In seeking to answer the question ‘What is life?’, why should agency be given precedence over the many other universal characteristics of life that can be found in today’s many academic systems of biological representation?
Science attempts to describe the world in a detached way that minimizes the impact of human subjectivity. The view expressed on this web site is that biological science does not get closer to biological ‘reality’ by drilling ever deeper into the physicochemical constituents of matter, because it is integrated and autonomous organisms that must eventually be the focus of biological explanation.
We understand the world using multiple systems of representation (perspectives, disciplines, frames of reference, levels of organization, points of view) all of which are equally valid. This does not relativize knowledge because each system has its own measures of effectiveness that are under constant reappraisal. However, it does mean that the particular system we emphasize depends on our special interests and the goals we currently pursue – which is a pragmatic choice.
This is why it is so difficult to define life. A fair approach would treat all representational systems equally – an impossible task.
There is a solution. The objects we perceive, the criteria and cognitive faculties we use to discriminate between them, the sense of time in which they are experienced, the scales and perspectives from which we view these objects . . . all are influenced by our humanity (our human cognition). This does not make the world a subjective human illusion, but it does provide a lens for interpretation.
We can therefore acknowledge our humanity and deliberately adopt a human perspective on ‘life’, a common-sense manifest image perspective that is readily understood and therefore meaningful, while at the same time acknowledging the more detached and scientific vision expressed through multiple systems of representation.
When viewed through this human lens, as Aristotle appreciated, it is teleology, the ‘for’ of organisms and their parts that defines what it is to be alive. ‘Agency’ is simply a more apt way of expressing what biologist Richard Dawkins has called ‘functional complexity’ – and it is agency that is expressed by the conditions of the biological axiom. This agency is present within all organisms, it is not our own agency inserted metaphorically into nature.
Our scientific preference for analysis rather than synthesis, for explaining wholes in terms of their parts, has led biology to microbiology, DNA, and a ‘bottom-up’ perspective on life. However, we still intuitively recognize the integrated agential autonomy (unity of purpose) of discrete organisms as a kind of organically concentrated individuality that is not found in the inanimate world, or even in biological entities like genes, tissues, populations, or cells.
Scientists are no longer encumbered by Aristotle and his causes. His formal and final causes were abandoned during the Scientific Revolution for their unscientific implications and philosophical obscurity. But the realization that agency in nature is real begs a reappraisal of teleology as outlined in his Physica Book 2.
Aristotle’s four ‘becauses’ are deceptively inclusive. They are both static and dynamic, incorporating both structure and function. By considering potentiality, actuality, and the temporal sequence of efficient cause, they allow for history and development, past and present, while final cause embraces all these factors within the notions of purpose and agency. They describe the way things are now, but also account for change (Aristotle’s primary objective) by explaining how they came to be. And their meaning allows some flexibility of interpretation (Aristotle pointed out that the Greek word aition as ’cause’ had various senses).
The four causes divide neatly into two pairs. The material and efficient causes (those adopted after the Scientific Revolution) capture an analytic ‘bottom-up’ physical and material perspective on the world and change. Formal and final causes offer a synthetic ‘top-down’, integrating, unifying, agential, and purposive perspective.
Scientists of the Scientific Revolution (mostly astronomer-physicist-mathematicians) abandoned Aristotle’s formal and final causes as too abstract, if not altogether mistaken, bequeathing us a mechanistic world of matter in motion. In this way non-human living organisms were united with the material and efficient. By restricting purpose and agency to humans, and without the benefit of the theory of evolution, this was a distancing of humans from their continuity with the community of life, a distancing that persists today.
Aristotle wanted to know, not just about order in general and the project of science in its entirety. He also wanted to describe what was unique about the particular kind of order, change, and coming to be, that we see in biology.
‘It is not good enough to study the stars no matter how perfect they may be. Rather we must also study the humblest creatures even if they seem repugnant to us. And that is because all animals have something of the good, something of the divine, something of the beautiful’ . . . ‘inherent in each of them there is something natural and marvelous. Nothing is accidental in the works of nature: everything is, absolutely, for the sake of something else. The purpose for which each has come together, or come into being, deserves its place among what is natural and good’ . . . ‘The nature that crafted them likewise provides extraordinary pleasures to those who are able to know their causes and are by nature philosophers.’
Aristotle – De Partibus Animalium (The Parts of Animals) 645a15
Aristotle’s sentiments are aptly referred to as ‘The Invitation to Biology’.
Aristotle’s central idea – the cement that binds all biology together – revolves around his final cause: it is this that gives life its ‘unity of purpose’. Only now, after over 400 years of rejection, this idea is gradually being restored to scientific respectability through a recognition of the limitations of a micro- perspective on life, and the resurgence of a philosophical position reinstating purpose in biology (outlined in the article bioteleological realism). This is a recognition that purpose in nature is real – organisms can be ‘for’ without foresight. Purpose was naturalized by Darwin who demonstrated that final cause does not require future causation. Final causes do not imply either God or the empirically impossible.
Smallism has now run its course as we have come to realize that biology comprises much more than just physical forces, molecules and fundamental particles, and energy flows. We also need to know the role of life (entire living organisms) in the broader contexts of surrounding systems . . . environments, ecosystems, and the biosphere, in its entirety.
An organism is as real as a molecule. We need a synthetic or holistic overview as well as an analytic and reductionist one. And, for convenience, we need an explanation that is neither anthropocentric nor anthropomorphic but human friendly.
Aristotle noticed that teleology has two faces, the ‘of which’, aim, or function (say, of an eye ‘to see‘, of a heart ‘to pump blood‘) and the ‘for which’ that ahs a beneficiary, the organism deriving the benefit. In modern terms he noticed that the ‘for’ or purpose that exists in nature is of two kinds: the goals of organisms, and the functions of their parts.
Biological mysteries, rightfully resisted by the Scientific Revolution, have now been resolved in naturalistic ways. The genetic code acts as life’s ‘inner nature’ or, to use Aristotle’s analogy, the ‘inner craftsman’ that provides the critical information whereby ‘like begets like’. Even Darwin was unaware of this genetic foundation. We now recognize ‘like’ organisms by their intergenerational similarity as the formal cause that gives them structure and meaning. This intergenerational reincarnation is not the consequence of a mysterious and supernatural entelechy, but the fully scientifically comprehended consequence of genetics.
From the Scientific Revolution to the time of Darwin and beyond, teleology was regarded as an Aristotelian solecism. How can nature display purpose when purpose is something that only exists in human minds? But teleological language (human talk) would not go away and a philosophical industry has been constructed around its clarification. Perhaps purpose-talk could be avoided altogether by ignoring what things are ‘for’ and, instead, simply stating what they ‘do’?
It is argued here and elsewhere on this site that purpose and agency in nature is real; it is not our purpose. We have failed to understand how deeply our resistance to this idea has become ingrained in our collective psyche and how liberating its negation will be.
Final causes explain the presence of features, but exert no “mysterious pull” from the future. They rather function quite literally as the direction-givers and the ends and limits of developments necessitated by formal-efficient or material-efficient causation. In this way, they provide both the first component of a teleological explanation and the heuristic starting point for investigations that will lead to a statement of the complete teleological explanation of the phenomenon in question. This does not mean, however, that final causes have only a heuristic value: since in demonstrations of the teleological type the final causes are part of the conclusion that is being demonstrated, the practice of Aristotle’s natural science demonstrates the very existence of natural teleology.
Mariska Leunissen. 2015.
Explanation & teleology in Aristotle’s science of nature. Cambridge University Press
The single most forceful argument against teleology is that nature cannot operate with foresight as the language of purpose implies. Leunissen (above) is showing that this apparent foresight is explanatory primacy, not causal primacy.
Humans view and interpret nature from a human perspective and human scale. Science tries to overcome this cognitive bias by increasing the perspectives from which we view ‘life’, most notably by using technology to narrow down and widen out.
But organisms are meaningful units regardless of scale and this human bias. Agency (purpose) is both real in nature, and an explanatory lens that is close to our human interest because it draws together in a simple and engaging way what it is that we humans recognize in ‘life’ as distinct from ‘matter’: it makes intelligible phenomena that would otherwise be dissociated facts of our universe‘.
Unfortunately, the analysis of his central biological claim – that biological explanation must revolve around ‘ends’ (his final causes) is now buried in decades of abstruse and mostly unsympathetic philosophical debate. His simple thesis was that biology, at its core, is a process of reverse engineering . . . finding out what organisms, their parts, and their behaviour, are for.
In Aristotelian terms, humanity has now located the ‘inner craftsman’ that was scorned by the Scientific Revolution. This was an answer to Aristotle’s superficially simple and silly (but biologically crucial) question ‘Why do neither snakes nor stars have feet‘?
The question remains. From what perspective are we to take a summary view of life?
We humans have cognitive limitations, and it seems we have reached an impasse. Science has extended our biological knowledge beyond anything Aristotle could have dreamed. We have plumbed life’s structure, function, microscopic material composition, behaviour, dynamic process, energy flows, the communication of information, genetic properties, genomics, informatics, proteomics . . . physics, biochemistry, ecology . . . ? The academic arena is now so vast that it seems impossible to explain life briefly and coherently from this multitude of aspects all at once; yet to omit one is do it a disservice. The place of whole organisms within their wider environments, including the greater whole – as communities, populations, ecosystems etc. – is as important as the circumscription of their smallest components. Is there a priority of scale when we break down organisms into organs, tissues, cells, and macro-molecules? We cannot explain an ecosystem in terms of the molecules that make it up, even if this is theoretically possible.
This is where we are at now. If we want to define life, then we must define it as viewed from many aspects. We try to overcome our human ‘subjectivity’, our human focus, by using technology that extends our biologically given senses into unfamiliar worlds, and that is how science has advanced.
But Aristotle gave us an option. If we view must view the world from a human perspective, then perhaps we can use that perspective to its greatest advantage. Central to our humanity is our purposiveness, agency, and intentionality.
In (over)simplified terms: scientists of the early modern period provided scientific explanations that were restricted, in Aristotelian terms, to material and efficient cause i.e. what something is made of (its material composition), and the trigger for it doing whatever it does (today’s understanding of ’cause’). This approach to scientific explanation gave rise to what is characterized in the history of science as a mechanistic world of matter in motion and this conception replaced Aristotle’s world view of a cosmos filled with life-like agency. Only with Darwin was a more organic perception of the world reinstated although the old preoccupation with the physicochemical as somehow prior has persisted.
Aristotle’s third and fourth explanatory (be)causes, which he believed were necessary for a complete scientific explanation, were his formal and final causes. These were considered problematic and therefore best discarded or ignored. Final cause (‘that for the sake of which’ or ‘for’) was problematic in several ways: it implied future causation along with the possibility of supernatural influence and the intrusion of anthropomorphism. Formal cause as ‘that which makes it what it is’ was also an ambiguous, abstract and spooky business, suggesting mysterious philosophical essences or some-such.
Aristotle argued that efficient cause without final cause was like a fire that spreads uncontrollably in all directions, while final cause is an outcome to an ordered (not random or accidental) and efficient process (De Anima II.4,416a15-18). He was also adamant that purpose arose in nature itself; it was not placed there by either God or the human imagination.
It is significant that Aristotle’s four causes divide neatly into two pairs. The material and efficient causes capture an analytic ‘bottom-up’ physical and material perspective on the world and change. Formal and final causes offer a ‘top-down’ synthetic, integrating, unifying, forward-looking, agential, and purposeful perspective on the universe. Aristotle’s telos implied the mesmerizing thought that, at its very simplest, every cause has an effect as a primordial ‘purpose’, however obscure or tiny that might be.
The influence of the Scientific Revolution on contemporary science can be exaggerated, but by emphasizing a mechanistic world of matter in motion, and abandoning Aristotle’s formal and final cause, ‘life’ and ‘agency’ were squeezed out of the scientific world, thus uniting non-human life with the material and efficient, essentially the inorganic. Humans were the only creatures with ‘real’ agency. By restricting purpose and agency to humans, and without the theory of evolution, a gulf was opened up between humanity and the rest of life – a gulf that is yet to be satisfactorily bridged.
The Scientific Revolution’s rejection of Aristotle’s formal and final causes was, in part, an attempt to remove the problematic ideas of purpose and agency from biology. These notions introduced a mysterious (?supernatural) life-force and obscure philosophical ideas that were not amenable to empirical investigation. Exorcising life-forces from non-human organisms was considered a scientific service. ( them greater resemblance to the inanimate world than the animate and conscious world of humans). But agency and purpose have remained a part of the language and academic culture of biology.
After 2500 years we are now inadvertently returning to Aristotle’s way of thinking by including formal and final causes in our consideration. True to the Scientific Revolution we acknowledge the importance of describing what something is ‘made of’ (its material cause), and ‘how it arose or was made’ (efficient cause). But we are only just beginning to acknowledge, philosophically, that much of our biology is reverse-engineering – not just the investigation of what living systems and structures ‘do’, but what they are ‘for’ – both individually, and collectively through the unity of purpose expressed in the biological axiom (final cause).
In the absence of this unified agential explanation of life, biology becomes a collection of dissociated facts of the kind we use to describe the inanimate world. It is the purposiveness of biological agency that gives life its meaning through the ultimate goals of survival and reproduction and the proximate goal of flourishing, all as a matter of biological necessity.
A satisfying scientific answer to the question ‘What is life?’ must be a full one. It must involve much more than a response detailing ‘what it is made of’ (material cause) and an assumption that something that is small is more ‘real’ than something that is big. We need more than Aristotle’s material and efficient cause as explanation. Life is more than subatomic particles, energy, or information: it is even more than the genetic code. Also, what an integrated and autonomous functional organism is ‘for’ brings with it a meaning that extends well beyond what it ‘does’.
A full explanation of a chair, we believe, must include a description of what it is ‘for’, its final cause or purpose. Sadly, for many scientists and philosophers, even today, organisms are no more ‘for’ anything than are planets or rocks. A chair has more purpose than an organism.
As complexity increased after the Big Bang, so life emerged as matter with distinctly novel properties and relations. It is argued in this article here, and the article on human-talk that our science would better reflect the world if it treated the categories employed by human-talk as existing in reality by degree, rather than as unreal metaphor.
Today, long after Darwin connected humans to the community of life, and naturalized teleology, we are still struggling to acknowledge the purpose that is inherent in all living organisms, the purpose that is associated with their biological agency.