Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Reading Rosenberg, Part V

In the previous installment of our look at Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, we began to examine what Rosenberg has to say about biological phenomena.  This time I want to take a brief detour and consider some of what Rosenberg says about the subject in his book Darwinian Reductionism.  I noted that while Atheist’s Guide pushes a generally uncompromising eliminative materialist line, Rosenberg resists the “eliminativist” label where issues in the philosophy of biology are concerned, and presents his views in that field as reductionist.  Darwinian Reductionism (a more serious book than Atheist’s Guide, and of independent interest) explains why.

I have emphasized that though Rosenberg offers no serious criticisms of theism, though his own positive philosophical claims are preposterous, and though his core argument for the scientism on which his entire position rests is worthless, he is nevertheless a more serious thinker than the likes of Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, or other New Atheists.  The reason is that Rosenberg is more consistent than these other writers, and he is more consistent because he understands (as they do not) the grave philosophical challenges facing naturalism.  In particular, he understands that a consistent naturalist must take a radically eliminativist line vis-à-vis intentionality -- that the naturalist must deny that meaning of any sort exists, even at the level of human thought and language.  And he understands that the reason why the naturalist must take this line is that it follows from the claim that there is no teleology or final causality inherent in the natural order.  Or at least, once you make that anti-Aristotelian move -- a move which (as I have argued at length) was definitive of modern philosophy -- and you affirm also that the natural order is all that exists, there is no way consistently to affirm that intentionality is a real feature of the world.  For intentionality essentially involves “directedness” toward an object, as a thought is “directed” toward what the thought is about or a word is “directed” toward what the word means.  And to deny that there is any teleology or final causality immanent to the natural order just is to deny that there is any “directedness” of any sort in it -- that there is anything that points beyond itself to some end, goal, or object.  (For more on intentionality, see the relevant posts among my many posts on the mind-body problem.)

The intentionality of words is commonly said to be derived, insofar as, apart from human interpreters and their linguistic conventions, the sounds and ink squiggles we think of as words would be entirely devoid of meaning.  “The cat is on the mat” would, apart from us, have no more semantic content than “blah blah blah.”  The intentionality of a thought, by contrast, is commonly said to be original insofar as it is inherent to our thoughts in a way it is not inherent to words.  We use otherwise meaningless ink squiggles and noises to convey meaning, but no one is using our thoughts as instruments to convey meaning.  They just have it, and are the source of the meaning of words and the like.  The eliminativist is committed to the claim that not only what we think of as words, but even our thoughts are really as meaningless as “blah blah blah” is.  For if original intentionality exists, then there exists something irreducibly “directed” toward an object, which there can’t be if there is no teleology in nature.  And without original intentionality, no derived intentionality can exist either.

This position informs Darwinian Naturalism, where Rosenberg writes:

The problem of naturalistically explaining the original intentionality of the human (and infrahuman) brain is perhaps the most serious fundamental challenge facing neuroscience and its philosophy.  No one has yet solved it…  Indeed, if human intentionality turns out to be derived from some evolutionary process as yet unimagined (and it will have to be unimagined so far, if it is to prove “unmysterious”), it will turn out that both artifacts and genomes will be on a par, neither of them deriving their intentionality directly from something with nonderived intentionality, and both tracing their intentionality back to evolution by natural selection.  Of course, as I indicated above, I am dubious that natural selection can actually produce original intentionality in the brain or anywhere else, and so it cannot produce derived intentionality either.  Both will, on my view, turn out to be illusions, like the purposes we overlay on nature and that natural selection has dispelled. (p. 108)

As I have said, I think this eliminativist position is the one a consistent naturalist has to take.  For to say that “directedness” is real but external to the natural order is essentially to adopt a Cartesian position; while to say that it is real and intrinsic to the natural order is essentially to return to an Aristotelian position.  And either way, naturalism will have been abandoned.  A serious naturalist, then, either has to find some way out of this dilemma -- the dilemma of having to choose either eliminativism or some form of anti-naturalism -- or follow Rosenberg in adopting eliminativism and then try to find a way to make eliminativism something other than the incoherent mess that I (and many others) have argued that it is.  Whatever his faults, Rosenberg faces up to the problem in a way that ignorant hacks like Coyne do not.

Or at least he does where the mind is concerned.  While his position also entails (as I suggested in my previous post) a kind of eliminativism about organic phenomena, Rosenberg in general tries, as I have said, to hew to a less radical, reductionist line in the philosophy of biology.  Not that even that line isn’t radical.  Rosenberg’s complaint in Darwinian Reductionism is that most of his fellow naturalists are not sufficiently reductionist.  Like him, they tend to be physicalists, holding that the physical facts fix all the facts; but unlike him, most of them resist reductionism in biology.  Rosenberg (rightly, in my view) regards this position as incoherent.  But rather than taking that as a reason to abandon physicalism (which is what it is), he takes it as a reason to endorse reductionism (committed as he is to physicalism -- though there is even less in the way of argument for physicalism in Darwinian Reductionism than there is in Atheist’s Guide).  His aim in Darwinian Reductionism is to argue that biological reductionism does not have the unhappy implications that have led other naturalists to resist it.  

One of those implications is that reductionism would seem to conflict with the evident fact that where biological phenomena are concerned, “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.”  Rosenberg maintains that the sense in which this slogan is true is a sense perfectly consistent with reductionism.  He offers the wetness of water as an example of a feature that the parts of a whole do not have -- individual H2O molecules are not wet -- but which is nevertheless reducible to relations between the parts.  And purportedly irreducible biological phenomena (Rosenberg implies) are no different.  

Now since it is the distinctively organic properties of biological phenomena that are supposed to pose a challenge to reductionism, appealing to the wetness of water hardly addresses the biological antireductionist’s concerns.  Moreover, the claim that even water and its properties are “reducible” to H2O molecules and their relations is more controversial than Rosenberg (and many other naturalists) suppose.  (See e.g. Oderberg’s Real Essentialism and van Brakel’s Philosophy of Chemistry for discussion of the relevant issues.)  But let’s leave all that aside and consider Rosenberg’s response to the specific objection that the feeling of wetness isn’t reducible to relations between H2O molecules:

But the feeling of wetness is a complex relation between the molecules and our neurological system -- more molecules, of course.  It’s not an isolated property of the water.  Reducing the feeling of wetness of water is another matter altogether different from reducing its wetness.  Reducing feelings, sensations, is one that science has yet to accomplish, owing to the incompleteness of our understanding of neurology.  But it would be blatantly question-begging to assert that no macromolecular -- that is, reductionistic -- explanation of our sensations can ever be provided.  Making such an unargued assumption is very far from taking on the burden of proof.  It is, in fact, a matter of shifting the burden of proof onto the reductionist, and demanding an impossibly high standard of proof: that science should complete the reduction of human neurology in order to show that the wetness of water is equal to the relations among molecules.  Although reductionists cannot accept so high a standard, they can and do argue that the whole history of science since the seventeenth century has been a continuing empirical vindication of reductionism. (p. 13)

Now, I do not necessarily have a problem with the suggestion that the feeling of wetness is a complex relation between water itself and our nervous systems, nor with the idea that the feeling is a material feature of the human organism (though my own, Aristotelian conception of “matter” is not the same as Rosenberg’s materialist conception, and “molecules” are certainly not the whole story).  But the rest of this passage reflects a delusion common in those beholden to naturalism, scientism, and (by extension) modern atheism -- the “picture that holds them captive,” as Wittgenstein might have put it.  

This delusion -- the delusion that “science has now explained everything else, and so it’s only a matter of time before it explains X (where X = qualia, or intentionality, or some other feature which poses a difficulty for naturalism)” -- is one I have elsewhere called “the materialist shell game,” and it works like this.  First, “science” is (implicitly if not explicitly) defined in such a way that no explanation that makes reference to irreducibly teleological or qualitative features of the world is allowed to count as “scientific.”  Second, seemingly irreducibly teleological and qualitative features of the world -- apparently goal-directed natural processes, say, or colors, sounds, heat, cold, and the like as these manifest themselves to ordinary experience -- are re-described as mere projections of the mind onto external reality and not allowed to count as truly “material.”  Teleology, color, sound, heat, and cold as we experience them do not (so the story goes) really exist in the material world itself, but only in our subjective mental representations of it; objectively there are only colorless, soundless, purposeless particles in motion, which by virtue of their motions cause us to experience them as if they had the characteristics common sense attributes to them.  (Color, sound, etc. as physical properties are accordingly also re-defined, in terms of surface reflectance properties, compression waves, and the like.)  Third, it then asserted that “science has explained” such-and-such external material phenomena in a way that makes no reference to irreducible teleological or qualitative features.  What is not acknowledged is that this claim is a tautology, since (again) nothing that made reference to such features would be allowed to count as “scientific,” and (again) no features that couldn’t be described in non-teleological and non-qualitative terms would be allowed to count as “material.”  Fourth, it is fallaciously inferred that since this methodological sleight of hand has “shown” that irreducibly teleological and qualitative features do not exist in the external material world, we have every reason to believe that it will also “show” that they do not exist in the mind either -- that they will either be reduced to non-teleological and non-qualitative features of the brain, or eliminated altogether.

This is like saying that since we have gotten rid of all the dirt in the room by sweeping it under the rug, we have good reason to think that the dirt under the rug can also be gotten rid of in the same way, and even for thinking that it never really existed in the room in the first place.   Such an argument would be doubly farcical.  For first of all, none of the original dirt has really been gotten rid of at all, but merely relocated.  And second, the “sweep it under the rug” method is for obvious reasons the one method that cannot in principle work when applied to the dirt under the rug itself.  Those naturalists -- and they are like the sands of the sea for multitude -- who confidently appeal to the historical “success” of scientific reductionism in providing “reductive explanations” of “everything else,” as evidence that the mind too is bound to yield to the same mode of explanation, are committing a fallacy no less egregious.  (And we have already seen why an appeal to the predictive and technological virtues of the methodological stipulations in question is no less fallacious if intended to establish the metaphysical completeness of the reductionist’s picture of the world.)

In Darwinian Reductionism no less than in Atheist’s Guide, then, the scientism that undergirds Rosenberg’s entire position rests on little more than an appeal to ill-founded contemporary academic prejudice.  But there are other problems too.  As I have indicated in earlier posts in this series, one problem with reductionist and eliminativist accounts of this or that natural phenomenon is that they fail to do justice to the irreducible causal powers (arguably) manifested by the phenomenon.  In the case at hand, a reductionist account of biological phenomena would seem implicitly to deny that there are any genuine causal powers at anything higher than the molecular level, and thus seems to entail eliminativism about the biological (as, in my previous post, I suggested Rosenberg’s position does).

In response to this sort of objection (which, as he notes, parallels what is called the “causal drainage argument” in the philosophy of mind, since reductionism seems to make causal power at all higher levels of reality “drain away” to the lowest physical level), Rosenberg tells us that “reductionism does not deny that biological kinds have causal powers -- the physical ones; it reveals them” since “’higher-order’ [functional] terms… name the same properties which ‘lower-order’ -- macromolecular -- terms name” (p. 196).  In other words, it’s not that biological phenomena lack causal powers; it’s that they have no causal powers over and above those of their molecular parts, no powers that are not “physical powers,” which are “the only causal powers there are” (Ibid.)  For biological or functional terms, Rosenberg claims, “do not identify distinct ‘higher-level’ kinds with distinct ‘higher-level’ causal properties.”

This is like saying that Feuerbach’s conception of God as a mere projection, or Freud’s theory of religion as wish-fulfillment, are not really forms of atheism, but are rather merely “reductionist” versions of theism which do not “eliminate” God but merely “reveal” the true nature of His causal relationship to the world.  Obviously, to say that a “higher-level” term like “God” does not “identify a distinct ‘higher-level’ kind with distinct ‘higher-level’ causal properties” but instead names “the same properties which ‘lower-level’ terms name” -- viz. human psychological properties like projection and wishful thinking -- would just be a roundabout way of saying that there is no God and that only the psychological processes themselves are real.  Similarly, to say that biological terms do not really name any kinds or causal powers over and above the molecular ones is just a roundabout way of saying that the biological kinds and causal powers do not exist and only the molecular ones do.  Rosenberg’s biological reductionism -- like the bogus Feuerbachian or Freudian “reductionist” “theism” just described, like reductionism in the philosophy of mind, and indeed like reductionism generally -- really is just a thinly disguised eliminativism.  

Except, that is, when it is a thinly disguised Aristotelianism.  In one of the more interesting sections of Darwinian Reductionism, Rosenberg addresses the question of whether genes really can be said to carry “information” and to embody “programs,” as they are commonly said to do.  As I emphasize in The Last Superstition, this sort of talk doesn’t sit well with the naturalist’s official rejection of immanent teleology.  Now, some philosophers of biology regard talk of “programs” and “information” (in anything but the thin Shannonian sense of “information”) as merely metaphorical.  But as Rosenberg indicates, the problem cannot be so easily evaded:

Molecular biology is, of course, riddled with intentional expressions: we attribute properties such as being a messenger (“second messenger”) or a recognition site; we ascribe proofreading and editing capabilities; and we say that enzymes can discriminate among substrates… Even more tellingly, as we have seen, molecular developmental biology describes cells as having “positional information,” meaning that they know where they are relative to other cells and gradients.  The naturalness of the intentional idiom in molecular biology presents a problem.  All these expressions and ascriptions involve the representation, in one thing, of the way things are in another thing…  The naturalness of this idiom in molecular biology is so compelling that merely writing it off as a metaphor seems implausible.  Be that as it may, when it comes to information in the genome, the claim manifestly cannot be merely metaphorical, not, at any rate, if the special role of the gene is to turn on its information content.  But to have a real informational role, the genome must have intentional states. (pp. 99-100)

But how can a naturalist accept such descriptions of biological phenomena as more than metaphorical -- especially a naturalist like Rosenberg, who takes an eliminativist line on intentionality?  

Rosenberg’s solution is to split the difference.  “The crucial question,” he says, “is not intentionality but programming” (p. 108).  What does this mean?  Rosenberg rehearses John Searle’s famous Chinese Room thought experiment, and allows at least for the sake of argument that it shows that running a program is not sufficient to generate original intentionality.  But even if the intentionality of a program is at most derived, the program can still be efficacious.  After all, Searle in the Chinese Room still gives out the right answers in response to questions put to him, even though he has no idea what the symbols he’s manipulating mean; and he does so by virtue of running a program.  Therefore (Rosenberg seems to infer), we can say that genes embody programs, and do their distinctive work by virtue of embodying them, even if we deny that they really possess original intentionality. 

The trouble with this is that it takes account of only half, and the less important half, of Searle’s critique of computationalism.  The Chinese Room argument shows only that computationalism cannot be the whole story about the mind.  But Searle’s later argument against what he calls “cognitivism” -- the thesis that the brain is a digital computer (as distinct from the thesis that the mind is the software run on the computer) -- is intended to show that it isn’t even part of the story.  If the Chinese Room argument succeeds, it shows that even if the brain is running programs, it could not possess original intentionality merely by virtue of running them.  The later argument purports to show that the brain is not in any interesting sense running programs in the first place.  For being a “program” is not (Searle argues) an observer-independent feature of the world; it does not capture anything intrinsic to the physics of a system.  A physical system “runs a program” only relative to an interpreter, who uses the system to run the program, just as ink squiggles and sounds count as words only relative to an interpreter who uses the squiggles or sounds to convey meaning.  And since no one is literally “using” the brain to run programs -- no one is literally saying of each of our brains “Let’s let this brain process count as such-and-such a symbol, let’s let that brain process count as such-and-such a transition between symbols, and so forth” -- the brain is not running them.

Now as I argue in The Last Superstition, one could resist Searle’s conclusion here, but not in a way that helps the naturalist.  If we say that computationalist descriptions of the brain capture real, objective features of the brain, then we are implicitly committed to an Aristotelian conception of matter.  For the notion of a program is teleological; and teleology that is intrinsic to a material system is just Aristotelian, immanent final causality.  As Searle emphasizes, we could in principle attribute all sorts of programs to all sorts of physical systems -- to use one of his examples, there is a possible interpretation of the microstructure of the wall in his room on which it is running Wordstar.  To say that some particular attribution is privileged, that a physical system is, apart from our interests, running such-and-such a program and not the others, is to say that its states inherently “point” to the realization of that program rather than to the others.  (The Aristotelian implications of computationalist descriptions of nature have also been noted by James Ross and Valentino Braitenberg.)

This puts Rosenberg in a dilemma.  If he wants to insist that matter is utterly devoid of any inherent teleology -- his official general metaphysical position -- then (given Searle’s critique of cognitivism) he is not entitled to attribute programs of any sort to genes.  If instead he wants to insist that genes really do embody programs even apart from human interests -- his official position on this specific issue -- then he has to acknowledge that something like Aristotelian final causality is a real feature of the world after all.  

Rosenberg misses the Aristotelian implications of his position because he evidently thinks that the only alternative to reductionism and eliminativism in philosophy of biology is vitalism.  But vitalism is like Cartesian dualism in the philosophy of mind, or the extrinsic, “watchmaker” model of teleology represented by Paley’s “design argument” -- it is a corruption of the Aristotelian-Scholastic views the moderns sought to replace, even if a corruption that is sometimes mistakenly read back into those older views.  For the Aristotelian, the right way to think about the soul is in hylemorphic terms, as the form of the living body, not as a complete substance in its own right a la Descartes’ res cogitans.  The right way to think about teleology is as immanent to the natural order, on the model of organic phenomena rather than on the model of machines.  And the right way to think about life is also in hylemorphic terms, as the possession of a certain kind of formal cause, not as a spooky kind of “force” or elan vital.  

(Rosenberg also seems to think that intentionality-with-a-t entails intensionality-with-an-s, so that since -- he argues -- genes do not exhibit the latter, neither do they have the former.  As Tim Crane and others have emphasized, though -- and as I noted in an earlier post -- intensionality-with-an-s is not essential to intentionality-with-a-t.  What is essential is just directedness toward an object, which a thing can exhibit even if we can give a non-intensional description its directedness.)

So, Rosenberg’s attempt to find a reductionist middle ground in the philosophy of biology fails.  His position is unstable, equivocating between eliminativism on the one hand and Aristotelian anti-reductionism on the other.  But there is a lot more to Darwinian Reductionism than I have been able to convey here, and in particular much to make it a more serious and interesting book than Atheist’s Guide.  As a philosopher of religion, and as an apologist for naturalism, Rosenberg is hopeless.  But as a philosopher of science and an interpreter of naturalism, he is consistently interesting.  Both naturalists and their critics need to take him seriously.

65 comments:

nate said...

Nice! Also, you got a nice shout out today by Father Z on his blog.

http://wdtprs.com/blog/2011/12/of-atheists-and-inebriation-fr-z-rants-with-the-help-of-the-catholic-league-a-great-book-recommendation/

monk68 said...

Dr. Feser,

I have a question concerning the relation of biological reductionism to that most basic of Aristotelian notions; namely, that being is one.

You quote Rosenberg as follows:

“reductionism does not deny that biological kinds have causal powers -- the physical ones; it reveals them” since “’higher-order’ [functional] terms… name the same properties which ‘lower-order’ -- macromolecular -- terms name” (p. 196).

The first thing that humans, including scientists, experience after (or simultaneous with) the background awareness of esse, is that reality presents itself “all carved up”. At the most basic level, rather than a flat, uniform, sandbox of smallest particles; the cosmos is initially experienced, by analogy, as shifting sand-shapes (ens mobile). Before any other properties of a “thing” can be known, the mind must latch onto the shape or silhouette of a “thing” in order to focus its attention here (on “this” thing) rather than there (on “that” thing). It is this basic, immediate, awareness of the unicity of a thing that allows the scientist to even speak of “its” parts. Even methodologically, it is the immediately grasped unicity of “upper level” things that enables a scientist to “pick-out” a microscope from the background environment of his lab in order to observe some-thing through “that” microscope.

Hence, the descent by modern physicists downward through an “upper level” unicit thing (say a rabbit); minimally requires that “its” shape be cordoned off from the background environment of the physicist’s experiential reality. Only then can he focus on “that” portion of reality so as to speak of “its” parts; such as heart, kidney, or leg. In turn, each of these structures is also minimally first grasped as a subject for study by picking out each structure’s unicit shape from among the background environment “within” that original upper level unicit whole (the rabbit). And this process of reliance upon unicity continues downward through molecular, atomic, subatomic/quantum particles - which are said to ultimately constitute (explain?) the original “upper level” unicit shape/thing which was first cordoned off from the scientist’s experiential environment as an object of study – i.e. the rabbit.

Further, we are told that lowest level particles are themselves held together in a unicit way (so that one can talk about “this” atom or “that” electron) by the four fundamental “forces” (strong, weak, electromagnetic, gravitational). But if, on scientistic reductionism, observed “upper level” unicit things/shapes, and their “apparent” properties are “nothing but” the aggregates of lower level particles and their “actual” properties; what properties of these lower level particles (say, perhaps the four fundamental forces) uniquely explain or account for the observed, continual, aggregation of these lowest level explanatory particles into the various shapes/silhouettes which repeatedly present themselves to the scientific observer – and, indeed, make the commencement of his emperiological science possible to begin with?

I take it that the scientific reductionist would be loathe to suggest that one or more of the properties of lowest level particles (the ultimately real) somehow “virtually” contain the capacity for various repetitive modes of aggregation on pain of readmitting something akin to Aristotelian formal & final causes within the ambit of his science. But then how can reductionism, given its resources, explain why physical reality is observed as “all carved up” throughout the micro and macro cosmic spectrum? And how can the reductionist scientist crucially depend upon the unicity of upper level things/shapes in order to locate and explore lower level (putatively ultimate) unicit things; only to eventually deny any substantial reality to the former on the basis of his discovery of the later? It seems like cutting off the limb upon which one is perched.

I would be grateful for any thoughts or comments on this question from Dr. Feser or other readers.

Pax

Zeb said...

Monk68, that is a question I have also had for a long time and been uable to articulate so well.

monk68 said...

IOW,

It seems like the problem for reductionism is not only to explain, in a reductionist way, why a thing exhibits the properties that it does, but also to explain that most basic property, whereby a thing is firstly taken to be "this" thing as divided off from all else in the observer's environment.

To suggest that reality only "appears" all carved up on account of an imposition of the mind would not only involve another "sweeping under the rug", but also seem to entail a Kantian-like approach which would damn the reductionist's own account of the molecular, atomic and subatomic worlds.

Zeb said...

I would add the reductionist needs a way in principle to explain why for example "this" and "that" are both "electrons" but "this electron" is not "that electron." In my own thinking I have called this whole subject 'the problem of identity' when I try to understand the universe from a physicalist perspective, but that is probably a different thing in the literature.

jonh303 said...

Dr. Feser, I have a question regarding the cosmological argument about which you posted a while back regarding the causa causarum. You mention that everything has something towards which it is oriented and that everything must also have something towards which it is oriented. Why can it not be the case that the thing towards which all things are oriented is the material universe itself. Why does the cosmological argument exclude pantheism?

goddinpotty said...

the naturalist must deny that meaning of any sort exists, even at the level of human thought and language.

That is simply ridiculous, and if Rosenberg really says that then he is a poor spokesman indeed for the naturalist/scientist position.

There are many mechanistic accounts of meaning and intentionality, and even if you don't accept them, any naturalist who is not a nihilist thinks that they work.

Hm, I see in his Darwinian Reductionism that he talks a lot about intentional language in molecular biology. That is an interesting example, because in that case the causal mechanisms responsible for meaning are very well-understood.

In DNA, a group of three nucleotides codes for an amino acid, which are strung together to form proteins. This code is more or less arbitrary, in the same way language is arbitrary (that is "CCG", a word in DNA language, resembles the thing it codes for (arginine) about as much as "dog" resembles a dog).

How does this mysterious meaning or intentionality happen? Turns out there is a physical interpreter machine (the ribosome) that makes use of a dictionary (the complement of tRNA molecules). This machinery interprets the DNA by means of perfectly normal molecular machinery, no magic required.

Now, human minds and human language are considerably more complicated than ribosomes and DNA language, but I trust the principle is visible -- mechanical language interpreters are nothing magical, no reason for a competent naturalist to feel bad about.

Ann Olivier said...

If wetness and the relations among H2O molecules are truly identical, then to know wetness is to know the relations among H20 molecules.

But it took centuries to know the relations between H20 molecules, and a child knows wetness as soon as it knows its mother's milk.

Therefore, wetness and the relations between H2O molecules are not identical.

Same is true of the claimed identity of wetness and certain brain events. If they are identical, then to know one is to know the so-called other. But to know wetness is not to know certain brain events. Therefore, wetness and certain brain events are not identical.

Martin said...

goddinputty,

Turns out there is a physical interpreter machine (the ribosome) that makes use of a dictionary (the complement of tRNA molecules). This machinery interprets the DNA by means of perfectly normal molecular machinery, no magic required.


"Mechanism" means that no teleology exists. If something produces a specific effect over just any effect, that is teleology. Your interpreter DNA produces a specific effect over just any effect. So, either that is teleology, or the apparent teleology is completely reducible to non-teleological processes.

goddinpotty said...

"Mechanism" means that no teleology exists.

That makes absolutely no sense. Your car is a mechanism, and it also has a telos.

Similarly, an organism -- a bacterium, lets say -- is also a mechanism and also has a telos -- making more copies of itself. They are quite good at it.

Martin said...

goddinputty,

The philosophy of mechanism means, essentially, the denial of the existence of telos. Teleology was dumped by the fathers of the Enlightenment because it is not mathematically quantifiable. Modern materialists and naturalists follow in this path, by accepting only the existence of matter and motion, and denying telos.

Rupert said...

I do not understand why it is not possible to give a reductionist account of telos, and why this has to be regarded as "thinly disguised eliminativism."

Rupert said...

I am also not especially convinced that "there is a possible interpretation of the microstructure of the wall in [Searle's] room on which it is running Wordstar". I would like to see that claim defended.

acucucuuc said...

Godinpotty, at Dec. 28, 9:57 PM:

In explaining how meaning or intentionality can come from purely mechanistic processes, you said things like "In DNA, a group of three nucleotides CODES FOR an amino acid" and "This machinery INTERPRETS the DNA." I capitalized the terms that seem most important to me in your statements.

Terms like "codes for" and "interprets" can't be understood except in relation to some mind that views the molecular acrobatics of the mRNA, ribosome, tRNA, amino acids, etc. as, first of all, something that should be distinguished from from the vast number of other molecular events going on in the intracellular milieu, and, second, directed toward something other than itself - i.e., the synthesis of proteins.

It seems to me that you are smuggling in meaning and intentionality by assuming the presence of some sentient observer that actually provides the meaning and intentionality. Without such an observer, it's all just molecular machines moving around.

Mr. Green said...

Prof. Feser: where biological phenomena are concerned, “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.” […] they fail to do justice to the irreducible causal powers (arguably) manifested by the phenomenon

Why would we think that there are additional powers at the biological level — and does it matter?

Suppose we know metaphysically that when Xs and Ys are brought together in the right way, they make a new substance, a Z organism. There are three ways that a Z could behave: (a) just like Xs and Ys (the whole acts like the sum of its parts even though really the Xs and Ys no longer exist); (b) like a new thing, with no particular relation to the behaviour of Xs or Ys; (c) or some combination, with some similarity to Xish/Yish behaviour and some different behaviour. (I guess on a Scotist view, the Xs and Ys would continue to exist when the Z came into being, so (b) would be ruled out.)

Now we observe many ways in which plants and animals do act like their parts, so we have either (a) or (c). In the special case of man, his intellectual powers are not reducible to his parts, so human beings fit the (c) case. In general, what we know of biology so far is compatible with (a), so I don't see any reason to suppose at this point that we definitely will discover evidence of (c), or that we definitely won't. And since science looks only at the appearance or behaviour of an object, it can't distinguish between (a) where something acts like its parts, and the reductive case where something just is its parts (i.e. not a new substance at all). (There is of course a good common-sense argument to be made about organisms being substances, but biology qua science should not be making any claims about substance one way or the other because it's empirical, not metaphysical.)

monk68 said...

Mr Green,

I am inclined to think that its possible that the various "upper level" organisms or phenomena are somehow "virtually" present in "lower level" existents. Of course, that just relocates teleology/teleonomy a bit. So I have little trouble with the line of thought you are pursuing. However, you wrote:

"There are three ways that a Z could behave: (a) just like Xs and Ys (the whole acts like the sum of its parts even though really the Xs and Ys no longer exist)"

One issue, though, as I noted above, is that there seems at least one specific way in which Z behaves utterly unlike its parts (Xs & Ys), and that is precisely by being a "whole" or "sum" of those parts - a specific cohesion-act (in this or that upper level shape or configuration), which Xs & Ys taken by themselves cannot, by definition, be observed to perform. ISTM that the unicity of "upper level" or "mid level", empirically observed, repetitious, configurations needs an explanation that reductionism does not readily afford.

Secondly, you wrote:

"Now we observe many ways in which plants and animals do act like their parts, so we have either (a) or (c)."

That may be true, but it also seems that we observe many ways in which plants and animals behave, that are NOT observed in entities at the molecular, atomic, or sub-atomic level. In fact, we only seem to "observe" certain kinds of phenomena *when* lower level entities are brought together in some specific (dare I say) "formal" configuration.

Like I said, I am open to the possibility that a more elastic notion of matter or "the real" may entail that lower level existents (maybe even the "quantum flux" itself) virtually or latently contains hidden potencies which are only activated upon specific interactions/configurations. But that would mean that fundamental nature is so rich with formal/final potentiality that a Thomist would be a naturalist.

Thoughts?

Pax

DNW said...

So, like, What's a "mechanism" in a non-teleological non-intentional world? And why refer to certain spreading patterns as even "processes", much less as mechanisms?

Are simple machines mechanisms? Does a fallen branch constitute a mechanism as a "lever", and does it have the same status as a pump handle?

I think I am going to have to go back to the earliest references to organisms as machines, because I just cannot see the present intellectual justification for taking the name for a class of artifacts and transferring it to the artificers.

goddinpotty said...

acucucuuc & Martin,

On the contrary, it is you who are "smuggling in" an entirely artificial distinction between the mechanical and the purposive.

That this distinction might get traced back to Aristotle does not impress me in the least. Nature trumps philosophy; and nature is full of purposive machines.

Martin said...

goddinputty,

On the contrary, it is you who are "smuggling in" an entirely artificial distinction between the mechanical and the purposive.

I'm not doing anything. That is simply the reality. "Mechanism", the philosophy of the modern scientific era, abandoned teleology.

If you accept that it exists, then you are not a mechanist.

man with a computer said...

goddinpotty,

Aristotle is not the problem. What Mechanism means is that all natural phenomena can be accounted for as regular processes of matter in motion, and that any talk of 'purpose', 'meaning' and 'finality' is superfluous.

For the mechanist, attributes like meaning, purpose, etc. are in the observer's mind, not in the thing in itself, and thus subjective. So they don't belong to the scientific explanation of said thing. Many modern scientists, particularly biologists, take this view for granted, but its validity is questionable.

So, when you say that natural objects have purposeful features, you accept –like most commenters here- that they have teloi, on top of their formal and material features.

goddinpotty said...

Martin - by "reality" you apparently mean "the tired definitions of dead and desiccated belief systems". When I say 'reality" I mean the actually existing natural world. If the other, more abstract world is more real to you than the actual world, that is unfortunate but I guess cannot be helped.

Greg Ransom said...

To understand Roseberg it helps to see the history of his philosophical project.

Rosenberg was a student of Peter Achinstein, and his ideal of philosophy of science is Nagel and the covering law model. It's the tradition of "scientific philosophy" of all of the 1950s guys revising Carnap and Hempel in the wake of Quine and direct counter-examples to the classic covering law model.

Roseberg has staked out a "savage" of "scientific philosophy" using the role models of Nozick and Lewis -- it's OK to start with fantastic premises you and everyone else would admit are are absurd (if they stopped to notice) if these premises allow you to spin out what is otherwise an elegant and "rigorous" system.

And like those who hold on to the covering law model despite well known counter-examples, you don't give up your elegant system simply because it here and there embraces self-evident absurdities.

But there is something more.

Rosenberg is ultimately not a logical empiricist, or even a crude Millian, he's a Hume guy.

Rosenberg's "eliminative materialism" comes in the first instance from his understanding of causation, which is directly derived from Hume's constant conjunction model -- Rosenberg's work can be as an extended spinning out of a best effort to translate the "eliminative phenomenalism" of Hume into a system grounded not in phenomenalism butin freshman physics.

If this is right, the key to understanding Rosenberg is _Hume and the Problem of Causation_ by Tom Beauchamp and Alexander Rosenberg, perhaps in conjunction with his Millian book _Microeconomic Laws_, which attempts to make sense of microeconomics (i.e. an intentional science) in terms of a covering law model.

Rosenberg is a realist about constant conjunction and the entities found in freshman physics -- and he sees no way to fit mental categories into the covering law model or the constant conjunction model.

So, under the influence of Davidson, Quine, and the Churchlands, Rosenberg goes the elimination route.

Oh, it's also worth pointing out the "enemy" in all of this -- Kuhn, Wittgenstein, etc.

Unless one begins with "rigor", physics & the scientific philosophy program, one will end up with the "anti-science", "anti-rigor", "ordinary language" mush of the"Little Red Book" Oxford and Cambridge Wittgensteinians, i.e. the guys like Peters and Wittgenstein that Donald Davidson "refuted".

man with a computer said...

All this abrasiveness about 'nature', 'reality' and 'belief systems' is unnecessary. Let's be a little more charitable here.

The sad part is that nobody here is defending the philosophy of mechanism -- most of us accept the reality of telos. But it is true and widely accepted that the philosophy of mechanism 1. Is popular among modern naturalists, and 2. Rejects the existence of telos.

Greg Ransom said...

Simpler:

For Rosenberg, there is no causation, there is just constant conjunction and statistical regularities -- causation is one of the things that Rosenberg believes that Hume showed us does not exist.

So this is Rosenberg's model -- Hume's "eliminative phenomenalism" which eliminates any pretense of "causation" as a part of reality.

But Rosenberg is a 1950s "scientific philosophy" guy, so he's committed to freshman physics and to whatever is left of logical empiricism and Nagel and Hempel in the wake of Quine and everything else.

Put those together with a metaphysics influenced by his a engagement with Kim on events and Davidson on actions, and you've got the Roseberg program, with a later-day tension-filled move now & again from supervenience toward full out eliminative materialism derived from suggestions from the Churchlands.

man with a computer said...

Thanks for the context, Greg.

Greg Ransom said...

One of the points I elaborate on in my paper on teleological explanation written for Rosenberg and Larry Wright was Larry Wright's point made first in his work on explanation written for Wesley Salmon -- the direct perception of teleological phenomena often is what _begins_ the explanatory process, and our observations very often carry within them core parts of the explanations for that phenomena, i.e. the rabbit is _fleeing_.

It's nice to see someone else pointing out the contradiction between Rosenberg's eliminative materialism regarding the "mental" when he depends on the mental in his explication of functional and teleological explanation in the biological sciences.

Hayek's statement that it is absurd to rule of reference to the human when explaining the domain of the human was in the back of my mind when I was writing the teleology paper.

The core issue when engaging Rosenberg is the nature of explanation.

Rosenberg endorsed some aspects of Wright on functional explanation, but doesn't want to think about the bigger picture -- Wright's "Wittgensteinian" approach to explanation and, more generally, the human nature of explanation.

A false and objection-ignoring model of explanation is the ground for Rosenberg's efforts at metaphysics.

And what he wishes most is to fight off the Wittgenstein/Wright/Kuhn picture of explanation as "anti-scientific" and "muddle" and "ordinary language" and "refuted by Davidson", and "relativism" and "not scientific", etc., i.e. it doesn't fit in the "scientific philosophy" tradition of the 1950s logical empiricists working in the wake of Frege's new logic and the Carnap, Hempel, Nagel effort to make a "scientific philosophy" out of it.

goddinpotty said...

man with a computer: please don't confuse local purpose (of an organism or a machine) with some grand overarching cosmic purpose. The former is readily observable; the latter is not

Greg Ransom said...

I should add that the model of explanation embraced by the "scientific philosophers" was motivated by a picture of the demands of justification and how to cash out language.

It's all about constructing everything using the logical machinery of Frege and meeting Aristotle's ancient Euclid inspired demand for justification as we find with some types of demonstrative knowledge.

In other words, it's the "God's eye view" fallacy of Lange & Lerner in economics who thought that a logical construct of a socialist economy on paper and knowable by one mind was the same thing a social economy created by many minds in the context of inherited institutions.

Our knowledge and our language can no more be understood and constructed in terms of a formal constructs made up of "givens" any more that an economy can be understood or constructed in such a way.

acucucuuc said...

Godinpotty at December 29, 10:18 AM:

"acucucuuc & Martin,
On the contrary, it is you who are "smuggling in" an entirely artificial distinction between the mechanical and the purposive."

Maybe. And maybe you could convince me of that. But doing so would require additional arguments, not just assertions.

"Nature trumps philosophy; and nature is full of purposive machines."

DNW said...

Greg Ransom said...

"Rosenberg's "eliminative materialism" comes in the first instance from his understanding of causation, which is directly derived from Hume's constant conjunction model -- Rosenberg's work can be as an extended spinning out of a best effort to translate the "eliminative phenomenalism" of Hume into a system grounded not in phenomenalism butin freshman physics.

If this is right, the key to understanding Rosenberg is _Hume and the Problem of Causation_ by Tom Beauchamp and Alexander Rosenberg, perhaps in conjunction with his Millian book _Microeconomic Laws_, which attempts to make sense of microeconomics (i.e. an intentional science) in terms of a covering law model.

Rosenberg is a realist about constant conjunction and the entities found in freshman physics -- and he sees no way to fit mental categories into the covering law model or the constant conjunction model. "


"If this is right", is right, regarding the notion of causation, then it seems to provide insight into how it is that Rosenberg manages to intellectually sidestep what appear to be latent problems in his scheme related to the idea causality.

You just do away with causality.

But once causes and identities, and any idea of more or less discrete systems have evaporated away, what is it that is left to be described, what are the objects of description, and what is that the act of description itself involves?

And when man is said to technologically shape the world, is that, under this regime of interpretation to say anything more than ... well, than what? That the world has shaped itself, as per the activities of something like Marx's consciousness of the inorganic body? But sans the reality of the consciousness?

Might as well just become a Hindu and have done with it.

As I have said before, I would greatly enjoy seeing an eliminative materialist attempt to live out his project as if "he" was actually convinced it was true.

goddinpotty said...

acucucuuc: Not sure which "assertion" you are objecting to. That nature is full of purposive machines? That is more a useful point of view than an assertion. Nature is full of microorganisms, which display many mechanical properties and many purposive properties, and the really the only way to understand them is to combine those points of view rather than separating them.

That nature trumps philosophy is also a personal point of view, I guess. Philosophers have been spinning their wheels over the same issues for thousands of years, mostly without making any intellectual progress. But looking at nature actually does lead to new knowledge and new insights.

DNW said...

goddinpotty said...

That nature trumps philosophy is also a personal point of view, I guess. Philosophers have been spinning their wheels over the same issues for thousands of years, mostly without making any intellectual progress. But looking at nature actually does lead to new knowledge and new insights."

The edifice of logic is largely the product of philosophers; much of it the product of a man known as "The Philosopher".

There's nothing wrong with putting nature to the rack and devising ways to increase our power to shape the world more to our liking.

However some may think it appropriate to give some thought as well as to how, and against what, that power should be directed. And to other matters such as, for example, whether the use of that power by some, to eliminate annoying people they don't find congenial for this reason or that, is itself worth thinking about further; and if so, why.

I am of the personal opinion that Internet trolls and their persistence and passions, senses of entitlement to inclusion and attention, expressions of outrage and resentment have themselves much to tell us about the hidden and unadmitted assumptions of such people who are, usually, themselves professed moral nihilists.

On the other hand Ed Feser may be right; and they are just crazy mental defectives whose activities signify nothing important either in substance or in form.

man with a computer said...

man with a computer: please don't confuse local purpose (of an organism or a machine) with some grand overarching cosmic purpose. The former is readily observable; the latter is not

This distinction is unhelpful, because I am not referring to any "cosmic purpose" at all. The qualities of simple natural objects suffice. Unless you are talking about that distinction between teleology and "teleonomy" that 20th century biologists concocted to refer to what they regarded as the apparently teleological features of organs/organisms and their descriptions through teleological language without conceding that said teleology was inherent to the organ/organism, e.g. Ernst Mayr's example of the wood thrush.

goddinpotty said...

DNW -- guess i stepped on a toe. I don't mean to imply that all philosophy is useless; only that if you find your philosophical concepts are preventing you from understanding the world, rather than helping, you should not obsess over them and perhaps try to find better ones.

man with a computer -- sorry, I have no idea what point you are trying to make.

DNW said...

goddin,

I don't know whether you successfully stepped on any toes or not, though your comments directed at others gave considerable indication of your attempting to do so.

It's good of you however to implicitly acknowledge that you were factually wrong about certain aspects of and developments flowing out of philosophy.

As for myself, my interest is not so much in persuading eliminative materialists and moral nihilists to change their minds or interpretations of reality, as in exploring the interesting and self-redounding implications of their own belief systems. These entail logical implications which they seem extremely reluctant to publicly acknowledge, much less embrace as applying to themselves.

To some extent they bring to mind a comical image of some social subversive who has invited barbarians into a community to rape and pillage, while himself seeking refuge in the walls of the citadel he wishes to overthrow.

Now this particular life-preserving tactic has no direct bearing on the truth value of the joyful nihilist's propositions, but it is extremely curious nonetheless.

And of course as everyone here has by now repeatedly pointed out, it's not just interpersonal moral claims that are undercut by radical doctrines of meaninglessness and mindlessness; but eventually the propositional import of the assertions of meaninglessness themselves.

goddinpotty said...

It's good of you however to implicitly acknowledge that you were factually wrong...

I did?

it's not just interpersonal moral claims that are undercut by radical doctrines of meaninglessness and mindlessness; but eventually the propositional import of the assertions of meaninglessness themselves.

Don't know who you are talking about/to, but I certainly didn't make any assertions of meanglessness or mindlessness. On the contrary, I explained in some detail how meaning could arise out of physical machinery. That is not "meaninglessness" in my book, although I suppose it might be in yours.

acucucuuc said...

"I explained in some detail how meaning could arise out of physical machinery."

You summarized some of the molecular events that occur during gene expression and you added some characterization of those events using terms that convey meaning. But any meaning conveyed by those words comes from your mind, not from the DNA, ribosomes, etc., i.e., not from the machinery of gene expression. I am assuming, at least for the purposes of this discussion, that your mind is not purely physical. You could, and I expect would, dispute that, but showing my assumption is false would require you to talk about things other than DNA, ribosomes, etc.

goddinpotty said...

But any meaning conveyed by those words comes from your mind

If by "words" you mean triplets of nucleotides, then no, the point is that their meaning is determined by the mechanical machinery of the cell and was that way a long time before any human minds came around to understanding it.

If you did NOT mean those "words", then your response doesn't seem very salient.

Anonymous said...

"If by "words" you mean triplets of nucleotides,"

Bud, how about you take a few breaths and try to actually understand what is being discussed here, rather than running in swinging your arms blindly at what you think everyone *must* be saying, and what naturalism *must* mean. Because as any regular around here can tell, you don't understand the details of what's being discussed here at all.

Equivocating and stamping your feet won't get you far with anyone who's actually bothered to read the eliminative materialists and their critics.

goddinpotty said...

Equivocating and stamping your feet

I'm doing neither. Perhaps you can provide examples of where you think I am. All the foot-stamping seems to be coming from the other side.

try to actually understand what is being discussed here

Do not assume that because I disagree with you, or choose not to accept your terms for debate, that I don't understand your position.

It is a mark of an intellectual lightweight to assume that if only their opponent understood, they would have to agree.

David T said...

goddinpotty wrote:

"How does this mysterious meaning or intentionality happen? Turns out there is a physical interpreter machine (the ribosome) that makes use of a dictionary (the complement of tRNA molecules). This machinery interprets the DNA by means of perfectly normal molecular machinery, no magic required."

I'm not following what you are writing here. Are you saying that the ribosome is a conscious agent that reads DNA the way we read DNA? Or are you writing metaphorically?

acucucuuc said...

"Triplets of nucleotides" is a concept, i.e. a mental construct. That concept refers to a part of reality, but only insofar as a mind is invovled in the process of referral. Without a mind, there is nothing to carve up the DNA or mRNA into groups of three nucleotides. If you say that it is other parts of the gene expression process that do the carving, say the fact that tRNA binds to mRNA in groups of three nucleotides, you have just pushed the problem away from the nucleic acid and onto the tRNA. What accounts for picking out those parts of reality that we refer to as "tRNA" from everything else, if not a mind saying "Aha, this collection of atoms is a tRNA molecule"? The word generally used to refer to the binding of tRNA to its cognate nucleotide triplet is "recognizes." You can say that words like that are not to be taken literally, they are perhaps analogies. But how does that help you get rid of mind? Can you have an analogy without the involvement of a mind?

man with a computer said...

man with a computer -- sorry, I have no idea what point you are trying to make.

My point is that modern naturalism is inherently mechanistic, and as such is doesn't have any space for teleology, neither cosmic nor "local" -- the distinction you made was unhelpful. In fact, the view of teleology as some kind of cosmic thing is quite modern; the traditional understanding was relatively lax and wide-ranging.

I brought Ernst Mayr's example because it was a big problem for 20th century biologists who subscribed to naturalism –and in turn to the mechanistic philosophy– but wanted to make sense of the teleological language they were using. Ernst Mayr's idea of "teleonomy" (from here) is one of the proposed solutions:

Teleonomic processes in living nature. Seemingly goal-directed behavior in organisms is of
an entirely different nature from teleomatic processes. Goal-directed behavior (in the widest
sense of this word
) is extremely widespread in the organic world; for instance, most activity
connected with migration, food-getting, courtship, ontogeny, and all phases of reproduction is
characterized by such goal orientation. [...]


(The emphasis is mine -- the word "seemingly" is key, because 'purpose' is, for Mayr, apparent and not inherent)

Let us take, for instance the sentence: "The Wood Thrush migrates in the fall into warmer countries in order to escape the inclemency of the weather
and the food shortages of the northern climates." If we replace the words "in order to" by "and thereby," we leave the important question unanswered as to why the Wood Thrush migrates.


Just like in the example of the turtle laying its eggs ashore, using words like "in order to" implies some sort of deliberation, which is incompatible with a mechanistic account, because all of these behaviors must be causally determined by the material and formal; in this case, the "program." Mayr is clear: "(9) Teleonomic explanations are strictly causal and mechanistic…"

goddinpotty said...

David T -- Neither. The point is that intentionality (aboutness) can arise from relatively simple, unconscious machinery.

acuccuuuc -- "Triplets of nucleotides" is a concept -- everything we talk about is a concept, so this is a vacuous assertion.

But how does that help you get rid of mind? -- I'm not interested in "trying to get rid of mind" and I'm not sure why you think I am. I am interested in explaining mind.

man with computer -- My point is that modern naturalism is inherently mechanistic, and as such is doesn't have any space for teleology, neither cosmic nor "local" -- but that is just wrong, it is very easy to make mechanistic devices that exhibit purpose, which is what I mean by local teleology.

'purpose' is, for Mayr, apparent and not inherent -- that, for me, is a meaningless distinction. You can pull out other quotes from Mayr, eg There is now complete consensus among biologists that the teleological phrasing of such a statement does not imply any conflict with physicochemical causality. or

What finally produced a breakthrough in our thinking about teleology was the introduction of new concepts from the fields of cybernetics and new terminologies from the language of information theory. or

The use of so-called teleological language by biologists is legitimate; it neither implies a rejection of physicochemical explanation nor does it imply noncausal explanation.

In other words, "I happen to have Ernst Mayr here, and he says "you know nothing of my work"

Anonymous said...

goddinputty: Are you a biologist?

David T said...

"Neither. The point is that intentionality (aboutness) can arise from relatively simple, unconscious machinery."

I'm asking what you mean by intentionality (or aboutness). What exactly is it that "arises"? Is it something over and above the unconscious machinery itself?

goddinpotty said...

I'm a computer scientist with an interest in biology.

I'm asking what you mean by intentionality (or aboutness) -- I mean the ability of one thing to represent another. If you can't or won't understand complex machinery (such as computers or ribosomes), this appears to be a magical, irreducible quality. On the other hand, if you do, then you can replace the magic with causal explanations.

Note that this doesn't necessarily apply to all the magic of minds. Consciousness remains a mystery, for instance. But representation, intentionality, and goal-directedness are easy to reproduce in artificial, understandable systems.

David T said...

Actually I am a software engineer myself, and I have no problem understanding computers and don't think they are magical. But I still don't understand what you are saying, because you are just substituting synonyms without explication.

You wrote that intentionality "arises" in machines, and I asked just what it is that "arises." You answered with respect to the ability of one machine to "represent" another. Well "represent" is just another way of saying "intentionality", so we haven't gotten anywhere. What is this thing that "arises" in a machine that makes it about something when it otherwise would not be about anything?

acucucuuc said...

Godinpotty at December 30, 9:37 AM.

“I'm not interested in "trying to get rid of mind" and I'm not sure why you think I am. I am interested in explaining mind.”

You have said things like these:

“How does this mysterious meaning or intentionality happen? Turns out there is a physical interpreter machine (the ribosome) that makes use of a dictionary (the complement of tRNA molecules). This machinery interprets the DNA by means of perfectly normal molecular machinery, no magic required. (December 28, 9:57 PM)”

“That nature is full of purposive machines? That is more a useful point of view than an assertion. Nature is full of microorganisms, which display many mechanical properties and many purposive properties, and the really the only way to understand them is to combine those points of view rather than separating them.” (December 29, 2:09 PM)

“On the contrary, it is you who are "smuggling in" an entirely artificial distinction between the mechanical and the purposive."” (December 29, 1:20 PM)

I take you to be arguing for the position that things of the mind (the purposive, meaning, intentionality) do not differ from the mechanical. After all, you refer to “an entirely artificial distinction” between “the mechanical and the purposive.” This position gets rid of “mind,” as I understand the term. I suppose you would say I should re-evaluate how I understand that term. Maybe, but I don’t see why consideration of the details of some molecular biological processes should cause such a re-evaluation. I don’t think there is anything wrong with your description of those processes. I just don’t see how knowing how those processes occur should affect my understanding of the term “mind.” David T’s comment about this at December 30, 10:34 AM seems on point to me.

man with a computer said...

goddinpotty,

but that is just wrong, it is very easy to make mechanistic devices that exhibit purpose, which is what I mean by local teleology.

Can you explain exactly what you mean by "local teleology"? Keep in mind that no one here is advocating some sort of "cosmic" teleology (in fact, we reject ID stuff here). I just want to make sure we are on the same page.

that, for me, is a meaningless distinction.

But why? It's the crux of the discussion, and the whole point of the fully mechanistic/modern-naturalistic accounts of substances: that there is no such thing as an intrinsic telos, and what constitutes a thing is nothing but its material components obeying to a bunch of regular patterns of efficient causation ('laws'), the telos being dependent on the observer. A mousetrap is for catching mice, but there is nothing in its arrangement of material components that implies that it is for catching mice. The fully mechanistic view generalizes this idea to everything else in nature. That this has been somewhat problematic for biologists is the reason why Mayr wrote that paper, because the use of teleological language lent itself to the interpretation that they were making metaphysical commitments about potentially immaterial causes.

BTW, I re-read the entire discussion, and I think we have to get on the same page regarding what we mean by "telos", "teleology", "mechanism", "mechanistic", etc. If you have the time, I recommend you give a cursory reading to these other posts:

"Nothing but…"
Teleology revisited.

Cheers.

goddinpotty said...

Not sure how I can be any clearer.

The point is that the ability of one thing to represent another can be a function of a mechanical interpreter -- a ribosome, a CPU, a brain. In the first two cases, we understand pretty well how it works -- it's a magic trick where we can look behind the curtain and see exactly what is going on. We can think about such systems in intentional terms -- DNA *codes for* proteins, the computer *executes the instruction*, or we can understand them in strictly mechanical terms (the attraction and repulsion of molecular forces, a pattern of electrical signals).

It may be that there is no objective quality of intentionality, but instead it is nor more or less than a useful way to describe certain systems.

Greg Ransom said...

The philosopher's ancient demand for justification clearly lies behind Rosenberg's metaphysics, as condensed here:

"Rosenberg’s argument, then, is essentially this:

1. The predictive power and technological applications of physics are unparalleled by those of any other purported source of knowledge.

2. Therefore what physics reveals to us is all that is real."

Recall that the ancient demand for justification derives from the Euclidean paradigm of demonstrative knowledge exemplified by the proof procedure in Euclidean geometry.

This picture also drives a conception of human language as consisting of a mapping of "given" entities structured by formal relations (given like an entity or a hat in a box to a single mind).

Rather that embedded in imitated human practices and embodied within human motor patterns and ways of going on together, language and all that can be said and known can be imagined as a construct knowable to one mind, from a bird's eye view, the way an economist can "know" every "given" element structured within an equilibrium math construct laid on the pages in from of him.

Put the justification demands together with the constructivist picture of language/concepts/math and you get a metaphysics which says that conceptual/math constructs best justified by "the scientific method" are all there is.

It's ass backwards, and it gets language and math and science and explanation wrong -- but if you want to take this extreme version of "scientism" down, you need to take down its underlying picture of epistemology, explanation, language, and the relation of all of these to science.

My suggestion has been that the non-justificational and social & embodied picture of language and knowledge and science found in Kuhn, Wittgenstein & Hayek (and to some degree in Popper & Bartley & Wright) is the alternative which reveals the underlying pathologies of Rosenberg's heroic attempted rescue of the Mill/Carnap/Barthwaite/Hempel tradition in "scientific philosophy".

Rosenberg's argument may be a "gem" of a bad argument, but the key is to show how the motivation for that argument is grounded in false understandings of how knowledge grows, how explanation works, etc. -- as well asin a false picture of what language isand what science is, etc.

Damien S said...

Ed

Have you seen E. Steinhardt's "Person's Versus Brains: Biological Intelligence in Human Organisms"? In that paper he basically argues that the human cognitive system permeates the WHOLE body. Which means that the various bodily systems, such as the Immune System, play an integral role within the cognitive system as a whole with various feedback loops etc. Which is why he argues it would be impossible to do a brain transplant because each brain is calibrated to each's respective body.

This seems amazing confirmation of Aristotle's theory of the soul as the form of the body and not just some isolated Cartesian soul as Steinhardt argues.

Mr. Green said...

Monk68: ISTM that the unicity of "upper level" or "mid level", empirically observed, repetitious, configurations needs an explanation that reductionism does not readily afford. […] In fact, we only seem to "observe" certain kinds of phenomena *when* lower level entities are brought together in some specific (dare I say) "formal" configuration.

Yes, and I definitely consider formal (and final) causes to be necessary to do science at all, regardless of whether moderns acknowledge it or not. The only question is whether Zs have extrinsic forms or whether they have a substantial form. That distinction is presumably invisible to the scientific method.

Like I said, I am open to the possibility that a more elastic notion of matter or "the real" may entail that lower level existents (maybe even the "quantum flux" itself) virtually or latently contains hidden potencies which are only activated upon specific interactions/configurations. But that would mean that fundamental nature is so rich with formal/final potentiality that a Thomist would be a naturalist.

The point has been raised here before that it's hard to come up with any definition of "naturalism" that departs from a Scholastic view and still works. I do think that if organisms turned out to have behaviours unexplained by the sum of their parts, then materialists would simply call them new laws of "physics" that only turn up when certain configurations were obtained. And from an empirical perspective, maybe that works: after all, God could have created a universe with any laws He wanted — one where things that appeared to be organisms from the outside were really just "mechanical", or in which fundamental particles have final causes that apply only for certain configurations. But that's why I think we have to rely on common-sense arguments about whether a given Z is an organism or not, rather than strict metaphysical demonstrations.

Ray Ingles said...

man with a computer - Interesting references to Feser's previous posts. But I have difficulty following this statement (from here): "For a cause to be efficacious – including a final cause – it has actually to exist in some way."

But the term 'final cause' seems to presuppose the notion that B is a 'cause', rather than a result.

"for B to be the final cause of A, B must also exist, in some sense, otherwise, being nonexistent, it could not be efficacious."

But isn't there an obvious difference between 'pointing toward' (which A putatively does) and 'drawing toward' (which B would have to do to be a 'cause')?

I also have a visceral reaction to the idea that - as Feser states - "generating coldness is the final cause of ice"[emphasis added] . Why does he use the word "the" there, instead of what seems to me to be a far more natural and obvious "a"?

To take a simple example, what of the ice on top of a pond or lake in the winter, which actually insulates the water underneath, keeping it from freezing? Is the final cause of ice actually "retaining warmth"? (Or is eutectic freezing the 'final cause' of ice?)

Does anything in the real world 'point to' only one 'final cause'? I haven't thought of an example yet.

Martin said...

Ray Ingles,

But isn't there an obvious difference between 'pointing toward' (which A putatively does) and 'drawing toward' (which B would have to do to be a 'cause')?

This is something I wish Dr Feser would expand upon as well, if he sees this comment. If the material and formal causes are in place (let's say hylemorphism is true), then wouldn't they "push" towards a specific final cause, rather than the final cause "pulling" the material and formal causes into place?

I'm sure the answer is somewhere along the lines that if material and formal causes are the only ones that exist, then they only "push" towards any particular end effect by chance, and thus would not entail any particular end effect.

But still, if you're reading this Dr Feser, can you do a blog post explaining this in more detail? Or refer us to more in depth sources on the whole "pulling" vs "pushing" thing?

man with a computer said...

Why does he use the word "the" there, instead of what seems to me to be a far more natural and obvious "a"?

Yeah, I noticed that too. I can't speak for Feser, but I don't think he meant that making water cold was literally the one and only final cause of ice. At least I didn't interpret it that way.

But then again, I can't speak for him.

Anonymous said...

"Does anything in the real world 'point to' only one 'final cause'? I haven't thought of an example yet."


No, and that's exactly why "Natural Law" moral theory stands on straws, especially if you find opposite final causes of A (like freezing and insulating).

Ex. Sodomy. Why couldn't it be the case that same-sex attractions and subsequent same-sex intimacy is programmed into certain individuals by nature in order to keep the human population at a manageable level, as modern science tells us? In this way, sodomy is a completely natural buffer. Not a "metaphysical absurdity," as Feser insists.

Martin said...

Anonymous on 1/5/12 3:05 (can't you people pick a name?),

I too would like to know the answer to this. Let's say that homosexuality turns out to be some cog in the larger machine of societal cohesion. Then wouldn't it be a necessary part of the final causality of society as a whole?

I can understand basing morality off final causality, and in fact morality seems to ENTAIL final causality in some ways, but it seems to me that it might not always be possible to know what the final cause is in all cases. Homosexuality might serve a certain end within that machine, and thus NOT be immoral after all.

Wotan said...

@Anon, Martin

You guys might want to voice your concerns over at Dr. Feser's latest post on lying, since there are a couple of nice sized paragraphs in there in which he discuses the natural law approach to ethics that underwrites his position on lying.

Gene Callahan said...

"I am also not especially convinced that "there is a possible interpretation of the microstructure of the wall in [Searle's] room on which it is running Wordstar". I would like to see that claim defended."

Try to keep up with the literature, man! This fact is well known in computer science now. In fact, the MIT media lab has actually used an ordinary glass of water as a computer.

Ray Ingles said...

Anon - "Why couldn't it be the case that same-sex attractions and subsequent same-sex intimacy is programmed into certain individuals by nature in order to keep the human population at a manageable level, as modern science tells us?"

Um... I actually think there may well be evolutionary reasons for homosexuality's persistence. But I'm far less convinced that "modern science tells us" what those reasons are. So far as I know, at this point we just have suggestive hypotheses.

Anonymous said...

"Why couldn't it be the case that same-sex attractions and subsequent same-sex intimacy is programmed into certain individuals by nature in order to keep the human population at a manageable level, as modern science tells us?"

Uh. Modern science doesn't tell us this. It also doesn't tell us that diluting medicine in water makes it more effective, that water is alive and capable of feeling emotions, or that the WTC was an inside job, or that blacks are a separate and inferior species.

Crackpots tell us this. Sometimes these crackpots argue from bad studies or poor interpretations of studies, good and bad. And sometimes these crackpots are scientists. But it doesn't make their garbage the declaration of science.

But if we're going to play that game: the very existence of abstinence, and (if you want to be non-Catholic about it) birth control, means that "nature's use" for homosexuality is either outmoded, or was never its use to begin with. Oops. I guess its time to make homosexuality go the way of the dodo.

Or at least the penguin, since the gay penguin couple enjoys the company of females. I guess this means that homosexual behavior occurs in nature, and can be cured!

Ray Ingles said...

Gene Callahan - "the MIT media lab has actually used an ordinary glass of water as a computer."

Where can I read more? The closest thing I could find was this:

http://www.blikstein.com/paulo/projects/project_water.html

...and, well... I think I'd have to contest the idea that's "an ordinary glass of water".

Edwin Herdman said...

Greg Ransom's mentions, of Kuhn and the beginning of an explicatory process coinciding with teleological insights, reminds me of an apparent outcome of Thomas Kuhn's "revolutionary" model of scientific progress: If science is wholly empirical, as the "rational" element is merely a slave to finding the correct observation at the correct time, then the theoretical virtues are a post hoc (maybe cum hoc?) answer to their apparent appearance and their apparent recurrence throughout the history of science. In other words - theoretical virtues would not exist. By the same lights, any attempt to claim the theoretical virtues would seem to necessarily be a form of "ludic" fallacy - trying to state that a random event actually has a statistical regularity. I understand that Kuhn strenuously objected to the accusation made that he removed rationality from science, but unfortunately died in the middle of a correspondence on that matter.

At least up to the present, the theoretical virtues actually appear to be consistent with best practices for finding truth, in much the same way that geometry is able to find necessary truths.

I wonder if it is not a useful fiction. Yet, even if this little is the least that must be supposed, it seems premature for any atheist to deny teleology outright.

More reasonably, I will state that although I don't care for DNW's screed against internet trolls (I thought the conversation was essentially civil, at least on the side of "goddinpotty," username aside), I agree that the naturalistic fallacy is a severe problem especially for many atheists and nihilists, who seem to violate the argument of nihilism with each breath - even admitting that machines may operate without any "purpose" does not give one a satisfactory answer about what sort of teleology one should invent. Yet people are naturally drawn to try to find out what rules to follow, including atheists. Every breath taken is in alignment with this purpose, even if one argues that there is a split between a "mechanistic" and a spiritual sort of purpose.

I now take my leave from abusing the formal names of fallacies. :)