The Metaphysics of ‘Natural Goodness’, pt. II

This is part of a series where we outline a way that we might base some sort of Aristotelian value theory on evolutionary naturalism. In the previous post, we introduced

  1. A theory of how modern evolutionary biology fits into Aristototelean ideas about natural science ,especially formal causes.
  2. In this view, ethical theory falls under natural science thusly:
    1. It is the study of the principles and causes of the behavior certain living creatures.
    2. Moral behavior is behavior of a natural being, taking place in space and time
    3. It takes as its starting point the final causes of said behavior, which final causes are also one of the ‘Four Causes’, and are thus part of natural science.
  3. In modern biological terms forms or “essence” taken to be to creature’s genome. The “form” of the creature is the telos of the developmental process
  4. To accommodate evolution, we need to define ‘shallow’ and ‘deep’ versions of each of the first three causes.
  5. The ‘form’ is also the product of an evolutionary process.

In the following, we look at the material and efficient causes of natural beings, which in our view include moral beings such as humans.

Efficient Causes
In the original works of Aristotle, the male gamete was not the efficient and formal cause for sexually-reproducing beings was said to be, and the female was said to be the material cause.(Citation?)However, in light of modern science, we have to say that the female is themore properly efficient cause. She absorbs the matter and her body processes cause her food to take the form of a human. In addition, for modern science the formal cause is both male and femaleAsbefore, this sense of“form” is not merely the form as outward aspect but more essentially the deeper substantial form. The female takes the essence (or as I say it “deepform”)of her mate and mixes itwith her own to create the new form of the offspring. Here is where we run into an issue that many people consider Aristotle’s great shortcoming: the idea that Aristotelanforms are not subject to change. For my own part, I assume that he must have noticed the sense in whichforms were created in sexual reproduction. Every child isclearly seen to share in the forms of bothparents,because it might have the mother’s eyes and the father’s face.In spite of this mixture of form, the childonly has oneform.So even to the pre-modern mind itought to beclear that the form of the child has been created by combiningelements from other forms. HereI follow a view where individuation of organisms is not merely by matter but by individual essences. (See Witt 1996pp. 175ff) Whether or not you accept this as Aristotle’s intent in his extant works, it is clear that something like this is needed for the modern philosopher,not merely for the present case of sexual reproduction but even more so for many cases of intellectual products, such as literature, architectural design, graphic design, mechanical design, computer programming, and others.Individuals clearly have their own forms in both the shallow and deep senses: the outward aspect of an individual can be recognized just as surely as that of a species like a cardinal. Similarly, the deeper essence of a species and an individual both propagate their distinctive outward aspects and behavior through time, whether it be down the generations for a species or over a single lifetime for an individual. Individual essences are also needed to make sense of cloning and other artificial forms of precise emulation. So whether or not individual essences are part of the originalAristotelian metaphysics I will use them here.
The shallow and deep efficient causes exactly correspond to the shallow and deep senses of matter, so the definitions are the same except for italicizing the agent rather than matter. After this short return to formal causes, we can see that even in the phenomena available to Aristotle, we have strong reasons to see that while Aristotle’s analysis is still very much at home, even in thecommon-sense view of sexual reproduction we can see‘deep agency’ working with genes as ‘intelligible matter.
To sum up, we have two separate levels of efficient causality in biology:

  1. Shallow form – The female reproductive systemtakes 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 – Natural selection manipulatesthe genome(the elementsor matterof inheritance)to create the formof the biological species. Note that the “agency” of selection forms the DNA, but DNA quagenetic material rather than quaorganic molecule.

NOTE: while I spoke of meiosisabove as being an efficient cause in mixing the formal elements (genes) from both parents, I left it out of the above summary for the reason that sexual reproduction is itself the result of natural selection. It is a paradigmatic case of the ‘evolution of evolvability’, where deep agency is built into the essence of the organism rather than left to ‘agencyofnatural selection.

Final Cause

The final causes of modern Aristotelian biology are also in the shallow and deep senses, but the shallow sense is twofold.

Final Cause as “Shallow ontogeny”

First, there is the sense in which ontogentic development is a goal-oriented behaviorwhere an organismcomes to be because of its own essence, as when a seed grows into an adult tree or an egg grows into a bird. In Aristotle’s Greek this was called ‘phusis’.

Final cause as “shallow adaptation”

Anothersortof goal-orientation in nature concerns the “fitness” of adaptations. Adaptation is essentiallyusefulness inavoiding extinction. The theory of evolution’s main task is to explainhow much more suitable the shallow form of an organism is than what might have occurred by chance. Notice that “chance” here isAristotle’s sense: something which is “for” something, but which does not have atelosas its originating cause. Now as much as you might have heard that “final causes” are notpart of modern biology; butnothing is more common than for a biologist to ask the question “What is xfor?” where “x” is some physical structureor behavior of some living creature. Consider the redness characteristic of malecardinals; what is it for? Biologists say that it is for the purpose of competing for mates, and Darwin’s theory explains how this is the case. Nothing would be more ridiculous thanto say that biology can have nothing to say about the purpose of plumage color in male birds, and that this should be the province of Platonism, natural theology, or revealed religion. If there is to be a science of living creatures, then purpose must be part of it. Why do cardinals lay eggs? To reproduce; and if one asks why they lay eggs, then we must say that reproduction is the purpose. Why do they have wings?We know that not only does the red plumage have a purpose, but we also know quabiologist that red plumage is actualfor-the-sake-ofsome purpose, and that this purpose is in the purview of natural science.
Clearly,there was no idea of desire in the mind of someone who made the cardinal; I am not saying that. If there were, cardinals would be artificial products. But as it is they are natural products, meaning that the form of the cardinal pre-exists only in the bodiesof actual cardinals. In my view, the whole point of naturalteleology quanaturalis that there is no pre-conception in the mind of some maker at all.The normativity and final causality of Aristotle’s god does not follow from conscious conceptions of purpose such as we find in our subjective experience, but rather in the role God or other prime mover (if any)plays in natural science. I feel that there is in fact a substantive conception of final cause in modern natural science, and that this conception has normative implications for moral theory, before we deal with that, we need look at the role of ‘Final Cause’ in both ancient and modern biology. In doing so, we hope to clear up any doubts you may have about teleology and modern science.

The Deep Telos a.k.a. the “FinalFinal Cause”

As with Aristotle’s other Four Causes the shallow and deep versions work on different levels; shallow forms the individual, while the deep forms the species-essenceitself quaintelligible matter. So while while clearly the species form provides the telosof development, and this species form follows adaptive function, there must be some higher final cause which determines why adaptive function is as it is; where does the “adaptive” get its essential normativity? There must be a “FinalFinal Cause” which explains all other subsidiary functions served by biological adaptations in nature: wings, legs, cell membranes, enzymes, gall bladders, mating rituals, dentition, are all adaptations that serve various lesser functions. However, there must be some highest function served by the various lower-level traits that we notice. What is it? First let us see what Aristotle says on the subject and compare his answer with the modern biologist.

Aristotle on the Final Cause of Life

The telos of life as such in Aristotle’s biology.

Of the psychic power above numerated some kinds of living things, as we have said, possess all, some less than all, others one only. Those we have mentioned are the nutritive, the appetitive, the sensory, the locomotive, and the power of thinking. Plants have none but the first, the nutritive, while another order of living things has this plus the sensory. (DeAnima II.2 414a30)

Among the many things done by living creatures, those which we call “essential” are reproduction and and nutrition, which I take to be pretty much the same as what we nowadays call “metabolism”. So far so good, Aristotle is in agreement with modern science thus far. How does he fare if we dig a little deeper?

It follows that first of all we must treat of nutrition and reproduction. For the nutritive soul is found along with all the others and is the most primitive and widely distributed power of soul, being indeed that one in virtue of which all are said to have life. The acts in which it manifests itself are reproduction and the use of food – reproduction I say, because any living thing that has reached its normal development and which is unmutilated, and whose mode of generation is not spontaneous, the most natural act is the production of another like itself, an animal producing an animal, a plant a plant, in order that, as far as its nature allows, it may partake in the eternal and divine. That is the goal towards which all things strive, and for the sake of which they do whatsoever their nature renders possible. (De AnimaII.2 415a25)

Here we find the introduction of distinctively Platonic influences; the Form of the organism is that by which:

  1. It is created.
  2. It is kept in being, i.e. it avoids death and decay.
  3. It is an individual “this’.
  4. It is “this such”, something of a species.
  5. It partakes of the “eternal” and “divine”, which supernatural reality is the final cause of all that comes-to-be.

Ross summarizes thusly: “Reproduction for has Aristotle this special interest, that the perpetuation of the type is for him the clearest evidence of the purposiveness of nature.” (pp. 125-67) Aristotle’s entire conception of purpose, the core concept of his ethics, politics, and astronomy, is primarily derived from biology.

‘[W]henever there is plainly some final end, to which a motion [not mere motion of matter, but here he refers to ontogeny] tends should nothing stand in the way, we always say that such a final end is the aim of the motion; and from this is evident that there must be a something or other really existing, corresponding to what we call by the name of Nature. For a given germ does not give rise to any chance living being, nor spring from any chance one; but each germ springs from a definite parent and gives rise to a definite progeny. And thus it is the germ that is the ruling influence and fabricator of offspring. For it is these by nature, the offspring being at any rate that which id nature will spring from it. At the same time the offspring is anterior to the germ; for germ and perfected progeny are related as the developmental process and the result. Anterior, however, to both germ and product is the organism from which the germ was derived, For every germ implies two organisms, the parent and the progeny. For germ or seed is both the seed of the organism from which it came, of the horse, for instance, from which it was derived, and the seed of the organism that will eventually arise from it…’ (De Partibus AnimaliumI.1 641b23-29)

This is where the critique of Platonic Forms really comes into play; for natural beings, the substance of the organism is physically interior to the organism and not in Plato’s Ideal realm. In the case of natural organisms, the essence is three causes at once:

  1. Formal cause – The essence is an arrangement of material elements, a form of matter.
  2. Efficient cause – this arrangement is such that it can reproduce; arrange other matter into another individual with the same essence
  3. Final cause – The entire purpose of having creatures of such a form is to reproduce, thus participating in the “eternal”.

We have now given a brief summary of one possible view of final causes in Aristotle’s biology. I am not an Aristotle expert by any means, but this is at least a possible interpretation, Furthermore, it has the virtue of being the possible interpretation that makes Aristotle the most interesting to the modern naturalist.

Aristotle, & McKeon, R. (1941). The basic works of Aristotle.NY:Random House.
Boulter, Stephen. Metaphysics from a biological point of view. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Dawkins, Richard. Theselfish gene. Oxford Univ Press, 2016.
De Lazari-Radek, Singer, P. “The objectivity of ethics and the unity of practical reason.” Ethicsvol. 123, no. 1 (October 2012), pp. 9-21.
Hladky,V., Havlíček, J. “Was Tinbergen an Aristotelean? Comparison Of Tinbergen’s Four Whys And Aristotle’s Four Causes” Human Ethology Bulletinvol. 28, no 4, 2013: pp. 3-11
Lowe, Ernest Jonathan. The possibility of metaphysics: substance, identity, and time. Clarendon Press, 2004.
O’Rourke, F. “Aristotle and the Metaphysics of Evolution” The Review of Metaphysics vol. 56, September 2004, pp. 3-59.

1. In short, I will argue that adaptive purpose is an emergent quality of physics, and thus does not derive its telosfrom physics in the same way we find in Aristotle. So long as adaptive functions can be implemented in known physical interactions, then we have all we need for our concept of ‘purpose’, which we hope to show is substantially the same as the of Aristotle.

The “Bhagavad Gita”, an Evolutionary Interpretation, Pt. III


Many chapters of the Gita begin with a question from Arjuna, for this one it is this:

“Why do you want me to engage in this ghastly warfare, if you think that intelligence is better than fruitive work?” (III.1)

Before we proceed, let us point out that this question is relevant to a major debate in Aristotleean ethics: whether the good (Greek “eudaimonia”) is intellectualistic or comprehensive. The former view takes its cue from the fact that in various places Aristotle claims that the only truly inherently good activity is the contemplation of the Divine: metaphysics, theology, fundamental physical laws, et cetera. The comprehensive view of the good live takes its cue from the fact that in other places (e.g. Nicomachean EthicsI.1), he implies the contrary, that political science is the highest science, or that virtuous action is inherently good. According to the intellectualistic view, these latter activities would only be instrumentally good, This same dilemma is exactly what we see here between Krishna and Arjuna: while Krishna is arguing for a comprehensive view of the good where fulfilling caste duties are inherently good, even in the case of the slaughter of one’s friends and peers who happen to have been on the other side. In Indian, the trend towards an intellectualistic view of the Good is at least as strong as among the Greeks, so what Krishna is arguing here is not self-evident. The options available to him could include be the following:

  1. Pacifism – Yhe war was wrong, and he should lay down his weapons.
  2. Instrumentalism – The war is only just in the sense that we cannot get around them, and being willing to fight wars actually prevents wars by deterring invasions from the wicked.
  3. War as Bad Karma – Being is any other caste than the Brahmin is due to bad karma, therefore the war is penance for past misdeeds rather than some postive occasion for virtuous action.
  4. Tragedy – As in Greek Tragedy, Arjuna’s dilemma need not be resolvable; there might be conflicting duties that each make absolute demands. Therefore it might be the case that he has no available choice that does not incur bad karma.
  5. Holy War – The Kurukshetra War and perhaps many other wars are an inherently good occasions for virtuous action.

Krishna claims that there is one supreme Good for all humanity, but that different people realize it in different ways (III.3-4). This is a primary principle of “Raja Yoga” – that yoga is different in different types of people while still retaining a universal essence common to all.

Working With Nature

Physical determinism? Sort of.

So far we are on Socratic turf, but in the next verse, we enter the realm of distinctively Indian thought:

Everyone is forced to act helplessly according to the qualities he has acquired from the modes of material nature; therefore no one can refrain from doing something, not even for a moment. (III.5)

The meaning of this verse refers to the “Three Gunas” (or Three Modes of Material Nature). The “Gunas” are kind of like Yin and Yang or the elements of Western thoughtt (fire, water, air, earth, spirit). They are concepts of traditional physical science just as the former are the principles and causes of Traditional Chinese Medicine and the medical theory Hippocrates and Galen, the three Gunas are also used in “ayurveda”, traditional Indian medicine. So it seems that Krishna is accepting that human action comes from the workings of material elements. Clearly, his concept of ‘material’ and ‘natural’ are different from the modern, but in a sense this is not far from modern naturalistic arguments rejective freewill. Here his argument is related to the Buddhist idea of “No-Soul” or “No-Self” (Sanskrit “Anatman”, Pali ‘annatta’). Whereas traditional Indian thought ascribed all awareness and action to an inner “Self”, not only in the individual, but in the world as a whole, Buddhism rejects such an idea, saying that human action is the result of the workings of natural elements, and that nothing in the world could possibly have a True Self. In fact, according to Buddhism, the very concept of a True Self is a form of ignorance; to be happy we should just accept that we are acting out of nature and karma. In ascribing all human action to the Three Gunas, Krishna is granting some validity to this disctinctively Buddhist dogma, in spite of its anti-Vedic implications for Buddhists. Like Buddha, Krishna is claiming that we should just accept that our actions are the results of physical events in order to have true knowledge and happiness. But unlike Buddha, Krishna accepts the Atman, so his reaction to phyiscal determinism is different. While Buddhist doctrine is rather intellectualistic, based on meditation on one’s own Un-Selfhood, Krishna has a more practical recommendation: do one’s work as a sacrifice to the Self.

…if a sincere persons tries to control the active senses by the mind and begins karma-yoga without attachment, he is by far superior. Perform your prescribed duty, for doing so is better than not working. One cannot even maintain one’s physical body without work. Work as a sacrifice for Vishnu has to be performed, otherwise work causes bondage in this material world. Therefore … perform your prescribed duties for his satisfaction, and in that way you will always remain free from bondage. (III.9)

The Purpose of Life

So on this view, all work is purposeful in two senses:

  1. First, it has its mundane purpose as a productive or instrumental activity.
  2. It is a sacrifice to the Divine.

Once again, Krishna is trying to expand or sublimate the meaning of ‘sacrifice’ (Skt. ‘yajna’), by including normal work, warfare, meditation, prayer, and study. In my very un-expert view, he is getting around Buddha’s metaphysical rejection of Atman (which we will not deal with here now), by reclaiming Atman as a teleological principle. This means that we could have an Atmanin a way that does not conflict with the physical causation of our actions and mental workings. Without completely rejecting the concept of substantial soul-dualism, he seems to define our self in ways that are fundamentally about teleology. There are various ways he approaches this:

  1. Purpose as “For the sake of which” – The service if the Atman is in some way the reason for the coming-to-be of living things as such. Thus, the service of the Atman is our originating purpose, in the sense that transport is the originating purpose of a vehicle.
  2. Purpose as “for the benefit of which” – in addition to the above, we also speak of purpose as for the benefits of some living recipient. There are two sorts of recipient spoken of in th Gita:
    1. Humanhappinessdepends on serving the Atman; thus humans benefit from doing their duty.
    2. The “Supreme Enjoyer” – Later on, Krishna will argue that all purpose-oriented behavior in the cosmos (human and natural) is actually for the benefit ofthe Supreme Atman.

This last point is rather unique to the Gita; in Aristotle, for example, action and natural changeis not for the benefit ofGod, but merely for the sake ofGod. He claimed that the life-cycle of living creatures, for example, was for the sake of participating in the eternal, and that such a life-cycle’s progress was also for the benefit of the individual organisms, but Atistotle would not say that living processes were somehow for the benefit of God.I do not believe that Krishnais claiming that God is made happy or avoids pain in the same way as a human, but that God is already the ultimate enjoyer of all the productive activities of all living things. This is rather weird thing to say; it makes sense to say that we ought to imagine ourselves pleasing God or avoiding His wrath, but not that God issubjectof all goal oriented behavior rather than the mere object.

Dharmaas the Love of Life.

In the next few verses, Krishna elaborates on this as follows:

  1. First he discusses the traditional Vedic practice of animal sacrifice; its benefits both in terms of prosperity and morality. In this traditional concept, sacrifice is for the devas, who are polytheistic mythical gods.(II.10-14)
  2. Then Krishna claims that sacrifices and all Vedic practices ultimately come from and are for the benefit of Brahman, the monotheistic God or Self. (II.15-16)
  3. Thus, it is possible and ultimately better for one to serve the Atman directly by working out of “Self-Realization”. (II.17-19)
  4. There is a moral system based on this which is a ‘virtue theory’, where we strive to become like great moral heroes and saints.(II.20-21, 23)
  5. Why is such a moral life of virtue necessary? There are two answers to this:
    1. Intellectualist– A life of virtue is needful to calm the mind and facilitate Samadhi, as in Buddha and Patanjali.
    2. Comprehensive – The continuation of life is not a meremeans but agood thing in its own right.

In this work, I shall argue the latter based on verses like the following:

‘If I did not preform the prescribed duties, all these worlds would be put to ruination, and I would thereby destroy the peace of all living beings.’ (III.24)

Based on verses like these and other factors, I read the Gita as a program for an actual way of life that will last for ever, not for a few mystics or priests who drop out of society and life and look down on workers and warriors. While mystics have their place in this society, all people have a valid role to play, all of society serves the Good,and all of a proper society is itself Good.

The “Bhagavad Gita”, an Evolutionary Interpretation, Pt. II

In our last post, started with the background of the Gita as well as Arjuna’ presentation of his doubts concerning just war. In this chapted, Krishna proceeds with the start of his reply.

Chapter II opens with Krishna’s reaction to Arjuna’s refusal to fight in the battle. Krishna begins by assessing the implications of cowardice for Arjuna’s moral character. Such pacifism, he claims, is

  1. ‘perilous’
  2. ‘unworthy’
  3. ‘disgraceful’
  4. And that it will ‘close the gates of heaven’.

Arjuna then asks for Krishna to explain his duty. The rest of the chapter contains a summary of the entire Gita, including both Samkya and Raja Yoga. He starts with the Samkya (II.11-30) which has an ontological thesis about what is real, followed by an ethical thesis about what should be done that is derived from the ontological thesis. Krishna does not explain of defend these at length, but merely summarizes them. In latter chapters, Arjuna will ask questions to elicit more detailed treatment of these.

II.1 Samkya Ontology

In verses 11 and 12, Krishna says the all souls exist eternally, and the war is thus not really bad. Such a statement call for clarification, which he begins in verse 13, where he states that the soul is constant through the life of the person, not changing from birth to death. This verse is rather important for my interpretation, and we shall return to it soon.

But first Krishna gives the gist of his own version of what we shall call the “Parmenidean Thesis”, named after the famous Greek philosopher. The Parmenidean thesis is as follows:

  1. Only Being is.
  2. Being must be.
  3. Not-being is not.
  4. Not-being cannot be.
  5. Not Being cannot come to be.
  6. Nor can Being cease to be.
  7. Thus change is impossible.
  8. Therefore, all apparent change is illusory.

Krishna adds to this argument the following:

  1. There are individual souls, which are real. (II.12) Thus while change is illusory, multiplicity is not.
  2. But their changes, suffering, birth and death are not really real. (II.13, 14)

Note the following:

  1. Krishna has just introduced the Dharmic concept of “Maya”, which we can translate as ‘illusion’. We shall see what this means later.
  2. Note that some interpreters of the Gita and the Santana Dharma generallly agree with the Parmenidean Thesis but think that individuality of souls is part of the illusion Here I am assuming Krishna accepts individuals, as real, but this is debatable. We shall return to this in our desicussion of II.13.

II.2 Samkya Ethics : Pratyahara

From the above ontology , Krishna claims that a rather interesting prescription follows: “pratyahara”, or sense control. This is part of ‘yoga’, which is a philosophy and set of practices the follow from it. In general it does not refer to our modern conception of ‘yoga’, especially the elaborate system of physical exercises practiced in yoga studios all over the world. The core practice of yoga in the Gita is meditation and the living of a lifestyle that promotes meditation, which is what Krishna now begins to explain.

Pratyahara is described as the fifth of the eight “limbs” of yoga in the definitive work of yoga philosophy, The Yogasutras of Patanjali. It marks the transition from external means of quieting the mind to internal or purely mental meditative techniques. The goal is to free the mind from undue influence from the outside. This need not be done from the belief that the sensory world is unreal, but clearly Krishna is emphasizing this motivation. After explaining that transitory nature is unreal, he then recommends that we free the mind from being led one by nature not by closing one’s eyes but by leaving them open and willing one’s self to not react.Not reacting means not only physical stillness but even more so mental stillness.

This sort of practice is common in Western philosophy and religion. Stoicism, Platonism, Neoplatonism, Islam, and Christianity all recommend some form of sense-control to maintain inner peace.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (NIV, Matthew 5:27-28)

Krishna generalizes this to all sensory events:

O son of Kunti, the nonpermanent appearance of happiness and distress, and their disappearance in due course, are like the appearance and dissappearance of winter an summer seasons. They arise from sense perception, O scion of Bharata, and one must learn to tolerate them without being disturbed. (II.14)


This is the essence of pratyahara; as with Jesus, the key thing is not rote following of rules, but turning one’s self into a certain type of person both within and without. The message of Krishna is not far from that of the gospel on this point, but even a naturalistic moralist can appreciate this practice; Epicurus would find sense control a useful thing to create inner peace, and it seems that Aristotle would appreciate it as both a way to develop agency, continence, and moral virtue generally.

While the idea of sense control mayseem otherworldly, mystical, and ‘life-denying’, this need not be so. The use of pratyhara fits perfectly with the moral theories of comparatively naturalistic thinkers like Epicurus and Aristotle. Aristotle’s extended rebuttal of Parmenides and Plato do not interfere with his fundamental agreement with much of what Krishna says. Consider, for example, thisverse:

The Soul is the same from childhood to old age just as it is before birth and after death” ( II.13 Sivananda)

As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change.” (II.13 Prabhupada)

While this verse is clearly consistent with supernaturalism and has been interpreted as such most of the time, I see it in a different light. On the most superficial level, this verse coincides with a doctrine of the materialistEpicurus. Forhimas with Krishna the ultimate source of peace lies in the primeval state the precedes birth and follows death. But we can do much better than this; what Krishna says here applies not merely to Cartesian souls but also to Aristotelean souls as well as to modern biological genotypes. For both Aristotelean souls and genotypes, we have something which is not merely matter but is a formof matter. Furthermore, in some sense these both constitute the “substance” or essence of a living thing, and so could reasonably be called its atman, or “self”. This latter view of soul makes is much closer to Krishnas in the following senses:

  1. Because souls are formsof matter and not merely matter, the following is true:
    1. Souls are passed from parent to offspring, thus it “transmigrates”along lines of descent. Some DNA, can transmigrate through “lateral transfer” across lines of descent; this is very common among bacteria, but ithas also been proven between arthopods and gymnosperms as well as between cats and baboons.
    2. Soulsare shared among widely differing beings, microbes, plants, rats, to humans. The soul of a human is its form, and humans and bacteria both share the form of “living creature”, meaning that we both share 50% of our DNA from the Most Recent Universal Common Ancestor, who is thearcheof all living creatures on Earth.
    3. Soulshave a radically different relation to timefrom individual organisms; while individual organisms must die on a regular basis, forms might possibly last forever. The half of the human genome that we share with bacteria has persisted for almost 4 billion years, and may outlast the Earth itself by many trillions of years.
  2. Hylomorphic souls are teleologicalis a way not allowed in Epicurus’ atomistic ontology, while in in Aristotelean and (as I argue elsewhere) in modern biology, purpose abounds. In my view it is this natural teleology that forms the ultimate basis for all normative knowledge. This is true with my own work, as well as with Aristotle and Krishna. In a sense, the soul is the purpose of the creature in both modern biology as well as in ancient philosophy, both Eastern and Western. We shall focus on this at length in up coming chapters.

With this in mind, reread the following verses:

Neither he who thinks the living entity the slayer nor he who thinks it slain is in knowledge, for the self slays not nor is slain. For the soul there is not birth nor death at any time. He has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, and primeval. He is not slain when the bodyis slain. O Partha, how can a person who knows that the soul is indestructible, eternal, unborn, and unborn, and immutable kill anyone or cause anyone to kill?

It seems to me that if any ancient person were to try and describe the “gene’s eye” view of evolution, they could not do better than this passage. For evolution, the death of individual organisms is not really death at all. The only real death is extinction.

As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts now material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones. The soul can never be cut to pieces by any weapon, nor burned by fire, nor moistened by water, nor withered by the wind. The individual soul is unbreakable and insoluble, and can neither be burned nor dried. He is everlasting, present everywhere, unchangeable and eternally the same. It is said that the soul is invisible, inconceivable and immutable. Knowing this, you should not grieve for the body. If, however, you think that the soul will always be born and die forever, you still have no reason to lament… (II.19-26)

The modern person reading this may think that surely this cannot describe any natural phenomenon, but they would be wrong. Let us compare with a passage from a modern authority of evolutionary theory:

…any one individual body is just a temporary vehicle for a short-lived combination of genes. The combination of genes that is any one individual may be short-lived, but the genes themselves are potentially very long-lived. Their paths constantly cross and recross down the generations. One gene may be regarded as a unit that survives through a large number of successive individual bodies. (The Selfish Gene, pg.25)

Surely the comparison is striking, but one may reasonably doubt whether it really captures what is essential about the Atman, the Soul or God. I argue that it does; however, the full argument will have to be developed elsewhere concerning the evolutionary status of the soul. Here I would only like to make it clear that in the light of modern science, it ought to be likely that in Krishna’s case we have a religion that in some loose sense is “really about” life itself. It answers many questions, for example: ‘Why is it that issues of ultimate concern and value (often the weakest part of natural theology) are connected with 1) the Eternal, 2) the Creator and 3) Non-material?’. While our human intuitions seem to want these three to belong together, it seems that only in the light of the Gene’s Eye View natural theology do we really find an empirical basis for the unity.

Another aspect of the particulateness of the gene is that it does not grow senile; it is no more likely to die when it is a million years old than when it is only a hundred. It leaps from body to body down the generations, manipulating body after body in its own way and for its own ends, abandoning a succession of mortal bodies before they sink in senility and death. The genes are the immortals, or rather, they are defined as genetic entities that come close to deserving the title. We, the individual survival machines in the world, can expect to live a few more decades. But the genes in the world have an expectation of life that must be measured not in decades but in thousands and millions of years. (Ibid. 34)

As a special treat, we also see a vindication of the old concept of ‘maya’ or ‘illusion’; one which does not depend on any sort of idealism, but is grounded in the fact that the genetic essence, being the substance ofthe organism, is in a sense ‘more real’ than it. This does not at all contradict Aristotle, while granting a reobust level of ‘real reality’ (Plato’s ‘ontos on’) to the organisms formal causes.

Genetically speaking, individuals and groups are like clouds in the sky or dust-storms in the desert. They are temporary aggregations or federations. They are not stable through evolutionary time. Populations may last a long while, but they are constantly blending with other populations and so losing their identity. They are also subject to evolutionary change from within. A population is not a discrete enough entity to be a unit of natural selection, not stable and unitary enough to be ‘selected’ in preference to another population. An individual body seems discrete enough while it lasts, but alas, how long is that? (Ibid. 34)

Individuals are not stable things, they are fleeting. Chromosomes too are shuffled into oblivion, like hands of cards soon after they are dealt. But the cards themselves survive the shuffling. The cards are the genes. The genes are not destroyed by crossing-over, they merely change partners and march on. Of course they march on. That is their business. They are the replicators and we are their survival machines. When we have served our purpose we are cast aside. But genes are denizens of geological time: genes are forever. Genes, like diamonds, are forever, but not quite in the same way as diamonds. It is an individual diamond crystal that lasts, as an unaltered pattern of atoms. DNA molecules don’t have that kind of permanence. The life of any one physical DNA molecule is quite short—perhaps a matter of months, certainly not more than one lifetime. But a DNA molecule could theoretically live on in the form of copies of itself for a hundred million years. Moreover, just like the ancient replicators in the primeval soup, copies of a particular gene may be distributed all over the world. The difference is that the modern versions are all neatly packaged inside the bodies of survival machines. What I am doing is emphasizing the potential near-immortality of a gene, in the form of copies, as its defining property. To define a gene as a single cistron is good for some purposes, but for the purposes of evolutionary theory it needs to be enlarged. The extent of the enlargement is determined by the purpose of the definition. We want to find the practical unit of natural selection. To do this we begin by identifying the properties that a successful unit of natural selection must have. In the terms of the last chapter, these arelongevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity. (Ibid. 35)

These last three charateristics are also what we claim as the essence of the Atman.In the Gita, Krishna claims that the Atman has the following essential traits:

  1. Longevity –The Atman lives for aeons (Sanskrit “kalpa”), which means for billions of years.
  2. Fecundity – The Atman creates all creatures, for tis own purposes, and insofar as it can be said to have desires, it wishes them to continue to exist.
  3. Copying-fidelity –New creatures will have information of various kinds that predate their individual existence: new humans will have the form of humans, which have existed for many yugas. Other creatures also preserve biological information, which is both ancient and which incarnates anew in each generation. Since this same information incarnates anew all the time, we might say that it re-incarnates, but this word has already been taken to denote another form of transmission of information over time, where said information is transmitted by some exotic or supernatural means.

What both reincarnation and evolution have in common is that they are both theories for how the information essential for life comes to reappear in generation after generation. I am not saying that Krishna discovered the theory of evolution, merely that he and modern scientists were both looking at life, faced by similar problems and came to broadly similar solutions. While we moderns get most of the empirical and theoretical details correct, it seems that Krishna is ahead of us in seeing the correct practical implications of such a theory. In short, my view is that modern biology is normative in a similar way to Krishna’ Dharma. While this thesis will seem premature in the extreme to many of my readers, the full answer will be found 1) in my extant work elsewhere in my blog, 2) in my forthcoming evolutionary reading of Aristotle’s “On the Soul”, and 3) in the remainder of the present interpretation of the Gita. If I am correct in my argument, then each of the branches of Krishna’s ‘rajayoga’ will correspond to complementary roles of one cooperative adaptive strategy for animals having language (Greek: ‘zoon echon logon’).

The next post in this series is here.