Purposes in Nature

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Abednego recorded some of his observations of the design language of scientists at a conference he was at. I wanted to connect this with some of the stuff I've been looking into among the ancient and medieval philosophers I've been reading a lot of lately. These scientists are basically doing what Aristotle did. He would speak of trees as having roots in order that they can derive nutrients from the soil, which is for the purpose of growing tall. Most of the materialist philosophers of that time, particularly a number of pre-Socratics, the Hippocratic school, and the Epicureans, said this didn't make any sense, because you can tell an entirely material story about how one thing causes another and leads things to happen, without mentioning purposes at all.

Aristotle wanted to say that this is just ignoring the different kinds of explanations for things. There are efficient causes, which those materialists were talking about, and then there are the final causes, which are goals or aims built into nature. This isn't supposed to be what we nowadays call a cause but simply a purpose that things, by their very nature, tend toward. Some of the neo-Platonists made the point that you could have divine causes and materialist causes, just talking about different levels of explanation.

What happens with Aquinas is very interesting. Before his time there wasn't much interaction with Aristotle, because his texts had been lost. Aquinas thoroughly absorbed Aristotle's works once they were translated into Latin, and he accepted the Aristotelian picture on this issue, with one modification. He didn't think Aristotle had a right to be talking about these purposes in nature unless a mind had given those purposes. He still saw them as final causes, not efficient causes, and thus they would be the sort of thing that modern science isn't supposed to talk about. Yet modern scientists do talk about it all the time. It's just that they have no right to, Aquinas would say, unless they're also willing to talk about an intelligent designer. Aristotle didn't want to call it design, but his view amounts to pretty much the same thing as what contemporary scientists call design when they don't want to speak of a designer. The question is whether they can get away with it if they don't believe in a designer.

Update: Mark Olson sees the main issue here as Why vs. What questions. That's not quite the idea. It's Why vs. How. Efficient causes explain how something comes about. Empedocles makes fun of those who offer divine explanations by pointing out that a bull born with one horn isn't caused in some miraculous way by a god but can be explained through normal mechanisms of nature. That's how it came about. Plutarch the neo-Platonist steps in to say that that's just the how. The why might well be a divine explanation for why those efficient causes were arranged in the way they were in order to produce a creature born as an omen. Final causes answer why, and efficient causes answer how.


Great connection made. Thanks for the post.

Quick thought/question--the why question can get quite gray when it comes to discerning design. When can we claim to understand God's design as His intended design and when are we reading into something the design we want it to have merely because it is or even because it feeds our agenda? For example, we observe that, generally speaking, men and women tend toward distinct poles physically and relationally. Is that just what we observe without a clear indication of whether it was intended, was it intended, or is it a result of evil? Of course, the answer is probably a mixture of the three. However, I've read a complementarian's view that Adam being formed from the dust indicates his greater predisposition to having some sort of connection with the soil and the work of his hands while the Eve's formation from Adam's rib indicates her greater relational capacity. It seems like there is a reading into the text what might not necessarily (although possibly) be there. The how becomes the why. This might be reasonable given that all things come into being with a purpose (this is debatable, I know). But, beyond when it is explicitly stated through revelation, when is what we observe purposed as such and when is what we observe maybe not designed? In other words, in our modern age we certainly can explain the how of many things, but when can we explain the why?

Jeremy, not sure I'm being clear here, but am interested in your thoughts. Does that make sense?

Of course, I might be asking you something that you don't have the expertise to answer.

I think many specific suggestions along Why lines are at best speculative, and this stuff about the dust and the rib seem to be clear examples of that sort of thing. Scripture itself doesn't say what the significance of dust and ribs is supposed to be. It does make a big deal of the order of creation as having a purpose, and it does make a big deal of human actions that are intended by God for purposes that have nothing to do with the human person's intentions. The Why element is clearly there in scripture, and when we postulate purposes in speculative ways it's not as if there couldn't be such purposes, but it is indeed speculation to assume you've figured out the right purpose when maybe you haven't.

This post deals with these questions more directly.

I corrected my post (and offered and explanation for my misreading), although it is perhaps a fine semantic distinction between using why or how for the descriptive/predictive nature of modern science. But then again making such distinctions goes with the territory in your profession.

Do you think whether the philosophy/goal of modern science is can be described as a search for efficient causes?

Much of science is in the business of figuring out efficient causes. As Abednego's post makes clear, many scientists want to speak of final causes, and they think it counts as good science as long as the final cause has nothing to do with a designer. I'm not in the business of figuring out what science is. I'm not a philosopher of science.

I am in the business of smelling a rat when someone claims something about a philosophical position and then refutes the only thing that could support such a claim by their very practice. Those who say intelligent design arguments by their very nature have no place in scientific reason cannot say that if they're willing to use teleology themselves. The only argument you can possibly give for why ID arguments can't have a place in science is that teleology is for the philosophers and not for the scientists (it obviously doesn't require religion, and those who claim otherwise are either lying or demonstrating an intellectual blindspot because of a political agenda). The problem is that many scientists want teleology. Those who do really should have no problem with intelligent design arguments, at least in principle.

The idea that science deals only with efficient causes is the best (and only workable way) I have heard to keep ID out of science. It is interesting that none of the opponents to ID explicitly make this argument.

Matthew, quite a few of them do. I've heard that argument more than once.

I've made that argument more than once. I had always been trained that teleology was simply outside the scope of science. Consequently, ID was outside the scope of science. And even if it wasn't, ID needed to have much more rigourous definitions of what constituted "intelligence" and what constituted "design". Until that is done, it is rather difficult to establish in any sort of scientific way that life as we know it is intelligently designed.

At any rate, I've long held that ID was in the realm of Philosophy, not Science. Now I do feel that ID should be taught in school (as one of several competing theories for why life exists as it does), but that it should be tought in philosophy class, not biology class.

I do think some versions of ID are talking about efficient causes and therefore belong much more in the realm of science. Ironically, those are the ones opponents deride most as creationism, because it involves God as the only efficient cause of certain events, which they claim can't count as a scientific explanation. What these people fail to see is: (1) this is closer to science than design arguments that allow for naturalistic efficient causes but with a divine final causes and (2) ID arguments don't require that sort of explanation at all, as Plutarch makes clear in response to Empedocles' bull example.

It seems to me that it is in the realm of the normal scope of science for ID to make the following assertion:

That the evolution under the proposed mechanisms are not sufficient to explain the results.

That is to say that a given organism (or feature) is observed to have taken X years to evolve. Since we currently lack a theory and method for calculating the likelyhood of such an event. ID claims the probablility is low and Darwinian evolutionary theorist claim it is not.

ID and "Darwinian" supporters are thus reduced to handwaving and rhetoric and he said, she said type argumentation.

Yes, that falls under what I was calling ID arguments about efficient causes. Those, ironically, are the ones anti-ID people think are the least like science, when in reality they're more like science, at least according to the "only efficient causes" view of what science is.

Maybe I should explain the two versions more fully. There's the special creation version that says that natural processes couldn't explain it, so God would have to have stepped in to do miracles, i.e. God of the gaps.

Then there's the final cause one that says that there must have been a designer in the final cause sense. How could an argument from design lead to this? It must be that the appearance of design is so strong or so hard to resist that even explaining it in terms of efficient causes lacks something. It says how it came to be. It doesn't say why. This doesn't sound like science, though, as Wink has said.

I'm just now thinking maybe there's a third kind of argument. It might be as follows. We can't explain how the cell came together or how the natural processes of natural selection with random chance could have produced the complexity of life we have in the amount of time we have. We might be able to explain how the physical events could cause these things in an efficient cause way, but we may not have explained why it should have been likely to come about in such a way unless there is a designer who wanted events to conspire such that these natural causes would produce such a result. This argument doesn't assume special creation at all. It's efficient causes that are doing the work. What it does is assert that the very small chance of such causes coming together in the right sort of way makes it more likely that some mind was behind those natural causes.

This sort of argument is, I think, behind a number of the ID proponents. It's arguing for a final cause that the efficient causes serve. The evidence for this is clearly scientifically derived. The conclusion is a philosophical one, for sure, but it's of the same form as any inference to the best explanaton. Those arugments are indeed philosophical arguments, but they're used in science all the time. In that sense, there's nothing about the form, structure, or style of argument of ID that rules out its presence in science. What seems to rule it out, as far as I can tell from reading these people who criticize it, is the conclusion. They just can't tolerate a conclusion that happens to agree with a religious belief, even if that religious belief isn't causing the argument, so they call it religion and not science. That sort of response is mere rhetoric, and bad rhetoric at that.

So is this a third sort of argument rather just the standard final cause one of classic philosophical design arguments? I don't know. It just occurred to me that it might be. I'd like to see others' thoughts on that.


With regards to teleology, that's part of the reason behind my previous post: It seems rather strange for me for scientists to effectively scream and yell that ID isn't science because it's not dealing with efficient causes but final causes, and then at the same time borrow the language of teleology to talk about "design" they observe in various biological systems. In other words, they'll argue that ID should be discounted because it's fundamentally philosophical or religious, since it deals with a final cause (God) of the design we see. But at the same time, they have no problem with pointing to the design we see and saying that evolution/natural selection is the final cause. If they're going to split hairs in this way they should be consistent, and point out that science really can't determine whether the final cause (the designer) is God or natural selection.


With regards to your most recent point, I tend to agree that there is a third sort of argument as he's describing. But I'm not an expert on this sort of thing. It just seems different, to me, from the other sorts of argument. Another way of putting it is that one can amass evidence about how difficult it would be for natural selection to accomplish a certain change from one organism to another; if this is extremely difficult it can bring some confidence that natural selection is not the operative process, and that perhaps there was some guiding intelligence, etc.

I'm not sure the argument needs to exclude natural selection as the mechanism of change. It would just be that the chances of natural selection leading to this particular result given some other factor would be so low that we should expect natural selection to be working not just with random chance but with some orchestrated events that in terms of efficient causes seem to be random chance.


That's a good point. To digress a bit, Michael Behe's view seems to be that natural selection is able to accomplish somethings on its own (bacterial drug resistance is a famous example) but it's possible there is a line between what it can accomplish on its own and what it can't. This certainly isn't an issue that has been explored thoroughly since it's generally assumed that natural selection has done everything, so no one really bothers asking how much it can really do (or beyond what point does it have little chance of success, more accurately).

Is it that it absolutely can't or that it isn't likely that it would, and thus we should appeal to a designer not because of the impossibility of natural selection leading to this result but because of the highly unlikely coincidental nature of the random chance events required for natural selection to do its work?

Sorry, I keep slipping and using "can't" rather than "is unlikely to" because it's more convenient. I really mean what you're saying, but it's easier just to say can't. This, incidentally, is something we do all the time in science. With quantum mechanics, for example, you can calculate a probability for almost anything to happen (i.e. a probability that you will suddenly pass through your chair and find yourself seated on the floor -- or even suddenly transported to the next room or something). These probabilities are typically extremely small so we say these things can't happen, even though technically they can.

So you're right. I'm trying to say Behe is trying to find the line between what natural selection can clearly accomplish, or might be able to accomplish fairly easily, and what it is unlikely to be able to accomplish given any reasonable amount of time (like the age of the universe).

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