The Boy Who Cried “No Wolf”

cuIn expounding his atheism, Alex Rosenberg nicely enshrines the materialist view on biology:

The banishment of purpose from the universe as a whole also provides for the banishment of purposes that are supposed to make sense of human and other biological activities. When physics disposed of purposes, it did so for biology as well. It is the causal completeness of physics that purges purpose from all living things and their lives. (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 46)

Of course, it is controversial that even chemistry is fully reducible to physics. For Rosenberg to simply declare that biology (and, elsewhere in the book, everything else that exists) is so reducible is more than a bit presumptuous.

I think it would strike most of us as inherently wrong to say that bodily organs have no purpose, but that is the materialist’s position. The heart isn’t actually for pumping blood, on this view, that is simply what it does. Appeals to evolution claim that this is purely a matter of what helped past organisms survive, and that any concept of the heart actually having a purpose is sheer illusion.

But I find myself increasingly skeptical of theories which wave off large swaths of fundamental experience as illusion. It seems more than a bit like sophistry to simply throw out anything that one’s personal philosophy can’t explain. There are more things in heaven and earth, after all, than are dreamt of in materialist philosophy.

Or, to paraphrase a more contemporary thinker: to deny the reality of what one cannot explain is the crudest form of cognitive dissonance.

And, indeed, purpose can’t be explained by pure materialism, even biologists consistently make reference to the purpose of organs in professional journals. It is understood, apparently, that this is simply shorthand. We’re promised that philosophers of biology will come along later to rephrase all of these comments in terms that don’t mention purpose.

But many are starting to feel that the materialists have made this promise so many times that they’re starting to forget that they’re even making it anymore. The issue of purpose, which was supposed to have been long-since handled, still hasn’t gone away even among scientists. It’s rather like a weird case of a boy crying “No wolf”, where materialists can be consistently heard shouting the non-existence of something rather obvious. How long are we supposed to go on believing them?

To be absolutely clear, none of this is an argument against evolution as science. This doesn’t comment at all on the theory itself. It is, rather, an argument against the philosophical add-on that organs don’t serve an objective purpose. That is, it is an argument for teleology.

So, admitting to teleology wouldn’t discredit evolution, but it does deal a major blow to materialism. I think this is significant, because it can’t be a discovery of science that keeps people from accepting this view (Rosenberg’s overtures notwithstanding). In fact, the way we do science is more in line with a belief in teleology than a rejection of it. It seems more likely, therefore, that it is a commitment to materialism that is the trouble.

That being the case, the materialist owes us a reason to think that the heart merely pumps blood, without having the purpose of pumping blood.


16 responses to “The Boy Who Cried “No Wolf”

  • c emerson

    A good topic. Some biologists have over the years distinguished between ‘efficient & material causes’ and ‘formal & final causes’, ascribing Thomist teleological to include ‘final’ cause while ascribing evolutionary natural selection to include only ‘efficient & msterial’ and endeavoring to get biologists to use the word ‘teleonomy’ for their more restrictive meaning.

    A few years back I ran across this distinction in Ernst Mayr’s essay “The Multiple Meanings of Teleology” in his Toward a New Philosophy of Biology (Mayr, 1988).

    The idea is not that the heart fails to function as a mechanism for pumping blood, but that ‘Nature’ had no built-in plan directing it to produce human hearts. As far as ‘Nature itself’ is concerned, or so goes the argument, humans just happened as a result of the various possible combination of physical and biological materials & forces. That argument is a little harder to overcome, I think.

    Also see Wikipedia “Teleonomy” at

    • Ray R.

      Nicely put , I would agree .

    • Debilis

      I completely agree with the distinction between types of causes.

      I’d probably find the conclusion, if not true, at least very plausible if I didn’t have outside reasons for suspecting that the banishment of all formal and final causes from reality will collapse into contradiction (these are the arguments from mind I’ve put up).

      Mostly, this is another area of common human experience that materialism asks us to reject without, so far as I know, any positive reasons for doing so.

      As such, I’m suspicious that this rejection is unfounded.

  • c emerson

    > …. reasons for suspecting that the banishment of all formal and final causes from reality will collapse into contradiction (these are the arguments from mind I’ve put up).

    Are these arguments in previous posts? I may not have gotten to them yet, but I would love a link or two. Thanks.

    • Debilis

      I was referring to the arguments from mind summarized here (and touched on elsewhere, but you get the idea). That is, the “aboutness” (teleology/final causality) of thoughts seems to be a good example that (in minds at least), teleology exists.

      To be clear, this is not to say that we can automatically say that teleology exists elsewhere in the universe, but I do think that it is clearly an option on the table, given that we see teleology in mind, and that it is prima facie plausible.

      So, I don’t mean to say that any reasonable person would therefore conclude that biology displays teleology. Rather, I mean only that it is an issue I’d like to see addressed. I haven’t yet seen a good reason to think that efficient and material causes are the whole story in biology.

  • c emerson

    Thanks, I had not read that post yet. Interesting comment chain. I feel the about-ness argument has been over stressed against a materialistic explanation of consciousness, and perhaps under-stressed in support of free will decision making. Essentially I agree with Ray’s overall point that, sooner or later, scientists will demonstrate the wave functions which map directly to the bio electrics on one side and to specific tasks or meanings on the other side. in fact, algorithms have already been employed which translate brain waves and then control remote robotic arms: eg., at

    Caveat: I haven’t googled this thoroughly enough to know if this person’s experience has been duplicated by other independent researchers. But the route looks clear to solve the mechanistic wave signaling problem for conscious control of motor functions, and perhaps, therefore, for the signaling process that is experienced generally as consciousness.

    I agree that is not the same thing as solving the about-ness or intentionality problem as to what “Self” is, nor it solve the free-will decision making problem. Feel free to follow my posts on Ideas Are Physical as I very slowly explore and share thoughts on these problems. I am just starting an eclectic series on “Self” now.

    Where I currently agree with A-T’ers is that there is a big cavern yet to cross between the physical processes entailed and understanding the experience of those physical processes. If that makes any sense.

    • Debilis

      I’ll have to take a look.
      I think we’re basically in agreement. Personally, I also think that scientists will eventually map brain states as they can be correlated to thoughts and emotions.

      My only point of disagreement with Ray is that this does not explain the first person perspective itself.

    • Black Luster

      emerson, from your first article:

      “Before Jan could use the arm, doctors had to record her brain activity imagining various arm movements. To do this, they asked her to watch the robotic arm as it performed various moves, and got her to imagine moving her own arm in the same way.

      While she was thinking, the computer recorded the electrical activity from individual neurons in her brain.

      Neurons that control movement tend to have a preferred direction, and fire their electrical pulses more frequently to perform a movement in that direction. “Once we understand which direction each neuron likes to fire in, we can look at a larger group of neurons and figure out what direction the patient is trying to move the arm in,” Schwartz said.”

      Do you see the problem? “Mapping” or finding correlations is not enough to solve the problem of intentionality. They did not get the “meaningful movements” out of the physical properties of the brain processes alone, they already knew that the brain processes were correlated to certain movements because they told her to think about them in the first place. This experiment critically depended on the assumption that the patient was thinking ABOUT movement, so to put it forward as a step towards a materialist explanation of intentionality merely begs the question.

  • c emerson

    D said
    > this does not explain the first person perspective itself.
    B.L. said
    > This experiment critically depended on the assumption that the patient was thinking ABOUT movement …

    Yes, I agree with both of these well-taken points. They are the center of much debate, to which I wish to add the great philosophic difficulty posed by our various notions of free will decision making. I will go this far here: even if science is eventually able to identify and correlate specific neural network firing sequences (and attendant wave patterns) with “focus of concentration, about-ness, formulation of intentional intended acts, free will decision-making, and consciousness in general”, that will still not “explain” how our individual sense of experiencing Thise things arises from those specific physical actions and reactions. However, I find that explaining that 1st person POV, that sense of experiencing consciousness, involves the equally debatable concepts of emergent properties or supervient processes. I have seen theists argue there is something quite different here, however, with intelligent awareness, as distinguished from “water properties” which “emerge” from H and O when those physical elements combine to form H2O. I fail to see that distinction. Raising that problem avoids any question-begging, I would think?

    • Debilis

      It is definitely very relevant to ask what that extra issue would be.

      My main response would be that there is a clear distinction. That is, water can be fully explained in terms of the physical interaction between hydrogen and oxygen molecules. This is not so with regard to the first person perspective.

      This is because we are moving from describing physical motion to something which cannot be described in scientific terms at all. Even brain-mapping of thought patterns doesn’t actually describe first person experiences. It merely names them, and describes the brain process associated with each of them.

      This makes it clearly a different case than the emergence of water (which is described by science).

  • c emerson

    I guess I need to throw this back onto either or both of you: D says, “water can be fully explained in terms of the physical interaction between hydrogen and oxygen molecules,” and B.L.says, “finding correlations is not enough to solve the problem of intentionality.” Why?

    This will just sound a bit contrary, but necessary to make my point. Each of you are taking a position relative to your own attitudes about the two objects in question; in D’s case, water; in B.L.’s case, mind. Because you view the objects differently, you effectively come to opposite positions about whether physical interactions explain the properties that emerge. But you haven’t explained why the two objects can’t both be explained by underlying physical interactions. Consider the following.

    Neither H nor O is a liquid at room temperature. Put them together (i.e., let them react together) and the property of liquidity emerges. Liquidity is not there (not manifest) before the reaction, but liquidity is there (is manifest) after the reaction. Neither H nor O is visible at room temperature. Put them together and the property of color emerges. Color was not manifest before the reaction (or interaction), but color is there after the reaction. The logical scientific conclusion is that these emergent properties are caused and explained by the interaction of H and O at room temperature, presumably without the need for any additional supernatural or immaterial efficient cause or causes.

    Why is intentionality or about-ness any different, as an emerging property that is, from the emergent properties of liquidity and color? If you say that mind is different than water, because (for example), the human mind can do things on its own, voluntarily, then I would say, I agree, the attributes of the emergent property are different, but then so are the attributes of liquidity and color different.

    Being different in their attributes does not make them different in kind. All three are just properties (unique as they each are, and for which we give them unique names) which are caused and explained by the physical interactions of the underlying molecular combinations. Why do we need an immaterial substance or supernatural entity involved to explain the workings of mind and not to explain the workings of water? Is it because of the increased complexity of the molecular and cellular interactions involved, or is it because you don’t believe complex physical interactions can produce the results we witness?

    • Black Luster

      Don’t have time for a long reply right now, so I’ll just mention a few points.

      “B.L.says, “finding correlations is not enough to solve the problem of intentionality.” Why?”

      I’ve already shown that putting forward that kind of argument begs the question. You can’t assume intentionality to explain it.

      Color change is just one quantitative property changing or giving rise to another quantitative property. We can use spectrophotometers to measure what wavelengths of light the compound absorbs and what wavelengths it reflects. All that changes when a new color is formed is that the new compound simply absorbs/reflects different wavelengths. Quantitative to quantitative. Same thing for phase changes, the phases of the reactants depend on their interactions with each other and temperature, and the the interactions between H2O depend on the same, quantitative properties. The problem is, materialists claim that intentionality is not a quantitative property, and is thus not “fundamental” in the way mass and charge are. Thus, intentionality is referred to as qualitative. Going from quantitative to qualitative is the problem. Have you read the history of the mind-body problem? If so, you’ll see why modern metaphysics necessitates some type of dualism.

      This is a very short response, I might post again later when I have more time. For more issues as to the difficulties intentionality pose big problems for modern materialist metaphysics, I recommend the following two papers:

    • Debilis

      Obviously, I can’t claim to speak for BlackLuster, but I’d personally say that the issue isn’t really about whether or not water is irreducible. In fact, it’s being irreducible would do more to hinder the idea that thoughts are reducible to the physical than hurt it.

      We are asking ourselves whether or not thoughts are physical. We’ve drawn an analogy to water, asking ourselves how this is different. If water is purely physical, that is to say that it is fully describable in terms of physical properties.

      The reason why thoughts are not the same is that the first person perspective cannot be described in terms of the physical. This is related to reducibility, but is a different point.

      One may say “why can’t it?” can’t it simply be described in terms of neural interactions? The short answer is ‘no’. A slightly longer answer is that neural interactions only describe brain-states, and correlates them to mental events that it names (but does not describe).

      Getting back to water, it is true that hydrogen and oxygen separately have very different properties than water. And it is not reasonable to suppose that someone could predict water from studying these gases alone (though perhaps she could). The point is that the fluidity of water can be scientifically described in terms of these atoms’ interaction with one another and (more specifically), the water molecules’ interaction. So, not that they can be predicted based on this, but that the physical properties in water, now that we study it can be described in these terms.

      Mind is simply not like this. Neurology does not describe first person perspectives. That is simply not what it, by definition, does or will ever do. It describes brain states (and a very useful job that is!).

      Okay, I think I’ve rambled enough.

      Best to you out there!

  • c emerson

    Thanks for a great exchange!

  • c emerson

    @Black Luster,

    Many thanks for the links. I have now read BonJour’s paper, but not Hayek’s material. From BonJour’s paper I think I can see one of the difficulties we are having here. I readily agree that there is a type of private or subjective, internal fact which a 3P observer (Martian; other human; etc) cannot “know” in the same sense in which the 1P “knows” that fact, i.e., from within the 1P’s own personal experiencing of that fact. For example, how the 1P subjectively experiences the color of ‘red’ cannot also be subjectively experienced by a 3P observer (at least at this time), because the reading of an MRI scan and a brain-wave chart cannot duplicate that specific experience inside the brain of the 3P (at least at this time).

    But that fact (the present inability to duplicate a subjective feeling in the mind of another, if that is what is meant by knowledge) remains exactly the same whether or not the various minds involved have any immaterial aspect to them. Therefore, if that fact defeats physicalism, then that fact also defeats hylomorphism and every form of dualism as well. No form of mind under any of those hypotheses can “know” the subjective internal experience of another (God excluded).

    I look forward to future dialogues, here or elsewhere.

    • Debilis

      I’d love to jump in here, if you don’t mind.

      I’d disagree with the idea that this argument poses as great a problem for dualism as it does for materialism.

      Whether or not it is possible to duplicate a subjective feeling, dualism can explain the existence of such feelings, whereas materialism cannot. In fact, materialism specifically denies that such things can exist.

      It is this denial that causes the defeat of materialism, not an inability to reproduce subjectivity. While there are other points to be made, such an objection simply does not apply to dualism.

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