Re: [asa] ID/Miracles/Design

From: Bill Powers <>
Date: Thu Apr 23 2009 - 23:25:06 EDT


Aristotle took it that things sought their "natural" place, like fire or
heavy objects. This appears to be a final or teleological cause,
answering why does fire raise and apples fall. It is in the nature of
the thing to act this way. What makes it sound more teleological is
that apples may not fall, but it is a dispositional property. It tends
to fall, even if it is not, just a cat may sit by a mouse hole to catch
a nonexistent mouse.

I'm supposing that you are trying to carve out a position that is not
mechanistic-materialistic without being divine, i.e., in some sense
natural. I just don't see how Aristotle helps. It appears to me that
immanent-telos is nothing more than powers and capabilities. We say
that a ball tends to seek its lowest potential, but we don't think it's

We tend to think that it by a series of efficient causes a certain end
is reached. It might be called telological as it tends to some "end",
but we think that the "end" is no where in sight. The "end" is not a
cause for the changing dynamic.

Where this tends to look more decidedly teleological is in embryology,
something Aristotle knew something about. We today would still claim
that what drives the process along through its various stages are
efficient causes. However, saying that this is "all" embryology is
appears to miss something. We do not think that embryonic development is
"indifferent" to its "end." While it may be true that the sequence of
steps is governed by "local" effects, these successive steps have the
sense of design or purpose. When one works in an organic laboratory
long hours are devoted to teasing out a miniscule sample of some
substance. Every step, as far as we know, obeys chemical laws
utilizing some causal procedure to produce the next step. Yet we could
in no way claim to understand the complex procedure by speaking only of
these sequences of efficient causes. It appears clear that some final
cause was in sight.

We associate the final cause associated with the inorganic synthesis
with perhaps intelligence, design, or some higher law. In any case, it
cannot be explained wholly on the basis of the chemistry involved. What
of the embryonic development? It seems infinitely more complicated
than my organic synthesis, and yet many ascribe it to natural efficient
causes over long periods of time.

Modern science appears ready to say, if not be committed to, that what
appears teleological is just that: mere appearance. Isn't that how
Dawkins begins the Blind Watchmaker? When Christians say that God
didn't know man or any intelligent being would evolve, are they saying
the same?

I guess I'm having trouble seeing how efficient causes, powers, and
capabilities couldn't be given a teleological spin without introducing
divine powers. Aren't these simply the "occult powers" that science
wanted to exclude. Yet they are still mechanistic. They blindly obey
like machines. Isn't that just what Aristotle's elements did?

It seems to me that if we want to really find a science which is not
mechanistic-materialistic and is telelogical in some sense, we need to be
able to find phenomena that are
not explained by local efficient causes. If one thinks of efficient
causes as lower properties, we might be able to consider these
teleological aspects to genuinely emerge as higher level properties. So
that the teleological properties cannot be explained in terms of the
lower efficient cause level.

One last point. It appears to me that modern physics in relying
increasingly upon mathematical insight and coherence and less on empirical
constraint is becoming increasingly formal and Platonic.

I guess you need to say something about how Aristotle's biology is
"natural" while permitting teleology. No one disagrees that the acorn has
some kind of programmed development within it. They would simply say that
this is a product of blind evolution, i.e., blind efficient causes. It
seems to me to say more and not permit a Designer, one has to invoke some
kind of pantheism or panentheism.

Well, that's it I guess for now.



On Thu, 23 Apr 2009, Cameron Wybrow wrote:

> Dear Bill:
> Thanks for your query.
> I can't reply in the academic jargon that you are using (anti-realism and so
> on), because I don't customarily use it, but I think I can make my meaning
> clear using more traditional language.
> Aristotle's understanding of biological nature is teleological (i.e.,
> end-driven), not mechanistic in the Hobbesian-Cartesian sense. Aristotle in
> fact believed in a form of "design". On the other hand, Aristotle did not
> believe in miracles, and Aristotle did not believe in an intervening God.
> This shows that it is possible to hold a view of nature in which an
> "intelligent design" (in the sense of an immanent telos or pre-determined
> end) is a causal factor (a formal and final cause, not an efficient cause),
> without believing in miracles or interventions.
> "Methodological naturalism", as the term is understood in the
> creation/evolution debates, in principle rejects formal and final causes, and
> is therefore not just an attack on miracle-mongering; it is an attempt to
> permanently establish modern metaphysics, and to forever banish
> Platonic/Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysics, or any modern equivalent
> thereof, from discussions of "nature". It is not metaphysically neutral. Its
> claim to neutrality is either deliberately dishonest, or historically and
> philosophically naive.
> Another way of putting it is: the existence of final causation in nature, at
> least in biology, has never been disproved. Rather, since the time of
> Darwin, it has simply been denied entry into biology, as a requirement of
> metaphysical dogma. And the metaphysical bias of this move has been artfully
> concealed by the likes of Eugenie and Ken, by treating "final causes" as if
> they are miracles, thus legitimating their rejection from science as
> "supernatural".
> We moderns tend to assimilate all science of nature, including biology, to
> the model of 17th-century physics, and therefore we reject teleology out of
> hand. Of course I am not defending Aristotle's physics; it was wrong, and
> rightfully replaced by 17th-century physics. But Aristotle's biology may yet
> prove to have insights to offer us, if those insights are properly
> contextualized within our newer information about nature. The problem is
> getting anyone involved in the American debate over evolution to read
> Aristotle (or Plato, or for that matter anything written before 1859).
> To Dave Wallace: take the above as an answer to your latest. And add this
> distinction: Michael Denton is an example of a "front-loaded" teleology;
> Aristotle of an "immanent" one. Neither one requires miracles.
> Cameron.
> ----- Original Message ----- From: "Bill Powers" <>
> To: "Cameron Wybrow" <>
> Cc: <>
> Sent: Thursday, April 23, 2009 7:02 PM
> Subject: Re: [asa] ID/Miracles/Design
>> Cameron:
>> You say that a mechanistic-materialist perspective is metaphysical, but it
>> is not scientific. It appears to me that, at least in the hard sciences,
>> all models are mechanistic, i.e., the entities blindly obey simple rules of
>> behavior. I take this to be true of QM also since states mechanically
>> reside in certain fractions of eigenstates. If by materialism we mean only
>> physical stuff, this is more difficult to say since science has a Platonic
>> aspect, but lets say that they are materialistic.
>> If this makes sense, then it appears that scientific theories are
>> mechanistic-materialistic. The only way I can think of avoiding the
>> conclusion that science is metaphysically committed to a
>> mechanistic-materialism is by adopting some form of anti-realism or the
>> view that science can only explain certain aspects of the world and not
>> others. Since most practicing scientists (not philosophers of science),
>> inasmuch as they think about it at all, adopt a realist attitude, it would
>> seem that scientists, for the most part, adopt one of two positions:
>> mechanistic-materialism or the incompleteness of science.
>> Does this seem correct to you?
>> bill powers
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Received on Thu Apr 23 23:26:15 2009

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