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.