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

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Oh Happiness! our being's end and aim!

So said Pope.  No, not that Pope.  The one who wrote poetry. 

In another venue, TOF chanced to encounter the following encomium to evolution:
The brain evolved in the same way the fins evolved: because their evolution conferred survival advantages in given situations.
Now the curious thing was that this statement was made by an individual (whom we will call "Adam Apple") who also asseverated that there was no τελος in nature.  I will wait a moment for my reader to stop banging his forehead against his desktop.  You could damage your computer screen that way.   


There.  Didn't that feel good when you stopped?  

Yes, sports fans.  The same person who stated that there were no ends in nature also claimed that evolution was for conferring survival advantages.  But for-ness or toward-ness is precisely what it means to have finality.  When this was pointed out, he simply repeated his act of faith that there was no finality in nature.  He literally could not grasp that he had been proposing "survival advantage" as the final cause of evolution. 

There are several possible reasons for this:
  1. The meme that there is no finality in nature has parasitized his brain, and no contrary thought can wriggle in.  
  2. He labors under the misapprehension that "they" have proven scientifically that there are no final causes.  
  3. He does not understand what finality, final causes, ends, or other synonyms actually mean, and has not troubled himself to learn.  
  4. He believes that to believe in finality will require him to believe in Something Weird over and above that.  
Let us examine these reasons. 
Brain with memish parasites
1. Brain Meme.  Taking the least charitable first, we may note that while there might be finality in nature, there is certainly no meme in nature.  Memes are one of the more outré inventions of the science popularizer and professional atheist, R. Dawkins.  They seem to be derived from notions of angels and demons; but there is no hard, empirical evidence for the existence of these immaterial beings that supposedly control our lives. 

We can express this in normal terms by saying that Adam has an idée fixe.  He learned that this was so from revered books and teachers and cannot shake it off.  (Yes, I know.  But we already had words like "idea."  Why did we need "meme" save to provide a fake aura of scientificality. 

2. Disproven by Science™.  That finality has been "disproven" is likely the root of his conviction that there is no finality.   After all, "they" have said it, he believes it, and that settles it.  But whether there be final causes or no is not a physical question, it is a meta-physical question; and you can no more disprove a metaphysical principle with physics than you can disprove the Euclidean postulates with Euclidean geometry.  And for much the same reason: metaphysical stances set the boundary conditions for physics.  They are what you must assume before you can even do the physics.  

Frank Bacon
Now when we examine what the Scientific Revolutionaries actually said, we find more nuance.  Francis Bacon (left) acknowledged that final causes existed in nature.  He just didn't think they were useful.  Etienne Gilson noted that to understand that a bird's wing was for flying helped you to understand and appreciate the beauty of nature; but to understand the efficient causes of how the wing enabled birds to fly would help you build airplanes.  Since the essential nature of the scientific revolution was to move Natural Science from Art Criticism to a subset of Engineering, Bacon and Descartes said the hell with final causes.  Gilson adds sadly that if Descartes had only written "in addition to" rather than "instead of," we could have saved most of the incoherence that has afflicted modern philosophy.

The rejection of finality was a methodological choice.  It was discarded, not disproven.   But once you have said that finality is not part of Science™, they become invisible to the methods.  It would be like demanding that only metal detectors are valid instruments of science, and then denying the existence of wood. 

3. What is Finality?  Objections #1 and #2 stem from #3, a misunderstanding of finality.  We observe everywhere that nature works to an end.  Many finality deniers take this to mean "self-conscious purpose" and laugh that a river has no "intention" of reaching the sea.  But all it means is that natural processes tend to arrive "always or for the most part" at the same end point.  An acorn always grows into an oak, and not into a chimpanzee.  A river flows toward the point of minimum gravitational potential.  A bird gathers twigs in order to build a nest.  And so on.  The very nature of a scientific law of nature is to describe how A entails B "always or for the most part."  Efficient causes may push matter around; but unless they push it some particular direction, there is no scientific law.  

William Wallace distinguishes three kinds of end:
1. Terminus. In traveling from "here" to "there," the "there" is the end of the trip, where the traveler comes to rest.  When such stability terminates a natural process, whether inorganic or organic, it is the end of the process and as such its final cause.
  • Falling motion terminates when the heavy object arrives at a center of gravity.
  • Fleas grow, but not to the point where they reach the size of elephants.
  • Chemical reactions "go," but they also "stop," for example, when hydrogen and oxygen combine to form a stable molecule in water.
  • The breakdown of uranium terminates at lead. 
  • [TOF: Regular cyclic behavior counts as "at rest".  We would say "equilibrium state" in modern lingo.]
2. Perfection.   When a thing has attained all that is necessary to its nature it has reached an end of another sort.  It is more perfect (per-fectus, "thoroughly made") and possesses no de-fectus, i.e., is lacking in nothing it should possess to be what it is. 
  • When two hydrogens and one oxygen atom have combined, the water molecule is perfected.  The molecule lacks in nothing it should possess to be a water molecule. 
  • When a tiger cub has matured into a tiger, possessing all the organs and capabilities of a tiger, it has been perfected.  
3. Cognitive.  Many animal and human activities are planned or intended in advance and so can be seen as end-directed from the beginning.  A person building a house or a bird building a nest must have in advance some notion of what is intended, either intellectively or instinctively. Otherwise neither builder would know how to gather the materials.  Much of the difficulty with teleology in nature arises from seeing all final causality as intentional or cognitive, and not differentiating the cognitive from the terminative and the perfective.
Einstein refutes a scientific

Final causes make efficient causes coherent, and evinces an order in the world.  Einstein put it this was in a letter to M. Solovine:
“You find it surprising that I think of the comprehensibility of the world... as a miracle or an eternal mystery. But surely, a priori, one should expect the world to be chaotic, not to be grasped by thought in any way. One might (indeed one should) expect that the world evidenced itself as lawful only so far as we grasp it in an orderly fashion. This would be a sort of order like the alphabetical order of words. On the other hand, the kind of order created, for example, by Newton’s gravitational theory is of a very different character. Even if the axioms of the theory are posited by man, the success of such a procedure supposes in the objective world a high degree of order, which we are in no way entitled to expect a priori. Therein lies the miracle which becomes more and more evident as our knowledge develops.”
although he likely did not realize that he was affirming finality when he wrote this.  Cardinal Schoenborn of Vienna put it this way:
Scientists are most welcome to "explain everything they need to without appeal to God;" indeed, I hope all the readers of First Things would join me in strenuously objecting if God is ever invoked in the course of normal scientific explanation! But, as I have said repeatedly, the key questions we face have nothing (directly) to do with theology. The key questions rather have to do with scientism and reductionism.  Can modern scientists "explain everything they need to" without reference to the irreducible hierarchy and patterned structure actualizing natural things (what the old philosophers called formal causes)? Can they "explain everything they need to" without reference to the regularities and lawlike tendencies of natural beings (in the old terminology, final causes)?

It is true that modern scientists have typically rejected these notions, but they haven’t eliminated them, only ignored them. More precisely, they have presupposed and relied upon them while simultaneously claiming their nonexistence. 
4. Finality is a "Gateway" Belief.  This may be the key obstacle.  There is a modern belief that establishing finality as a fact of nature is very difficult, but once you have done so, God easily pops out the other end.  Because they reject this conclusion, they reject finality.  However, Aristotle, who thought finality in nature as rather obvious, never reasoned from finality to God.  Thomas Aquinas, who did so reason, thought that finality was obvious, but establishing the chain of reasoning from there to God was very difficult.  IOW, one may accept finality without risking one's a priori beliefs. 

Aquinas also reasoned from motion, efficient causes, and generation-and-corruption to God, but few indeed would reject motion (like Parmenides, though for different reasons) or efficient causes (like Hume, because without finality they made no sense), or things coming into and passing out of being (like anyone pre-Darwin, insofar as species coming into and passing out of being.)  

Brains and Fins.
Squirrel with brains
and more!
Now what about brains and fins conferring "survival advantage"?  It would be obnoxious to notice that a great many kinds of beings have survived without either brains or fins, so let us consider what it means to confer an advantage.  Would a fin confer an "advantage" on a squirrel?*  On a giraffe?  It does not seem likely.  Whether a feature is an "advantage" or not depends on what the organism is trying to do; that is, on its niche.   If a bird is trying to crack nuts, one sort of beak is advantageous.  If it is trying to loosen bark to get at the insects beneath, then another sort of beak is advantageous.  If a bird changes behavior -- perhaps because it finds itself blown by the winds to a new environment -- then the direction in which natural selection nudges it will change.  Thus, we see that the organism's behavior is part of what sets the end for natural selection, and thus (at least in part) constitutes the final cause of natural selection. 

(*) We leave aside the advantage of brains.  Many people equate brains with minds, and so become confused when we insist on approaching the brain materialistically as just another organ, one that processes sensory inputs, collates them, and activates motor neurons and the like.  Arguably, every animal on Earth has a brain of some sort. 


  1. "The brain evolved in the same way the fins evolved: because their evolution conferred survival advantages in given situations. "

    Your entire post appears to depend on the idea that the word "because" here was meant in some precise philosophical way to refer to a final cause. When the author indicated that this wasn't what he meant, you refused to believe him, preferring instead to mock his presumed ignorance. Great fun, I suppose? ;)

  2. Here's the difference between you and I, Michael. Whereas you say, "to provide a fake aura of scientificality," I would put it, "because it sounds more scientificky."

  3. @Randall: I assumed "because" was meant in its ordinary colloquial meaning.

  4. --All due respect, I don't get you on the topic and I don't get the guy you're criticizing, either.

    Can't eat it, heat with it or put it to work, why fight over it?

  5. Hey, it's the Internet! Why not?

  6. You criticize the Evolutionists of using the language of finality while denying it, but perhaps it is a weakness of human languages that certain truths can be only awkwardly expressed?

  7. The Greeks lacked a word for "velocity," but that does not mean they were unaware of speed. For that matter, the term "scientist" did not exist until the 1830s, but that does not mean there were no men who devoted their lives to natural philosophy.

    But this is a case where precise words do exist and do express something clear. Can we talk intelligibly about evolution without speaking of "adaptation"? Of "greater fitness for a niche"? The whole point of finality is that a process like "natural selection" does not produce random results, but rather works "always or for the most part" toward greater fitness. So natural selection really does act very much as if it were a natural law. Not in the same league as Maxwell's Laws, perhaps. There are no equations. But certainly something very law-like.

    Let's not fall into the trap of Ineffable Truths That Human Tongue Cannot Express. Let's save metaphysics for metaphysical objects.

  8. I've always been puzzled by Ernst Mayr's concept of teleonomy.

    Mayr justifies the usage of teleological language in biology but tells us that there is no finality in organisms, because teleonomy is strictly causal and mechanistic. All quasi-final behavior in biology is caused by the "program," a.k.a. DNA. But is the program itself teleonomical? Doesn't it possess a telos by itself, i.e. the organism? I think that's where Nagel's dissatisfaction came from, besides the obvious fact that Mayr works under a very strict and radical concept of telos, one that Aristotle and his followers didn't commit themselves to.

  9. The very notion of a "program" or a "code" is essentially teleological. Both entail an end or objective outside itself. Searle made the same point regarding "computer."

  10. "Adam Apple" of course Jerry Coyne, and as I recall the last time that you showed up on his blog in order to correct him upon a matter about which he has no doubt forgotten more than you will ever know, you got a right hiding. So I can see why assigning him a pseudonym might seem like a good idea.

  11. Actually, "Adam Apple" is a pseudonym I use for "A". If I need others, I used Betsy Boop, Charles Cheese, Debbie Do-Right, Eddie Epsilon, etc. The pattern should become clear even to the metaphorically impaired. I am irresistably reminded of a Carly Simon song.

    I do remember Coyne. However, I genuinely doubt he has forgotten more about philosophy than I have ever known. I have only the usual undergraduate courses required for an arts degree, plus what I have been reading since the past five years or so. I suspect that Dr. Coyne has never bothered.

    His challenge, as I recollect, was to square the doctrine that all humanity shares a common descent with the modern biological discovery that, well, all humanity shares a common descent. Specifically, whether the transition from a biological human to a metaphysical human required 10,000 simultaneous mutations or only one or two. I think his challenge was informed by a deeply fundamentalist approach; but that is typically the case. The answer had actually been supplied about half a century ago. An account can be found here:

  12. I would say that the more substantial point would be to indicate that the idea of 'material body' is deficient in the modern science.

    For Physics, computable is physical. Thus quantum fields, though spooky, are physical entities.

    For medievals, the material bodies have non-computable aspects. Maybe the 'instinctive judgment' that animals have is related to the non-computable aspects of the material bodies.

    Even the often asserted binary free will/determinism is an artifact of the modern deficiency of understanding of material bodies. Since for Aquinas, it was inanimate matter (lacking judgment), animals (having instinctive judgment) and man (having free judgment).

    It can be claimed that the Darwinian theory fails to explain animal behavior fully.

    Example: the notion of sexual selection. Is it sensible? Where does the female preference for long peacock tails came from?

  13. The biologists would not have problem with final cause as in the final cause of acorn is oak tree.

    Since, they argue that this final cause is reducible to molecular interactions.

    Similarly, the assertion" Wings are for flying" is unproblematic for evolutionists but "wings have evolved for flying" would be a problem.

  14. "wings have evolved for flying" would be a problem.

    Then they should be more careful about using terms like "adaptation," which means "toward being more apt." But one must be apt "at something." In what way would wings (as commonly understood) be a "selective advantage" if the organism were not "trying" to fly?

    they argue that this final cause is reducible to molecular interactions.

    Only in the same sense that the Waldstein Sonata is reducible to molecular vibrations in the air, or to the physics of vibrating strings. That is, one may pursue one sort of causal thread to the exclusion of others. The mistake lies in assuming that what you have excluded does not exist. Understanding acoustics may help you build better pianos; but it does not help you write better sonatas.

    Reductionism is problematic. Why not reduce to atomic interactions? Why not reduce to quarkian interactions? But molecules do things not strictly explained by atomics. There are "emergent properties," what old-timers called "formal causes." The whole is more than the sum of its parts.

  15. "The whole point of finality is that a process like "natural selection" does not produce random results, but rather works "always or for the most part" toward greater fitness. "

    This is Dawkins like view (in Selfish Gene) but I think the mainstream view now is that an independent fitness can not be defined i.e. given a niche and an organism, we can not a priori define a fitness.
    A fit animal is that succeeds in reproducing. There is no other criteria, no notion of engineering fitness. So 'Survival of fit' is a tautology and it does not bother professional evolutionists.

  16. Exactly. Fitness just is the ability to flourish in a niche. A generic cause (natural selection) cannot have a specific effect (longer beak). Rather, it has a generic effect ("fitness" or "adaptation").

    However, I have read evolutionary biologists and fanboys who, if they had encountered your comment on the lips (or fingertips) of the Other, would instantly respond with cases where some predicted physical property (like beak length) had indeed been borne out by succeeding generations. But this is a specific effect of a specific cause; viz., that the critter is already trying to make a living in a way that beak length facilitates. Say, by plucking insects out of deep bore holes in plants. Another bird, trying to crack nuts, will be favored by a "nutcracker beak." But notice that here we must postulate not only "natural selection," but "natural selection in this specific niche."


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