The Metaphysics of ‘Natural Goodness’, Part I


by Adam Voight.

If you like this post check out my podcast “The Aristotle Project“.

The main difficulty, however, is this: What do the Forms contribute either to eternal or transient sensibles? For if they are not in them they are not their substance, and therefore contribute nothing either to the knowledge of them or to their being. If the Forms were immanent they might be said to be the causes of sensible things, in the sense that white is the cause of whiteness to the whole thing by being mixed in it.It is manifestly impossible for that which is the substance of a thing to exist apart from it. How then, can the Ideas, which are supposed to be the substances of things, exist apart from them?(Aristotle, Metaphysics Book I.9)
According to the above, in a certain sense metaphysics is beholden to physics. The well-known and justified supremacy of first philosophy notwithstanding, it is in this sense subservient to natural science. This view undermines various forms of idealism in favor of a metaphysics where essences and formal causality are immanent to natural beings. In the following, I would like to elaborate on this approach in connection to biology. From an evolutionary perspective, the “main difficulty” above casts new light on many issues where modern people find some form of idealism compelling. In the final analysis, I shall argue that this applies not only to classical “idealism” but also to much modern analytic philosophy.

Plato and Aristotle on biological essences.

According to the above, in a certain sense metaphysics is beholden to physics. The well-known and justified supremacy of first philosophy notwithstanding, it is in this way subservient to natural science. This view undermines various forms of idealism in favor of a metaphysics where essences and formal causality are immanent to natural beings. By “idealism” we can mean a view where

  1. In “physics” – where formal causes are privileged over material, efficient and final causes. Aristotle’sMetaphysicsBook Alpha makes the claim that all four causes must be used: formal, final, material and efficient.
  2. In metaphysics – where “substances” (that which is ultimately real) are universals, numbers, or other abstract objects.Aristotle’s MetaphysicsBook Zeta makes the claim that true substances are natural “hylophorphs” -compounds of matter and form.

Ithe following, I would like to elaborate on this approach in connection to biology. From an evolutionary perspective, the “main difficulty” above casts new light on many issues where modern people find some form of idealism compelling. In the final analysis, I shall argue that this applies not only to classical “idealism” but also to much modern analytic philosophy.

Plato and Aristotle on biological essences.

Let us begin with a paradigmatic case of an Aristotelean substance: an organism that is a member of a biological species. For the purposes of this discussion, we shall assume that these species essences exist. My example will be the biological species “Northern Cardinal “(Cardinalis cardinalis). All essentialists (idealistic or hylomorphic,) must agree that there is some essence that sets the members of this species apart from all other songbirds. Idealist essentialism must hold that:

  1. This essence “ε” is a substantial universal .
  2. ε somehow (magically?) causes cardinals to be.
  3. εis absolutely normative for anything which may be called a “cardinal”.

Aristotelians, on the other hand, must hold that

  1. ε is immanent – does not exist outside of the actual physical cardinals, but is in them.
  2. εis a hylomorphic form – a form taken by certain matter),
  3. εis “natural” – it is both the formal and the efficient cause for the coming-to-be of cardinals.
  4. εis normative, but not absolutely so. For Aristotle, “form follows function”, form is thus not the absolutely highest cause (as with Idealism), but rather the final cause is the cause of the Form.

Plato, Aristotle and Darwin

So let us say that these two views must make some response to the discovery of DNA and Darwinian evolution. Clearly Aristotle has the upper hand in this context, since he has already granted

  1. The immanence of ε
  2. ε is hylomorphic – essence is a form taken by matter, in this case a series of amino acids in DNA.
  3. ε qua natural form efficiently causes the individuals.
  4. Form follows function” – the form of the cardinal is fora purpose: in the light of Darwin, we might say this function is to follow a certain adaptive strategy in a certain ecological niche.

How would an Aristotelian and an Idealist describe the evolution of a cardinal? The idealist would admit that while evolutionary forces might alter the nature of birds over millions of years, it was only recently that some of these birds came to participate or imitate the Idea of “Cardinal”. The science of Cardinals should study the Idea of Cardinals according to idealism. The Aristotelian would say that every type of organism (including the cardinal) is created by the agency of their own essence which is in the parents. This “Form” is as it is because it serves the function of what that creature is for. From a strictly Aristotelian view the science of cardinals must include all four causes:

  1. Material – The matter cardinals made of.
  2. Formal – The Form of cardinals.
  3. Efficient – The developmental process that creates each individual cardinal.
  4. Final- What are cardinals for, and how does the form of cardinals serve this function?

TheCardinal’sEightCauses – Shallow and Deep

In my view this can be answered in two ways: the “shallow” way and the “deep” way. The above list of the Four Causes of cardinals are the shallow ones. Perhaps the reason that no one has tried an evolutionary analysis of Aristotle’s Four Causes is that it seemed that such an analysis would either leave out the deeper senses or conflate them with the shallow. My view is that evolutionary explanation is not completely un-Aristotelian. Rather, we must expand the original analysis in order to make it fit.

Formal Causes

There are two senses of formal cause in modern biology: the shallow sense of “form” refers to the outward aspect of the creature (this is the original sense of “form” or the Greek “eidos”). The outward aspect is whatever about the creature that might be publicly observable. The most common sense of this is it physical form, but behavior is also part of the shallow form as well. Plato and Aristotle both applied formal cause explanations to human behavior, both in techne and praxis. Both of these are part of the creature’s “shallow form” or “outward aspect”. But this the outward form is. in a deeper sense, not really the essence of a creature, for the following reasons:

  1. Shallow form is not responsible for the existence of the creature,
  2. Shallow form is not the creature’s substance or essence (as those terms are used in “Metaphysics” Book Zeta, where we read about the substance of a substance).
  3. Shallow form is not the core or most fundamental content of the science of that creature.
  4. The form as outward aspect is that which is imitated in art, which gives it some claim to be called a “Form” in the Greek sense. But as we know from Plato, the mimetic Form used in art is not the ultimate Form in the mind of God or the scientist.

On the contrary, the outward aspect as seen with the physical eye is a mere shadow in a cave, whereas the true essence can (strictly speaking) only be seen by the mind. What is more, the essential form of the being is that which is the cause of its being, whereas the outward form is abstracted from the already existing being.

Of course, shallow form is in a sense part of scientific knowledge. In other words, there is a scientific way to look at organisms in their outward aspect. For example, birdwatchers and other naturalists know that a proper fields guide will not have photographs because photos are not good foshowing the distinctive “field marks” of each species. To show field marks, it is necessary for a field guide to be drawn by an artist who is also an expert in the relevant science. These “fields marks” are “essential” to a species in a limited or shallow sense, but not in the full and unqualified sense. The deepest sense of “form” which answers to the modern Aristotelian essence is the organism’s genome and its attendant cellular replication apparatus. This satisfies the qualifications for essence given above:

  1. DNA and its replicating machinery are immanent.
  2. DNA and its replicating machinery are a form taken by matter.
  3. DNA and its replicating machinery is also an efficient cause; it gets causes the formation of the zygote, the blastula, and each stage of development up to adulthood. (Boulter Citation)
  4. DNA and its replicating machinery are also normative; they exist to form beings that can continue the life cycle of the organism. In both Aristotle and modern biology, the continuation of the life cycle is the telos of all organisms qua organisms. (This is what “vegetable souls” do, and all creatures qua living have vegetable souls.)

So while “form” in its shallow sense is clearly something which deserves to be said of a piece of matter qua organism, deep form is clearly the essence in many other senses: the content of science, and the cause and principle of the coming-to-be and remaining-in-being of living thing qua living.

So on this view, we have two sense of “form”: shallow “form” as outward aspect and deep “form” as natural essence. It is this latter form which has the right to be called a “natural kind” – that thing which is most like a universal and yet pre-exists the human mind and is the cause and substance of natural beings rather than merely a conventional designation or description.

On the modern view, it is the essence of a cardinal that it must be naturally descended from a certain lineage, not that it has a certain outward appearance. For example, there are occasional cardinals that are yellow, or are otherwise deformed, but these cardinals are still just as much cardinals as the norm, since they have the essence of cardinal in them. As Aristotle said “the category of substance does not admit of more or less” (Citation?).In the case of an abnormal individual, this essence has been frustrated in its expression, but is still present as the cause of being of all cardinals, normal and otherwise.

Material Causes – Shallow and Deep

As with the above, the shallow sense of material cause is the sense most often used in hylomorphic descriptions of organisms: we think of the “matter” of the organism as being organs, and the matter of the organs are cells, whose matter are in turn molecules and atoms. Of course, this is only strictly true of the formation of the individual organism (“ontogeny” – the generation of the [individual] thing). However, in a deep sense, organisms have their origin in a process of evolution, where we find the deeper sense of “matter”. And it is this coming-to-be of biological essences that is most often said to be the downfall of hylomorphism. In this deeper sense, we are looking at the elements of the organism’s essence. In modern terms, this means that if the essence of an organism is its genome, then those parts of its genome that are the units of natural selection should be its “deep matter”. After all, if the essence is the product of evolution, and natural selection the efficient cause, then the genes or other units of selection are the matter.

One avenue from static to dynamic Aristotelianism is the concept of “intelligible matter” (1045a34). This is not the matter of modern chemistry and physics, but ‘matter’ as the elements from which an abstract is made. Such as the letters or syllables of a word, or the words of a sentence, or the sentences of a paragraph. None of these are ‘material’ in the normal sense of ‘matter’, but they are ‘elements’ as defined inBook Delta’s definition of ‘elements’:

“ ‘Elementmeans (1) the primary component immanent in a thing, and is indivisible into other kinds; for example the parts of speech are the parts of which speech consists and into which it is ultimately divided, while they are no longer divided into other forms of speech different in kind from them. … The so-called elements of geometrical proofs, and in general the elements of demonstrations, have a similar character… ” (1014b)

Elementsin this passage are clearly not only material matter.Theymay be merely physical matter (as in the examplein lines 31-34), but in the first and third examples, the examples givenare linguistic and geometrical elements. Thus in addition to sensible matter orperhaps“material matter”, there must also be “formal matter”, and in my view, this is what Aristotle is referring to as “intelligible matter”.In any case, I will proceed with my argument under the assumption that some sorts of ‘elements’ – syllables, lines, musical notes, and the like qualify as ‘intelligible matter’.
The result of this is that we can now explain certain forms of change which undoubtedly happen and which are otherwise inconceivable.
For example, the design of a building by an achitect. For this, geometrical elements can be manipulated by the architect’s agencyto create a new form. Clearly the use of speech also exemplifies the application of form to intelligible matter.Linguistic elements such as letters,syllables, words, et ceteraare the elements or matter for the speaker or author.The same example is given in the finalsection of Book Zeta (1041b12-33),where syllables are used to illustrate the relation of “form” and “matter”.

It may be noticed that for Aristotle neither linguistic utterance nor geometrical form are propersubstances in the strict sense, so we cannot say that these are “material” in the same sense as normal physical matter. However, it seems to me that there is another sort of “material” that so qualifies: “genetic material”, for the following reasons:

  1. Biological species are paradigmatic Aristotelian substances.
  2. The essence is that form taken by matter which is the cause of the coming-to-be of the natural species.
  3. The essence of the biological species are their genome, plus its associated cellualr machinery that transcribes the code into proteins. (For brevity, I will just say that the essence is the “genome”.)
  4. The genome is a form taken by matter, in both senses:
    1. It is a molecule that is a particular arrangement of base pairs or codons.
    2. It is the form made by the arrangement of genes, the units (“elements”) of inheritance.
    3. Thus, the genome is formed of both senses of “matter”, but the second sense is most germane to the process of phylogenetic evolution.
  5. The essence is the substance of a substance.

The individual organism does not make sense apart from its evolutionary origin (“arkhe” in Greek), and evolution did not work with nonliving atoms and molecules to create living creatures. So in this deeper sense, the matter of the organism cannot be merely physical “matter”. The “matter” that natural selection worked with are the units of selection: genes, since gene sare the “elements” that were rearranged to create new species.“Genes” in this sense are blocks of DNA that code for the proteins needed to construct an adult organism. Evolution is the process of selecting those combinations of genes which are best able to survive and reproduce. So in this deeper sense the material cause of the organism are the elements from which its essence are formed.

In summary, organisms are formed in two different but related senses:

  1. Shallow form – The female reproductive system takes matter from food and applies the form to it that results from combining elements from her own genes and those of her mate.
  2. Deep form – The processes of selection (primarily natural selection), manipulate the genes (the elements or matter of inheritance)to create the form of the biological species. Note that the “agency” of selection forms the DNA, but DNA qua genetic material rather than qua organic molecule.

The next post will carry on with the analysis to include evolutionary treatments of the shallow and deep senses of Aristotle’s material, efficient, and final causes.

If you like this post check out my podcast “The Aristotle Project“.

One thought on “The Metaphysics of ‘Natural Goodness’, Part I

  1. Pingback: The “Bhagavad Gita”; an evolutionary interpretation. Part I | Zoon Echon Blogon

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