Tuesday, December 14, 2010

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Kant on Natural Purposes, part the Second

When last we left the intrepid Sage of Konigsberg, he had begun to delineate what he calls “natural purposes” from what he could call “artificial purposes” or better yet, man-made artifacts, or mechanisms. While making this distinction, he also took pains to point out that certain features of organisms that are in some ways, (but not all) analogous to similar features of artifacts, force or impel us, as we search for explanations of their existence, to posit (in some sense of that word) intelligent designers of those organisms. As you can probably tell by my hedging about the word “posit”, the argument, as it eventually unfolds, is not as straightforward as a traditional design argument. More on that as it develops. The immediate task at hand, though, is to hack through the underbrush of section 65. As before, I am liberally paraphrasing (plain font) and providing commentary (italicized). In this next section, Kant further elaborates on the unique status of “natural purposes” (aka organisms) as opposed to artificial purposes (aka man made machines).

Section 65

For things to be natural purposes, one essential condition that must be met is that they fall under the broader category of a ‘purpose’ or object with purpose. In order to fall under that category they must be such that the parts of their whole be conceptualized in this way: by taking their particular places in the whole, functioning as they do, they do their part in that they allow the whole to serve a purpose for which it was constructed. But, when we think about a thing in this way, we are thinking about it in the same way as we do artifacts (such as Paley’s watch) as being the end product of some rational being or beings that collected and combined the parts with the purpose, end or “Idea” in mind as a sort of blueprint, guiding that process.

I (Kant) want to make a case that “natural purposes” are somehow importantly different than artifacts in that this is not as straightforwardly the best explanation of their origins. So I want to further elaborate on what makes natural purposes unique, while still articulating how the notion of a designer fits in to our capacity to seek causal explanations of organisms. I want to argue that it has a heuristic role. I elaborate on the notion or concept of a natural purpose, a purpose in nature or a naturally occurring object with purpose.

So, on to the other condition I think is necessary for something to be counted as a naturally occurring object with purpose: Stated simply. The object has no immediate need for the operations of an intelligent agent to account for its existence.

If any natural product is to be possible as a natural purpose (that is; something that is not immediately in need of the operations of rational agents external to it in order for it to come into being), it needs to find explanation for its existence internally (that is, ‘internally’ in two senses of the word:

(1). In regard to the internal history of the species. That ‘internal’ explanation will obviously be in terms of propagation.

(2): In regard to its continued ‘maintenance’ in existence.

This second sort of ‘internal’ explanation will be in terms of the normal functions of metabolism, growth and self repair.

If these things are in place, you have a natural purpose, in no need of immediate reference to intelligent agents for its existence, for propagation, metabolism, growth and self-repair happen in accord with established natural laws of physics, biochemistry, etc.

Nevertheless, as detailed before, an organism qua ‘purpose’ or ‘organized being’, has features that ‘impel’ our explanation of that organization to take a certain route. The explanation will find itself forced in some way to analogize or ‘treat’ with the sort of explanation we find satisfactory for artifacts. When we consider artifacts, the basic story of genesis involves an intelligent agent who has an “idea” or “form” in mind, as a blueprint. With this blueprint guiding him, he collects and assembles parts, creating the organized artifact. Also, with that blueprint in hand a person can reverse engineer, and come to understand why any given part occupies the place it occupies in the whole. Also, in most cases of artifacts one will come to recognize economy of function, in that there is little or no waste in the collection, most, if not all parts are essential to the function.
Somehow, in the case of a naturally occurring object with purpose we need an analog to this blueprint. This I will call “the Idea of the Whole.” In organisms, this idea is contained within members of the species, allowing propagation, growth, metabolism, and maintenance to occur. This naturally occurring “Idea” guides all the physical events that make up species propagation, and etc...

Very interesting here, Kant presages the genetic conceptualization. We now know that this “Idea of the Whole” is largely housed in the DNA molecule, and that complex interactions of these molecules with the internal environment of organisms allows a complex series of biochemical events that in turn allows organisms to build and maintain themselves, and genetic material obviously also allows propagation of the “form” or species. Once again, it is prima facie obvious that all this can go along, in accord with natural laws, without any guiding hand or artificer actually reaching in and building individual organisms. The molecules that make up organisms (genetic molecules included) can do this, because they are arranged in ways that make all this possible via the unfolding of physical events in accord with physical laws.

Now, Kant says something interesting that needs exact quotation:

Only in this way can the Idea of the Whole reciprocally determine the form and combination of all the parts; not indeed as cause – for then it would be an artificial product – but as the ground of cognition, for him who is judging it, of the systematic unity and combination of all the manifold contained in the given material.

What is Kant on about in this paragraph? If we conceptualize DNA as embodying or playing the role of the “Idea of the Whole” then it is just plain fact that DNA does determine form and combination of parts in a causal way, through the complex biochemistry at the heart of life. So, if Kant intends to say the idea doesn’t cause these things to occur, and we take him to mean that the idea is some object or phenomenon internal to the natural world that functions analogously to an intelligent designer, blueprint and parts at the ready, then, he’s just wrong. However, I think there’s an interpretation of the passage that allows him to claim all these things about the natural world, while also making sense of the passage. Think of it this way:

Kant (now fully informed of modern genetics): “Look, what I’m saying is that if you look at the birth and life of an organism from the point of view of the complex of molecular events that constitute that series of events, you can tell that story as a very complex chain of chemical reactions, all of which follow the laws of genetics and biochemistry that you have informed me of. BUT, pulling back from that micro-perspective, and looking more macroscopically, you can also tell a story that takes into account the gross features of the organism. For example, if you are concentrating on a bird, and his wings, you can tell a story that focuses on the fact that bird wings are complex airfoils and can tell a story according to which, some blueprint possessing being, wanting to create beings that have such airfoils, and having DNA available, as we humans have cogs and wheels available, sets out to grow and maintain a population of such beings using the genetic technology, and its ability to pass on traits. When you tell that sort of story it can serve as the basis for discovering or coming to cognizance of further things about birds. It need not be the case that such entities ever have existed, but the heuristic value of the posit is there in that it can guide research. Even in a more basic sense, it allows us to recognize a bird as a bird, as a flying creature.”

Now, place next to this Kant’s earlier claims that it is either impossible or very difficult for us to come up with completely naturalistic or mechanistic explanations of organisms, and you can see that there is some ambivalence in the argument as presently presented. Does Kant mean merely to sell the heuristic value of the design hypothesis, or does he want to make more of an ontological or scientific claim as to the actual origins of species?

He certainly feels more pull from this sort of story with regard to organisms than he does with the hills-and-valleys’ story we presented in the last section. This one compels or impels us more than that one. So, it seems Kant has some ambivalence toward pooh-poohing the more robust extra-heuristic reading (if you will) of the design argument as it applies to organisms.

We’ll see that this tension plays throughout the remainder of our section, and on into later sections. But, we’d better get back to the paraphrase of section 65. Once again, we see Kant repeating his claim that artifacts cannot mimic the ‘abilities’ of organisms:

In organisms parts exist by means of the operations of other parts, are produced from each other and exist for the sake of each other. This can never be the case with artificial instruments, but only with nature. A natural object with purpose is organized and self organized.

In a watch one part moves another, but the wheel does not produce the cog. In a watch the producing cause of the various parts and the guiding design plan are not contained in the materials that make up the watch, but the design is external, as is the builder. There are beings which produce the parts and organize them according to Ideas they have. Watches do not repair themselves, nor do they take in and modify raw materials in order to grow or reproduce. Organisms do all of these things all of the time, with the guiding and building being aspects that are internal to them.

We say too little of nature and its organized products or species if we simply say they are analogous to results of human art. This suggests an artificer external to nature. However, it is plain that nature organizes itself, no doubt with certain basic body plans, and allowances made for selection for survival in various circumstances.

To speak strictly, the organization of nature has in it nothing analogous to any causation we know.

Let that one sink in. I repeat:

To speak strictly, the organization of nature has in it nothing analogous to any causation we know.

Once again, that’s a bold and categorical claim.

At this time, Kant talks very obscurely about beauty in nature being something for which we can find analog in objects of art. He compares this to the case of the “internal natural perfection” of organisms, and says the latter is ‘not even thinkable or explicable’ by analogy to human art. I confess I don’t know what he’s on about, and I also find that what little I can claim to understand of what he is saying is also false. Once again, as ‘objects of human art’ approach functional equivalence to the congeries of functionality that organisms have, it seems we can very easily draw analogies. Computer programs and robotics seems a field ripe for such analogizing.

So, we leave section 65 with a clearer conception of natural purposes, purposes in nature, or naturally occurring objects with purpose, as opposed to artificial mechanisms, and we also begin to see that Kant somehow finds analogies between mechanisms and organisms faulty when they lead us to assume that there is a designer external to the organisms in reference to which we can explain the organisms existence. But, we also have his claims, earlier made, that we are nevertheless impelled in that direction. He seems in those sections to be holding out not only the heuristic fruitfulness of the design hypothesis, but the more ontologically robust point that as compared to completely naturalistic explanations, making no use of the guiding hands of intelligence, explanations that do make use of intelligent guidance are better or more likely explanations. So, we see a continued tension. How will it be resolved? Stay tuned.

The next episode - Section 66, wherein our hero explores in a bit more detail, the heuristic benefits of the design hypothesis!