Intelligent Design

Eric Anderson Responds to Kantian Naturalist Re the “Quartium Quid”

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Kantian Naturalist writes a thought-provoking response to my Thomas Nagel and the “Quartum Quid” post and Eric Anderson responds.
Kantian:

The problem here is whether ‘naturalistic teleology’ collapses into reductive naturalism or design realism.
Rather than treat naturalistic teleology as a quartium quid, it is a tertium quid. The first two, “chance” and “necessity” are not different ontologies (contra Peirce, maybe?) but tightly integrated aspects of a single ontology, Epicureanism, or reductive naturalism.
(It must be remembered here that it was Epicurus’ addition of chance to the deterministic system of Democritus that saved atomism from many of Aristotle’s criticisms — just not all of them!)
So here, then, are the ontological options:
(1) reductive naturalism (Epicureanism, “chance” + “necessity”)
(2) design realism (that there exists some non-human intelligent agent whose intentions played a causal role in the emergence of (i)the universe; (ii) life; (ii) body-plans; (iv) consciousness; (v) rationality; (vi) all of the above.
[Three notes: (a) thus specified, design realism is fully consistent with naturalism and thus contributes no epistemic support to theism; (b) how exactly this causal role was played is not easily answered, if the causal role cannot be specified without specifying the capacities of the designer; (c) the open-endedness of that list, esp. (vi) there, is a real problem for design theory — the conjecture must be specified enough to permit refutation.]
(3) naturalistic teleology (self-organization theory, autopoeisis theory — cf. recent work by Stuart Kauffman, Francisco Varela, Kirschner and Gerhart’s The Plausibility of Life, Evan Thompson’s Mind in Life, etc.)
The contention: that (3) reduces to (2) or to (1).
The response: whether (2) reduces to (2) is a difficult question, and I’m not yet convinced I have a really good argument there. But here’s why (3) does not reduce to (1). (Aka “why I dislike Dawkins so much”.)
Reductive naturalism depicts nature as a system of laws. Laws are rampant in physics and in chemistry. But biology, since it is the study of living things, is therefore the science of immanent-purposive systems, systems that are teleologically organized. (Perhaps (3) reduces to (2) if immanently purposive systems are best explained by a transcendent purposive system?)
So the question, can (3) be reduced to (1), can be considered in terms of two different sub-questions: (a) are there laws of biology? and (b) can biology be reduced to physics and chemistry? But there are no laws of biology, because teleological systems have histories, and there cannot be law about history.
(Notice, also, that according to Darwinism, species are not generals but individuals, to use those terms in their Scholastic sense, since populations are individuals, metaphysically speaking. Here’s a difficult question I haven’t yet figured out how to answer: is it consistent to be a realist about teleology without being a realist about universals or generals? I think what I want to say here is that species are not kinds, but that life itself is a kind.)
So: there are no laws of biology. Does biology reduce to physics and chemistry? Here too I think we have every right to be completely skeptical, because all the successful cases of intertheoretic reduction (the reduction of one theory to another) that I can think of are part of the history of physics and chemistry themselves. To whatever extent intertheoretic reduction have been successful in chemistry and physics, there’s room to be dubious whether biology reduces to physics and chemistry. (Interestingly enough, it’s also not really clear that chemistry reduces to physics, and it may be that there’s actually very little, if any, reduction between theories in general.)
Of course, that biology does not reduce to physics-chemistry is precisely what (2) and (3) have in common. So the question there is whether the irreducibility of biology to physics/chemistry is best explained by the existence of some intelligent agent, or by something else. I suppose, where I’m coming from, it’s not really so much of a stretch to suppose that autopoietic systems could emerge by enclosing an autocatalytic set within a semi-permeable membrane

Eric:

I suppose, where I’m coming from, it’s not really so much of a stretch to suppose that autopoietic systems could emerge by enclosing an autocatalytic set within a semi-permeable membrane.

It is a massive stretch. A stretch without empirical support and against all experience to date. Further, where did the so-called “autocatalytic set” come from? Crickets . . .
—–
Further, if there is some ‘law’ that gives rise to biology, what accounts for the incredible diversity of biological form and function? It certainly can’t be determined by law. So is the ‘law’ for some inexplicable reason only applicable to the first cell, at which point the law ceases to operate and some other process takes over (pure chance or some kind of Darwinian evolution)? In addition, why would this ‘law’ have acted billions of years ago, but never be seen in operation today?
The idea that biology arises from either (i) physics and chemistry themselves, or (ii) some as-yet-undiscovered law (that, upon inspection, apparently only operates at some points in time and only at very specific stages of the life process) is without any empirical or logical justification. It most cases it seems to be a desparate leap away from a purposeful origin and its uncomfortable implications. And a leap away from the evidence.

17 Replies to “Eric Anderson Responds to Kantian Naturalist Re the “Quartium Quid”

  1. 1
    Kantian Naturalist says:

    My defense of (3) rests on the idea that there aren’t any laws that govern living things — that’s the central contention.

    More specifically: living things are, of course, constrained by physical and chemical laws, but there aren’t any specifically biological laws, and the constraints are “loose” enough that the specific, historical patterns of biological diversity cannot be predicted from the laws of nature alone (nor, I think, be predicted by anything). So my contention is pretty much the opposite of the idea that the emergence of life was itself a law-governed event, contra Eric’s interpretation.

    Finally, then:

    It most cases it seems to be a desperate leap away from a purposeful origin and its uncomfortable implications. And a leap away from the evidence.

    It may be a leap — I won’t argue the point here, since I’m fully aware that ‘naturalistic teleology’ is not so much a worked-out theory as a proposal for a theory. I don’t think of it as “desperate” and I’m curious as to why you think so. In any event, I don’t see why “purposeful origin” would have any “uncomfortable implications” at all.

  2. 2

    Thanks, KN, for your comments and clarification.

    More specifically: living things are, of course, constrained by physical and chemical laws, but there aren’t any specifically biological laws, and the constraints are “loose” enough that the specific, historical patterns of biological diversity cannot be predicted from the laws of nature alone (nor, I think, be predicted by anything).

    Well said. I think we’re in agreement on this point.

    . . . I’m fully aware that ‘naturalistic teleology’ is not so much a worked-out theory as a proposal for a theory.

    Fair enough, but what exactly is meant by “naturalistic teleology?” At its heart, presumably the idea that teleology (some sort of purpose, plan, design) arises from, or is inherent in, nature itself (i.e., the interaction of matter and energy). (I think Kauffman’s work falls essentially in this category.)

    And what could such principles be, we might be forgiven for asking? Well, either (i) you have some law-like process that (either inevitably or stochastically) brings about or manifests the teleology. Or (ii) you don’t have a law-like process, in which case you are relying on chance.

    It sounds like you are suggesting that there might be something in nature that (inevitably or stochastically) would bring life about. Kauffman seems to take a similar opinion. That is what I am referring to when I say you are hoping for some as-yet-undiscovered law (I don’t mean to imply that you think there is a biological law that defines specific biological form; I think we’re in agreement that there isn’t).

    Look, I’m not opposed to anyone coming up with new ideas or trying to find some kind of teleology inherent in nature. But at the end of the day, it boils down to some kind of law-like process, chance, or a combination of the two. Kauffman has been at this a while, and I remain singularly unimpressed with any results or, frankly, even where he is going with the idea. I remain personally convinced that it is a dead end (although there could be some interesting tangential things learned from the effort).

    I don’t think of it as “desperate” and I’m curious as to why you think so. In any event, I don’t see why “purposeful origin” would have any “uncomfortable implications” at all.

    I should have spoken more clearly. By “purposeful origin” I didn’t mean the idea of “purpose” in some vague, general sense — particularly not if someone is invoking “naturalistic purpose” (i.e., teleology). I should have said that the idea of a “purposeful origin by design” is uncomfortable to many, which it clearly is. I see Kauffman and many others trying very hard to come up with some “naturalistic” way to explain purpose in life, while vigorously sidestepping the most evident and capable choice — intentional design — because it is unpalatable (either professionally or philosophically).

  3. 3
    Kantian Naturalist says:

    I can see your point about Kauffman’s work — it’s terribly tentative and sketchy. I find it very exciting but I can certainly understand why someone would be skeptical. Though, it’s worth pointing out, there’s a big difference between just pointing out the possibility of a tertium quid, as Nagel does, and trying to figure out the details, which is what I think Kauffman has made a good start of doing.

    My hope about Kauffman’s work, speaking “philosophically,” is that it will lead us to reject the Epicureanism conception of matter and of nature, which has dominated modern science from the 17th century onward and has prevented us from appreciating the depth of Aristotle’s insights.

    I should have spoken more clearly. By “purposeful origin” I didn’t mean the idea of “purpose” in some vague, general sense — particularly not if someone is invoking “naturalistic purpose” (i.e., teleology). I should have said that the idea of a “purposeful origin by design” is uncomfortable to many, which it clearly is.

    I understood that you were alluding to design theory, not to ‘naturalistic teleology’. I still don’t understand you believe that design theory makes anyone uncomfortable. At any rate, I don’t see how design theory has any implications that would make me uncomfortable personally, even if it were true.

  4. 4

    I still don’t understand [why?] you believe that design theory makes anyone uncomfortable. At any rate, I don’t see how design theory has any implications that would make me uncomfortable personally, even if it were true.

    Thanks, KN. I’m glad that design doesn’t have any uncomfortable implications for you. That speaks to your willingness to approach things with an open mind. Unfortunately, there are a great many people who harbor strong philosophical aversions to the very idea of design in biology. I’ve found that it is almost impossible to have a rational discussion with such individuals, as they are closed, from the outset, to any possibility of intelligent design in the origin and history of life.

    Thanks,

  5. 5
    Kantian Naturalist says:

    I appreciate that, Eric. However, I would not want to mislead you into thinking that I’m more open-minded than I really am! The reason I’m not discomforted by the implications of design theory is because it’s completely unclear what the implications of design theory are, if it has any at all.

    Rather, it seems to me that design theory has implications only if the designer(s) have some specifiable identity. So long as design theory is not able to do that, we have at best an inference to the best explanation, but not an inference from the existence of the designer to anything else.

    As an example: I don’t see how design theory mounts any challenge to naturalism, or adds any epistemic support to theism. Here I’m following Plantinga’s definition of naturalism as the denial of the existence of God or anything relevantly similar to God. I’m willing to go along with Plantinga here a bit. God is, or is similar to, a person: something that can perceive, reason, and act. (Of course animals can also perceive and act in some sense, but their sensings and doings are not rationally linked together, as they are for persons.)

    But, as traditionally understood, God is not an animal; God has no biological functions or physical properties of any sort. So I construe naturalism as the claim that all persons are animals, and that there are no persons that are not animals. Now, does design theory undermine naturalism, or make naturalism less plausible? To do that, it would need to show that the designer(s) are not animals of any sort. But how can it make that claim, if it makes no claims about the identity of the designer(s)?

    To be sure, if the designer(s) had to exist before the emergence of terrestrial life, they could perhaps be quite different from terrestrial animals. Or perhaps not — who knows? Certainly the designer(s) would be persons in the formal sense, but whether they are also animals is left entirely open, because the designer(s) cannot be identified. Design theory therefore does neither discomforts the naturalist nor encourages the theist. It is metaphysically innocuous.

    Now, that’s not to say that design theory has no implications for empirical knowledge — just that, if it does, they are not at all clear to me, which is why I’m not troubled by them. Perhaps I would be discomforted by its implications if I knew what they were!

  6. 6
    Mung says:

    Hey KN, not to send you off elsewhere, but there is another site that’s probably a bit stronger on ‘front-loading’ than UD.

    http://telicthoughts.com/

    http://designmatrix.wordpress.com/

  7. 7
    Mung says:

    Kantian Naturalist:

    It may be a leap — I won’t argue the point here, since I’m fully aware that ‘naturalistic teleology’ is not so much a worked-out theory as a proposal for a theory.

    Are you familiar enough with Aristotle to offer an opinion as to whether his was a naturalistic teleology as you are using the term?

    It would be interesting to see what he thought of as to whether there was a difference between animate and inanimate matter. De Anima perhaps, lol?

    Problem is, not being steeped in his thought, I need an interpreter, an expositor.

    Are there any books on teleology that you have found truly worthwhile?

  8. 8
    Mung says:

    Kantian Naturalist:

    living things are, of course, constrained by physical and chemical laws, but there aren’t any specifically biological laws, and the constraints are “loose” enough that the specific, historical patterns of biological diversity cannot be predicted from the laws of nature alone (nor, I think, be predicted by anything).

    I think that perhaps such laws do exist, but they are not to be found in physics and chemistry, but rather in mathematics and information theory.

    If ID is correct about the importance of information (and I think it is), then the circumstances you describe are rather to be expected, and might even be said to be a prediction of ID (if you want to be kind).

  9. 9
    Mung says:

    KN,

    I really enjoyed your post @5. You exhibit a rather refreshing understanding of ID and it’s implications (or lack thereof).

    As an example: I don’t see how design theory mounts any challenge to naturalism, or adds any epistemic support to theism.

    Design theory as it applies strictly to life on earth?

    The theory of intelligent design (ID) holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause …

    KN:

    Now, does design theory undermine naturalism, or make naturalism less plausible? To do that, it would need to show that the designer(s) are not animals of any sort. But how can it make that claim, if it makes no claims about the identity of the designer(s)?

    The designer of the prokaryote was not an animal. 😉

    Now, when you say identity, do you mean thereby characteristics? The average ID person probably means by identity who, e.g.; a member of the Grodnekian race from the planet Borkalugian. Not to be confused with the claim that whomever the designer was, the designer was intelligent (a characteristic).

    I hope you understand the distinction I am trying to make.

  10. 10
    Mung says:

    Kantian Naturalist,

    Would you at all be interested in re-posting your comments about ID from that other thread into this one? They seem to have been swamped by other matters in that thread.

    I’d like to explore more your thoughts about ID as a scientific theory and the subject of models.

  11. 11
    Mung says:

    I should read more Aristotle and less internet blog posts.

    KN, you mention The Plausibility of Life. (haha, they start out with Paley!)

    Anything in particular from that text that caught your eye?

  12. 12

    KN @5:

    You take a reasonable and objective approach to the issue and as a result you are not bothered by any implications flowing from ID.

    In contrast to your mature approach, many people involved with the debate are vehemently opposed to acknowledging the existence of a designer because they are quite sure that the designer everyone is talking about just must be God (you know, the God they are convinced does not exist). As a result, they rather tie themselves into a logical knot over the issue. When pressed they might acknowledge that the designer could be something else (aliens, for example, as Dawkins eventually admitted), but in their heart of hearts they are convinced that all this talk of design is just a cover story for God, all part of a dark creationism-in-a-cheap-tuxedo conspiracy. This mental fantasy is what plagues folks like Nick Matzke, for example.

    To be sure, this is a psychological/philosophical issue and is a personal matter for the individuals so afflicted. As you well point out, acknowledging the existence of a designer is a distinct question from identifying the designer in any way that would cause discomfort, and I applaud your willingness and ability to note the distiction.

  13. 13
    Kantian Naturalist says:

    I should read more Aristotle and less internet blog posts.

    Yes, you and me both! I’m afraid I haven’t yet read De Anima, except for bits and pieces here and there. My first-hand knowledge of Aristotle is limited to the Nicomachean Ethics, most of the Metaphysics, and some of the Physics.

    A further complication in the history of the concept of teleology lies in Kant’s so-called “critique of teleological judgment,” which I don’t really understand enough to encapsulate. Without a better understanding of that, and it’s relation to Hegel, I find myself at a serious loss to articulate what I intuit.

    Are you familiar enough with Aristotle to offer an opinion as to whether his was a naturalistic teleology as you are using the term? It would be interesting to see what he thought of as to whether there was a difference between animate and inanimate matter.

    Well, maybe — though I’d want to make a couple of distinctions here. Firstly, there’s what Varela and Webber call “internal teleology” and “external teleology.” Internal teleology is the purposiveness of the whole organism — the integrated system of functions that allow it to do what it does — what Varela calls “autopoeisis”. External teleology is more what design theory has in mind, where the purposiveness is clearly imposed on material from outside of the material itself. It’s internal teleology that interests me, so maybe one way of putting the difference between our views — my (2) and (3) earlier — is whether we need external teleology (intelligent design) to explain internal teleology (organismal purposiveness).

    Secondly, “naturalized” and “naturalistic” are vague terms that are hard to pin down. And, notoriously, the entrenchment of Epicurean metaphysics during the Scientific Revolution led to the exclusion of teleology from science (despite a very interesting series of attempts to keep smuggling it in through the back-door). The thought that teleology itself has to be “naturalized” or made “naturalistic” is one that we ought to be suspicious of.

    Instead, I think we’d make more progress if expanded the scientific conception of nature to include teleology, instead of cutting teleology down to fit into the modern scientific conception of nature. So I’d prefer to think in terms of “scientific teleology” instead — to think of the task ahead of making teleology into a scientific concept. And in that regard I think scientists like Prigogine and Kauffman have made a pretty good start.

    Are there any books on teleology that you have found truly worthwhile?

    I’m not terribly well-read on the subject, but one book which has made a good impression on me is Purposiveness: Teleology Between Nature and Mind.

  14. 14
    Barry Arrington says:

    KN, regarding your comment at 5, I have been saying the same thing for years. See http://www.uncommondescent.com.....al-causes/

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    Kantian Naturalist says:

    Barry, I’m glad to hear there’s at least that much we can agree on!

    On the subject of books on teleology, another that comes to mind is Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged From Matter. I bought it as soon as it came out, because I was deeply impressed by Deacon’s The Symbolic Species. Unfortunately the second book is something of a disappointment, and I haven’t gotten very far into it.

    I worry that it’s the kind of book where the author invents a new name for an old problem and pretends that he’s solved it. But others might have a more favorable response, and in any event, it hasn’t diminished my admiration for The Symbolic Species.

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    Mung says:

    I’m not terribly well-read on the subject, but one book which has made a good impression on me is Purposiveness: Teleology Between Nature and Mind.

    haha. I see why. Kantian.

  17. 17
    Kantian Naturalist says:

    Some of you may be interested in Dembski’s review of Nagel. There’s a lot there worth discussing, I think.

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