Time for Biology, or Must We Burn Nagel?


NYU Philosopher Thomas Nagel’s new book Mind and Cosmos has faced quite a bit of criticism from reviewers so far. And perhaps that’s simply to be expected, as the book is clearly an attempt to poke holes in a standard mechanistic view of life, rather than lay out any other fully formed vision. The strength seems to lie in the possibility of starting up a conversation. The weakness, unfortunately, seems to be in the recycling of some unconvincing arguments that make that unlikely.

The key issue that I think deserves closer inspection is the concept of teleology. Nagel reaches too far into mystical territory in his attempt to incorporate a kind of final cause, but some of his critics are too quick to reject the benefit of interpreting physics with a broader scope. While functionalists, or systemic or emergence theorists, may be more aware of the larger meaning of causality, it is still the case that many philosophers express a simplistic view of matter.

The word teleology has become associated with medieval religious beliefs, and much like the word virtue, this has overshadowed the original Aristotelian meaning. Teleology, in its classic sense, does not represent God’s intention, or call for “thinking raindrops.” Instead, it is a way to look at systems rather than billiard balls. Efficient causes are those individual balls knocking into each other, the immediate chain of events that Hume so adeptly tore apart. Final causes are the overall organization of events. The heart beats because an electrical impulse occurs in your atria, but it also beats because there is a specific set of genetic codes that sets up a circulatory system. No one imagines it is mere probability that an electrical impulse happens to occur each second.

Likewise, the rain falls because the water vapor has condensed, but it also falls because it is part of a larger weather system that has a certain amount of CO2 due to the amount of greenery in the area. It falls in order to water the grass not in the sense that it intends to water the grass, but in the sense that it is part of a larger meteorological relationship, and it has become organized to water the grass which will grow to produce the right atmosphere to allow it to rain, so the grass can grow, so the rain can fall. These larger systemic views are what determine teleological causes, because they provide causes within systems, or goals that each part must play. This is distinct from the simple random movement that results from probability. It is obvious in some situations that systems exist, but sometimes we can’t see the larger system, and sometimes even when we do, we can’t explain its interdependence or unified behavior from individuated perspectives. Relying on efficient causality is thinking in terms of those interactions we see directly. Final causality means figuring out what the larger relationships are.

Now, those larger relationships may build out of smaller and more direct relationships, but a final cause is the assumption of an underlying holistic system. And if this were not the case, Zeno would be right and Einstein would be wrong; Hume’s skepticism would be validated and we truly would live in randomness – or really, we wouldn’t, as nothing would sustain itself in such a world. The primary thing about a world like this is that it is static, based only on matter but not on movement, which is to say, based only on a very abstracted and unreal form of matter that does not persist through time. Instead, the classic formation requires a final system that joins the activity of the world.

What this system is or how it works is not easily answered, but it must involve the awareness that temporality and interconnectedness are not the same as mysticism or magic. To boil all science down to a series of probabilistic events misunderstands the essential philosophical interest in understanding the bigger picture, or why the relation of cause and effect is reliable. The primary options are a metaphysics like Aristotle’s that unites being, a Humean skepticism about causality, or a Kantian idealism that attributes it to human perspective.  Contemporary philosophers often run from the metaphysical picture, preferring to accept the skeptic’s outlook with a shrug (anything’s possible, but, back to what we’ve actually seen…) or work with some kind of neo-Kantian framework (nature only looks organized to us because we’re the result of it).

But attempts to think about the unified nature of being – as seen in the history of philosophy everywhere from the ancients through thinkers as diverse as Schopenhauer, Emerson, or Heidegger – should not be dismissed as incompatible with science. Too often it is a political split instead of a truly thoughtful one that leads to the rejection of holistic accounts. What I appreciate about Nagel’s attempt here is that he is honestly thinking rather than assuming that experts have worked things out. Philosophers tend to defer to scientists in contemporary discussions, which means physicists have been doing most of the metaphysics (which has hardly made it less speculative). It seems that exploring the meaning of scientific assumptions and paradigms is exactly the area we should be in.

Questioning a mechanistic abiogenesis or natural selection may be untenable in current biological journals, but philosophy’s purview is the bigger picture, and it is healthy for us to reach beyond the curtain, not feeling constrained by what’s already been accepted. While my questions are not the same as Nagel’s (and I won’t review his case here), I am glad at least to see the connection made coherently. Writers in philosophy of mind often make arguments that seem incompatible with certain scientistic assumptions but simply do not address the issue. There are options beyond ignoring the natural sciences or demanding a boiled down, mechanical, deterministic view of life. Scientific research has inched toward more dynamic or creative ideas of natural change (like emergence, complexity theory, or neuroplasticity) and theories of holism (at least in physics) so challenges should not be associated with a rejection of investigation or an embracing of mythology. We all know philosophy is meant to begin in wonder – but perhaps that’s become too much of a cliche and not enough of a mission statement.

Leave a comment ?


  1. I’ll have to read the book, but in passing, there is nothing In Hume that denies purpose, organization and teleology: He didn’t say the Sun’s appearance in the East every morning was arbitrary, but just that, like with the heart, in this example, although it depends both on the circulatory system and electric impulse (and other factors) you can’t prove that it’s beating in any one chest today guarantees it will do so tomorrow, neither can you say with certainty that the Sun will appear in the East tomorrow morning on the ground that it always has, although in all probability, it will.

  2. He doesn’t say it’s arbitrary, but he does say we don’t know anything more about why it happens than that it has done so in the past. The basis of our knowledge is custom and contiguity for Hume.

  3. Haven’t read the book, so any comment I could make about Nagel’s thesis would be hare-brained.

    Instead, I’ll just sort of make a few confused noises.

    I think there’s a healthy desire to have the description of systems or designs in naturalistic or even scientific explanation. If we are feeling seriously avant-garde, then perhaps we might even be tempted to talk about top-down causation.

    That said, I’m having trouble seeing why these temptations give us reason to use the vocabulary of goals to describe these natural systems. Goals are the sort of thing that are able to persist (i.e., engage in a cycle of reproduction) even when the system encounters failure. But when the heart fails, the heart is unable to persist. So the heart has no purpose. It only has a causal role in the way things go.

  4. This is all well and good, as long as the teleological view is understood to be a metaphor.

    The cause of our complexity seems to be a combination of randomness and deterministic cause and effect, at several levels. The normal distribution seen in a marble cascade has its statistical component for each marble, but is sufficient regularity at the larger scale to produce a regular, if not identical, pattern on each run of the cascade.

    But physics isn’t as even handed as a marble cascade. Physics, when forming atoms, and in turn molecules, has a handedness. A water molecule, by virtue of its arrangement of atoms, has a polarity. And this does, must, contribute to its effect. And this handedness, or irregularity, lies at the heart of biology, and is most obvious in the complexity of the proteins from which we are built. These are the result of physics; the interaction of individual atoms. The biological machinery (we must keep using that word to stop ourselves from falling into the religio-teleological way of thinking) that builds DNA from bits of other handedness stuff is just physics in action.

    Watch the videos of simulations of one molecular system ‘walking’ along another and try to stop yourself thinking teleologically. They are physics in action, no more: http://youtu.be/-7AQVbrmzFw

    The teleological perspective that becomes ‘purpose’ is a mistake that also arises from starting at the end result and explaining how, why, the end result came to be. But in doing so it becomes tempting to some to suppose that this particular end point is how it must have been. Humans with the brains we have now are the end result of a system of physics in action that could have gone in so many alternative directions.

    Can we really rule out the possibility that had that meteorite not struck that the planet would now be dominated by intelligent self-aware birds? What do we know of biology and the chemistry and the physics upon which it is based, that this would not have happened? Could there have been religious birds here right now, some of them apoplectic at the very idea that they might be related to dinosaurs (“If we evolved from dinosaurs why are there still dinosaurs today?”).

    Looking for teleological explanations is no better than a gambler having a lucky run and believing with all the hope and wishful thinking he can muster that he is on a winning streak.

    We impose teleological perspectives on events because we look back from here and see them unfolding forward towards us, as if this is the inevitable result. We might be prepared to look at some short term small scale event and acknowledge that it is merely physics in action. Yes, we know water is a polarised molecule. Yes, we all agree that a single neuron isn’t a thinking thing. But the large scale long term unfolding of these minute physical events is too much for us to comprehend. We can’t keep track. We have a credulity gap. We find it easier to see teleological explanations. And many are so convinced by them that they seem to be intent on demonising any reductionist view that sees the minute unfolding of large life as mere physics in action.

  5. BLS Nelson, I would say the heart does have a cause – but not intentionality. Perhaps the issue there is the semantic connotation of cause to you implies a human cause. I would not expect the cause of the heart and the cause of Fred to be the same (hence no thinking raindrops), but it is still “being what it is” as Aristotle puts it – consistently engaging in the activity which is its nature. The usefulness of such a concept is in contrast to the notion of randomness or accident, like Empedocles’ limbs knocking into each other. One could see DNA as the modern heir to the Ancient concept of telos. So the question would be, could there be something analogous to a DNA for life itself, or the universe overall – not that would determine exact finalities, but that would permeate being.

    Ron, modern science relies on concepts like randomness and causality but I think philosophy has to be a little more clear about how it understands them if it is going to take a metaphysical stance. Do we accept causality as custom, as perception, as evidence of a larger system, as temporal necessity, etc – to simply state that things factually happen is a limited view. What causality is (and temporality in general) is one of the most important questions in metaphysics.

    The biological machinery (we must keep using that word to stop ourselves from falling into the religio-teleological way of thinking)…

    Machinery is something made by human beings. I don’t think it matches what human beings are, but even if it did, it was produced by us. The thing that is mysterious about life is that it is self-creating. To call it mechanistic to me only makes it sound more like a religious story – a robot made by God. If we want to understand a world without an exterior force, we should take seriously the importance of the interior force.

    We impose teleological perspectives on events because we look back from here and see them unfolding forward towards us, as if this is the inevitable result.

    I agree this is a danger, but I’m not sure that means that no teleological perspective is possible. FOr instance, in your own example you suggested that without a meteor there might have been religious birds having these arguments. Do you think that consciousness is inevitable, then? Is there something about the nature of life that bends toward thinking things?

  6. Isn’t that what people like Norbert Wiener and Kurt Lewin have tried with Cybernetics?

  7. BLS Nelson,

    I see top-down causation as a convenient model. Anything we model as top-down causation is a consequence of bottom-up causation. So, the coming together of two steel balls in Newton’s cradle can be modelled as the top-down behaviour of two perfectly elastic masses, where the small scale atoms of the balls are merely along for the ride. But it’s the bottom-up electromagnetic forces of the individual atoms of ball A that stop the atoms of ball B passing through the generally shared space of the atoms of ball A, and vice versa, that describes the cause and effect. Barring the discovery of any magical mystical forces this is the sort of bottom-up cause and effect that makes brains interact with their environment and appear, using a top-down model, to cause humans to cause things to happen in their lives with what we model as intent, will.

    And since we have such a history of teleological purpose and intent I’d have thought any modern leaning toward top-down modelling as more retrospective than avant-garde, in those circles that make a big deal of these different approaches. In science and engineering it’s pretty much taken as the norm that you build the model to suit the nature of the problem, and top-down or bottom-up, holistic or reductionist, are just tools of perspective used to do a job.

  8. Miranda Nell,

    I don’t see philosophers addressing causality and time in anywhere near as full and detailed manner in which it is addressed by physicists. That isn’t to say that the physicists have meaningful, or (more to the point perhaps) useful answers, but I see very little from philosophers, unless those philosophers are steeped in the physics too.

    I don’t think philosophers are particularly clear on matters of randomness or causality. Not for any failing on their part, but because these are things at the boundary of our understanding of the universe. Physics leads the way here, and though intelligent philosophers can contribute ideas as much as the next man I don’t think it a particularly philosophical problem.

    If we take randomness, for example. First we can distinguish between epistemological indeterminism and randomness; the former being the incapacity of any system to fully measure itself or the larger system in which it finds itself; the latter being some as yet unknown phenomenon. What is the nature of randomness as apparently exposed by Quantum Physics? Random events seem to have a causal consequence that, within certain bounds appears causal, or even deterministic. So are random events uncaused causes? If random events are caused, then what causes them and how, and why apparently randomly.

    And what of ‘time’? Is there any causation at all if everything is ‘already’ present (as viewed from some imaginary super-time) as a set of space-time events mapped out, our past, present and future just being points in this space?

    No answer is going to be forthcoming from philosophy. Even the framing of these sorts of questions (right or wrong as I have presented them) are only meaningful in the context of the physics of the time.

    “Machinery is something made by human beings.”

    That’s a parochial perspective; or maybe a limitation of our language in that we haven’t developed a term to detach human creativity from machinery. I am at a loss as to how to describe the activity of molecules in the video I listed other than as mechanistic. And since we are made from components just like this then we are mechanisms. I don’t see how we can avoid that conclusion, barring evidence of magic stuff.

    “The thing that is mysterious about life is that it is self-creating.”

    There’s an example of unclear philosophical thinking. We are not self-creating. It takes a pair of humans to create another. The self-creation, or more correctly the self-replication, is a mechanism by which one set of stuff, a pair of humans, ingests more stuff, food, and eventually builds a replica, another human, internally. Even the hypothesised replicating precursors of life aren’t self-creating. There’s a real physical energy gradient down which physical activity in molecules falls. Other physical processes provide the energy required for a reaction to take place. The second law of thermodynamics rules here. On the scales we are aware of this is a one way street and we are just lumps on the road. This is mechanistic by any sense of the word. So, while there might be mystery in the form of the lack of known detail of abiogenesis, or of the working of a brain and how it produces consciousness, there is nothing mystically mysterious.

    And it would only sound like a religious story, a robot made by God, with the first presupposition that there is such a God, and the second presupposition that he might have had any hand in it. Without any evidence to the contrary all mechanisms look natural. It is we humans that have historically become accustomed to labelling human designed artefacts as mechanisms, when really we are just one type of mechanism making another. In principle, in physics, there is no difference between man-made mechanisms and all ‘natural’ mechanisms. It’s this parochial perspective that makes ID proponents refuse to believe that the flagellum motor has is a natural mechanism: http://www.evolutionnews.org/2012/05/the_molecular_f059121.html. They have a credulity gap induced by their view of the specialness of humans: the flagellum looks like a mechanism, so if humans didn’t design the flagellum mechanism then someone else must have.

    We do take seriously the importance of the interior force. It is, in so far as we yet understand it, the force of the universe unwinding, the energy gradient that drives life on earth, the unfolding of dynamic physics. I’m not aware of any toher source of force.

    Of course a teleological perspective is possible. As a metaphor. Or, mistakenly, literally.

    I don’t think consciousness is necessarily inevitable. It seems to be somewhat likely, once life attains a certain form that builds a central control system, that adapts evolutionarily because, it appears, having a brain is evolutionarily beneficial to survival, and having conscious brains is more so. Having said that, there are countless bacteria that have survived in somewhat the same form for millions or billions of years quite successfully without brains. So maybe brains are a disadvantage and it’s only when brains are compared to brains there is a comparative advantage. This is all more of a parochial perspective of course. We have yet to see how brains fair elsewhere in the universe, if there are any.

    But these are empirical questions, not philosophical ones – though again, any bright philosopher is just as capable of thinking these things as anyone. So it’s not a matter of this being in the philosophical domain any more than checking my temperature by sticking a thermometer up my rear puts that activity in the science domain.

  9. Miranda, I think I may not have been clear, there. I agree that it’s incorrect to attribute intentionality to hearts. The heart has no purpose, no goal. Hence, teleology is not much help.

    Here’s the argument I wanted to make.
    1. We can only attribute goals to an entity’s structured behavior in a system so long as the entity is able to survive and reproduce in spite of its failures. (e.g., if I make it a goal to wake up early, and I sleep in, that failure does not lead to my extinction as a human being. Thankfully.)
    2. In all lower-order cases where we have some justification for wanting to attribute teleology to an entity in a system, the entity’s failure to perform structured behaviors results in the collapse of the system. (e.g., the heart has the structured behavior of beating; if it should fail, then the system collapses.)
    3. Therefore, we cannot attribute goals to any lower-order cases.

    By “lower-order cases”, I mean essentially non-human examples — DNA, beating hearts, and so on.

    Or, to put the argument more colloquially. In order for something to have a goal, it has to be possible for it to be a surviving loser. But nature brokes no losers. So nature has no goals.

  10. Miranda Nell,

    “modern science relies on concepts like randomness and causality but I think philosophy has to be a little more clear about how it understands them if it is going to take a metaphysical stance.”

    The problem for philosophers is contemporary science, specifically theoretical physics, is shockingly difficult to understand. Even for people with years of training. Without knuckling down and doing the maths, by reading a popular science book on quantum physics you’re not doing much better than reading Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret; metaphysics if you like (and not the good kind).

    These days we simply do not have people like Descartes.

    “Do we accept causality as custom, as perception, as evidence of a larger system, as temporal necessity, etc – to simply state that things factually happen is a limited view.”

    Causality is not a temporal necessity. And time and the order of cause and effect, are the result of the way the smaller systems that constitute the material world interact and evolve.

    But cause and effect does not always hold.

    Due to Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle causality is not necessarily needed for something to happen. In the absolute nothingness, there are fluctuations. No need for cause. The nothingness has a kind of nonexistential crisis in questioning it’s nonexistence – in that brief head spinning moment something happens. Something comes from the nothingness. And that is the generally accepted scientific theory of our genesis.

    The fundamental seed of our universe is absolute nothingness and absolute randomness. Order and teleology then emerge as byproducts. There is no first cause.

    Where is God in all this? These days, we have no need for that hypothesis.

    “What causality is (and temporality in general) is one of the most important questions in metaphysics.”

    The question could be which Descartes. Time is geometry. If I could travel back to the 17th century, find René and sketch a few diagrams on some paper. He would have had the same realisation as Einstein – possibly within minutes. And deeper inquiry would have led him to the position of 21st century science.

    The universe exists out of a Cartesian inquiry. The cogito of the nothingness; “I know I do not exist, because I think I do not exist……oh shit (boooom!!)”

    And that is actually what the science says.

  11. Hi Miranda,

    I’m not sure you understand what teleology is when you say: These larger systemic views are what determine teleological causes… in reference to rain causing grass to grow. Final causes are an anthropomorphism. Everything on a macro scale, including cosmological evolution and biological evolution is chaotic, which means it is deterministic but unpredictable. In other words, if you were to rerun the universe you’d get a completely different result as Stephen Jay Gould once pointed out, therefore it’s definitely not teleological.

    The development of every individual organism is teleological because it’s determined by its DNA, but how the DNA originally evolved we don’t know with our present knowledge, which is not to say we’ll never know. Every generation from the Ancient Greeks to present day believe they knew almost everything, but, in reality, they never knew what they didn’t know, and that includes us.

    I’d recommend Paul Davies’ The Cosmic Blueprint, written in 1988 but still the best exposition on chaos and complexity and how it contradicts the 2nd law of thermodynamics without breaking it. I haven’t read Nagel’s book so I can’t comment on it.

    Regards, Paul.

  12. Here’s an example of the mechanistic view of life.


    Spot the teleological language used at various points. We use teleological language all the time. It’s convenient and makes stuff easier to understand, if we invoke purpose or intent metaphorically.

    Towards the end, on the malaria parasite: “The parasite uses the circulatory system…”, “…and this is where malaria is particularly devious…”

    I don’t for one minute suppose he thinks the malaria parasite is thinking deviously about how it might transport its infection.

    Unless Nagel can come up with some evidence that shows the mechanistic understanding to be false then he is simply mistaking metaphor for reality.

  13. Ron Murphy,

    “Unless Nagel can come up with some evidence that shows the mechanistic understanding to be false then he is simply mistaking metaphor for reality.”

    Much of our understanding of reality is based on metaphor. If you remove metaphor *completely* from our speech and thoughts, there’s not a great deal left. I think it’s fair to say that we have no understanding of reality that does not make significant use of metaphor.

  14. Steve,

    I agree. I’m all for the use of metaphor.

    The trouble is that the intentional, purposeful, teleological metaphor which we have become accustomed to using for ourselves persuades some of us that we are not mechanisms.

    I wanted to illustrate our use of teleological metaphors in describing elements of life systems, particularly where it is clear that in those cases there is no indication of any literal intention or purpose present. This mechanistic nature of life generally, and of humans, is all that we ever discover. For all the philosophical and theological claims about other aspects of our nature that are not mechanistic they are never in evidence.

    This should make us question to what extent our accustomed teleological view of ourselves is itself such a convenient yet well engrained metaphor that it hides our mechanistic nature, which in turn causes Nagel to oppose mechanistic descriptions.

    It seems that while philosophers are busy telling us how much they challenge the obvious, think deeper about problems, many are still persuaded by traditional philosophical and theological perspectives about the specialness of humans that somehow (which is never explained) takes us above and beyond the mechanistic.

  15. Ron Murphy,

    “many are still persuaded by traditional philosophical and theological perspectives about the specialness of humans that somehow (which is never explained) takes us above and beyond the mechanistic.”

    Because those theological perspectives were(are) very persuasive. Aquinas’ “proof” of the existence of God, (first cause), holds right up to the 1920s. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, was and is, ugly and unpalatable even to physicists. Because this is not only the end of God, it is the end of the deterministic mechanical universe. Marquis de Laplace could dispense with Newton’s God hypothesis, but Heisenberg dispenses with Laplace’s hypothesis.

    Atheism before the 20th century is largely based on suspicion. The theological arguments were very powerful – an answer for everything (God is all powerful, we do not know his mind, and the universe needed a first cause, and the only plausible answer is God did it). Newton is portrayed today as rational hard scientist. Which he was but, he spent most of his time (wasted most of his time) studying magic, metaphysics, esoterica – for all the sober experiments on light and motion, he did countless others dressed as wizard, abracadabraing over chymical mixtures. The magic doesn’t find it’s way into his principia, because it never worked, not for want of trying. Though he included God. When his calculations were not in perfect agreement with the orbits of the planets, he concluded that God gave them a little nudge from time to time. Newton is not the man Dawkins would want him to be. If you flew Newton to the present he would be a staunch attacker of Dawkins – and the same for Laplace. A loon at the microphone.

    One thing I have in common with Pope Bernard (Not that we’re both NAZIS. Bernard was in party, I wasn’t). It’s that we are both pessimistic atheists, with a terror of nihilism. Bernard hints at it slightly esoterically in some of his statements. Of one, his claim that Christianity’s superiority to Islam, is that Christianity is a fusion of Greek rationalism and Judaism.

    Bernard believes the people will always fall for their priests and witches. But the mostly harmless, and in truth consoling, dishonesty of the Church, is far more preferable to the nihilistic paganism of Hitler. It’s the sentiment in Leonard Cohen’s The Future

    Give me back the Berlin wall
    give me Stalin and St Paul
    I’ve seen the future, brother:
    it is murder.

    Where Bernard and myself part ways, where I get off his bus, is strangely where his position converges with a strand of contemporary Islamic thought – probably the dominant strand – the writings of Sayyid Qutb. Which is also the basis of the radical and violent form of Islam. Bernard believes to spare us from Jahiliyyah, is to conserve the material and social conditions, and ignorance, of the Von Trapp family; Empty headed blonds, living the wholesome good life, due to the fortune of their birth and class – conservative because they have all the nice stuff – a solid patriarchal unit. And where I am meant to fit into this, is the mute old man who mucks out the Von Trapp family’s stables, and keeps his mouth shut and consoles himself with alcohol if he finds the material idiocy of his life too unbearable to take in absolute sobriety.

    And this is where Bernard appears to me in the stable – in all the ludicrous finery and best wizard costume; an ecclesiastic Liberace. “Yes, I know it’s all bullshit. But if we do not fill the Von Trapp’s heads with all this nonsense, and protect their way of life, they will turn NAZIS, and I have seen what these people can do. The Christ of the Enlightenment; modernity, is dead. It died, crucified on the gates of Auswitz. Where the light of the modern world goes out. The truth is worth nothing. ”

    Cleverly he inverts Voltaire “We must make these people believe absurdities to prohibit them from committing atrocities. ”

    To which I say “what about the violent radical Islamists?.”. Bernard replies “Why don’t we give the some Greek philosophy?”. To which I reply “Bernard….”a long pause and exhalation of breath to let my rage subside. “Bernard, it’s only because of the Islamic scholars of the Golden age we have those Greek texts. It would be like taking coals to Newcastle.”

    I don’t really have much faith in the Von Trapps. Their Christianity and ignorance did not stop them from engaging in atrocity the last time, I don’t see it stopping them at any point in the future. Their original sin is the atavistic blind rage they lash out in when they imagine their way of life is threatened. These people must be contained. By any means necessary. If theology is useful to this end, then it has a valid purpose. Although I believe it to be inadequate – neo-atheism doesn’t really offer any promise.

    Now here, I was literally going to turn a nuclear weapon on Dawkins. But the comment is long enough as it is. Let’s have a song instead.

    Doe, a deer, a female deer
    Ray, a drop of golden sun
    Me, a name I call myself…..

  16. JMRC:

    Excuse me. I’m undoubtedly missing some literary reference, but why do you call the Pope “Bernard”?

    His given name is Josef and his Papal name is Benedict, but you know that, I’m sure.

    By the way, I enjoy your free associational prose poems or whatever they might be called.

  17. Teleological explanations are not alien to biology.

    Teleological Notions in Biology: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/teleology-biology/

    “[I]t is not just biological explanations that are ‘teleological’, i.e. that cite future ends, goals, or purposes to explain past structures, processes, and events. The whole vocabulary of biology is teleological. Consider some of the most basic nouns in biology: codon, gene, promoter, repressor, organelle, cell, tissue, organ, fin, wing, eye, coat, stem, chloroplast, membrane. Almost all of these terms are defined—at least conventionally—by what the thing does, or what it does when working normally. And not just anything it does, for each of these does many things. Take a shark’s fin, for example: it provides stability while swimming, but it also reflects light, makes turbulence behind it in the water, adds weight and surface area to the
    body, signals to humans the presence of a predator near the surface, attracts the interest of connoisseurs of shark fin soup, and so on. But only one (or maybe a couple) of these things a fin does is its function. The function of a fin is the only one among these effects that define what is to be a fin: a fin is an appendage of a fish or whale, one of whose functions is to provide stability. In other words, it is something the animal has ‘in order to’ provide stability
    while swimming. Well, if fish have fins in order to swim stably, one may ask, who arranged this neat trick for them? And the same question arises for practically every other feature of organisms that has biological interest. For almost everything biological is ordinarily described in terms of its function. So almost everything biological raises a teleological problem. In contrast, a question such as ‘What is the function of the electron?’ is not one physicists ordinarily consider.”

    (Rosenberg, Alex, and Daniel W. McShea. Philosophy of Biology: A Contemporary Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2008. pp. 13-4)

  18. I just want to say that this issue has nothing to do with Hume or Kant or even Newton. To understand this issue you need to know some 20th Century physics. As Davies points out in The Cosmic Blueprint, there are 2 arrows of time: one associated with entropy and one associated with chaos and complexity. It’s well known that entropy increases with time, which is why you can’t reconstitute a broken egg, from the floor it’s fallen on, back to its original form, or even back from an omelette. You can’t reverse entropy (in a closed system) any more than you can reverse time.

    Entropy occurs when you have a system in equilibrium. On the other hand, if you have a system far from equilibrium with an open source of energy you get complexity and self-organisation, including life. With chaotic phenomena, which is virtually all natural phenomena in the universe, you can theoretically reverse events up to their initial conditions, but no further. Once you reverse an event past its initial condition its history is lost and if the event is re-lived it will be different. And this is why evolution is not teleological because it’s fundamentally chaotic. It’s also why chaotic phenomena also have an arrow of time.

    Referencing Myron’s comment, virtually everything in the universe serves a purpose or a function, but that doesn’t make it teleological, which is why I think the term is so misunderstood. Because teleology implies the purpose is already pre-ordained, but in a chaotic universe, which is the one we live in, the purpose can never be predicted.

    Regards, Paul.

  19. Maryon,

    That use of teleological language is entirely metaphorical, though some (perhaps some of the philosophers that write it) may think it not. Moment to moment, atom by atom, sub-atom by sub-atom, bit by bit, there is only chaotic interaction. The stability that we see as a function of the shark’s fin is entirely our model of what we see unfolding bit by bit in the components of a fin. A shark’s fin does what it does, and has evolved as it has only because when the bit by bit interaction of the parts had been sufficiently different in some shark at some time in the past it happened not to survive to reproduce. Evolution, survival, outcomes, are not driven by some purpose that is anything like teleological. Shark fins aren’t some designed functional system. They are just one of the chaotic systems that just happen to work, survive, with all the other prominent stuff in their environment: the rest of the shark biology, the sea water, the speed and agility of prey, etc., which all determine which shark genes survive, and in an endless chaotic feedback, which shark fin will survive next. If the shark fin was a purposeful design then why does the octopus, sea horse, ray, crab function well without them? That there are so many diverse forms of life is a clue that there is no large scale plan. There are only patterns of stuff that fit well together; and there are many combinations that do.

    Referring to Paul’s comment, everything in the universe that we ascribe a function to is entirely the result of small scale interactions that just happen to fit well together so that they have some higher probability of recurring. It might be the localised collection of atoms in such great numbers that their combined mass causes mutual pressure, fusion, sunlight – the bits fit to make a star. It might be the that the rare chance coming together of complex molecules instigates a process of replication, which once started overwhelms all simpler probabilities to form an ever more likely repeating pattern. And once bit by bit interactions start replication then variations in replication have greater or lesser probabilities of fitting their environment, which in turn determines survival. It is all small scale mechanistic and chaotic, from which patterns emerge, and from which some patterns persist because of the mutual likelihood of fit of their bits. The form of this fit-ness, or metaphorically teleologically, this fitness for purpose, is determined by bit by bit, moment by moment, mutual fit.

    Our human brain history seems to make us very resistant to anything that might challenge our view of ourselves, anything that might mean we are not the spirits or souls or minds we imagine we are. The real relentless unguided chaotic nature of evolution, the reductionist inspection of the detail, the totally unplanned unspecial mechanistic nature of our very being, seems to be a step too far for many people. But that too is an outcome of the diversity of how brain bits fit together with their environment, how they view the world. Brains can make patterns, some of which to us are stories, explanations, descriptions; and about the best we can do is measure how well those stories fit with patterns we see in the world – that’s science: stories that fit. Everything else is just stories.

    Some stories we convince ourselves do fit, without actually measuring the fit-ness, or by using vague measures that themselves are more stories. There must be a designer of all this? Keep telling yourself that and make that story fit, by ignoring where it doesn’t – that’s religious praxis. We all feel compelled to treat each other in some specific ways – tell yourself a story about objective morality, but avoid any challenges to point out where it is written, what combination of stardust makes that happen, and ignore all indications that the stardust that makes it happen is in our biology. Look for patterns and see them, and convince yourself there is a purpose, and that maybe we are at the heart of that purpose, we are special, and ignore all indications that we are merely unusual in one particular aspect, and only one, in our local environment.

    Unless of course there’s evidence of the super-duper.

  20. swallerstein,

    “Excuse me. I’m undoubtedly missing some literary reference, but why do you call the Pope “Bernard”?

    His given name is Josef and his Papal name is Benedict, but you know that, I’m sure.”

    Yes, I know he’s Benedict, and that’s what I should have used. In France he’s known as Benoit, and that’s what the French papers used. I picked up the usage of Bernard from hearing Germans (I think Benedict is too much of a mouthful for Germans). Knowing the Germans, they would probably use Benedict in their papers. And my use of Bernard is some obscure form (which may have a sarcastic connotation – though I’m not German).

    “By the way, I enjoy your free associational prose poems or whatever they might be called.”

    It’s not really free association. These things are strangely true. Newton’s religion and magic. Laplace’s quote when presenting his work to Napoleon. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The pope’s comments.

    Benedict has never explicitly referred to the Von Trapp family, but he has said things that would indicate that was who he was talking about. That he would be an atheist is unsurprising. Many clerics are, as they’ve read so much theology.

    If want to learn something interesting about the Sound of Music – a wildly popular film for a long time. Find somewhere on the web where Slavoj Zizek talks about it. It sounds crazy at first, but it’s an anti-semetic film. The Von Trapp family are a wholesome NAZIS family, who are being persecuted by the evil cosmopolitan Jews.

  21. JMRC:

    Maybe the Pope is an atheist. Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor is an atheist, if I recall correctly.

  22. swallerstein,

    “Maybe the Pope is an atheist. Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor is an atheist, if I recall correctly.”

    This is not an unusual thing. Young people enter the seminary with a smattering of religion they’ve picked up as children. And their religious faith is really solid. Once they begin studying the theology and church history in depth, they discover many of the practices and traditions are not rooted in the divine as they had believed. Go to any Catholic church, you will find holy water. Is there a single mention of Holy Water in either the old or new testament. Where did this Holy Water come from. It’s origins are European paganism. The shell shocked seminarian either leaves, or finds some other reason to stay.

    The Catechism fed to children (which is really the ultimate religious instruction many faithful adults would have received), is filtered. The old testament is full of cruel mayhem. When Moses arrives back from the mountain with his tablets and finds the people worshiping a golden cow, he does just get angry and then forgive them. He has them slaughtered.

    In religions, there are three kinds of participants. The complete unbeliever, who goes along with the religion for social and economic reasons – or simply that it supports a way of life (religions are deeply materialistic). Then the half-believer, who is aware of most of the religion is superstitious nonsense, but believes there is a possibility of the divine. The third, believes everything – they are absolutely credulous. I believe these people are in a tiny minority. The credulousness does tend to depend on how much theology and history the person knows. The simple will believe that a saint will magically intercede if you do some ritual with enough sincerity and devotion. As a child this can be pretty disturbing – this is the kind of thing Dawkins attacks. It can be really traumatic for a child, if relative is sick and they pray for them, and then the relative dies – the child can feel they did not pray hard enough, and they are responsible. This is an experience I had as a child. Dawkins is right, it does verge on child abuse.

    Islam is also funny. Muslims pray in the direction of Mecca. Where the Hajj, the pilgrimage, ultimately takes them to is the Kabba stone. The Kabba stone is a pagan relic. Mohamed removed nearly all the idols in Mecca, but the Kabba stone was kept. The Kabba stone is not recognised in orthodox Islam as having magical properties – Mohamed is simply tied to the stone by a story that he decided a dispute over where it should be moved. So the complete non-believer, can believe the Hajj and the Kabba provide a ritual function – something that glues the social organisation together. The half-believer, knows the Kabba is a pagan relic, but the Mohamed connection gives them just enough magic. The absolutely credulous believe the stone has magical powers – just like the original pagans who put it there.

  23. JMRC:

    Most of us seek to rationalize old beliefs that we no longer find totally convincing, but which we have invested lots of energy and time in, so who knows whether theological investigations and the study of philosophy have led the current Pope towards atheism or provided him with more ingenious arguments for defending, on some level or another, the beliefs that he had when he entered the Theological Seminary so many years ago.

    I was very leftwing when young and over the years, I have quarreled with, doubted, forsworn, criticized, torn apart and said farewell to my original political credo, yet I always return to it, perhaps in a more cynical or skeptical and less passionate version, but it’s been a major part of my life, my identity, my sense of self, and all my human relationships have been formed through it, on it or around it.

    Last week I had a long chat with an old friend who comes from the same political background and who once was even farther to the left than I, but with the years, has become a political atheist and finds me to be “religious” or “Christian” in political terms.

    So I imagine that the Pope might, like my friend, have become an atheist in terms of religious belief or have returned once and again to his Catholicism, after moments of doubt or despair or cynicism, much as so many people return to marriages or even long friendship, which having lost their original ilusions, still form an integral part of one’s life.

  24. Ayala explains in what senses evolutionary processes are or aren’t teleological (p. 8ff):

    * Ayala, Francisco J. “Teleological Explanations in Evolutionary Biology.” Philosophy of Science 37, no. 1 (March 1970): 1-15. PDF: http://colinallen.dnsalias.org/Secure/X755/1970-Ayala.pdf

  25. “Nature (organic and inanimate) abounds in processes and activities that lead to an end. Some authors seem to believe that all such terminating processes are of one kind and ‘finalistic’ in the same manner and to the same degree. Taylor (1950), for instance, if I understand him correctly, claims that all forms of active behavior are of the same kind and that there is no fundamental difference between one kind of movement or purposive action and any other. Waddington (1968) gives a definition of his term ‘quasi-finalistic’ as requiring ‘that the end state of the process is determined by its properties at the beginning.’
    Further study indicates, however, that the class of end-directed processes is composed of two entirely different kinds of phenomena. These two types of phenomena may be characterized as follows:

    Teleomatic processes in inanimate nature. Many movements of inanimate objects as well as physicochemical processes are the simple consequence of natural laws. For instance, gravity provides the end-state for a rock which I drop into a well. It will reach its end-state when it has come to rest on the bottom. A red-hot piece of iron reaches its end-state when its temperature and that of its environment are equal. All objects of the physical world are endowed with the capacity to change their state, and these changes follow natural laws. They are end-directed only in a passive, automatic way, regulated by external forces or conditions. Since the end-state of such inanimate objects is automatically achieved, such changes might be designated as teleomatic. All teleomatic processes come to an end when the potential is used up (as in the cooling of a heated piece of iron) or when the process is stopped by encountering an external impediment (as a falling stone hitting the ground). Teleomatic processes simply follow natural laws, i.e. lead to a result consequential to concomitant physical forces, and the reaching of their end-state is not controlled by a built-in program. The law of gravity and the second law of thermodynamics are among the natural laws which most frequently govern teleomatic processes.

    Teleonomic processes in living nature. Seemingly goal-directed behavior by organisms is of an entirely different nature from teleomatic processes. Goal-directed behavior (in the widest sense of this word) is extremely widespread in the organic world; for instance, most activity connected with migration, food-getting, courtship, ontogeny, and all phases of reproduction is characterized by such goal orientation. The occurrence of goal-directed processes is perhaps the most characteristic feature of the world of living organisms.
    For the last 15 years or so the term ‘teleonomic’ has been used increasingly often for goal-directed processes in organisms. I proposed in 1961 the following definition for this term: ‘It would seem useful to restrict term ‘teleonomic’ rigidly to systems operating on the basis of a program, a code of information’ (Mayr 1961). Although I used the term ‘system’ in this definition, I have since become convinced that it permits a better operational definition to consider certain activities, processes (like growth), and active behaviors as the most characteristic illustrations of teleonomic phenomena. I therefore modify my definition, as follows: A teleonomic process or behavior is one which owes its goal-directedness to the operation of a program. The term ‘teleonomic’ implies goal direction. This, in turn, implies a dynamic process rather than a static condition, as represented by the system. The combination of ‘teleonomic’ with the term ‘system’ is, thus, rather incongruent.
    All teleonomic behavior is characterized by two components. It is guided by a ‘program’, and it depends on the existence of some endpoint, goal, or terminus which is foreseen in the program that regulates the behavior. This endpoint might be a structure, a physiological function, the attainment of a new geographical position, or a ‘consummatory’ (Craig 1918) act in behavior. Each particular program is the result of natural selection, constantly adjusted by the selective value of the achieved endpoint.”

    (Mayr, Ernst. “The Multiple Meanings of Teleological.” In Toward A New Philosophy of Biology: Observations of an Evolutionist, 38-66. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988. pp. 44-5)

  26. In regard to Myron’s last 2 comments and his reference to Ayala, the development of every individual organism is teleological, as I said in an earlier comment because it’s determined by the organism’s DNA, which is effectively a software programme with the instructions for the organism’s development and function. Having said that, the origin and evolution of DNA itself is still a mystery. All the examples that Ayala give are the result of natural selection working with genetics and environment. It is nature’s design mechanism and it works without any goal beyond the survival of the next generation. Even consciousness is not necessary for evolution to be successful, as the plant world exemplifies.

    Evolution by natural selection is not teleological – it’s totally and fundamentally chaotic. Chaotic phenomena are impossible to predict in both theory and practice, therefore can’t be teleological. Davies (cited previously) demonstrates mathematically how the initial conditions of a chaotic phenomenon are impossible to determine, which means the outcome is equally impossible to predict. Chaos occurs because the smallest change in the initial conditions have massive and unpredictable consequences – that’s the history of the universe and of life.

    In evolution we’ve had more than a few mass extinctions, including one 253 million years ago when 96% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial species were wiped out. The famous meteor-initiated extinction that extinguished the dinosaurs came later. So you can see how freak events, some calamitous in the extreme, have contributed to the evolution of humans in a very non-teleological way.

    I’d also recommend Erwin Schrodinger’s book, What is Life? based on lectures he gave in the 1940s and 50s – a brilliant book.

    Regards, Paul.

  27. Myron,

    First, sorry about the name typo in my previous comment. I’ve just spotted I’ve been typing Avalya throughout what follows. Perhaps I struggle with lysdexia.

    I found the whole Ayala paper to be bogus. He wants teleology. And he’ll go as far as redefining the word until it fits his predetermined theological understanding of biology. Like many a ‘sophisticated’ theologian he attempts to define the problem away, and so attempts to deflect away the notion that humans themselves are mechanisms. His re-definition.

    “In this generic sense, teleological explanations are those explanations where the presence of an object or a process in a system is explained by exhibiting its connection with a specific state or property of the system to whose existence or maintenance the object or process contributes. Teleological explanations require that the object or process contribute the existence of a certain state or property of the system. Moreover, they imply that such contribution is the explanatory reason for the presence of the process or object in the system.”

    This is so vague it could mean anything. It could be used equally to describe teleological and non-teleological systems.

    “It is appropriate to give a teleological explanation of the operation of the kidney of regulating the concentration of salt in blood, or the structure of the hand in grasping.”

    Yes, metaphorically I would have no problem with that. But…

    “But it makes no sense to explain teleologically the falling of a stone, or a chemical reaction.”

    But you could, and with equal justification, using his definition of teleology. So, in Ayala’s terms:

    The presence of the object (stone) or process (gravity) in a system (a mountain on earth) is explained by exhibiting the connection with a specific state or property of the system (stone’s height and precarious position, the stone is both part of the mountain system and its current state) to whose existence (of mountain, including stone) or maintenance the object (stone) or process (falling under gravity, erosion) contributes.

    Here’s Russell:

    “The atomists, unlike Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, sought to explain the world without introducing the notion of purpose or final cause. The ‘final cause’ of an occurrence is an event in the future for the sake of which the occurrence takes place. In human affairs, this conception is applicable. Why does the baker make bread? Because people will be hungry. Why are railways built? Because people will wish to travel. In such cases, things are explained by the purpose they serve. When we ask ‘why?’ concerning an event, we may mean either of two things. We may mean: ‘What purpose did this event serve?’ or we may mean: ‘What earlier circumstances caused this event?’ The answer to the former question is a teleological explanation, or an explanation by final causes; the answer to the latter question is a mechanistic explanation. I do not see how it could have been known in advance which of these two questions science ought to ask, or whether it ought to ask both. But experience has shown that the mechanistic question leads to scientific knowledge, while the teleological question does not. The atomists asked the mechanistic question, and gave a mechanistic answer. Their successors, until the Renaissance, were more interested in the teleological question, and thus led science up a blind alley.”

    To be fair, Russell also has a problem with the mechanistic version of evolution; but I think there he’s addressing the strictly deterministic understanding of mechanism. What I’ve tried to make clear in my use of ‘mechanistic’ is that it is an epistemologically intractable system that depends on the interaction of everything at the smallest scale at which physics operates. I realise that for us this still causes a problem because our models only go so far as to explain atomic and sub-atomic levels, and anything ‘below’ that is currently speculative theory.

    But we know enough to say that the large scale models we use are conveniences, and that they do not dictate outcomes but describe them. Perhaps we mistake their use for prediction as an indication of purpose.

    So, to pick up Ayala’s example of the hand:

    “The hand of man is made for grasping.”

    This is so unbelievably wrong. The hand wasn’t made for anything. The hand is no more designed than the octopus arm, or the grasping creepers of plants. They are not made with a purpose; they were not designed to do anything at all. They slowly, over time, emerged, unguided, unwanted, unintended, un-called-for, not-made-for-anything, but came from minute accidental changes, some of which happened to fit their environment, and in doing so just happened to eventually become a hand – or any of the many variations on hands and other limbs that we observe.

    That some of those outcomes were human hands, and that they help the human organism survive, is purely coincidental on the physical changes that occurred at each stage.

    Was the hand also made for scratching backsides? For thumbing lifts when hitch-hiking? For shaking hands? For picking noses? For clapping? For stroking cats? For sexual foreplay?

    Use, function, comes after emergence! This is crucial, and it totally destroys the notion of end-directedness, teleology!

    The hand did not appear in order that animals can grasp. Some precursor to hands emerged, accidentally, and in the organism’s environment it accidentally did something akin to grasping. And that provided the advantage that made such ‘lucky’ organisms reproduce statistically more abundantly. And then another accidental change occurred that provided more reproductive benefit; and so on.

    The notion of adaptation is the post hoc descriptive model of the evolutionary process. If anything it means that whatever happens to appear, if it is adopted for use in the current environment, it is therefore beneficial to survival for reproduction, and so propagated in future generations. If the appearance of some trait is not adopted to contribute to survival then it will propagate or not depending on the cost.

    So, it’s a cost-benefit determination as to whether a trait will be propagated or not. An important consequence is that some trait with a neutral cost-benefit may be propagated because it would actually cost more to remove it. And then, some time down the line, a change in environment, or changes to other traits in the evolving organism, may suddenly make the old neutral unused trait functionally useful, at that later time. In that sense the old trait certainly was not end-directed, did not have a purpose, and so is not teleologically determined to come about.

    To say that a hand is made for grasping is to make the very mistake that anti-evolutionists make in criticising evolution: had the hand been made for a purpose it would have required a designer, because it would be highly improbable for a hand to appear unguided and yet to have purpose. The anti-evolutionists would be right to so criticise Ayala’s attribution of teleological explanation to evolution.

  28. In law school, you learn about two types of causation.

    But-for causation exists where the relationship between two events is such that without the first, the second would not have happened. There can be plenty of variation in this broad concept, but that’s the gist. If but-for causation exists, it doesn’t matter how we approach the fact pattern. It will continue to exist.

    Proximate causation is a causal relationship which is relevant to the type of liability that is relevant for the legal analysis being performed. Change the question that motivates your legal analysis, and what causation is proximate can completely change.

    There’s an obvious difference between the two- but-for describes actual events which take in real life. Proximate causation is, by contrast, a man made framework for thinking about those actual events.

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