Saturday, November 03, 2012

The Revolution in Teleology

Now and then one runs across an interesting beginning.

...Aristotle and the Scholastic tradition that built on his thought took the view that common sense was essentially correct. It needed to be systematized and refined, and when its implications were drawn out they would lead to metaphysical conclusions far beyond anything the man on the street is likely to have dreamed of, or even to understand. But a sound philosophy and science would nevertheless build on common sense rather than radically undermine it.

The founders of modern philosophy and science overthrew Aristotelianism, and common sense along with it. On the new view of nature inaugurated by Galileo and Descartes, the material world is comprised of nothing more than colorless, odorless, soundless, meaningless, purposeless particles in motion, describable in purely mathematical terms. The differences between dirt, water, rocks, trees, dogs, cats, and human bodies are on this view superficial

Ah, but there's more!

...Indeed, at bottom these are all just the same kinds of thing—arrangements within the one vast ocean of physical particles, the differences between the arrangements ultimately no deeper than the differences between waves on the same sea. Color, sound, odor, heat, and cold—understood in the qualitative way common sense understands them—are relegated to the mind, existing only in our conscious representation of the natural world, not in the world itself. Color, sound, and the rest as objective features would be redefined in quantitative terms—reflectance properties of physical surfaces, compression waves, and the like.

Meaning and purpose are similarly relegated to the mind in this system. We may project the meaning and purpose we find in our own thoughts and actions onto the external world, but it isn’t really there at all. What is there is only what can be captured in the language of physical science

Now you understand the (distant) origins of the Un-Natural Marriage crowd.


Grim said...

Wait. Read this again:

Indeed, at bottom these are all just the same kinds of thing—arrangements within the one vast ocean of physical particles, the differences between the arrangements ultimately no deeper than the differences between waves on the same sea.

That's purely Aristotelian. Aristotle put forward a view of nature that is called "hylomorphic," that is, everything can be described in terms of form and matter. But matter is just what is being described here: a kind of basic 'stuff' that can be ordered in different ways. The order, the structure that gives various capacities, is the form.

There's no reason to walk away from Aristotle's basic structure if this is your view. There's no reason to say that cats are real or humans are superficially different: form is a, indeed is the, substantial difference.

Furthermore, all the higher orders (that is, the higher forms) emerge from these lower-order forms of organization. Thus there is a ranking embedded in nature: the forms that give rise to consciousness, morality, beauty, are higher in a sense that ought to be pretty clear. It's not just that morality and beauty are higher things than inorganic orders -- that could be a value judgment, I suppose. It's that the lower levels of organization are embedded in the higher ones. It's inorganic material forms that make up your body; things like oxygen molecules are informed matter that is then put into another, higher form without losing their own forms. Thus we can see a hierarchy of scales of organization that is in the things itself.

No, the danger is not that the new science destroys the old model. The danger is that people push so hard against the old model that they can't see that the new science tells them exactly the same things, just in different ways.

Dad29 said...

It was the "meaning and purpose" 'graf which caught my attention. Feser complains that the moderns take Ari's "matter" to an extreme.

It's teleology, not physics, that's his complaint.

Dad29 said...


Humans are all unique, period. Other than matter and form, each one differs from the next.

The concentration on 'matter and form' to the exclusion of 'meaning and purpose' has been picked up and is used to erode (or erase) individualism, a result of 'meaning and purpose.'

Kirk and GKC are well aware of that tendency and alarmed by its abuse.

That erasure of individuality was the basis of Stalin's 'any man can be a farmer one day, a machinist the next, and an artist the next' hypothesis.

Plato's 'shadows' seemed to recognize individuality, at least by allowing for imperfections. The New Teleologists don't.

Grim said...

The point I wanted to raise was that there is just as much reason to look for telos in our contemporary understanding of physics -- or there would be, if we looked at it in Aristotle's terms. There are clearly distinguishable levels of organization, and new capacities arise at higher levels of organization that don't exist at lower levels.

If we lost that for a while, there are good grounds for its recovery.