Monday, December 13, 2010


Or is it LeakyWars? Or a 'Leaking Match', if you know what I mean. Not sure it's quite a war just yet but, at a minimum brave Sir Julian is getting some competition from disgruntled exWikiLeakers. They are setting up something called "OpenLeaks" which promises to serve as a sort of repository for people that want to submit material. The basic idea is that interested "organizations" (presumably journalistic organizations like the New York Slimes) can set up anonymous mailboxes with OpenLeaks. OpenLeaks will not actively peruse the same, but will simply offer the mailbox.

"every publisher, NGO, and journalist can get a free decentralized, secure digital mailbox. Whistleblowers can send without risk."

The onus is then on the organizations that choose to set up the mailboxes. They will be the ones to 'vet' and publish, while taking the attendant risk of being in receipt of materials they are by law forbidden from possessing. As with Wikileaks the "whistleblowers" suffer no blow back, beings safely anonymous. This is shrewd on the part of the OpenLeak organization. They themselves will not suffer one sort of blow back that Brave Sir Julian has suffered, charges of reckless endangerment.

Exit questions:

Given that this organization was started by disgruntled XWLeakers, might not they be tempted to deposit some info into that mail box entitled "Dirt on Brave Sir Julian"?

Also, what will happen when the inevitable split happens within the OpenLeaks community? What will the next spin-off be called? Take-aLeak? Spring-aLeak? One thing is certain, DOD and State wish there was a Plug-aLeak organization.

Kant on natural purposes.

What follows is an attempt, in the spirit of Jonathan Bennett, to paraphrase some interesting sections of Kant’s Critique of Judgment, liberally adding commentary. In particular, these sections have to do with his notion of a ‘natural purpose’, and the paraphrase is undertaken in a probably vain attempt to figure out what exactly the status of that concept is. Is it primarily an epistemological claim Kant wants to make, or is he also making some sort of claim about the origins of organized matter, or organisms? It will take some time to get to that point, but you have to start somewhere. If I stick with this, the series of posts, of which this will be the first, will address this as well as other questions that come up when reading this material from the sage of Konigsberg. (Now, having said all this, I give this caveat; Reading Kant is a bit like reading a Rorschach Ink blot.) So, let’s get the ball rolling, at section 64. Why? Heck if I know. But, we are starting there anyway. Paraphrases are in standard font, commentary italicized

Section 64

In order to come to the conclusion that some object is only possible as brought about for a purpose, either by something external to it, or something internal to it, (that is, to be forced to seek the explanation of its existence in something other than the mere play of natural forces upon the constituent parts of the thing, and in fact to be forced to seek that explanation in the actions of something that takes action via use of a concepts or blueprints for construction of the thing) it is necessary that the form the thing has taken is not possible through that mere play of natural forces.

This is a rather strong claim. Note the modal terms. They carry the strongest possible logical flavor. The idea here, boiled down, is that which is stated once you take the long parenthetical out:

In order to come to the conclusion that some object is only possible as brought about for a purpose, either by something external to it, or something internal to it, it is necessary that the form the thing has taken is not possible through that mere play of natural forces.

An analogy comes to mind, one having to do with artificial objects, about which more later: Paley happens upon the watch on the heath, examines its functioning, comes to the conclusion that it tells time, and that the various cogs wheels and hands are assembled for the purpose. What is more, he is led, by this recognition, to make the inference that the best explanation of the object involves its design and production by intelligent beings of some number. When he compares that explanation, one involving a directing intelligence, to other possible explanations, involving no directing intelligence, he is hard pressed to deem any of those competitors plausible. Indeed, he may say that for all practical purposes, they are impossible. But, can we go beyond that point, to the stronger claim Kant is here making? I don’t think so. We have to admit that, though unlikely in the extreme, the mere play of natural forces could have produced the watch, but in comparison to the explanation involving an active intellect pursuing a purpose, it doesn’t come off very well.

Skipping ahead a bit, (I’m taking my liberties in this skipping ahead business as well as the paraphrasing, I know) Kant now continues, while seeming to admit the above:

In order for rational beings to be counted as fully understanding the form of a thing, it must be able to tell a plausible story of how each feature of that form came into being via known forces, be they mere natural forces, or intelligent designers. In some cases, one can tell such a story exclusively in terms of the former. In other cases, (like the watch case above) one is hard pressed to see how that story could be successfully fleshed out without some reference to the latter sort of explanatory entity. Consider this yet simpler example:

If a man in an apparently uninhabited place happens upon a geometric figure a hexagon, inscribed in sand, he would attribute its existence to some sort of intelligence that had the concept in mind, and for some reason, wanted to give it an objective instantiation. He would not seriously consider explanations that made reference to the random and unguided movements of object in the environment, such as sand, sea, wind or non-rational beasties leaving footprints, etc... For, the chances of meeting up with something in the environment that so well matches the concept we have of a hexagon are so remote that it would be just as if it was indeed impossible that mere natural forces could have produced it. In fact, he would be impelled to admit that the best available explanations make use of the notion of a designing being, who had the concept of hexagon in mind, acting in such a way as to create the sand drawing.

Next; we run into some of Kant’s damnable terminological obscurity, but, as with most of his damnable terminology, he is making an interesting conceptual distinction. I’ll give the exact translation:

This then would be regarded as a purpose, but as a product of art, not as a natural purpose.

Kant here wants to draw a categorical distinction between two sorts of object, each of which in some way forces us to think about its origins in the way above sketched, i.e., as very very very(hey is that enough to get the idea across?) probably involving the actions of some number of rational designing beings. In one category are things like watches, and drawn geometric figures (and drawings more generally, no doubt). These are artifacts. Artificial purposes if you will.
On the other side are things like trees and other organisms. These are ‘natural purposes.’ We have seen why he has placed them in the general category of “purposes” (because competing explanations don’t’ cut the probabilistic mustard), but why exactly are they placed in a category distinct from watches and the like? Why not treat them as artifacts? What is more, what is the ontological status of the originating designing intelligence vis-à-vis these objects as compared to the status of designers of watches and drawings? Kant has some things to say in answer to these questions, as we shall see. But, in the immediate passage here (section 64) Kant seems to develop the case for his sorting of ‘purposes in this way:

Watches are obviously artificial objects, things that are brought about for purposes. The beings that bring them about are external to the materials that make up the watch. Watches do not bring watches about, nor do individual watches maintain themselves. In that way they are very much unlike trees and other organisms. These ubiquitous features of our environment are produced by earlier generations of the same sort of organism. Also, they look out after themselves. Additionally, unlike watches their parts exhibit systematic interdependence. All of this makes them “natural products.” But, surely, one could point out that there are many ‘natural products’ the existence of which does not in some way force us to posit acting intelligence. Yes, Kant agrees. Humdrum examples would be river beds and surrounding mountain and hills, all of which are describable as serving the purpose of channeling water to thirsty animals. These could be described as the results of the actions of intelligence, but there is nothing impelling us that way. We see there are equally, (indeed more) plausible “mechanistic” explanations of these things, i.e., explanations in terms of the mere play of natural forces. So, what are the earmarks of natural products that also seem to be ‘natural purposes’, i.e., things the explanation of which most likely involves designing intelligence? Kant’s answer in section 64:

In order to regard a thing as a natural product, and as a purpose as well (that is; as a natural purpose if indeed this isn’t a contradiction) something more is required. Provisionally I would say:

1. The thing or species is both a cause and effect of itself.

After some more damnable obscurity which I am skipping, Kant makes the wise choice of resorting to illustration. Yes!

We shall elucidate this notion of a natural purpose using an example, and then later on, we’ll analyze the concept of a natural purpose using that example:

Trees generate other trees according to natural laws. So, considering the species, the species is the cause of itself. Trees are the cause of trees. Flip the coin, and trees can be seen as the effect of trees.

Now, focus on an individual tree. The tree maintains itself via growth and metabolism. The matter it incorporates is rearranged so as to be capable of being placed into the tree as it grows. Natural forces external to the tree cannot do this. It acquires material and builds itself using the products of its own internal operations upon the raw materials. The sort of recombination and separation of raw material we see in tree metabolism is well beyond our ability to imitate artificially.

What is more, the parts of trees depend on each other’s functioning for their continued existence. Trees produce leaves, and twigs can indeed be grafted to other plants. So, there is a sort of independence of those parts from the parent tree. However, it is not thoroughgoing as is the independence of the parts of artifacts such as watches, one from the other. A tree with no leaves dies. Trees must have leaves in order to exist. A leaf with no tree dies. There can be no leaves unless there are trees. Cogs and wheels can exist without watches. Indeed, watches can exist without cogs and wheels. Furthermore, trees maintain themselves, repair themselves when damaged. Watches cannot do this sort of thing.

These, then are Kant’s provisional earmarks, or distinguishing characteristics of what he calls natural purposes. That is; things which present to us clear organization for purpose, and which thereby, suggest to us that the best explanation for their existence is the operation of intelligences that designed them for those purposes (either as final purposes, or as intermediate means or functionaries toward some greater encompassing purpose), yet which are natural purposes as opposed to artificial purposes.

Some parting thoughts before we move into section 65 (whenever that will be):
Our artifacts are approaching, if not the complexity of organisms, at least the functionality, to a degree. Robots can now take in materials that allow them to continue to function. Machines cannot yet repair themselves, but can feed themselves, so to speak. I am here thinking about the robots that take in flies for fuel. One such beastie can even rove about looking for them. The stationary models are a bit more like the plants Kant has us consider. Suppose, though that we can design and build robots that mimic the full functionality of trees. Clearly, they would be artificial. But, because such machines would have the ability to reproduce the “species” and maintain themselves, they have the provisional earmarks of the ‘natural purpose.’ Is this any sort of problem for Kant? I think not. Because he seems to be saying, so far, that the key thing is that in both cases the features of the objects lead us toward positing designing intelligence as the best explanation of how these things came about. If and when we get to that point in Robotics, the analogy just becomes all the closer between man made things and natural things.

Exit question: Is Kant making some sort of argument from design? If so, how does this jibe with his usual caution with regard to metaphysical matters, and more particularly, with his contention that at least some metaphysical questions are permanently unsettled in that there are persuasive arguments for contrary positions, answering those metaphysical questions? What does Kant have to say about all this? Stay tuned!