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Purpose today

The Zeitgeist

Movements in philosophy, art, and even science, often move in tandem, following the general sentiment or spirit of their times. The Enlightenment, for example, had its unifying intellectual themes of progress, reason, science, and humanism that were followed by counter-movements like reactionary Romanticism . . . and so on. Is there a mood of the times or zeitgeist today?

There is a feeling that humanity has worked through the logical possibilities of many problems and situations that were formerly of great fascination and concern. For example, Western classical music seemed to have a linear trajectory in its exploration of sound. The same, in retrospect, seems to apply to art and literature. We are used to the idea of art that has nothing to do with pictures on walls, music that has no melody, harmony, or rhythm … and so on. In philosophy our critical skepticism generated, for a while, an enthusiastic post-modernism and relativism but this too seems to have run its course. Though the future no doubt always seemed uncertain, and always seemed to be in some sense, at an end point we do, nevertheless appear to be at a new crossroads.

Certainly there is much to be uncertain and pessimistic about these days: but our collective mood can hardly compare with the physical and intellectual despair, the deep and dark disillusionment that followed two world wars.

We are probably too close to everything to make more than a few vague comments about our immediate times. But here are a few speculative thoughts that link to themes explored elsewhere on this web site.

A global outlook

We are far more globally sensitive. For example, I am aware that any views I express in this article are open to the accusation that they represent the standpoint of a white, Anglo-Saxon, ageing, intellectual, middle-class Eurocentric academic out of touch with the mass of humanity.

Knowledge accumulation

Above all, any exciting development, in any discipline, becomes globally accessible for those that are interested.

The science of mind

In science, as interest shifts towards the last major scientific frontier, the human mind and consciousness, we can see some broad changes in the scientific zeitgeist as it too becomes more global. We are much more attuned to topics like artificial intelligence, the nature of consciousness, robotics, and moving from the genome to proteome, bioinformatics and the connectome. Though questions about the universe(s) at its largest and smallest scales hold much of the scientific interest the broad scientific literature is becoming less insistent on universal and timeless laws and the foundation of everything in the universe on the fundamental particles of physics.

Our age has come to accept less intellectual dogma and finds less need for the intellectual authority that comes with certainty. Our former paradigm of science representing the indubitable, timeless, eternal, universal, and absolute truths, like those of of mathematics, has been softened and warmed by a more organically-based intellectual climate. We have become more pragmatic, utilitarian, and instrumental – more relaxed in tone, with fewer of us claiming to be ‘seekers of truth’ and more of us claiming to be doing the best we can with what we’ve got.

We have embraced the complexion of evolution which teaches us that descent with modification leads, not to single ultimate ineluctable truths as ‘laws of nature’ but multiple end-points and perceptions, gradations, continua, integrated systems, and interconnection.

Some words are so semantically rich that they lose all grounding in definition to gather a life of their own as they scoop up the flavour of their own particular time in history. Included in a list of words like this would be ‘meaning’, ‘reason’, ‘causation’, ‘value’ and ‘purpose’.

Biological categories

The semantic boundaries we draw between related category words that we use to fragment and describe the world can vary in the semantic strength with which they bind to other words: some, like those in the list above, have meanings that merge strongly with the meanings of other words like streams flowing into one-another, others (classical categories – see classification) are clear-cut, technically precise, secure, and permanent (e.g. anther). It is the process of semantic change, partly a consequence of new scientific evidence and partly a cultural phenomenon, that I shall consider here by examining our changing attitudes to familiar biological categories and boundaries:


Species are the generally accepted basic unit of biological classification while remaining an enigma. The sense of a world of discrete organic entities presented to us by the manifest image is soon dispelled when our science tries to address the question ‘What is a species?”. Taxonomy has progressively anticipated breakthroughs by introducing characters established using new technologies. In plants this has included studying pollen (palynology), chemical building blocks (chemotaxonomy), whole chromosomes, ultrastructure and more. The introduction of computers allowed the rapid processing of character sets to become informatics (1970s). Our methods of resolving species continue to move away from morphology, from similarities and differences of the phenotype that we can see with the naked eye, to the mining of evolution’s secrets locked into the genetic code of the genotype. We are in the era of gene sequencing, ‘genetic fingerprinting’, and the use of ‘molecular clocks’ that establish a chronology of character origination. The general principle of diagnosis has moved from organic form to evolutionary fingerprint, not relationship by superficial resemblance but relationship according to probable evolutionary history as determined by our most sophisticated modern gene technology using molecular and phylogenetic systematics (1960s) cladistics (1970s), genomics (1980s). Has the holy grail of taxonomy, the best character set for determining relationships, finally been discovered?

Animals & plants

The development of evolution-based informatics and genomics in the latter half of the twentieth century has made it easier to look back in time to the history of evolution. When, about 2300 years ago, Aristotle and Theophrastus initiated biology as the scientific study of animals and plants, the clear distinction we now tend to draw between these two categories of living organisms was unclear because the characters they emphasised drew attention to their similarities rather than the differences. However for over 2000 years the plant-animal dichotomy remained secure until today we are once again less sure as, in the 1970s, the two dominant kingdoms became five: Protista (the single-celled eukaryotes, single-celled organisms with a nucleus); Fungi (fungus and related organisms); Plantae (the plants); Animalia (the animals); and Monera (the prokaryotes, organisms without a nucleus). Many biologists further dividing Monera at the rank of kingdom giving rise to the Eubacteria and Archaea, and therefore six kingdoms.

One lesson we have learned from evolution is the way that biological units, species, genera, families, and so on grade into one-another – presumably a consequence of descent with modification. This is most evident to ‘outsiders’ who sometimes refer to individual biological taxonomists as ‘lumpers’ or a ‘splitters’. This does not mean that species are totally arbitrary … but it does mean that there is room for interpretation!

Humans & animals
Perhaps the the most marked changes in biological categories in recent times have been those relating to the distinction between humans and animals especially as this relates to minds, brains, and consciousness. Humans, through much of history, considered themselves a part of nature but early Christianity elevated our status to God’s special creation, not united with nature but set apart from it. Indeed, by some interpretations, nature had been placed on earth for the convenience of humanity. Humans do indeed have special qualities, the capacity for: imagination; memory (facilitating narrative and meaning); contemplation of past and future; thinking of objects that are distant from us; consideration of counterfactuals; a sense of self; and abstract ideas. Non-human sentient animals are focused far more on the present moment. Also the ability to develop oral and symbolic languages (e.g. logic and mathematics) for the sharing and accumulation of collective wisdom together with a reasoning or synthesising faculty that permits the scientific study of perception and cognition in other organisms. The ability to build scientific instruments has given us access to physical features of the external world that are not available to our biologically-given senses. Though reasons exist in the world independently of humans only humans represent reasons to one-another symbolically.

However, through the work of Darwin, humans were returned to a place within nature but as just one branch of the vast tree we can call the community of life. From the time when Copernicus moved the Earth from the centre of the solar system scientific research has dimished the role of humanity within the cosmos. Darwin provided compelling evidence that, rather than being placed on Earth by God, humans were united with the entire community of life by being a consequence of descent with modification from a common ancestor, with ape-like animals being our closest ancestors. Humans were neither the sole purpose nor pinnacle of the evolutionary tree.

Sentience & rationality; consciousness
Aristotle described humans as rational animals and this distinction has remained. However, another distinction has been drawn in recent times, frequently associated with Australian philosopher Peter Singer and that is between sentience and non-sentience, sentience being the capacity for subjective experience such as perception, feeling, and pain. Non-human sentient creatures can suffer just like humans and the disregard for their suffering is, according to animal rights activists, a form of human moral arrogance that has been called ‘speciesism’. The animal rights movement has made us much more aware of the mental life of sentient animals, especially the treatment of domesticated animals and other issues associated with environmental ethics.


This point gathers significance when we consider the reasons that exist in living organisms. There is a reason why the spider builds a web, the heart pumps, leaves are green, and chameleons are camouflaged. Again these reasons do not need humans to make them reasons. Nature is replete with reasons, but nature is mindless. Reasons in nature arose by natural selection and natural selection does not have conscious intentions, only humans have conscious intentions. Humans are special because they can represent reasons either in their minds or through symbolic languages.

Three interesting insights emerge from these observations.

Firstly, reasons are manifest in nature through its intricate design. Almost everything in nature is ‘for‘ some reason or purpose. The wonder of nature is the wonder of complex and pervasive design, design that is more complex than anything constructed by humans. Nature’s design is a consequence of natural selection and it produced the most complex design we know in the universe, the human brain. But nature’s design is not intelligent design. But neither is it apparent design: it is real design, and it is mindless design. This point has fooled scientists and philosophers since the Scientific Revolution that rejected Aristotle’s insights on teleology. When we see design we assume incorrectly that it must have been placed there by a designer, either God or human. We were wrong and Aristotle was right.

Secondly, as Aristotle observed, the reasons in nature (unlike the reasons in the universe) have a beneficiary. Reasons (functions or adaptations) in nature promote the survival and reproduction of the organism. And where there is a beneficiary there is value.

Design in nature is manifest to all, it is not problematic; it is only ‘intelligent’ design that is contentious. Many still claim that design in nature is only ‘apparent’ design (e.g. Richard Dawkins) a claim that is made on the grounds that Darwin’s theory of evolution demonstrates that design in nature did not arise through a conscious intentional process and the mistaken assumption that designs must have a designer. This argument is also given as the main reason why Aristotle’s natural teleology is mistaken, even though Aristotle explicitly denied that his natural teleology was a consequence of the intentions of either God or man.

The question here remains as to whether we should associate the function and design we see in nature with the word ‘purpose’. This is a question of semantics. On the one hand our inclination is to see purpose as a consequence of human (god’s) intention but, on the other hand, we willingly make statements like ‘the purpose of the heart is to pump blood’, or ‘ the purpose of wings is to fly’. It is time to admit that the scientists of the Scientific Revolution over-reacted to religion’s take-over of Aristotelian teleology and that we should guiltlessly speak of design and function in nature as ‘purpose’. Naure is the supreme designer, not humans or God. It would do biology (and Aristotle) a service to be given purpose back once again.

Although we

and this is an important part of what Aristotle was trying to convey through his concept of telos. Darwin’s natural selection was a convincing account of a mechanism giving rise to pre-conscious goal-directedness in nature. It was, after all, a ‘selection’ process, albeit ‘natural selection’ or ‘pre-selection’ if you like. Our intuitive awareness of this selection process through the functional adaptive complexity of nature means that we are uneasy about saying that ‘the spider builds a web to catch flies’ is scientifically parallel to the statement ‘the apple falls in order to hit the ground’. Put simply, pre-conscious natural selection is like a stage on the way to conscious selection. If we think that there is not a continuous difference but a gulf between conscious and unconscious selection then we should consider not the sense of freedom or free will that we associate with conscious selection, but the fact that this, like natural selection, is simply an extension of deterministic pathways in nature. Why is human conscious intention so special that we want to ascribe purpose to it alone – it is just natural selection, telos, made more complex.

Perhaps we should be made more aware in biology of the gradient of goal-directedness or purposiveness in ‘natures’ as we pass from bacteria to plants and non-sentient animals to the instinctive goal-directed behaviour of animals, to the conscious behaviour of sentient animals, and the intentional deliberative behaviour of humans. Conscious intent (what we sometimes call free will) is still subject to the deterministic processes of nature. We have traditionally treated these distinctions as a difference in kind but perhaps they are better throught of as differences in degree.

One consequence of this is the appropriateness of the word ‘purpose’ when applied to biological phenomena since it captures the directiveness entailed in words like ‘adaptation’, ‘design’, ‘selection’, and ‘function’.

Acknowledging the way that the extraordinarily sophisticated complexity of organisms has arisen from the ‘mindless’ process of natural selection we must also seriously consider James Lovelock’s thesis of Gaia, the theory that the Earth’s living matter ‘influences’ air, ocean, and rock to form a complex, self-regulating system that has the capacity to keep the Earth a fit place for life.

Purpose as biological order
We know that living organisms have the capacity to self-replicate but with variation that is subject to selection over many generations. Heritable variation combined with selection pressure constrains possible outcomes. It is sometimes mistakenly claimed that part of the miracle of life is that it is the outcome of random or chance mutations. This ignores the fact that these mutations are subject to natural selection. Only those that promote the survival of the organism will persist. That is, the evolutionary path that is actually followed will result in the survival of those organisms better suited to their surroundings. It is tempting to think that the constraining effect of natural selection is so great that there can be only be one ultimate outcome. The view of humans as the pinnacle of evolution is such a view. Darwin showed that, although natural selection restricts outcomes there are many different ways of adjusting to many different environments. However, there is no inexorable and fixed long-term end-point for structural evolution because there may be many structuro-functional responses to the same environmental challenges. But natural selection is not random and it has the character of intentional deliberation seeking effective outcomes as pre-conscious purpose. For this reason we perceive ‘design’, ‘direction’, ‘purpose’, and ‘function’ in an adaptive trait that is heritable and enhances reproductive success.

Purpose as ‘top-down’ causation
All objects are simultaneously both wholes and parts: we can understand and explain them by either looking ‘backwards’, ‘downwards’ or analytically at their parts, or ‘upwards’ and ‘forwards’ synthetically to their role within a wider context. A spatial cognitive dissonance can arises when we try to see things both ways at once. Similarly a temporal cognitive dissonance arises when we try to understand ends as present within beginnings. Aristotle’s objects of special interest were those which have several parts and in which the totality is not, as it were, a mere heap, but the whole is something besides the parts (Metaphysica X 1045a8–10) an observation often reduced to ‘The whole is greater than the sum of the parts‘. We do not have to concede future causation by recognising the way context and function can determine future outcomes as pre-conscious purpose and the way that genetics contains ends within beginnings. Though we can describe a gene in terms of what it ‘does’, it makes more sense to concede purpose and describe what it is ‘for’.

Purpose, memory, information, communication, value
The point I make is that just as consciousness itself is manifested gradually through the animal world so too do the qualities of consciousness. Is a dog conscious, a fish, a worm, an amoeba? Where do we draw the line?

Though clearly conscious awareness is not a quality exhibited by much of nature, nature does have many consciousness-like attributes. These qualities are like precursors to consciousness – necessary conditions for the presence of consciousness. Perhaps we are over-enthusiastic to maintain our distance from the rest of nature? Biologists are currently wrestling with this transitional state of nature through the ideas of information, memory, value, communication, purpose and more. It is not that nature has passed inexorably to human consciousness from former states, but that in order for consciousness to arise at all certain physical conditions needed to be in place. They are clearly processes that do not occur in inanimate matter. Purpose and teleonomy are one example of this continuity in nature. Communication is another.

We can think of communication as being distinctly human, the meaning of the word ‘communication’ itself entailing conscious intention. But this need not be so: communication can be an exchange of information that does not require consciousness.


Communication diagram

Communication – one of many qualities exhibited by living organisms that are akin to consciousness-based characteristics like memory, purpose, information, even value
This diagrammatic representation of the internet in 2010 could just as well represent a chart of inter-cellular communication in a living organism
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons – LyonLabs, LLC and Barrett Lyon

Philosopher of biology Godfrey-Smith draws attention to the kind of communication that occurs in nature through the process of tissue-differentiation that unfolds during development.[1] Cells in our body with extremely similar genomes differentiate during development in a highly controlled way to produce very different tissues in distinct forms – tissue masses of brain, skin, heart, lung consisting of neurons, skin cells, heart cells, lung cells and so on. We now know that this miraculously regulated process results from the control of gene expression; only a small number of genes are expressed in any given cell but the process only arrives at its outcomes through a complex process of chemical signalling between cells.[2] The entire process involves a vigorous interchange between the objects of organisation and their environment. Each cell influences those around it while at the same time responding to signals received from it. We have here a kind of proto-communication that we anthropomorphically think is totally unrelated to animal and human communication of many kinds. But this kind of communication was absolutely necessary if life was to persist. Communication, like teleonomy, is ubiquitous. Just one of many aspects of the organism-environment continuum necessary for selection to take place.

A further graded aspect of biological systems is that relating to information. The molecules of genes have many properties that distinguish them from the molecules of inanimate matter. One of these is their coded information: in this way genea are much more like a book than a rock. This seems to be a ripe area for research. Are populations like genes, accumulating environmental information? Is the coding we see in genes like the very first beginnings of something that on one path lead to spoken language and on others to instinctive behaviour – what is the place of ‘information’ in all this?

Among the many other graded aspects of nature are the origin of consciousness and value.

We tend to see purpose in events that follow the same pattern as our own purposive behaviour, that is, we see purpose in those events that are constrained in a predictable way towards particular ends. This closely resembles the way our minds sift and sort information before we decide on a particular course of action.

The words we choose can make a big difference to the way we understand the world (although this can be overstated). If we replace the anthropocentric expression ‘natural selection’ with another but simpler and more direct expression ‘self-correction’ then a new interpretation of the world comes into focus. We assume the universe began with the Big Bang with the world at first undifferentiated plasma. As the ancient Greeks would have asked: why should everything not simply remain as undifferentiated matter – as chaos and the void? The reason, we now know, is that even plasma is constrained by the laws of physics, by cosmic constants. Like the Greeks we do not know why the laws of nature are as they are, but unlike the Greeks we now know what they are. Our knowledge has advanced to such an extent that we can now calculate precisely what the universe would have been like micro-seconds, seconds, and minutes after the Big Bang. We know how the laws of nature subsequently resulted in the formation of stars, planets, elements and galaxies. At this stage of cosmic development we can see the constraining power of natural laws on the potential future structure of the universe. The restriction of possibility that results from the existence of physical laws can be seen as ‘self-correction’ only at its very weakest. Nevertheless, actual outcomes are restricted by possible outcomes.

The great leap in the evolution of the methodology of ‘self-correction’ came when the physical conditions of natural selection arose – that is self-replication with variation and selection. Once replication was combined with some physical variation then the process of ‘selection’ or ‘self-correction’ would inevitably occur as biological forms became better suited to their surroundings. We can see how such a process would embark on a consciousness-like process of exploration of the organic possibilities as various ‘solutions’ were found according to the many different kinds of surroundings (environments) that were encountered on this planet. This is akin to dubious panpsychism, the view that some element of consciousness must be present in the simple atoms that make up conscious matter.

Instinct & conditioned response
One major part of the ‘self-correction’ process was the advent of motility. Those organisms that were capable of movement combined with some extremely simple way of sensing the environment had the capacity to move away from factors in their environment that might threaten their survival. But new environments presented new challenges so those moving organisms with the more effective sensory systems would tend to survive. In this way we can understand the development of simple centralised sensory systems with their associated sensory nerves evolved. The path to the modern brain appears a logical progression. However, part of the process of sensing the environment as early organisms moved around was the incessant process of environmental ‘testing’ or ‘monitoring’ with responses to environmental signals that would aid survival. In other words the central nervous system would be subjected to a battery of sensory information about the external world. The organisms that would tend to survive would be those that were most efficient at ‘self-correction’ as a process localised in the central nervous system.

As brains became ever more efficient at the ‘self-correction’ needed to deal with phenomenal quantities and increasing sophistication of sensory input, what we know as ‘consciousness’ emerged. Humans were not the pinnacle of evolution as though they were the only path that evolution could take but, along with other sentient creatures they shared the high degree of environmental awareness that we call consciousness. More than this. The self-correction that occurs in most animals as a mechanistic instinctual or intuitive response to external stimuli also occurs in humans but only in in humans have we become, through consciousness, aware of this property of self-correction that began with the laws of physics. We call our conscious awareness of self-correction ‘reason’.

One consequence of this cosmology is that we see a loose grading of the properties of the matter that embodies ‘self-correction’. We see this in the ideas of consciousness, purpose, complexity. Sometimes we wish to create a clear and distinct category in our minds by drawing a mental dividing line that does not exist in reality. For example, humans are conscious – but what about dogs, fish, insects or an amoeba? There is in fact no unequivocal cut-off point at which consciousness can be said to begin and end: consciousness exists in a continuum – and that is why some people might claim that consciousness must exist, in no matter how crude a form, in simplest matter (panpsychism). Purpose, a concept related to consciousness, is I believe also best thought of as existing in reality as part of a continuum. Though human intentional behaviour expresses purpose in its most obvious form we might think of goal-directed structures and behaviour as part of a purposive continuum that at the other extreme might include events like the falling of an apple to the ground from a tree. Most of us would not include the latter within our notion of purpose but, beyond that, what is purposive becomes less clearly defined. The prevailing view that purpose must be restricted to human intentional activity is simply another form of anthropocentrism. Just as consciousness grades into unconsciousness as we pass through the animal kingdom, so too does conscious purpose. If we link purpose directly to consciousness then it too must exist in a continuum receding into intuitive and instinctive behaviour. This is a further difficulty for teleology. We might regard a trout catching a fly as conscious intention but what about a mosquito sucking blood or an amoeba engulfing a spec of nutritious matter. The line is grey. It is as though teleonomy (as natural selection) is a precursor to the design of the conscious mind and the capacity for self-correction that we see in reason.

Aristotle’s science is most clearly articulated in his Physica.

More on Aristotle

To my mind Aristotle expresses great confidence in natural teleology because he is simply pointing out, albeit in an elaborate way, the deterministic character of nature. Today, although teleology is regarded with suspicion, determinism is a non-controversial if not axiomatic assumption underpinning all scientific explanation. Given circumstance x then y must follow. This is how we develop scientific categories like patterns, regularities, principles, and laws.

Some scientific scepticism about Aristotelian teleology can be sourced to the Novum Organum (1620) of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) during the English Renaissance who, along with like-thinking supporters, attacked the medieval scholastic Aristotelian outlook, favouring a mechanistic interpretation of the Universe through a period when natural philosophy was turning into science. From this time onwards science abandoned Aristotles formal and final causes (regarded as either mistaken or too subjective to be useful), instead concentrating on material and efficient causes.

We can now see the reasons for Bacon’s suspicion. Apart from his desire to put the past to one side and start afresh there were legitimate concerns: the association of teleology with theism, metaphorical anthropocentrism, or the implication that ‘ends’ were acting as causes, or the fact that they were simply unnecessary.

Teleology as determinism – chance and necessity
There is a challenging corollary to teleology in biology. The universe appears to be in a strange way a mixture of chance and necessity. Science explores necessity by recording regularities, patterns, and predictability. Insofar as circumstance A leads inexorably to circumstance B then A is ‘for’ B in the same way that an acorn leads to and is ‘for’ an oak. In this sense we can see that the universe is in large part teleological: the ‘laws’ of physics have ensured that not just anything can happen. Teleology becomes another name for determinism, the ‘organising principle’ of the universe. The formation of stars and galaxies in retrospect was inevitable, a physical necessity, and yet the formation of human life seems more a matter of chance.

Neo-teleology & Neo-reductionism
The connection between the concepts of function and purpose is semantically complex. But perhaps we can decouple function from teleology by replacing teleological explanation with functional analysis? Instead of asking unnecessarily ‘Why is it there?’ – which leads to ‘What is it for?’ perhaps we should keep things simple and real by asking ‘How does it work?(Cummins (2002)) When we say that the goal or function of an acorn is to become an oak we are saying ‘why it is there’. But just as we do not need a goal for the Earth if it is to orbit the Sun so we do not need a function or purpose for an acorn to become an oak – it becomes an oak as part of a scientifically explicable developmental process.

To understand the natural world we must have naturalistic scientific explanations. For Aristotle these are of four kinds that may be combined in various ways. All are indispensable because they are the source of all causal knowledge so Aristotle expects students of nature, today’s scientists, to have mastered these different kinds of explanation before engaging in their investigations.

Soul (psyche) for Aristotle is the principle of life, it is what distinguishes the living from the non-living (Aristotle’s ‘soul’ it is intimately bound up with the body and cannot be separated from it). For a living organism its soul is its form (its determining principle, essence, kind, blueprint, ‘that in virtue of which it is what it is’). But to distinguish more clearly the living from non-living Aristotle calls the form of living organisms their ‘nature’ which he then describes as ‘an internal principle of change’. This sounds like a mysteriously abstract and unlikely object of study, something like a spiritual life-force. How could such a principle actually work within a system of naturalistic explanation?

The internal principle of change
Modern science has departed from Aristotle by ignoring the complexity and perceived error of formal and final explanations: material and efficient explanations are regarded as sufficient. Aristotle’s Physics II 8 is a defence of final cause, claiming that material and efficient cause cannot account for regularity in nature. For example, we can explain rain in terms of material and efficient cause. Rain may benefit or destroy crops – the good or bad result clearly being coincidental. Is all natural change like this? Do birds have wings and humans’ eyes just as a matter of coincidence? Clearly this is not the case. These are regularities in nature that confer benefit as a final cause or telos.

In De Partibus Animalium I Aristotle asks which has priority, the final or efficient explanation ‘since both the final and the efficient cause are involved in the explanation of natural generation, we have to establish what is first and what is second’ (PA 639 b 12–13). Aristotle argues that there is no other way to explain natural generation than by reference to what lies at the end of the process and he uses the example of building a house. ‘There is no other way to explain how a house is built, or is being built, than by reference to the final result of the process, the house. More directly, the bricks and the beams are put together in the particular way they are for the sake of achieving a certain end: the production of the house. This is true also in the case of natural generation.’(Stanford Aristotle on Causality) ‘generation is for the sake of substance, not substance for the sake of generation’ (PA 640 a 18–19). Though the builder and his movement of various materials is the efficient cause for the house it is, strictly speaking, his skill that creates the house. Without that skill the house would be either poorly built or not built at all. And his skill is hardly a material thing (it is a cause of change but as an ’unmoved mover’, an ‘internal principle of change’).

So, in summary, Aristotle uses teleological explanations because he thinks these are the most effective for providing scientific knowledge. He claims that the ‘soul’ is the cause of activity but not by itself doing any ‘pushing’ and ‘pulling’. Soul is form which acts causally like structure, as an unmoved mover, an internal principle of change. An organism’s ‘nature’, like the builder’s skill, is the capacity to produce structure and organisation. What Aristotle called an ‘internal principle of change’ we would, in the light of present-day knowledge, refer to as the information that is coded in DNA which has in turn arisen as a consequence of a long evolutionary developmental pathway.

Aristotle argues the explanatory primacy of the final and formal causes (knowledge of the ‘Why?’ over the efficient and material causes although all are necessary, an explanation which fails to invoke all four causes is no explanation at all. He is not committed to the view that everything has all four causes or that everything has a final-formal cause. In the Metaphysics he argues that an eclipse of the moon does not have a final cause. The ‘primary cause’ may differ.

Cummins regards function is an agency that is either ‘ungrounded’, a mysterious entelechy, or metaphor. In fact final cause, the telos, refers to physical causal pathways that underlie the generation of organisms, that is, to causally prior facts, so they are pathways that do not imply backward causation.

Clearly animal and plant parts were ‘selected’ (by evolutionary processes) for particular functions. In most cases we know this without knowing their entire evolutionary history as an extended functional analysis.

Constraint, reason, and purpose
The ancients wondered why we should see order in the universe rather than chaos. Today we attribute the order we see around us to the constraining action of physical constants, to the inexorabilty of causation, of ‘If A then B’ – to what we call physical laws.

Deterministic causality has a purpose-like quality because it carries within it the idea of inevitable ‘ends’. There is a real sense in which from the moment of the Big Bang nature has been realizing its potential. For example, if we had more data we would be able to predict with absolute certainty the fate of the universe. In this sense the universe we know today is ‘potentiality’ on its way to actualization, to an inevitable conclusion. Assuming that the universe is heading towards a ‘heat death’ we might say that the purpose of the universe is to achieve its heat death.

But we do not speak of the universe having purpose because we associate purpose with minds and intellectual deliberation. The universe cannot have reasons and purpose because the universe, inanimate matter, does not have a mind.

To have reasons and purposes an object must also have ‘interests’.

This distinction is not so secure as we might like to think. Human bodies and brains, design on a scale that has never been equalled by human ingenuity, is a consequence of the mindless and godless process we call natural selection. To say that nature does not express design, does not express reasons, is to make an error of judgement in our choice of semantics. The Scientific Revolution was too hasty in its condemnation of design and purpose in nature.

Mountains, we say, cannot have reasons or purpose because they do not have interests. How can this be denied? But which of the following have ‘interests’: a daisy, an amoeba, a worm, a herring, a dog, a chimpanzee, and a human. At what point can we say that a living organism has ‘interests’ and therefore reasons and purposes?

The inclination of some of us is to place a cut-off line at humans since only humans have a highly developed reasoning capacity and comprehension. Other people would extend ‘interests’ to sentient animals because, although their reasoning faculty is not as highly developed as that of humans they are certainly capable of suffering and pain. If there are ways that the suffering and pain of sentient animals can be alleviated by us humans then we can hardly claim that sentient animals do not have interests. This is where, today, this particular path of logic stops.

But, again, how secure and clear-cut is this distinction? In comparison with a rock, does a daisy have interests, an amoeba, a worm, or a crayfish? Given a vote, I think the popular answer would see little difference in ‘interests’ between these particular living organisms and inanimate objects.

But if you hesitated or had to stop and think about this question then you probably did so because you sensed some kind of continuum between the sentient and non-sentient. The distinction between the conscious and the non-conscious is not a clean break but more like a continuum, more quantitative than qualitative.

We can think of the universe as consisting of different kinds of stuff subjected to different kinds of constraint depending on particular boundary conditions. What is possible in the universe therefore becomes a consequence of the constraints that apply in particular circumstances. Some constraints effectively apply to everything: these we call the laws of physics. We might claim that quantum theory constrains everything everywhere. However, other constraints apply to subsets of the world in different modes of organization. Living things are subject to certain constraints by virtue of the fact that they are living and of course each living organisms, notably the constraints of their environments. Causation emerges from organization, presence and absence, structures and constraints as much as from matter.

In what sense does physics determine ‘upper’, ‘more inclusive’ or more complex objects.

Cause -> reason -> purpose
As the ancients observed, the universe is not random and chaotic it is ordered. We attribute this order to physical constants or ‘laws’ that constrain matter in the possible paths that it can take. We cannot account for the laws of nature, why they are as they are, but their deterministic character give the universe a direction-like character since it is constrained in its possible outcomes by these physical constants. With the emergence of self-replicating variable matter and selection as Darwinian evolution there arose a process of ‘self-correction’ and living organisms thus came to demonstrate ‘reasons’, originating in and in part still dependent on the directionality of causal processes. These reasons, as functions and adaptations, arose in a mindless way but they were real, existing in nature, not metaphorically or in the human mind in some way. As sentience and consciousness emerged reasons became manifest more clearly as purposes and goals. The mindless reasons that had given rise to the organic complexity of the human body and brain through a process of organic ‘self-correction’ had taken on a new conscious form as normativity, representation, intentionality, function, and meaning.

Organisms have evolved though interaction with the environment, in a mindless way they have assumed certain forms as a result of ‘capturing’, reflecting, or adapting to features of the world. Just as purpose can be mindless so too can representation. Adaptation is a rudimentary and mindless form of environmental representation.

It is important to include in any characterisation of evolution, not only repliction as the passing on of information about maintaining local negentropy. Molecular or other forms of replication occur in the natural world but what is unique is the capacity for reconstitution or repair, for self-regulation or homeostasis. This process basic to life establishes mindless function and normativity.

Reason, meaning, purpose, & value
The prevailing view in science is that reasons are human things. Physics cannot have reasons. Reasons must have a reasoner, almost always identified as man or God. This is a virtually definitional assumption that is embedded in our language and closely allied with the assumption that the universe cannot possess or impose purpose or meaning. Again, purpose and meaning are words associated with the human dimension, not the universe, plants, or animals. But this is clearly untrue. The whole of physics is concerned with reasons: the reason why the Earth revolves around the Sun, why metals melt at particular temperatures, and matter of different kinds behaves in predictable ways. The biological world takes on a stronger sense of ‘reason’ because reasins in biology have benificiaries. The Earth does not benefit from revolving round the Sun but an animal or plant can benefit from an adaptation.

Cause grades into determinism, reason and purpose.

The transition from simplicity, to complexity, to agency. Greedy reductionism and good reductionism.

Natural selection, as a mechanism of self-correction, has resulted in progress which we can define in this context as improved competency (adaptation). This occurs as organisms extract information from the world through feed-back mechanisms that further their lives. Both meaning and purpose arise with the emergence of reasons. This is most obvious in the case of life and living organisms. Even the humblest organism or plant has reasons for its structures and functions even though the organism itself has no knowledge of these reasons: there can be, to use Dan Dennett’s phrase, ‘competence without comprehension’. The most difficult intellectual hurdle to overcome in coming to terms with this is the realization that reasons can exist independently of reasoners. This applies to what we call physical laws. There are reasons why the planets of our solar system revolve around the Sun even though the planets themselves are, of course, unaware of them.

The organ of reason, the brain, originated through a non-intelligent process, natural selection. Computers carry out complex computation without understanding the principles of mathematics. Arguably it is only with humans that there arises competence with comprehension. The patterns exhibited by organisms differ from other patterns in nature (the grading by size of stones and sand due to the action of waves on the beach) because the pattern or organisation has a reason: it serves the perpetuation of the organism. The difference between reasons, meaning, and purpose then becomes a matter of semantic preference.

Humans are special because they don’t just act for reasons they can represent these reasons. This confers power and therefore obligation.

In explaining the world Dan Dennett recognises three key modes of explanation: the physical stance, the design stance, and the intentional stance (beliefs and desires)

Based on the human model we assume order must be imposed on situations and the world by an intelligent agent (which Dennett calls a ‘trickle-down’ process) while, in contrast, biological order has arisen through mindless natural selection (a ‘bubble up’ process).

Value arises when, as Aristotle expressed it, we can perceive a beneficiary. This is evident as soon as we have life. However, reasons precede value. There is a semantic hurdle to overcome here. Just as reasons can exist independently of reasoners so values can occur independently of valuers.

Nevertheless, reasons precede values. They can be detected in their most primordial form in deterministic or law-like processes of the universe. When a process follows a deterministic or law-like path of cause and effect we then understand the effect in terms of the cause: there may not be a beneficiary from this process but there is a reason for the effect. Here we see the origins of reason in its primordial form.

Though we do not have an immaterial soul we do transmit immaterial ‘information’. Our brains consist of hardware (neurons) and software (information). Language is our codified vehicle of comprehension. Like computers, we don’t have to understand them to use them. Facts are culturally-inherited units of knowledge that are transmitted culturally through language (memes) and these memes are, in effect, software viruses (Dennett). Language is culturally-designed software.

What exists?
In the absence of the findings of science the only way of resolving questions about what is real and what actually exists would rest on a war of intuitions. Only science can provide us with a unifying perspective brought to us by the process of reverse-engineering. But is science really fundamental or is it derived: which is real, the manifest image or the scientific image? Atoms, neutrons, and electrons, once considered useful fictions are now gathering more existential strength. Perhaps it is the manifest image that is useful fiction? The manifest image is like our computer desk top presented to us by nature itself. Our desk top has folders and icons that can be efficiently manipulated but they are simply metaphors, benign illusions (manifest image) that conceal the underlying complexity (scientific image) but assisting us in managing our computing.

Do the following exist: colours, numbers, sweetness, money, poisons, words, free will, consciousness, opportunities, justice, information, temperature? Perhaps these are benign illusions … useful fictions that are crucial components of our manifest image. Regardless, they are all vitally necessary for our daily lives – they are an integral part of our manifest image. Free will, for example, is a core supposition serving as the basis of our morality and legal system. Critically, and in short, all these objects really do exist, but not in the way we think they do.

The objects in the environment that are relevant to an organism are largely those that offer opportunities.

Physics alone cannot explain adaptations – it simply does not have the concepts.

Is a centre of gravity ‘real’?


Citations & notes
[1] Godfrey-Smith, p. 156
[2] This has been compared to niche construction and phenotypic plasticity (cited in above)

Godfrey-Smith, P. 2014. Philosophy of Biology. Princeton University Press: Princeton

the more integrated a whole, the less likely it is a product of chance.

Explaining the rules of chess based on knowledge of the physicochemistry of the pieces and board.

Once we have taken from nature what we need to survive we should turn to understanding natures in terms of their own ends and goods.

Adaptation is fitting o surroundings – normatively, functionally, representationally (reference, meaning, and value).

That we can reasonably say that our consciousness is much reduced in old age, when we are just born, and when we are extremely ill. If fully alert consciousness can be equated in some way to a particular state of our neural networks then it should be possible to assess a rough ‘degree’ of consciousness.

Agency in nature

Antipathy to agency in nature was directed at Aristotle and his telos, the purpose he saw in nature. Aristotle had claimed that since ‘nature does nothing in vain it demonstrated ends or goals, a claim that later became known as natural teleology. Aristotle was refuted by an argument that was both simple and compelling: nature cannot possibly have reasons and purposes because reasons and purposes require foresight, intentions, and conscious deliberation. Reasons require a reasoner, an intelligent agent. In spite Aristotle’s own arguments to the contrary (see Aristotle to Darwin) it was generally considered that he had fallen into error by either postulating a purposive supernatural force operating in nature (a vital spirit or entelechy), or that he had failed to notice that humans were inserting their own intentions into non-intentional nature. For the religious the intelligent agent in the universe was God, but for many humanists it was only humans that could have intentions, so the idea of purpose in nature was a nonsense. This gave rise to a scientific assumption that has persisted to today. Stated in its simplest form … humans have reasons and purposes but nature does not – because nature does not and cannot reason. Here the matter has remained, for most scientists, up to the present day.

After the Scientific Revolution non-human nature, devoid of a directing agency, took on the metaphorical character of passive machinery, often brought up-to-date in more recent times by using the metaphor of the computer.

This non-teleoological mechanistic interpretation of nature as devoid of agency is now being challenged as an over-reaction against the earlier supernatural explanations of the world. Machines are given purpose by the human agents that constructed them: organisms are given purpose by the agency of natural selection.

Pre-conscious reasons
We establish scientific explanations of living organisms by studying their structure and function. Questions about function are resolved by reverse-engineering, by investigating what structures and processes are ‘for‘ or, in other words, the ‘reasons for their existence‘. Nature is replete with reasons, even though these reasons do not arise by conscious intention. The spider builds its web for a reason, even though it is unaware of that reason. And that reason exists in nature itself, even when there are no humans around to contemplate it.

Principle 1 – Natural reasons are not products of the human mind (though they can be represented there), they exist in nature and are therefore real

Philosopher Dan Dennett has neatly summarized this strange characteristic of nature by pointing out that nature is ‘competent without comprehension‘ and that ‘reasons do not require a reasoner‘. Dennett regards the assertion that ‘nature does not have reasons‘ as a mistake. A better reading of reality would be that ‘both nature and humans have reasons: what makes humans different or special is that they are aware of these reasons, they are ‘reason-representers‘.

Principle 2 – Both nature and humans demonstrate reasons: what makes humans special is that they are aware of these reasons, they are reason-representers

Cognitive dissonance

‘Evolution is cleverer than you are’ – Orgel’s Second Rule as quoted by Francis Crick and recently Dan Dennett – 2014

We are now presented with a dilemma. On the one hand, if we define reasoning as a faculty of conscious minds then any reasons we perceive in non-human nature cannot be proper or real reasons, they must be apparent or metaphorical reasons … they are reasons that have been attributed to nature ‘as if’ they were human reasons.

On the other hand, Aristotle had claimed that purpose (reasons) lay in nature itself: it was not there as a supernatural force or human construct. Darwin subsequently provided a naturalistic explanation of the way nature acquires direction through functional adaptations. These functions were not placed in nature by God, they arose as a mindless filtering process that closely resembled the way that humans make choices, what he called ‘natural selection‘. Clearly this was not conscious selection, it was … natural selection. The use of the word ‘selection’ is revealing. We associate ‘selection’ with conscious human choice so on this account it is a part of consciousness-talk and therefore metaphor: nature does not ‘choose’. But because the natural process itself is so much like choice, so much like ‘selection’, that we are challenged to find alternative words. In fact we are forced to confront the jarring possibility that conscious choice is not something special and different, but simply natural selection at work within the brain – that consciousness is a manifestation of natural selection not something that is over and above it. Insofar as ‘learning’ is the modification of the present in the light of what has happened in the past, natural selection is the archetypal ‘teacher’.

In a way the wonder of nature now boiled down to a simple mechanical algorithm operating in matter … but this dismissive and mundane characterisation of natural selection belies its potency. The most complex functionally designed object in the universe, self-aware matter, the human brain (far more sophisticated than anything ever constructed by humans) was created by ignorant pre-conscious natural selection. The human brain was forged out of living matter by a process that is devoid of foresight, intention, or deliberation. What could be more a cause for wonder?

We are now left with two coherent but apparently contradictory claims. First, our intuitive sense that reasons are strictly human in character and, second, that it makes sense to regard both nature and humans as having reasons, with only humans being aware of these reasons.

Semantics & metaphysics
This dilemma is only resolved when we tease out the distinction between natural (pre-conscious) reasons and conscious reasons. Here there is a clash between metaphysics and semantics: between the world as we think it must be, and the world as represented in language. Semantics suggests that ‘reasons must be human’: after all, following standard word meaning and common usage demand that reasoning requires a brain. However, the metaphysics suggests that reasons are more realistically thought of as being pervasive in nature and that limiting the word ‘reason’ to the realm of consciousness is unduly restrictive considering the way the world actually is. In such situations it is not possible to legislate a change to linguistic common usage but metaphysics, as best possible scientific explanation, must take precedence. Perhaps an improved or specialist terminology would clarify these ideas. In any case this is simply the process of reconfiguration of ideas that is always part and parcel of scientific progress.

The words ‘reason’ and ‘purpose’ share some nuances of meaning but are hardly synonymous. However, when reasons are linked to the flourishing of living organisms then their become distinctly purpose-like.

Nature exhibits reasons, as purposes because it is a product of natual selection which is an agent producing functional adaptations that are ‘for’ something, that can improve flourishing (albeit in a pre-conscious way). Biologists have myriad examples of nature’s ignorant ‘brilliance’, ‘cunning’, and ‘clever strategies’ that promote flourishing.

Principle 3 – Those reasons in nature that have arisen through the agency of natural selection are referred to as functions and, since they can benefit an organism by promoting its flourishing, are generally referred to as natural purposes. Purposes can be categorised as being either pre-conscious natural purposes or conscious purposes

The concepual difficulty here is in coming to terms with conscious purpose as one component of a much wider concept of purpose. This is a metaphysical problem where the semantics is neutral to whether the purposes are pre-conscious or conscious.

Conscious purposes are frequently referred to as intentions. These are strictly human (or possibly sentient animal) objects.

Nature is not only saturated with reasons (purposes) it also demonstrates functional patterns and designs at all scales. There is no need to postulate an external designer. The designer is nature itself through the agency of natural selection and the fact that design arises out of nature itself, not the human mind, does not make it apparent design, it is real design.

The simplest living cell exhibits design that is well in advance of any human design. When Darwin explained the origin of species by natural selection he provided a naturalistic explanation of how design arose in nature. He did not explain away the design itself. Removing purpose and design from biological discourse not only attempts to legislate scientific usage (in opposition to common practise), it denies the adaptive functional design and purpose that is patently obvious throughout the natural world.

Principle 4 – Design in nature is real, even though it is not intelligent design. The fact that it was created by nature, not the human mind, does not make it apparent design

Metaphor & reality
The formal language used by biologists suggests that both purpose and design in nature are accepted as real, even though teleology is often treated as a metaphorical heuristic device. The language of purpose, of function in biology, is here to stay – because nature itself demonstrates ‘ends’ (reasons/purposes) that have, during evolutionary time, been incorporated into the information contained in their genomes.

When I say ‘the purpose of a spider’s web is to catch flies‘ I am communicating information about a real functional adaptation. However, when I say ‘the spider is trying to catch a fly‘ I am attributing to the spider subjective intentions that it does not have. The latter is an anthropomorphism and unscientific teleology, the former is a description of real purpose in nature (that nature is unaware of but I, as a reason-representer, can appreciate). Words like ‘purpose’, ‘adaptation’, ‘selection’, ‘function’, and ‘design’ are semantically promiscuous, sometimes being used in relation to pre-conscious functions and sometimes to conscious intentions, hence their ambiguity. Discussions of teleology often fail to note this distinction. Functional statements used in relation to non-human organisms express pre-conscious purpose while intentional statements are largely confined to humans (or sentient animals).

Principle 5 – So me words fail to distinguish between the two different kinds of purpose: the pre-conscious purpose that occurs in nature, and the intentional purpose that is a product of the human (or sentient) mind

Meaning & purpose
There is a further metaphysical consequence to this discussion. It is usual to regard our consciousness as the source of meaning and purpose in the universe. Through the medium of language meaning and purpose are semantically bound to human emotions, desires, beliefs, and goals and therefore products of the human mind: they cannot possibly exist in nature. This translates into another metaphysical assumption: our personal lives may have meaning and purpose but the universe cannot.

From the discussion presented here it is clear that the notion of humans as reason-representers presents us with a new interpretation of this perception. Of course, if we place emphasis on the representation of reasons (the conscious reason-representation in our minds) rather than the reasons themselves which lie in nature, then nature has no meaning or purpose because it does not represent. However if, as is claimed above, reasons and purpose are real in nature, then nature has both reasons and purpose (natural reasons and natural purpose). This makes us sensitive to the subtle iterplay between semantics and metaphysics.

Aristotle looked outward to nature for purpose and moral guidance. The purpose of the human being was to attain their maximum possible potential – biologically, intellectually, and in every possible way. To achieve this required looking eudaimonia, a flourishing society.

Principle 8 – To describe the living world as purposeless is to give precedence to semantics over metaphysics

The historical difficulty with design in nature and the use of purpose-talk in biology is discussed in more detail in (a series of articles on Purpose).

What has all this to do with plants?

It is only because of unreasoning natural selection that humans have developed the capacity for reason itself. That is, our reason is an effect of all the reasons in nature not their cause. The organic world is saturated with reasons but only humans can represent these reasons (the intentional stance). It is the representations of reasons makes us unique not the reasons themselves. We are the only reason-representers. We are the only species that thinks and asks ‘Why?’

Purposes have themselves evolved, from the order of cause and effect in inanimate nature which we explain using material, formal and efficient cause … to the unconscious purposes of living organisms organised by natural selection which we explain by justification or final cause – to the conscious reasons of the deliberating human mind.

Organisms are material objects that clearly have ‘interests’ even though they are unconscious interests.


From reasons to purpose
The world presents us with order, not chaos, and where order exists there are also reasons for that order: there is causal necessity. And where there is cause and effect, the effect is like an end point, fate, or destiny. But we dont understand these causally constrained outcomes as being ‘for’ something. There is a reason why an apple falls to the ground from a tree. We say that the apple falls to the ground for a reason (the inexorable laws of the universe) but Aristotle made the further observation that in nature the ends or goals are beneficial, they are either ‘for the good’ or ‘for the better‘. Today we call these functional properties of organisms adaptations, knowing that they are the products of a selection process … natural selection. This draws attention to an important distinction that occurs between the non-living and living. Both follow the laws of causal necessity but where there is selection there is selection ‘for’ something, and when processes are ‘for’ something we are inclined to speak of them as ‘purposes’. Note that the ‘laws of nature’ constrain possible outcomes (that is why there is order in the universe) and in this sense they too are ‘for’ something. Understood this way final causality (telos) is a precondition for the intelligibility of the material-efficient causality that underpins science. But this is telos in its weakest sense.

Aristotle noted this distinction by pointing out that telos is twofold in character: there is the aim the goal itself (‘that of which’) but in the case of living organisms there is also a beneficiary (‘that for which’)(Anima ii,415a23-b7). Teleological explanations recognised necessity in both animate and inanimate nature but only animate systems were ‘for’ something.<

Of course it might be pointed out that Aristotle’s teleology is simply material necessity itself (the playing out of deterministic pathways) so we might think of the various physical constants of the universe as purposive in this sense. On this view (sometimes called teleological eliminativism) teleology is unreal, an unnecessary concept that simply dissolves away.

Purpose 6 – Teleological eliminativism[25][36] – Natural teleology when applied universally, is simply material necessity, the playing out of deterministic pathways

Closely related to this is the materialist viewpoint, that material necessity and teleology are compatable but teleology has no reality in nature. On this view (sometimes called teleological reductionism) we can legitimately use teleological language as metaphor that reflects the uniquely human capacity for forward-thinking. Teleology itself is unreal and can be explained adequately by material causation. This was, more or less, the opinion of eminent Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

Purpose 7 – Teleological reductionism[36] – Natural teleology as material necessity is compatible with teleology but teleology does not actually exist in nature, it is simply a useful explanatory tool (heuristic device) that erroneously treats living organisms as though they have purposive human-like intentions. Teleological language is therefore antropocetric metaphor

Aristotle himself did not see causal necessity and natural teleology as an either/or choice – nature can be both when material necessity is ‘for’ something:

‘… nature makes them on the one hand for the sake of something, and on the other out of necessity’ PA

As purpose in nature created by natural slection is so similar to conscipus purpose we can call it ‘pre-conscious purpose’. We thus see in nature a Darwin-like gradation from reason to purpose corresponding loosely to the transition from inanimate to animate, then to sentient and subsequently rational. From reasons to purposes (functional adaptations and pre-conscious purpose), conscious purposes developed by reason-representers who can communicate conscious deliberation through language.

(it does not require intelligence and its end has a beneficiary. For Aristotle, the end is a ‘for the better’. )

Principle 1 – Where causal necessity has beneficiaries – where explanatory reasons entail functional adaptations – then we are entitled to speak of these reasons as ‘purposes’

Formal and final cause
Many scientists and philosophers today regard talk about purpose, outside the human sphere, as meaningless.[23] The universe has no purpose – it just is. Meaning and purpose are the product of human minds and their interpretation will vary between people and communities. Like the Pre-Socratic philosophers, many of today’s scientists, when pushed, would advocate a materialist-mechanist or deterministic world-view: in other words they would regard material and efficient cause alone as sufficient for scientific explanation.[35] As Francis Bacon (1561-1626) had recommended in his Novum Organon Scientiarum (1620), the world can be adequately explained in terms of matter in motion (material and efficient cause) without the complication, obscurity, and probable error of Aristotle’s formal and final causes.

Aristotle defends natural teleology in Phys ii, 8 where he claims that material and efficient causes are not sufficient to account for the structure and integrated functional complexity that we see in nature. First he asks (198b 16-30) how the design we see in living organisms can possibly be the result of material and efficient cause alone. Matter in motion does not give rise to organisms by accident or chance, we need some kind of organising principle. In discussing change he points out that matter often persists through change but that what is added or subtracted during change is form: ‘consider a sculptor moulding a bust out of wax’, nature is like that. He did not have the benefit of Darwin’s theoretical insight into natural selection.

Ontological reductionism
Materialists, both ancient and modern, in concentrating on constituents or parts fail to give an adequate account of integrated wholes. Aristotle treated an organism as a real object (what he called a primary substance) in its own right, it is not not just an aggregation of ‘more real’ underlying constituents. Expressed another way, organisms exist in the same sense that molecules exist: to claim that molecules are somehow more real (have greater ontological status) than organisms is what may be called ontological reductionism and this, it seems, is the materialist claim. The matter making up the bodies of each individual person undergoes total change every seven years or so – so what persists through this change is the essential form, the matter is incidental (expressed in a more elaborate way by contemporary philosophers as ‘multiple realizability’).

In De Partibus Animalium I Aristotle continues his defence of natural teleology by asking which has priority, the final or efficient explanation ‘since both the final and the efficient cause are involved in the explanation of natural generation, we have to establish what is first and what is second’ (PA 639 b 12–13). Aristotle argues that we explain living systems by reference to ends and he uses the example of building a house. To explain the house we have no alternative but to refer to the final product. The bricks and the beams are put together in a particular way for the sake of achieving a certain end: the completed house. Nature does not have conscious intentions but, like a builder or craftsman, it does have ends. The material constituents of organisms are necessarily combined in sequence in response to its inner ‘nature’ that controls, directs, or predetermines the character of the whole, the whole is not formed of necessity because of its material constituents that is, there is a formal cause – ‘generation is for the sake of substance, not substance for the sake of generation’ (PA 640 a 18–19). Certainly the builder assembles the house simply by moving and combining materials (matter in motion), but strictly speaking, this could not happen without his skill and planning. Without that organisational skill the house would be either poorly built or not built at all. This formal cause as skill and planning was what Aristotle called, an ‘unmoved mover’, an ‘internal principle of change’.

This line of argumentation is supported by the ineliminable use of functional language in biology, especially evolutionary biology.

A consciousness continuum
Can apes represent their reasons? And how are we to assess purpose in humans in relation to instinctive or involuntary action?

The degree of mental organisation required for sentience to arise in animals is, like the origin of intentional behaviour, by no means clear-cut. Ed Wilson has noted (along with his observation that functions and reasons can exist in nature without intelligence):

‘As more complex biological entities and processes arose in past ages, organisms grew closer in their behaviour to … [what we might call] intentional meaning: at first there were the sensory and nervous systems of the earliest multicellular organisms, then an organizing brain, and finally behaviour that fulfils intention. A spider spinning its web intends, whether conscious of the outcome or not, to catch a fly. That is the meaning of the web. The human brain evolved under the same regimen as the spider’s web.’[41]

It is interesting to ponder how throughout history science has rested firmly on the foundational ethos of physics and mathematics. Biology, not mathematics and physics, was Aristotle’s central model for science as he searched for patterns of teleological explanation realized through material, efficient, and formal causes. His assumption of telos was a theory more flexible than is generally supposed. Without the presumption of causal necessity, of causes having effects or ‘ends’ (that is, of telos) explanation is empty – it simply cannot proceed. There are reasons why the planets orbit the Sun even though, as non-living objects, we would not describe the planets as being ‘beneficiaries’ of these reasons … and the reasons (as information) are inevitably related to order and not chaos.

Science investigates the order and pattern of the universe, both organic and inorganic. But this presents us with a paradox. Science tells us that though there are reasons for the way things are … reasons are not purposes. But, in the sense that not only our bodies but our brains (and their conscious intentions) consist of mechanically deterministic processes then the brain are no more ‘purposive’ than the kidney. On this account, even though we adorn conscious intention with the word ‘purpose’ it is just like everything else in the universe – simply mechanistic determined processes. So teleology is a nonsense.The conscious intention of the mind, the use of reason, is a part of the continuum of goal-directedness inherent in the living world – from the simplest pre-conscious organisms to sentient animals, and rational humans.

And yet explanations entail ‘ends’ as consequences of causes. It has been argued in this article that Darwinian mechanistic causality in the form of natural selection creates ‘beneficiaries’ and organic designs that may legitimately fall under the heading of ‘purpose’. As we have seen, the ‘mechanistic reasons’ of the inanimate and animate worlds are not so different from ‘conscious reasons’ as we might assume (they are both a product of scientific determinism) so our intuitive extension of the word ‘purpose’ to organic processes and even those of of the inanimate world is not so outlandish as might at first appear. Indeed, it seems somewhat arbitrary as to whether we accept or reject purpose-talk for the universe in general. The entire universe may be perceived as teleological … or nothing (including the deterministic mental events we associate with conscious purpose) is teleological. Modern era science regards the teleological perspective as a human creation (teleology lies within humans, not the universe) and therefore non-scientific. But reasons (cause and effect), especially those with beneficiaries, can be regarded as a legitimate part of a teleological world view. Natural selection, indeed all processes of causes and effects (ends), lie within nature, as Aristotle believed. Conscious purpose is not something separate from, over and above, the purpose of nature – it is simply a derivative manifestation of the continuum of organic purpose and design that resides in all nature.

If accepted, this gives us a radical new perspective on science and the universe.

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