Sunday, March 9, 2014

Feser on Nagel and formal and final causes in nature

Ed Feser provides some deep insights into the inadequacy of materialist reductionist approaches to biology:

Continuing our look at the critics of Thomas Nagel’s recent book Mind and Cosmos, we turn to philosopher Alva Noë’s very interesting remarks over at NPR’s 13.7: Cosmos & Culture blog. Noë’s initial comments might seem broadly sympathetic to Nagel’s position. He writes:
Science has produced no standard account of the origins of life.
We have a superb understanding of how we get biological variety from simple, living starting points. We can thank Darwin for that. And we know that life in its simplest forms is built up out of inorganic stuff. But we don't have any account of how life springs forth from the supposed primordial soup. This is an explanatory gap we have no idea how to bridge.
Science also lacks even a back-of-the-envelop [sic] concept explaining the emergence of consciousness from the behavior of mere matter. We have an elaborate understanding of the ways in which experience depends on neurobiology. But how consciousness arises out of the action of neurons, or how low-level chemical or atomic processes might explain why we are conscious — we haven't a clue.
We aren't even really sure what questions we should be asking.
These two explanatory gaps are strikingly similar… In both cases we have large-scale phenomena in view (life, consciousness) and an exquisitely detailed understanding of the low-level processes that sustain these phenomena (biochemistry, neuroscience, etc). But we lack any way of making sense of the idea that the higher-level phenomena just come down to, or consist of, what is going on at the lower level.
End quote. Now an Aristotelian would say that this is precisely what we should expect. What modern biologists and neuroscientists have uncovered in exquisite detail are the material-cum-efficient causes of the phenomena of life and consciousness. But that is only half the story, for there are also irreducible final and formal causes -- the inherent teleological features natural objects exhibit by virtue of their substantial forms -- and you are never going to capture those features in terms of material and efficient causality. That is (one reason) why there always seems to be something left out in materialist accounts of life and consciousness.

There is a mystery here only if you suppose that “lower-level” descriptions are somehow more privileged than “higher-level” descriptions. And that, we old-fashioned Aristotelians would argue, is something there is no good reason to believe in the first place. It is merely a metaphysical dogma -- as old as Democritus and Leucippus but no more plausible now than it was in their day -- that is read intothe scientific facts rather than read out of them. In the case at hand, what Noë is describing confirms the traditional Aristotelian view that there is a difference in kind and not merely degree between the organic and the inorganic, and between sensory and vegetative forms of life (in the technical Aristotelian sense of “vegetative,” which does not correspond exactly to the colloquial use of that term).
This has nothing to do with vitalism, “Intelligent Design” theory, and other such bogeymen, and one reason Nagel’s inchoate neo-Aristotelianism may be troubling to his more ideological critics is precisely that it undermines the false dilemma that is the naturalist’s main rhetorical weapon: “Either accept some form of naturalism or you’ll be stuck with magic, obscurantism, or a god-of-the-gaps.” For though Nagel’s own version is inchoate, neo-Aristotelianism cannot be dismissed as philosophically unserious, and has been worked out in more systematic detail by a number of prominent contemporary philosophers. (I noted several examples in the first post in this series. For a recent defense of a neo-Aristotelian position in biology, specifically, see David Oderberg’s Real Essentialism. I’ve criticized biological reductionism from an Aristotelian point of view in several earlier posts, such as this one, this one, and this one; and neuroscientific reductionism in several other posts, such as this oneand this one.)

Materialist reductionism is the reduction of nature to material and efficient causes. But nature cannot be satisfactorily explained as such: formal and final causes are evident in natural processes as well, and nature cannot be understood, nor science rightly pursued, without reference to formal and final, as well as material and efficient, causation.

As I have noted many times, materialist reductionism isn't really even a philosophical position properly understood. It's just a crude mistake. 


  1. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyMarch 9, 2014 at 9:06 AM

    It is true, in fact, that the tool of materialist reductionism, methodological naturalism, has been gloriously successful. Nonetheless, using methodological naturalism as support for a materialist viewpoint is tautological; if we only look for material/efficient causes, we will find nothing but material/efficient causes.

    It was interesting to me to read the attacks on Nagel following the publication of Mind and Cosmos. And not just me, and not just other people of faith...

    Nagel is an atheist unwilling to express sufficient hatred of religion to satisfy other atheists. There is nothing religious about Nagel’s speculations; he believes that science has not come far enough to explain consciousness and that it must press on. He believes that Darwin is not sufficient.

    The intelligentsia was so furious that it formed a lynch mob.

    --- D Gelernter, Commentary (3/2014)

    One should never forget that, by definition, the best educated are the most indoctrinated people on the planet. And the torches, pitchforks, and brush hooks are always standing ready to mount an assault on heresies.

    1. “by definition, the best educated are the most indoctrinated people on the planet.”

      What Bullshit. The best educated are taught how to evaluate evidence and reach their own conclusions. The title of most indoctrinated goes to the religious fanatics, who are largely uneducated and say things like “if science contradicts the Bible then the science is wrong”


    2. There is no question that some of the best "educated" are the most indoctrinated. As Wm Buckley said, he'd rather be governed by the first thousand names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty at Harvard.

      Some of the biggest assholes in the world are in universities and have PhD etc after their name.

      "MD" would be the exception...