Thursday, December 16, 2010

Kant on Natural Purposes - Part the third

Sections 66 & 67

We now find Kant developing what he believes are methodological implications of the more fully fleshed out notion of a natural purpose, or naturally occurring object with purpose (I’m tired of writing out that phrase, so from now on, they will be referred to as “NOOPs”), while also taking great pains to emphasize that, appearances to the contrary, he should not be taken to be making a claim as to the origins of NOOPs. Much of this portion of the work is terribly obscure, and suffers from what appear to be lacunae, so I very liberally paraphrase and interpret, and will wrap up with a brief restatement of what I think is going on here. As usual paraphrased Kant is in normal font, commentary italicized. To you ParaKant:

Using a definition of ‘natural purpose’ or NOOP that is based upon the discussion in previous sections, it turns out that we can fruitfully undertake scientific investigation or judgment concerning features of organisms and/or species. Here is the definition/principle:

An organized product of nature, (a NOOP, an organism) is a thing in which every part is in a sort of reciprocal relationship with all other parts such that it is, relative to other parts, an end, yet also a means, for those other parts. In such an object, ‘nothing is in vain, without purpose, or to be ascribed to blind mechanisms of nature.’

Ok, time to take a break and supply an example, because Kant here does not deign to give us one. Consider that grey matter in your cranium. “Brain and brain, what is brain?” you ask.

Well, in a way, the remainder of your body, take for example your heart, exists so as to support the brain. Your heart pumps blood (and any blood borne substances you may rely on to get going in the morning) to the brain, allowing it to function. So, we can describe the heart’s functioning as a means to the end of maintaining the brain’s functioning. Now, flip things: The brain obviously is used to gather things like food, drink and low dose aspirin. It also is used to gather useful information for maintenance of health or to navigate your heart’s way to the Doctor’s office. All of this can be described as serving the purpose of keeping the heart functioning. So, you see there is a reciprocal relationship, where both organs play the role of ends and means in their relations with one another. We needn’t enter into a discussion of which organ can more truly be considered an end, but we could. The point here is that when you look at an organism, this sort of reciprocity holds between its parts. Get it? Now back to the Para- K-Man:

We obviously have derived this principle from observing nature, but it also serves as a regulative principle, that is; it regulates inquiry as a sort of methodological presupposition. BUT, the idea of purpose that it presupposes IS ONLY an idea in the inquiring minds that are doing the science. IT IS NOT something that we can describe as being ‘in the effective cause’.

Plain English (Phil Harris supplying some of the commentary): Just because I’m saying that treating organisms as if they are designed with the purpose of functioning well in their environments, and being self sustaining both individually, and as a species, don’t mean I’m sayin’ that they actually were created by some being with that purpose in mind. Naw. I ain’t sayin’ that. No way Clyde. (Phil now rejoins Frank Remley at the bar.)

Ok, back to Kant:


The principle can be treated as a maxim. That is; a handy rule of thumb. To see how it works, let’s look at an example. Consider dedicated botanists or animal physiologists: They dissect, investigate structure, and all the while ask themselves questions along this line ‘why and for what end are these parts arranged and combined in just this way?’ In fact, when considering organisms this principle is much deeper or fundamental than a mere rule of thumb. It plays a role similar to the fundamental and more general presupposition guiding natural science, i.e., that nothing happens by chance, but has some sort of sufficient causal explanation. In fact, the botanist and physiologist can no more do without his teleological presupposition or principle, than he can do without the more general causal principle, which is indeed at the heart of the scientific enterprise. Without the principle of sufficient reason, applied or interpreted causally, involving things in relation to each other in space and time, there would be nothing we could deem ‘experience’. Similarly, without the principle of natural teleology, we would have no guiding principle or thread for the observation, or scientific examination of organisms, no plausible way to explain why it is they have the features they have.

Even the evolutionary explanation makes use of a concept of a sort of universal and underlying purpose for which all organisms exist, (survival) in terms of which features are selected as useful. To attempt a purely naturalistic explanation of how this universal purpose came about or how the myriad features of organisms came about without making use of the at least quasi teleological ‘survival story’ would be immensely difficult, if not impossible.

Kant here hearkens to his Critique of Pure Reason, part of which argues that the ‘presuppositional’ or “transcendental” notion of causality, a particular form of the principle of sufficient reason, fleshed out so as to apply to objects in space/time, is at the heart of our ability to make justifiable claims to knowledge. In a very real sense, we cannot conceive of reality (as opposed to appearance) except in these terms. So says Kant. I won’t get into that nest in this post, though, at some point, I will. Back to ParaKant:

When Reason is used in this way, the order of things it presupposes as it does its work is very much different than the order of things it presupposes as it goes about scientifically investigating the inanimate world, as it does in physics. The picture of the world Newton presupposes has no need of an intelligent designer playing a role. That is not the case with organisms. In making use of the principle above described, one makes use of the notion of a designer, idea in mind, arranging things in the organism, with the goal in mind of instantiating that idea.

But, because this sort of activity is the introduction of a unity of the parts of an organism, a unity that the parts themselves could not bring about without the help of the guidance here presupposed, if that presupposed idea is to have a methodological or grounding role to play in science, if it is to act as a presupposition in this arena, we must extend it as such a presupposition, to the explanation of the whole of the natural world. For, if we do this sort of thing, engage the sort of presupposition here described once, (that is; explaining the existence of a part of nature in reference to a ‘supersensible,’ non-natural or non-mechanistic determining factor, ground, or cause) we must ‘judge of it (nature) altogether according to this same principle.’ Furthermore, we have no reason to regard the form of such a thing (Ed; nature or organism?) as partly dependent on mechanism, or unguided natural forces. Why? Because, if we mix the grounds of explanation in this way, if we mix the teleologically anchored explanation with the mechanistically based explanation we end up with no certain ‘rule of judging.’ That's why!

Once again, we can ask, what is Kant on about here? This is not only obscure, but very quick. Why must the designer postulated be 'supersensible'? Is it because, using the teleological principle of explanation forces us to include the whole of the universe in it ambit, therefore forcing the designer outside that universe?

Furthermore, why exactly can’t we mix the two basic grounds of explanation? There are clear examples of such mixed investigation in cases of reverse engineering. We find an ancient mechanism, and use hypotheses concerning purposes for which the mechanisms might have been created, and also take into account the mechanics of the object in order to come up with a satisfactory explanation of the thing, not only in regard to its existence, but its function. Perhaps Kant means to point out that in the case of organisms; the possible hypotheses as regards ultimate function are many. Any given organism can be seen as end or as means to some other organism’s ends, just as we can look at organs within a single organism as both ends and means. The collective or biosphere can be seen as having more than one possible set of functions as well. It also has myriad cases of reciprocation.

But, somehow that reciprocal nature in the case of parts of individual organisms is not fatal to also being able to investigate the mechanics of organisms. Why should this not also be possible even in the case where we posit a teleology beyond the individual organism, one that encompasses more of the natural world, (the biosphere perhaps)? It may be true that we cannot come to any firm conclusion as regards the specifics of the purpose for which the whole was created, but can we not, on the basis of observing the reciprocity, come to the less ambitious conclusion that there is some purpose (or perhaps more than one purpose) the exact nature of which we cannot ascertain? If not, why not? There are analogous cases, artifacts, things about which we know THAT they were designed, but whose specific function we do not thereby know.

Kant now continues:

For example; it is true that we can explain the existence of the hide hair and bones of animals by setting out the natural chemical process of ‘concrescence’, yet when we consider the beast as a whole, we cannot help but conceiving of that phenomenon teleologically, that is; as if there is a cause that brought together the matter which intrinsically in itself, has this potentiality to concrescence in a narrow set of circumstances, and arranged for the concrescence to thereby occur on cue as a feature of the organism. Indeed, when we consider the beast as a whole, everything in the animal must be considered as organized, and systematically related to the whole as functional organ to functioning organism.

If the matter that makes up organisms was not organized in the way it is, it would not so strongly suggest to us purpose. We would not get the notion of a natural purpose in our conceptual library were it not for the fact that nature provides us with NOOPs. But this concept of a natural purpose leads necessarily to the idea of nature as a collective, indeed as a whole, as a sort of system that is put together for a purpose (or purposes), subordinating all its objects, all the natural forces and all the organisms to that end (well, at least we must think this way as a sort of unavoidable presupposition).

The ‘natural purpose’ principle or maxim so applied now becomes: ‘Everything in the world is in some way good for something; nothing in the universe is in vain.’ By the example of organisms as products of nature, we are called upon to expect of Nature and its laws nothing that is not purposive on the whole.

If then we have once discovered things in nature that we can only conceive as being related to final causes, purposes, or a telos, we go further. We venture to judge that everything in the universe (even inanimate things or events not involving animate things) belongs to a system of such purposes (arranged in complex hierarchies no doubt) even when some of those things (the inanimate objects and events again) do not, by their nature, impel us to postulate an intelligent cause of their existence.

For, that very first step, (in the case of organisms) that very first use of the idea of a supersensible intelligent cause, already brings us beyond the world of sense, and not only that, but by virtue of the fact that the organisms are material, and housed in a universe that has inanimate nature, and which also is governed by natural laws, this first step seemingly necessitates that the supersensible intelligent cause had in mind the organisms interactions with this universe. So, that aspect of the universe must also have been designed or accounted for in the design of the organisms. So, the teleological form of explanation begins to leak over into the realm of the inorganic.

Deeply obscure reasoning going on here, and, as mentioned before, there seem to be some lacunae, missing steps in the argument, that I have tried to provide as I’ve moved through the material. The new idea here seems to be that we are unavoidably impelled, once we’ve adopted the teleological principle of explanation, with regard to organisms, and their features, to admit that the principle must be extended to the inorganic world, and a presupposition, no matter how vaguely defined, of a purpose for the whole of the universe must now become a feature of scientific inquiry, at the very least, as a heuristic or guiding principle. Now, keeping this in mind, and keeping in mind Kant’s repeated notes of caution with regard to the ontological import of this principle and the associated presupposition, we will now move on, in the next post, to the section of the work that really brings the underlying tension in this line of thought to a head. The section, #70 bears the true earmark of Kant’s hand. He will provide us with what he calls “the dialectic of the teleological judgment” a pair of seemingly contradictory maxims (to which we already have been introduced) and his account of how they can be rendered consistent, while also resolving the tension between the seeming ontological import of the argument, and the metaphysical caution that is Kant’s stock and trade.

Exit observation: This section is particularly interesting when contrasted with Kant’s earlier assertions that there is no strong compulsion, when observing any given natural product, to assume or presuppose design. Remember the case of the mountains and precipitation watering the bovines down in the valley so low? Kant argued there that though we could tell a designer-based story as to how this came about, we were not strongly compelled to do so, and could actually provide a satisfactory tale in terms of mindless natural processes. Now, in this section, we find him saying something a bit different. He says that once we admit teleology as being somehow involved in the explanation of organisms (that are denizens of the natural world with which they unavoidably interact) that we cannot help but admit that that self-same mode of explanation is also somehow involved in the explanation of the universe as a whole. Why? Apparently, because the organisms are material, just as is the environment within which they live. Now, it is open to us to say he is in the process of creating a reductio argument from the premise of intelligent design, but we'll have to wait for the sequel to see if that indeed is the case. Stay tuned.

Joyeux Noel

This scene from the 2005 film based upon the Christmas truce during WWI, between French, Scottish, and German forces Christmas Eve and Christmas day in 1914 along the Western front, Ypres Belgium. The film is outstanding, not as well known as other films but one of the very best Christmas films.