Fifth Way (pt. 1 initial puzzles)

The Fifth Way turns on the difference between intelligence and unintelligence or knowing and not knowing, but our speech and thought on this blurs in exactly the way that makes the claims of the proof puzzling.


Any entity that beneficially adapts itself to circumstances can be described with cognitive terms. The birds know to fly south before winter, spiders know how to make webs, animals and plants struggle for existence[1] etc. we extend these terms to any actions where the outcome is part of the causal story one is telling: the hypothalamus tells the ovaries to release progesterone, atoms try to get eight valence electrons, the release of leptin tells you you’re full, etc.  But telling a causal story at all involves making the outcome part of the story, and in this sense it’s hard to find any natural action[2] that isn’t for an end in the way STA means it. The only actions that aren’t for an end are those which are unpredictable, in the sense of not even being predictable by the laws of chance. Once we understand what STA meant by teleology the greatest scandal he gives to the modern mind is in not being teleological enough, since he thought some outcomes were unpredictable, even in principle, from an awareness of the laws and initial states of the universe. His view of nature made it something much more ontologically loose and unruly, whereas ours makes nature much tighter, precise, and authoritarian down to the last detail. For him, there were real chance outcomes in nature that were not just an expression of our failure to know the true causal stories; but for us a “chance outcome” means only that we are ignorant of the real causes in play.


The Fifth Way therefore poses two very striking puzzles. First, all STA means by acting “for an end” is an action with an orderly causal story, and he certainly seems to assume a good deal when we looks at an orderly causal story and say that it demands some directing intelligence. There is nothing about, say, the rock cycle,  the production of heavy elements, the life stages of moths or the procession of the equinoxes that cries out for some directing intelligence. It would be one thing if we related to, say, water droplets the way we related to five-year-old boys, in which case seeing the water cycle would be as impressive, unexpected, and suggestive of the presence of directing knowledge as an orderly kindergarten classroom. But STA is quite explicit that he is not seeing nature like this. For him, natural objects are constituted by the tendency that they have to play out the causal stories they play out. But then why in the world does he demand anything more than the natural thing to explain the causal story it generates? When a thing is already acting for an end, any “directing intelligence” is without any work to do. Things only need direction that have no direction in themselves.[3]


The second puzzle is that to the extent that a thing directs itself we tend to describe it in cognitive terms, so to be impressed with the ability of corvids to adapt to the world means to be impressed with their intelligence, and to recognize a bear cleaning out a cave in late fall is to recognize that it will hibernate soon, etc. Even single celled organisms learn to do things or receive information from their environment. But if self-direction just is some measure of intelligence, why in the world would one claim it needs intelligence? In fact, the example that STA gives in the Fifth Way seems to belie his argument for just this reason. An arrow needs to be directed by an archer only so far as it lacks any ability to orient itself to its target. To the extent that a projectile can orient itself to the target, we call it a “smart bomb”, which dispenses with any need for intelligent exterior direction. Again, self-direction to an end is a measure of intelligence that rules out the need for directing intelligence.


Our response to both these objections is straightforward. The argument of the Fifth Way is this:


All order depends on intelligence

Every causal story is an order.

[1] One of the great ironies of our modern outlook that the theory that was widely perceived as doing away with purpose in nature would us a purpose clause to articulate its fundamental axiom.

[2] There are causes in mathematics too, as when increasing the sides of the legs will cause the hypotenuse to increase, but any final causality in this story is only a story of our increase in knowledge, not an explanation of the life-narrative of right triangles.

[3] This is why it would be a serious mistake to think that STA is giving a design argument in any recognizable contemporary sense. All such arguments try to prove that some outcome could never have been expected from its antecedents, and so some directing intelligence was necessary. For contemporary  design arguments, claim that for nature to make a cell is as wildly improbable as kindergarten boys all agreeing to sit quietly. What makes STA’s argument so puzzling is that he is assuming exactly the opposite.

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