Darwinism & Final Causation III

I concluded my last post on this topic by asking: “Sure, the ‘reigning naturalistic consensus’ needs Darwinism – but does Darwinism need the ‘reigning naturalistic consensus?’ – and answering: “I don’t think so.”

Let’s try & unpack that, now.

If you’re an evangelical atheist, determined to defend at any cost the elimination of purpose, meaning &c as fundamental features of the world and to explain them away in terms of the motion of physical particles in accordance with ultimately purposeless, meaningless natural forces, than Darwinism comes as a God-send – because it seems, at least at first glance, to explain away what is, seemingly, the most purpose-, & meaning–ridden phenomenon of all – i.e., life itself, in purely mechanistic terms. Even human beings, with their beliefs, desires, fears and all the rest of it are really just complicated machines.

But is there any particular reason why Darwinists need to insist on the ultimate lack of final causation in their account of the evolution of life? Would it cost them anything important to embrace final causation as part of their explanatory toolkit?

Well, what, exactly, does the notion of final causation entail, anyway?

According to Edward Feser, this is what it entails: “for the Aristotelian, final causation or teleology…is evident wherever some natural object or process has a tendency to produce some particular effect or range of effects. A match, for example, reliably generates heat and flame when struck. and never (say) frost and cold, or the smell of lilacs, or thunder. It inherently “points to” or is “directed towards” this range of effects specifically, and in that way manifests just the sort of end- or goal-directedness characteristic of final causality, even though the match does not (unlike a heart or a carburetor) function as an organic part of a larger system. The same directedness towards a specific effect or range of effects is evident in all causes operative in the natural world. When Aristotelians say that final causality pervades the natural order, then, they are not making the implausible claim that everything has a function of the sort biological organs have, including piles of dirt, iron filings and balls of lint. Rather, they are saying that goal-directedness exists wherever regular cause and effect patterns do.” (Aquinas, pp. 17-18).

So for a modern Darwinian to admit final causation into his explanatory toolkit, all he has to do is agree that particular genes in particular circumstances have a tendency to produce some particular effect or range of effects and not others – that they are directed towards those effects as towards a goal, and that this goal is really real, and not some sort of illusion or delusion that needs to be explained away. In return for this admission, he earns the right to talk all he wants to about the struggle for survival, the functions of organs, the selfishness of genes, & so on & so forth, without apology.

So what’s not to like? For the life of me, I can’t see any good reason for the Darwinian not to agree to this bargain.

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13 thoughts on “Darwinism & Final Causation III

    • It’s not at all clear to me whether or not the Aristotelian/Thomistic conception of final causation necessarily involves “agency.” It’s even less clear to me whether there’s any good reason to believe that there’s no “agency” involved in Darwinian & other natural processes. Some people seem quite sure of their views on these interesting questions. I’m not.

  1. Darwin, and Darwinists, have always used the language of purpose and intent.

    Darwin tells us:
    “Man selects only for his own good: Nature only for that of the being which she tends. Every selected character is fully exercised by her, as is implied by the fact of their selection. Man keeps the natives of many climates in the same country; he seldom exercises each selected character in some peculiar and fitting manner; he feeds a long and a short beaked pigeon on the same food; he does not exercise a long-backed or long-legged quadruped in any peculiar manner; he exposes sheep with long and short wool to the same climate. He does not allow the most vigorous males to struggle for the females. He does not rigidly destroy all inferior animals, but protects during each varying season, as far as lies in his power, all his productions. He often begins his selection by some half-monstrous form; or at least by some modification prominent enough to catch the eye or to be plainly useful to him. Under nature, the slightest differences of structure or constitution may well turn the nicely balanced scale in the struggle for life, and so be preserved. How fleeting are the wishes and efforts of man! how short his time! and consequently how poor will be his results, compared with those accumulated by Nature during whole geological periods! Can we wonder, then, that Nature’s productions should be far “truer” in character than man’s productions; that they should be infinitely better adapted to the most complex conditions of life, and should plainly bear the stamp of far higher workmanship?”

    “It may metaphorically be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, the slightest variations; rejecting those that are bad, preserving and adding up all that are good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life. We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the lapse of ages, and then so imperfect is our view into long-past geological ages, that we see only that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were. “

    • Precisely so. The late Lawrence Auster’s point (echoed by more philosophically sophisticated guys like Edward Feser) which I’ve been trying to address in this series of posts, is that Darwinians constantly help themselves to the language of teleology & intentionality, and never even try to make good on their claim that this language can all be cashed out in purely mechanistic terms. Do you understand the point of my reply?

  2. This isn’t a very deep answer but when Christians criticize Dawkins for using teleological language, I’ve never found it to be a problem. Descriptions employing teleological language are least a façon-de-parler and perhaps something more, a explanatory tool in the toolkit, as you state. I think that at some point the argument was constructed: True empirical science doesn’t employ teleological language; X employes teleological language; either X isn’t engaged in true science or true science is impossible. But part of the problem might be that the human brain is designed to think of things in teleological terms, so as hard as scientists try, it’s hard to escape it. Even Dawkins at the beginning of the Selfish Gene admits to using teleological language to make the story about genes more interesting…. Maybe that’s it: making it interesting. Teleological language makes nature seem not as cold and uncaring as it probably truly is. Teleology can be the new marketing strategy for Darwinists. Everything needs its window dressing. 🙂

    • Well, AWC, Philosophy is, if nothing else, a school of caution. I have often found Christian criticisms of Dawkins to be a problem. Sometimes I think it’s fairly easy to cash out Darwinian figures of speech in mechanistic terms. But, more often, I just can’t see how to do it. And that worries me.

  3. From my very limited understanding of this area of scholarship, it does seem to me that your (and Feser’s) more limited definition of teleology – “tendency to produce some particular effect or range of effects and not others” – might not be accepted by some of the the more die-hard Thomists who want everything to be animated with a more spiritual purpose, so to speak.

    • Well, yes – as I understand it, though Feser is a very conservative Roman Catholic, he advocates a pretty minimal conception of teleology. Nothing that Aristotle couldn’t have agreed to.

  4. You should read the first two chapters of Millikan’s “Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories: New Grounds for Realism.” There she defines what she calls “proper functions.” There are things that are selected and replicated because they produce an advantageous effect. And so it is the proper function of the heart to pump blood because that is what they were selected for. It is the proper function of sperm to fertilize eggs, and so on. So the teleology is purely natural.
    Personally, I like to throw in that it is the workings of the laws of nature–physics and chemistry– that account for this, and that those laws were created by God, but you don’t have to.

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