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.

One thought on “The Metaphysics of ‘Natural Goodness’, pt. II

  1. Pingback: Ethics as “Physics”, Part I | Zoon Echon Blogon

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