Madeline vs the Materialists

A conversation I had with my 3 year old daughter this evening while sitting under a tree looking at acorns.

Madeline: What do you call this?

Dad: It is a seed.

Mads: I like to call it a baby tree, because it will grow up to be a big tree just like this one [gesturing to the large tree we are sitting under].

Dad: Why do you say that?

Mads: Because that is what they do.  Big trees used to be baby trees just like this seed, and then they grow up and are big. [translation: Because it is in their nature to actualize their telos]

Conclusion: my 3 year old daughter already apprehends a basic truth about her world (that entities in the world have teleological striving) that thick-headed materialists still don’t get.

Madeline 1.  Materialists 0.

By the way, Curious George even knows this – read “Curious George Plants a Seed”.  The synopsis:

Curious George watches Jumpy the squirrel bury an acorn in the yard. Upon learning that Jumpy is storing food for later, George decides to do the same. The man with the yellow hat comes home to find the kitchen empty and its contents buried in the yard! It’s time to teach George about what things grow and what don’t. George finally gets it right when he grows a beautiful sunflower from a seed.

Silly as it might sound, this story presents Aristotle’s distinction between things that have a nature (an internal principle of change) and artefacts (things that have an external principle of change) in a way that is understandable for toddlers.

Keep in mind, I’ve been a stay-at-home Dad for 4 months, so I am still transitioning from Elmolectual to intellectual.  Bear with me.


Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

42 thoughts on “Madeline vs the Materialists”

  1. One could do worse for authorities. :) But no, it was not meant as an argument from authority. It was meant to demonstrate that there are some things that are so obvious that only people with PhDs and maybe an axe to grind can talk themselves out of them.


  2. Curious George is the best narrative-based show on PBS. I have no children and all my little siblings have moved on to Hannah Montana, but I still watch it sometimes during lunch.


  3. I don’t know whether obviousness is a reliable guide to truth, but I’ve learned that the word “obviously” is often anti-truth.

    PHILOSOPHER 1: “Obviously, humans are bad.”
    PHILOSOPHER 2: “What evidence do you have?”
    PHILOSOPHER 1: “It’s obvious.”


  4. Chuck Johnson used to say that “Surely it is the case that X” really means “X is probably false, but let’s not ask about it.”


  5. I don’t think obviousness necessitates truth, but my basic posture towards the world and towards “Implicit Philosophy” (commonly held answers to questions about what is) is MUCH LESS skeptical than yours.
    In other words, I think our “common sense” is not a bad guide. It is not infallible, but it is a decent guide. It is certainly a better approach than one common with many philosophers who take their cue from Descartes’ method of doubt. Many philosophers seem to think that the greater their distance from common sense the greater their wisdom. Who was it that said there is no doctrine so bizarre that it is not seriously taught by some philosophy (actually, that might have been Descartes)? This is why I dislike beginning with off the wall “what if” questions. I prefer to start with ‘what is’ or at least ‘what seems to be’. You may not end there, but you might.
    I don’t think it is necessarily the job of a philosopher to talk people out of their Implicit Philosophy. In fact, I think Implicit Philosophy warrants respect (I am not elitist at all in this respect). Philosophy begins in wonder, not doubt. This is what is so superior about Aquinas – he is the master of common sense, though he penetrates common sense, explores her foundations, sometimes shows where she is lacking, etc.
    This is, to my mind, the best “method” for philosophy. Nowhere is this more true than in moral philosophy.


  6. I remember a passage from William James that went something like this: We ought not dismiss conventional wisdom about moral affairs too quickly, because there are reasons that our forefathers subscribed to their beliefs.

    An attachment to obviousness can be a great tool for philosophers, because it keeps us from wandering too far from humanity. Many metaphysical questions could be productive if they were asked through the lens of humanity. For instance, rather than asking what determines identity, we could recognize identity as a human concept and ask what people think about identity and why. We might get some answers from the second question.


  7. I quite agree with Source here.

    This is a perfect example of how different philosophers view Socrates in different ways. Huenemann might say – ‘Look at Socrates! All he does is talk people out of common sense and conventional opinion!’

    I would not say that, and for these two reasons:
    a) Almost all of Socrates’ arguments against his interlocutors depend on common sense judgments. For instance, take this argument from the Apology (Socrates is refuting the charge that he corrupts the young) (~25d-25e). Of course each of these premises is asked in the form of a question):
    -Meletus claims that Socrates intentionally corrupts the young
    -Wicked people harm their associates and good people benefit their associates
    -Anyone who corrupts his associates then runs the risk of being harmed by them
    -No one would rather be harmed by their associates rather than benefited by them
    -Socrates knows that by corrupting his associates he risks being harmed by them
    -That is absurd, since no one intentionally does harm to oneself. So, Socrates either does not corrupt the young, or if he does, he does so unwillingly

    Doesn’t that argument depend on common sense for every advance?

    b) While it might SEEM that Socrates is talking his interlocutors out of common sense, he really doesn’t. Let’s take the Republic as our example. In Book I, Cephalus defines justice as “repaying your debts”. Socratic questioning shows this view to be insufficient and they move on. But once Socrates finally arrives at justice (minding your own business, not being a busy-body) one can see that the previous definitions (really all of them other than Thrasymachus’, who takes a position in Bk 1 that is deeply contrary to common sense) are actually compatible with the final definition.
    In other words, I don’t think Socrates aims to show that common sense is wrong but rather aims to show that common sense is insufficient and superficial, even if it is right or true in one sense or another.

    This is why philosophy is necessary even if common sense (Implicit Philosophy) is generally reliable. The job of a philosopher, generally speaking, is to deepen rather than to overturn. This fits nicely, I think, with a humanistic philosophy (Source’s point).


  8. I’d like to hear more about teleonomy, Vince.

    I think philosophy has to begin with common sense. (Indeed, what doesn’t? Isn’t common sense just the beliefs you have until you begin reflecting?) And, a lot of times, there is a lot of truth in common sense. But it is also frequently true that appearances are deceiving, and the truth is quite different from what common sense suggests. Probably we’re all in agreement so far.

    The trick is to know when to dig in and defend common sense, and when to jump ship and embrace another set of beliefs. To my mind, Kleiner and latter-day Aristotelians are digging when they should be jumping: I just don’t see the benefits of Aristotelian physics/metaphysics, apart from its affinity to pre-theoretical beliefs. I think the benefits of contemporary science outweigh that affinity. I know that Kleiner charges that contemporary science can’t get the benefits they think they can without smuggling in some Aristotle — that’s an interesting question, and worth pursuing.

    I’m not sure about contemporary moral theory. The arena is harder to figure out since we can’t ask “What do we want out of a theory of morality?” without prejudging the issue: we either impose values of common-sense morality or junk them in favor of other values.


  9. I’d like to hear more about teleonomy too. Justified or not, most materialists seem to treat any kind of telos talk like it was poison.


  10. While we’re waiting for more from Vince, here’s something interesting. I read Wikipedia’s article on teleonomy which is not all that clear. But the article has been flagged as not being neutral. If you click on the “talk page” for the article, you’ll find a discussion that is a bit clearer. From all that, it looks to me like teleonomy is the study of what at first glance looks a whole lot like teleology, but really isn’t.


  11. @ Kleiner: I saw Ponyo (the new Hayao Miyazaki movie) yesterday. If I have kids, they’re definitely going to watch it. From the reactions of the kids in the crowd, I’ll bet Madison would love it too.


  12. I’m puzzled by this post. I would think the fact that a child seems to embryionically express the rudiments of a philosophical view would be cause for suspicion of that view, rather than for any sort of confidence in it. But even in the case of a view independently established as true, I’m still puzzled as to what the point is supposed to be, given that kids are apparently primed to believe in lots of stuff we have no independent grounds for believing:


  13. Sounds like Kleiner’s concerns are shared in Iran:

    Last week the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made remarks at Tehran University, that indicated a problem with the teaching of humanities and social sciences in Iran. “Many of the humanities and liberal arts are based on philosophies whose foundations are materialism and disbelief in godly and Islamic teachings” he is reported to have said, adding that he wanted a review of any subject that “promotes doubts and uncertainties”. According to some reports he specifically singled out philosophy and sociology as subjects that he is particularly concerned about.


  14. I am concerned about the tyranny and monopoly of materialism in the humanities and liberal arts. Pretty safe to say, though, that the Supreme Leader of Iran has different concerns (threats to his dictatorship) and different methods of trying to combat such things.
    I rather hope that Rob pointing out that both the Supreme Leader of Iran and I are worried about materialist philosophies isn’t supposed to be some sort of an argument against my view. People of various stripes are concerned about such things. Pope Benedict in particular has argued powerfully against materialism and the “tyranny of relativism” that follows in its wake.

    I think it is worth mentioning that materialism is almost an academic dogma at this point. Huenemann admitted to me a few years ago that most people in the philosophy of mind simply accept materialism without argument. Those of us who reject materialism find ourselves on the fringes of respectability in the academy, and unfortunately often have to congregate in marginalized “ghettos” of Catholic and Christian higher education. While materialists in Iran may well be coming under unjust censorship, this is hardly a problem here in the United States. In fact, I think the western academy should be actively making room for those that dissent from the dogmatic materialism of the intelligentsia.


  15. Kleiner, can you explain what you mean by “materialism”? I was being a bit facetious with the quote, but only a bit, as it seems that, despite your divergent political persuasions, both you and the Supreme Leader regard “materialism” as a threat to what many who subscribe to “materialism” regard as supernaturalism or obscurantism. .. (For my part, I would mean by “materialism” something along the lines of our being wholly physical animals whose consciousness arose by purely physical processes explained by evolution through natural selection.)


  16. I will tell you, Rob, that I am immediately disinclined to participate in a “dialogue” whose opening salvo was comparing me (“only a bit” facetiously) to the Supreme Leader of Iran.
    I don’t mean anything special by materialism — the view that only material things exist, and that human nature (and everything else) can be explained by a mere appeal to material interactions. I would also include materialist views of history (Marxism). The immediate threat of materialism is not that we will not know God, it is that we will not know man. Materialism (along with most if not all other technological reductions of man) should be resisted, in my view, because:
    a) it is false (For instance – it cannot explain the singular phenomenon of language — I have yet to hear a materialist provide an adequate response to Machuga’s (Aristotle’s) argument he presented here a few years back).
    b) The social and moral consequences of materialism are a “tyranny of relativism” (Pope Benedict’s frequent line). For all the Nz that gets cited on this blog, most fans of Nz do not want to walk with him down the plank he has set for us.


  17. This is pretty well worn turf on this blog, and very little progress has been made in bringing the two sides together. I highly recommend a book by Ric Machuga called “In Defense of the Soul”. There he provides a very accessible but also thoughtful defense of Aristotelian hylomorphism (substance as form-matter). He has chapters on why science needs teleology, what an Aristotelian might say about artificial intelligence and why Aristotelians are not afraid of Darwin. Machuga came to USU a few years back to present his views.

    Anyway, here is the argument about language:

    The argument against materialism from meaning is basically “no soul, no words”. Aristotle (De Anima, Aquinas makes a nearly identical arg in Q75 of the Summa) considers this the best hypothesis for explaining meaningful language and intentional signs:

    1. All relations are either physical or non-physical (i.e., intentional).
    2. The relation between a word and its meaning is not a physical relation
    3. The person who understands the meaning of a word is active, while the word itself is passive.
    4. That which is capable of action must subsist.
    5. Therefore, the agent intellect that understands words must be immaterial and subsistent.


  18. Given my Mysterian sympathies, I’m sympathetic to your philosophical objections to materialism; but your ethical claims about its pernicious cultural and moral effects seem to me greatly in need of substantiation against a lot of contrary empirical and historical evidence. Where is the deleterious “tyranny of relativism” in evidence? (And even if such “tyranny” were in evidence, it’s deleteriousness would need further proving.) Contemporary Europe?

    Unless you can come up with evidence of such consequences of “materialism” — consequences which have nothing in particular to do with their impact on the religious piety to which you’re partial — the suspicion natural emerges that it’s really a concern with the survival and flourishing of that piety that is motivating your belief in the bad consequences of “materialism”, no?

    The evidence against your view that I think most readily comes to mind is the condition of post-Christian nations like Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands, etc., and the evidence Stephen Pinker cites about the overall improvement of the human condition over the centuries ( –improvements essentially connected with the development of modern science, the hotbed of “materialism”).


  19. I would give religion (particularly western christianity) far more credit for the development of such things as modern science than you would. And I will simply appeal to a point you have repeatedly made on this blog (from Nz)- the success of liberal democracy (say, those in scandanavia) are dependent on and derivative of Christianity. Liberalism and democracy are the offspring of Christianity, not scientific materialism. (You have often pointed out that, given this, society might need to be made more religious before it can be made less so).

    You are welcome to suggest some secret motivation on my behalf, but I will let the record speak for itself. I hardly ever press the question of God on this blog, rather my orientation is almost always humanistic. Like Heidegger, the immediate problem is that man will forget himself, not that man will forget God (granted, a while into the conversation I will move to the point that the question of man is the question of the relationship between immanence and transcendence, so we will be on our way to a theism).

    I don’t find it too hard to identify some of the pernicious cultural effects of materialism: consumerism, love of power, excessive love of possessions, a rejection of the basic dignity of persons (and the willingness to kill if it means protecting my “standard of living”). Perhaps this is too general, but the Pope remarked “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.” (Isn’t he here responding to Nz as much as anyone else?!) The evidence for this claim that I have most immediately on hand is the comments of my students (particularly in ethics classes) – who seem to view the world as an instrument to their ends and see little if any check on their egos and desires from something like a [real] moral good. Many of my students don’t seem to believe that anything is real or good outside of their own desires/likes. This is all wrapped up in the language of “tolerance”, lingo that is simply cover for moral idiocy.


  20. If liberalism and democracy are offspring of Christianity, and scientific materialism is the offspring of liberalism and democracy, then isn’t scientific materialism and its pernicious cultural effects in some sense also the offspring of Christianity?

    As for your students, I’m skeptical that there’s any serious connection between the ethical sense people make of themselves and the quality of their ethically-pertinent behavior. What the popular culture encourages kids to report of their ethical self-image I take with a grain of salt. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Hitler’s Youth generation of youngsters were more adept at discursively engaging the Western moral philosophical tradition. (Admittedly, I was corrupted early on, in my first philo class exactly two decades ago: after several initial weeks spent in serious and sympathetic engagement with Platonic dialogues, the tables were turned with Nietzsche’s “The Problem of Socrates”, and I obviously never recovered.)


  21. I cannot think of any Christian theologian who has promoted materialism, but I can think of plenty who promoted science, liberalism, and democracy. Materialism, insofar as it has some roots in Christianity, is a bastard child (her parents are the enlightenment, which is herself a skewing of the Christian worldview even if she depended on the Christian view).
    I take it I am here not saying anything you would disagree with – I am following you and Nz on this genealogy of liberalism and democracy.
    I don’t see why we should think one’s “ethical sense” is so removed from their actual ethical behavior. Even if their ethical sense is largely unreflective (which it is), it would seem that one’s ethical sense and ethical actions are related. The problem is not that the students cannot engage the western moral philosophical tradition (well, that is a problem but not the problem I have in mind here). Rather the problem is that their own lived moral sensibility is so distorted that, in their own lives (with their own unreflective views), they do not “recognize anything as definitive”.
    A concrete example of how this works itself out: when there is nothing definitive, students feel free to pursue their own desires without restriction. Since college is “simply a means to an end” of a better job, students do what they need to do. There are plenty of studies out there showing that many fewer students think cheating is wrong than even a generation ago (that is, the moral sensibility has clearly changed). And some 70% of students put that new moral sensibility into action and cheat at some point during college.
    So it is not just that cheating is more common now (most studies show that it is, I recall a report from Rutgers that incidents of academic dishonesty doubled from 2000 to 2007). If that were all, one could simply point out that it is a lot easier to cheat now (web, cell phones, etc). That in itself would not demonstrate a shift in moral sensibility. The key studies are those that show that the moral sensibility has shifted – fewer students think cheating is wrong and more students willingly rationalize “gray areas” (they still say cheating is wrong, for instance, but now consider asking a peer who has already taken a test for answers as “being resourceful” instead of “cheating”.


  22. Clay: The Supreme Leader ascribes to “materialism” things similar to what Kleiner (and the Pope) ascribes to it; and moreover seems to believe a source of this phenomenon lies in academic culture. Do you really think there’s nothing of significance shared between their respective diagnoses, even if their responses to it go in directions politically at odds with each other?


  23. It’s a cheap shot Rob. It is like comparing Hitler and Obama because they both believe that the government should stimulate the economy by investing in infrastructure. Picking Hitler was a cheap shot because I have now created a link between Hitler and President Obama. Comparing Kleiner to the Pope is one thing. Purposely picking a villain for your comparison was a dishonest tactic and it will not help you win an argument on this blog.


  24. Clay: no comparison of Kleiner as a person with the Supreme Leader was made or intended. I suggested an affinity between some of his concerns and those officially espoused by the latter. Now, please tell me, what analogous affinity of concern exists between Obama and Hitler? Another thing: I wasn’t making an argument. I was trying to invoke an attitude of suspicion towards a complex of ideas by showing how handily they are co-opted and espoused (perhaps with some genuine sincerity) with a view to political ends we find repugnant. If I’ve managed to create a link in your mind between Kleiner’s concerns and the Supreme Leader, I don’t think that’s a bad thing if means just that you regard those concerns with heightened (or newfound) skepticism. (Not unrelated: Heidegger’s sordid biography — “a shit, from the heels up”, as Ryle described him to GA Cohen — can be a helpful counterforce against acquiescence to the performative pressures of his writing.)

    By the way, to ramble a bit further, my favorite living director’s latest film, debuting this Friday at the TIFF, may, like the rest of his films, be of interest to readers of this blog:

    His timely and magnificent new film ‘Hadewijch’ initially appears to be a portrait of a deeply religious young girl, intensely devoted to Christ and Christian values. But in Dumont’s hands, this complete commitment gradually takes a fascinating turn – with dire results.


  25. Yawn. All this from a guy who plays the Nz card constantly – apparently Nz’s program does not invoke an attitude of suspicion toward a complex of ideas (naturalism, perhaps materialism) that, in that program, are espoused with a view toward political/personal ends we all find repugnant.
    Let’s move on, I really don’t care about Rob’s comparison (I thought it was lame too, Clay, but let’s fry some other fish).


  26. That’s obviously true about Nietzsche. But the real question is whether his nasty political views are rightly taken as serious proposals of how social order should or shouldn’t be, or whether they are serving persuasive ends aimed at having effects on certain kinds of readers that have little, if anything, to do with the realization of those political views.

    Also, I don’t think (mature and published-writings-) Nietzsche is a naturalist in the strong sense in which you like to accuse him of being (and perhaps not even in the sense in which either Leiter or Huenemann consider him to be a naturalist). The best case for this view of which I am aware is in the following papers:

    “Nietzsche, the Self, and the Disunity of Philosophical Reason”, by Sebastian Gardner, in Nietzsche on Freedom and Autonomy (Oxford, 2009)

    “The Naturalisms of BGE”, by Clark and Dudrick, in A Companion to Nietzsche (Blackwell, 2007)


  27. For what it is worth, I have not typically read Nz as being a naturalist. It is really Huenemann that has moved me in that direction (with some success). I tend to read Nz as a forerunner of postmodernity (probably due to by continental background).
    Anyway, let’s move on. I am looking forward to Vince’s post on teleonomy and teleology.


  28. Very interesting, Vince. Your second comment strikingly tallies with Nietzsche’s story of how the grounds for the contemporary scientific culture were established by the pre-Socratics, then subverted by Platonism and Christianity (“Platonism for ‘the people'”, as he puts it [in BGE, Preface]), but gradually recovered owing to the Enlightenment. Our contemporary secular-liberal-democratic moral outlook, he thinks, is heir to Judeo-Christianity, but our contemporary scientific (in the broad sense of the German word for it used to encompass both the human and natural science) outlook he regards as also the recovery of something which pre-existed Plato and Christianity.

    In other words, pre-Christian *epistemological* values have been *recovered*, through the self-overcoming of Christian intellectual values, a process culminating in the Enlightenment, but at the same time *moral* values were being *created* through Christianity, then gradually cleansed of their intellectually-offending signs of their provenance and adopted by the Enlightenment.

    Not sure what to make of your first comment.

    The teleos can be metaphysically bestowed by G-d or can be mechanistically controlled by the laws of the sterile universe.

    Of course Dennett, Coyne and co. will offer against any proposed telos alleged to be bestowed by G-d a non teleological, naturalistic account of its presence.


  29. Vince – Am I misunderstanding your point with this [over]simplification: Science’s teleonomy tells us HOW things are made, metaphysics’ teleology tell us WHY things are what they are.

    I won’t say too much more until you tell me if I am on the right track. But a few quick thoughts:
    a) A basic principle of Aristotle’s is that nothing comes from nothing. The future is nothing, so the future is not the cause of something coming about. In other words, final causes are not some mysterious force in the future that are “pulling” things up. That they are is a common misrepresentation of Aristotle’s view.

    b) Final cause does not replace efficient cause, in Aristotle’s view. Rather, final cause and efficient cause simply answer two different questions (how and why, respectively). And, in fact, in the natural world final causes work through efficient causes. (On this score, there is quite a lot of misuse of final cause by some Intelligent Design folks out there).

    c) The problem with scientific materialism is not that it tells us something false, it might well get the efficient cause story (the HOW things comes about) right. The problem with scientific materialism is that it does not tell us that much. “There are two modes of causation [efficient and final] and both of these must, as far as possible, be taken into account in explaining works of nature … and those who fail in this tell us in reality nothing about nature.” (Aristotle, Parts of Animals).
    Here is an example (taken from Machuga’s book):
    “It is impossible to say what a heart IS, much less DOES, without specifying what a heart is FOR. Organisms by definition must be intentionally ordered such that the whole is greater than sum of its parts. A heart that serves no function is no heart!”
    The error of materialist reductionism is that it treats the organism as if the whole were nothing more than the sum of its parts.

    Anyway – my question for Vince is this: is teleonomy just telos/final cause by another name, or is it efficient cause by another name? Neither?


  30. An aside but I’ve often considered Christianity as something opposed to common sense. “If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a ‘fool’ so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” Also the whole wide/narrow gate thing. I guess that’s just my poor residual biblicist reading coming through.


  31. Yes, but our secular, egalitarian, liberal, democratic common moral sense is infused with, informed by, and, I believe, somehow continues to draw succor from, Christianity. (The best stab yet that I know of to get a fix on the nature of that last point is Nietzsche’s tree metaphor in GM 1.8.) So we shouldn’t fall into the trap, promulgated by the “new atheism”, of saucily believing that when we reject the plentiful morally repugnant stuff in the Bible, and the historical and contemporary immoralities perpetrated in its name, we are somehow doing so from a vantage cleansed of Christianity.

    By the way, Nietzsche has some (nachlass) remarks on efficient and final causes in Writings from the Late Notebooks (Cambridge, 2003, see index) wherein he suggests that we have no intuitive sense for the former, but do for the latter (as a kind of projection of our subject-predicate cognitive structuring) and that were we to do away with the latter, so would go the former. (Kleiner: “in fact, in the natural world final causes work through efficient causes.” How, I wonder, can they do so except as efficient causes?)


  32. Luckily I don’t believe in any cleansed vantage points which is also why I don’t really believe in Christianity per se, only this or that confused instantiation of Christianity. The whole death of God thing seems a bit melodramatic at this point especially because Christianity, like so many other things, can and has been manipulated to a variety of different ends. What’s more interesting to me than the impact it has on my moral sense is the impact other things have on its moral sense and how malleable and irrational people are more generally. Sometimes I think “but that X necessarily implies Y” but then someone will come around and I’ll find out they’re walking around with X in their head day in and day out and still demonstrating Z without even giving Y a second thought.

    The bigger mistake of the new atheists, to me at least, is that they think changing someone’s opinion about God has some necessary correlation to some better behavior pattern. Or I assume that’s what they think, otherwise why bother? Where’s the empirical evidence that one’s thinking about God has a statistically significant impact on behavior? Who told them the question of God’s existence was a core question?

    Anyhow, we now return to your regularly scheduled programming.


  33. To trade off Vince’s categories (useful ones, I think), I am not sure we ought to (or can) so separate metaphysics (the study of the why) from science (the study of the how). Let’s use one of Machuga’s favorite examples to make the point:

    Upon observing sea turtles, the scientist says: “The turtle comes ashore in order to lay its eggs.” But why focus on the laying of eggs? The turtle also, when coming ashore, stepped on a piece of driftwood. But the scientist does not say “The turtle came ashore in order to step on the piece of driftwood.” Why not? Because teleology (or call it “governance”) has snuck in the back door. And rightly so. Were we to not say the IN ORDER TO, we would not say much of anything about the nature of the turtle!

    Now this ‘in order to’ is worked out via efficient causes (hows), that is through brain firings and muscles and nerves being contracted, etc. But that whole process of efficient causes is ordered. The brain fires in order to move the leg (it doesn’t fire for no reason or simply accidentally), the leg moves in order to walk up the beach, etc etc.

    I know I am going to say this with too much confidence (since not all on the blog agree), but turtles don’t just happen to lay eggs while they are up on shore! They go ashore IN ORDER TO lay their eggs. Ignoring that fact about turtles makes for bad SCIENCE, not just bad metaphysics. Science must be telic in order to say anything interesting about things (see my heart example above). If the word “teleology” scares you, then use Aquinas’ “governance”. Vince nails the question – ‘how do dumb things (like trees and turtles) “know” where to go?’ A merely efficient causal (teleonomy) account will never be able to answer that question. You need both – teleonomy and teleology (efficient and final cause).

    It is worth noting that the scientist can engage this kind of teleology (he can speak about “in order tos”) without needing to back all the way up to Metaphysics VII and the Unmoved Mover argument. This is because it is possible to study a number of things about secondary causes without backing up to first causes. So I am not here trying to “theologize” science. Leave it to the philosophers to demonstrate that the UMM is metaphysically necessary for the work the scientists are doing, this need not come up for the scientist. He just observes and classifies his ordered world.


  34. I know I am going to say this with too much confidence (since not all on the blog agree), but turtles don’t just happen to lay eggs while they are up on shore! They go ashore IN ORDER TO lay their eggs.

    I would think that in order for it to be true that a creature did something in order to x it must be capable of adducing reasons, and in order to be able to do that they must already be immersed in the exercise of linguistic ability. Of course, I constantly imagine and describe my cat doing lots of stuff in order to x, but really isn’t she just exercising evolutionarily-selected-for dispositions to respond in various ways to her environment?


  35. Here is one of the more relevant passages on governance from St Thomas:
    “We see that things which lack knowledge, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result.”

    We need not think that a necessary condition for acting toward an end (doing X in order to bring about Y) is rationality. In fact, we see things which lack knowledge (reason) like “natural bodies” (trees, turtles) acting for an end all the time. For instance, the turtle comes ashore in order to lay its eggs. I am not here anthropomorphizing the turtle – I don’t think the turtle has deliberated about it or chosen to do it. That is just what turtles do (back to Madeline’s comment at the beginning!). It is their “disposition” to come ashore in order to lay eggs. But that disposition has the character of intentionality (in order to). A merely materialist/efficient causal account cannot account the telic character of that disposition – even if that disposition is evolutionarily selected (Aristotelians need not fear Darwin). That is fine, the efficient causal story tells us part of the story, the final cause story tells us another part. Any account of turtles that is worth much will include both.


  36. I would apply what you say about the turtle to most human behavior: it doesn’t occur with much, if any, deliberation and (experience of) choice, but we’re the curiously interesting and screwed up animal that tortures itself by having pounded in its soul a certain skill (or mental dressage) in adducing (or, more honestly, confabulating) reasons for what we do after the fact. The rest of the animal kingdom — turtles, my cat — is enviously free of this self-alienating, -dividing, -torture. And then there are those with a heighten, and pleasurable, facility for this bizarre skill: lawyers, philosophers and theologians.


  37. My time is short so I’ll have more to say tomorrow, but for now:
    “You assign purpose with zeal, Kleiner.”

    On the one hand, yes. I think our world is cosmos, not chaos.
    On the other hand, I don’t think there is anything all that zealous about saying things like “the turtle came ashore in order to lay eggs” or “the human heart beats in order to circulate blood.” Those are pretty plain statements. Anyone who refuses to talk in this way (in terms of function/telos) will fail to say much of interest about the natural world.

    I am not sure what this “ghost” is, but I am worried that Vince and Rob are mistaking final cause to be some phantom future “spirit power” that “pulls” things toward actuality. That is not at all what Aristotle thinks. (I will have more to say on that tomorrow). And I really don’t think I am guilty of some kind of anthropomorphization here (sorry, I am just not that Kantian to think that everything I say about the world is some transcendental overlay). I am trying to be “scientific” here!! I am starting with observations of the world (though some of these observations are reflective observations, that is – seeing the turtle lay eggs and then looking back at what it did before and situating those actions within the telic end of laying ends).

    I have also made no remark on what it is that is causing turtles to behave in an ordered way (though I did exclude any rationality on the turtle’s part). For now I am simply focusing on the telic significances of certain animal and plant behaviors that scientists cannot, should not, and don’t ignore. The cause of those “telic dispositions” (law of natural selection, accident, God) is another question. We can take that up, but have we agreed that scientists make both teleonomical and teleological judgments about particulars (that is, they both give a mechanistic/efficient causal account but also situate that mechanistic account within certain “in order to” frameworks)? We could all admit that, but then say It might be that the telic significance of certain actions (like a turtle coming ashore in order to lay eggs) can be explained by random natural selection (though Aristotle himself denies this).

    One more thought: once Vince and Rob start assessing the nature of the judgment (it is “mental dressage” or “anthropomorphizing”) they are no longer making scientific judgments. They are rather making metaphysical and epistemological judgments (both of which seem to spring from a post-Kantian or post-Humean anti-metaphysical bias or empiricism). At that point, it is hard for me to not think that the denial of teleology in my plain judgments is rooted more in an anti-teleological (and probably anti-hylomorphic) metaphysical bias based in a tendency toward reductionism (materialist metaphysics) than anything else (people very rarely actually argue for materialism, the “science” crowd just assumes it). One only tries to “explain away” the appearance of something like our telic judgments based on a deeper metaphysical conviction. At any rate, at that point we are having a philosophical debate (metaphysics and/or epistemology after all!) and not a debate about the ins and outs of evolution. The Aristotelian in me wants to then move to the claim that they could not be making such judgments about judgment (or using meaningful language in the first place!) if hylomorphism was not true.


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