Teleology Rises from the Grave
Ambystomas, Regina Kolyanovska, 2013
by Stephen T. Asma
In his 1790 Critique of Judgment, Kant famously predicted that there would never be a “Newton for a blade of grass.” Biology, he thought, would never be unified and reduced down to a handful of mechanical laws, as in the case of physics. This, he argued, is because we cannot expunge teleology (goal-directedness) from living systems. The question “what is it for?” applies to living structures in a way that has no corollary in physics.
Most Anglo and American philosophers, historians of science, and theologians have misunderstood this teleological argument, and the confusion has resurrected (with a vengeance) in the newest kerfuffle surrounding Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (Oxford, 2012). Nagel and his critics are rehearsing a tired debate that we may be doomed to repeat ad nauseum unless we gain some fresh perspective.
The usual narrative goes like this: Kant said there would be no Newton of biology; along comes Darwin, the Newton of biology, who shows that natural selection explains adaptation without appeal to teleology; fast-forward to the present and we are now the inheritors of a mechanical biology and only religious cranks still bleat on about teleology. Such is the standard narrative – clear, simple and wrong.
It turns out that there are a few different teleology traditions, but the Anglo-American conversation has been blithely unaware of all but the simplest. The simple and loud version is the “natural theology” tradition, which claims that adaptation in nature must be the result of a supreme Designer because chance alone cannot account for gills in water, lungs on land, complex eyes and cell flagella. A Designer God, according to this view, gives nature its purposive teleological structure, and that’s why a mechanical science will be incomplete. This, in a nutshell, is the natural theology tradition of teleology and it goes back to Plato’s Timaeus, but its heyday was in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Even Darwin, before he went on The Beagle, read and admired the natural theology of William Paley, who likened nature to an elegant and adapted watch. Like any good watch, a system of parts that fit other parts and has a function of telling time presupposes a designing intelligence – a watchmaker.
Darwin killed this tradition. His theory of chance variation and natural selection killed it dead, drove a stake through its heart, and we all watched it turn to dust and blow away in the scalding light of science. The accumulation and spread of heritable traits, by the mechanical operations of genes, proteins, geology, climate and so on, slowly shape organisms to fit their environments – making them appear designed. The reality of limited resources serves as the editing gauntlet, preserving a tight gap between organic structure and function. Philosophically speaking, Darwin changed a priori design (God’s plan) into a posteriori adaptation. Excellent popular-science postmortems of natural theology include Richard Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker, Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True.
A small but vocal minority, however, never got the obituary notice. They never accepted that Darwin staked the heart, and they carry on the natural theology tradition of teleology today – calling it intelligent design (ID). Like Doctor Frankenstein, the ID folks – like Michael Behe, William Dembske and Phillip E. Johnson – keep trying to paste together a corpse of natural theology and revitalize it for pseudoscience journals and high school textbooks. It’s a tiresome irritation, but biologists have to keep hunting down and killing the natural theology monster before it gets into classrooms (although it’s free to live in temples, churches and mosques).
But, here’s the problem. Whenever anyone mentions the word “teleology,” the Darwinian orthodoxy get out the pitchforks and chase down the fiend – thinking they are protecting tender minds from natural theology. Unfortunately some concepts of teleology have nothing to do with natural theology and religion, but they get caught up and exterminated anyway in the confusion.
These other teleology traditions include (i) Aristotelian teleology, (ii) holism, (iii) unity of nature, (iv) conatus/vitalism, (v) autopoiesis, and also various nuances within each category. The popular anthropomorphic tradition of natural theology – which projects human-like intentionality into nature – gets mixed together with these other traditions. It is important to sift these and see if there’s anything compatible with our Darwinian naturalism.
Aristotle saw teleology in nature because natural processes always unfold toward some goal – acorns develop into oak trees (kinetic teleology). But also, parts of animals are simultaneously for the sake of their compositional wholes – osseous tissue is for the sake of bone, blood is for the sake of circulation, and the tooth is for the sake of mastication. The organism is a Russian doll of nested teleological relations (structures and functions). Aristotle refers to these ends/goals/wholes as final causes, defining a final cause broadly as the “end, for the sake of which a thing is done.”
Aristotle’s teleology is uniquely difficult to appreciate because hundreds of years of Medieval theology misinterpreted it as mental and theological (e.g., Aquinas’ famous view that God’s mind put the goals into nature — Ergo est aliquid intelligens, a quo omnes res naturales ordinantur ad finem, et hoc dicimus Deum.). That was not Aristotle’s view, despite generations of Schoolmen who tried to “baptize” him. Then after the scientific revolution everyone (religious and secular) came to think of nature as a giant machine, and like all machines the goals would need to be installed by some kind of Mind (see Cleanthes’ famous design argument in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion). Again, this was not Aristotle’s view. Instead, Aristotle thought of teleology as a feature of nature, in the same way that we think of gravity as an impersonal, un-designed, aspect of matter. Unlike all Western monotheisms, Aristotle’s God wasn’t even a creator god, so he couldn’t have put the teleology into nature. Moreover, Aristotle did not simply theorize teleology, but empirically observed regular goal-directed behavior and structure while studying and dissecting animals in Atarneus and Lesbos.
Aristotle was critical of the simple versions of evolution that he saw in Empedocles (and Democritus), because he thought that material bits could not clump together into sustainable organisms unless matter had specific recipes built into nature itself (the formal/final causes). Unlike Plato who thought the goals of natural processes were incarnated Ideas, Aristotle refused to postulate cosmic archetypes and saw teleology instead as a way of describing the regularity of biological procreation, behavior and anatomy. If he had known about DNA, he probably would have slapped his forehead and said, “so, that’s how the information informs matter!” But notice, we still have Aristotle’s final cause question: How does a common stuff (DNA, or stem cells) get differentiated into diverse organs and organisms? The DNA alone is not enough, and after we cracked the genome we realized that we needed to study development more carefully, so we’re finally discovering hox genes and epigenetic processes that regulate all that DNA potential into actual organs, structures and behaviors. Those regulatory causes (only recently targeted by biologists) were the aspects of life that Aristotle called teleological.
Unlike natural theology, Aristotle’s methodological teleology is not incompatible with Darwinism. Aristotle just thought that you can’t do biology by talking about whirling atoms (like Democritus), but also need to discover why this organ or behavior fits with the animal’s structure/function and environment. That question only reverts to Divine psychology if you’re a natural theologian, but for Aristotle and Darwin it reverted to the unique living conditions of the organism. Aristotle, in his Parts of Animals, explained human teeth by looking at their function of mastication, but he recognized that other vertebrate teeth were also used as weapons and explained their unique structures accordingly. Most phenotypes don’t make sense unless we relate them to their functional milieu.
Aristotle objects to the reductionistic atomism of his predecessors on the grounds that it’s the wrong kind of explanation or account. It is too low-level to shed light on the organism’s embryogenesis or behavior. His critique is not a call for supernatural amendments to science, but a call for autonomous levels of scientific explanations.
Setting aside his temporal teleology (e.g. acorns become oak trees) let’s concentrate on the holism tradition that Aristotle created. The holism tradition of teleology claims that biology must recognize the causal relationships of cells inside tissues, inside organs, inside physio-systems, inside organisms, inside environments (Aristotle didn’t know about cells and would have started with tissues, but we can now take the Russian dolls down to infinitesimal levels). The medieval metaphysicians pursued this avenue, called mereology, but derailed the inquiry by trying to find the principle of individuation that would determine which of these nested levels was the true “substance.” Eventually Analytical Anglo-American philosophy became reinterested in holism in the twentieth century, but only as a logic problem. Continental philosophy, on the other hand, has had a longstanding obsession with the metaphysics and epistemology of biological holism (e.g., see Ernst Cassirer’s 1950 The Problem of Knowledge). Goethe, Kant and Hegel were deeply interested in the way that biological form seemed to govern simpler physio-chemical processes, and they tried various ways of organizing nature without appeal to natural theology.
Why can’t biology succeed by dissecting everything down to chemistry? Because we can’t understand DNA methylation, for example, without understanding what it’s for. This is not the same as finding out what effects it has months or years later, although that’s important. We also need to know what beneficial effects it has for the organism. One of the effects of methylation, after all, is that it’s involved in most forms of cancer – an obviously deleterious suite of diseases. But evolution is a cost-benefit process, and methylation is also a crucial regulator of gene transcription. It aids in our individual survival (its regulation seems to respond to environmental challenges in embryological development) and our species survival (carrying epigenetic information across generations). We’re just learning about the mechanisms of DNA methylation, but we fully expect to find survival benefits for most methyl group switches. There aren’t just mechanical effects of methylation, but advantageous effects – adaptive effects. And even when we don’t know what they are, we are vigorously working to find them.
Scientifically decomposing cells and genes into their parts wins us many prediction victories, but it doesn’t tell why a trait persists, why it continues in a population. For that, we need to ask what the organic structure or behavior is for. The oxidation of carbon to produce carbon dioxide is just simple antecedent/consequent causation, and no one in chemistry would claim that the carbon loses electrons “for the sake of” becoming carbon dioxide. But in biology we have to acknowledge that a specific trait or behavior is for the survival of the organism or population (unless it’s vestigial or a spandrel). Sex, for example, has advantageous effects – offspring fitness (through variation and hybrid vigor). This adaptive effect explains why the mutation was selected for and why it persists. It is a methodologically teleological explanation.
For holists, this attempt to find the “end, for the sake of which a thing is done” applies to the structures as well as the processes of biology. A leaf is unintelligible without understanding something about trees, a heart is incomprehensible without the circulation system, a brain makes little sense except in the body of a creature that can move, and on and on. Then these teleological wholes are referred to the ultimate teleology – which Aristotle, sounding very Darwinian, describes as “the most natural of all the functions of living creatures, namely to make another thing like themselves.”
The holism school wants us to remember, amidst all the real successes of reductionistic science, the validity of higher levels of causation and reality. Holism is a kind of causal pluralism, gently reminding the atomic and genetic determinists that organisms and ecologies are not just epiphenomena.
Teleological statements are explanatorily robust in biology, but is it real or sham teleology? Kant argued that our Reason cannot help but project purpose into biology, and we should accept modest teleological claims as “regulative principles” (which we might today call “instrumental principles”). By this logic, it’s scientifically respectable to claim that hollow bird bones are for the sake of flight. But the mind can’t stop there, according Kant, and naturally goes on to project a whole system of purposes into the biosphere – and here is where the natural theologian (then and now) starts to salivate. But it gets silly fast; grass is for the sake of cows, and cows are for the sake of human food, and so on. Like Voltaire, in Candide, Kant mentions hyperbolic teleologists who claim that mosquitos help humans wake-up and stay active, and tapeworms must aid digestion for their victims. The trick in biology is to keep the local teleology, but throw out the global or cosmic purpose.
When we’re doing biology, Kant argued, we need to subordinate simple physics/chemistry explanations to functional teleological explanations. We need both levels of causation and explanation, and one level does not reduce to the other. Many biologists and philosophers, following Kant, have argued that we can pretend that things are for the sake of goals but this is just methodologically helpful, not real. This approach — the “as-if” teleology tradition – helped the Germans employ means/end explanations, but avoid the temptations of natural theology. Can we, however, go beyond the purely instrumental justification to a kind of teleology that is, well, real? The answer is yes, and no.
Consider teleology as analogous to “free will” for a moment. Free will is heuristic or instrumental in common life – we consider ourselves free when we’re posed with decisions everyday and we assume free will in our fellow citizens when they behave in myriad ways. Free will has explanatory power in formal domains as well. In law, ethics, psychology, and sociology, free will makes sense out of human behavior in non-trivial ways – despite the fact that there’s no metaphysical or scientific evidence for free will per se. Every act of free will could be reduced, in principle, to a series of synapse firings, but these are, from the vantage of social science, only the conditions of human behavior not the relevant causal levels. Which level is the most real? That’s a bad, albeit tempting, question.
If a neuroscientist asked me why I do philosophy, I might say something like, “certain neural pathways were sculpted in my developing brain, such that cingulate, prefrontal and parietal activity easily trigger my hedonic dopamine system.” When my friend asks me why I do philosophy, I’m likely to say something like, “solving conceptual puzzles and reflecting on weird stuff is deeply satisfying for me.” When the Dean of my college asks me the same question I’m likely to trot out something like, “philosophy improves critical thinking and shapes students into better citizens of our democracy, and I want to be a part of that mission.”
These explanations are not in competition with each other. One of these accounts is not the “correct” one — usurping the others, or reducing them to mere figments. They are all compatible, and they are all true. Likewise, if geneticists give a molecular account of human skin color differences and evolutionary biologists give an adaptive account of skin color, they are not competing to be the real explanation. Here are three compatible accounts: (a) A purely mechanical account of small changes in the melanocortin 1 receptor gene (MC1R) can tell us how melanin concentrations can produce darker or lighter skin coloration. (b) The person living in an intense solar region will survive better if their skin is darker because carcinogenic UV-B radiation is blocked by increased melanin pigmentation. (c) Around 1.2 million years ago, about 300,000 years after Homo lost its body hair, group migrations started new environmental selective pressures –lighter skin evolved in less insolated regions (allowing necessary vitamin D production) and darker skin evolved in the populations of high insolation regions. So we have three levels of explanation; a chemical story of DNA to melanin, an ontogenetic story of the dangers of skin cancer, and a phylogenetic story connecting human migration and ecology. Notice that the first biochemistry explanation may work fine without teleology but the two adaptive explanations are strongly teleological – not in the sense that skin cells “foresaw” the goals, but in the sense that the distribution and persistence of these phenotypes (and their genes) only make sense if they are “for the sake of” survival (excepting the usual caveats about spandrels or founder effects).
Unity of Nature
Kant argued that the human mind cannot avoid projecting purpose into nature, even when it produces Panglossian absurdities. But, contrary to many interpreters, this is not a free-pass for Intelligent Design natural theology nonsense. Close study of his position reveals a nuanced alternative teleology. In addition to the instrumental teleology that seeks to link specific structures to functions (e.g., sharp teeth to carnivore diet, skin color to solar environment, sweat glands to thermoregulation, etc.), we must assume, he argues, a more universal teleology in all of nature in order to do science in the first place.
We need to tread carefully here because this issue is frequently misunderstood by both the foes and friends of teleology. How could we expect nature to give us answers to our questions unless there was some rational aspect or logic in nature that could be interpreted by our own rational minds? Science assumes some isomorphism between our rational faculties and Nature’s structure, otherwise the former could not limit the latter. This expectation of isomorphism is a kind of a priori projection that unifies all nature into a domain of possible exploration. Kant suggests that an encompassing “principle of purposiveness” (an expectation that we’ll get answers to “what for?” questions) constitutes the unity of nature, and “we must necessarily assume that there is such a unity without our comprehending it or being able to prove it.”
This is a fascinating thesis, but we shouldn’t make too much of it. The religiously inclined would like to ride piggyback on this point in order to claim Kant on the side of Intelligent Design and natural theology – after all, one might read this isomorphism (between nature and our mind) as proof of God’s overall beneficent design. Sociologist Steve Fuller, for example, makes this same confusion when he endorses Intelligent Design in books and courtrooms (e.g. see Fuller’s testimony in Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District, 2005). Since natural religion predicts, via the divine design hypothesis, that we will decode nature’s rational messages — and we do indeed succeed in limning these rational structures – then, natural theology, according to Fuller, is corroborated as a bona fide research program. But design does not follow from the fact that nature is structured, nor from the isomorphism of mental faculties and nature. And Kant knew this, though he did not know the eventual Darwinian explanation of the isomorphism (evolved cognitive modules and adaptive general intelligence capacities). Even without the Darwinian naturalistic solution, Kant knew that our stubborn faith in a rational nature could not prove that it was designed. Kant’s assumed cosmic teleology is unlike the religious tradition because his version must remain a vague requirement of the system, lacking any and all content.
This unity-of-nature tradition of teleology is necessary – when we expect answers to our scientific questions – but it will always be vague, lacking in predictive power, incapable of proof, and even incapable of true comprehension. In other words, this isomorphism assumption is another instrumental tool, albeit writ large across the whole of nature. The most that Kant can say about the content of this assumption is “There is in nature a subordination of genera and species comprehensible by us.” And he adds that there is “a harmony of nature with our cognitive faculty.” This paucity of content shows us that the unity of nature teleology is just the base level assumption that nature has predictability.
After Thomas Nagel summarized his Mind and Cosmos in the New York Times (August 18, 2013), Philip Kitcher rebutted him (September 8, 2013) on the grounds that Nagel was asking old fashioned questions about the nature of life itself, values, mind, teleology. If anything, Kitcher suggested, such grandiose general answers – about the unity of nature – may come at the very end of separate analytical strands in contemporary science. For now, he suggests, such grand unifying theories should be set aside. Maybe he’s right. But it’s interesting that Kant, perhaps equally skeptical about the content of such grandiose inquiry, nonetheless placed the most overarching unity (nature’s teleological structure) at the very beginning – as a precondition – of scientific inquiry, not at the end.
The important take-away from this unity-of-nature tradition is that it’s not really about nature. That is its frustrating genius. Nature’s “for the sake of” structure is a function of our hardwired minds. But if Kant’s right, then seeing nature as purposeful may be built into our cognitive faculties or at the very least our methodological norms. This tradition may fuel certain kinds of biological investigation into means/end relationships, but it remains comfortably agnostic about ultimate causes.
Conatus and Vitalism
Spinoza saw nature in fairly mechanical deterministic terms, but he recognized that living things share a simple goal-oriented tendency; they strive to survive. He called this animation principle of living systems “conatus” (striving), and considered it the very essence of all biological creatures. It is not the teleology of the natural theologians, but it is a recognition that nature has an essential goal-directed imperative within it that cannot be captured by purely billiard-ball causality.
In the hands of some later theorists, this life-force became an occult metaphysical force. Following Blumenbach, Kant seemed to think that a “formative force” (bildungstrieb) worked inside matter and caused the seeming miracles of animal reproduction and embryology. Many embryologists of the nineteenth century assumed a vital force because they didn’t know how an undifferentiated organic blob could slowly become an articulated fetus. Push-and-pull physics did not normally turn unstructured mush into highly structured working parts and integrated wholes, so the fetus was either fully articulated (micro-size) inside the mother and just grew larger with nutrition (preformationism) or it was an amorphous blob that sequentially took on form –via a vital force (epigenesis).
This vitalism tradition was very popular, even after Darwin’s revolution. The idea of an occult invisible force that guides animal embryogenesis was congenial to solving the origin-of-life mystery too, and many used this stone to kill two birds. Darwin tried a mechanical replacement – with his maligned pangenesis theory – but, while it purported to account for heredity, it couldn’t be corroborated, and it couldn’t explain the goal-directed process of ontogenesis. Famous embryologist Hans Driesch (1867-1941) even proffered an empirical vitalism on the grounds that no matter how much he mutilated a developing vertebrate zygote, it still stayed on course – as if an invisible outside force guided the process. Modern genetics and the science of stem cells have clarified this mystery for us, and occult embryology has rightly gone the route of phlogiston. But the intuitive questions of the conatus/vitalism tradition have gone unanswered in modern biology, and some legitimate empirical work has emerged to better isolate biological striving.
Instead of thinking about conatus as a property of all living systems, neuroscientists today have discovered something like a brain-based conatus system in mammals. In the same way all vertebrates possess a fear system, they also engage in SEEKING behavior – and recently neuroscience has isolated a foundational motivational drive that underlies diverse searching behaviors (hunting, foraging, procreation, etc.). It is often classed with the emotions, but it is really a master emotion, a motivational system that organisms enlist in order to find and exploit resources in their environment. In plain English, we call it desire. It energizes mammals to pursue pleasures or satisfactions, but it is not the same as pleasure. It is that growing, intense sensation of heightened attention and the increasing feeling of anticipation –as if you are just about to scratch a powerful itch.
This desire or SEEKING system sparks in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) of the midbrain (rising through the nucleus accumbens) and extending neurons up to the prefrontal cortex and down to the brain stem. It enlists a dopamine pathway in the brain and while it is strongly correlated with pleasure rewards it actually spikes highest just before you receive the reward –when desire or anticipation is at fever pitch. If you turn on this system (with electrical stimulation), mammals will go into foraging behaviors, exploration of environment, selective attention, pursuits of specific appetite rewards (food, water, warmth, sex, social interaction). This system is not stimulus/response machinery, but an endogenous conatus – energizing the organism toward the goal of survival (via homeostasis). There’s nothing metaphysical about this conatus, but it answers scientifically to many of our older intuitions about life’s unique teleology.
Crucial questions arise here and may one day unlock some evolutionary puzzles. For example, since this striving SEEKING system is housed primarily in the limbic system and periaqueductal gray, one wonders about the striving we observe in insects. Will we find homologous brain structures and functions, or did feeling-based intentionality in mammals emerge from or parallel (analogously) a more robot (non-feeling) conatus in simpler creatures?
Well before the Darwinian revolution people noticed the inexplicable weirdness of matter’s self-organization (autopoeisis). Yes, environmental conditions dispose of, or edit out, organisms and populations with deleterious traits, but do we need a better science of the “proposal” step? From body plans to brains, matter crystalizes and canalizes into repeatable structures. Do we need a better science of form or self-organization itself?
Many thinkers, like Darwin’s friend Richard Owen or the American naturalist Louis Agassiz, thought that the development and anatomy of animal form represented the incarnation of divine ideas in physical matter. The common vertebrate structure that we share with dogs and fish, reveals, according to these thinkers, a coherent archetype or leitmotif that God installs in nature. Then mutation and natural selection go to work to spin out biological variations.
This unverifiable speculation is no longer a scientifically respectable position, but it remains a popular, if inarticulate, assumption in the mainstream population of theistic evolutionists. Still, the question of organization has not folded neatly into Neo-Darwinism, and some smart 20th century thinkers, like Darcy Thompson, Stephen Jay Gould, Stuart Kauffman and William Wimsatt, have suggested (and modeled) ways that material systems tend toward specific workable structures. There’s nothing occult about this, but an attempt to articulate the logic of a middle level between genetics and selection. Kauffman, for example, has shown that systems of dynamic material variables will coalesce around predictable states, according to rules of Boolean logic. He and others have suggested that some science of self-organization will need to join natural selection to give us a more accurate understanding of biological form.
Like vitalism before it, some of this research seeks to address the development of complexity in animal embryology and origin of life studies. It has become scientifically respectable by assuming a materialistic naturalism, but it is still a recent descendent of an older teleological tradition. Autopoetic science tries to understand the way that micro processes are regulated by relative macro states over time, so it treads in the territory of means/end relations.
Human Intentionality and the Present Debacle
If nothing else in nature turns out to be teleological, at least my own mind seems like a compelling token. I have goals, make plans, organize my life toward ends that I can actually reflect upon because I can represent them to myself. The reason why autopoeisis, vitalism, conatus, and other teleological phenomena have been so easily confused with divine mind is because our best metaphors for understanding directed biological processes are human craft-analogies or mental intentions. This, I suspect, has the cart before the horse, and mental intentions should be seen as derivative, rather than constitutive, of biology. Nagel is careful not to raise the specter of natural theology in his recent book, but he has suggested that nature’s complexity needs a special explanation (possibly new teleological laws). The problem is that no one has any idea what these might look like, once you’ve eliminated the historical option of divine mind and the contemporary option of emergent materialism. Rushing into the gap that Nagel is trying to open is a lot of teleological history, theological yearning, and materialist ire.
But Nagel’s recent dust-up is trading on both the challenges of autopoesis teleology (the least compelling part of his book), and the difficulty in giving a purely materialistic account of subjective consciousness. This gets quite balled-up in the current debate. The conscious mind is teleological. Either it is (a) a subset of ancient biological teleology throughout nature (and this makes consciousness a biology problem), or it’s (b) a latecomer special trait that needs unusual explanation, or it’s (c) a primordial irreducible sidecar reality (via dualism or dual aspect monism). Both (a) and (b) draw on notions of emergence. And I’m not considering the distracting “idealism” option of natural theology (design on the installment plan), because that culprit is a blank cartridge. Nagel, like many philosophers think that there is something special about conscious mind that makes it irreducible to materialism. The irreducibility, such philosophers claim, stems from the strange “aboutness” or intentionality of consciousness, and the subjective privacy of felt first-person awareness. Philosopher Dan Arnold, for example, nicely exemplifies this view when he says, “The ‘intentionality’ of the mental names the fact that mental events can mean or represent or be about other things: it has indeed been proposed as a hallmark of mental states, of states like believing or having an idea, that they thus have ‘content.’” Unlike a rock or a plant, “Only mental (and significantly, linguistic) things can thus ‘take’ parts of their environment as their content, as what they are about.”
This view of intentionality has led many philosophers to reject (a) and (b) forms of naturalism above, in favor of (c). I think this is a mistake, and it flows in part from a paucity of imagination that cannot conceive of biological aboutness. My short history of alternative teleology traditions should help us recognize that biological aboutness (teleology) is not dependent on mind (i.e., divine design or occult prescient forces). I have shown here, following Kant’s instrumental teleology, that one can be anti-reductionist about biology without nesting such holism in mind.
The defense of biological teleology is not just negative. We do not just have a teleology “of the gaps” that emerges only when mechanical explanations break down. We have increasing positive evidence (from post-Behaviorist ethology and affective neuroscience) as well as argument (from philosophers like Ruth Milliken and Fred Dretske, etc.) that nature has intentionality well below the level of representational human cognition. Non-representational animal perception, for example, is already loaded with aboutness. Animals are not just stimulus-response machines, but nor are they cognitively sophisticated like us (with symbolic representation of goals). Rather, primates see trees as “climb-up-ables” and dogs perceive leashes as “walkies-makers” and male chimps see the swollen red female perineum as, well… irresistible, and so on. Animal perception is already loaded with aboutness – imperatives mixed with information. Latent action possibilities are already contained within the animal’s perception of, and interaction with, the environment. This subjective psychological territory is somewhere above simple conditioning associations, but below representational reasoning. It seems willfully ignorant, however, to deny that these biological interactions have “aboutness” or intentionality.
Aboutness in nature doesn’t need to be superadded. It’s already everywhere, but our mechanical paradigm of nature and our Cartesian biases oblige us to ignore it. Goal directed behavior is not just in neo-cortical representational consciousness, but in subcortical SEEKING systems and nonrepresentational latent action patterns. Philosophers like Nagel and Arnold think we don’t have meaning without reasons, but we do. We have intentionality in high degrees, even before we have language. Not only is the body intentionally oriented to other bodies, but many of our own mental events are also prelinguistic projects.
So conscious teleology is but a subspecies of biological teleology, not a sui generis. But now, what of the other worry – can natural materialism ever explain inner subjective feeling? Without working out a full solution to this perennial problem here, I will suggest the general direction for further work.
Once again, philosophers have been too stuck in their reflective theater minds. The problem of subjectivity should be recast around the question of animal pain/pleasure, not conceptual thought. We’re finally far enough along after B.F. Skinner to remember that feelings of pain and pleasure are very widely distributed throughout the animal kingdom. Feelings are adaptations, but they don’t motivate the animal in the right direction unless those pains and pleasures are “owned” so to speak. It’s easy to see how centralized managing of valenced reactions to environments could be selected for in creatures that move. Thinking about subjectivity and even agency biologically will bring this vexed question under the proper aegis – namely, one that explores the evolution and comparative anatomy of animal nervous systems.
Philosophers like Nagel want to drape the traditional mind/body problem over the whole cosmos. What is the relationship between the machine and the mind? But this old saw is a cultural problem, not a metaphysical one. It was born in the early modern period when everything experienced (thought or pain) was drawn behind a veil of representation into a theater of consciousness, and everything in nature was reconceived as a machine. Its status as a cultural artifact is evidenced by the fact that the mind/body problem never even occurred to Aristotle, and he was no philosophical slouch. Instead of Descartes, we should be bringing Kant and Aristotle back into our conversation about nature – both of them are far more compatible with Darwin than previously imagined.
The knee-jerk science popularizers need to understand that there are perfectly legitimate forms of biological teleology, having nothing to do with natural theology.
Ultimately Kant was right; there will never be a Newton of a blade of grass. But that’s not because biology retains some supernatural vitalism, it’s because (i) biology always requires specific means/end analysis (teleological accounts) rather than just antecedent conditions, and (ii) the contingent survival history of phylogenies renders all law-like generalizations trivial.
For their part, philosophers like Thomas Nagel need to understand that there are perfectly legitimate forms of biological teleology that do not have conscious mind lurking behind them –nor are they working to render the universe susceptible to the birth of consciousness (whatever that means). The order of epistemic and temporal priority is incorrectly reversed in such philosophy. The conscious mind emerges out of earlier forms of biological conatus (or SEEKING), not the other way around. The biological goal-driven aspect of life is not a form of vitalism, but an accidental marriage of rudimentary nervous system, sensory-motor system, endogenous homeostasis systems, and ecologies of limited resource. Contrary to Nagel (and other philosophers like Alvin Plantinga), consciousness does not require its own non-materialistic science, which then needs to be pasted onto current evolution science. Against the dualist philosophers who think Mind precedes biology, I submit that biological teleology actually precedes the sophisticated purposiveness of representational human consciousness. Mind is a subset of biology, but biology is more multidimensional than we previously imagined.
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 In the twentieth century life science tilted heavily toward the issue of genetic code, and largely forgot about the issues of development. Once we had the ingredients, it was thought, we’d have the mysteries of species differentiation and deviation all sewn up. Only in the twenty-first century, after the genome proved underwhelming, have biologists tried to make up for lost time on the complex issues of developmental expression.
Even though we are realizing our profound ignorance about development, vitalism will not return to help us. Like natural theology, occult vitalism is well and truly dead. Invisible forces are intrinsically unhelpful explanations, and real progress is being made in the burgeoning science of gene expression (epigenetics and evo-devo). Vitalism is being replaced by the exploration of switching systems –the logic of how building programs in the cells get switched on and off in order to create our unique morphologies. But some of this old vitalism is still lurking in the contemporary debates –especially betrayed in Nagel’s recent call for new laws of nature that predispose life toward survival and even consciousness.
 Jaak Panksepp calls this SEEKING (see Panksepps’s recent The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions, Norton, 2012, for an updated discussion). Kent Berridge, who runs the Affective Neuroscience & Biopsychology Lab at the University of Michigan, has discovered a similar brain based emotional system, that he calls “wanting.” Berridge explains, “Usually a brain ‘likes’ the rewards that it ‘wants’. But sometimes it may just ‘want’ them. Research has established that ‘liking’ and ‘wanting’ rewards are dissociable both psychologically and neurobiologically. By ‘wanting’ we mean incentive salience, a type of incentive motivation that promotes approach toward and consumption of rewards, and which has distinct psychological and neurobiological features.” This incentive salience form of wanting, or Panksepp’s SEEKING, is below the neocortical circuits of conscious desire. Incentive salience and SEEKING are subcortical systems that seek to reset homeostasis, and while they often align with our neocortical conscious desires they sometimes lead to irrational wanting –a want for what is not cognitively wanted.
 Brains, Buddhas and Believing: The Problem of Intentionality in Classical Buddhist and Cognitive Scientific Philosophy of Mind (Columbia University, 2012)
About the Author:
Stephen T. Asma is Professor of Philosophy, and Fellow of the Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture at Columbia College Chicago. He is the author of 7 books, including On Monsters (Oxford University Press), and writes regularly for the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Chronicle of Higher Education and Aeon Magazine.