Physics has provided us with an account of the ordering processes (the laws and physical constants) that, following the Big Bang, determined the formation of elements, compounds, planets, stars, and galaxies.
Selection & purpose
The universe of inanimate matter is not random and chaotic, it displays order that is amenable to scientific investigation. Laws and physical constants place ‘selective’ constraints on possible outcomes as the universe undergoes change after the Big Bang. Processes have a deterministic character. Natural selection is a mindless designer. Insofar as even non-conscious selection leads to a restricted range of outcomes it is in this sense ‘purposive’. Though the words ‘selection’ and ‘purpose’ seem inappropriate in this context there is a nuanced similarity to application in the context of life.
Patterns are common in inanimate nature. The repeated sifting of wave and tide produces ripples and neatly graded pebbles on the seashore. But with natural selection something further was added to this kind of process. Before Darwin, the obvious design that we see all around us in nature was regarded as conclusive proof for the existence of God. By providing a naturalistic explanation for design in nature, Darwin removed the necessity for God. He showed how we get design from ignorance, from mindless trial and error. However, design in nature was intimately associated in peoples’ minds with God’s purpose as introduced to the world at the Creation. The new opposing certainty that emerged during the Scientific Revolution swept away purpose and design with God. The possibility that nature itself might exhibit purpose and design (attributed to Aristotle and his natural teleology) was denied. Purpose was associated with conscious intention and Aristotle accused of both inserting a supernatural entelechy into the world, and mistakenly reading human intentions into nature. The baby of real natural design, and natural purpose was thrown out with the bathwater of religion.
But Darwin had not removed purpose and design from nature, what he did was provide a naturalistic explanation of how they had arisen out of an ignorant process. Natural selection, as a selective process that promotes the flourishing of living organisms by producing functional adaptations, presented a new question … ‘What is it for: what is its purpose?‘. Here was a process in nature whose explanation demanded a move ‘from narrative to justification‘ (Dan Dennett): it is the appearance of a mechanism of ‘self-correction’. The association of this question with ends or goals, Aristotle’s telos or final cause, was still resisted by scientists after Darwin. Purpose was regarded as a product of the conscious mind and therefore the functional explanations that saturate biology are being used heuristically, they are useful metaphor. The purpose in nature is therefore apparent, not real. On the contrary, purpose in nature is real, even though it is not conscious purpose.
Principle 3 – natural selection itself is a mindless and ignorant process, but its products demostrate complex functional adaptations of great sophistication. As natural reasons of a functional kind they resemble human conscious purpose and warrant the title pre-conscious purpose since they are not unaware of those ends</span
In a similar way, the ‘selective’ action of physical laws and constants results in the physical order that is investigated by science, that also has the nuanced characterisstics of ‘design’, as we see for example in the orderly pattern of the elements in the periodic table.
Value has simple origins where there is ‘benefit’ … where there are ‘interests that matter’. It is difficult to detect any value-like process in the inanimate world except for a crude ‘preference’ for the formation of one kind of structure rather than another, and one kind of process or event rather than another.
The inanimate world ‘evolved’ in the sense that it became more complex. From an initially unstructured plasma at the Big Bang eventually arose elements and compounds aggregated into planets, stars, and galaxies. Even in the inanimate world the ordering activity of laws and physical constants presents us with a rudimentary or primordial semblance of ‘selective’ or ‘purposive’ process.
2. Living matter
Living matter is matter of the universe with unique properties that are the product of a special kind of process, natural selection. Superimposed on the ordering processes of laws and constants there is the ordering that results from matter that has acquired the capacity to replicate with variation that is subject to ‘selection’ based on fitness to surroundings (differential reproduction). Aristotle drew attention to the inner potential of animate as opposed to inanimate nature by remarking that ‘If the art of shipbuilding was in the wood then we would have ships by nature‘, the point being that the telos of a ship is imposed from outside, the telos of an organism derives from within ‘by nature’.
Reasons & explanations
The products of natural selection gave rise to an additional kind of why question. Not only can we ask, along with Aristotle (his four causes) ‘What was its origin?’, ‘How does it work?’, and ‘What is its structure and composition?’ and ‘What does it do?’ but, since living organisms are products of a selection process related to fitness to surroundings (adaptation) we can now also ask ‘What is it for?”. That is, organisms as products of the process of natural selection exhibit functional adaptations. Biologists investigate not only reasons relating to organic matter itself, the forms it takes, what it does, and how it does it, but also by using reverse engineering they examine the functional reasons that are fulfilled. ‘You dont need a mind to act for reasons’ and ‘a computer does not have to learn arithmetic’ (Dennett).
Principle 2 – Functions are different from natural reasons. One way of describing them is as the pre-conscious reasons specific to non-conscious living matter. Importantly, preconscious reasons do not imply foresight: they have arisen as a consequence of events that occurred in the past
We do not know precisely how life originated. We assume that somehow cyclical processes acting on inanimate matter of a particular kind produced replicating units capable of incorporating change as they replicate, in a kind of feedback loop. Over many replications there was a differential persistence of particular characteristics under the influence of surrounding conditions. The first processes of self-organization, of natural selection, had created life of the most rudimentary kind. Replicating pre-conscious matter was now on a path to symbiotic eucaryotic cells, multicellularity, a Cambrian explosion of forms, organic complexity, and consciousness. Natural selection had produced a form of replicating matter which, by changing in relation to its surroundings over many generations, had developed some independence, some autonomy from its surroundings, a separate identity or ‘self’. This was, almost certainly, a new relationship in the universe – that between an organism and its environment.
Selection & purpose
That there is design in nature cannot be doubted. That there is orderly symmetry, pattern and design in the structure and function of everything from a single cell to a leaf or the human brain is self-evident. The sometimes difficult point to understand is that this design arose out of an ignorant process (unconscious natural selection) so it is unintelligent design. The fact that it is unintelligent design does not mean that it is not really design at all … that it is only apparent design. The design in nature is real, even though it is not deliberate design.
As living creatures we humans intuitively value existence and life over death and non-existence. We understand that functional adaptations benefit replicators by increasing their chances of survival, and insofar as functions can operate more or less efficiently in promoting flourishing, we say that they are for better or worse. Normativity (value) therefore arrived in the world with a selective process that coud be more or less efficient in promoting flourishing, with the arrival of things that matter to an organism’s well-being.. Whether a function operates more or less efficiently is not a matter of human judgement, it is a fact of the world, it is natural normativity. As humans we are aware of those factors that can challenge or improve our lives and we can also discern their pre-conscious precursors.
Principle 4 – when the special kind of natural reason called a function can differentially influence the flourishing of an organism then they are spoken of as ‘purposes’. These are not conscious purposes they are natural purposes
Principle 5 – value (normativity) arrived in the world when natural reasons produced functional reasons relating to the benefit or flourishing of organisms. This natural normativity does not entail awarenessof value
In summary, there is a special class of natural reasons in the world that we refer to as functions to indicate that they are products of a selection process (natural selection). This is pre-conscious or natural normativity and it accentuates the existence a form of matter that exists with a degree of autonomy from the matter in which it persists. Since natural selection produces functional adaptations that are more or less efficient in promoting the flourishing of organisms, there is also the introduction of pre-conscious purpose, design, and normativity.
We can now see how, with the origin of life came not only natural ‘selection’, but natural ‘purpose’, natural ‘design’, and natural ‘evaluation’. Also, just as evolution grades organisms by complexity so there is a parallel gradation in our notions of purpose, design, value and the gradual transition from natural reasons to pre-conscious functions and conscious intentions.
Simple reasons/purpose/design – those arising in inanimate matter e.g. ‘there is a simple reason why the Earth orbits the Sun’. Explanations tend to follow the non-conscious language of causation and interactions are impersonal.
Pre-conscious reasons/purpose/design – those arising in living matter from the benefit-conferring process of natural selection e.g. ‘there is a pre-conscious reason why the spider builds a web’. Explanations tend to follow the pre-conscious teleological language of function. and interaction can involve benefit and harm.
Conscious reasons/purpose/design – those arising in self-conscious living matter as human conscious reasons e.g. ‘I go walking for a reason’. Explanations tend to follow the language of conscious intention and interactions entail moral responsibility