Friday, August 1, 2014

Haldane on Nagel and the Fifth Way


Next week I’ll be at the Thomistic Seminar organized by John Haldane.  Haldane’s article “Realism, Mind, and Evolution” appeared last year in the journal Philosophical InvestigationsThomas Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos is among the topics dealt with in the article.  As Haldane notes, Nagel entertains the possibility of a “non-materialist naturalist” position which:

would explain the emergence of sentient and then of rational beings on the basis of developmental processes directed towards their production.  That is to say, it postulates principles of self-organization in matter which lead from the physico-chemical level to the emergence of living things, which then are further directed by some immanent laws towards the development of consciousness, and thereafter to reason for the sake of coming to recognize value and act in response to it, a state of affairs which is itself a value, the good of rational life. (p. 107)

As the phrases “directed towards” and “immanent laws” indicate, what Nagel is speculating about is a return to a broadly Aristotelian notion of natural teleology.
 
Three views on natural teleology

As longtime readers of this blog know, an Aristotelian notion of natural teleology contrasts with the sort found in writers like William Paley, and can be illustrated via simple examples.  The teleology or “directedness” of a watch towards the end of telling time is extrinsic to the parts of the watch, insofar as there is nothing in the bits of metal and glass that make up the watch by virtue which they inherently serve that end.  The time-telling function has to be imposed on them from outside.  An acorn, by contrast, is inherently directed towards the end of becoming an oak.  That’s just what it is to be an acorn.  Whereas the teleology of the watch is extrinsic, the teleology of the acorn is intrinsic.  For Aristotle, that is what makes an acorn a natural object whereas a watch is not natural in the relevant sense but artificial.  Paley’s view that natural objects are to be thought of on the model of watches and other human artifacts would in Aristotle’s view simply be muddleheaded.  Precisely because they are natural -- and thus have immanent rather than extrinsic teleology -- acorns and the like are not like watches.

What explains the teleology of a natural object?  The extrinsic teleology of a watch derives entirely from the maker of the watch, so that if natural objects are as Paley says they are, their teleology must derive entirely from some “designer.”  For Aristotle, though (as usually interpreted), since the teleology of a natural object follows from its nature, there is no need to look beyond its nature to explain it.  That is not because Aristotle denies the existence of God -- on the contrary, he famously argues for the existence of a divine Prime Mover.  He just doesn’t think that a thing’s having teleological features is among the things that require a divine cause.

Aquinas takes a third position.  In his view, the proximate source of a natural object’s teleological features is just its nature, and in that sense natural teleology is, as Aristotle holds, immanent.  But the source of a thing’s nature, and thus the ultimate source of its teleological features, is God, so that in that sense teleology is, as Paley holds, extrinsic. 

Aquinas’s position on teleology (or final causality) in this respect exactly parallels his position on efficient causality.  On the latter subject, Aquinas maintains, on the one hand, that though created things or “secondary causes” derive their causal power entirely from the divine first cause, these created or secondary causes really are true causes.  It really is the sun that melts the ice cube in your drink, it really is the poison oak that gives you a rash, it really is the ointment that speeds up the healing of that rash, and so forth.  That is to say, the “occasionalist” view that it is only ever really God who causes anything, with secondary causes being illusory, is one that Aquinas rejects.  On the other hand, Aquinas also rejects the view that secondary causes can ever operate even for an instant without God imparting their causal power to them.  The notion that secondary causes could so act tends toward deism, which Aquinas would regard as an opposite error from that of occasionalism.  Aquinas’s view, known as “concurrentism,” stakes out a middle ground position.  (See Fred Freddoso’s important papers on this subject, here, here, and here.)

Aquinas’s views on final causality and efficient causality are closely connected.  For Aquinas, the only way to make sense of how it is that an efficient cause A reliably generates a specific effect or range of effects B is if generating B is the end or final cause toward which A is inherently directed.  (This is the Scholastic “principle of finality.”)  Inherent or intrinsic directedness toward an end thus goes hand in hand with having efficient casual power.  If we take the Paleyan view that things have no immanent teleology but only extrinsic teleology, then we are (given Aquinas’s metaphysics of causation) implicitly denying that they have genuine efficient causal power.  That would leave the false appearance of their having it a result of God’s making things happen in such a way that objects seem to have causal power (which is the occasionalist position).

So, to avoid occasionalism, we need to affirm that a natural object’s efficient causal power and its finality or teleology both have a proximate ground in the nature of the object itself, as well as an ultimate ground in the First Cause.  This is also what makes natural science possible.  Just as both the theist and the atheist can know the efficient causal powers of oxygen, hydrogen, sunlight, ointments, etc. just by studying these things themselves, so too can both the theist and the atheist know the teleological features of things just by studying the things themselves.  Both efficient causal power and finality are there to be seen in things, whether or not someone is aware that they could not be there in the first place, even for an instant, unless both features were continuously imparted by the divine First Cause.  (Compare: You can see a thing’s reflection in the mirror whether or not you realize that it can only be there even for an instant if there is something beyond the mirror which is being reflected.) 

(I discuss final causality and its relation to efficient causality in depth in Scholastic Metaphysics, especially in chapter 2.  I discuss and defend Aquinas’s reasons for affirming both a proximate ground of a thing’s finality in its own nature and an ultimate ground in God in my Nova et Vetera article “Between Aristotle and William Paley: Aquinas’s Fifth Way.”) 

Nagel and the Fifth Way

That brings us back to Haldane and Nagel.  Nagel, again, at least toys with the idea of returning to an Aristotelian notion of teleology or finality as immanent to the natural order.  Because he sees teleology as grounded in nature itself rather than entirely extrinsic, his view is not like Paley’s.  Because he sees this grounding in nature as ultimate rather than proximate, his view is not like Aquinas’s either.  In this way Nagel hopes to be able to move away from materialism, with its anti-realism about teleology, to a robustly teleological position, but without affirming any brand of theism.  Nagel writes:

The teleology I want to consider would be an explanation not only of the appearance of physical organisms but of the development of consciousness and ultimately of reason in those organisms…

Teleological laws… would be laws of the self-organization of matter, essentially -- or of whatever is more basic than matter…

A naturalistic teleology would mean that organizational and developmental principles of this kind are an irreducible part of the natural order, and not the result of intentional or purposive influence by anyone.  I am not confident that this Aristotelian idea of teleology without intention makes sense, but I do not at the moment see why it doesn’t.  (Mind and Cosmos, p. 93)

Now, Aquinas’s Fifth Way is intended to show that this sort of position cannot be maintained.  Even immanent teleology necessarily leads to theism, in his view, even if via a route less direct than the one Paley and his followers take.  (Again, I’ve expounded and defended his argument at length elsewhere -- in greatest depth in the Nova et Vetera article, and also in my book Aquinas.)

Of the Fifth Way, Haldane notes:

First, unlike the famous design argument of William Paley and the contemporary “irreducible complexity arguments” of Michael Behe and others, it does not rest on claims about the structural relationship of parts within organs but is perfectly general.  Second, it is teleological across the range of non-rational nature, hence overlaps significantly with the positive part of Nagel’s preferred solution. (p. 111)

Haldane then briefly sketches a way in which Nagel’s position might be taken in a Fifth Way-style direction.  He appeals to the

Thomistic principle… that an activity or a series of activities related to one another as parts of a process can never exceed the power of the cause that operates to produce and sustain them.  Another way of putting this is to say that the highest actuality or reality that might be obtained is but an expression of what was already present from the beginningUnified processes on this account unfold [and] they do not introduce what was hitherto wholly non-existent. (p. 110)

This is a variation on what is sometimes called the Scholastic “principle of proportionate causality,” to the effect that whatever is in an effect must be in its total cause either formally, virtually, or eminently.  (I expound and defend this principle too in Scholastic Metaphysics, at pp. 154-59.)

Haldane suggests that Nagel might agree with this principle as Haldane states it, insofar as Nagel proposes that rationality, consciousness, and the like might have developed via principles that have always been immanent in the natural world from the beginning, long before the rise of rational and conscious organisms.  But Haldane suggests that consistent application of the principle may lead Nagel in just the sort of theistic direction he wants to avoid going in:

[A]pplication of the principle that the highest actuality must be present in the cause(s) out of which it emerges implies for Nagel’s claim that the developmental process has led to rational beings that the causes must contain reason and, insofar as it is directional, knowledge also.  But a cause that is endowed with knowledge and intelligence by whom all natural things are directed to their end comes close, perilously close for Nagel to the conclusion that the cosmos is an effect of a transcendent purposive agent. (p. 111)

I think this is a very interesting suggestion, though it might be argued that Haldane moves too quickly to a “transcendent” cause.  For someone might claim that even if reason and knowledge must in some sense be present all along, they might still be present in a way that is wholly within the natural order.  In other words, one might take Haldane’s proposed emendation of Nagel to lead at best to an essentially Stoic natural theology, which affirms a divine logos immanent to nature.  This would be a variation on pantheism rather than theism.

To get to theism, we need to add a premise to the effect that the world itself cannot be the terminus of explanation.  That’s not hard to show given other elements of Thomistic metaphysics.  The world is, for example, a mixture of actuality and potentiality, and thus requires an actualizing cause.  Only what is pure actuality can be an ultimate cause -- can be what causes everything else without even in principle requiring, or indeed even being capable of having, a cause of its own. 

It seems to me, though, that this would give us a variation on a cosmological argument rather than a Fifth Way-style argument.  The idea would be that an argument like Aquinas’s First Way or Second Way gets us to a transcendent First Cause, and that Nagel’s position as emended by Haldane would entail that this First Cause must contain something like reason and knowledge; for reason and knowledge are in the effect, and whatever is in the effect must in some way be in the cause.

I’ve argued that a First Cause has to have intellect on somewhat different grounds (e.g. in the second half of my lecture “An Aristotelian Proof of the Existence of God”).  And the Fifth Way, as I have expounded and defended it, is considerably different from the argument Haldane sketches.  But it seems to me that his proposal is interesting and worthy of further development.

59 comments:

Daniel said...

It occurs to me that it might be enlightening to compare your variation on the Fifth Way with the oft-neglected Argument from Eternal Truths as the two are so closely linked.

Gene Callahan said...

"This is also what makes natural science possible."

I don't see why this is so. So, say, for Berkeley, the only cause in the physical world are ideas in the mind of God. Why would this make science impossible, so long as God's ideas are consistent and rational?

DavidM said...

@Gene:

...or rather: so long as our ideas/minds are constituted so as to have knowledge of reality. But do we know what the basic conditions for having (natural scientific-) knowledge of reality are? Something to do with the cause(s) in the physical world (whether or not we say these are "only in the mind of God") necessarily being "consistent and rational"? Sure. First principles. But how does it make sense to say that causes are both "in the natural world" and "only in the mind of God"? Is "the natural world" supposed to be identical to "the mind of God" on this view?

Scott said...

Off topic, but good news for anyone awaiting the release of Jeffrey Brower's Aquinas's Ontology of the Material World: it was originally scheduled for release on 26 August, but the date seems to have been bumped up. I've been notified that my preordered copy will arrive by the sixth, and Amazon reports its status as "Shipping now."

James Barham said...

Nagel's view seems to align more naturally with the physics-inspired critique of Darwinian reductionism coming out of nonlinear dynamics, condensed-matter physics, etc.

Nagel aside, I am very sympathetic to the general A-T metaphysics, which does indeed seem to cohere nicely with a non-reductive (emergentist) metaphysical view that is "naturalistic" in an extended sense, in which "substance" may be glossed as "stability" and "essence" as the physical principles upon which stability is based in a given case.

However, I would love to hear a response from A-T theorists to this worry, which has been troubling me for a while:

Feser, Oderberg, and others insist that final causality be interpreted broadly as a feature of being as such, and not just of living systems.

But how does one determine the normative variant of a non-living substance? Which is the good and which the defective form? For instance, ordinary water or heavy water? A star like the Sun or a red giant (or a white dwarf)? On what basis might one make such a distinction?

At a minimum, A-T theorists appear to miss (or at least downplay) the crucial distinction between the very different physical principles underlying the stability of living and non-living systems.

The principle underlying the stability of non-living systems (such as stars) is free energy minimization. The principle underlying the stability of living systems (such as cells) is clearly something entirely different---something we as yet know very little about, though some (e.g., Stuart Kauffman, F.E. Yates, Mae-Wan Ho, Alexei Kurakin)have begun to speculate about it in a productive way.

If agreement could somehow be reached on this point---the crucial difference between the thin "finality" associated with the dispositionality of non-living systems and the full-blown teleology associated with living systems---then post-Darwinian naturalists (among whom Nagel logically belongs) and A-T theorists could indeed find a lot of common ground.

Scott said...

@James Barham:

"[H]ow does one determine the normative variant of a non-living substance? "

Why would one expect to? Final causation in non-living substances is basically just a directedness toward (a power/tendency to produce) certain effects. Where would normativity come in?

Even if we insist on speaking of "good water" and "bad water," I don't see why we'd regard either ordinary water or heavy water as normative; for A-T, they're two different substances. As for stars, it's a matter of some contention whether a "star" is a substance at all, rather than a mere aggregate of substances.

"At a minimum, A-T theorists appear to miss (or at least downplay) the crucial distinction between the very different physical principles underlying the stability of living and non-living systems."

In what way? A-T distinguishes quite firmly between living and non-living substances and denies that the former can be reduced to the latter; obviously they operate on different principles, physical and/or otherwise. What is it you think A-T theorists "miss (or at least downplay)"?

Scott said...

"If agreement could somehow be reached on this point---the crucial difference between the thin "finality" associated with the dispositionality of non-living systems and the full-blown teleology associated with living systems…"

If there's disagreement on this point, I'm not aware of it. On the contrary, every A-T theorist with whom I'm familiar is quite happy to acknowledge that final causation in non-living substances is "thin" in the sense you seem to mean. Do you have anyone specifically in mind who doesn't?

James Barham said...

In his recent article "Being, the Good, and the Guise of the Good" (in D.D. Novotny, et al., eds, Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives on Metaphysics, Routledge, 2014, pp. 84-103; see esp. the discussion on pp. 85ff), Professor Feser is pretty explicit that in the A-T view, being as such has normative properties.

He seems to me, at any rate, to be saying that non-living substances also must be viewed as "good"---goodness is an attribute of all being---and hence presumably there must be a way to distinguish between better and worse, flourishing and defective, examples of stars and all other non-living systems.

Admittedly, his two main examples in this article, triangles and the phosphorus tips of matches, are ambiguous, as they both involve human beings, though in very different ways.

Perhaps I have misinterpreted the A-T (or at least Feser's) position. I would be very happy if that were indeed the case.

But I do feel that at a minimum A-T folks need to be clearer on this point.

Scott said...

@James Barham:

"He seems to me, at any rate, to be saying that non-living substances also must be viewed as 'good'---goodness is an attribute of all being---and hence presumably there must be a way to distinguish between better and worse, flourishing and defective, examples of stars and all other non-living systems."

Whoa, slow down—that's quite a leap.

First of all, your question was about substances, and as I've said about stars (and thus implied about other things), there's a good deal of disagreement about which non-living "things" count as substances. Neither triangles nor matches do. (A match is an artifact, not a substance, and its goodness is evaluated relative to the purpose for which it was designed. The case of triangles is a bit more complicated, but a triangle is in any event not a "substance.")

Second, the goodness of a non-living substance is surely a very far cry from its "flourishing." I have no idea what it would mean for a non-living substance to "flourish."

Third, you're quite right that a non-living substance can be said to be more or less "good" to the degree that it does or doesn't manifest the (for want of a better word) "ideal" properties that flow from its essence. But there's nothing "normative" about such goodness, at least if by "normative" you mean something having to do with the way something should be. (I'm having a hard time thinking of examples of non-living things that could fall short of such an "ideal," but I don't know what it could mean to say that such a substance—water, say—"should" or "ought to" be better than it is.)

And if by "normative" you mean anything less strong than this, then I don't see the problem. For A-T, what constitutes the "essence" of a substance is basically an empirical question; A-T just says that there are such things and leaves it to empirical science to determine what they are in specific cases. Apart from very general and abstract considerations, it simply isn't A-T philosophy's job to tell scientists what is or isn't the (weakly) "normative" variant of a non-living substance, and it doesn't claim to be able to do so.

James Barham said...

I don't think we have a substantive disagreement, just a disagreement about how to interpret Feser (and Oderberg).

If Feser too would agree with everything you've said, then I have a question and a comment:

1. Question: What DOES it mean to speak of the "goodness" of non-living things, if by that is NOT meant anything normative?

2. Comment: It would have been better to leave aside the triangle and match examples (which I too interpret as being irrelevant to the claim that nonliving things are inherently good)and to provide an example of a non-living thing that is good per se.

Scott said...

@James Barham:

"Question: What DOES it mean to speak of the 'goodness' of non-living things, if by that is NOT meant anything normative?"

I'm not saying it doesn't mean anything normative in any sense, just that it doesn't involve telling (say) a defective hydrogen atom that it ought to be more hydrogen-like. In principle it's possible (though, again, I'm having a hard time thinking of realistic examples) for a non-living thing to fail to express or manifest its full essence and in that sense to fall short of perfection.

Moreover, whatever exists, however imperfect in that sense, is still good insofar as it has being; for A-T, being and goodness are "convertible."

Of course we might also say that (say) a stone is "good" for some human purpose (building a house, for example), but that's a different matter.

Daniel said...

This may run into problems about aggregates, as it assumes a lump of gold would be a substance rather than an aggregate of substances, to whit gold atoms, but could not we say a gold object which more clearly manifests its properties is a better instance of gold than one that doesn’t (say it contains trace impurities). To have set properties e.g. to melt at X temperature, to conduct electricity, to resist Y amount of force is to showcase what it means to be gold (we can say that gold atoms don’t melt but gold does).

Apologies if this has already been mentioned and/or contains a misunderstanding (I have yet to study many recent writings on this subject).

Scott said...

@Daniel:

"[C]ould not we say a gold object which more clearly manifests its properties is a better instance of gold than one that doesn’t (say it contains trace impurities)."

Yes, and I think we can say that either way—whether, that is, we regard the lump of gold as a substance or a mere aggregate.

What was bothering me about such examples when I considered them before was just that it seems that the gold itself (at the atomic level) is still perfectly "good" gold even if its gold-like physical/chemical behavior is impeded or frustrated by other external substances like impurities. But looking at it at the "lump" level, and not worrying about whether the lump is a substance or not, seems to resolve that issue.

Mr. Green said...

Daniel: "[C]ould not we say a gold object which more clearly manifests its properties is a better instance of gold than one that doesn’t (say it contains trace impurities)."
Scott: it seems that the gold itself (at the atomic level) is still perfectly "good" gold even if its gold-like physical/chemical behavior is impeded or frustrated by other external substances like impurities.

I've been wondering what to make of the question of lumps. Aristotle, not being an atomist, thought that substances like gold were indefinitely divisible (I believe), and thus there would be no such thing as the smallest amount of gold. Nowadays we can be Aristotelian and atomists, and so there is an obvious, non-arbitrary cut-off point that could be considered to be "a" gold substance, i.e. a single atom; a lump of gold would thus be a "pile" of gold-substances. (Or they could both be substances... I can't think of any practical ramifications of one view over the other, but the atomic view appeals to me as a more natural interpretation of the physics.)

At any rate, even if a collection of gold atoms turns out to be a substance, I would say that gold with impurities is an artifact: a conglomeration (albeit a very intimate one) of gold plus other stuff. It would be defective gold only if it the gold somehow "absorbed" the impurities into its nature. I suppose that is metaphysically possible, but it doesn't strike me as right.

It seems that inanimate substances do not allow of defects: an atom is either gold or it isn't; an electron has a certain charge and mass — there are no "overweight" electrons or ones that have lost their charge. Or so it seems to me. Perhaps neutrinos and electrons are in fact different varieties of the same substance… but even then, surely they are perfectly good accidental differences rather than deficiencies, such as accidentally being a blond or a brunette.

And the reason would be that an inanimate object has no immanent or self-directed teleology, so any accidental change to it cannot hinder its "flourishing" (or lack thereof). Or does flourishing rather depend on finality that is directed to preserving the substance? There may not be much you can do to an electron (as far as we know it has no parts), but is there any reason God couldn't decree that water is supposed to be like normal water, and thus heavy water is an aberration?

Scott said...

@Mr. Green:

"It would be defective gold only if it the gold somehow 'absorbed' the impurities into its nature. I suppose that is metaphysically possible, but it doesn't strike me as right."

Nor me. As you've probably gathered from my previous post, I agree with the first quoted sentence.

"It seems that inanimate substances do not allow of defects: an atom is either gold or it isn't; an electron has a certain charge and mass — there are no 'overweight' electrons or ones that have lost their charge. Or so it seems to me."

To me as well, especially after trying (and failing) to think of natural substances that could be defective. (But the same considerations don't apply to a lump, which isn't a substance, or to accidents, which have essences but aren't substances.)

"[I]s there any reason God couldn't decree that water is supposed to be like normal water, and thus heavy water is an aberration?"

I suspect there is. On an A-T view of chemistry, deuterium oxide is a different substance from ordinary water; decreeing that the one "should" be the other would be like decreeing that carbon monoxide "should" be carbon dioxide.

Jeremy Taylor said...

This is slightly off topic (although I suppose it can be applied to all proofs of God), but what is the best answer to the objection to cosmological arguments that we shouldn't expect causation to operate as it does inside the universe outside it?

I can't find where Ed has dealt with this before.

Timotheos said...

@ Jeremy Taylor

I’m having trouble figuring out exactly what that objection is trying to get at. The best I can make of it is something to the effect that we can’t apply things that we learn by experience to things categorically outside of our experience, such that we can’t just assume causation that transcends our experience will act in the same way as we know it to.

Since this only seems to make any sense from a rigorously Kantian theory of knowledge that practically no one holds anymore, I’m not sure how valuable it would be to spend a lot of time arguing against it directly; most people using that objection are probably muddling things, so disentangling their faulty presuppositions is probably the more effective way to go.

And now that I started to think about it, I remembered that Dr. Feser handled this issue in his section on the second way in his book on Aquinas, so you can check for a fuller response there.

Jeremy Taylor said...

Yes, it is true that it is a stock objection amongst those who don't seem to know what they are talking about, but it is quite common.

I had forgotten all about Dr. Feser's comments on it in Aquinas. Thanks Timotheos.

Daniel said...

A strong point in favour of treating the lump as a substance, may be even more so than the individual atom, is that the atom simply cannot manifest a lot of the properties of Gold (this is what I meant with the melting remark). Melting at a certain temperature, appearing X way to Y perceptual organs, dissolving in Z acid, etc. are all objective properties of Gold which were and still are catalogued as much as atomic weight. To prioritise the latter suggests falling prey to a reduction to Physics albeit an Essentialist Physics.

This of course wouldn’t help in the goodness example since one could say that though both the lump and the solitary atom are instances of the substance Gold the lump with impurities is only an aggregate mixture.

grodrigues said...

@Scott:

"To me as well, especially after trying (and failing) to think of natural substances that could be defective. (But the same considerations don't apply to a lump, which isn't a substance, or to accidents, which have essences but aren't substances.)"

I think the problem you are highlighting here is that while living things have immanent principles of activity that start and initiate in the substance itself, and so there is a perfectly valid sense in which we say that instances of this are that natural kind are defective, quite obviously there isn't anything parallel in the inanimate world (since the possession of such a principle *just* is what it means to be alive).

We sometimes read (and Prof. Feser uses this example) of defective triangle, a three-sided figure whose sides are not perfectly rectilinear. And we could speak similarly of defective balls or spheres or whatever. But this type of examples is related to exemplars, mathematicals whose ontological status is itself a matter of controversy (if we want to resist Platonism). But as Mr. Green pointed out, it is not at all clear what a "defective" electron could even be: assuming the story that QM tells us is correct and complete, they are all essentially alike, even indistinguishable in a fairly strong sense, differing only in accidental properties like position and momentum.

grodrigues said...

Duh; now I fee stupid. Mr. Green has already said what have just repeated That is what happens when you do not read the comments to the very end.

Scott said...

@grodrigues:

"We sometimes read (and Prof. Feser uses this example) of defective triangle, a three-sided figure whose sides are not perfectly rectilinear. And we could speak similarly of defective balls or spheres or whatever. But this type of examples is related to exemplars, mathematicals whose ontological status is itself a matter of controversy (if we want to resist Platonism)."

Yes. And the other shortcoming of the "triangle" example/illustration in the present context is that (say) a set of marks on a chalkboard has no inherent tendency to be triangular; it's "defective" as a triangle only because someone was trying to draw a triangle. Purely as marks on a chalkboard, they're "perfect"; it's only relative to extrinsic intentionality that we can regard them as defective.

@Daniel:

"A strong point in favour of treating the lump as a substance, may be even more so than the individual atom, is that the atom simply cannot manifest a lot of the properties of Gold (this is what I meant with the melting remark)."

Yes, that's a good point and it's the one that persuaded me that it was okay for present purposes to treat the lump as a unit of sorts.

However, an isolated human being can't manifest a lot of the properties of human beings, either; we're social/political animals, after all, and we can't express that part of our nature in the absence of others of our kind. Does that mean a city or a nation is a "substance"?

I'd say no, and I'd say likewise about gold; even in a lump, it's still the individual atoms of gold that are manifesting the physico-chemical behavior of gold, even if they have to be in the presence of other atoms of gold in order to do so. I don't see that the "lump qua lump" is any sort of independent entity at all, let alone one that's more fundamental than the gold atoms it contains.

Scott said...

@grod:

I should have said "the other, closely related shortcoming," as I'm well aware that what I'm saying is an elaboration/amplification/extension of what you've already said.

Greg said...

@Jeremy Taylor,

This is slightly off topic (although I suppose it can be applied to all proofs of God), but what is the best answer to the objection to cosmological arguments that we shouldn't expect causation to operate as it does inside the universe outside it?

One response is that it is a moot point and that the cosmological arguments conclude that causation operates outside the universe as it does inside the universe. They show that causation within the universe is insufficient in accounting for the existence and change of contingent things, so there must be causation outside of the universe.

Stephen said...

I apologise for going off-topic but have you seen this long rebuttal article addressed to Dr. Feser by the chap over at uncommon descent? It's about ID...
Best wishes
Stephen
http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/hyper-skepticism-and-my-way-or-the-highway-fesers-extraordinary-post/

Stephen said...

My bad...the one I linked to earlier was the older one. Here's the latest:
http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/an-aristotelian-proof-of-the-existence-of-god/

Daniel said...

@Scott,

‘However, an isolated human being can't manifest a lot of the properties of human beings, either; we're social/political animals, after all, and we can't express that part of our nature in the absence of others of our kind. Does that mean a city or a nation is a "substance"?’

Ahh but in the case of humans and other hypothetical agents what matters is that we have the capacity to manifest these properties not that we actually do. The capacity to use language is a property of humanity and thus by extension so is the capacity to speak Swahili - now I don’t have an active capacity to speak that language but nothing stops me learning to do so*. The Gold atom on the other hand can never manifest a lot of the properties of Gold.

* Addler wrote a surprisingly insightful chapter (no. 8) on this in his Ten Philosophical Mistakes.

Scott said...

@Daniel:

"Ahh but in the case of humans and other hypothetical agents what matters is that we have the capacity to manifest these properties not that we actually do."

And likewise, in this instance anyway, for gold. The "melting" of a lump of gold (unlike, say, the metabolism of a body of cells) reduces without remainder, as far as I can see, to the physico-chemical activity of the individual atoms of gold; what matters, and all that matters, is that those atoms have the capacity/potency to manifest the relevant properties.

At any rate, if there is a distinction here, I don't see its relevance to the point at hand. Even the most tightly organized group of human beings doesn't appear therefore to be a "substance," so why would an aggregate of gold atoms count as one? Is there some principle of unity in the latter that I'm overlooking?

"{Adler] wrote a surprisingly insightful chapter (no. 8) on this in his Ten Philosophical Mistakes."

Indeed he did, and I'm familiar with it. The entire book is quite good.

Scott said...

"The Gold atom on the other hand can never manifest a lot of the properties of Gold."

And neither can an isolated human being manifest some of the most important properties of human beings. Even your "speaking Swahili" remains, in me, an unactualized potency or an unmanifested property unless some other human being teaches me the language. And that doesn't even touch such matters as (just offhand) having parents, participating in politics, and communicating (as opposed to merely speaking out loud to no one, whether in Swahili or any other language).

Scott said...

…and having sex.

Anonymous said...

@Mr. Green:
"Aristotle, not being an atomist, thought that substances like gold were indefinitely divisible (I believe), and thus there would be no such thing as the smallest amount of gold."

Well, A-T has the concept of minima naturalia--so AFAIK Aristotle distinguished indefinite mathematical divisibility from that degree of division beyond which a natural substance would lose its character. From Wikipedia (the natural minimum discussed is of flesh, but you can swap out gold):

In his commentary on Aristotle's Physics, Aquinas writes of natural minima that, "although a body, considered mathematically, is divisible to infinity, the natural body is not divisible to infinity. For in a mathematical body nothing but quantity is considered. And in this there is nothing repugnant to division to infinity. But in a natural body the form also is considered, which form requires a determinate quantity and also other accidents. Whence it is not possible for quantity to be found in the species of flesh except as determined within some termini."

Cheers,
Irenist

Mr. Green said...

Scott: On an A-T view of chemistry, deuterium oxide is a different substance from ordinary water; decreeing that the one "should" be the other would be like decreeing that carbon monoxide "should" be carbon dioxide.

I agree that that's likely; but it is logically incoherent for CO to have been the same substance as CO₂, only defective? Or is it "possible but silly" (which I think is a reasonable response in contexts like this, by the way).


GRodrigues: I think the problem you are highlighting here is that while living things have immanent principles of activity that start and initiate in the substance itself, and so there is a perfectly valid sense in which we say that instances of this are that natural kind are defective

Saying something I've said is sometimes grounds for a body to feel stupid, but in this case I feel happy to have said something GRodrigues agrees with, so it all works out! There is something interesting here, though, that I'm not quite sure how to understand: there is some sort of division between the levels of physics and biology, in that a living organism can be defective with regards to its biological nature, but the (virtual) particles making it up always stick to their natures. Is this because at the level of physics, there isn't a way to be defective, or is it because particles like electrons have only one level, so they cannot suffer flaws by having the two levels "disagree"? (And to anyone who doesn't know the answer, maybe you can at least figure out what the question is, and pose it more cogently!)


Scott: why would an aggregate of gold atoms count as one? Is there some principle of unity in the latter that I'm overlooking?

You beat me to the example an individual vs. a crowd, so I was thinking along the same lines. On the other hand, is there a "common sense" argument that we want to think of malleability as being a property of gold, rather than some electrochemical side-effect of a bunch of gold atoms? Actually, here's a counter-argument: if a single atom doesn't have the essential properties of gold, then the atom isn't gold — but what else could it be?


Irenist: But in a natural body the form also is considered, which form requires a determinate quantity and also other accidents."

It makes sense to deny infinitesimally small pieces of something (regardless of whether it works mathematically); and being too small to support certain accidents also sounds reasonable, though I can't think of an example of the top of my head. Assuming atomism were wrong, couldn't any accidental property be arbitrarily small?

James Taddeo said...

Very fascinating post Dr. Feser! I'm only now beginning to understand the differences between teh Fifth way and Paley's argument. I'm curious about something though: a lot of people trumpet this argument Douglas Adams (of all people) came up with in response to all teleogical arguments: that it's like a thinking puddle that thinks the ground is designed perfectly to let it take the shape it currently has when in reality the puddle conforms to the pre-existing shape of the ground (so it's a case of personification); how does the Fifth way respond to this critique?

Daniel said...

@James, with respect to Adams sic that has absolutely no bearing on the Fifth Way at least not on Feser’s account of which focuses on dispositional properties and what modern philosophers of Science have called ‘physical intentionality’


Mr. Green said...

‘You beat me to the example an individual vs. a crowd, so I was thinking along the same lines. On the other hand, is there a "common sense" argument that we want to think of malleability as being a property of gold, rather than some electrochemical side-effect of a bunch of gold atoms? Actually, here's a counter-argument: if a single atom doesn't have the essential properties of gold, then the atom isn't gold — but what else could it be?’

My apologies. When I spoke of Properties I used that term in the somewhat loose sense it is employed in Contemporary Metaphysics as involving both Real Properties and Essential Properties/Specific Definition. That Gold Atoms have the Essential Property of Gold needn’t come into question.

Daniel said...

@James, with respect to Adams sic that has absolutely no bearing on the Fifth Way at least not on Feser’s account of which focuses on dispositional properties and what modern philosophers of Science have called ‘physical intentionality’. In fact Adams concedes the main point when he speaks of the relation between the ground determining the puddle. The argument most people of that ilk have in mind is the Design Argument (one I intensely dislike) and even in that case Adams remark is question begging since the proponent of said Argument is claiming that the probability of the ground alone determining the puddle is so miniscule as to be disregarded. The complexity in Adams case however does give one cause to wonder…

For a look at Teleology in general this article might be of interest if you haven’t already seen it:

http://www.epsociety.org/library/articles.asp?pid=81

Daniel said...

@Scott,

I am still not convinced I’m afraid. The examples used (conversation, sexual activity, etc.) are examples of two substances interacting with one another not two substances acting as one. In the case of collections like crowds I am uncertain as to whether they can even be taken as Aggregates save in a very loose analogous sense.


‘…that those atoms have the capacity/potency to manifest the relevant properties.’

‘….Is there some principle of unity in the latter that I'm overlooking?’

But this is exactly what concerns me to wit that those atoms only have the capacity/potency to manifest an impoverished amount of the relevant properties. If we go by the maxim ‘As a thing acts so it is: Action is the index of Essence’ then the lump seems an effective Index than the atom. The principle of unity in question is precisely to the Causal Nexus and bearer of the relevant powers. At the back of my mind there is a worry that the atoms should be taken in some way as ontologically derivative.

‘The entire book is quite good.’

Yes, it was one of the first books on philosophy that I read and I’m grateful that was the case, however Adler’s prose has an annoying tendency to be rather vague whist striving to be lucid in an everyday, kitchen-sink sort of way. I’m looking forward to trying his book on language though, as a lot of people have spoken highly of it.

Curio said...

@ James Barham

Oderberg gave some lectures a while ago in my area about the metaphysics of good and evil. He grounded morality in a wider notion of good and evil, connecting the terms to the theory of fulfillment and privation, and applying it to the non-living physical world. He has a book on the same topic in the works. I honestly can't wait.

Aristotle gives us the epistemological key. Anything that happens always or for the most part is ordered to an end. This is how we discern final cause. So on this score, I guess we could say a good planet is one that coheres together and regularly orbits a star. I believe it's Oderberg (again) who gives the examples of cycles in nature as being examples of rather obvious teleology in non-living systems.

Chastek has a nice dialogue that illustrates the same point. See if this helps

http://thomism.wordpress.com/2013/07/20/being-and-goodness-in-modern-cosmology/

Scott said...

@Daniel:

"I am still not convinced I’m afraid."

That's fine. Frankly, I expect there will always be (legitimate) disagreement about which non-living things count as substances and which don't, and offhand I don't see any burning issues the resolution of which depends on the answer.

Scott said...

@Mr. Green:

"[Is it] logically incoherent for CO to have been the same substance as CO₂, only defective? Or is it 'possible but silly'…?"

Hmm, yes, I guess I'd have to agree it's the latter.

"[I]s there a 'common sense' argument that we want to think of malleability as being a property of gold, rather than some electrochemical side-effect of a bunch of gold atoms?"

I think there is, and it's powerful enough as far as it goes. But I don't think it shows that a lump of gold is a substance in its own right; I think it just shows that there are properties of gold that can be manifested only in aggregates. Isn't there also a "common sense" argument that merely splitting a lump of gold in two doesn't seem sufficient to turn it into two distinct substances?

"Actually, here's a counter-argument: if a single atom doesn't have the essential properties of gold, then the atom isn't gold — but what else could it be?"

I think I'd have to disagree with the first statement. Gold can still have the essence of gold even if it doesn't manifest the properties that flow from that essence (which is what I assume you mean by "essential properties"). So the single atom is gold; it just isn't manifesting all of its properties.

James Taddeo said...

@Daniel Thanks so much for the clarification :)

Daniel said...

Since we are going over general points in A-T Metaphysics might I ask about an issue which has been bothering me? It pertains to the Argument from Eternal Truths and the Aristotelian take on modality as a whole.

The Argument from Eternal Truths goes something like ‘Abstracta cannot exist apart from some mind, however there are necessary truths dependant on Abstracta that hold from Eternity, ergo there must necessarily be a mind which has existed from Eternity’. Now what kind of necessity are we talking about? Necessary in the sense God qua Unmoved Mover is necessary in that there is motion ergo there is an Unmoved Mover, or necessary in the sense that the non-existence of said being would imply a logical contradiction (apologies for not knowing the technical terms here)? That 3 is a prime number, that Yellow and Blue make Green and countless other truths are logically necessary, so one would be lead to assume that the mind which grounds them from Eternity must also be logically necessary*. But how is said Mind logically necessary? Might we say that the Argument from Eternal Truths establishes that there is a logically necessary being but not what it is about said being that entails its logical necessity, whilst the Ontological Argument tells us that by which said being is logically necessary if possible (which the AET has established) – this would be a clever Leibnizian move.

This is largely preamble, what is worrying me is that someone might interpret the Eternal Mind as meaning that necessary truths are not so. Prescinding from issues of Divine Eternity and Immutabilty the Deity could not ‘change its mind’ and have those truths otherwise. Not even God could make 3 cease to be a prime number or alter other necessary truths of Essence. Aristotelian Actualism would not allow anyone to deny this, correct?

*Oderberg once wrote that if all minds capable of comprehending the universal Green went out of existence then so would the universal Green. But the very notion of a universal qua necessary truth pertaining to an Essence (say that Green is Yellow and Blue) going out of existence seems logically absurd which suggests that the Eternal Mind must be logically necessary or that Aristotelianism must be abandoned for a soft Platonism a la Husserl on the question of universals. I’d hold that that the logical necessity of God can be established in other fashions anyway, so do not take that latter route.

George LeSauvage said...

@Scott & Mr Green:

I don't see what is so problematic about saying an inanimate substance is "bad" in the sense that it doesn't behave as it ought. Wouldn't examples be such as:

-A stone which rolls uphill.
-A nugget of gold which dissolves in alcohol.
-Mercury which is solid at room temperature.
-A whirlpool which is exactly square.

Of course, in every such case, our reaction is "What's going on here?" That will lead, if possible, to figuring out what caused it to act contrary to it's nature (as that nature is known to us.) And from there, normally, it will entail either drawing a distinction between two types of that substance (eg, heavy and ordinary water), or adjusting our understanding of how it behaves in certain cases.

Heavy water is an example. IIRC you can drink as much as you want, and still die of dehydration. That means it doesn't act as regular water does.* The point is not its inutility to the drinker, but that it doesn't react in us as H2O does.

Another would be the reclassification of ancient jewels, some of which were called one thing - from their colors - are know classed by chemical composition. (The bad sapphire is really a blue ruby.)

*The best description I know of is from Pogo. Seminole Sam sells bottles of plain water packaged as "a lifegiving elixir. Freeze it, and it turns to beautiful crystal. Add soap and it's a fine cleanser. Put in carrots and a bone and it becomes soup. If you thirst, it quenches. Is your house on fire? The elixir puts it out. Only one dollar."

Scott said...

@George LeSauvage:

"Wouldn't examples be such as:

-A stone which rolls uphill."

In this and your other examples, if such a thing actually occurred, we'd take it to be either (a) the effect of external factors or (b) (much less likely) a consequence of something hitherto unknown in the nature of the relevant substance(s). In neither case would we conclude that (e.g.) the stone was a "bad stone." Either it's a "good stone" that isn't able to manifest certain of its properties because of external circumstances, or (again, much less likely) it's manifesting properties we didn't know it had.

"Heavy water is an example.…[I]t doesn't act as regular water does."

Neither does H₂SO₄. That doesn't make it "bad water"; it makes it "good sulfuric acid." Each compound is a different substance,and its goodness is to be evaluated with respect to its own substantial form, not that of something else.

You say something similar in your own sapphire/ruby example, in which we regard a non-living substance as "bad" merely because we've misconstrued its nature in the first place.

Glenn said...

Perhaps it is the misconstrual, or the act of misconstruing, which is "bad" (since it is, in some sense, a privation of the good of seeing things correctly).

Brandon said...

I think George LeSauvage's example of stones rolling uphill is an interesting example, though, since it is effectively appealing to the old distinction between natural motion and violent motion; and the analogy, at least, between what we usually call badness and violent motion does hold fairly well -- to be a bad human being, for instance, is to natural human activity as undergoing violent motion is to undergoing natural motion, allowing for the difference free choice makes.

Anonymous said...

Hey Professor Feser have you ever read "Darwinian Natural Right" by Larry Arnhart?

The book description says "This book shows how Darwinian biology supports an Aristotelian view of ethics as rooted in human nature."

Thought that would get your mortar board spinning.

Daniel said...

@ Anonymous,

That book was in fact referenced multiple times in Ed's recent debate with Keith Parsons over the grounding of morality in nature. Unfortunately due to the wordcount it never became a focus of attention.

George LeSauvage said...

@Scott:

I think Brandon pointed to the point I was trying to make. "Bad" here means "not acting according to its nature", doesn't it?

For humans, that is often something we call bad, morally. The rest of the time, it is, as with animals and plants, a case of it being defective. (I don't mean a "bad dog" as one who wets the carpet, but one who won't drink water, or who can't stand up - defects relative to the nature of a dog.)

Since there is no internally generated natural motion with inanimate objects, the analogous "badness" is further removed from our ethical paradigm for "badness". But shouldn't we expect this? A rock which fails to act as it should would be a bad rock, etc.

But of course, it is also true that inanimate substances are quite the same sort of things as animate. Many are just collective terms, like water; others, like rocks, don't have organic unity. We don't say a rock is damaged, qua rock, by being split in two. Since they are not alive, the notion of flourishing cannot apply.

Of course, we don't normally believe this can happen. So we look for causes, as I said. The point is that inorganic substances are at a great remove from organic, and so any discussion of their failure to be or act as their nature ought, would also be at a great remove.

DNW said...

James Barham wrote,

" The principle underlying the stability of non-living systems (such as stars) is free energy minimization. The principle underlying the stability of living systems (such as cells) is clearly something entirely different---something we as yet know very little about, though some (e.g., Stuart Kauffman, F.E. Yates, Mae-Wan Ho, Alexei Kurakin)have begun to speculate about it in a productive way.

August 2, 2014 at 8:30 AM "



Huh, I was just thinking about what the "stability of living systems" notion might imply, the other day ... if not about it in any particularly systematic manner.


But this angle seems to me to lead to the crux of a critical sociopolitical issue; one directly and inextricably tied to a philosophical stance and outcome: the answer to which, renders social morality claims either intellectually coherent, or as records of mere acts of will, on the part of a ... well, something or other.

Anyone who has had basic college level biology will have been familiarized with the principle of homeostasis. Of course you can simply toss it aside conceptually, but the notion of health as we understand, or have understood it, will necessarily be jettisoned as well.

This is no doubt a prospect a goodly number of moral nihilists who wish to preserve (for whatever reason) some respect for their own social existences, are trying to deal with.

Although I have not yet decided to register with the site Alan Fox has provided as his home base, it looks, superficially at least, as if this very question has, under another aspect, come up over there. To wit and in essence: the question, while assuming both the scientistic/moral nihilist stance and the proposition that there is a genetic determinant in the production of homosexuals - why once detectable, "homosexual" foeti should not habitually be eliminated, and/or any genetic tendencies toward the production of the same outcome, be preemptively corrected. Should the carriers of course, so desire.

Or if the term "corrected" seems objectionable; why individuals should not be socially allowed to purge their own genome of any such potential, or abort at will any such product, simply on the grounds of personal autonomy or preference.

Certainly not every genetic abnormality or variation could be claimed as conferring some reproductive or survival advantage. Modern evolutionary theory explicitly denies such.

So for (for the sake of argument) cleft palates and borderline personality disorder, so too, perhaps, for homosexual dispositions or liabilities.

It would be remarkable to witness an anti-teleological theorist's attempt to configure a taboo against such actions on principles consistent with his own interpretive assumptions.

Scott said...

@Brandon and George LeSauvage:

[George:] "'Bad' here means 'not acting according to its nature', doesn't it?"

Well, at least it means "falling in some way short of fully manifesting or expressing its nature." At any rate I certainly see the analogy Brandon notes between violent motion and badness, and I agree with George's statements after his first paragraph.

The problem I have is that I think the distinction between natural and violent motion is a part of Aristotle's physics is one that hasn't worn well. I don't see that modern physics bears out his view that merely tossing a stone in the air somehow causes it to act out of accordance with its nature, or even not to act from its nature.

But such details aside, I'm satisfied if we're all in agreement with this statement of George's: "Since they [inanimate objects like rocks] are not alive, the notion of flourishing cannot apply." That's the heart of the point I originally wanted to make.

Scott said...

Well, there's nothing like an extra verb or two to render a sentence more emphatic. ;-)

Of course what I meant to write was The problem I have is that I think the distinction between natural and violent motion is a part of Aristotle's physics that hasn't worn well.

Mr. Green said...

Scott: The problem I have is that I think the distinction between natural and violent motion is a part of Aristotle's physics is one that hasn't worn well.

That is what I have thought also: just as a body moves towards its natural place (the centre of gravity, not the centre of the universe — a mere refinement of Aristotle's view) by virtue of its natural gravitational teleology, so does a body move when you pick it up by virtue of its natural electromagnetic teleology. But I suddenly recognised that I've had it backwards the whole time. The natural state of a body is simply to move in a straight line (in whatever direction it was going, not towards the centre of the universe), because that's what it does of its own nature, without any outside force acting on it. (So much for inertia's being a problem for Aristotelianism!) It is both falling and pushing the object that are unnatural, because they rely on some other object acting on the body. Of course, it's only partly unnatural, because it still depends on the nature of the body being acted upon, but it's not natural in the sense of being innate or intrinsic.

Scott said...

@Mr. Green:

"[I]t's not natural in the sense of being innate or intrinsic."

Fair enough. I agree with that.

Tyrrell McAllister said...

Regarding "bad gold", here is my understanding of the A-T position.

Badness is absence of being. So, bad gold would be gold that isn't "all there" in some sense.

In particular, and more precisely, a piece of gold is bad to the extent that it has unactualized potential — some way that it could be but isn't. If one piece of gold is actualizing its potential to a greater degree than another, then the first piece is better than the second.

Of course, actualizing one potential sometimes means foregoing another. Such actualizations involve trade-offs. For example, gold can be hot, and gold can be cold, but it cannot be one without not being the other. Thus, on net, a hot piece of gold isn't any better than a cold piece of gold, all else being equal. Each piece of gold has just as much being as the other, though the two pieces attain this degree of being in different ways. (Or, at least, this is not obviously not the case.)

Thus, to be certain that one piece of gold (call it A) is strictly better than another piece (call it B), we need to find an example where A actualizes all the potential that B actualizes and then some. That is, there needs to be some potential that A actualizes on top of all the potential that B actualizes.

So, how about the conducting of electricity? Gold always has the potential to conduct electricity, but not all gold is doing this. Say that A is conducting electricity, while an otherwise similar piece B is just sitting there, not conducting electricity. As far as I know, A's conducting of electricity doesn't entail the foregoing of any potential, at least not on net. (Yes, maybe conducting electricity causes A to lose coldness. But the gold is compensated for this loss by gaining hotness, so no potential is lost on net.)

On the A-T view, as I understand it, to not conduct electricity is not a potential that B is actualizing. B is just sitting there, not conducting electricity because it hasn't been offered any electricity to conduct. It is not as though B is actively insulating. Thus, B is actualizing strictly less potential than A is.

To be clear, in my example, the comparative perfection of A isn't because its conducting of electricity might be serving some intelligent end. The point is that A is actually conducting electricity, while B merely potentially could conduct electricity. The example should still work even if A is conducting electricity just because of some natural accident.

In this case, would it not follow from the A-T view that there is more goodness in A than in B?

(It looks like there is some dispute over whether lumps of gold are substances, or whether instead the individual gold atoms are substances while the lump is just an aggregate of distinct substances. However, if I'm not mistaken, even an individual gold atom could conduct electricity, so my example doesn't turn on the resolution of this dispute.)

Joe K. said...

Scott,

I thought this interview Philippa Foot had a little while back with Rick Lewis seemed right on point.

Foot: ...I mean, you can say all rivers have water in them, or some rivers go down to the sea. But there are also some peculiar propositions, propositions which only apply to living things, which are neither all nor some. And this kind of proposition really is about the standard; it’s about how it should be. It takes one towards what I have called ‘natural goodness’. For example, we say “humans have thirty two teeth.” Not all humans do, in fact, but we have defective teeth if we don’t have thirty two. Either we’ve never had the full complement or we’ve lost some. Elizabeth Anscombe put out a very important article about this kind of proposition, called ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ which was published in Mind I think in the 1950s. She didn’t make a great deal out of it but a lot of people refer to it now.

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.

Lewis: Does that apply to non-living things like stars, as well? I’m thinking of an astronomer looking at a star and saying “this should have developed into a classic yellow class 2 star but it ran out of hydrogen and that prevented it from doing so.” So surely you can say ‘should’ in relation to them?

Foot: 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.

Lewis: Is it only in the case of entities who have interests that you can have the idea of function from the point of view of the entity itself?

Foot: ‘Interests’ I think is excellent. Rivers particularly, look so much like living things; they have seasonal progressions and so on. But they don’t have interests, as artifacts do not. I like that thought of yours!

Joe K. said...

Source on that interview: http://philosophynow.org/issues/41/Philippa_Foot

Also, to add to that a bit: A concept I thought that might be interesting, sort of hinted at in that interview, is seasons. A winter might be "too hot," but again, it would be difficult to say that it, as winter, is too anything. It being too anything seems to be related to us or other living things. At the same time, it does seem to be related to the "health" of the planet as a whole.

So I wonder if maybe you could apply the concept to "ecosystems." It would make sense, I think, to say that an ecosystem is defective or unhealthy. But of course, ecosystems are about life. At the same time, there is a sense where an ecosystem is sort of an inanimate system of regularity separate from its individual living members, a sort of Thing. But then, I wonder if you can call an ecosystem or a season an "object" at all.

azlu said...

"I teach philosophy ... My primary academic research interests are in ... and philosophy of religion"

You are cordially invited to see it from an Islamic point of view.

Scott said...

@Joe K.:

Thanks for the excerpt from the Foot interview. It's not only on point, it's a very helpful summary and elaboration of the view I initially expressed in reply to James Barham.

Scott said...

@Joe K.:

"So I wonder if maybe you could apply the concept to 'ecosystems.'"

After a bit of reflection it seems to me that we could. We can surely speak, for example, of a healthy or flourishing human society; why not an ecosystem? As you say, though, an ecosystem contains life even if it's not living itself, and I'd be inclined to say that the concept of its "flourishing" is parasitic on the concept of its members' doing so; I don't think I'd want to talk (other than metaphorically) about the "flourishing" of (say) a planetary system completely devoid of any sort of life.