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June 14, 2009


Joyless Moralist

Lots of confusion is caused here by the use of the word "cause." It's not a good translation, but I don't know what would be better... the problem is that we tend to equate the term "cause" only with "efficient cause." What you're arguing here is basically, it seems to me, that a telos can't be an efficient cause... but that was never Aristotle's claim. A final cause is a different thing entirely. When a child asks his mother why the oak tree in the backyard is so tall, she might answer with a description of photosynthesis and root structures and a whole lot of other stages that might form a chain of efficient causes leading to the oak tree's being tall. Or she could answer something more along the lines of, "The oak is a member of such and such family, it's the third tallest tree in that family, and can grow to such and such a height, etc." Which is the true answer? I would say both are true. One describes the chain of events that actually led to the tree's attaining its height; the other fleshes out for the child *the sort of thing an oak tree is.* Both are explanations, but neither is reducible to the other.

Formulating exactly what a teleological view entails is not a simple task, and there is disagreement about how it should be done, but it's possible to at least sketch the main idea with a further example. A few months ago I visited Space Center Houston, wherein the tour guides told us about NASA's upcoming (within the next few decades) manned mission to Mars. They asked the kids aged 5-20 to raise their hands, and then told us that "these are our possible future astronauts."

Okay, so suppose we took a particular kid, and told the people, gesturing to him, that "you are right now looking at an immature astronaut." Someone might very sensibly object that we can't really know that. Even if the child is bright and healthy and has a stated interest in becoming an astronaut, there are still all kinds of things that could prevent it. He might change his mind when he gets older, and decide to be a lawyer or mechanic or politician instead. He might (we hope not, but it's possible) get in an accident and have to have a limb amputated, thus rendering him physically unfit for the program. Or maybe it'll just turn out that other people beat him in the tests so that he doesn't get picked by NASA. Lots of things could happen. So, to call him an "immature astronaut" is speculative at best.

Now contrast this with a schoolteacher taking her class for a nature walk. Picking up an acorn, she tells them, "this is an immature oak tree." Some smart aleck kid might try to make a similar argument to the astronaut case, pointing out that we can't be sure the acorn will ever make it to the tree phase -- it might be eaten by animals, or fall on stony soil where it can't grow, or it might sprout and immediately be mowed down as part of a new building project. We can't be sure. One one level the kid would be right -- we can't be sure whether a particular acorn will ever actually become a mature tree. Nonetheless, I would want to claim (with Aristotle) that the acorn *is* an immature oak whether or not it ever achieves maturity. The statement is not merely a prediction about what it might become; it's a statement about what it *is*. Metaphysically, the acorn fits into the natural kind "oak" and is in an immature stage. It isn't like the astronaut case where we're merely speculating about future possibilities. The teacher is making statements about a *present* state of affairs.

Now, I suppose a scientist could come back and say, "I don't do metaphysics -- all I do is chart tendencies among efficient causes, and the rest is left to the philosophers." There might be some difficulties with that, but there would be a certain epistemic modesty to it too. But scientists don't often show that modesty. "We can explain how species come to be using efficient causes alone," they want to say. "Thus there can be no sense to talking about natural kinds or the purposive nature of things." Of course, they can't really show as much as they'd like to claim, but even if they could, this would be merely an explanation in terms of efficient causation. The metaphysics is not per se refuted (though the naturalistic explanation might put pressure on the teleological one at certain points, which is why is really is worthwhile to have some sense for what science can and can't convincingly show.)

I know you have doubts about how much Darwinists can prove about the origins of species. What really startled me, though, was to see you taking words from the mouth of, of all people, Richard Dawkins about how the "real purpose" of a species is to spread its "selfish genes." As far as I'm concerned, once you make that concession you've given up everything worth quibbling about. In my view, the main reason the evolution questions *matter* is because we should be interested in preserving a robust metaphysical understanding of natural kinds, together with a more purposive view of the universe than the Darwinists would ever endorse. If we're ready to concede that efficient causes are the only kind there are... well... in that case, I'm not very interested in what kinds of efficient causes, exactly, are in play in a universe like that.

Nathan Smith

I agree with the intuition that an acorn is an immature oak in a much more robust and creditable sense than the child in the example is an immature astronaut. And I think this is true even if 999 of 1000 acorns fails to become an oak. The reason this is an appropriate characterization is that you cannot understand why an acorn is the way it is-- why the DNA in the nuclei of its cells, for example, are arranged in a certain way-- except by referring to the broader phenomenon of the oak species which generated those genes. The ecological viability of the oak tree as a species in a given environment is part of the causal explanation of the acorn's existence and structure, even interpreting "cause" in the usual everyday sense corresponding to Aristotle's efficient cause. I don't think any particular metaphysical commitments are needed to accept the characterization of an acorn as an immature oak.

I don't know what is meant by a "robust metaphysical understanding of natural kinds." It does seem that something along the lines of a concept of Platonic forms is necessary to explain how we communicate at all. The most obvious motivation for a concept of Platonic forms is the need to give some account of the existence of *numbers,* but ordinary language also cannot be adequately understood, I think, in merely nominalist and reductionist terms. Also, I tend to insist on a certain ontological richness and resistance to reductionism based on certain incontrovertible facts which we know by introspection more surely than we know anything derived from sense-data, e.g., free will and the existence of right and wrong (but also beauty, or even the subjective experience of the color green). Dawkins' "selfish gene" is rhetorically unpleasant, and I don't think it is a fully adequate explanation even of non-human biological Nature-- virtually everything about the behavior of civilized man, of course, refutes the application of the thesis to him-- but I don't see it as a threat to the metaphysical richness that I do believe in.

For example, Dawkins' selfish gene theory provides no grounds at all for disbelieving in angels.

Joyless Moralist

It certainly seems to me like a threat if you are willing to say that it's the "real purpose" of every species. (Even if you're willing to make an exception for the human species, as I assume you would be.) Of course reproduction is a *part* of every species' function, but I wouldn't want to follow Dawkins and Co. in supposing that the most successful oak tree or rose bush is the one that leaves behind the most little trees or bushes, full stop. Even if we can still save angels, I'd like to think that the lives of plants and animals mean more than that. And indeed, if not, then nature really is without meaning or purpose, because self-perpetuation is not per se the sort of goal that can make life (even non-sentient life) meaningful.

Now, if all you want to endorse is the weaker claim -- that perpetuation is *part* of the function of every species -- then sure. No threat to metaphysical richness there. But that's not the claim that Dawkins wants to make. The whole point of the "selfish gene" claim is to eradicate any richer sense of purpose or metaphysical identity that an Aristotelian or theist might want to assign to particular species.

I'm not sure how successfully appeals to DNA or ecological viability of species really can preserve the intuition about the "immature oak." For one thing, I would want an account of final causes to help us determine, among other things, when a particular mutation in DNA can reasonably be regarded as a *defect.* As you might anticipate, I wouldn't want to judge that purely in terms of whether it affects the organism's ability to leave offspring. But further, your appeals to ecological viability require a fairly firm understanding of the organism belonging to a stable species-type. That's precisely one of the notions that Darwinism ultimately tries to undermine. If all species are in a state of constant flux, such that it can only really be a kind of loose linguistic shorthand when we refer to lots of organisms as constituting a particular "species", then there are limits to how much we can use general explanations of the life cycle of oaks to define one particular organism. At the least, those kinds of explanations will always be very imprecise. Of course, this is one of those areas I alluded to where metaphysics and natural science do seem to converge. If every species really is constantly in the process of morphing into some other species, that poses a real puzzle for an Aristotelian-type account of natural kinds. So evolutionary biology should be of interest to metaphysicians insofar as it can give us some understanding of how stable species really are.

Nathan Smith

re: "It certainly seems to me like a threat if you are willing to say that it's the 'real purpose' of every species."

Well, I don't remember saying that, and if I did, I was speaking loosely. In general, I'd be reluctant to acknowledge the existence of such a thing as a 'real purpose' of a species. I don't really know what that could mean. It seems to me that purposes come from conscious minds. For example, the purpose of a house is to keep out the rain, because a human being had the goal of keeping out the rain, and built the house in order to accomplish that end. The purpose really resided in a conscious mind; and because the house reflects the action of that conscious mind, the house may be said to have a purpose.

What if an entity is used by multiple conscious beings for different purposes? For example, suppose a Christian peasant discovers an old sword, and uses it (up-side-down) for devotional purposes as a makeshift cross. What is the 'real purpose' of the object-- to serve as a sword, or to serve as a cross? Clearly its original designer meant for it to cut and kill. Equally clearly, its new owner regards it as a means to call to mind the sufferings of Jesus on Calvary. I would hesitate to commit to the view that to ask the 'real purpose' of this object is a meaningful question.

Similarly, in the case of biology, there seems to be a sense in which the purpose of an organism is to spread its selfish genes. Actually, I'm not sure whether this is an appropriate use of the word "purpose" or not... but at least it's understandable, and conveys some useful information. God may have some purpose over and above mere biological necessities for things being as they are; indeed, I believe that He does. But I would be hesitant to speculate, let alone make assertions, about what those purposes are. Nor does it seem necessary or likely that God's purposes for things are consistent with their merely biological purposes. It might be God's plan that a particular acorn not mature into an oak, but be eaten by a squirrel instead. I think it certainly was part of God's plan that the sexual organs of Jesus and a great many saints were meant never to fulfill their biological function of procreation.

re: "If every species really is constantly in the process of morphing into some other species, that poses a real puzzle for an Aristotelian-type account of natural kinds."

From this I can perhaps deduce something of what is meant by an "Aristotelian-type account of natural kinds," and I think I disagree with it. The logic of descent with modification and natural selection, which predicts that "every species really is constantly in the process of morphing into some other species," or rather, which undermines the idea that a species is something basic, seems pretty hard to argue with.

Joyless Moralist

I really don't think there's anything so mysterious about the concept of a telos. We actually lean on something like this idea all the time; it's one of those instances where we've been persuaded in academic contexts to deny what in everyday contexts just seems commonsensical to us.

A sword does not have a telos properly speaking, because it is an artifact. It has something analogous, in that its owner intended it for something, so if, say, an archaeologist were to uncover it and ask, "What is this? How do you use it?" there would be a definitive answer. But as you point out, that answer would be based on the intention of the person who made it.

In the case of natural kinds, their telos is not based on human intention, but that doesn't mean that they don't have one or that we can't have some grasp of what it is. Here's an example I use with my students: suppose we're walking through a field of beautiful sunflowers, and you ask me which sunflower I think is the nicest. I pick one that's large and yellow with its face turned to the sun, and suggest that it is a superlative example of sunflower goodness. You then declare that you disagree -- you prefer the small, shriveled ones that are turning brown. Now, some people might want to say, "Okay, different strokes for different folks" and leave it at that. But I think that would be wrong. You show poor appreciation of sunflower goodness (on some level, even a defect of character) when you take greater pleasure in brown shriveled flowers than you do in big yellow ones. You aren't properly appreciating what is good in this natural kind.

So, if plants and animals have natural ends, is it wrong of us to frustrate those ends? To some degree it can be, but not definitely; this goes back to human beings and their place as stewards of the earth. Destroying natural environments just for the fun of it (say, shooting for sport and leaving the carcasses to rot, or tearing up trees just for kicks) does seem wrong to me. Using plants or animals for food, or for clothing or building materials or what have you, isn't necessarily wrong, and it may be all right to domesticate certain animals too, but in all cases we should be mindful of the fact that these too have a moral worth which should not be completely disregarded.

I don't mind at all if you link this back to God's purposes (the medievals certainly did), but I don't think a person *needs* a developed understanding of God in order to think this way (Aristotle didn't have that), and I don't think comprehending the larger purpose of natural things need be such an enormous mystery to us as you suggest. Of course we shouldn't be so arrogant as to think we fully understand everything about the created world and its purposes. But neither is it an entirely closed book. The plants and animals are lesser beings than us in the chain of creation, so we have been enabled to understand them to some degree. In Genesis, the other creatures come to Adam to receive their names. We can appreciate, to a large extent, the unique place that each holds within the order of creation, and the special goodness of every created thing. When we do that, we're moving beyond mere recognition of efficient causes, to comprehend something about the formal and final causes of natural things.

For a Richard Dawkins, the only real, innate purpose of a living thing is to reproduce, and any other goodness that we perceive in it is merely a subjective human preference being projected onto the external world. I don't believe that, and I don't think we naturally regard the world that way unless our high school biology teachers have persuaded us to do so. Left to our own devices I think we're much more likely to look at things in an Aristotelian way. Things have innate goodness -- and different kinds of things have different sorts of goodness. As rational beings, we don't *create* that goodness, but we have some ability to perceive it. And, perceiving it, we are able to act as good stewards with relation to the created world.

" The logic of descent with modification and natural selection, which predicts that "every species really is constantly in the process of morphing into some other species," or rather, which undermines the idea that a species is something basic, seems pretty hard to argue with."

Curiouser and curiouser. What *does* offend you about Darwinism? Now, I haven't suggested that an Aristotelian understanding of species can't accommodate any change in species at all. That would be problematic indeed. And there's disagreement among interested theists about how much stability a species would need, and about what means of transformation would be acceptable for moving from one to another. Everyone is fine with a certain amount of flux within species (e.g. the famous pepper moth example), and I think most people are okay with the idea of common ancestry. (I'm not talking about the hardcore creationist camp or young earth people or what have you -- I don't read their stuff really.) Of course it's possible for some species to die out and for new ones to come to be. None of that is ruled out by the sort of "natural kinds" view that I want to endorse.

But I do think that theories involving large-scale macromutations are more nicely amenable to the metaphysical picture I would want to endorse than a constant-but-very-gradual-micromutation sort of model. And happily for me, I don't think biologists have shown the latter to be particularly more plausible empirically. (It's *ideologically* more pleasing to them, but that's a different thing of course.) I have my own ideas about the interaction between grace and nature, but I won't get into that now. The important thing is that I really don't think biologists have built anything like the kind of empirical case they would need to make people like me back away from a metaphysically robust notion of species or natural kinds.

Nathan Smith

Concerning natural kinds, the whole view is unfamiliar to me and I don't quite know what to make of it. Very interesting, to be sure. But in the case of the sunflower, it seems that the reason it seems natural to prefer the golden flower pointed at the sun is that it is more *beautiful* than the shriveled brown one. Now, maybe you'll say that it is more beautiful *because* it is realized the peculiar goodness of its natural kind. But then what are we to make of spiders and scorpions and worms and bats and other creatures who seem *ugly* precisely when they realize their natural kinds? Another problem with using beauty as a source of evidence about natural kinds is that beauty typically attaches to *scenes* more than to creatures. A sunflower flourishing in the middle of a swamp or a landfill is presumably realizing the potentialities of its natural kind as much as a sunflower in a field of tall grass, but the latter is beautiful, the former odd or even ugly. I'm not sure how that affects the argument though. I'll admit that I'm not sure how to fit beauty into my view of nature. To say beauty is merely subjective seems at best question-begging. I tend to say that the fact that the world is beautiful seems to constitute a sort of evidence against materialism, for materialistic explanations cannot account for it; but I don't really know how to explain beauty in a more positive way.

To this:

"Curiouser and curiouser. What *does* offend you about Darwinism?"

I would say: Nothing offends me about Darwinism except that it has been accepted as a comprehensive explanation of all life on earth on radically inadequate grounds. A secondary problem is that it is attached to a type of reductionism which is untenable in the case of human beings in particular; but if that were the only problem with it I would be more inclined to look for modest modifications rather than rejecting the theory as a whole.

I'm surprised that JM thinks an evolutionary account emphasizing macro-mutations would satisfy her desire for a metaphysics of natural kinds. Why does the pace of mutation make a difference? It seems like it would be more satisfying to postulate that each natural kind had been brought about by an act of special creation. And I do not mock: for all I know, that might be just how it happened. But I wouldn't want to spin out a theory on that basis. The general problem with theories about the distant past is that the evidence is too scanty for science; all we can have is myth.

Joyless Moralist

I don't think I agree with you about only scenes being beautiful; individual plants and animals can be beautiful in their own right. Of course, they do tend to be *more* beautiful when they're in their natural setting, but that's exactly as a believer in final ends would expect. It's, well, natural for them to be there. They fulfill their telos better when in the proper environment.

It's true that not all species are as beautiful as sunflowers. And actually, I don't want to make beauty my sole criterion in deciding a thing's telos, though it does seem perfectly appropriate to bring it in, particularly in the case of things that should be beautiful such as sunflowers. I also think that, when you study a thing closely (say, as a researcher) and become intimately familiar with it, good specimens of that thing start to seem more and more beautiful to you, even if it's a species like earthworms or centipedes that don't seem especially beautiful to most people at first glance. But beyond that, the more familiar you become with a species, the more of a sense you get for which are the good and even superlative specimens. Unless you were previously indoctrinated by Darwinists, you wouldn't think to measure this purely in terms of offspring left. You would judge in terms of which best embodies the physical characteristics of the species, and which lives out the life cycle of the species (whatever that might look like) in a particularly full and complete way.

It's funny to me that you rank the ideological problems with Darwinism *second.* I would certainly rank them first, though of course both problems are tied together -- it's precisely BECAUSE the ideological pull is so strong that the scientific work has sometimes been allowed to slide into sloppiness and overreaching. Anyway, I'd think it would be fairly clear how macromutation is more amenable to my view. As I said, I'm not committed to supposing that the number of species is absolutely fixed. It's okay if species die out and if new ones come into being. What I do want, though, is for each particular organism to fit fairly solidly into a particular natural kind, and not to be plopped in some nebulous place along a line with no real stopping points in between. If I can get that, reconciling a natural kinds view doesn't seem like too much of a problem.

As for the question of origins, I am inclined to think that a special act of grace is involved, though this need not mean creation ex nihilo for every new species that comes to be. One way of thinking about it (a very Bonaventurean way, I might say, not that Bonaventure ever dealt with this particular problem, but I think he'd be pretty happy with this solution to it) is that each species might have a kind of twofold final end (as humans do) -- a natural life-cycle, but also an urge (if you will) to become ever more deiform. Sometimes, with a little help from grace, a species manages to "jump" across borders to become a more complex form of life. And now it has a new natural telos. This would explain why things steadily evolve to *more* complex forms of life, even though it's not at all clear that that natural selection should always favor them. Apes and horses and, most of all, human beings, mirror the divine perfections better than earwigs or lichen, and the "higher" end of every species, in addition to living out its own particular life cycle, is to move closer to God.

Anyway, that's just a sketch of my speculations (and this solution is mostly me musing, by the way, and certainly not official Catholic doctrine or anything), but at least perhaps you see better what my concerns are with respect to evolution.

Nathan Smith

Well, this is interesting. In general, JM's evidences seem to involve a human faculty about which I have never really thought systematically, namely, the capacity to recognize goodness in a sense quite different from the adherence of human beings to the moral law in their thoughts and actions. It is opposed to the "different strokes for different folks" view to which she alluded-- *de gustibus non est disputandum* is another way of putting it-- which does not seem easy to refute. A researcher who studies spiders might indeed rejoice to find a perfect specimen, but then, a social scientist studying genocide might also rejoice to find a perfectly illustrative historical example of his subject: is it appreciation of objective goodness, or professional utility, that is at work here? A geneticist studying mutation might rejoice to find a 7-legged spider or a grasshopper with two heads. JM claims that:

"the more familiar you become with a species, the more of a sense you get for which are the good and even superlative specimens. Unless you were previously indoctrinated by Darwinists, you wouldn't think to measure this purely in terms of offspring left."

But it's not clear that there is any *the* good specimen of a species, that is, that any specimen is *objectively* good. In the case of domesticated animals, our criteria of goodness seem to be utilitarian: we like soft cuddly cats, or mousers; we like good watchdogs and good hunting dogs. And when dogs are purely ornamental or recreational-- the case when appreciation of the dog's innate goodness might be the main motive for keeping them-- what is notable is precisely the tremendous *variety* of dogs we've bred, which tends to undermine the idea that there is some goodness special to the dog as a natural kind. To the extent that we have intuitions of what is a good specimen in nature, we seem sometimes to value either what is most picturesque-- we might prefer puffins with brightly colored bills and pelicans with especially baggy beaks even if this could be shown to be bad for their survival-- or else we value "health," which is so closely akin to Darwin's criterion that one suspects Darwin has discovered the key to our intuitions about the goodness of particular species. I would be very reluctant to nail my flag to the claim that intuition supports the existence of a special goodness of "natural kinds" *separate* both from the conduciveness of certain traits to survival and fertility and from merely subjective and variable personal preferences.

The reason my primary objection to Darwinism is epistemological is moral. It is MORALLY WRONG to claim knowledge without adequate grounds.

Joyless Moralist

Ah, well, it would be hard for me to get too exercised about that in the abstract. Not that I don't think there can be moral implications to epistemic sloppiness, but it's very difficult to define what *are* adequate grounds for claiming knowledge (or for developing a theory), and if that's your concern, why get worked up about Darwinism per se? It's so non-unique. A scientist friend once tried to argue me out of my objections to Darwinian theory, not by claiming that it's particularly well supported, but by arguing that it's no LESS emprically supported than a huge number of other scientific theories that are accepted these days without too much controversy... and when I studied philosophy of science, I began to think more and more that she was probably right. And once you get into all the bizarre theories thrown around in the social sciences... heavens! One hardly knows where to begin! Anyway, what would I be hanging my hat on if I cried foul on the Darwinists over epistemic sloppiness? The scientific method? I'm not such a fan of the scientific method myself as to want to make a big fuss about that.

What *does* make Darwinism special, and worthy of concern, is its particular role as a weapon against traditional metaphysics (and, by that same token, traditional views of the universe in general, often including Christianity and conventional morality.) As I say, this relates to the epistemic sloppiness issues too, because it explains why the scientific community (and not just the scientific community anymore) are so rabid about defending their theory regardless of what empirically can or can't be proven. It's the underlying philosophical battle that interests me, not the opportunity (one of a million, as I've said) to play Epistemic Warrant Police.

Anyway. You say that there is no disputing matters of taste, and I suppose on a limited level I can agree, if all this means is that it's fairly pointless to argue about favorite colors or ice cream flavors. But if this is taken to the level of suggesting that there is no inherent beauty or goodness inherent in natural things, then I utterly reject it, and regard it as a view unworthy of any Christian. God made the plants and the beasts, and Adam named them. They have each their own innate goodness and nature, and we as rational beings are capable of grasping it, and making use of that knowledge. The fascination that a researcher feels with respect to a particular instance of genocide cannot be the same feeling that a botanist has upon finding a particularly healthy and exemplary specimen of a rare species and thinking, "This is a thing of beauty." Professional interest is one thing, but it is not the same as the joy that we can get from uncovering the wonder of creation.

That is the basic idea at the core of my position; the specific points you bring up are just matters of oversimplification. There can be some variation within a particular natural kind, so that, for example, men and women, and adults and children, can manifest somewhat different goods, and be expected to behave in somewhat different ways. Similarly with different breeds of dog. Obviously this could all use some fleshing out, but lots of people *have* worked on fleshing such things out; I'm just laying out the basic idea here. Some preferences may be whimsical -- for example, the preference for bright-beaked puffins -- but in general I think we find that we are much more attracted to *healthy* specimens of plant or animal, whether or not they have some practical value to us. Of course in general healthy specimens do reproduce more, but that isn't always or necessarily the case. The bird that can fly higher or further than the others might separate himself from his flock too often to breed as much as the more domestic bird, and the very bright, healthy flower might be more likely to be eaten. The tallest trees are the first to be blown over in high winds. Still we admire these insofar as they exemplify with particular excellence the characteristic good traits of their species.

Nathan Smith

re: "But if this is taken to the level of suggesting that there is no inherent beauty or goodness inherent in natural things, then I utterly reject it, and regard it as a view unworthy of any Christian. God made the plants and the beasts, and Adam named them. They have each their own innate goodness and nature, and we as rational beings are capable of grasping it, and making use of that knowledge."

There's a lot packed in here. No, I wouldn't say there is no inherent beauty or goodness inherent in natural things, but that beauty or goodness might not take the form of each specific "natural kind" having its own peculiar goodness. That might be a little like saying that there is objective beauty in poetry and that each word has its own peculiar goodness. Some words do have a special beauty about them, but beauty cannot really be comprehended by looking at the level of the word. To the extent that I would venture to articulate something rather ineffable, it seems like creatures in nature are a bit like words in a poem: to focus too much on them, one by one, might miss the point, and there is not necessarily a *right* for a word to exist or to be used. We might admire the tallest tree or the brightest flower in one setting and find them overgrown or gaudy at another time.

Of course, it's problematic to use the story of Adam as if it's simply true history.

Nathan Smith

re: "if that's your concern, why get worked up about Darwinism per se? It's so non-unique."

No, I don't think so. Darwinism is really something unique. Social science is full of stuff that is equally suspect epistemically, but in social science the methodology has to be different and people know to evaluate its claims differently. Darwinism, by contrast, is classified with the *natural* sciences, where a higher standard prevails, and where people feel proportionally more certitude.

Though it doesn't really matter whether it's unique. Just because a particular sin is common doesn't mean one should become tolerant of it.

Joyless Moralist

Well, as I say, even in the natural sciences, I don't know that it's particularly unique on the grounds that you mention; there are plenty of other (basically accepted) theories on equally shifty ground. It's just that, most of the time, we don't particularly care about them. But we do care about this, because Darwinism it butts heads with a traditional or religiously motivated metaphysics. I suppose you can take an interest for whatever reason you like, but I certainly think these deeper philosophical issues are what make this a significant topic in the world today.

Joyless Moralist

Actually I do take the story of Adam as true history, but you needn't to get the point. Whether truth or metaphor, the story shows that man has the ability to comprehend the nature of each thing, thus giving it its appropriate name. That is also why he is given dominion over all other creation.

Words may not always be beautiful in isolation (though they might be sometimes too), but they can be defined, and their definition tells you something about the contribution they can potentially make to language. So, plants and animals too can be "defined." And defining them in terms of their ability to reproduce is not sufficient to help understand what they contribute to the goodness of the world as a whole. In defining them, you describe their specific function and meaning, and while there are some gray areas, it's important for the sake of language that we can distinguish between, say, a noun and a preposition. Now, I don't really see why they can't be beautiful in their own right as well, but never mind that; your own analogy seems to me to point to just what I'm saying. Each species has a function and a particular contribution to make to created nature as a whole. Thus, we do need the concept of "species" as a fundamental piece of our understanding of the natural world.

Nathan Smith

Hmm. Isn't JM playing into my hands by accepting the analogy between words and species? For, after all, it's quite evident that a form of evolution is at work in language. It's true in a way to say that words can be defined, but it's more subtly and profoundly true to say that they *cannot* be defined. The dictionary definition of a word can never fully capture the meanings the word can express. More to the point, the meaning of a word is not fixed or stationary. The word "gay" goes from meaning happy and cheerful to meaning homosexual. Words like "awesome," "cool," "gnarly," "tight," etc., have acquired new slang meanings to express subtle modes of behavior or traits of personality. A word can have multiple meanings: "bank" means a financial institution, or the side of a river, or a way of putting a basketball through a hoop by bouncing it off the backboard; "jar" is a container (noun) or a jerky and disruptive motion (verb). Over time, it can acquire new ones and lose old ones, and its meanings can also shift gradually.

Certainly to understand language one needs the concept of a "word." I guess one needs the concept of "species" to understand nature too; at any rate, biologists have shown no interest in dispensing with it. But the concept of word by no means implies that in a long-run historical perspective language might not be a sort of slip-and-slide where meanings are forever shifting. I don't see why we should assume the divine Artist is less capable than human poets of using his creatures in ever-changing ways.

Joyless Moralist

Well, perhaps we'd need a more complex discussion of the philosophy of language to work this out. Obviously the implications of words can shift somewhat over time, but in order for them to be intelligible, I think they need a kind of fixedness too, and that will ultimately be grounded in the metaphysical status of the referent. In other words, there is an analogy between words and species, but we might disagree about the significance of both.

For a Christian, an understanding of the concept "word" should be some kind of reflection of *the* Word, the Logos, who is the source of all intelligibility.

Nathan Smith

Yes, the referents of words are sometimes timeless, e.g., the number two. As I think I've sometimes said, it seems to me that something akin to a Platonic theory of forms is needed in order to understand how language is possible, and there are great difficulties involved in this. I'm just not sure how applicable this is to biological species. Why should the idea of a dog be any more fundamental than the idea of a chair, except insofar as a higher degree of inherent commonality among dogs results from their shared genes?

Joyless Moralist

Well, a chair is an artifact, which is to say, made by man. So on one level the whole idea of a chair is inherently dependent on man's thought an imagination, but this is not true of dogs. A chair has a kind of quasi-telos, but it is subordinate to the telos of man, who planned and designed it.

Further (which is not entirely unrelated of course), a dog has a kind of internal cohesion that you don't fully find in a chair. It has an "anima", a principle of nutrition, growth and movement such as a person could never create independently. So, in order to explain what a dog *is*, we're going to have to refer to something outside of mere human intention or creation or abstraction. In that sense it is more fundamental.

Nathan Smith

Well, if we want to avoid artifacts, why should the idea of a dog be more fundamental than the idea of a mountain? If the answer is "internal cohesion," why does that have a content that goes beyond the definition of a dog as a vehicle for the self-propagation of selfish dog genes?

If the answer to that is "anima," I would say: Yes, we do have an intuition that a dog has something like a will or a soul, and we have a conception of what wills and souls are from introspection. If we're wrong-- if dogs don't have souls and are just complicated robots (which seem unlikely)-- would Dawkins' characterization be wrong?

In any case, I still don't see the need to bring in *telos.* Suppose a dog is a gene replicator somehow fused with a conscious albeit not rational soul. Where is the *telos?*

Note also a dog *is* an artifact to some extent. It exists in its present form because people deliberately bred it to have certain qualities, over many generations. Of course, we couldn't create its principles of nutrition, growth and movement independently, but nor could we create a chair's quality of hardness and weight. We are always working with what nature gives us.

Joyless Moralist

"Suppose a dog is a gene replicator somehow fused with a conscious albeit not rational soul."

If it is -- and if that characterization applies in a more general way to all forms of life and not just dogs -- then the world is effectively empty and meaningless. And, furthermore, there is a deep lack of intelligibility to the created world, if "genes replicating themselves" is really the truest description of all of nature.

Fortunately, a dog is *not* merely a gene replicator, as all my natural faculties allow me to perceive. It is a *species* with its own particular beauty and its own kind of goodness.

Nathan Smith

re: "If it is -- and if that characterization applies in a more general way to all forms of life and not just dogs -- then the world is effectively empty and meaningless."

Wrong. Our experience of souls allows for a strong presumption that souls experience meaning. If a dog has a soul, it is not empty and meaningless.

Anyway, what does a thing being a gene replicator have to do with meaninglessness? Does the fact that books consist, at a material level, of dead trees and plant pigments make them meaningless? Does the fact that a painting consists of oils and chemicals smear on piece of fabric make it meaningless? If gene replication is the oil with which the Creator has mixed his pigments to paint the miracle of life, how does that invalidate the meaning that we perceive in it?

The phrase "as all my natural faculties allow me to perceive" is opaque to me. Sight is a natural faculty, no? But while I can see a dog, I can't, as far as I can tell, see a *species.* If you put (a) a basset hound beside (b) a poodle beside (c) a German shepherd beside (d) a fox, I see four animals, but I might not guess that three are the same species and one is different. And dogs can be beautiful and good in many different ways, no?

Nathan Smith

Also, some of the ways in which a dog can be good and beautiful are *not* particular to the dog. A dog can love in at least some of the ways a man can; and the pleasure one gets from being loved by a dog are qualitatively somewhat similar to the pleasure one gets from being loved by a man. If a dog sacrifices his life to save his master, we would praise his loyalty and courage. We would use the same words to praise a man who sacrifices his life to save his friend.


Holding too fast to essentialist 'natural kinds' would seem convenient but stunting. We must try to cleave the world at its joins, of course, but must the joins be ontologically fundamental in order to be veridical? One can so insist if one pleases, of course, but it seems ill-motivated.

Joyless Moralist

Well, if we're not talking ontology, what *is* it exactly that we're "cleaving at the joints?" Every way of answering that seems to me to create a serious disconnect between human experience and reality, which I find counterintuitive and, if you like, ill-motivated. By contrast, the basic principle of my metaphysical outlook is to my mind quite intuitive and satisfying, and possessed of considerable explanatory power. John Polkinghorne summarizes the main idea fairly neatly when he suggests that "epistemology models ontology." In other words, our ways of knowing the world give us substantial purchase on what the world in fact *is*; the attributes of things in the world that enable ordinary people to understand and love them, are not somehow less real or less ontologically fundamental than detailed material explanations that can only be found through specialized scientific study.

I think Nathan and I have gotten our wires slightly crossed in our discussion of dogs. What interested me was the idea that a dog might be *primarily* or *most fundamentally* a gene-replicator. The way you described it, the soul sounded fairly superfluous, like it was only the principle of movement by which the dog was able to continue replicating its genes. If that is the case, then the dog is an empty and meaningless entity. If a soul is more than that, then we'd have to get deeper into the nature of the dog-soul to find the dog's telos.

Perhaps you're thinking about this in the framework of a kind of Cartesian dualism. You know I have issues with that, but fine, let's be Cartesian dualists for a moment. So, the dog's body is a basically a material shell to provide a home for its soul, kind of like a little dog-ship being piloted by a dog-soul. Assuming the soul is, as you say, something complex and meaningful, then obviously the conjunction of the two could not be called a "mere gene-replicator." You suggested that the *body* is a gene-replicator... infused with a soul. But if it's controlled by the dog-soul, and the soul is more than just a gene-replicator, then it seems to me that the body's primary function *isn't* just to replicate its genes. It is first and foremost the vessel for the soul, and its function will thus be subordinated to whatever we take to be the function of the soul.

Nobody doubts that a dog *is* a gene replicator, a painting oils on fabric, etc. The question is whether it is *merely* or *most fundamentally* that. If the description "gene replicator" is the most ontologically fundamental way to describe dogs (and horses, and wildflowers, and every living thing), then if you are to preserve meaning in the world (or even, I think, intelligibility, but I won't press that case too hard just now), you must explain where the other attributes come from. And that can be difficult to do when you're starting from a materialist template... its resources are thin.

For Aristotle, there are multiple ways of explaining what a thing "really" is, and none of them are more ontologically fundamental than any of the others. "Being is said in many ways," said the Philosopher, and that's what the "four causes" really are -- the main "ways" in which being is said. The material substance of which something is made is its material cause. The things/factors that led to its existence are the efficient causes. Formal and final causes are a bit difficult to tease apart, but they are the sorts of attributes I've been talking about there -- the sorts of things, say, that you'd come to understand about dogs by actually living and working with them.

If I ask the question, "What is a German Shepherd?" there would be different ways to answer my question. If you gave me a detailed lesson on German Shepherd anatomy, perhaps even including information on cells and molecular structures, then that would be a very complete answer of one kind. You would have given me the material cause of the German Shepherd. If you answered my question with a detailed description of genetics and breeding practices, that would be a different kind of answer. If you gave me a book by an experienced German Shepherd trainer describing the temperament and life cycle and just generally the nature of German Shepherds, or, better yet, if you took me to a dog shelter and made me spend several weeks working with German Shepherds and getting familiar with them, that would be yet another way of answering my question.

Aristotle wouldn't want to make any of these the "real" answer to the question "What is a German Shepherd?" None of these ways of being is more ontologically fundamental than the others. A Darwinist, by contrast, typically wants to make the material and efficient causes the most fundamental, and this, I contend, leaves us with a very shallow and empty view of the world.

Nathan Smith

I agree with Aristotle that "Being is said in many ways." The classification of efficient, formal, and material causes might not be the only way to break it down, but it seems like a good one. In the case of the final cause, though-- and we're coming full circle here-- it seems to me that Aristotle's intuition about this was informed by his recognition of a pattern in organisms that was subsequently elucidated by Darwin's theory of evolution so effectively as to render the concept of a final cause ill-motivated. It seems odd to conflate the purpose of a building, which is explained by a human being wanting shelter and doing things to get it, with the "purpose" (so to speak) of a dog's teeth, which are most cogently and readily explained by the demands of gene replication.

It is exceedingly interesting to apply this to people. A small part of human behavior really is, I think, readily explainable in terms of evolutionary biology, especially all sorts of things associated with the sex drive. Why do men experience feelings of murderous rage upon discovering that a sexual partner is unfaithful? Because men are genetically programmed to try not to raise another man's offspring. But men also have a rational nature which often fights against and overcomes raw instinct. The rational nature may persuade men to become monks and turn their backs on sex altogether, or to smother their jealousies in order to practice free love; certainly in civilized societies it usually-- though not always!-- overrides the imperatives of instinct to kill a sexual rival. And the rational nature has its own aspirations and desires, many of which can only by the most absurd intellectual gymnastics be linked even in remote and untestable ways to biology or evolution.

We might say that men have two kinds of *telos*, a carnal and a spiritual, which are sometimes allied but often at war with each other. That's not a complete theory, but it may help to show why I tend to think that Darwin necessitates an overhaul of Aristotle.

Joyless Moralist

You're still not getting the tension here. And partly you're getting confused because you're still thinking of a final cause as being a kind of efficient cause deriving from motion towards a specified future event... that's not what Aristotle means by it. So forget about the term "final cause" for a moment, and try thinking of it in terms of natures. This is the third "way of being" I mentioned -- the kind you might get from reading a book by an experienced dog trainer, or spending some time working for a shelter. You figure out what the dogs are like, how to make them happy, what sorts of behavior you can expect from them, etc. For a normal, experiencing human being, the kind of understanding you'd get from that gives you one very good answer to the question "What is a German Shepherd?" But for your committed Darwinist, those attributes are all secondary; you don't REALLY understand what the Shepherd is until you understand how all those characteristics are in fact all directed towards gene replication. *That* is the more ontologically fundamental description of the German Shepherd -- German Shepherd gene replicator. All the other characteristics are secondary, unfolding from this more basic description.

But of course, that isn't at all the impression that the dog trainer is going to have. He'll say, "Sure, dogs want to mate, of course, but that's only one of the many different parts of the dog's nature. The German Shepherd is a complex animal." The basic Darwinist impulse is reductionist, aiming for a greater metaphysical simplicity (and, as I argue, metaphysical impoverishment.) All that complexity ultimately has to boil down ultimately to yet another adventure in gene replication.

So, there are two ugly consequences of this way of looking at things. The first is that our ordinary way of perceiving the world is disconnected in an important way from how the world is. But, even more unattractive... the characteristics that we'd probably be inclined to think of as most meaningful or beautiful or lovable... are some kind of secondary accretion, and at any rate certainly not a fundamental part of the things themselves.

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