Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Resurrection of Formal and Final Causes

SOURCE: Telic Thoughts

COMMENTARY: Allen MacNeill

Over at Telic Thoughts, g arago commented:

"It would perhaps help to bring in Aristotle's causes again, to the effect that final causes are virtually eliminated from modern science. Postmodernity enables the case for formal causality to re-emerge as a legitimate source of (scientific or non-scientific) knowledge."

It's interesting that this should be proposed, as that is precisely what I will be doing during the very first meeting of my "purpose in nature" seminar at Cornell this summer. It is a sad fact that most undergraduates (and an alarming number of philosophers and scientists) do not know anything about Aristotle's doctrine of causes, nor how they relate to the work they are doing.

Aristotle identified four causes for every phenomenon:

Material Cause: What the object in question is composed of (e.g. a house is composed of boards, bricks, mortar, etc.;

Formal Cause: What formal category the object is an exemplar of (e.g. any particular house is a "house" or dwelling place for people);

Efficient Cause: What immediate processes bring about the existence of the object (e.g. the carpenters, etc. are the efficient cause of the house); and

Final Cause: The purpose of the object (e.g. carpenters et al build houses "in order to" provide dwelling places for people).

In modern science, both formal and final causes are considered to be unnecessary, and are therefore not generally included in scientific explanations of natural objects and processes. However, it is not strictly true that formal causes have been completely eliminated from science. Much of physics, for example, has taken on some of the characteristics of "formal cause" insofar as physical processes are describable and predictable using formal mathematics. This is particularly the case for physicists who believe that actual physical phenomena are "the working out of underlying mathematical relationships."

The same could be said for evolutionary theory insofar as the "modern evolutionary synthesis" initiated R. A. Fisher, J.B.S. Haldane, and Sewall Wright sought to lay a formal mathematical foundation for biological evolution.

The problem for "intelligent design theory" therefore is to show (if possible) that final causes are necessary (i.e. not just psychologically gratifying or theologically convenient) for evolutionary explanations of natural objects and processes. Final causes (or "purposes") are not entirely missing from evolutionary biology, as shown by the work of Colin Pittendrigh, Francisco Ayala, and Ernst Mayr, all of whom debated the appropriateness of teleological language when referring to adapations. However, no evolutionary biologist has resorted to teleological explanations for the existence or operation of natural selection, speciation, evolutionary development, or other central processes in evolution, at least not recently. The reason for such exclusion has not been an antipathy to theologically based explanations per se, but rather the simple fact that teleological explanations for evolutionary processes have been shown repeatedly to be unnecessary, and therefore irrelevant (notice that I did not say "untrue," as "truth" is also irrelevant in this context).

What W. Dembski and M. Behe and other ID theorists have attempted to do (in my opinion, so far unsuccessfully) is to re-integrate teleology into evolutionary processes. The more recent discussion by some ID theorists of "'front-loaded' intelligent design" is simply a reinvention of Aristotelian formal cause, and as such is indistinguishable from classical deism. Neither of these approaches to "design or purpose in nature" has yet been successful as scientific enterprises because they have not been shown to be indispensible to scientific explanations. Until they are, they will not be integrated into mainstream science. While I personally do not believe they can be, I am willing to be shown otherwise by people who use direct empirical evidence and strong inference to show how teleological explanations are necessary for scientific explanations.


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At 5/16/2006 12:30:00 PM, Anonymous PvM said...

Another excellent posting Allen. I can't wait to hear more about your history of science class, which is already touted by ID proponents as

"ID is now being offered in university science classes."

I doubt that there are many ID proponents who actually 1) understand the underlying foundations of ID 2) understand how science deals with these issues.

As you have pointed out Ayala, Ruse and others all accept the appropriateness and inevitability of teleological language when it comes to adaptations. Not surprisingly even Dembski has come to the conclusion that 'function' is a sufficient specification for biological systems... Such an admission is not without its consequences as this means that much of anything in biology is specified and Dembski's concept of specified complexity in biology merely means, something with a function whose origin we do not yet fully or with sufficient detail understand.

When Dembski was asked how ID would explain such a particular system, he was quick to reject such a demand:

As for your example, I’m not going to take the bait. You’re asking me to play a game: “Provide as much detail in terms of possible causal mechanisms for your ID position as I do for my Darwinian position.” ID is not a mechanistic theory, and it’s not ID’s task to match your pathetic level of detail in telling mechanistic stories. If ID is correct and an intelligence is responsible and indispensable for certain structures, then it makes no sense to try to ape your method of connecting the dots. True, there may be dots to be connected. But there may also be fundamental discontinuities, and with IC systems that is what ID is discovering.

Pesky realities and caricatures of ID

Your class may be quite a wake-up call for those who believe ID has any scientific relevance and I thank you for your efforts.

At 5/16/2006 06:50:00 PM, Anonymous Why Telic Language in non-ID Biology? said...

In response to g arago's comment here at Telic Thoughts, Allen MacNeill blogs on The Resurrection of Formal and Final Causes. He also talks about this here where he presents (and agrees with) Ernst Mayr's arguments for the legitimacy of teleological language in biology...

At 5/18/2006 01:36:00 PM, Anonymous ted Herrlich said...

The confusion of ID proponents using teleologic language is also in their misunderstanding of Extrinsic and Intrinsic finalities. They seem to insist that anyone should be able to recognize design just by looking at it (Extrinsic) and using that to prove the perfect of human beings (Intrinsic).

What I find amusing is proving one, which I will admit to there being a slim possibility (defined as > zero), will still not prove the other. What proof of design determines human beings are some level of perfection? None that I can see. In fact I look at the people around me and pray like mad that evolution isn't done with us!

Ted Herrlich

At 5/20/2006 04:09:00 PM, Anonymous PvM said...

ID proponents seem to have changed their approach to 'teach the controversy' which would inform students about problems with the Darwinian theory of evolution and discuss alternatives. As such, often these alternatives include 'the theory of Intelligent Design'.

However, it seems self evident that no such theory actually exists beyond: it looks functional, and we cannot imagine how it may have arisen thus designed.
ID proponents argue that concepts such as Complex Specified Information can help one determine 'design' and claim that in 'all known cases of CSI', the system can be traced back to 'design. But is that correct? I argue that once something can be explained in terms of design, there is no complexity since complexity merely is something that cannot be explained in terms of 'regularities' and chance. Unless the argument is that design somehow uses something beyond these, design must either involve only the supernatural or design becomes unseparable from regularity and/or chance. For instance in case of murder we look at means, motives and opportunities which address both regularities as well as 'chance'. In other words, once something can be explain in natural terms, it ceases to be complex, unless complexity is a meaningless concept. In fact, complexity is already a meaningless concept as it merely reflect our level of ignorance.

At 5/21/2006 02:35:00 PM, Anonymous PvM said...

It would be interesting to ask ID proponents for examples where ID is claimed to be either scientific, scientifically relevant either as a methodology, a hypothesis or perhaps a meta-framework? With scientifically relevant I mean that ID is essential to the claims made and that the claims follow from the basic premises of ID.

I am aware of a few examples where ID has made some claims, which one of these claims can be argued to be scientific?

1. The Cambrian Explosion
2. 'Information' in DNA or proteins
3. Convergence
4. Irreducible Complexity (especially the flagellum)

Did I miss any and who can explain why any of these claims has any scientific relevance?

I am asking this because it seems clear to me that ID cannot make any positive claims because it is inherently based on a negative.

At 5/21/2006 03:34:00 PM, Anonymous PvM said...

From Pandasthumb

Jonathan Bartlett: “In other words, why would ID even ‘predict’ a reduction in complexity in the genome? Assuming that it could even make any such prediction.”

That’s the entire point of things such as Dembski’s conservation of information. That large amounts of specified complexity can only be added through intelligence, but that left to itself, it either stays roughly the same or deteriorates. Genome Decay is an active area of research in both the Creationist and ID camps, but it is something that would be difficult to even conceive of in a Darwinian setting, which has information being built up through selected mistakes.

Notice how ID activists are quick to confuse the concept of information as used by Dembski with the concept of information as used by science. I can understand the confusion but it only serves to undermine the ID activist's attempt to explain why ID makes any such predictions. In fact, ID is quick to claim that 'Junk DNA' would be found to have function after all. But let's look at Jonathan's claim namely that genome decay is difficult even to conceive of in a Darwinian setting. Note that Jonathan is effectively arguing the opposite of what ID and other creationist arguments claim, namely that Darwinism may explain the decay of the genome but that it cannot explain the opposite. Anyone familiar with Darwin's writings would be familiar with his comments on vestigial organs, in other words, Darwinism does in fact explain the existence of 'genome decay'. So perhaps Jonathan's argument can be saved by arguing that Darwinian theory cannot explain information in the genome? Again, Jonathan's claim would go against the scientific evidence.

ID has information degrading or specializing from larger information sources, while Darwinism has information building up from smaller information sources.

Perhaps, but this does not logically follow from ID, which is in fact trying to explain the origin of information. Could Jonathan explain how this logically follows from the ID claim?
In other words: Explain what the ID claim is and how it follows from first principles.

Let me give an example:

Claim: Darwinian theory explains the generation of information in the genome via the processes of variation and selection.

Supporting Evidence: Darwinian processes can, at least in principle, explain the generation of information in the genome. See the work by Tom Schneider or Adami.

First Principles: Natural selection and variation

Claim: Darwinian theory explains the existence of vestigial organs or 'junk DNA' such as pseudogenes

Supporting Evidence: The observed processes of gene duplication and mutation explain the existence of pseudogenes, as far as vestigial organs are concerned, see Darwin.

ID is scientifically vacuous for the simple reason that it cannot make any predictions since it is based on an argument from ignorance. While ID activists have added to the confusion by calling this ignorance complexity or information, it has little relevance to the scientific concepts. In fact, scientifically speaking CSI is an expected outcome of evolutionary processes as long as information is not defined to be 'ignorance' but true 'information' for instance in the Shannon sense. Functionality, which is just another alias for specification in biology, is also an expected outcome of evolutionary processes. So in other words, Dembski's argument is merely a claim that if we do not fully understand the origins and evolution of a particular functional system we should infer design. Of course, even inferring design really does little for the ID thesis since the step to designer is an inductive step which cannot even exclude natural selection as its designer.

At 5/30/2006 11:26:00 AM, Anonymous IndianCowboy said...

"I am willing to be shown otherwise by people who use direct empirical evidence and strong inference to show how teleological explanations are necessary for scientific explanations."

Says it all really, doesn't it.

Great essay.


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