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Ethics as ‘Physics’, 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 four 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.

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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.





The “Bhagavad Gita”; an evolutionary interpretation. Part I

by Adam Voight


The “Bhagavad Gita” (hereafter simply “the Gita”) is probably the most authoritative and widely admired piece of Indian philosophy. It was the very first to be translated into Western languages, and Westerners read it more than any other non-Buddhist text.

There are a great many interpretations of this book, and it seems to me that it might be a patchwork of irreconcilable doctrines, but the same could be said of the works of Plato. In spite of this, it is well worth reading, and there will be times when I point out seeming contradictions in it, but on the whole I think that I have a reading that makes it more true and relevant in the modern world, especially the world of modern science.  I am not a very religious person, but I think that most secular people lack an appreciation of spirituality and the ability to sympathetically read scriptures that really inhibits their analyses of religion. This is not at all to say that I argue for any supernaturalism; on the contrary, everything I say here is strictly naturalistic. How that can be the case will only be clear in the course of my reading, but I can say this: My basic reading of the “Gita” find in it the attempt by its author or authors to speak in ancient terms the same principles found in my own evolutionary reading of Aristotle. In this work, I argue that eudaimonia is ultimately derived from the natural teleology of natural selection. I do not think that it is necessary to understand my other work to understand my reading of the Gita, but those who find it interesting but not quite compelling might look there to better quench their curiosity.

My differences from other Western readings

I am very glad that Westerners before me have engaged with the Gita and other Indian classics, but there are two major differences with them that need to be spelled out.

1) The Gita is not pacifist.

Western fans of Henry David Thoreau and Gandhi (who took his cue from Thoreau concerning both nonviolence and Luddism) have taken to viewing the entire holy war theme as being merely symbolic of an inner spiritual struggle. The fact that Gandhi takes this view does not give it any special authenticity; he is following the lead of Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy, who are the real originators of the theory of “Satyagraha”. Most traditional commentators take the Gita’s just war theory at face value. While there is an inner spiritual struggle central to the Gita’s argument, it is clear not only from the text itself but also from other Indian interpreters who do not market themselves to the West that just wars are not only consistent but obligatory under the Gita’s dharma. This will become clear later on, and will not require any detailed argument but will be the clearest meaning of the text.

2) The Gita is not ‘gnostic’, ‘life-denying’ or ‘anti-worldly’.

Arthur Schopenhauer is the originator of this falsehood, due to his reading of the Gita and Upanishads while he was composing his own philosophy. ( Later, Nietzsche and Wagner took up this theme in their work in different ways. While both of these thinkers disagreed with Schopenhauer on the issues, neither of them doubted his “anti-life” interpretation of the Gita. Through these and other authors, this view has propagated itself throughout the Western world. To be sure there, is a significant theme of anti-naturalism in the Gita and Indian philosophy as a whole, most notably in some forms of Buddhism, but Hinduism as well shares this trend. I will not so much argue against this view as point out all the verses that openly contradict it and construct a reading that makes just as much sense not only historically, but also theoretically and practically.

While I am arguing against the “life-denialism” of Schopenhauer, this does not in any mean that I adhere to the philosophy of Nietzsche. While I respect his genius, I think that common-sense morality is far better founded than he believed, that it has an evolutionary basis, and that this can be seen in reasonable interpretations of the principles of major world religions, including that of the Gita. Once again, how this can be true will only be clear in the course of my work on the Gita, Aristotle, and elsewhere.

3. The Gita is arguing against Buddhism

While Hindus believe that Hinduism came before Buddhism, it is also accurate to say that “Hinduism” came after Buddhism, and Buddhism came after “Vedic religion”. The main problem with this is that the “Vedas” revered by Hindus were written in all three time periods, there is the caste system and there is a strong cultural continuity among them. However, the continuity between the Hinduism and Vedic religion is less than you might think; for example all the Gods are different and animal sacrifice is no longer common. Also, much of what we now call “Hinduism”, such as the lack of animal sacrifice, the prevalence of devotional practices and others comes from Buddhism.

Do not read too much into the fact that Hindus often speak of the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu, thus putting him on the same level as Krishna. The Hindu relation to Buddha is similar to how Muslims relate to Jesus; they think that Jesus and Buddha respectively had valid divine missions, but once they had accomplished these missions, the religions founded by them fell into ignorance. Thus the fact that Buddha is an avatar is not in any way an endorsement of “Buddhism”; according to Hindus (and most other people as well) the denial of the ‘True Self’ (Sanskrit ‘Atman’) is ridiculous and leads to absurdities. But whatever you believe about the Atman, Buddhism really raised the bar for philosophical discussion in India, and the Gita is an attempt to synthesize many of reactions to Buddhism, especially ways to answer Buddha’s criticism of the Atman and of the caste system. Buddhism’s use of devotional worship and meditation in place of animal sacrifice was accepted as a permanent part of Hinduism, and this also forms the core of the Gita.

Chapter I

The Battle of Kurukshetra – What is it?

Many readers comment on how similar the Gita is to Plato’s “Republic”, and we shall study this at length, however there is one major difference, unlike the works of Plato the Gita is a chapter or book within the primary epic poem of India, the “Mahabharata”. So in a sense, the author of the Gita is not only Plato but also Homer of India. Much like the works of Homer, the Mahabharata tells a story of a great war waged by demigods and heroes with occasional interventions bymajor deities. Unlike the Trojan War, where both sides were seen as good and noble, in theMahabharatawar, the side of the Pandhavas is clearly the good side. The Kauravas, while not completely wicked are clearly the villains. Likewise, while people reasonably doubt whether Plato’s character “Socrates” speaks for the author’s beliefs, in the “Gita” (and in Eastern philosophical dialogues generally) it is clear that one character speaks the Truth and others represent the ignorant yet virtuous seeker. In the Gita, the former role is played by the God Krishna, while the latter role is played by the hero Arjuna. It is curious that while the Greeks do believe in objective good and bad, this is not reflected in the protagonists and antagonists of either the Illiad or most of the Platonic dialogues. In the Odysey as well, most of the conflict isthe result of disagreements among the Gods; only the suitors at home in Ithaka are portrayed like the Kauravas.

Another feature in common between the Trojan War and the Mahabharata war is the fact that these wars are the end of one age and the beginning of the next. In both cases the previous age was one where demigods were the main historical actors. After the war, the main actors were mortals with only trace amounts of divine blood. In both cases, the succeeding age is considered worse than the preceeding one. Later on, we shall revisit the meaning of the historical timeline of “kalpa” (‘aeon’) , and “yuga” (‘age’) and see how this battle and the concepts of “dharma” and “avatar” fit into it.

However, to understand the setting of the Gita, we need only know the following:

  1. The two warring sides are close family.
  2. Both sides are fighting over who will be Emperor of India
  3. But one side (the Pandhavas, or sons of Pandu) is clearly good, the other side (the Karuavas) clearly at fault and far less desired as rulers.
  4. Still even the Kauravas are not utterly wicked and might still rule somewhat well. It seems that their sins are mainly due to their ambition to rule. However, it is clear that the Pandavas are far superior.

Once you grant that the battle will certainly kill not only a great many people but also many great people, then you can understand why Arjuna might reasonably doubt the advisability of fighting.

The first line of the Gita is spoken by King Dhritrashtra, the father of the Kauravas. He is blind, but has been supernaturally granted a wish to clairvoyantly see the progress of the battle from the comfort of his palace. Because he knows that he could not bear to see his sons die, he has asked that this psychic vision be given to his adviser, Sanjaya, who is thus able to hear the private conversation between Arjuna and Krishna that forms the rest of the book. Sanjaya is thus the narrator for the work as a whole; which is somewhat reminiscient of Plato’s use of multiple nest narrators in his dialogues. ( I have no idea why either author uses such devices, BTW.)

Arjuna’s first speech.

The main points of Arjuna’s first speech are very informative about the moral presuppositions of ancient India:

  1. We should not kill family.
  2. Why? Killing family will have a domino effect as follows:
    1. It will end “religious rites of the family”.
    2. Which which cause the ends of spirituality and piety int the family.
    3. Which will “corrupt the women”.
    4. Which will lead to the “intermingling of castes”.
    5. Which will lead to the end of ancestor worship rituals.
    6. Which will lead to me and others “dwelling for an unknown period in Hell”. (Because reincarnation does not mean there is no Hell or Heaven; these places are thought of as alternate worlds where you might reincarnate.)

Thus he will not fight. In short, he would rather abandon th claims of justice in this world rather than suffer in Hell in the next.

Note that in I.46, Arjuna was “overcome with pity” (according to Sivananda); in Prabhupada this is rendered “grief”. However the “pity” made me think of Aristotle famous tragic emotions “pity and fear”, which were the proper focus of tragedy. Does Arjuna have a tragic choice? In most tragedies, there is not “correct choice” in the sense that all possible choices incur some moral blame. Arjuna thinks that he is faced with such a tragic predicament, but Krishna will say that his proper duty is clear in the light of the Dharma.

Thus ends Arjuna’s explanation of his doubts concerning his reasons for fighting the Kurukshetra battle. In the next post we will look at Chapter II, where Krishna begins his answer, which will include metaphysics, physics, psychology, morality and political theory. The full answer will take up the rest of the Gita, but Chapter II tries to summarize it in one chapter.

In my next post, we shall get to the meat of the Krishna’s argument.

Ethics as “Physics”, Part I


by Adam Voight.

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 justifiedsupremacy of first philosophy notwithstanding, it is in this waysubservient tonatural science. This view underminesvarious forms of idealism in favor of a metaphysics where essencesand formal causalityare immanent to naturalbeings. By “idealism”we can mean a view where

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

Inthe 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 esssences 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. εsomehow (magically?) causes cardinals to be.
  3. εis absolutelynormative for anything which may be called a “cardinal”.

Aristotelians, on the other hand, must hold that

  1. εis immanent – does not exist outside of the actual physical cardinals, but is inthem.
  2. εis a hylomorphicform – a form taken by certain matter),
  3. εis “natural” – it is both the formaland the efficientcausefor 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 ishylomorphic – essence is a form taken by matter, in this case a series of amino acids in DNA.
  3. εquanatural 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 are 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 shallowway and the deepway. The above list of the Four Causes of cardinalsare 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 thecreature (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 essenceof a creature, for the following reasons:

  1. Shallow formis notresponsible for the existence of the creature,
  2. Shallow formis not the creature’s substance or essence (as those terms are used in “Metaphysics” Book Zeta, where we read about the substance ofa substance).
  3. Shallow formis 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 essentialform of the being is that which is the cause of its being, whereas the outward from 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 forshowing the distinctive “field marks” of each species. To show field marks, it is necessary for a fields guid 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 orshallowsense, 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 formtaken 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 quaorganisms. (This is what “vegetable souls” do, and all creaturesqualiving 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 qualiving.

So on this view, we have two sense of “form”: shallow “form” asoutward 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 benaturallydescended 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 shallowsense of material cause is the sense most often used inhylomorphic descriptions of organisms: we think of the “matter” of the organism as being organs, and the matterof 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 deepsense, organisms have their origin in a process of evolution, where we find the deepersense of “matter”. And it is this coming-to-be of biological essencesthat is most often said to be the downfall of hylomorphism. In this deeper sense, we are looking at the elements of the organism’sessence.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 staticto dynamic Aristotelianismis the concept of “intelligible matter” (1045a34). This is notthe matter of modern chemistry and physics, but ‘matter’ as the elements from which an abstractis 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 devinition 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, whiletheyare 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 ofa 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, sincegenesare 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 formof 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.


Could a Naturally-Evolved Creature do Metaphysics as a Rigorous Science?

Q: What does the evolutionary origin of the mind entail for metaphysics? Does this mean it is hopeless? (Let us leave aside the challenge of how we could know the truth of evolution without metaphysics.) Assuming evolutionary origins of our cognitive structures, does this leave us a basis for metaphyics and fundamental ontology?

A: I say yes; evolution does not make metaphysical science impossible. In my view, we have to accept the evolutionary origin of the science of being qua being before we can have any hope of doing it properly. Without the evolutionary context, we cannot know what we are doing. Imagine trying to reverse engineer a complex device without knowing its function; that is what metaphysics has been doing for most of its history. At least, that is what the following seeks to establish.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that:

  1. From an evolutionary perspective, “all that matters” is adaptive fitness.
  2. Thus a naturally evolved creature will not necessarily evolve to know the truth, but merely encode useful rules for behavior.

The best example for number 2 above (creatures who do not care for nor need the truth). are plants. Plants have no “behavior” at all in the sense that we animals normally use that term. They have no cognitive functions as we animals normally use that term. Thus they have no cognitive structures with any relationship to truth at all. However, they are very successful. So obviously realism is optional for evolution.

There are numerous downsides to human-level cognition, for example 20% of our calories go to our brain, and it makes our childhood rather long.

So just as there is no necessary reason for evolution to favor the truth, there is also no necessary reason for evolution to favor any sort of mental faculties at all.

But the lack of necessary reasons for x does not entail lack of contingent reasons for x. For example, evolution does not necessarily favor flight or walking or photosynthesis or slithering or any number of survival strategies; all of these are merely contingent features of life. However, each of them has a place because increasing fitness entails a diversity of adaptive strategies. Mammals are more successful than birds or dinosaurs because our underlying “bauplan” is much more flexible w.r.t. a wide variety of adaptations: digging, swimming, flying, etc. And the use of intelligence also makes humans more flexible to adapt to or even create a wide variety of ecological niches, including perhaps even outer space. But even if we restrict ourselves to pre-modern technology, humans are the most widely adapted mammal in the world. No other primate even comes close, although primates are not all that successful compared to rodents. But still, we are the only large animal who has a chance of surviving the destruction of our planet in 5 billion years. Not bad, from an adaptive standpoint.

Of course, this only speaks to the evolution of “mind”, and not of metaphysical realism. But if mind is contingent, then realism is doubly so, for the same reason.

In my view, scientific realism is only a refinement of everyday naive realism. The fact that we believe in the realism of common everyday objects is not necessary either; we could evolve to treat our daily phenomenology as a mere game. But this latter attitude would also be just as contingent a possibility as the realist attitude.

In my view, the temptation to be non realist about life in general is a symptom of reading only modern thinkers to the exclusion of Aristotle. Surely Aristotle was mistaken on a great many counts, but his basic methodology is still useful to avoid the many pitfalls of modern thought.

I say all of this in the context of believing that the content of first philosophy is simply the reverse-engineering of our human operating system as distinct from the surface grammar of our language. But just because there is an empirical / a posteriori aspect to metaphysics does not mean it is not possible as a science of being qua being.

Assuming that our mind does process information successfully, there is no reason to suspect that it cannot be reverse-engineered. By “successfully”, I mean that is reaches a decision based on input that achieves the relevant function and outcompetes other ways of avoiding extinction. ‘Reverse engineering’ means to figure out what the purpose of the mind is and how it achieves this purpose. Because mind is a feature of a living creature, understanding it means that we look at it as either an adaptation or a by-product of an adaptation. (I assume the former.) People are free to refuse this assumption, by by doing so they are also compelled to either give up or find another research program.  Since there are none, you are giving up on doing actual research and choosing to criticize actual research. This makes talking to you less useful than it could be otherwise. For any empirical field, it is possible to find flaws in its accepted theory, but researchers in this fields will continue to follow it until a better theory is proposed, and this is the problem I present to people who think that there is some other way to do philosophy, metaphysics or cognitive science besides the “gene’s-eye view”.

Philosophy East and West, Pt III; “Dao Deh Jing” Ch. II

This is part 3 of a series, if this part does not make sense to you, the following links with take you to Parts One and Two

Chapter II.

A. “Yin, Yang and the Two Truths”

The whole world recognizes the beautiful as the beautiful, yet this is only the ugly; the whole world recognizes the good as the good, yet this is only the bad.

Thus Something and Nothing produce each other;

The difficult and easy complement each other;

The long and short off-set each other;

The high and low incline towards each other;

Note and sound harmonize with each other;

Before and after follow each other.” Dao Deh Jing II.4-6


In the first half of this chapter we see a list of pairs of opposites. According to conventional truth, the opposites are completely other from each other, but from the perspective of Ultimate truth, they are *the Same*.

Traditional Chinese origin myths always began with the mating of two original principles of Yin and Yang. What Classical Chinese philosophy adds to this myth is the idea that underlying the Yin Yang dualism there must be a common unified principle which they called the “Dao”. Both Daoists and Confucians used this term in this way, although their approaches were quite different. In any case, this relates to “Two Truths” theory from the previous post since we clearly see that we have preceded from a discussion of the Two Truths into a series of complementary opposites, each of which form an underlying unity. If you look at the Yin-Yang symbol above with this in mind, you see that this is exactly what is illustrated; within each opposite half is a core that belongs to the other. In each case it is said that the opposites define, produce, or complement each other. Thus it seems the the Yin and Yang pattern spans radically different levels of discourse:

  1. conceptual definitions – It is commonly noticed that many things cannot be defined without their opposites; e.g. odd and even, more and less, good and bad.
  2. production by nature of skill – “Thus Something and Nothing produce each other”; in which yin and yang are placed directly in the realm of form and matter, i.e. Aristotle’s hylomorphic theory of change, a theory of natural and artificial change. More on this later!
  3. value – “complement each other” refers to the fact that many things are worthless without a opposite counterpart. For example fuel is worthless without oxygen, a tool without material, building material without a location, the weather without land, etc.

In the next section, we see another version of the yin and yang, where the highest/best exemplar of a thing is alson the same as the highest exemplar of its opposite:

Therefore the sage keeps to the deed that consists in taking no action and practices the teaching that uses no words.” Dao Deh Jing II.6

The greatest action consisting laisez-faire, non-intervention, being fully present as an example, or some other small token action done at the right time. In Chinese this is called “Wei wu wei”, literally “doing not doing”. The greatest action is in simply being there and acting very little. The natural world is filled with these things: in biology, for example, the most intricate design appears with no designer.

In the last section, this trait is attributed to the lack of selfish motive or egoistical method in taking the action:

The myriad creatures rise from it yet it claims no authority; it gives them life yet claims no possession; it benefits them yet exacts no gratitude; it accomplishes its task yet claims to no merit. It is because it claims no merit that its merit never deserts it.” Dao Deh Jing II.7,7a

This gibes well with many findings of modern science; evolution is not so elegant in spite of the lack of a Intelligent Designer, but because of that lack. Guiding intelligence would ruin Nature. Likewise with society; a properly run nation does what it does not because of the ruler, but in spite of them; the best ruler will simply get out of the way.

What Lao Tzu shares with Greek thought is the idea that metaphysics’ proper task is a comprehensive theory of change that suits both the natural, the artificial and the political. In both China and Greece none of these realms can be reduced to another, but they are all subsumed to the highest form of knowledge with draws closest to the general principles underlying cosmic levels of both permanence and change. While Greek thought includes extended reflection on the logically necessary that is lacking in the Dao Deh Jing, However, Aristotle shares with Daosim the attitude that reflection on the natural is of higher dignity to the conceptual.