Atheistic teleology?

There has been a lot of talk in the blogosphere and elsewhere about former atheist blogger Leah Libresco’srecent conversion to Catholicism.  It seems that among the reasons for her conversion is the conviction that the possibility of objective moral truth presupposes that there is teleology in the natural order, ends toward which things are naturally directed.  That there is such teleology is a thesis traditionally defended by Catholic philosophers, and this is evidently one of the things that attracted Libresco to Catholicism.  A reader calls my attention to this post by atheist philosopher and blogger Daniel Fincke.  Fincke takes issue with those among his fellow atheists willing to concede to Libresco that an atheist has to reject teleology.  Like Libresco, he would ground morality in teleology, but he denies that teleology requires a theological foundation.

Atheism, teleology, and morality

Fincke writes:

Teleology should not be at all out of bounds for atheists.  Teleologists do not need to posit that there is an intelligent goal-giver who gives natural beings purposes to fulfill, as many theists think…

I am an atheistic virtue ethicist requiring no divine agency for the teleological dimensions of my ethics to make minimal sense and have minimal coherence.  I am just describing purely naturalistically occurring patterns as universals or forms.  I am saying that since humans’ very natures are constituted by a specific set of powers, fulfilling them is incumbent on humans as the beings that we are.  It is irrational and a practical contradiction to destroy the very precondition of our own being (all things being equal).  We have a rational imperative instead to flourish maximally powerfully according to the powers which constitute us ourselves.

Now there is some truth in what Fincke says, but it is not the whole truth and his account suffers from some systematic ambiguities.  On the one hand, I would agree that the teleological properties of natural substances, including human beings, can in principle be known whether or not one believes in God, precisely becausethey are natural.  That is what makes natural law possible.  You can know just by studying trees that their roots have among their natural ends the taking in of water and nutrients, and that it is objectively good for a tree that its roots carry out this function and bad for it if for some reason the roots are unable to do so.  You don’t need to make reference to God to see this.  By the same token, you can know just by studying human beings that it is objectively good for them to pursue truth, to show courage and resolution in the face of difficulties, to exercise self control in the indulgence of their appetites, and so forth, since without such virtues they would be unable to fulfill the ends of their various natural capacities.  No special reference to God is needed in order to see this either.  Not only do I agree with Fincke about that much, but I have made a similar point at length in a post from almost a year ago.  It is in my view a mistake for religious apologists to think they can go directly from the objectivity of morality to the existence of God.  

(For an overview of the Aristotelian-Thomistic approach to natural law ethics, see chapter 5 of Aquinas, chapter 4 of The Last Superstition, and roughly the first half of my Social Philosophy and Policy article “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation.”)  

However, that is only part of the story, for three reasons.  First, all of this is true on an Aristotelian construal of the natural world, but it is not true on the conception of the natural world one finds in contemporary scientism and naturalism -- a conception to which most modern atheists are committed.  In particular, no construal of teleology consistent with modern naturalism and scientism can give you the kind of teleology necessary for objective morality.  More on this in a moment.

Second, while objective morality depends directlyon an Aristotelian philosophy of nature rather than on theism, an Aristotelian philosophy of nature leads in turn to theism.  So, there is an indirect connection between the possibility of objective morality and theism.  That a natural substance has the teleological properties it does is something we can know just from studying the nature of the thing; no reference to God is necessary.  But how is it that anything ever in fact actualizes the potentials inherent in its nature?  That, as Aquinas’s First Way shows, is possible in principle only if there is an Unmoved Mover (or, to be more precise, an Unactualized Actualizer) which at every moment actualizes the potentials of things without itself having to be actualized in any way.  How is it that the ends things have by nature can be efficacious?  That, as Aquinas’s Fifth Way shows, is possible in principle only if there is a Supreme Intelligence which at every moment directs things toward their ends.  How is it that things can even existat any moment, with the natures they have, in the first place?  That, as Aquinas’s Second Way (as I interpret it) shows, is possible in principle only if there is an Uncaused Cause of existence which at every moment sustains things in being without itself having to have existence imparted to it, precisely because it is not a being among others but Subsistent Being Itself.  (In this particular argument some distinctively Thomistic metaphysical ideas enter the picture.)  

(And so forth.  I will not pursue this topic here since I have defended the Five Ways at length elsewhere -- most fully in Aquinas and in my American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly article “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways,” with three of Aquinas’s arguments defended in a little less detail in The Last Superstition.  Some relevant blog posts can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

Third, what was said above about the foundations of ethics applies to the content and justification of morality to a large extent, but not entirely.  For one thing, the fact that God exists naturally has moral implications of its own, and since the existence of God can be known through natural reason, there are certain very general religious obligations (such as the obligation to love God) that can be known through reason alone, and thus form part of the natural law.  (Indeed, these are our highest obligations under natural law.)  Then there is the fact that the natures of things, including human nature, derive ultimately from those ideas in the divine intellect which form the archetypes by reference to which God creates.  (In this way morality is neither independent of God nor grounded in arbitrary divine commands, as I explained in a post on the Euthyphro objection.)  

Furthermore, a complete account of moral obligation, specifically, requires reference to God as legislator (even if moral obligation can proximatelybe explained by reference to the natural end of the will).  Finally, divine revelation is also needed for a complete account of everyday moral life.  For divine revelation discloses certain details about morality that the human intellect is too feeble reliably to discover on its own; and some aspects of the natural law are so demanding that many people are capable realistically of living up to them only given the hope of a reward in the hereafter, of the sort divine revelation promises.  (I won’t pursue these issues further here either.  I discuss them at greater length in Aquinas.  And see chapter 8 of the first volumeof Michael Cronin’s The Science of Ethics for a useful treatment of the proximate and ultimate grounds of moral obligation.)

Intrinsic, derived, and as-if teleology

Let’s look more closely at the sort of teleology required for objective morality.  As my longtime readers know, I have discussed the subject of teleology in a great many places, and I’m frankly pretty tired of repeating myself.  Lengthy treatments can be found in Aquinas, The Last Superstition, and my Philosophia Christi article “Teleology: A Shopper’s Guide.”  I have also said a lot about the subject here on the blog, especially in the many posts I’ve devoted to the dispute between Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) philosophy and “Intelligent Design” theory.  Here I’ll just summarize the points most relevant to the issue at hand.

Start with the distinction between natural substances, artifacts, and accidental arrangements drawn by Aristotle in the Physics, and which I discussed at length in a couple of earlier posts (hereand here).  To borrow some examples from those earlier posts, a liana vine is a natural substance insofar as it has an inherent or immanent tendency toward certain ends -- exhibiting certain growth patterns, taking in water and nutrients, and so forth.  A hammock that Tarzan might make from living liana vines is an artifact rather than a natural substance insofar as, while the hammock has the end or function of serving as something suitable for sleeping in, the parts of the hammock have no inherent tendency toward this end.  That end is, instead, extrinsicto the parts, imposed from outside by Tarzan rather than flowing naturally from the parts themselves (as can be seen from the fact that left to themselves the vines will tend to grow the way they otherwise would have had Tarzan not interfered with them, including in ways that will impede their performance as a hammock).  A set of liana vines that have by chance grown into a pattern that looks vaguely like a cross is an accidental arrangement rather than either a natural substance or artifact.  For there is no natural or inherent tendency of such vines to grow into such a pattern, and neither did any artificer interfere with them so as to make them grow that way for the sake of achieving some externally imposed end, such as serving as a religious symbol.  

We might usefully think of these three kinds of object in terms of a distinction drawn by John Searle in a different context.  In his book The Rediscovery of the Mind, Searle differentiates between intrinsic, derived, and as-ifintentionality.  Intrinsic intentionality is the sort thoughts have.  When you have the thought that the cat is on the mat, that particular content is intrinsic toor constitutive of the thought.  By contrast, the English sentence “The cat is on the mat,” while it has the same content, does not have it intrinsically but only in a derived way.  There is nothing in the shapes, ink marks, pixels, sounds or any other physical symbols and properties in which that sentence might be embodied that gives it its intentional content or meaning.  The meaning is rather imposed from outside by language users following certain conventions.  Finally, an arrangement of stones looking very vaguely like the word “on,” which has been made by chance as the stones tumbled to the bottom of a hill during an earthquake, do not possess any intentionality at all, though look as if they did.  That is to say, they look as if someone had arranged them for the purpose of expressing the meaning of the English word “on,” though in fact they were not and the appearance is entirely accidental.

Similarly, we might say that the teleology that the liana vines manifest qua liana vines is intrinsic, that the teleology they exhibit insofar as they have been arranged by Tarzan for the purpose of functioning as a hammock is derived, and that the entirely chance arrangement of liana vines into a form looking vaguely like a cross is a case of as-ifteleology insofar as the vines were not really arranged for the purpose of representing a cross but merely appear as if they were.  (To forestall an irrelevant objection, yes, God couldof course cause the vines to grow in such a way that they look vaguely like a cross, just as He could cause a tortilla to exhibit a burn pattern that looks vaguely like the Virgin Mary.  But whether He does this sort of thing or not -- and the usual examples are the stuff of the Weekly World Newsrather than having a serious claim to miraculous status -- the point is that such patterns could arise through chance rather than being the outcome either of a natural object’s typical activity or of artifice.)

Now, the traditional Aristotelian distinction between “nature” and “art” is essentially a distinction between, on the one hand, those phenomena exhibiting intrinsic teleology, and on the other, those having only derived or as-if teleology.  Another way to put the same point is that it is essentially a distinction between, on the one hand, those objects that have substantial forms and those having only accidental forms.  It is important to emphasize this because the language of “nature versus art” sometimes leads to misunderstanding.  In particular, it is sometimes mistakenly supposed that the Aristotelian is claiming that all man-made objects are in the relevant sense “artificial” and that everything that occurs without human interference is in the relevant sense “natural.”  But that is not the case.  Water synthesized in a lab is in an obvious sense “man-made,” but it is still as “natural” in the relevant sense as the water that exists in lakes and rivers, because its tendencies are intrinsic to it, the manifestation of a substantial form.   A pile of rocks that gradually forms at the bottom of a hill is not man-made, but it is also not “natural” in the relevant sense, because the arrangement constitutes only an accidentalform and the rocks have no intrinsictendency to form a pile.  It is because the paradigmatic examples (though not all examples) of phenomena exhibiting intrinsic intentionality involve no human interference, and because the paradigmaticexamples (though not all examples) of phenomena resulting from human interference involve only derived rather than intrinsic teleology, that the traditional Aristotelian distinction is made in terms of “nature versus art.”  But this is a somewhat loose way of putting it.  Again, a more precise way of speaking would be to distinguish between substantial forms and accidental forms, or between intrinsic teleology on the one hand and derived and as-if teleology on the other.  

Now, it is only intrinsic teleology or substantial form that can ground goodness as an objective feature of things.  Taking in water and nutrients is good for liana vines -- it allows them to flourish in the sense of realizing their ends -- precisely because a tendency toward those ends is intrinsic to them.  That is why we say that liana vines that do so are good specimens of liana vines, while vines that fail to do so (because of disease, damage, or what have you) are bad specimens.  This standard of goodness or badness is entirely objective because it follows from the nature of the vines themselves rather than from our subjective attitudes about them or the purposes to which we might put them.  Of course, in the case of liana vines this standard of goodness or badness is not a moral standard.  But for the Aristotelian, moral goodness is just a special case of this more general sort of goodness.  Moral goodness is the kind that exists in rational animals (namely us) because, unlike liana vines and other non-rational substances, we can intellectually graspthe ends toward which our nature directs us and freely choose whether or not to pursue them.  (For more on this subject, see the writings of mine on natural law theory cited above.)

By contrast, there is no objective feature of a hammock that makes some things good for it and other things bad.  To be sure, we would say of a hammock which is fraying and ready to fall apart that it is a bad specimen of a hammock, and of a hammock that is more tightly constructed that it is a good hammock.  But that is to speak loosely.  For what makes a hammock good or bad has nothing to do with anything intrinsic to the liana vines (or whatever) out of which it is made, but concerns instead ourpurposes or ends in making it.  It is an entirely mind-dependent or conventional standard of goodness rather than one that is there in the nature of things themselves.  

It should be even more obvious that as-ifteleology can provide no objective standard of goodness.  If we say of the liana vines that have by chance grown into something vaguely resembling a cross that they look like a “good cross” or a “bad cross,” we are again only speaking loosely.  Since they have no inherent tendency to grow into a cross in the first place -- that they have grown this way in this one case is the result of a chance convergence of other factors such as how they happened to have fallen, how they happened to have been rooted, how much water and nutrients they happened to have taken in, etc. -- there is no objective sense to be made of their being a “good cross” or “bad cross.”  If an artist had tried to make them grow this way, we could have said it is a “good cross” or “bad cross” in the sense that the artist’s craftsmanship was good or bad, or that his materials were more or less suitable for his ends.  But by hypothesis that is not at issue here either.  The most we could say is that it is as if the liana vines that have grown this way were a “good cross” or “bad cross.”  But this “as-if” goodness or badness is no more objective (or even in any way real) goodness or badness than as-if teleology is objective teleology, or as-if intentionality is real intentionality.

Naturalism and as-if teleology

Now, scientism and naturalism as they are typically understood can give you at most only as-if teleology and as-if objective goodness, but not the real thing.  The reason why will be obvious to readers of The Last Superstition and of the many other things I’ve written on the subject of the transition from Aristotelian-Scholastic to early modern philosophy.  Here too I am getting tired of having to repeat myself, so I will once again focus on just the points most directly relevant to the issue at hand.  (I also hasten to emphasize that the sketch of the history of this transition that I am about to give is by no means a purely partisan one.  Those familiar with the work of historians of early modern philosophy like Margaret Osler, Kenneth Clatterbaugh, Dennis Des Chene, and Walter Ott, and philosophers of science like Brian Ellis and Nancy Cartwright, will recognize the general themes.)

The transition in question involved a number of factors, but the central component was a rejection of the Aristotelian-Scholastic doctrine of formal and final causes in favor of a broadly “mechanistic” conception of nature.  There are features of the early mechanistic theories that did not survive -- for example, early proponents of the “mechanical philosophy” sought to reduce all causation to the push-pull variety, but that didn’t last long -- but the core idea was that the explanation of natural phenomena should make reference neither to substantial forms or immanent natures nor to intrinsic or “built in” teleology or final causes.  As Ellis has put it, the early moderns replaced the Aristotelian notion of active powers with an essentially “passivist” conception of nature.  For the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition, by virtue of their substantial forms natural substances exhibit a directedness toward the generation of certain outcomes as toward a final cause.  Efficient cause thus presupposes final cause or teleology, which in turn presupposes substantial form.  Get rid of substantial form and final causality, and efficient causality in any robust sense -- any sense that entails an active tendency toward the generation of certain effects -- goes out the window with it.  That is precisely why Hume’s puzzles about causation and induction followed upon the early moderns’ anti-Aristotelian revolution.  What replaced active powers was the idea of natural phenomena as essentially passive -- as inherently directed toward no particular outcome at all -- on which certain “laws” have been imposed from outside.  If A tends regularly to generate B, that is, on this new view, not because of anything intrinsic to A itself, but rather because it is simply a “law of nature” that A will be followed by B.

But why does such a “law” hold?  The early moderns had a principled answer to this question.   They were theists, and took it that God had simply imposed on inherently passive matter certain patterns of activity.  Hence for Descartes, Newton, and Boyle it is not that noteleology or final causes exist at all.  Rather, natural teleology was reinterpreted as entirely derived rather than intrinsic.  Paley’s conception of the world as a kind of machine made by a divine artificer was the logical outcome of this way of thinking.  Like watches, hammocks, and other everyday artifacts, natural objects came to be seen as having essentially accidental rather than substantial forms.  The Aristotelian distinction between “nature” and “art” was dissolved, and the natural world was reinterpreted as a kind of divine artifact.

One implication of this is that goodness is no longer an inherentfeature of natural phenomena, any more than it is an inherent feature of hammocks, watches, and the like.  Just as the goodness or badness of a hammock or watch is relative to the purposes of the makers and users of such artifacts, and has nothing to do with anything inherent to the parts of these objects themselves, so too on the view of nature associated with Descartes, Newton, Boyle and Paley, the goodness or badness of various human actions cannot intelligibly be seen to follow from anything inherent to human nature itself, but rests entirely on the purposes of the divine artificer.  Morality comes to seem no longer a matter of natural law but rather of sheer divine command.  That is not to say that the thinkers named were all actually committed to this sort of view about morality.  I’m talking about what the view of nature they championed tends to lead to, whether or not they realized it.

(And as I have repeatedly pointed out -- though people fanatically obsessed with “defeating Darwinism” seem never to want to get the point -- the deeply anti-Aristotelian character of the conception of the world as a kind of “machine,” and the many unhappy philosophical and theological consequences of this conception, are the reasons Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophers are often so critical of “Intelligent Design” theory.)  

Now, what happens when you keep the anti-Aristotelian component of this position but throw out the theological component is that you get a conception of nature on which both intrinsic and derived teleology disappear, leaving only as-if teleology, which is no teleology at all.  And by the same token, both intrinsic and derived goodness disappear as well, leaving only as-if goodness, which is not really goodness at all.  On this conception, since the Aristotelian-Scholastic conception of nature is seen as a medieval relic, there is no intrinsic teleology to a liana vine, and thus no objective reason to call this growth pattern good and that one bad.  But neither is there any derived teleology or goodness, since there is (on this view) no divine artificer of the Newtonian or Paleyan sort either, whose purposes might give content to teleological and evaluative descriptions of natural phenomena in the absence of inherent Aristotelian forms and final causes.  The most we can say is that the liana vine behaves as if it had teleology and as if this growth pattern were good and that one bad.  For on the view of nature in question, the material world ultimately has only the mathematically describable (and essentially non-teleological) properties described by physics.

This is why John Searle is right to say (as he does in the book cited above) that naturalists are deluding themselves if they think that Darwinism gives them a way to “naturalize” teleology.  As Searle argues, the point of explanations in terms of natural selection is precisely to eliminate teleology, to show that such-and-such biological phenomena do not really have functions but only seem to (which is exactly what such explanations do show if interpreted within the larger context of a naturalistic metaphysical framework).  It is also why Alex Rosenberg is right to say that ifwe accept scientism, then to be consistent we have to deny the existence of any teleology and value whatsoever.   That is not to say that this conception of nature is coherent; on the contrary, I think it is completely incoherent, as I have argued in The Last Superstition, in the posts on Alex Rosenberg just linked to, and in other places.  But it is the conception of nature to which many naturalists are either explicitly or implicitly committed.

This brings us back at last to Fincke.  Both in the post linked to above and in an earlier post, Fincke makes use of expressions like “teleology,” “form,” “function,” “flourishing,” and “intrinsic goodness,” and refers positively to Aristotle.  That makes him sound like an old fashioned Scholastic like me, or at least like a neo-Aristotelian of the Ellis or Cartwright sort.  Yet he also uses “function” in a way that seems to imply that complex natural objects are simply arrangements of smaller components which interact in a law-like way.  This indicates a kind of reductionism that no Aristotelian can accept.  From an Aristotelian point of view, neither complex natural phenomena like organisms nor even relatively simpler natural substances like water are in any way less real than or reducible to their parts.  On the contrary, the parts of an organism are intelligible only by reference to the whole of which they are a part. And even the oxygen and hydrogen in a certain volume of water are lessreal than the water itself in the sensethat while the prime matter underlying that volume has the substantial form of water, the hydrogen and oxygen in it exist only “virtually” rather than “actually.”

There is nothing in any of this, rightly understood, that is in any way contrary to what we know from modern physics, chemistry, and biology, but it does require a very radical rethinking of the metaphysicalassumptions most philosophers (and scientists too, in their philosophical moments) bring to bear, almost always uncritically, on their interpretation of science.  (David Oderberg’s Real Essentialism is the most thorough recent treatment of the relationship between Aristotelian metaphysics and modern science.)

My guess would be that Fincke has simply not thought through the details of Aristotelian metaphysics thoroughly enough to see how radically at odds it is with the metaphysical assumptions typically made by contemporary academic philosophers, and naturalists in particular.  But I have not read a lot of his writing, so it is possible that he knows exactly what he is doing and that his comments about Libresco reflect a much larger, and quite radical, rethinking of naturalism itself.  (I highly doubt it, but who knows.)

If the latter is the case, then the rethink has to be very radical indeed, and it would be quite silly in that event for Fincke glibly to pretend that his fellow atheists should have no qualms about hopping on board.  For not only must a consistent Aristotelian essentially chuck out most of what has passed for the general metaphysical conventional wisdom in mainstream philosophy during the last few centuries, but he must also take very seriously the natural theology that has traditionally been associated with Aristotelian metaphysics and philosophy of nature.  That is not dogmatically to insist that there can be no way to extricate the metaphysics and philosophy of nature from the natural theology (though I don’t for a moment think this can be done).  Perhaps Fincke could make a go of it.  The point is rather that (as I show in many places, like Aquinas) the general metaphysics and philosophy of nature on the one hand and the natural theology on the other are very deeply interrelated.   To develop a consistently Aristotelian conception of nature without committing oneself to an Aristotelian natural theology is a major project, not the work of a few blog posts.  

More likely, Fincke is essentially committed to the same naturalistic assumptions his fellow atheists are, and does not realize that the Aristotelian categories he likes cannot be so easily harmonized with those assumptions.  And if that is the case, he will certainly have failed to give either teleology or morality an objective foundation, for he will have established at most only as-if teleology and goodness rather than either intrinsic or derived teleology and goodness.  But as things stand his arguments seem too ambiguous between a traditional Aristotelian reading on the one hand, and a naturalistic reading on the other, to know for sure what the content of his position really is.
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