Nature and naturalism

-I ran into this definition of (philosophical) naturalism, which struck me as pretty common: “The system of thought holding that all phenomena can be explained in terms of natural causes and laws.” Really? All phenomena? How about patching a tire? Choosing the winning lotto numbers (or the loosing ones)?  How about a white thing thing falling or a triangle having at least two sides? Stepping in the bathtub when an earthquake happens? How about wax becoming a honeycomb? In general, what about anything that happens by art or by chance? More controversial examples against the point might work better, since among “all phenomena” we find, for example, higher incarceration rates among blacks; fewer engineering degrees for women and Latinos; more donut shops owned by Cambodians; More atheist men. Natural laws and causes explain all of them?

For that matter, does the sentence “all phenomena can be explained in terms of natural causes and laws” come to be naturally?

If you don’t make any meaningful distinction between art and nature and chance (and luck), why should anyone take you seriously? Inventing some sense of “nature” in which artificial things or chance things arise “naturally” is simply an abuse of language and obviously wrong.

-Toward the end of his arguments that nature acts for an end, Aristotle gives this argument against those who assert that nature does not act for the sake of something.

[T]he person who asserts this entirely does away with ‘nature’ and what exists ‘by nature’. For those things are natural which, by a continuous movement originated from an internal principle, arrive at some completion: the same completion is not reached from every principle; nor any chance completion, but always the tendency in each is towards the same end, if there is no impediment.

The argument can be made more simple, as St. Thomas makes it: nature is a principle or source of something coming to be, just as art is a source by which artifacts come to be, and (in an accidental way) chance is the source of chance things. But simply in virtue of being a per se source or principle, nature acts for an end. The “end” is exactly what nature is a principle of.

This is the real reason why philsophical naturalism is contrary to understanding nature. Even on the most basic level of understanding what nature is, we must understand it as a principle of some principled thing and therefore as a  source that acts for an end. To use the jargon of the schools, that’s teleology. We all know what that means.

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28 Comments

  1. Kevin said,

    March 31, 2009 at 9:40 am

    I doubt many soi-disant “naturalists” would even recognize this problem as you present it. Most people who call themselves “naturalists” are really trying to say “materialists.” And materialism, whatever its faults, is able to explain all things without reference to art and intention.

    This is because what the materialist means by nature is really the free play of chance, constrained by a few (necessary) laws of physics. Of course it is an abuse of language when they use the word “nature” this way (though I think many philosophers are ignorant enough of Aristotle to be excused here), but is worth taking seriously. Dialectic may not be able to convert Heraclitus, but he can’t be allowed to go unanswered.

  2. March 31, 2009 at 10:58 am

    No no! “Materialism” was intentionally abandoned because it was thought a.) that the accounts of matter (quantum) couldn’t be made universal, b.) the new science found some sort of causality for space and time and other odd things other than the elements of the periodic table, and c.) most of all because materialism was too definite a doctrine. Even before the new science, there were reasons to prefer the word naturalism to materialism. Naturalism was meant to preserve some romance of nature without God, which materialism couldn’t do.

    I don’t have my books for another two weeks, so I can’t give you the sources, but “naturalism” was chosen very deliberately as opposed to “materialism”.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think materialists have a very philosophical idea of matter or material either. Physicalists don’t have a very profound grasp of the physical, from what I’ve read of them. “The physical” (and the material and the natural) as such are all very much worth studying, but a philosophical analysis of them does not lead one to what is now called physicalism or naturalism or materialism.

  3. Mike Flynn said,

    March 31, 2009 at 5:07 pm

    One day I hope you will write a book as clear and pointed and whimsical as this blog. Diary of a Mad Thomist has a nice ring to it, though perhaps not quite what you want.

  4. William H. Stoddard said,

    April 1, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    If you don’t mind a comment or two from someone who actually is a naturalist, I’d like to remark on how some of the points you raise appear to me. I see at least two differences of understanding of “nature” between us, one broad and one narrow.

    As to the broad one, many of your examples of things that do not to you seem to be part of the order of nature, or the products of natural laws, relate to human actions. But in my view, human beings are part of nature: we came to be within it, and our actions are constrained by its laws (whether deterministic or probabilistic). “Art” is created by human actions, and human beings came to be through natural processes.

    And similar for “chance”: on one hand, if nature’s laws are probabilistic, then chance is an aspect of nature; on the other hand, if nature’s laws are deterministic, then probability is simply a reflection of our incomplete knowledge, and that incompleteness is certainly an aspect of nature.

    You may find a paradox in saying, on the one hand, that there are categories of art and chance and nature, but on the other hand, that all is nature; but this sort of paradox can arise in any view. In theism, for example, we can on one hand say that all that happens, happens by God’s will and as an act of God, but on the other hand, specific events are singled out as “miracles” that are thought of as “acts of God” in a more distinctive sense—and yet in the theistic view it could just as well be argued that everything in nature is equally a miracle. (And Muslim philosophy of science ran aground on a confusion of these two points, which Thomas Aquinas separated.)

    On the narrower point, in a naturalistic view, teleology does not exist: causation is efficient causation rather than final causation. But there are configuration of efficient causation that look like final causation. For example, a thermostat, by mechanically turning on a furnace when temperature falls and turning it off when it rises, keeps a space at a steady temperature, as if working to a goal. And regulatory genetics shows that similar mechanical processes operate within cells, turning enzyme synthesis on and off—but those processes came to be not through human making but through differential survival and reproduction. Human cognitive powers are vastly more complex, but when I write a set of comments to you, my actions are guided not by the end result of the writing, but by internal neural patterns that exist now, as I am writing. Or, at least, any serious naturalist has to adopt a naturalized epistemology.

    I don’t expect to persuade you that all this is so, certainly not on my simple assertion. I’m saying it rather to suggest that the possibilities of “nature” may not be so impoverished, in the view of naturalists, as you suppose they must be.

  5. Mike Flynn said,

    April 1, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    when I write a set of comments to you, my actions are guided not by the end result of the writing, but by internal neural patterns that exist now

    Yet, I cannot imagine that you are surprised when the words turn out to be what you had intended.

    Your argument is simply that final causes are not efficient causes. That is a given. We only say that they are not “causes” because the term has been co-opted by the third cause. (IIRC, the term aitia translates better as “becauses.”)

    The thermostat is, of course, working toward a goal: the trigger points that have been set into it that tell it when the temp has fallen too low, or risen too high. It may be important that these set-points do not arise from within the nature of the thermostat itself.

    There are three sorts of telos: one is simple termination, as when a falling body reaches the center of gravity or an obstruction preventing further fall. Like the set points of the thermostat, the tendency to minimize the potential function is a given that does not arise from the nature of the function itself. The terms “attractor basin” or “strange attractor” capture this notion.

    The second meaning is perfection: as when a tiger cub grows until it becomes an adult tiger and then stops. If it runs “true to form” it will have acquired all the necessary qualities of the adult tiger. No further change can make it more of a tiger than it is; and thus it reaches its end. A tiger cub never grows up to be a daffodil.

    The third meaning is intention: the robin building a nest does not gather twigs because she finds the twigs especially attractive in themselves, but because they will accomplish something as yet in the future. It does not matter if the robin is aware of these things or not. The twig is “for” the nest in a way it is not “for” anything else.

    But basically, Aristotle’s fourth “cause” assures us that there are “laws of nature” in the first place. That is, there exists a “common course of nature” to which things will tend, given that they run true to form. Thus, natural science relies on teleology and makes use of it even while denying its existence. The irony is that the fourth “because” need be no less natural than any other kind of cause.

    Our esteemed host may wish to correct me on any of this, as I am only an amateur bystander with an interest in natural philosophy.

  6. William H. Stoddard said,

    April 1, 2009 at 9:23 pm

    I’m an amateur in philosophy myself; I read it and think about it for pleasure. I would be glad to see what our host has to say about this subject. But I want to briefly remark on two of your many points.

    As to my words turning out to be what I had intended, I take that to be because my “intention” was a neural pattern in my brain that played a(n) (efficient) causal role in producing those words. I’d note that I only discovered what words I intended in the course of writing them, by the way; my writing was guiding by comparing them to a kind of preverbal sense of “what I meant” until I wasn’t bothered by any obvious discrepancies. Or as some philosopher put it, “How can I know what I mean until I see what I say?”

    Your point about laws of nature strikes me as odd. It seems as if you are saying that there needs to be some active “because” that makes nature be what it is and do as it does . . . as if, without “laws,” nature would be “lawless,” with electrons rushing about at random and turning into quarks or photons, or into entire atoms or molecules, or mutually annihilating other electrons, or with dogs and cats having viable offspring and human beings suddenly mutating into Homo superior. But that seems to appeal to a concept of “how natural things would behave without natural laws.” And we are not in a position to know that. All that we can know is how we observe natural things behaving; and we observe them behaving in consistent ways, which we call their “natures.” Being finite, natural things can act in certain ways and not in others; only an omnipotent being could do anything whatever. So the idea that there is a natural law that constrains natural things to behave in some ways and not others doesn’t seem necessary to me. “Natural law” is a metaphor; it assumes a natural lawgiver. (I don’t think it’s even a Christian metaphor; wouldn’t a proper understanding of “creation” imply not that if God withdrew his will from nature, things would not rush about at random, but softly and silently vanish away, like the words on your screen if you turn off your computer?) And we can’t identify the presence of that lawgiver by observation, because we never observe natural lawlessness and thus have no basis for taking it to be the default state of nature. Everything is something, as I think you said on your blog lately.

    And I think I’ve presumed enough on our host’s bandwidth; if you care to respond I’ll give you the last word.

  7. April 1, 2009 at 9:40 pm

    Mr. Stoddard,

    You say we have a broad difference and a narrow one. you say are broad difference is that

    [I]n my view, human beings are part of nature: we came to be within it, and our actions are constrained by its laws (whether deterministic or probabilistic). “Art” is created by human actions, and human beings came to be through natural processes.

    The conclusion of your argument is “Art is made by things that came to be through natural processes“. Yes. But it does not follow that if man comes to be by nature, and a man makes a work, that the work comes to be by nature. Active sources of generation are not transitive like you claim they are. That would be like saying that because Bill was the father of Larry, and Larry was the father of Ted, that Bill was the father of Ted.

    Similar considerations apply to the second part of your broad difference:

    “chance”: on one hand, if nature’s laws are probabilistic, then chance is an aspect of nature; on the other hand, if nature’s laws are deterministic, then probability is simply a reflection of our incomplete knowledge, and that incompleteness is certainly an aspect of nature.

    Again, sources of generation are not transitive like this argument claims.

    On another point, chance has a lot of meanings. In my post, I used two basic meanings “sheer indifference to outcomes” and “an only accidental correlation between two things” (say a mere accidental correlation) Neither of these meanings concern the status of the laws of nature. You are therefore not addressing the notion of chance used in the post, and therefore positing no difference.

    Next you say

    You may find a paradox in saying, on the one hand, that there are categories of art and chance and nature, but on the other hand, that all is nature; but this sort of paradox can arise in any view. In theism, for example, we can on one hand say that all that happens, happens by God’s will and as an act of God, but on the other hand, specific events are singled out as “miracles” that are thought of as “acts of God” in a more distinctive sense—and yet in the theistic view it could just as well be argued that everything in nature is equally a miracle.

    Where’s the paradox, and how are we to apply this to the matter at hand? Let’s take something that arose by art, say, the Pieta. Your claim must be that the Pieta arose naturally “in a less distinctive sense”. Why would anyone say that? Art doesn’t arise naturally at all- and if it did, it would be something made by human beings (like all art) that didn’t need human beings! The case is worse when we consider how chance could possibly be a “a less distinct kind” of nature. Saying this commits you to arguing that mere correlation (chance connection) is natural “in a less distinctive way”. This means that correlation is a less distinct kind of causality. But correlation is not causality at all, and to suggest otherwise is contrary to good science and good sense.

    As to your narrower point:

    “in a naturalistic view, teleology does not exist: causation is efficient causation rather than final causation. But there are configurations of efficient causation that look like final causation. For example, a thermostat, by mechanically turning on a furnace when temperature falls and turning it off when it rises, keeps a space at a steady temperature, as if working to a goal.”

    The argument refutes itself. What clearer example of something acting for an end do we have than our own tools, designed by us to achieve certain goals? On this sort of argumentation, there is no goal of a corkscrew or a house either, there is just various parts nailed together or shaped in certain ways.

  8. Elliot B said,

    April 2, 2009 at 5:10 am

    Mr. Stoddard:

    1) If you punch 2 + 2 and then = into a calculator, and it shows 5, is it wrong? Naturalistically, nothing malfunctioned in the calculator; its circuitry is flawless. Why is the calculator wrong about its sum but your “neuralator” is correct?

    2) Is the human person oriented towards truth? Does not your brain, that is, operate in order for you to deny the falsehood of Mr. Chastek’s post and to assert the truth of your naturalism? Is the orientation of your mind for truth a sheer fiction? And if so, if my orientation towards that claim itself a fiction?

    3) Are genes “about” producing specific kinds of beings? Or is that also just a fiction?

    In short, if there is no formal order and no final orderliness in the world, what makes science anything more than an anthropomorphic jumble of myths?

  9. William H. Stoddard said,

    April 2, 2009 at 7:56 am

    Well, since I’ve drawn more responses, from people other than Mr. Flynn:

    In response to the point about the transitivity of active sources of generation, my first reaction is that it’s not really relevant to naturalism, because no naturalist is arguing that, say, the computer on which I am making this entry is a direct product of (nonhuman) nature. Obviously it’s a product of human action; the idea that naturalists believe otherwise is a straw man version of naturalism. What naturalists are arguing is something different: that the “art” that produced the computer is an aspect of the “nature” of human beings, and that reason is natural to human beings. I think that’s a position that makes perfect sense in Aristotelian terms.

    In terms of the sequence where Bill is the father of Larry, and Larry is the father of Ted, but Bill is not therefore the father of Ted, that’s perfectly true; but it does follow that Ted is in the lineage of Bill, which would not be the case if Ted had been begotten by someone else entirely. And what naturalists are arguing is not fatherhood but lineage.

    As to the example of the thermostat, it’s true that that particular configuration of causal mechanism, with its directionality of outcome, is the result of purposeful human action. But the mechanism is useful to human beings precisely because it replaces purposeful human action: the man who has a thermostat does not need to keep getting up to turn the heating element on or off, because that happens mechanically. The directionality of outcome is thus inherent in the physical configuration of the mechanism, and can continue to operate when the active human purpose is withdrawn. And there are processes within living organisms that display a similar directionality, brought about through similar purely physical mechanisms, which not only are not actively regulated by a conscious purpose, but (on the naturalist view) were not brought into being through conscious purpose in the first place. In other words, genes are not “about” anything.

    As to the truth of naturalism being unknowable, I would point out that that falls victim to the very fallacy of the transitivity of generation that Mr. Chastek points to. Human reason gave rise to the naturalist position; and purposeless natural processes indifferent to truth gave rise to human reason; but it does not follow that purposeless natural processes indifferent to truth gave rise to the naturalist position.

    If this argument were turned around, by someone who wanted to argue, skeptically, against the very possibility of knowledge, it would amount to the claim that natural processes might lead me to an error in my thinking, and therefore I cannot claim that my conclusion is true. But this is only to say that I am not omniscient or infallible . . . and that’s not a surprise to any naturalist; if we were omniscient and infallible, we would not need to slow painful methods of science to extract knowledge from the natural world. Those facts are not a basis for denying claims to knowledge. This is the “maybe you’re wrong” argument for skepticism; and the rational response is, “Maybe I am; do you have evidence to show that I am wrong about this particular conclusion?” After all, if I punch 2+2 into my calculator and it says 5 or 3.1415929, then that’s evidence that my calculator is broken and I should throw it away; but it’s not a reason to stop using any calculators, including the ones that aren’t broken.

  10. Elliot B said,

    April 3, 2009 at 4:02 am

    W. Stoddard:

    You said, above, that what you are saying and typing is but the unforeseeable, unalterable result of whatever happens to be happening in your cranium. Hence, while there are (physiological) reasons for your saying what you say, there are no rational grounds for you claiming what you claim. This is just the argument from reason, so I don’t claim to be original.

    The scenario I posed is that one natural tabulating device was pitted against another (i.e., your brain vs. a calculator). Your neuralator produced 4 as the solution, while the calculator produced 5. On purely natural terms, neither device malfunctioned, since for all you know the calculator was programmed that way. Hence, while it is mathematically false that 2 + 2 is 5, it is, for that calculator, naturalistically unassailable. You would agree to this, and defend your own sum, but in so doing you are appealing to some other source of order (i.e., formal truth) to which nature must correspond formally. If two streams merge, they have combined their water molecules, but can it really be said that they performed addition? If so, then you are, as many naturalists eventually tend to lean, a panpsychist in the making. (Presumably, one pair of streams would be “smarter” than another pair because it could “add” more faster. Presumably, one pair of streams would be “bad at math” if beavers jammed up one stream and clogged its additive powers. Etc.)

    If not, however, then who says you ever perform addition? You are, naturally speaking, a mere confluence of atoms, and any sum you produce is, by your own admission, also no more rationally respectable than a river’s “addition.” Water molecules or synapses–– it’s all just blind flux which we anthropomorphically filter “as if” there were purpose in our words, etc.

    I am drawing, now, on not only the Lewis-Reppert argument from reason, but also A. Plantinga’s famous evolutionary argument against naturalism and, especially, one of the key prongs of argumentation in James F. Ross’s “Immaterial Aspects of Thought”, which is a must read. http://www.nd.edu/~afreddos/courses/43151/ross-immateriality.pdf

    Cheers,

  11. Elliot B said,

    April 3, 2009 at 4:23 am

    I would also like to object to the tactic I think the naturalist uses too facilely: moving the goalposts. A sort of naturalism of the gaps. If it is objected that naturalism can’t account (at all, or as well as some opposing view) for some phenomenon or reality, the naturalist can just say, “Well, that happens ‘in nature,’ since we observe it, therefore it happens naturalistically.” This is as illicit, or at least as puerile, as a theist saying that, since all things happens by God’s power, then God Himself does each and every act in creation. If everything is water, there is no coherent way of specifying, picking out, discussing, water, since, as Bob noted in a later thread, objects are objects by being distinct from everything else. It’s just a tautology to say “Everything that happens in nature happens naturally.” But that’s about what boiler plate naturalism seems to amount to.

    Cheers,

  12. April 3, 2009 at 5:30 am

    And the calculator has to have something more than mere agreement with the neurolator (a lovely term), since calculator programmers who are terrible at math would make terrible calculator programs (though the program would agree with the results of their neurolator).

  13. April 3, 2009 at 6:05 am

    EB,

    I agree with the second point. I know some philosophical naturalists who know things about nature, but I haven’t met one yet who knew things about nature as a philosopher. When naturalists talk about nature, they seem to use it as meaning something like “whatever”. Quentin Smith, for example, seems to think “nature” is “whatever is not supernatural”. It’s hard to imagine a circle more vicious than that.

    I think its helpful to force the issue that nature is not art nor chance, because then the definitions become necessarily more ad hoc and tautological. As soon as one admits that not all “phenomena” are instances of nature, then the definition of naturalism becomes “A system of thought that says all natural phenomena are explained by natural laws”, which hardly does the work that a naturalist needs it to do. It would be like defining “artism” as “the system of thought that all artifacts are explained by arts”

    So far as naturalism means “metaphysics is impossible” where metaphysics is what St. Thomas and Aristotle said it was (the study of things without matter or motion) then I think there are good arguments for naturalism. Both Aristotle and St. Thomas agree that if there is no metaphysics then the only science of subsistent things is natural science. But I’ve never read better arguments against metaphysics than Aristotle and St. Thomas give as objections, right before they refute them.

  14. William H. Stoddard said,

    April 3, 2009 at 8:24 am

    I think that Elliott B’s comments display an odd inconsistency in how they treat a certain type of intellectual distinction.

    Let me propose a series of “active sources of generation,” to use Mr. Chastek’s handy term:

    Human technology is the product of human art and human reason.
    Human reason is the product of evolution, which is a natural process.
    Nature is the product of divine creation.

    That is, we have a series: God=>nature=>man=>technology. If I understand Aquinas correctly, this is how he believed things work, though of course he didn’t know specifically about Darwinian evolution. This is a coherent intellectual position, though not one that I personally agree with. But I’m not commenting to discuss whether my atheism is a true belief; I’m just noting as a fact that I do have that belief.

    Now, there are theists who reject the intermediate “nature” step in that chain; who think that God directly created both nature and man in a single series of acts. But you DO NOT HAVE TO hold that belief (that is, to be a creationist) to be a theist. It is possible to be a theist and yet believe that God created the natural processes that gave rise to human beings through evolution; a significant number of scientists hold this view, for example.

    Or, for a parallel, we could make the chain God=>natural law=>today’s sunrise. I understand that orthodox Muslim doctrine rejects this chain, and says you must go directly from God to the sunrise being God’s will, with any talk of “natural law” being a blasphemous limitation of God’s power. But of course Thomas Aquinas took the opposite view, and in doing so laid the foundation for the rise of modern science. Theism doesn’t require skipping over the intermediate steps, whether to say that “God made the sun rise” or “God created Adam and Eve from clay” or “God created my computer.” And yet it also is true, in a different sense, that a theist believes that the sun rises because it’s God’s will, that man exists because it’s God’s will, and that computers exist because it’s God’s will . . . because in theism “God’s will” is the ultimate explanation.

    Now, if I understand Elliott B correctly, he rejects the jump straight from God to today’s sunrise, skipping over natural law, as a misunderstanding of theism. And yet, in dealing with naturalism, he goes directly from purposeless natural forces to the operation of my calculator, or to the validity of my beliefs, skipping over the intermediate step of human rationality and purposefulness. And that is exactly the same kind of skipping of steps. He misunderstands naturalism in the same way that other people misunderstand theism.

    At least the kind of naturalism I adhere to has the same series of steps as theism’s later steps: nature gives rise to human rationality and human rationality gives rise to conclusions and technologies. What is distinctive about naturalism is that it says that “nature” is the first step, or the ultimate source of explanation, rather than itself being explained by God. But “nature is the ultimate explanation” no more requires the statement that my calculator was shaped by purposeless natural forces indifferent to arithmetical accuracy than “God is the ultimate explanation” requires the statement that my calculator was brought into being by miraculous divine intervention.

    Where theism says God=>nature=>man=>technology, naturalism says nature=>man=>technology. Or if you prefer a Spinozistic version, (God=nature)=>man=>technology. In either case, one should not confuse questions about ultimate explanation with questions about immediate provenance of different things. To do so is to produce a caricature of naturalism or a caricature of theism.

    Mr. Chastek’s final paragraph in comment #13 is close to something I could disagree with; in the sense in which he means “metaphysics” I think it’s true. But I think that may not be the best choice of meaning for “metaphysics.” The naturalism that he defines there can itself be taken as an ontological assertion: all subsistent things are the thing studied by natural science. And as an ontological claim, that itself is a metaphysical assertion, isn’t it?

  15. Elliot B said,

    April 3, 2009 at 8:36 am

    W. Stoddard:

    I appreciate your nuanced and charitable response. But there is a huge disanalogy at work in it. Formal operations, such as addition, are true all along the line: in God’s mind, in their instantiations in nature, and in our intellectual grasp of them. But only insofar as all three (or however many steps you like) are part of one “system”, namely God’s freely willed creation of the anthropic universe. On naturalism, by contrast, formal operations like addition just leap onto the stage. “Nature” doesn’t “do” addition. Nor does natural selection. Nor do neurons. Nor do calculators. But men do.

    Just read Ross’s essay, okay? Thanks.

  16. Mike Flynn said,

    April 3, 2009 at 9:04 am

    It seems as if you are saying that there needs to be some active “because” that makes nature be what it is and do as it does . . . as if, without “laws,” nature would be “lawless,” with electrons rushing about at random and turning into quarks or photons, or into entire atoms or molecules, or mutually annihilating other electrons, or with dogs and cats having viable offspring and human beings suddenly mutating into Homo superior. But that seems to appeal to a concept of “how natural things would behave without natural laws.”

    By definition, nature without laws would be lawless. I was riffing on a comment Einstein once made 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.”

    It is not enough to say that “but of course” any existing natures would necessarily be lawful. That is to assume the very teleology being rejected: that nature acts always, or for the most part, towards ends. The tiger cub does not continue growing indefinitely, like a cancer, but as it approaches its final configurations, it comes to a stop (end, telos). In explaining the being, the Whole matters as much as the Parts, which is why “wholistic” thinking, emergent properties, self-organizing systems have lately become so popular. None of these are easily explicable in terms of efficient or agent cause.

    Your statement some active “because” that makes nature be what it is indicates that you are still thinking of telos in terms of third causes. That the end is something that acts on bodies in the manner of an agency or efficient cause.

    + + +
    So the idea that there is a natural law that constrains natural things to behave in some ways and not others doesn’t seem necessary to me.

    A law of nature does not constrain; it describes. It is nature that behaves “always or for the most part” in particular ways; and natural laws like s=0.5at^2 or 2NaHCO3+H2SO4->Na2SO4+2H2O+2CO2 simply describe those behaviors.
    + + +
    “Natural law” is a metaphor; it assumes a natural lawgiver.

    Certainly, s=0.5at^2 is a metaphor. It says “a falling body is like the solutions to this equation.” That’s pretty cool when you think of it. Like Einstein said, it’s not something that we would have thought likely, a priori. But I believe there is an underlying reality that the natural law captures. Fundamentally, to say “I believe in natural law” is simply to say “I believe that natures act in a lawful orderly manner, always or for the most part.” That is, “there is a common course of nature.” Now, you may suppose that laws exist because of a lawgiver, or you may simply say “They just are!” Certainly, natural science can go no further than that.

    (I don’t think it’s even a Christian metaphor…)

    And this matters, why?

  17. William H. Stoddard said,

    April 3, 2009 at 9:33 am

    I’m going to have to postpone response to Mr. Flynn’s latest post until I have less work demanding my attention. But I wanted to make a short note on one of his earlier posts, where he said that

    “The second meaning is perfection: as when a tiger cub grows until it becomes an adult tiger and then stops. If it runs “true to form” it will have acquired all the necessary qualities of the adult tiger. No further change can make it more of a tiger than it is; and thus it reaches its end. A tiger cub never grows up to be a daffodil.”

    In fact, there are cases where perfection is not the stopping place. Human beings normally grow to adult size and then stop, that being the size at which our bodies function efficiently. But they don’t always stop. Some people have an excess of growth hormone. If this hits before puberty, they grow to seven or eight feet tall (the greatest height I have read of was 8’11”) and then are inefficiently large and typically in imperfect health. If it hits later, they suffer the overgrowth of joints and other bone surfaces, which I believe is often not merely deforming aesthetically, but crippling and painful. It’s as if their physiology were trying to make them more of human beings than they are, but in fact is making them less.

    I don’t think I have a specific point to make about this, but it struck me as an interesting case to describe in teleological terms.

  18. Elliot B said,

    April 3, 2009 at 9:55 am

    J. Chastek: “When naturalists talk about nature, they seem to use it as meaning something like ‘whatever’.”

    In this light, it is little wonder that the ascendancy of naturalism in the West is concurrent with the rise of whateverism among youth.

    Cf. the last three minutes or so of “American Psycho”:

    PRICE
    Bateman? Come on, what do you think?

    Bateman looks up and smiles at Price. Then shrugs.

    BATEMAN
    Whatever.

  19. April 3, 2009 at 9:57 am

    Mr. Stoddard,

    Your account of naturalism is:

    What is distinctive about naturalism is that it says that “nature” is the first step, or the ultimate source of explanation, rather than itself being explained by God. But “nature is the ultimate explanation” no more requires the statement that my calculator was shaped by purposeless natural forces indifferent to arithmetical accuracy than “God is the ultimate explanation” requires the statement that my calculator was brought into being by miraculous divine intervention.

    The second sentence is an assertion and not a proof. There would be nothing wrong with this, except that it is the precise point of disagreement between you and EB. To simply assert it is to beg the question.

    EB’s whole argument thus far could be read as an argument that nature cannot be ultimate. The basic argument is that there exists something that cannot be explained by nature as such. That something is an order to truth. One can take the argument in a few ways, but however you slice it it is a real argument against the assertion that nature is ultimate.

    I don’t really have a dog in the fight anymore, since my original argument was that not all phenomena can be explained through natural laws (sc. art and chance) and you seem to agree with that.

    As to your argument about the thermostat, which is the one remaining argument I do have in here:

    The mechanism is useful to human beings precisely because it replaces purposeful human action: the man who has a thermostat does not need to keep getting up to turn the heating element on or off, because that happens mechanically. The directionality of outcome is thus inherent in the physical configuration of the mechanism, and can continue to operate when the active human purpose is withdrawn. And there are processes within living organisms that display a similar directionality, brought about through similar purely physical mechanisms, which not only are not actively regulated by a conscious purpose, but (on the naturalist view) were not brought into being through conscious purpose in the first place. In other words, genes are not “about” anything.

    But the thermostat doesn’t replace human intentionality, and certainly not when we consider its origins, which is exactly your claim! Again:

    (on the naturalist view) [natures] were not brought into being through conscious purpose in the first place

    There will never be a time when it will be true to say “the existence of this device can be explained without reference to the intentions of a human mind”. Art remains art, and therefore is explained in relation to an artisan regardless of whether the artisan who made it is still around, or even if there are no artisans at all. For that matter, it remains art even if we can’t figure out by what process the artisan made the thing.

    Briefly, How can you explain that something need not have a relation to mind because it is like something that must have such a relation?

    As to your claim about metaphysics, the definition I gave is the classical one. Moreover, “metaphysics” is like “gin and tonic”: what it is is contained in the name. It’s of stuff beyond physics, i.e. natural science. There was an argument that made the rounds a few years ago that Aristotle didn’t ever use the word, but it has been refuted. At any rate, it’s exactly how the Medieval commentators took the word.

  20. Elliot B said,

    April 3, 2009 at 10:01 am

    “…the size at which our bodies function efficiently. But they don’t always stop [where they ought?]. Some people have an excess of growth hormone. If this hits before puberty, they grow to seven or eight feet tall… and then are inefficiently large and typically in imperfect health.”

    An anti-teleological point dripping with teleology. No snideness meant, I’m just saying, honest biology inevitably invokes finality and form. Cf. Etienne Gilson, From Aristotle to Darwin and J. Scott Turner, The Tinkerer’s Accomplice.

  21. William H. Stoddard said,

    April 3, 2009 at 11:23 am

    Elliot B,

    It wasn’t intended as an antiteleological point. It was intended as a set of facts that I was interested to see described in teleological language. Certainly you can point to teleological motifs in my account of the syndrome, but that’s not the same as providing a systematic account of how it would be viewed in teleological terms. And I’m not convinced that I’m competent to provide such an account. But perhaps someone here is.

  22. Elliot B said,

    April 4, 2009 at 3:49 am

    W. Stoddard: “It was intended as a set of facts that I was interested to see described in teleological language.”

    You were so interested in seeing those facts described in teleological language that you did it yourself.

    I repeat what I said before: honest biology inevitably invokes finality and form. The set of facts you presented can’t even be presented without reference to formal finality. Medicine is the art of correcting nature when nature is prevented form obeying its own law of being. If medicine–– or, on your account, everything–– is as purely natural as cancer, then what splits the decision between which should be favored by natural science? Genetic defects are inconceivable apart from the background of real genetic form playing out teleologically in substantial beings.

  23. William H. Stoddard said,

    April 4, 2009 at 6:18 am

    I must say that I appreciate the courtesy and patience of the other participants in this conversation; if you have not persuaded me to change my basic position, you have at least helped me to understand it better, and you have given me the pleased of reasoned disagreement, which is not as common on the Web as one could wish. But I think there is one point where I have not succeeded in making my thinking clear to you, and that is the case of the thermostat. My knowledge of medieval thought, unlike yours, is rather casual, but one thing I learned from it was the importance of making careful distinctions: so let us distinguish.

    Here I am, let us say, wishing to keep food at a steady 2°C. It is conceivable that I could use a refrigerated compartment with an on/off switch and a thermometer, reading the thermometer regularly and turning the switch on when the temperature rose. That would be maintaining thermostasis by the immediate action of human volition and purpose. But having less free time than that, I use a refrigerator with a thermostat: a bimetallic strip whose two materials have different coefficients of thermal expansion, so that the strip bends as the temperature rises, and at some point touches a contact that closes an electric circuit and starts the motor. In that kind of refrigerator, thermostasis is maintained by my volition and purpose, but in a way mediated by art. And the immediate agent of thermostasis is a configuration of efficient causes, whose operation could be predicted by a straightforward investigation of physical causality. There is no little man inside the thermostat (or no Maxwell’s demon!) turning the motor on and off because it’s his purpose to serve me; there is nothing inside the thermostat that has purposes of its own. The directedness of the thermostat results entirely from its physical structure.

    Of course, that physical structure was created by human art, purpose, and volition. But if it had not been so created . . . if it had come into being through chance, let us say . . . it would still display the same directedness in its activity, though it was not acting to carry out anyone’s purpose.

    There are no such mechanical devices created without human agency. But there are processes taking place inside living organisms that maintain thermostasis. They do not operate by purpose or volition; if I get cold, I cannot stop my metabolism from speeding up, or my muscles from shivering, even if I wish to. They operate by a configuration of efficient causes that displays natural directedness. And unlike the mechanical thermostat, the body’s thermostat was not made or designed by art. We have a well-founded theory of how it came to be, Darwin’s theory of evolution, which describes a combination of chance and natural law that produces living organisms with specific traits. And Darwinian evolution itself is not purposeful; it is a configuration of efficient causes.

    It’s possible to suppose that the mechanism of Darwinian evolution was made by a designer who desired its results; I believe that scientists with theistic worldviews often take this view. But the mechanism works the same whether it is the result of design or not. And it is this mechanism that gave rise to biological thermostasis.

    Now, you can say, if you like, that my body’s thermostat displays final causation: It operates to maintain my temperature at 37°C. But the final causation is embodied in a configuration of efficient causes; it does not operate apart from that embodiment. And the configuration came into being through a process, Darwinian evolution, that itself is describable entirely in terms of efficient causes, with no supposition that it intends to produce any specific result. Indeed, my view of human beings is that our own faculties of reason and volition and purpose came into being as results of Darwinian evolution. We can act purposefully; but our purposefulness came into being in the first place through nature and chance, not through art. And so, in a reversal of the thermostat, our activities are immediately art, but mediatedly they are nature and chance.

    But the art is still real, just as the physical causality within the thermostat is still real. How something came to be and how it now acts are different questions.

  24. Elliot B said,

    April 4, 2009 at 9:53 am

    W. Stoddard: “…processes taking place inside living organisms… operate by a configuration of efficient causes that displays natural directedness.”

    This is all classical final causality means. It does not mean that all natural entities ponder acting some way or another, and then choose to do so for some rational “purpose.” It simply means that there are only substantial natural things at all because their efficient causal parts are ordered according to a dynamic form in order to preserve their contingent “act of being” (aka, finite “existence” in Thomism).

    You say that my body’s thermeostasis is a result of the efficient causality of my “parts.” But what determines that these and these are “my body parts” but those and those are not? Physically speaking, I am of one piece with nature as it enfolds me: of the same atomic, molecular, gravitational, etc. fabric as everything around and within me. Yet we all know that the chair in which I am sitting, while having a seamless efficient, physical connection to my own biological thermeostasis, is not part of my body. The chair is not intrinsically ordered towards the maintenance of my body as a substantial form. Only by cutting nature at its formal seams can we coherently discern where one entity begins and another, viz., its whole environment, begins.

    Cheers,

  25. Elliot B said,

    April 4, 2009 at 9:59 am

    Here is a post of mine that elaborates on what I mean about “formal seams” in nature.

    http://veniaminov.blogspot.com/2009/02/this-this-thisthis-but-that.html

  26. Elliot B said,

    April 4, 2009 at 10:07 am

    I mean, formal seams and the part-whole problem for naturalism vis-à-vis formal teleology.

  27. Mike Flynn said,

    April 4, 2009 at 10:08 am

    But the final causation is embodied in a configuration of efficient causes; it does not operate apart from that embodiment.

    But why would you expect any of the four kinds of “becauses” to “operate” apart from the other three? Would you expect a thermostat without a set point toward which it adjusts? To suppose finality without efficient agents is like expecting a destination without a car to drive you there. I think you are still conceiving of final causes as if they were one more kind of efficient cause.

  28. William H. Stoddard said,

    April 4, 2009 at 10:38 am

    If that is what you mean by “final causation” or “teleology,” then I have no problems with teleology as a principle operating within living organisms. Historically that is not how it has always been used, especially within the life sciences. This is why the pioneers of cybernetics coined the word “teleonomy” to refer to a directedness that was inherent in a mechanism with a certain configuration, as opposed to “teleology,” which they took to mean a directedness that came about because something extramechanical guided the mechanism. It seems as if you (Elliot B and Mike Flynn) are saying that this was a result of terminological confusion, and that without that confusion, it would be accurate to say not that the cyberneticists were doing away with teleology, but with explaining how it can be achieved. If that is what you mean by teleology, then we are in agreement, obscured by linguistic usage.


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