Re: [asa] ID/Miracles/Design

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Fri Apr 24 2009 - 01:57:09 EDT


You raise several good points.

First, let me say that I don't claim to have worked out a modern version of
Aristotelian biology. I am merely saying that such a thing is imaginable,
and that it wouldn't involve miracles. And it's certainly true that the
ancient version didn't involve miracles.

Second, I wasn't defending Aristotle's view of falling objects, or his view
of the four elements. I thought I said clearly that his physics was wrong.

Third, your point about embryology is right on.

Fourth, Aristotle didn't intend his four causes to be used separately. It's
not as if he explained some things by efficient cause and other things by
final cause *instead*. (That would make final causes into the equivalent of
miracles, to be appealed to only when efficient-cause explanation failed.)
Rather, for Aristotle, all the causes were co-explanatory in a given case.
Embryology is again a perfect case, where the efficient causes are at work,
but we know that we are missing something in the explanation if we stop at
efficient causes.

Fifth, modern science did want to exclude "occult powers", as you say, but
failed to do so. The classic example is Galileo's explanation of the tides:
ingenious, but gloriously wrong, because he insisted that forces could act
only by contact, not at a distance. His "a priorism" did him in. Newton,
on the other hand, postulated what Galileo would have regarded as "occult
forces", and therefore could explain the tides (and much else). Eventually
"gravity" became accepted by science, even though Newton himself couldn't
explain its existence or say what it was. It was accepted because it had
explanatory power. Similarly, even if we can't explain where biological
teleology "comes from", there is no reason it couldn't be accepted as having
explanatory power.

Sixth, I regard the explanation for the evolution of the acorn, or for the
evolution of anything else, as speculative. I have no religious reasons for
rejecting evolution as such, and descent with modification appears to me to
be the best explanation (though by no means a problem-free explanation) of
the fossil record; but the alleged proofs that the acorn and everything else
arose, as you put it, from "blind efficient causes", are on the level of
storytelling, not science. Ask anyone on this list for specific genetic
details of the required changes, how many steps, how many years, how the
intermediate forms remained functional, etc., and, despite all the science
Ph.D.s here (who should be capable of providing the details of the mechanism
they have endorsed), you will get nothing but hypothetical qualitative
narratives (combined with constant appeals to the authority of "the
biological community"). If Aristotle were alive today, he might well accept
"evolution", on the basis of the fossil record; but he would be very dubious
about the Darwinian mechanism. (In fact, there is a passage in Aristotle's
*Physics* where he attacks a proto-Darwinian theory.) I suspect that he
would attribute evolutionary change to a larger teleological pattern in

Seventh, I agree with you about physics and Platonism. It is also true
about biology and Platonism. (See the discussions of Michael Denton and
Richard Sternberg.) But of course, the Platonic emphasis on form is not in
contradiction with the basic insights of Aristotle. The differences between
Plato and Aristotle are not as important as their similarities, when the
subject is the difference between ancient and modern science.

It will be at least a year before I can do any serious intellectual work on
this, so I can't satisfy you with more detailed replies. In the meantime,
if you are interested in Aristotle's thought in a serious way, I would urge
you to read slowly through at least the first few books of Aristotle's
*Physics*. (And I mean slowly -- if you spend less than ten minutes per
page, you're reading too fast and chewing on it too little.) Despite the
obvious errors in astronomy and so on, it's still indispensable for anyone
who is serious about the philosophy of nature, or who wants to understand
the foundations of modern science in terms of what it rejected, and count
the cost of that rejection.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Bill Powers" <>
To: "Cameron Wybrow" <>
Cc: <>
Sent: Thursday, April 23, 2009 11:25 PM
Subject: Re: [asa] ID/Miracles/Design

> Cameron:
> 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
> teleological.
> 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.
> thanks,
> bill

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Received on Fri Apr 24 01:58:49 2009

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