Friday, January 21, 2011

Kant on natural purposes, part the IXth

It’s been a while since I’ve forced myself to do this, but I know the longer I procrastinate, the greater the probability that the project just up and stalls out. So, to orient; we are still in section 73 of the Critique of Judgment. The purpose of that section is to show the relative strengths and weaknesses of the 4 theses Kant has presented, theses that he believes collectively exhaust the theoretical possibilities with regard to the origins of our teleological treatment of (or conceptual or investigatory/explanatory approach toward) some naturally occurring objects, those with (at least) apparent purpose ( NOOPs for short).

In the last few post, ParaKant has been dealing with the “idealist” or “it aint really out there in them objects” theories of the Epicurean atomists, and ‘Spinozistic’ monists. He found both seriously lacking in their stated goals as feasible explanations of the apparent purposiveness. What is more, in the more humble role of methodological presuppositions, they still have issues.

According to ParaKant we have cognitive limitations. One of these: We cannot, except in the most cursory manner, even begin to comprehend or give a detailed account of how it is random unguided operations of physical laws on the basic physical objects (atoms) can eventuate in the origins of organisms. Secondly, the attempt to explain their existence via the supposition that they are ‘modes’, ‘accidents’ or properties of a necessarily existing being does not explain why it is necessary that the being in question has modes that exhibit teleological order. That telos is a real dangler.

So, the two idealist theses aint so hot. How about the two realist theses? Will they fare any better either in the role of explanations of the origins of these objects, or in the humbler role of methodological principles from within which scientific discovery can occur? As the owl says: “Let’s find out.”

Kant (liberally paraphrased in plain font. This is why I keep referring to this guy “ParaKant”):


Those who argue for the realist positions I am about to cover obviously want to explain the origins of these peculiar natural objects. To have inkling that some version of realism is even a possible explanation, we can safely infer that these folks must think they have a good fleshed out idea or comprehension of what that sort of explanation would be like...


(Unlike the atomist we might want to emphasize here): Where he has a conception that is what we might call ‘the mere conception of a logical possibility’ sans any sort of details with regard to the process involved, the realist, because he has in mind analogy with human artifacts, not only is in the position of saying that such an explanation of the origins of NOOPs is a bare or “mere” logical possibility, but he is also in the relatively more secure position of being able to flesh out that logical possibility, in terms of a sort of narrative based on the analogy upon which he relies. This already puts the two realist theses at a position of relative advantage in comparison to the two idealist theses. Back to ParaKant:

Now, clearly, what the realists have in mind is our experience of human beings ‘behaving designedly.’ But, if we carefully sketch our two realist positions, making careful use of the two human case analogs that naturally come to mind, (or rather the two metaphysical theses with regard to human artificers, vis-à-vis the ontological status of their rational minds in regard to their bodies), we find that the first realist position is problematic. Labels for the two theses regarding the human mind/body relationship: physicalism and dualism. According to the dualist, the mind is lodged in the body, and separable. According to the physicalist, the mind is an aspect or property of the body, not separable. So, we need to carefully consider the other ‘large scale’ side of the analogy that is built using the ‘small scale’ case of human art and the contained metaphysical assumptions.


I’m really taking my liberties with Kant, here adding an intro. In the actual text, he just dives right into the next bit, without orienting. So, I oriented.

The physicalist analog on the larger scale is the notion of ‘living matter’ or a living universe, where the ‘life’ is not ontologically distinct from the matter, cannot exist but by way of the existence of the matter. But, the possibility of this cannot even be conceived. It involves a contradiction because lifelessness, and passivity, reception of action, and indeed, ‘inertia’ (that is a stasis or continuation of state unless acted upon) all are tied up essentially in the very conception of matter.


One has to interrupt here, and point out that the conception of matter Kant is relying on here is essentially that of Newtonian physics, and indeed the atomists of old; inert lumps of stuff that on their own will not organize, nor indeed move unless impelled to move by some other thing. He seems to be asking how matter can at once be both completely inert and active.

It is an open question how he might have responded to the more modern conception of matter as energy, or action at its essence.

It is also worth asking whether or not exploration of the analogical case might introduce problems for the strong claim made here. Consider a human being. While it is not true that one and the same lump o’ matter, say a hand, can both be the passive recipient of action, and initiator of that action, it does not follow that a story cannot be told according to which the initiator and recipient are both lumps o’ stuff. Obviously, we have considerable evidence that the brain is the initiator. There is no logical contradiction involved in that conception. What might Kant say about that?

I think this: OK, smarty pants. Focus on the brain. Focus on a single neuron, or the smallest possible neural unit that governs action. Say there is such a unit the firing of which eventuates in that hand moving. Now, that unit is obviously changing. So, it is being acted upon. If you conceive of that particular unit (physical aint it Clyde?) as being the originator of the change in its own matter, then you have to conceive of it as being both originator AND recipient. That’s logically contradictory. So, you have to fall back to the position that the originator, the INSTIGATOR is metaphysically distinct from the neural unit we are focusing on.

In response, I think we can save the physicalist thesis from contradiction by relocating the ‘separation’ if you will, of the originating impulse and the passive recipient. If we consider the mental as being just one physical property amongst the others (mass, charge, magnetic polarity, inertia, charm, etc.) then there is no logical difficulty in conceiving of it acting upon the others, for while the two properties, of say, mass and mentality, are indeed possessed by the same object, a brain, they are distinct, and therefore, room or ‘space’ is left that allows one to work changes upon the other. We see this sort of interaction when we look at pairs of other more traditionally “material” or “physical” properties. A trivial example: An atom ejects mass as a normal part of radioactive decay; this causes its chemical properties to change, which reduces to changing the structure of its contained charged particles. A change in mass acts upon charge. No biggie.

The physicalist can say here, that the situation with a neural unit is similar. Within the originary neural unit, the physical property we denote using the term “mental” has an effect on other of its properties, causing that originary unit to begin the cascade of neural events eventuating in the movement of the hand. And, it need not be the case that every step of that process, that cascade, possesses mentality as a part of its role. The mentality need only be located at the beginning of the process, being located in a lump of stuff that has attained the correct sort of functional and structural status to allow the mentality to emerge.

But, anyway, that’s a bit of a tangent, and getting away from Kant’s argument.

Getting back to the argument in section 73 and Kant:


The possibility or conception of the entire universe being a sort of large animal can be used in the interests of hypothesizing an origin of the purposiveness of NOOPs only in so far as we have evidence for such a ‘life’ in natural manifestations on the small scale. Absent any such experience, we would have no reason to make such postulations.

But, if we admit this, consider the pickle we are in. We do have such evidence on the small scale. But that evidence is derived precisely from the very objects the existence of which we are attempting to explain.


The argument is something like this:

1. We need to explain the apparent purposiveness of some objects in the universe.

2. We can explain this by postulating the ‘living matter’ hypothesis.

3. We can postulate such a hypothesis only if we have some empirical evidence for it. Otherwise it is empty speculation.

4. but, we do have empirical evidence for it, via our experience of NOOPs and ourselves.

5. So, because NOOPs and we ourselves are living things we can safely postulate the universe is a living thing.

6. So we can postulate the living matter hypothesis.

7. So, we can explain, via that hypothesis the apparent purposiveness of some objects in the universe, in fact the very same objects we made use of as our empirical base….er….wait a minute...

8. Damn. We are stuck in some sort of vicious circle here.


So, the long and short of it is that the ‘hylozoic’ view, the view of the universe as a living thing does not furnish what it promises, a satisfactory explanation of how it is NOOPs came about.


Ok, that’s it for the first of Kant’s “realist” theses. He doesn’t think the ‘mental within the body of the universe’ thesis will work out. This leaves only one alternative; the ‘mental is external to the body of the universe’ view. In short, the one remaining realist alternative is the ‘theistic’ hypothesis. How does it fare as a potential explanation? How does it fare in comparison to the other three theses we’ve been gnawing on over the course of the last few posts? Stay tuned.