Sunday, January 30, 2011

Kant on natural purposes, part the Xth

Wherein Phil and Remley play a large and bizarre part in the proceedings,this being attributable to the writer having to take large doses of cold medication and high yield antibiotics.

Here the heavy slogging begins. We now come to what has historically been the predominate explanation for NOOPs; theism: the idea that these naturally occurring objects with apparent purpose, are indeed best explained as actually having been designed with purposes in mind. As we read this section, we should remember Kant is evaluating the theory, not only its own merits, but relative to the other three theories he has been mulling over in section 73: atomism, Spinozism, and what he terms “hylozoism” the notion that the universe is very like an animal body. Recall that there was a “dualist” reading of this last hypothesis, along with a “physicalist” reading. So, how does good old fashioned theism fare relative to the three competitors? Let’s find out. On to you ParaKant (remember he is wrapping up a section whose title lets it be known he thinks all four systems of thought have significant shortcoming. None of them “give what they pretend”):



Finally we come to theism. It’s not in any better a position to establish “dogmatically” that natural purposes exist as products of the explanatory entity it posits. Thus it cannot provide “a key to Teleology” that is; an explanatory fulcrum with which we can explain NOOPs.


Now, one wonders here why Kant makes this assertion. Keep in mind, the first paragraph here is stating his conclusions. Following paragraphs will give the arguments for those conclusions…hopefully.


Theism does have an advantage over all the other grounds of explanation, we have been exploring. Why? It saves appearances in a way they cannot. By postulating a faculty like human understanding in the being it posits, it rescues with adequate robustness the appearance of design in NOOPs in a way that is obviously lacking in the attempts to save appearances we find in the Idealist camp.

In both of the idealist theses, we have the merest of explanations as to why the damn things exist. Atomism is basically an ‘eventually everything will happen randomly’ type answer that is in fact applicable to all possible states of affairs. So, it really is a lazy man’s position. Spinoza’s view has it that NOOPs are necessarily existing modes or attributes of the (you guessed it) necessary being, once again, a mere “emanation” if you will. That postulation does no work toward explaining the apparent purposiveness as purposeful. We cannot help but note that the particular arrangements of material that make up NOOPs are such that, even though they follow the laws of nature as they operate, they are to all appearances contingently existing arrangements which could have just as easily never happened. Positing an understanding that constructed them gives an explanation of that apparent design, and the concomitant sense of contingency. But according to Spinozistic metaphysics, everything that exists necessarily exists as a sort of consequence of the existence of the necessary being. This just ends up being another lazy man’s position.

And things are not better for hylozoism. It postulates the universe as an organism. On analogy with organisms, the thesis claims that the universe self organizes. Yet, in order to make use of this thesis to explain NOOPs we have to make use of NOOPs to back up the postulation. So, we are arguing in a circle.


Boy, I'm taking liberties here. Just refer to the original CoJ section 73. None of that is in it. But I’m not obliged to stick so closely to the text. Why? Because I warned you, that’s why. And we need frickin’ guideposts man. And it has been days between these infernal Kant posts…Godangit.


But before we can begin to make a case that the explanatory ground of these NOOPs does indeed exist “somewhere” beyond nature, as theism suggests (to use Kant’s unhelpful terminology ‘before we can place the ‘ground’ beyond nature ‘in a determinate way’) we must first prove (I SAID PROVE) satisfactorily to ‘determinate judgment’ that the unity we see in NOOPs is impossible via the mere unguided ‘mechanical’ operations, hummings, and general goings-on in the vast material basis of the universe, the matter, after all, from which they are constituted.


Another interruption! Phil Harris simply cannot stand it anymore:

Phil here again, boys and girls. Remley an’ me see somethin’ fishy in this last little bit. I get what yer drivin at Clyde but..

Frankie interrupts: Curly, his name is ‘Kant’, not ‘Clyde’.

Oh, I dunno’ Frankie, that name’s too hard to remember. Can’t. Can. Cantina, Can-Can.. He kinda reminds me of Yoda. Can I call him that? Do you mind mister? Do you mind if I call you Yoda?

Kant is nonplussed but prefers not to be called Yoda.

So, anyway, as I was sayin’ before I was so rudely interrupted, I can see what yer drivin’ at. You’re settin’ up one of them disjunctive arguments. All this time you’ve been claiming yer four theses are all the possible theses, and collectively exhaust all the possibilities, both as presuppositions for research or discovery, and as postulates as to the actual origins of them things. I get it. I get it. But, what I ain’t getting’ is this business here about us having to prove the other alternatives impossible. Ain’t it good enough to show they are highly unlikely? Think of it this way Yoda..er..Cantina..er..little wigged friend: Suppose Frankie and me go to the bar and Abruzio the grocery kid is sittin’ there and offers us a bet. He has slips of paper with letters of the alphabet printed on ‘em. They are in a hat. He say to us, he says, “You guys like to wager that if I keep drawing letters, and putting each one back after I draw, and write down my results, that I will eventually draw, and write down the sentence, “Phil Harris is a genteel gentleman, and Mr. Remley is a left-handed guitar player.” Heck, Julius even spots us the punctuation marks and all of them there “g”s. Would we take that bet? Hell, no. Well, maybe Frankie here would be so peurile. But I ain’t no mark.

Frankey is taken aback: Curly, you have cut me to the quick. Is my intelligence so in question that you can insult me in this fashion? Peurile?

Phil: Frankie. Just remember, whatever you say, I ain’t interested in “I know a guy”. That’s how we got tangled up with this incomprehensible little Prussian man wearin’ knee britches and a powdered wig. That’s how we got stuck talkin’ to him in the first place. Now, I’m stuck here arguin’ with the guy, when I could be out with Alice painting the town red. Remind me never to listen to you again Rem.

Frankie: Curly. I have been reduced to astonishment at your treatment of your oldest and dearest friend. I will never again introduce you to any one of my fascinating friends. You can be assured of that. (He sniffles a bit, pulls out his hanky)


Kant: You two are very strange. You know that, don’t you? Can we get back to business? You were saying that my disjunctive argument is questionable?


Ok enough of Phil and Frankie.

The point is that the requirements Kant presents for exclusion of disjuncts seems unnecessarily high. If it can be shown that the ‘mere mechanism’ atomistic alternative is highly unlikely to have produced NOOPs in the amount of time given since the beginning of the universe, it would seem that, while that isn’t a proof of the impossibility of the postulate, it would nevertheless be sufficient reason to try out the other disjuncts. It is true that Kant has argued that the other options (hylozoism and Spinozism) are inferior to the mechanistic and theistic models. So, he feels he needn’t take them seriously. He has to deal with the best competitor, and that is explanation by unguided mechanism or natural laws. But he feels that in order to make an objective claim for theism one must show the mechanistic option to be impossible. That’s a tall order, and may in fact not be required for the purpose.
But, he is making the case that theism’s best competitor doesn’t have that much to crow about. Back to Kant:



We cannot advance this first step toward establishing the superiority of the theistic hypothesis read in its full blown ontological sense, because we simply cannot show the impossibility of NOOPs arising from unguided natural processes. That would have to be the first step, and we cannot even carry it out.


He’s just moving on ain’t he Rem?

Yep, Curly. That he is. Seems to me that you could take a first step if you accept that improbabilities count, if you accept something short of a full blown proof of impossibility.



Kant is now ticked: Would you guys shut up?


Oh, Alright go on why dontcha. You’ll hear nothin’ from us. We’ll be quiet as church mice.


Kant continues: By way of acceding to the structure and limitations of our cognitive faculty, and also given that we do not comprehend the inner ground of natural mechanism, we must admit two things.

1. We must not seek a purposive explanation for NOOPs in matter itself (as the two forms of hylozoism postulate). We have seen that the two hylozoic theories fail. One argues circularly from NOOPs to NOOPs. The other lands one in logically absurd situations where one and the same item is both passive and active with respect to the same mental or intentional event.

2. However, when we think carefully about what we are left with we have to say that we have really eliminated all the competing non-theistic disjuncts as being in very deep ways, incapable of being fleshed out in such a way as to give a robust account of the teleological features of organisms. They are stubbornly and perhaps permanently stuck at the ‘mere possibility’ phase. (Yes, even in the case of the Spinozistic thesis, the modes do emanate, if you will, from the necessary being, all we can say if we buy it, is that we see that IF Spinoza is right, that there is a necessary being, then necessarily everything that exists because of that thing is also something that came about necessarily. But this is still a very bare “explanation” as is the atomistic thesis. In both cases, what the theories end up saying is trivial. Things are different with theism: With the theistic thesis, we can make some narrative headway, and are dealing with no mere logical possibility, no mere logical necessity.

In fact, we have no other choice when we are judging as to how organisms came into being, or when we are investigating the inner organization of these damn things, and how their organs function. To make headway in making useful empirical discoveries, we have no choice but to treat them as carefully coordinated wholes, built with purposes in mind not only for the whole, but for each of the parts, as they reciprocally and systematically interact with each other and the environs.

But to think of organisms in this fashion is tantamount to thinking of them as being created by a designer possessed of an understanding, in its essence like ours, able to formulate practical imperatives or technical rules of thumb. What is more this originating understanding for NOOPs has to be conceived as being outside of and the cause of the world as a whole, because the non-theistic alternatives have been shown to be implausible at their several bases. But to be very clear, this is all merely a heuristic fact, if you will, not an ontological fact, or rather, it is something the objective or perhaps ontological ramifications of which we can never hope to verify.



(That is, UNLESS we can show up that ‘mechanistic explanation’ as a genuine impossibility? Ed.)

There are shades of a pragmatic or instrumentalist view here. Theism is respectable as a sort of metaphysical research program. Used as a heuristic device, it is very useful for the purposes of ‘reverse engineering’ organisms, and finding out things about their structure, their organs, and indeed their fitness for environment. So, its fruitfulness suggests theism as a desirable starting point for the scientist. We have examples of this in the history of science. Kepler essentially operated from within this heuristic framework. His frustrations in finding that nature did not conform to a Platonic ground plan eventually led him to discover the fact that nature uses elliptical orbits,( so to speak, of course). No doubt discoveries in biology found similar origins. I’m too lazy to look up instances though.

One wants to press ParaKant here. From one direction: He is making the claim that the presupposition of a designer is in some sense of the word indispensible to scientific research as regards organisms. He makes very strong claims to the effect that we cannot do without that heuristic.

Darwinists would probably respond: While it’s true that something like this heuristic is very useful and fecund in generating or facilitating scientific discovery, it is simply false that we cannot do without it. While the details of the story are multitudinous the basic story is this: You have DNA, a molecule that in the quite ordinary chemical process of things, finds itself replicating. Random changes in replicated copies have macroscopic effect, because DNA also, once again as a result of the quite ordinary chemical processes it undergoes in its interactions with materials within cells, ends up building and maintaining cells.

Changes in the DNA molecule cause changes in functionality, which again is reducible to a very complex description of densely imbricated and intertwined chemical reactions. Some of these functions cause their housing macroscopic organisms to have a higher probability of survival and, because they, among other things, distribute and combine genetic materials, making new beasties, there will be a tendency for the DNA that coded for that favorable rate of survival to indeed be passed on into future generations of the macroscopic beasties. The end result is macroscopic organisms that appear to have been designed for their environments.



Kant would probably respond:

I know all about that story, but the fact of the matter is, you are not going to be able to flesh it out in any more detail than you just did. When it gets down to the nitty-gritty of understanding the chemical steps themselves, the task is simply too great. You will never move beyond this skeleton of a narrative. The task is simply too immense. It would be like telling the entire story of how it is you came to be reading this post.

But, and this is key, we simply see no way forward in filling the pre-biological portion of the narrative, the portion that has to do with how the genetic material first came into being via the non-guided actions of atoms bustling about according to natural laws. So, because of the immensity of the task, we find it much more fruitful to approach these things from the point of view of the reverse engineer. However, that does not amount to saying there is such a being. It’s more a commentary on the limited and finite nature of our cognitive capacities than anything else.


It does not follow from the fact that we cannot conceive or understand a thing unless we make use of a heuristic with feature X, that feature X reflects some objective feature of the world. Kant agrees with this.

From a direction more sympathetic to theism:

Look Kant old boy. You spend a great deal of time making the case that, of the four theses, the one with less flaws is the theistic hypothesis. If it is truly indispensible for cognition or discovery, vis biology, why not then, claim this as evidence that theism is true? If we are unable to come up with any other viable alternative, isn’t that good evidence for the thesis?


Consider this analogy. I happen upon a tree. A car is lodged in its top branches. The event that placed that car is over, and cannot be revisited. Yet, I am able to infer the nature of that event. There is a nearby river, and signs of recent flooding. My mind gets to a’ cypherin’, and bingo, I have the most plausible explanation. There simply cannot be a more plausible alternative. Similarly with the theistic hypothesis. Even though it is in principle not possible to witness or see the cause of NOOPs, it does not follow that the can make no inference as to its nature. If mere mechanism is either impossible, or immensely improbable, and we do have competing explanations that can account for the observations (theism or some variant), why not take that explanation seriously? Why all this caution? Why not bite the bullet and say the evidence you present is evidence for ‘determinative’ judgment?

Response: Because, as we have seen, the logic of the argument forces that being outside the realm of the universe. As such, we cannot hope to learn anything about it other than that it exists.

Counter: You’ve learned that it has an understanding, have you not?

K: No, we’ve learned that it produces things that look like what we would produce using our understanding, if we had the technical knowledge and skills. Since the thing is outside our world, we have no assurances that it is like things in this world, including ourselves (with our understanding, the very basis of the analogy here being used).

Phil and Remley just shake their heads. Phil pipes in:

Look Immanuel, I admire your caution, but it just seems to me that being inside or outside of the universe don’t make no difference regarding whether or not the cause of NOOPs has understanding. If the best or most plausible explanation, as far as we can tell, makes use of the hypothesis that such a thing exists, then why not go with it? Whether or not it is in space time don’t make no difference. So, the designer has understanding, and he exists nowhere and nowhen. So what? He still has understanding all the same, don’t he? You with me on this Rem?

Remley is deeply confused, while Kant is deeply impressed that Phil has fully grasped the notion of the “noumenal”



Phil, there is a barrier that cannot be overcome, between our phenomenal realm, (the world as we experience it) and the world as it is in itself. We cannot remove ourselves from this world, move over ‘into’ the other, and compare our experiences of objects, space and time, with the real things that cause us to have experience of a universe spread out in space/time. So we have no assurances that the universe in itself is similar to how we take it to be. There may be space and time; there very well could be nothing like that at all. It may be that the ‘real’ world is incomprehensible to us. We just don’t know, and can never know, due to our cognitive limitations.

Well, it just gets worse if we try to make dogmatic claims about the extra-universal cause of all the things in the universe. In effect, that thing is at two removes from our phenomenal experiences, (it’s the thing that is behind what is behind our experiences!) and even less likely to resemble objects in our phenomenal universe. In fact, speaking more cautiously, we have no basis on which to determine the probability that such a demiurge exists. The ultimate nature of the universe is permanently and profoundly mysterious. The concepts we use to describe this thing, and understand it, all of them, are concepts that are tied up with our experienced world, and thus we have assurances as to their applicability only with regard to that world we experience, not the whatever-the-hell-it-is that is causing (damn, there goes that word again) all that experience.



Remley now steps up:

That’s some pretty high falutin’ stuff there I-man. But, I think you are being inconsistent..have you been hitting the bourbon?

Phil butts in: Remley! That is quite a swipe at this fine gentleman. I will thank you for apologizing immediately!

Remley and Kant: Well! La-dee-da!

Remley: Mr. Kant I’m glad to see you are not as easily offended as Mr. Harris. Do you see my point? You more than once tell us that we should adapt as a methodological principle, or metaphysical research program, the atomist or mechanistic thesis, see how far we can go with it. You also tell us that we can also rest assured that it does tell us something about the things we investigate using that thesis, something objective (even as you make these warnings concerning the noumenal causes of the phenomenal world of objects).

On the other hand, you say ‘make liberal use of the theistic hypothesis, just don’t take it literally. It seems we have options you don’t consider: Why not take them both as mere heuristics, or take them both as making objective claims? You need to argue these points.

As we have seen just above, Kant does make these arguments, and will develop them in upcoming sections. Stay tuned.