our key ideas carry over from the previous article:
1. The physical and conceptual distinction between matter, living matter, and conscious living matter
2. Following Darwin‘s evolutionary theory, the characterization of the entire universe as evolving in time. Hubble’s 1929 red shift observations when combined with the 1964 elucidation of background radiation supported the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe. This placed physical events in time (in contrasts to the prior Steady State Theory) and a process of cosmic evolution about 13.7 billion years old. This was a 20th century unification of all matter into a historical continuity from a point source according to physical constants including the evolution of all life forms from a common ancestor according to the algorithm of natural selection
3. The confusing relationship between language, metaphysics, and the world
4. The presence of purpose and design in nature itself.
This article explores the consequences of the scientific claim that there are mind-independent reasons why inanimate objects are structured and behave in an orderly way, and how, when these mindless reasons advantage or disadvantage non-human living organisms they may be legitimately spoken of as purposes.
The conscious human intention, so often used to narrow the meaning of the word ‘purpose’, is itself a product of the purpose arising out of natural selection.
So, where there are beneficiaries and casualties it is appropriate to speak of purpose – to say, for example, that ‘eyes are for seeing’ and ‘ears are for hearing’ and to recognise that eyes and ears can attain their purpose with greater or lesser degrees of efficiency. Organisms are ‘competent without comprehension’. Humans, as reason-representers, can appreciate the reasons why organisms are as they are, even though the organisms themselves cannot. Reasons exist immaterially in the world (they are real) and can be represented in minds. They are not created by minds.
If there can be reasons without a reasoner, purposes without conscious intention, and design without a designer, can there also be values without evaluers?
Values are here taken to be considerations about what is desirable or undesirable, good or bad. Values include moral judgements about what is best to do . . . the best way to live (normative ethics).
1. Three kinds of matter
Darwinism drew attention to Aristotle‘s distinction between three kinds of matter:
a) the set of all matter ordered by necessity (necessity being what is generally referred to as ‘the laws of physics’)
b) the subset of semi-autonomous units of matter that we refer to as ‘living’ and which we now assume are products of natural selection (the genetic information accumulated under the influence of the sorting algorithm of natural selection). That is, living organisms
b) the subset of living matter which has the capacity for foresight, hindsight, abstract reasoning, self-awareness, technology, sociality and language. That is, humans.
2. Graded matter
The universe before Darwin was presumed to consist of independent objects created by God. In other words there was no necessary material and temporal connection between the material constituents of the universe. Darwin launched a new way of placing objects in time by uniting continuity and change as the gradual transition from one form to another – from the inanimate to the animate, with the animate radiating and diversifying into the multiplicity of organic forms, some of which became self-aware. Darwin helped us to see a historical and material non-linear continuity between the point source of the universe at the Big Bang, its subsequent differentiation into elements in supernovae, the aggregation of matter into self-replicating and evolving organic units, and the emergence of self-awareness. We humans are not only made out of stardust, we are made out of stardust by means of a coherent historical process of material continuity.
3. Language and metaphysics
The creationist account of the universe differs dramatically from the modern-day scientific interpretation. Are these differing views reflected in language . . . has science developed a technical vocabulary that overcomes any tension between supernatural and naturalistic explanation?
Metaphysically, as matter gathers complexity, so new structures, relations, reasons, and functions emerge in the universe. It helps to be mindful that before Darwin people regarded these structures and relations as eternal in some way: Darwin raised the possibility of locating them in time.
Purpose as existing in the world, not human minds
The preceding articles on ‘purpose’ argued that purpose is present in nature, not inserted by the human mind. Natural selection is ‘for without foresight’ and its products, organisms, are ‘competent without comprehension’. That there is a reason why leaves are green and that reason would be within nature even if humans as reason-representers did not exist. The point here is that the mind does not create these reasons, it only represents them: the mind is itself a product of purposeful nature, not its creator.
Evolutionary theory replaced the notion of discretely created objects with the idea of gradual and intergrading physical change. Perhaps some of our concepts are yet to catch up. So, for example, we are inclined to treat the concept of consciousness as being discrete, either present or absent in an organism. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to consider degrees of consciousness. So, for example, instead of conceptualizing the conscious and the non-conscious we can imagine degrees of consciousness not only as we pass through the animal kingdom from, say, amoeba to worm, to fish, to cow, to human, but also in ourselves, whether during a lifetime or a day.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves, so let’s start at the beginning. This article examines the case for value existing and extending beyond human minds into nature.
As in the previous article, principles have been added outlining the major theories about the source of our values as points to ponder and criticize. For the purposes of this article values are considered broadly and taken to include moral values.
The origin of values
Where did you get your values, those intuitions and beliefs that guide your behaviour? Did they come from Mum and Dad, the local church, the society you live in, your friends, the law, or are they based on your careful independent experience and consideration? Perhaps they are derived in some way from your human nature … or are they a blend of all these things?
The top-down view – values originate in the human mind
Of these five suggestions the last is by far the most popular claim. That is, systems of value are mind-dependent. Values do not exist in the world or nature, they are imposed on it by our human deliberating minds … they are subjective.
As Shakespeare said … ‘Nothing is either right or wrong but thinking makes it so‘.
Principle 1 – Source of values – values arise as precepts devised by deliberating humans
On this view values are unashamedly anthropocentric – how could they possibly be otherwise? They derive from humans deliberating in a social context. morality is thus (in the absence of divine command) a totally human affair, arriving in the world with the human intellect. It is a consequence of applied human reason albeit sometimes with different conclusions.
We might envisage a historical tradition of values arising out of religious codes of ethics and being combined with practical commercial issues of contract and so on, all enshrined in the written law of early civilizations. These values would be imposed hierarchically by the ruling elite and would no doubt privilege their interests – mostly those of wealthy males.
From this human core we might envisage moral progress as embracing ever wider circles of moral concern as female, and more diverse religious, ethnic and ‘tribal’ interests are subsumed under common rational concerns. This loose model of moral development has been reinforced as the umbrella of ethical criteria recognized under law has expanded to take account of not only conscious rational beings but those that can suffer or experience pain, that is, sentient animals now given greater practical application by recognition within the legal system.
This is a ‘top-down’ or ‘expanding circle’ view of morality (expressed loosely – that legal moral obligation began with wealthy aristocratic males, over time spreading to females, ethnic and religious minorities and those demanding ‘rights’ of various kinds. And, in recent times, encompassing sentient animals. This, in crude terms, is how we might understand the source and dispersal of values. Maybe we are on a trajectory of moral progress as moral ‘rights’ are extended to more people.
Does Darwin have any relevance to our characterization of morality?
Well, definitely, in the sense that much of our human morality derives not so much from reason but from our intuitions (see moral psychology). Values arise from our desires as well as our reasoned beliefs. And to find the source of our intuitions and desires we can now draw on science, on moral psychology and evolutionary psychology. But note, already the recognition of biological intuitions begins to erode the idea of morality as the unsullied outcome of dispassionate reason. Principle one clearly needs some modification.
Principle 2 – Source of values – values arise out of our reasoning, beliefs, desires, and intuitions
But Darwin, and before him Aristotle, had much more to say about morality and its sources than this.
The top-down view of morality treats the human mind as in some way ‘over and above’ nature, not part of it.
The previous article on purpose discussed the way that purposes (reasons) are not the exclusive products of the mind, they are present in the world itself, although it is only the human mind, as a conscious reason-representer, that is aware of these purposes. The mind is itself a product of these purposes, not their creator. The idea of mind as the creator of reasons is undergoing a historical change. Today’s science assumes that our miracle brains are a product of nature, arising out of the organic world in a broadly Darwinian way.
The bottom-up view – values originate in nature
Do values also exist in the world independently of the human mind and, if so, how could that possibly be?
This article suggests that – just as purpose arises out of the fabric of the material world and the special sorting process of natural selection, so too does value. This is decidedly counterintuitive and contrary to contemporary belief.
But perhaps values emerged out of our biological and human nature with conscious deliberation a subsequent refinement. If you agree with the conclusions of the previous article, that purpose did not arrive on earth with the human intellect, then you must consider the possibility that the same same applies to values.
Being ‘for’ something – purpose & value
Deterministic constraints reduce possible outcomes. For this reason there is in our universe a greater probability of some things happening rather than others. This is part of the order that we see around us. Using a crude anthropomorphic word, there is a ‘preference’ for one thing to happen over another, a weak ‘for’ one particular something rather than something else. This may be summarized in a neat epigram ‘Effects have causes as reasons’. This then is ‘selection’ in its barest form . . . not what we would normally understand by selection.
Principle 3 – Any constraint on activity is a form of selection since it results in outcomes of a limited kind. This simple form of selection occurs in the universe as the ordering of matter by physical constants
But there is a significant difference between the ‘for’ of the inanimate world and the ‘for’ of the living world. Both inanimate and animate matter are subject to the constraints of physical laws but living organisms are subject to the additional constraints of natural selection which confers benefits in terms of the functional adaptations that enhance survival and reproduction. This is why we feel more comfortable saying that ‘eyes are for seeing‘ than ‘the Earth is for orbiting the Sun‘. Having eyes assists organisms to survive, reproduce, and flourish – and in so doing increases the sense of meaning and purpose. Further, the parts of organisms are not indifferent to other parts. They serve the ends of the whole in an interactive way that does not occur in inanimate systems.
Principle 4 – In addition to the constraints of physical laws the constraining influence of natural selection increases the probability for an organism’s survival, reproduction, and flourishing; and in this sense we understand the effects of natural selection as being both beneficial and purposeful
Like purposes, values derive from the ‘for‘ of natural selection. Being ‘for‘ is to prioritize (value) one thing rather than another. In this way, just as natural selection is ‘for without foresight‘ it is also, paradoxically, a ‘valuer without evaluation‘. This particular inversion of reasoning occurs because natural selection is unaware of its role as valuer, even though we humans as ‘value-representers’ can understand that this is the outcome.
The previous article argued that it is OK to speak of organisms, structures and processes in nature (products of natural selection) as having ends, needs, purposes, interests, and design – that it is OK for the products of natural selection to be ‘for‘ something.
Fact & value
How does this square with the view that things and processes being this or that way (which are scientific facts) cannot imply that this is the way that they ought to be (which are subjective values)? How can a moral judgment arise from something descriptive? Or, expressed even more philosophically: a deductive argument must have values in the premises if it is to have values in the conclusion. Kant expressed this by saying that … ‘to think of a product of nature that there is something which it ought to be … presupposes a principle which could not be drawn from experience (which teaches only what things are) (Critique of Judgment, First Introduction, X240).
Before confronting this dilemma let’s look at some examples.
What are organisms for – what is their purpose or value?
Many biologists and philosophers would argue that organisms are no more ‘for’ something than the moon is ‘for’ orbiting the Earth. To say that something is ‘for’ something else, is to be teleological, to look for ends, and that is not being scientific. Nature is not ‘for’ something, it just ‘is’. When we say ‘A chair is for sitting on’, the purpose of the chair, its ‘for sitting on‘, is something added by our minds, it does not reside in the chair itself. Nature, presumably, is like this: whatever purposes we attribute to nature are not purposes that exist in nature itself, they are purposes superimposed by our minds.
This question has been fully addressed in the previous articles discussing the topic of purpose. But, to summarize, natural selection can be easily dismissed as a mindless mechanical process but it has given rise to the universe’s most intricate structures – including the human brain with its capacity for foresight and hindsight, abstract thought, language and reason.
The view that nature ‘just is‘ has been discussed in the article Darwin and after. To briefly summarize the argument: all organisms are products of natural selection; any process of selection is selection ‘for’ something (it selects one thing rather than another, in human terms it has ‘ends or aims’); selection ‘for’ in nature has winners and losers and where there are aims and beneficiaries we are justified in speaking of ‘purpose’ (when the Earth orbits the Sun we do not need to imply function or purpose, because there is no benefit, even though there are reasons why it does so).
Nature is not aware of reasons but we humans, as reason-representers, can understand the constraining reasons for planetary movement, and the beneficial reasons for organic structures like eyes. Purpose in nature is real, passed from generation to generation as information embedded in the genetic code, it is not imposed extrinsically as apparent purpose except on the occasions when we treat nature as having conscious intentions. Humans demonstrate non-conscious purposes, like shivering and digestion, as well as those purposes that are deliberate intentions.
In short, mindless purpose is not a contradiction, it is a fact of nature.
If all organisms are saturated with sophisticated reasons of which they are beneficiaries then how, in the most general terms, do they benefit? Can we humans, as reason-representers, discern what, in the most general terms, mindless natural selection is selecting for?
Purpose & function
Purposes in biology are generally referred to as functions, ‘function’ being a neutral way of referring to purposes that exist objectively in non-conscious nature.
We associate science with the establishment of general principles, biology being notoriously different from physics by having very few, not obvious ones anyway. Biologists do not have equivalents to Faraday’s law and many others. Physicists might argue that this is because physical laws are universal while biological regularities are, at best, of restricted application. Even so, perhaps this is an error.
Natural selection has been singled out as an ordering process largely confined to the realm of living organisms (even though a similar algorithm can be applied to non-living matter).
Mathematics is built on axioms – statements that are taken as self-evident, foundational, and uncontroversial. Axioms cannot be further analyzed or dissected but they can serve as premises or starting points for subsequent reasoning. A couple of examples from Euclid’s geometry would be that ‘Things that are equal to the same thing are also equal to one another’ and that ‘All right angles are equal to one-another’. To deny an axiom is to place the whole related enterprise or discipline in question. If we argue that Euclid’s axioms are mistaken then we are, in effect, undermining any confidence we might have in Euclidian geometry as a whole. We admire empirical generalizations in science (principles and laws) because of their predictive power. Physical constants, the laws of physics, have the properties of axioms because they resist contrary evidence and cannot be altered substantially without transforming our understanding of the theoretical foundations of physics. Physical laws are, as it were, the axioms of physics.
Could there be axioms in biology?
Well, if there are axioms in biology then, as a biology student, I was certainly never taught them. Perhaps the nearest we get to such foundations is a list of characteristics said to define what it is to be a living being – characteristics like metabolism, nutrition, growth, and reproduction. Though text books often present such a list, getting agreement from the biological community as a whole as to what should appear on this list, (and its order of priority), is no simple matter, especially as definitions of life are further complicated by artificial intelligence and synthetic life forms. This question is therefore generally avoided or not addressed in a coherent way.
Aristotle was a specialist in first principles. He wrote the world’s first systematic treatise on logic, Organon, much of which still stands today as the foundation for deductive logic. He noted that in order to continue existing, to perpetuate their kind, living beings must reproduce. He summarized this principle by saying that all living creatures ‘partake in the eternal and divine’ indicating that they can replicate their kind (species) indefinitely provided they can survive to reproduce. Today, in a similar way, we might refer, like Richard Dawkins, to the ‘immortality of our genes’. For Aristotle the intellectual search for the foundation of biology, what it means to be a living being, ended with ‘survival and reproduction’. Any cursory examination of general biology texts reveals this as a general assumption. It is a truism about life that cannot be expressed in simpler terms.
You might object to the idea of there being any biological axioms at all, let alone this one in particular. Such an axiom does not have the universality of a physical law, nor does it seem to have the same degree of necessity as physical laws. You might think of other properties that are uniquely biological. However many of the usual suggestions – like growth and metabolism do appear to be second-order. As humans we tacitly accept it as beyond question. Our health (our ability to continue to survive, reproduce and flourish (see later)) is taken for granted: we proceed through life as though it is both self-evident and true, a goal that we all pursue. We do not go to a doctor requesting ways to make us ill, even though this is logically possible – and on the conceivable occasions that this might occur our biological circumstances are unlikely to be as we would like. Requesting ways to stay healthy is not a misuse of language, nor is it regarded as a matter of philosophical or scientific speculation or contention – it is treated as a self-evident biological truth … an axiom … it is the point of departure for everything in biology. As Richard Dawkins says: ‘We are survival machines‘. This then is as near to a biological axiom as we can get.
So, one defining characteristic of life is that it is a product of the ordering forces of natural selection. We do not ask ‘Why do organisms try to survive and reproduce?’ because we understand that to deny survival and reproduction is to cease to exist – and that does not make biological sense. Organisms that do not, or cannot, survive and reproduce die out – and in ceasing to exist they become biologically irrelevant if not incoherent.
If we question survival and reproduction further we are led to Aristotle’s conclusion that ‘It is better to exist than not exist‘ – that it is better to live than not live. Aristotle’s biographer, evolutionary biologist Armand Leroi, retorts to the question ‘Why do organisms need to survive and reproduce?‘ with ‘Because natural selection made them so‘.
Biological Axiom 1 – the goal of living organisms is to survive, reproduce, and flourish
If you accept the reasoning above then it has far-reaching consequences because such an axiom presents a compelling case for biological normativity. The purpose of living organisms is not something that we make up, something that our minds impose on them. The purpose of organisms derives from their origin and place in the material scheme of things, from their inner nature interaction with their outer environment. This is a mode of existence that expresses both mindful and mindless purpose, that purpose being survival and reproduction.
The axiom has far-reaching consequences because it expresses value that derives from within organisms themselves. Knowing what organisms are ‘for’, ‘why they exist‘ identifies ‘goods‘ (values) that are independent of human minds. Living organisms would still strive to survive and reproduce (albeit unconsciously) in the absence of humans. And the ways (means) of achieving this goal are (unconsciously) valued for their role in achieving these ends. Organisms exist (fact), and they exist to survive and reproduce (both fact and value).
Is this a metaphorical reading of human values into value-neutral nature? Is it imputing an extrinsic value to organisms that have no intrinsic value? The drive for life to survive and reproduce is so pervasive in nature that trying to remove value and value-talk from biology is as difficult as trying to remove purpose-talk. Organisms have ‘interests’, albeit unconscious ones.
Principle 5 – Source of values – biological normativity – the biological drive to survive, reproduce, and flourish underpins all biological activity giving a foundation to all value
Since the Early Modern period of the Scientific Revolution nature has been widely regarded as devoid of purpose, thus functional adaptation in nature becomes objective fact devoid of value. Value is therefore a product of the human mind, it cannot exist in nature itself. Nature just is, it is not for anything. From this perspective functional adaptations are an objective fact in the same way that ‘the moon orbits the Earth’ is an objective fact. The moon is not ‘for’ orbiting the Earth: orbiting the earth is not a function of the moon. We do not say that the moon orbiting the Earth is ‘good’ except insofar as it might benefit us as humans, so why should we say that functional adaptation in nature is ‘good’ – it too is just a fact of nature, and therefore devoid of value.
To convey this argument we can re-express our definitions in a manner that is not value-laden, or minimally so, by getting rid of words like ‘better’ or ‘best’ or ‘good’. So, for example, we can define an adaptive trait as a functional role that is maintained and evolved by natural selection. But, of course, ignoring pre-conscious goal-directedness in nature (which is in nature and not in our minds) becomes clumsy and unconvincing (see Darwin and after). It has been argued in Darwin and after that where there is an aim and a beneficiary there is both purpose and its associated value – it is OK to say that eyes are ‘for’ seeing, this being a key difference between inanimate and animate matter. But along with purpose comes value: purposes can be achieved or thwarted.
The key point here is that since the purpose of every organism is to survive and reproduce adaptive selection can also be (unconsciously) for better or worse, for good or bad in relation to the organism itself: it can be normative. Natural selection is a mindless sorting algorithm that can make things ‘better’ or ‘worse’ in relation to the existence of any living thing.
Science yields facts about human nature, part of this human nature being the reasoning faculty that examines these facts as part of the process of making normative judgements.