J'ai une plume

"Qui plume a, guerre a."

Month: March, 2014

My purposeless species

My most recent post was meant to make the reader reconsider our talk of purposes and ends. By focusing on one familiar example I hope I have shaken a few certainties. The first region we visit on our journey is called Telos – the land of final ends. It may seem backwards to start here, but our first business is actually to show that most of Telos itself is backwards. Not just in the case of bodily organs but in other, more important areas as well.

Historically talk of a telos was common. Just as objects have a telos (knives are for cutting things, car alarms are for annoying people) Aristotle held that each creature had a telos (fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly etc.) and that man’s telos was to live a happy, virtuous life. If squinted at from a distance, this idea seems parsimonious. But the comparison with tools should be considered deceiving. Tools are something we will discuss much later, since they have a very different status within teleology. Even if we focus solely on animals it seems an obviously simplistic model that the telos of fish is to swim and birds to fly. Aristotle’s biological knowledge being what it was, he would have inevitably included marine mammals and corvids in this category, especially because he was presumably unaware of their superior intellects. Adapting an Aristotelian framework to give some dignity to dolphins and ravens must either become a hierarchy of reason (with all the worrying implications for mentally subnormal humans) or continue to focus, like a pre-school book, on the fact that dolphins have fins and ravens have wings.

Determining an animal’s telos in the great chain of being does a very bad job of hiding the subjective artefacts which are smuggled in. A cow would be perturbed at its options for a telos and even Aristotle would have a hard time finding a telos for wasps. For that matter why could the human telos not be to stand perfectly upright on two legs. Being a vertical creature is surely noteworthy.

I am bullying Aristotle because he bequeaths us a long legacy of talking teleologically, ascribing purposes promiscuously. Of course there are very few nowadays who are invested in such a world-view, but a proper treatment of this topic demands a historical note too. Nor is it acceptable to blame the intellectual environment of the time – plenty of pre-Socratic philosophers were capable of investigating the world without a recourse to ends, and even if they had not, part of being a philosopher is taking responsibility for your intellectual environment and trying to shape it to yourself, rather than simply reformulating, recapitulating or re-clothing it.

Aristotle’s view may gain traction because he has managed to spin a metaphysical conjuration which ends in humans being obliged to live happy, virtuous lives. Philosophical conclusions which are ‘unobjectionable’ in this way should be investigated all the more rigorously lest we slide into stupid, accepting docility. Happiness and virtue sound wonderful, but the argument for them hangs loose and appendix-like. It is the word ‘abracadabra’ and the wave of the wand in the rabbit trick – a false explanation. And our prejudices are the secret hatch which really produces the rabbit; really convinces us that Aristotle is right. Any words of his would have given us a rabbit.

My purposeless heart

It has become a truism that adding teleological explanations (that is, explanations concerned with ends and purposes) where they do not belong is the cause of many misunderstandings about the world. From one point of view the heart is indeed ‘for’ pumping blood, but this is not an objective, scientific observation. In saying that the heart is for pumping blood our observation has been blended with a series of values and preconceptions that we have brought along ourselves. It is certainly true that the heart does pump blood – at least in living humans – but any conclusions beyond that and we have ceased to be disinterested scientists.

This example is bound to cause discomfort to some people. Surely everyone would agree that the heart has a purpose – to pump blood. But is an appeal to general opinion like this a valid move? I think not. I said that our observations get coloured by extra baggage that we bring along ourselves when making them. In this case it just turns out that the baggage in question is the generally held preference for life over death in ourselves and (for the most part) in others too. The fact that this preference is near universal does not mean we should call it objective. This is especially true when we consider that organs such as the heart often evolved from previous systems with utterly different mechanisms to which we would ascribe utterly different purposes. Limbs that used to be ‘for’ swimming eventually were ‘for’ walking and finally ‘for’ carrying and manipulating objects. It is not unthinkable that some other organ might begin to aid in the circulatory process and after millions of years render the heart redundant – our legs already do something similar when we walk, working against gravity which would otherwise mean that blood pooled in our feet. By that point perhaps the heart would be ‘for’ timekeeping or something similar.

Of course it is legitimate to say that the heart is ‘for’ pumping blood, as long as we do not then go on to infer the existence of purposes, functions, ends or any kind of teleology outside of our own minds and our own interests. The heart pumps blood, and my subjective valuation of a ‘good’ heart is one that pumps blood efficiently and for as many years as possible. The point I am making is that we must think carefully when we talk about our relationship to the world to determine what goes where. If we were willing to grant objective purposes to our own organs we would have a case for objective purposes as entities at all. Once that has been allowed then a whole world of teleology would return like the vengeful spirit (Geist?) of the 19th century. Perhaps history would be for something? Maybe the world is for something? This would be a class of metaphysical entities which would work in bizarre and fascinating ways. Such a class may even exist (though I think it unlikely) but even if it does, I hope I’ve made it clear that my heart is not in it.