Careful with that razor!

It is not an uncommon argument against teleology that the appearance of design and finalized function is but a cognitive illusion generated by our brains for survival value. The first thing that strikes me about this claim is how seriously it complicates the attendant claim that our cognitive capacities are merely and wholly evolved by natural selection (NS). If we are so abysmally wrong about purpose and finality, which we see everywhere, how reliable are our cognitive apparati? Are our brains really so poorly adapted to reality that we consistently and automatically ascribe purposive behavior to observed phenomena? If so, how much confidence can we have in the idea that NS has molded our brains to perceive the truth about the world?

I also have to wonder what survival advantage there is in generating consistently misperceptive cognitive faculties vis-à-vis objects and organisms. I mean, surely an organism does not need an elaborate cognitive apparatus for ascribing intentionality to lifeless, non-teleological phenomena to propagate its genes. Presumably, mind evolved to “pick out” purposeful behavior among evolving fellow anthropoids… but in that case, where did all that purposive mindedness come from in the first place? If there is no mindedness and finality “there” in nature, how can sentient organisms evolve to “pick it out”? (Very Zen-esque: what is the selective advantage of one mind thinking?) What selective pressure was subcognitive perception responding to in order that it evolved to teleologized cognition? The theory of NS stipulates that heritable features can only adapt to and flourish in niches that “pre–support”, as it were, those functions. For example, to borrow from Fr. Edward Oakes’s point in a lecture he gave about five years ago, wings can only evolve in an environment that displays precise atmospheric and gravitational parameters. Moreover, Oakes notes, following Daniel Dennett, we can extrapolate from evolved artifacts back to the environment in which they evolved. Imagine a bunch of futuristic Martians, who know nothing about Earth’s atmosphere, one day found a heap of wing fossils and bird skeletons drifting in space. By examining the artifacts, they could extrapolate not only the existence of a suitable “flightable” environment (i.e., one that was pre-supportive of flighted creatures), but also discern many features of that environment (viz., based on the size of the skeletons, the angulation of the joints, bone density, etc.). To adapt a point from the Dao De Jing, although a window is technically a void, a non-entity, a pure lack, yet its “ontic potentiation” generates a genuine structure around it in the ordered context of a larger “ontic habitat” (i.e., a window in a wall in a house). To quote from Hagakure (chapter 2):

Our bodies are given life from the midst of nothingness
Existing where there is nothing
is the meaning of the phrase:
Form is emptiness.
That all things are provided for by nothingness
is the meaning of the phrase:
Emptiness is form
One should not think that these are two separate things.

What the foregoing indicates is that nature can only evolve according to niches supportive of certain functions and structures. We live in a world full of minds ordered towards purposes (namely, our own minds). Is there, then, a pre-supportive niche for mind and teleological cognition in nature? If not, how could such cognition adapt into a nonexistent niche in the natural order? If there is intrinsically no “design space” for teleological cognition, how could it evolve? If, by contrast, there is a pre-established niche (or potential) for rational cognition inherent in nature, then just how “natural” is nature? (For more along these lines, see the latter half or so of my post, “And your punt, exactly?”)

In any case, for the purposes (yuk yuk yuk) of this post, my main worry about the illusion of teleology is a pari passu (or a “critical parsimony”, goose-and-gander) argument.

The thrust of arguments against teleology based on NS, and in favor of purely naturalized selection (PNS), is twofold. First, NS can explain, or account for, the appearance of “finalized structures” (i.e., entelechies) without positing purposiveness and, second, by doing so NS is metaphysically less extravagant, which, by most accounts, avoids the pain of “Ockham’s” Razor. According to that axiom, We should avoid needlessly positing entities (Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem). In other words, the more we can explain with less, the better. Positing a metaphysical somesuch called “teleology” seems needlessly to clutter our ontology. Naturalistic mechanism, by way of good old NS, can account for the appearance of that metaphysical fiction as an illusory consequence of our higher cognitive functions; as such, naturalism is ontologically less bloated and therefore a better theory than, say, Aristotelianism.

Here is my “critically parsimonious” worry, though: how does the concept of “causation” fare under the same treatment? As Hume argued so mercilessly, “causation” is neither an obvious principle of reason nor an empirically observable reality. It is merely a cognitive illusion which we cast over otherwise metaphysically discrete phenomena. Rationally, we lose nothing by denying there is a metaphysical “principle” of causation that “acts on” spatiotemporally contiguous phenomena. Our ability to imagine two conjoined events occurring just as we perceive they do, yet without superimposing a metaphysical cloak of “causation” over them, indicates that causation per se is not a rational necessity (such as the principles of identity and noncontradiction). Empirically, moreover, we lose nothing of observational value if we strip away the “spooky,” “invisible” so-called “power of causation,” and instead simply record what happens in conjunction with what else. Malebranche and Leibniz have amply demonstrated the rational coherence of (parallel) occasionalism, even if occasionalism strikes us as highly counter-intuitive. (Anti-teleological NS, general relativity, and quantum mechanics all strike us as highly counter-intuitive, but that doesn’t mean their lesser, older substitutes has any place in mature metaphysics, right?) If certain laws of nature are just brute givens, then why is not the ‘occasional’ order of serial events also not just a given ab initio? Moreover, aren’t we being better philosophers by stripping our ontology down to the bare minimum of entities to account for our experience, and isn’t “causation” just a clunky metaphysical dangler on a potentially more austere ontology? Causation per se adds nothing conceptually to metaphysics, but does draw the wrath of Ockham’s razor by adding a gratuitous, quasi-mystical entity to it.

The point is, of course, that if we can dispense with teleology by saying not only that it is a cognitive illusion but also that another ontology can explain everything that a causal metaphysic does, but more economically, then why can’t we likewise dispense with causation on the same grounds? Hell, I can think up an account of the evolution of “causal cognition” in terms of NS just as easily as anti-teleologists “explain away” final causation in terms of NS. To wit: Minds that tended to “ascribe” “causal power” to some phenomena and to “regard” other conjoined phenomena as “effects” of prior phenomena, also tended to pay more attention to phenomena in general. As a result of greater attention to passing phenomena, such “causalized” minds were better able to survive and propagate their genes. If the mind is a pattern-making machine (regardless how illusory our sense of order and beauty is in hardcore naturalistic terms), then those minds which more successfully and frequently imposed a pattern of cause-effect on otherwise incoherent phenomena were selected for as better manipulators of those phenomena. The eye that “expects” these and those phenomena to follow such and such phenomena, will be that much more disposed to react to subsequent phenomena. All the while, however, the truth is that there is no metaphysical, “immaterial” force at work between phenomena. If believing in such a “force” sharpens the mind over generations, so much the better.

It is too little recognized that “causation” is, arguably, no less anthropomorphic than teleology. As Derek Melser notes in his florilegium–essay, “Where Our Notion of ‘Causation’ Comes From”: “…the concept of causation, of events ‘causing’ other events, thought by some philosophers to be the concept that natural science is founded on, is actually an anthropomorphic metaphor derived from certain features of personal action.” Melser quotes R. G. Collingwood’s An Essay on Metaphyics (pp. 334–336): “The natural scientist is trying to construct a science of nature in terms of analogies drawn from the conscious life of man. It is only through such analogies that nature becomes intelligible to man; a science of nature which renounced their use would accordingly be no science at all.” If we relinquish the notion of causation, we lose the right to practice exact science. Exact science aims to explain the causal links that generate phenomena. If, however, there is no such thing as causation per se, then there are no causal links per se, and therefore nothing for science to discover. This in no way diminishes the instrumental robustness of science, since, as long as we plan and predict based on the phenomenal conjunction we have theretofore observed, we will be able to manipulate the world quite successfully. If our efforts along a certain line of “natural causation” hit a dead end and start not to work, it just indicates the prior pattern of occasional phenomena has veered into a new direction and we need to adapt to a new pattern, ready at any moment to relinquish our latest theory at the altar of falsification. If new data upset our habitual sense of the world, we need only pick up the thread, jettison our outmoded “theory,” adjust to the current array of serial phenomena, and go on our merry way as scientific pragmatists (or, pragmatic scientists). Never need we posit some abstruse immaterial principle of causation to help us observe what happens over time.

Perhaps you noticed a crucial inconsistency in my just-so story about the evolution of causal cognition. To wit, I said that enhanced attentiveness was a result of the inherited disposition to ascribe causation to phenomena. In other words, I appealed to causation in my argument against the reality of causation. My argument might be called “causal eliminativism” à la the Churchlands. By their lights, while they formally deny the reality of “minds,” they admit to using “mental talk” but only do so in order to move us along to a physicalist “theory of ‘mind’,” which will, in a completed science, eliminate, and not merely reduce, the concept of “mind” itself This technique is reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s ladder in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (English):

Meine Sätze erläutern dadurch, dass sie der, welcher mich versteht, am Ende als unsinnig erkennt, wenn er durch sie – auf ihnen – über sie hinausgestiegen ist. (Er muss sozusagen die Leiter wegwerfen, nachdem er auf ihr hinaufgestiegen ist.)

Er muss diese Sätze überwinden, dann sieht er die Welt richtig.

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)

He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.

(In passing let me note that, to the same extent that “causal eliminativism” seems highly wonky and implausible, physicalist eliminativism should be repudiated for being just as wonky and implausible.)

The reason we cannot escape from natural-causal talk––even though it clutters our ontology, is not rationally necessary, adds nothing to our empirical gains, and is an anthropomorphic confabulation––is closely related to the reason why biologists cannot dispense with teleological talk. Analytically, both teleology and causation are useful fictions–– or are they? What if they are but two sides of the same real coin? Indeed, what if causation itself is but a fundamental species of natural teleology? In other words, the reason causation is theoretically irreducible in “explaining” nature, is because natural entities themselves are ordered toward certain effects and not toward others. If, as Hume argued in masterly anti-teleological form, it is no more (or less) rational to suppose rolling one billiard ball into another will result in the second ball rolling as it is to suppose the second ball will crack open to hatch a chick–– if in other words, there is no intrinsic causal finality of “rolling a ball into another ball,” then we are well within our rights to say there is nothing to causation as a normative principle. Unless natural phenomena are ordered towards specific effects proper to their formal and material constitution, then there is no reason to expect such and such effects nomologically to follow such and such causes. It may be the case that attentive minds were able to evolve into causal-cognizers, but that does not ground the metaphysical principle of causation as producing those cognizers. All it means is that the prior string of contiguous phenomena have not killed the descendants of deluded causal-cognizers (i.e., us). We are, as NS theorists would have it, all just the offspring of the lucky ones that didn’t die. Who knows why? Who cares? The more we cling to our inherited advantages the harder sudden environmental changes in selection pressure will hit us. There is no inherent reason we should preserve or prefer one set of human attributes to another, since, in time, “human nature” could become wildly foreign to what it is now. There is, in other words, no intrinsic causal link between what we’ve become (causes), what we are (mode), and what we can become (effects).

Unless we deploy a metaphysics that posits causes as actually and specifically generative of their proper effects, we can only agree with Hume that causes are only potentially and contingently generative of their observed effects. By using the words “actually” and “potentially” I intend to remind the reader of a metaphysic that posits causes and effects in just this way, namely, Aristotelianism, in which causes are but the active mode of an entity as its interacts with the potentiality of other objects in spacetime. Insofar as causation is a form of actus, and insofar as actus is the common, integrating dynamic of fourfold causation (material, efficient, formal, & final) as it “ripples through” the potentia of materia quantitate signata (i.e., matter quantitatively individuated), actus efficiently yields formally proper effects as potential final ends of matter. Only if objects are integrally ordered to produce certain effects can we extrapolate from the effects back to the causes as true nomological explanations of the world’s basic metaphysical structure.

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