subconsciously that may be prior to reflective analysis.

Yet it also seems like one has to know something minimal about an object to grasp even its smallest appreciable "state", multiples of which are the basis of a more explicit larger sampling of states which makes up a consciously grasped knowledge of its overall nature.

machinephilosophy said...

Aquinas,

That may help me to sharpen the focus of this question. Final causality tends to subsequent states because of the nature of the object in question.

However, this seems to imply that any object at one moment proceeds to the next moment in its state of being because of its state at the previous moment.

I just don't see that this is anything more than saying finite contingent objects exist in sequences of moments.

djindra said...

Anonymous,

"So damming a river is morally evil."

It's not evil when one learns it's okay to take a subjective view of such things. Sometimes the "final cause" of a river bank is not quite final enough. It's "good" to help out nature in situations like this. It's called situational final cause. It's closely related, but not identical, to moral relativism.

Anonymous said...

"It's closely related, but not identical, to moral relativism."

Heh ;-)

Anonymous said...

"It's called situational final cause."

Oh Djindra. Never stop being what you are. You know: a liar who doesn't know what he's talking about. ;)

Anonymous said...

I've said it before. Metaphysicians have to make empirically based judgements just like everyone else about what 'nature' and 'final cause' and 'purpose' are. They have no special insight.

Pattsce said...

Anon,

It's so interesting you mentioned rivers. Philippa Foot (one of my favorites) discusses just that when discussing morality and ends. An excerpt from an interview:

"The thought is, that first of all there is a difference in the way we talk about living things and non-living things. Just leave aside artifacts – they’re a bit like one and a bit like the other. I’ll put that aside.

Rivers are interesting because they’re natural things and they have a pattern of development through the seasons as living things do, and yet you cannot talk about a river as being defective. Of course it can be defective from our point of view, from the point of view of irrigation or animals or something like that but not in its own right, not autonomously as I say."

And "In the everyday use of language we do say “it should” meaning “it was about to” or “they usually do” or something like that. But that’s not the same ‘should’; that pattern doesn’t give you the kind of natural defect. This is what I’m identifying here – the difference between the two. That’s why, as I said, I think moral evaluation belongs within a whole set of concepts which apply to living things only. You see, rivers don’t flourish. Of course we can say the river is flourishing, but then it is a sort of jokey use. It doesn’t literally flourish, it doesn’t literally die. You could say the star died but you obviously would mean something different because they’re not members of a species of living things. I’m not in the least fighting the everyday language, but a star being born is very, very different to any member of a species being born. They haven’t got this pattern of one and then another of the same kind coming from it. Rivers don’t spawn rivers. They can’t literally be born or die, and there is in their case no species in which a function could be identified. Of course anything we make can have a function, but the parts of animals and their movements can have function quite apart from anything that we do or want. A spider’s web has a function. What’s the function of it? Is it to keep predators at bay? No, it’s to catch food. That’s a very straightforward, ordinary thing to say. That’s the function of it. Then the function of whatever part of the spider secretes sticky stuff is for making webs; and webs are for getting food. And food is for sustenance, to keep the spider going, and other things it will need in order to reproduce."

All of that comes from http://www.philosophynow.org/issue41/Philippa_Foot. Most interesting to note, of course, is her distinction between living things and non-living things. She doesn't directly mention final and formal causes here, but it's clearly what she's addressing. I just thought it was interesting that the first thing you went to was rivers---which feel alive, but aren't.

Mr. Green said...

But such a position would be plausible only if there were no causal powers at higher levels of physical reality that are irreducible to those described by physics.  And that is simply not the case; at the very least, such reductionism is highly controversial. 

Indeed; though of course "irreductionism" is controversial too (at least from this particular avenue), insofar as we cannot as of today prove it one way or the other from the science alone. But in one sense the science is surely irrelevant — suppose we learned everything about physics and chemistry and biology and the latter two could be "reduced" (empirically) to the former. That would not prove that organisms reduce to matter metaphysically as well, for big chunks of biology and chemistry already reduce to physics, and God could certainly have designed the universe so that every biological or chemical feature happened to correspond to some collective physical feature.

Conversely, God could have created a universe in which assembling physical bits of matter in the right way to generate an organism resulted in a being that in no way acted like the sum of its (merely physical) parts. But is there any non-arbitrary way to identify a given law as "biological" rather than "physical"? If we discover a biological law X, what's to stop someone classifying it as a law of physics instead? It may seen "different" from the other physical laws, but if we look only at the "outsides" and not the metaphysical forms underneath — which is of course exactly what science does — then a die-hard reductionist could always take an irreducible law of biology or chemistry and call it a "funny new" law of physics, right?

Note that I'm not saying one interpretation isn't more reasonable than another, or that this gets around the metaphysical facts. But suppose that, say, on getting to heaven we discover that God has created another universe, completely separate from ours (and for simplicity with no rational inhabitants). Suppose that this universe is so unlike ours that our intuitions and common sense are of no use in distinguishing living beings from inanimate matter. I don't think we could tell from the science whether this universe had a biology or where the dividing line was from physics.

(P.S. Do rivers exist? That is, if rivers aren't organisms, are they just "accidents", a random collection of water molecules, like rocks strewn across a landscape? (The similarities are more evident if the rocks are moving too, as in an avalanche.) Are rivers and avalanches metaphors? Projections? Divine artifacts?)

Mr. Green said...

If you think that the intrinsic nature of matter is more or less exhausted by the mathematical description given by physics and that anything that cannot be assimilated to this description exists only in the mind and is wrongly projected onto material reality in perceptual experience, then “qualia” are inevitably going to seem inherently both “mental” and “non-physical.”  But the Aristotelian regards modern physics’ description of matter as nowhere close to exhaustive, but rather as merely an abstraction of mathematical features from something which in its intrinsic nature is far richer than can be captured by mathematics. 

There's something going on with qualia, though. Is it the Aristotelian idea that "experiencing green" is simply to hold the form of greenness in one's mind, just as "understanding roundness" is to hold the form of sphericity? It seems simple enough for a green ball to participate in the form of Greenness just as it participates in Roundness, i.e. the greenness is a real objective property of the ball. However, the interesting thing is how that information is communicated to us. We can observe roundness by, say, quantitatively measuring the positions of points on the ball and seeing that they fit the formula x²+y²=z² (which is just how mathematicians spell "roundness"). When we observe the quality of being green, however, it too is mediated by quantities — such as the electrical signals and programming that take the image from a camera, send it down wires, and reconstitute it on your screen. (And the similar activities going on in your eye and brain, etc.) In fact, the signal could be generated by something that is not a green object at all (like a computer program) and we nevertheless have the result of seeing something green. But then why should we suppose that anything is "really" green, rather than merely causing green sensations? (There is at the minimum a common-sense argument, of course; but that's not conclusive. One could non-conclusively run Ockham's razor in the opposite direction and suppose that all objects cause qualia in the same way, i.e. indirectly.)

Also, if qualitative experience depends upon the intellect, then animals do not experience qualia (at least not in the way we do) — which is very useful for answering questions about animal pain, but counter-intuitive. On the other hand, if it is something else, then not only would animals experience qualia, but it seems machines would too, which is also counter-intuitive.

Anonymous said...

Pattsce,

I'm not so convinced.

This goes to the previous posts on "function" and where I think that concept fails. All we need do is look at the creative action of evolution and brains to see that no single use for anything - not even a primary use - can be determined. The very act of claiming the function of x is y suppresses human creativity and limits our understanding of the natural world. The one thing that is inherent in the universe is change. To claim that homosexuality is a disorder and because of that claim their rights must be suspended is incoherent. That humans and other primates cannot synthesize ascorbic acid, but almost all other mammals can, would seem to make us all "disordered." Certainly the "natural state" of mammals would includes the capacity to produce ascorbic acid. Shouldn't all humans forgo procreation to avoid transmitting our "disordered state" to our offspring?

Pattsce said...

Anon,

I feel like you're missing a lot here or passing over things too quickly. I'll address some of the what you mentioned directly though. Evolution is not "creative." I don't even know what that means. I'm also not really all that sure our brains are "creative"---at least not in the sort of "I'm a free spirit who can imagine and define anything to make it so" modern way. Regardless, even if it were free in that way, it wouldn't change what reason dictates when analyzing the metaphysical nature of a thing. That is, I can be very "creative" and say that an eye isn't for seeing but is instead for grinding up and making paint out of, but it would hardly be convincing. Why? Because our eyes are pointed at a greater end---our surviving by seeing. And our survival is pointed at a greater end---our wills and minds ascertaining truth. And our wills are pointed at an even greater end---and then you get into Aquinas.

You're completely misunderstanding what "natural" means in the Aristotelian context, though. Natural here means having the characteristics that allow the thing to reach its end. It does Not mean being born with (genetically) a particular feature or chromosome or whatever. The first is a metaphysical definition, the second is a physical one. (If it's even right to break it up that way, I don't know.) If every person in the world were suddenly born blind (or with down syndrome, whatever) tomorrow (for whatever reason: mutation, poison, etc.), it would not be appropriate to call their blindness "natural" in the relevant sense. Even if blind people were the majority type of people on the planet. They would be defective because they would be less able to fulfill their end as human beings.

As far as homosexual sex is concerned (and I had no idea this was about homosexuality; I was just talking about rivers), homosexual sex frustrates the end of sex, which frustrates the end of a person. You can be really "creative" and say that penises are Actually for cutting off, blending, and drinking, but this would again ignore reason. But just to be a little more fair, you could say sex and penises are for "pleasure," which I wouldn't even disagree with. But what is the pleasure pointed at? The getting of the sperm out of the penis. And why ought the sperm come out?

Also, I don't really buy the modern appeal to "rights" as if they are some neutral a priori thing that everyone has to respect. Why do homosexuals, or any person, have "rights" as you've identified here. And what exactly Are those rights? And how do you identify them without appealing to arbitrary creative feelings? It's a modern, go-to "gotcha" that is just a little bit annoying to me. (I don't deny that certain "rights" exist (probably not in the sense you're using it here, though); I just don't like when people appeal to some moral absolute when the nature of morality is what is being discussed in the first place.)

Mr. Green said...

Dguller: What this is supposed to show is that the idea that forms can be sharply demarcated from one another according to fixed essences is often misplaced, because there are vague grey areas where there simply is no precision. There are examples where something is clearly X, and examples where something is clearly not-X, but there is often a grey area between X and not-X. And if there is no clear demarcation showing where X becomes Y (for example), then the idea of fixed essences seems problematic.

Just because the difference between some X and Y is not "clear" doesn't mean there isn't one. There's no specific number of hairs at which someone becomes bald because the word does not specify an exact number of hairs (and deliberately so, since it wouldn't be very useful if you had to know the precise number). But there is an exact number of hairs at any point, whether anybody knows what it is or not. Similarly, each organism in an evolutionary chain has some specific form, but whether we can identify the exact form at each exact point in time is a different question. (Or whether we care!)

Ray Ingles said...

Pattsce - "Because our eyes are pointed at a greater end---our surviving by seeing."

Did you know the sclera of apes and other primates is about the same color and brightness as their irises? The contrast is quite low.

It turns out experiments have shown that apes and other primates don't pick up on where humans - or their fellow primates - are looking very well. They note where the head is pointing, but don't pick up on where the eyes are pointing.

Whereas even baby humans note where people's gazes are pointing, regardless of where the head is angled. The high contrast between the sclera and the iris - unique to humans - simplifies this enormously.

So our eyes don't just take in information - they are 'designed' to convey information to others as well. Bodyguards and soldiers wear sunglasses to close off this channel of communication.

Is there anything in the biological world - sex especially - that has only one 'end'? I'm having trouble coming up with an example...

Anonymous said...

"Is there anything in the biological world - sex especially - that has only one 'end'? I'm having trouble coming up with an example..."

Are you also having trouble with the idea that multiple ends in this sense is not a problem for the metaphysical view in question?

Anonymous said...

@Anon

"Are you also having trouble with the idea that multiple ends in this sense is not a problem for the metaphysical view in question?"

It's nice to know your muddled metaphysics allows for multiple ends for the penis.

Again... How the hell do you know when it allows for multiple ends and what the end is?

I'll wait for the convoluted answer.

Ray Ingles said...

Anon@November 29, 2011 5:08 PM -

"Are you also having trouble with the idea that multiple ends in this sense is not a problem for the metaphysical view in question?"

It does throw kind of a wrench into the idea that homosexual sex simply cannot serve any legitimate 'end', though. Not every act of heterosexual sex serves all the purported 'ends', either.

(BTW, I actually came up with an example of something in nature with only one purpose or end: the clitoris. Even the head of the penis isn't just for pleasure; there's evidence it's shaped to 'scoop out' any rival semen that happens to be present in the vagina. But the clitoris is only there for transmitting pleasurable sensations.)

Anonymous said...

Ray: "Is there anything in the biological world - sex especially - that has only one 'end'? I'm having trouble coming up with an example..."

Ray, what other natural ways are there for humans (and other primates, etc) to reproduce?

Anonymous said...

Ray said: "It does throw kind of a wrench into the idea that homosexual sex simply cannot serve any legitimate 'end', though. Not every act of heterosexual sex serves all the purported 'ends', either."

Not every car made by Ford actually drove off the assembly line, either.
I mean how is your argument valid, given that people can for example be defective in certain aspects (take someone who is infertile because of mumps orchitis) or that some people reject the natural purpose and engage in sex purely for pleasure or domination? Some people also use hair curlers as suppositories. Should Braun rebrand itself as a sex toy manufacturer?

Ray Ingles said...

Anon@November 30, 2011 9:02 AM -

"some people reject the natural purpose and engage in sex purely for pleasure or domination"

Why is reproduction "the" purpose, as opposed to "a" purpose among others?

"Some people also use hair curlers as suppositories. Should Braun rebrand itself as a sex toy manufacturer?"

Are they wrong to do so? I mean, just because Braun didn't manufacture them for that purpose, does that mean that they can't be suitable for that purpose?

Check out any random Jackie Chan movie. He makes anything – frying pans, bikes, ladders, ladles, garden hoses, anything – into a weapon. Exactly why is the ‘telos’ he gives those objects any less valid than the purposes they are marketed under?

Anonymous said...

Ray reproduction would be the primary purpose. Do you know of any other ways to reproduce naturally?

Otherwise WHY produce and release semen and waste resources doing so? Why orgasm during ejaculation and why is that the time of maximum pleasure? Why have an incredibly complicated endocrine feedback system which also affects emotions, metabolism, libido and so on? Why innervate the external reproductive organs with nerve endings which stimulate pleasure areas of the brain? Why do most people find mature secondary sexual characteristics a sexual turn on (presence of pubic hair, breasts)? These correlate with fertility. Why are children and grandmothers and even pregnant women a turn off for most?
Why have breastfeeding reduce libido?
Why correlate sexual attractiveness with fertility in women?

Why is it when sex is used for pleasure only, it leads to problems, such as emotional problems and STIs which evolved ONLY because people chose to use sex inappropriately?

Jackie Chan films are comedies. We would not laugh at them if we all used pots and pans the way Jackie uses them. It is the inappropriate nature and behaviour of Jackie which is funny.

Ray Ingles said...

Anon@November 30, 2011 11:23 AM -
"reproduction would be the primary purpose. Do you know of any other ways to reproduce naturally?"

Not for humans. But I direct your attention to things like sweat. Not only is it a cooling mechanism - I suppose you might call that its 'primary purpose' - it's also a means of waste elimination and pheromone distribution, among other things. Which purpose is 'primary' at any point depends on the context.

The thing is, sex isn't just for reproduction even in nature. I'm sure you've heard of the bonobo ('pygmy') chimpanzees, where sex - in all combinations of genders - unmistakably serves a social role.

Eating isn't just fueling the body. In humans, it forms a major avenue for social bonding (practically every major social occasion is accompanied by a meal). "Breaking bread together" is a cliche for a reason. Look at communion - a rather ultimate case of eating serving pretty much entirely a social, spiritual purpose. It's not like the wafer and a sip of wine provide any significant fuel for the body - so why bother? Isn't it perverse?

Anonymous said...

Ray, thanks for your reply.

"Not for humans. But I direct your attention to things like sweat. Not only is it a cooling mechanism - I suppose you might call that its 'primary purpose' - it's also a means of waste elimination and pheromone distribution, among other things. Which purpose is 'primary' at any point depends on the context."

I guess pheromone distribution would not be essential to survival nor to reproduction. My cousin has anosmia (no sense of smell) and is quite a bit of a lady's man, himself. Waste elimination is also not a primary purpose. Even people in renal failure do not compensate for the loss of kidney function by over perspiring. But this does not mean sweating can't have multiple purposes, even though there is a primary one.

"The thing is, sex isn't just for reproduction even in nature. I'm sure you've heard of the bonobo ('pygmy') chimpanzees, where sex - in all combinations of genders - unmistakably serves a social role."

Right. But without reproduction there would be no Bonobos to socialise in the first place. I think this is a good pointer that reproduction is still the primary goal there. Bonobos also socialise through other ways, as do people. Often people form stronger bonds independently of sex, for example through ideology, common goals, friendships or even through taking part in combat in a war situation or some other bad experience.

"Eating isn't just fueling the body. In humans, it forms a major avenue for social bonding (practically every major social occasion is accompanied by a meal)."

Yes, but again it has a main function. Don't fuel your body, you die. Do it inappropriately, you suffer and could also die prematurely. I (and many I know), for example, socialise with many people but don't break bread with them, very often. We can tell the main function objectively too (we have digestive systems which convert starch into glucose which is absorbed, is converted into ATP etc) while the latter socialising function can be culturally dependent. I guess the Wafer is nourishment for the soul.

When we eat too much or inappropriate food (say we over indulge in party foods or alcohol) we end up suffering. I guess we've breached the nourishing function of food then, even though the social function may be enhanced at least initially.

StoneTop said...

Why is it when sex is used for pleasure only, it leads to problems, such as emotional problems and STIs which evolved ONLY because people chose to use sex inappropriately?

Always is a fairly strong term there... STD's don't spontaneously generate when people have sex for pleasure, indeed transmission via sexual intercourse is often one of many ways that "STDs" can transmit between individuals (from mother to child, through saliva, etc...)

djindra said...

Ray Ingles,

"Eating isn't just fueling the body."

We must also note that eating apples is a moral hazard since apples are meant strictly for reproduction of apple trees.

Anonymous said...

We must also note that eating apples is a moral hazard since apples are meant strictly for reproduction of apple trees.

What genius. The next time I see an apple tree eating apples, I'll remember to chastise it severely.

Ray Ingles said...

Anon - "Even people in renal failure do not compensate for the loss of kidney function by over perspiring."

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1606288/?page=1

"These findings indicate that stimulated sweating can be used as a valuable adjunct to chronic intermittent haemodialysis."

Does a person sin against the 'real purpose' of sweating if they take a 30-minute hot bath once a day to remove built-up metabolites and toxins?

"But without reproduction there would be no Bonobos to socialise in the first place. I think this is a good pointer that reproduction is still the primary goal there."

Can you give me a definition of 'primary purpose'? So far as I can glean, you mean 'a purpose for which no other means can be substituted', is that right?

"When we eat too much or inappropriate food (say we over indulge in party foods or alcohol) we end up suffering. I guess we've breached the nourishing function of food then, even though the social function may be enhanced at least initially."

And the tradeoff is not worth it because...

Gabriel Austin said...

Mary Midgley seems to have disposed of Mr. Dawkin's illogical arguments quite convincingly. She then gave up writing that to continue would be crushing a butterfly on the wheel. Dawkins complained that she was mean.

The physicist, Fr. Stanley Jaki, regularly quote A.N. Whitehead's observation that "people whose purpose is to deny purpose make for an interesting study".

Thursday said...

So, is eating candy equivalent to having sex with contraception? There is no nutritive value to it.

Ian said...

At my own blog I have further discussion of final causes and dispositions.

Martin said...

"Something is evil if it is against nature (...) Natural here means having the characteristics that allow the thing to reach its end. (...) homosexual sex frustrates the end of sex (...) You could say sex and penises are for pleasure, which I wouldn't even disagree with. But what is the pleasure pointed at?"

Does this mean that downhill skiing is immoral? As far as I can tell, the main purpose of legs and feet is to move us to other places, whereas downhill skiing at a resort consists of strapping planks to your feet and going in circles for hours, just for fun.

And if it's acceptable to forgo the use of your feet and instead use a (more efficient) car, does that mean that if some efficient artificial method of producing children were available, it would count as "natural" to use that instead of sex?

I'm just trying to understand what "natural" and "moral" mean in a Thomistic context.