A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

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Friday, June 7, 2013

Final Remarks

No, no, not those kinds of final remarks; rather remarks about finality. 

You may either express relief or horror as the spirit moves you. 

Final Word

De Cart
One of the things that most confuses the modern (and therefore the post-modern) mind is the notion of finality in nature.  Ever since Descartes decreed that henceforth -- because they could not be used to produce useful products for industry -- formal and final causes did not exist, the backfill required to cover over the conceptual collapse has muddied up the picture considerably.  Today, few even understand what these meant. 

Part of the problem is the supposition that a philosophy of nature is in competition with natural science, as the term is used today.  Hence, the complaint that the pursuit of natural science is not facilitated by formal and final causation.  But this is simply due to a methodological choice.  It is like deciding a priori that the only thing worth knowing of a physical body is its weight and then declaring that a thermometer tells you nothing about how heavy the body is.  The choice made four centuries ago was that only metric and controllable efficient causes were worth knowing -- because only the metric and controllable causes would further the new goal of the new science; viz., the extension of Man's Dominion over the Universe.  Hence, all other efficient causes, as well as all formal and final causes, and even material causes, disappeared from the Weltanschauung.  But that the blinders worn by a race horse do not permit seeing certain things does not mean that those things do not exist in nature. 

In this, Bacon was wiser than Descartes.  He acknowledged that final causes existed in nature; he simply thought they were not useful for making new inventions. 

Natural science seeks to determine what are the precise laws that describe nature (final causes) and the structure of particular matter (formal causes).  But most simply take for granted that there are laws of nature and that a given substance does have a structure.  It is silly to say that formal cause did not help Watson and Crick when they were engaged precisely in the search for the form of the DNA molecule.  As Ed Feser points out
Empirical science seeks to uncover the physical causes that happen to exist, or the chemical structure of the material substances that happen to exist, or what have you.  The philosophy of nature is concerned with deeper questions -- for example, with what has to be true if there is to be any causality at all, or any material substances at all. 
The philosophy of nature doesn't tell us what that form is -- that discovery is the job of natural science -- but it does assure us ahead of time that there is a form to be discovered. 

Well, one answer is to make a simple leap of faith and cry "IT JUST IS!" much as the theokineticist might cry "GODDIDIT!"  But how much better to have a rational account!  Even in another universe with different physical laws.  The exact form that happens to obtain in that universe may be different; but not the fact that it will have a form.  If there is an intrinsic organizing principle for a thing, we do not have to check each and every DNA molecule to see what its form is.  We need only verify that it is a DNA molecule. 

Getting Specific

One example of form is the form of an atom.  Each atom is made of the same matter; that is, the same parts: protons, neutrons, and electrons.  But matter alone is pure potential if you would scroll down at that link.  The  protons, neutrons, and electrons could make up any chemical element or even various kinds of radiation.  What makes it a particular element is the number and arrangement of those parts; that is, its form.  Form is the principle of actuality.  It is what makes the matter actually one thing and not another. 

For living beings, form is more complex.  One chlorine atom is pretty much like any other chlorine atom of that isotope; but no two living things are quite the same.  The form of a dog or a petunia is an individuating form.  The mere physical arrangement of parts is not sufficient to specify it.  A recently dead petunia has the same matter, and the same arrangement of parts, as a live petunia.  What is different is that those parts are no longer in kinetic relation with one another.  So a living form includes the motions of its parts.  In fact, a living being is defined as possessing the principle of its own motion.  A fertilized egg will begin its own morphogenesis; a lion will hunt her own gazelle.   

But just as we may speak of the form of Rover and the form of Spot -- otherwise, we could not tell them apart -- we can also speak of the form of "dog."  The difficulty here is that "dog" has no material existence.  Rover and Spot exist as material beings -- they are material instantiations of the form of dog.  If natural science is to have any meaning whatsoever, we have to be able to abstract beyond each individual to speak of a kind of being in general. 

Darwin, in the book misnamed Origin of Species, said:
"I look at the term species as one arbitrarily given, for the sake of convenience, to a set of individuals closely resembling each other..."
If true, this would make the theme of his book somewhat problematical.  What exactly is the Origin of a Term Arbitrarily Given?  Darwin fell into a conceptual hole primarily because he disliked philosophy and had no background or training in philosophy and therefore disliked it.  A species is an example of a formal cause; and, since the Moderns denied formal causation, it caused them considerable pains to talk about it.  The same goes for the reality of the universals, which they also denied.  It is no surprise that having denied the understructure that supported science, their discussions tended toward the incoherent. 

Now, regarding a previous discussion of this topic, a respondent commented on another blog that
"Whatever else a species is, within biology it is not in any way a philosophical term, but one of mating potential." 
One wonders what the mating potential is for paramecia, yeast, liverworts, hydras, strawberries, dahlias, tulips, fungi, etc.  (Some botanists have said that this definition is animal-centric and sits ill on the botanical world.  Plants seem to be alive in a very different way from animals.)  Furthermore, populations that can mate with each other, such as {polar bears and grizzlies} or {Northern spotted owls and California spotted owls}, are declared to be separate species for reasons that have nothing to do with mating potential.  In other cases, a species, such as the snail darter, has been divided into multiple species because while they have mating potential, they do not actually mate in practice.  By this usage, the two gyres of Atlantic tuna should be considered separate species since they reach the mid-ocean spawning grounds at different times. 

He went on to say:
The fuzziness of the boundary for species does not make the idea philosophical;
Physical form of a horse
The form of redness in apples
A horse of another color
Which I should hope not.  Philosophy typically demands more precision.  It is the scientists who make things fuzzy through too little attention to foundations.  There are at least four definitions of "species" in use.  Now the idea of species is of course philosophical since ideas have no material existence, and natural science deals only with the metrical properties of material bodies.  It may be an example of scientists doing philosophy -- albeit badly. 

But to return to Darwin's conceptual difficulties, you will have noticed the contradiction in his statement.  How can a set of individuals "closely resemble each other" without something in virtue of which they resemble?  In fact, we start with a grasp of the species and then identify those things that they have in common and which distinguish them from other species.  But all this means is that the botanist and zoologist, no less than the chemist, is simply detailing the particular forms that happen to exist already in nature

Our interlocutor further commented that
My form is different from my third son's form (for example, we have different eye colors resulting from different eye coloration processes), even though due to the commonality within our forms, we are both of the human species.
By which he has grasped the distinction between an individuating form and a generic form.  Congratulations are in order.  Of course, he simply takes this distinction for granted and then assumes that it has somehow obviated the need for the distinction. 

He goes on to say:
the usefulness of forms is presumed, therefore forms are declared useful; that type of thinking offers no genuine insight.
But this is precisely the opposite.  The philosophy of nature aims at understanding, not at usefulness.  It is Baconian science that subordinates everything to the production of useful outputs.  Perhaps by "insight" he meant only "knowledge of facts." 

Then we come to the following comment made by TOF:  Darwin tells us that at some point an ape that was not quite a man gave birth to a man that was no longer quite an ape.  And our friend replies:
First, note the inherent sexism. It's a man that gets the ability first, according to the narrative.
To which we can only note the sad inability to grasp synecdoche or plain English grammar when in thrall to political correctness.  Who knows how he might construe a statement like "the ranch hands rounded up thirty head of cattle."  Would he imagine that manual extremities had acted on the products of decapitation?  (Furthermore, note that the truth of the statement is first to be judged ideologically, not scientifically.  How Nietzschean!)  But then he adds:
"Evolution tells us that humans are apes. There is no sensible evolutionary organization of apes that excludes humans."
To which we can only say, d'uh?  Our interlocutor is confusing classification with descent.  One of the consequences of this way of thinking is the progressive inability to acknowledge plain facts.  Natural selection is supposed to concern the origin of species; and how can species originate unless some portion of a prior population of X's give birth to offspring that are no longer quite X-ish any more.  This remains true even if X and X+1 are lumped into the same linguistic category.  Hence, TOF used the locution "no longer quite an ape" rather than "no longer an ape."  We may also say the same of the emergence of the gorilla or the chimp from some prior population of more generic "ape."  It was Linnaean classification that told us humans were apes, and that was well before evolutionary theory evolved.

Let's try a different example.  Once upon a time there were beardogs.  They had replaced the earlier creodonts in the carnivore niche (although interestingly enough the forms of the creodonts were very similar to the dogs, bears, and cats of the Carnivora.  Form does indeed seem to follow function).  Beardogs have the body of a bear but the dentition of a dog.  In particular, they have the slashing canines at P^4/M1.  They ranged (in various sizes etc) across Eurasia and North America, but at the North American end, sometime around the Oligocene, less robust beardogs became true dogs, while at the European end, they became bears.  They became bears by losing the slicing canines.  (At first blush, this might make the bear less fit than the dogbear; but molars are not inferior to canines.  They just require a different way to make a living.)  Now,  genes are digital, not analog.  You either have the slashing canines, even wee, tiny ones, or you do not.  Genetically, it is probably all-or-nothing.  Somewhere along the line, a beardog with slashing P^4/M1 gave birth to something that did not have it.    

In any case, note that the distinctions are all formal causes, the form of the skeleton, the form of the teeth.  Surely, this sort of thing does contribute to our understanding. 

Our interlocutor goes on to say that:
Natrual selection is ultimately a probabalistic term, referring to long-term tendencies to survive, not any sort of true selection process.
Of course, that makes the whole thing circular.  Evolution boils down to "survivors survive."  Surprise!  But TOF thinks there is more to evolution than our correspondent seems to think.  By this we mean not only the usual fluffle-guff of layman appeals to probability -- What does he mean?  How are these probabilities to be calculated? -- but also the dread No True Scotsman fallacy in the form of No True Natural Selection. 

A further kvetch is that:
"it turns out that the appeals to formal and final causes are not actual causes at all."
By this he means that formal and final causes are not efficient causes.  Surprise!
He also seems to think that they are alternatives to efficient causes, which is absurd.  They are four aspects of a causal explanation of a thing. 
"There is no tendency to reproduce in a stable manner (unstable reproduction occurs regularly)" 
If the first part were true, no species would be identifiable nor would it last beyond a single generation.  But to paraphrase Lucretius, dogs beget dogs and cats beget cats in the common course of nature.  That is, there is a recognizable form to each.  The tendency of an interbreeding population to reproduce itself in a stable manner and increase in numbers, the formal cause of evolution, is precisely one of the factors Darwin cited as a driver. 

By "unstable" he may mean "variation," since unstable reproduction would result in chaos.  The tendency to variation resulting from constant small random mutations in the genetic code is the material cause of evolution.  That is, the matter which makes evolution possible, since evolution is nothing more or less than a change of form
"the idea of form ... does not act beyond the inertia supplied by the underlying physics"
Whatever that means.  Mach's Conjecture is that inertia is the net result of the gravitational attraction of the entire universe on a body.  It is what makes a change in velocity more or less difficult.  What that has to do with biology is a mystery. 
"physics is neutral on the maintenance of some "type". "
Actually, much of physics describes how physical systems move toward and are then maintained in so-called equilibrium states, defined by attractor basins in the potential function.  These include orbits, libration points, and the like, as well as rest states relative to some frame.  Nature is not neutral on maintenance of type, since the common course of nature is for chlorine atoms to remain that particular type of atom, or for a species to remain a particular type sometimes for eons, with evolution taking place in sudden "punctuated" bursts.  TOF recalls a graph in a book by Ernst Mayer showing the evolution of a lungfish in terms of the % of features of the type-species possessed by the fossil.  It was a wonderfully perfect S-curve, with a steep slope in which the earlier type rapidly evolved into the later type, and then long eons in which the later type was maintained. 
"There is no guidance of the selective process, merely a stochastic effect that increases certain traits among members of populations" 
As a statistician, TOF is bemused by a "stochastic effect" that "increases" anything.  This seems to be a reification of something that is a non-material abstraction.  Bring me two yards or a bucketful of stochastic effects.  If one is to call upon the non-material as an efficient cause of increases, surely there are far more interesting non-material beings. 

Our correspondent seems to misunderstand finality here.  He thinks it has something to do with "guidance" of a particular type.  Aside from the fact that natural science is unable to speak competently on certain kinds of guidance -- again, it is like using only a scale and thereby being unable to detect temperature -- one thinks of rails guiding a locomotive toward a certain end.  The rails themselves take no particular interest in the matter.  Darwin had a theory that the conditions of the Umwelt -- a marvelous German word for the "environment" that means literally the "surrounding world" -- would provide the same sort of guidance to evolution.  In the same manner, the position of the sun provides guidance to the flowers, corners and walls of various sorts provide guidance to cockroaches, etc.  One environment might guide a species toward flight; another guide a species toward reliance on molars. 

Now it is quite possible that Darwinian natural selection might not be the only mechanism contributing to the transformation of species, but TOF is unwilling to throw it out entirely by denying its very existence! 
"a primate species that found the shortcut of interpreting events as if they had a purpose to be a handy survival technique, even when the purpose was non-existant."
Our friend makes an appeal to magic and a leap of faith all at once.  It is unclear how being mistaken about the world around them would be "a handy survival technique" to a primate.  It would seem to TOF quite the opposite.  It's simply a leap of faith to suppose that it is so and that it somehow happened (that's the magic part).  It is unclear what empirical evidence he has for the finding of this shortcut, let alone that it was handy for survival.

More critically, he seems to have confused finality with some particular kind of "purpose."  Now, it cannot be denied that purpose exists in nature, but finality also is expressed in termination and perfection. 

  1. Termination.  The actualization of the potential simply comes to an end.  For example, a falling body plummets to the earth and then stops; it does not fly off upward or horizontally.  Two chemicals react to form a compound, then reach equilibrium.  (This includes Beluslov reactions, which are the chemical analog of orbits.)  Sodium and chlorine react to form salt, not thermite.  That is, the process of free fall or reaction "point toward" some final state (regardless whether or not they reach it). 
  2. Perfection.  The actualization of the potential reaches a point where the entity possesses all the attributes (perfections) proper to that entity.  For example, an acorn matures into an oak tree and never matures into a muskrat; a species evolves to survive in a particular niche and then remains static for so long as the niche remains the same.  Coelacanths have not changed for 65 million years; horseshoe crabs are unchanged for 450 million years.  Essentially, any further changes would make them less fit for their job description and their Umwelt would have culled them. 
  3. Purpose.  The actualization of the potential stems from the organisms own behavior.  That is, the organism is a part of its own Umwelt.  For example, the lion chases the gazelle in order to eat.  The bird gathers twigs and such in order to build a nest.  It does not matter if bird or lion is aware of these purposes.  Purpose may be conscious or unconscious.  Birds and lions may be hardwired, but they are not chasing gazelles or gathering twigs at random.  Self-awareness is not a scientific concept in any case, being the ultimate in subjectivity. 
Because of what Darwin called the drive to reproduce to the utmost and the drive to survive on the part of living organisms, a critter that found itself suddenly with one of those radically different forms -- modern genetics tells us that change can be both massive and specific, due to internal molecular structures and processes -- might find its accustomed way of life in peril. 
Suppose a critter with a long thin beak that made its living sucking nectar out of deep flowers was born with a short hard beak by some roll of the mutational dice.  Would she sigh and say, Well, life doesn't suck any more, so I guess I'll just wait here for Darwin to come along and cull me.  Or would she desperately try to survive by trying other ways to gain food.  Perhaps she fails and does die and that's it for that variant.  But perhaps also she discovers that her short hard beak works well for cracking nuts and takes up a nut-cracking way of life and flourishes, teaches her chicks the same.  (Many animals are capable of learning through the use of memory and imagination.  They don't need to use intellect and volition.)  Pretty soon, depending on the genetics of the short-beak genes, there is a small population of nut-cracking birds either sufficiently different in form from the nectar-sucking birds as to not attract mates from among them or is genetically dominant so that their genes prevail despite inter-breeding. 
In this way a species may be a participant in its own evolution.  The "flexibility of living things by which they are able to occupy new niches in the changing environment" provides "a feed-back mechanism which guides the selective process toward a new type which can exploit new environmental possibilities."  This is the final cause of the evolution. 

Last but not least, final causes are considered the "cause of causes" since efficient causes would be incoherent and ungrounded without them.  How can we say that X causes A "always or for the most part" unless there is something in X that "points toward" A as its end and not toward B, C, D, or nothing.  The sodium and chlorine reaction "points toward" salt and not toward mistletoe.  Feser says:
In the realm of efficient causes there is the principle of causality, the principle of proportionate causality, the principle of proper causality, distinctions between primary causes and secondary or instrumental causes, essentially ordered causes and accidentally ordered causes, total and partial causes, concurrent causes, sustaining causes, and so on.  Efficient causes were also taken to presuppose final causes, and final causes were in turn essentially connected to substantial forms (and thus to formal causes, which in turn were instantiated in matter and thus required material causes).  Now the moderns gradually chucked out almost all of this nuance -- which, despite its complexity, is really just a systematic articulation of common sense thinking about causation -- as they unpacked the implications of their anti-Aristotelian revolution.  By the time of Hume, little was left except the notion that causation involves some kind of necessary connection between temporally separated events, but where the “necessary connection” aspect was something for which it was hard to find an objective basis.
Since even modern, dumbed-down efficient causes have no grounding without final causes, the chucking of finality led Hume to question efficient causes themselves and replace them with mere correlations.  (Eventually, this has led to statistics replacing mathematics, if not in science at least in social studies masquerading as science.) 

And that is the final word


  1. A famous piece of grafitti:

    Reading maketh a full man;
    Conference a ready man;
    And writing an exact man
    - Bacon

    – a fat man.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Darwin, in the book misnamed Origin of Species, said:

    "I look at the term species as one arbitrarily given, for the sake of convenience, to a set of individuals closely resembling each other..."

    So, then, Darwin's prolonged and extensive work on barnacle systematics taught him nothing. But you couldn't have obtained this snippet directly from your own perusal of the Origins; it's out of context, and taken from a long section in which he was documenting the range of variation which can be found within and between species in the course of establishing just how difficult species are to define as entities. Reading the whole section from which this was taken, on "doubtful species" (I encourage you to do so), in the context of Darwin's examination of variation in domestic animals and plants, in the second chapter of the Origins, would have made it clear that this was not some unsupported doubtful speculation but required, for the sake of argument, by the nature of the evidence that he was dealing in that chapter. However, in the long course of writing the Origins, Darwin had come about to believing that species were real natural units, as is described, for instance, here -

    Oh, and The Origin of Species, as a shortened for of the real name of the book, is not a misnomer - Darwin did describe a process producing descendant species from ancestral species in that book.

    Darwin fell into a conceptual hole primarily because he disliked philosophy and had no background or training in philosophy and therefore disliked it...

    Well, Darwin hadn't fallen into a conceptual hole, no matter how often this is repeated. Anyway, Darwin's time at Cambridge required, in pursuit of his degree, a familiarity with the classics, in their original languages. While he wasn't a scintillating student there, he did get a degree and could not have avoided some knowledge of the subject. I can recall no writings of his which detail his dislike of philosophy; he generally kept quiet about it, and attributing this silence to some attitude on Darwin's part, which you also appear to be attributing to him, could perhaps do with some firmer documentation. Hard to understand how he could have made reference to Locke (widely held to be a philosopher), for instance, without some familiarity with what Locke thought.

    1. Don't tell me that Darwin was not a nominalist. Tell the famed evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr, who also read that portion in the same way:
      "Whoever, like Darwin, denies that species are non-arbitrarily defined units of nature not only evades the issue but fails to find and solve some of the most interesting problems of biology." -- Animal Species and Evolution

      Oh, and The Origin of Species, as a shortened for of the real name of the book, is not a misnomer - Darwin did describe a process producing descendant species from ancestral species in that book.

      Precisely. It does not describe how species originated, but how an already-existing species may be transformed into others. He takes the existence of species for granted, even if he is not clear on their ontological status.

  4. Tell the famed evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr...

    Who didn't consider this observation worth repeating in Populations, Species, and Evolution, the abridgement and revision of AS&E published nearly a decade later, although he did note that Darwin considered species differences to be adaptive, suggesting a more nuanced view than simple nominalism (that would be p. 37 in The Belknap Press edition of PS&E - the page and edition reference for Mayr's AS&E quote would be a help, as 750+ pp is a lot to hunt through). And in his discussion of nominalistic species concepts (Toward a New Philosophy of Biology, the Belknap Press, p. 317), Darwin never surfaces. But then, he wouldn't - Mayr of all people would recognize that Darwin was basing his theory on the variation to be found within interbreeding groups, a point that he summarizes in his What Evolution Is (Basic Books Edition - pp. 84 - 87). so your quote leaves me at a bit of a loss. As I said, a more precise citation would be useful.

    It does not describe how species originated..

    Linguistic legerdemain is not a substitute for reasoned argument. He wasn't out to describe how such an entity as "the species" originated. Such a misreading is obtuse.