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.

Why the arguments for atheism are moral arguments, and why that matters

At ST Ia Q2 A3, where Aquinas offers his well-known “five ways” of proving God’s existence, he notes and replies to two objections. To paraphrase, the first is that “infinite goodness” is incompatible with the existence of “evil”; the second, that citing God is “superfluous” as an explanation for the world’s existence. It’s pretty evident that the problem of evil and the superfluity of God qua explanation are posed as the most common objections even today to classical theism. Aquinas presents them, in effect, as metaphysical objections and answers them accordingly. But I shall argue instead that they are, at bottom, moral objections. If I’m right, that has great significance for natural theology and apologetics.

My claim that people pose the problem of evil as a basically moral objection to classical theism ought to be uncontroversial. The most common way of pressing the objection is to argue that God’s permitting some people to suffer horribly beyond their deserts, when he could prevent it, is immoral. That is taken to be incompatible with God’s being perfectly good, a quality classical theists ascribe to God. Of course, another way to pose the problem of evil as an objection is to argue that, although a perfectly good God might well want to prevent such suffering, he is powerless to do so. That is taken to be incompatible with omnipotence, another attribute classical theists ascribe to God. But that way of pressing the objection is fairly easy to answer. Although an omnipotent God could well have created a world in which suffering does not far outstrip deserts, God has not done so; given the natural order God has willed, it is logically impossible to prevent such presumptively disproportionate suffering without divine intervention so regular as to destroy the natural order of things. And omnipotence neither need nor should be thought to include the ability to do the logically impossible. So much is, or ought to be, obvious. Of course, the standard reply to that defense is to argue that God is immoral for creating and sustaining such a natural order in the first place when, as granted, God have done otherwise. But that’s essentially the same as the first way of pressing the problem of evil as an objection to classical theism.

My claim that the superfluity objection is also, at bottom, a moral one is much more controversial. Most of what follows provides my argument for it.

Metaphysical (as distinct from methodological) naturalists typically hold that the sorts of explanation of the world’s existence proffered by classical theists—chiefly, by means of a posteriori cosmological and teleological reasoning—cannot do the sort of work that explanations in general are supposed to do. If so, then citing God as creator and/or designer of the world fails to explain anything; therefore, there is no reason to hold that God as explicans exists. But what does it mean to say that theistic explanation of the world’s existence doesn’t do the sort of work that explanations are supposed to do?

Classical theists should not, and the most intelligent among them do not, argue that presenting God as creator and/or designer does better explanatory work than the natural sciences. Those sciences have their own explanatory aims and canons which, though not immune to revision, remain exactly as they are whether or not classical theism is true. The theistic argument is, rather, that citing God as explicans does a different sort of explanatory work than natural science. The naturalist reply is that no such alleged “explanation” should be counted as explanation. What is the argument for that reply?

To explain something is to account for why it thus and not otherwise. In order do that, one must show that the explicandum would have been different if the explicans had been different. But classical theism does not claim that the world would have been different if God did not exist; the claim is that the world would not exist at all if God did not exist. That requires holding, among other things, that the world can and should be conceived as a certain totality which counts as an explicandum, such that only the action of something not comprised by that totality could account, in some non-trivial way, for why just that totality exists. But it will not do to characterize said totality simply as the physical universe studied by natural science, even at some hypothetical state before the Big Bang. For all we know, the primordial universe might have been the product of something else which could not qualify as the God of classical theism, but which might turn out to be identifiable by means of natural science—if not our science, then somebody else’s. No, the totality that divine activity supposedly explains must be the totality-of-things-that-happen. Call that ‘T’. Granted we do not know its full extent, T certainly exists. But such a totality, the naturalist would say, cannot admit of non-trivial explanation. We can explain its existence simply by noting that each of its constituents exist; but that would be trivial, and certainly not what the classical theist is after. And the reason we cannot have what the theist is after is that the theist cannot say what would have been different about T if God did not exist. T remains just as it is, whatever it is, whether or not God exists. Hence, goes the argument, citing divine activity to explain T’s existence does not and could not really explain anything. There is no non-trivial explanation of T’s existence. As Laplace said, there is no need of the God-hypothesis. It is superfluous.

From this point of view, it will not do to cite some version of “the principle of sufficent reason” as a premise in an argument for the claim that something not comprised by T accounts for T’s existence as a totality. There’s already “reason enough” for T’s existence as a totality: that of each of its constitutents. But that is hardly germane. What the theist must do instead is show that T is the sort of entity whose existence calls for another sort of explanation altogether. Yet how is the theist to do that? The only way he can do it is to show that, whatever the extent of T as a totality, its constituents cannot, either individually or collectively, account for the general causal regularities that must be cited in some explanation of how things happen as they do—i.e., the constituents of T cannot account for the “laws of nature.” But that sort of explanation would have to show that such laws would have been different if God as creator and/or designer did not exist. And that in turn would have to cite some sort of causal regularity. But given that such regularities are supposed to be part of what’s being explained, such an explanation cannot qualify as an explanation at all.

It might seem that the way for the theist to begin countering that line is to point out that it premises scientism: the thesis that only what can be known scientifically can be known at all. He can then go on to argue that there is no good reason to believe scientism. And he would be quite right. Humans have always known various things non-scientifically, and no scientific argument for scientism can be given. But that will not suffice by itself. For the naturalist can always argue that, even if scientism is false, his point about explanation remains untouched. Even if there are things natural science cannot explain, and thus cannot know, that’s no reason to believe that T’s existence can be explained in some other way. Unless and until the theist can show that his “explanation” of T’s existence does what explanations do, he hasn’t explained anything.

As I’ve suggested, the debate is really about the nature of explanation. It is evident that there are successful explanations in the contexts of ordinary life and natural science, but it is by no means evident that there can be a kind of explanation which doesn’t tell us how things would have gone differently if the explicans did not exist. To be sure, the theist must say that, if God did not exist, then T would not either—a conditional statement which, if true, is very important indeed. But that doesn’t tell us that things would have been different if God did not exist; it only tells us that there would have been no “things” to be either the same or different if God did not exist. Absent some account of explanation which shows that such a peculiar result can function as explanations do, the theist has not established that he’s explained anything. Nor will it do for the theist to insist that T is the sort of thing whose existence is explicable; for the only “sorts” of things we are familiar with are the sorts of things already comprised by T.

The only honest way for the theist to proceed is to argue that the question “Why does T exist?” is meaningful in such a way that one could reasonably entertain a non-trivial answer to it. That would show that we cannot rule out T’s existence being explicable in terms of something which T does not comprise. And the only way to develop such an argument is to show that (a) one cannot rule out that T’s existence embodies an intention, because (b) intentional explanations need not be thought reducible to causal explanations, which perforce cite natural regularities. That kind of argument has been given from time to time. In my hoary PhD thesis, I developed along such lines a book-length argument that it’s more reasonable to allow for a unitary explicans of T’s existence than to rule out the possibility of such an explicans on epistemological grounds. I still would argue to that effect.

As I’ve discovered over the years, however, the naturalist objection to that move is an essentially moral one. In ordinary life, natural science, and especially in formal disciplines such as logic and mathematics, there are reliable, agreed-upon methods for evaluating explanations as successful or unsuccessful. Prima facie at least, there are no such methods in natural theology—a discipline that not even the majority of religious believers find helpful. Given as much, naturalists typically argue that one ought not to expect people to find any of the putative explanations of natural theology cogent as explanations. Expecting people to do so is, in fact, morally defective. For such “explanations” necessarily transcend the sorts of considerations that it’s reasonable to count as evidence; expecting people to go beyond the evidence in forming their beliefs is expecting what’s unreasonable; and expecting from people what’s unreasonable is a sign of disreputable motives that are themselves all too evident in the history of religion.

To judge from the recent literature of the “new atheism,” which is really the old atheism with shoddier arguments, that’s the kind of objection, other than that from the problem of evil, which motivates people to be atheists. I have no doubt, of course, that some atheists are such because they very much don’t want to consider the implications for their lives if Christianity or some other form of classical theism is true. But that only serves to supply theists with a moral argument against atheism that is too ad hominem to be worth pressing. The real interest of the moral arguments against theism is that they steer the debate into a channel where the theist is on firmer ground.

Regarding the problem of evil, the theist can and ought to argue that the atheist has no moral legs to stand on. If a given atheist is an emotivist or some other sort of non-cognitivist in moral philosophy, he has no reason to believe that there are objectively binding moral norms which God fails to satisfy. If a given atheist is a utilitarian or some other sort of consequentialist in moral philosophy, he has no reason to believe that God’s utility calculations, if there is a God, are inferior to his own. If a given atheist is some sort of deontologist in moral philosophy, he must show several things: that the moral norms he believes bind humans absolutely do so even though there is no God; that even if there were a God, those norms would bind God in pretty much the same fashion as us; and that God, if there were a God, could not be said to observe them. All that is, at the very least, a tall order.

Regarding explanation and evidence, the atheist needs to show more than merely that it’s unreasonable to expect people in general to find classical-theist natural theology persuasive. That people in general do not find such theology persuasive is easily accounted for by factors other than the objective quality of its arguments. Most people lack the happy combination of time, talent, and education to study and evaluate such arguments, so that whatever the reasons this-or-that person might have for believing in God, they cannot be faulted for leaving natural theology alone. For that reason, classical-theist philosophers don’t expect most people to follow and evaluate their arguments. So the debate is really among philosophers, and the question whether one ought to go beyond what’s generally recognized as evidence is a debate in moral philosophy and psychology.

About that debate, I shall conclude by noting that the atheist has a lot more work to do than simply pointing out that something called “religion” violates his moral norms. There are many different forms of religion, and some are more capable of moral self-reformation than others. But what is such “moral self-reformation” supposed to amount to? Before a charge of immorality can be made to stick, there has to be antecedent and common agreement about what morality requires. A person who wants to press a moral argument against theism, but who believes that the universe is morally indifferent and that no transcendent lawgiver underwrites morality, is burdened with showing that the moral norms he upholds are objectively binding as such. For unless and until he can do that, his moral arguments against theism can do no more than beg the question.

Beware the Magnevonian Myth!

In an earlier post, “Actions and events…” (at my FCA blog but also available here), I described three bodily motions (a., b, and c.), which, though they all look the same and produce the same effects, are not the same action at all. I claimed that intentionality, as a non-physical ascription of formal coherence, needs to be “layered” onto a., b., and c. (and onto all such scientifically observable realities), otherwise they are “behaviorally… and neurologically… indiscernible.”

A commentor on my blog disagreed, however, by saying, “…the [neurologically distinct] brain states would be discernible, not indiscernible. From one brain state we get swatting the fly and from the other we get waving.”

I believe preempted the commentor’s objection in an ensuing paragraph of the post to which he was reacting, but I did so too cryptically. So I will highlight my garbled answer from the earlier post, and then offer a better, fuller defense of what I meant by it. I said:

The critic that … [deploys purely neurological] descriptions of all behavior is oblivious to the fact that we can only imagine a coherent difference between the a., b., and c. actions at the neural level because we already know how those actions are formally (viz., teleologically) distinct. We know the brain phenomena will be different “on the inside” because we already know the actions in which they are involved are formally different “on the outside.” If, however, we strip away the explanations of the actions that I gave in listing them, they are effectively indiscernible.

I realize now (for the second round of reader responses) that I should modify the phrasing of my point about “indiscernibility.” I muddled things by using words in a way that appear to be contradictory. So, to clarify: …
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The steps you take are not the steps taking you…

Imagine you are walking on a mildly populated sidewalk downtown one afternoon. You walk from your office, to the elevator, then out the doors, along Park Street, turn onto Haven Street, and finally reach Bends (on step #N), a local sub shop. It is a logical necessity, that at every point along your way, you traversed every step along your way. That is to say, each step is an integral part of the event series which brought you from your cubicle to Bends. If, ex hypothesi, “your taking a 99nd step as you walk to Bends” were magically erased from the universe of facts, then when you take step #98, you will stop, never reaching Bends. Even so, is it true to say that the steps you took along the way were what caused you to move along the way? Is it true to say that step 98# caused step 99#?

Imagine further that, in this semi-magical universe (or, for a more mundane reason that I’ll stipulate in a moment), just as you are a few steps away from entering Bends, it is suddenly transported across the street. Whereupon, as an accustomed inhabitant of such a universe, you turn on your heel and cross the street to the relocated but happily still nearby Bends. (The more mundane version is that you were under the impression that Bends was at the corner of Haven and Plainview, but in fact it is across the street. Once you see your mistake, you change course.) In this case, can we really say there was something about the physical constitution of your (N-1)th step and its efficent-causal power which caused you to end up at Bends?

On the one hand we must admit that if any or all of the steps were “erased”, you would not reach Bends. On the other hand, we cannot reasonably claim any one of the steps caused any of the others, and therefore neither that the steps themselves caused your arrival. As a larger truth, constituent events (such as the steps) which take place in a whole action are causally subsidiary to the whole event.

[I anticipate two classes of objections, but I will stop here in order to see what the cat drags in. Then, if the objections I have in mind do show up, or perhaps others I don’t foresee, I’ll continue this post.]

The Four Horsemen of the Causocalypse!

(Hmm… “the Causocalypse”… I am reminded once more how some things sound better sung to heavy metal in one’s head than they look on a computer screen. Bu the show must go on!)

“Not all that glitters is gold,” as they say.

Now let’s “Aristotelianize” the saying: “Not all that displays finality is conscious.”


All that is conscious of attaining ends, does display consciousness. This is exactly what Popper meant by “all of life is problem-solving.” If even the tiniest unconscious creatures display apparent aims, then a fortiori (all the more) do conscious creatures like us display “aimedness.” Without intrinsic (viz., evolved, inherited) dispositions to try this and that tentative solution-behavior for the attainment of some solution to a problem, creatures will not “give” anything to natural selection to approve or condemn.

The rubber-ball example Edward Feser uses in The Last Superstition to describe “the four causes” is, explicitly, anthropomorphic, but it is not meant to be an exhaustive demonstration of finality per se. It is an anthropomorphic analogy, and, as we all know, no analogy is perfect. He describes fourfold hylomorphic causation thus:

Efficient cause: workers in plant

Material cause: rubber

Formal cause: elastic sphere

Final cause: amusement of child

Since this seems too obviously anthropomorphic, how can the rubber ball example be generalized––deanthropomorphized––to clarify finality per se?
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Design space? Selection pressure? Neither––or all of the above?

“The notion of order is inseparable from that causality, which is itself an order of dependence. … The ability of a living being to move itself, even though it be only to assimilate and grow, involves therefore the organization of heterogeneous parts of which it is composed. This is why one says of living bodies that they are organisms or that living matter is organic [organiseé]. The finalism of Aristotle is an attempt to give a reason for the very existence of this organization. … To explain heterogeneous parts by the same principles which explain homogeneous parts is to leave deliberately unexplained the heterogeneity of the heterogeneous. … “–– Étienne Gilson, From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again (University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), pp. 3, 97.

Try this: extend your arm partly out, with the palm of your hand hanging facedown, like you stopped midway reaching for something, and hold that pose. Now try extending (i.e., lifting up) each finger one by one without moving any of the others: thumb, pointer, “bird”, etc. Or try this: make a loos Black-Power fist, and try extending each finger one by one. What did you notice? Only the ring finger was hard to manipulate, right? Your ring finger kept “pulling” up a nearby finger, and it gave you an awkward tingle in the tendons of your wrist, right? (If I’m wrong, stop reading and go to your room!)

I mention this not as some kind of crude refutation of Berkeley’s idealism, nor as a demonstration of mind-body interaction and the freedom of the will, but as an entry point into considering the standard Darwinian method of explaining current human anatomy and physiology. I will focus on what I see as twin parameters in the Darwinian method: selective pressure (based, of course, on reproductive advantage) and design-space constraints. I hope this reflection will raise interesting questions about the enduring role of teleology in the Darwinian method as it aims to be a coherent explanation of the natural order.
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A is to B as…

The material (as sheer undifferentiated causal space) is to the physical (or, corporeal) as the physical is to the sensible.

The sensible is to the mental (i.e., as the realm of percepts) as the mental is to the intellectual (i.e., as the realm of concepts).

The intellectual is to the mental as the divine is to the intellectual.

If any of these ontological “planes” or “spheres” can and do interact, then the forms of interaction we (think we) understand better (e.g., the neural basis of mentation, the physical basis of motion, etc.) can illuminate the other forms of interaction in appropriately analogous ways. If, for example, intellectual thought can somehow meaningfully depend on and causally relate to mental operations, without however being sufficiently produced by or causally “subjugated” to them, then perhaps divine action becomes more lucid as depending on and being causally connected to human existence, without being caused or limited by it.

Does intellectual action, on the whole, have any meaning apart from mental operations? Likewise, I ask, does divine “action” have any meaning apart from human operations? I suspect both human intellectual power and divine power have a real vitality ad intra, which is free from any powers activated ad extra, the former as a supra-mental contemplation of God, the latter as a supra-economical contemplation of the divine Persons.

P.S. It may be more illuminating (or perhaps just as bemusingly unilluminating, in a different way) to read the chain of analogy backwards: the divine is to the intellectual as the intellectual is to the mental; the mental is to the sensible as the sensible is to the physical; and the sensible is to the physical as the physical is to the material. Perhaps, then, the physical is to the material, in a strangely analogous way, as the God is to the world: as Pure Form-Act to pure material-potency.