Informal Notes for a Future Philosophical Examination of Evolution Theory

· Philosophy

Creationism and occasionalism. Two understandings of evolution: one where lower causes are instruments, the other where they are not. Instruments versus essence in biological forms, and the consequence which is indeterminacy. Indeterminacy compared with subsidiarity. 

Principles of evolution

– Natural order versus providential ordering.

– Design theorists usually ignore this distinction

– The relation of laws to causes

– laws are not irreducible principles; they reduce to causes, and different kinds of laws derive from different kinds of causes. Some (McArthur) have noted that human (moral) laws are a very different thing from physical laws. That, however, leaves open the question as to whether there really is such a thing as a physical law at all. McArthur seems to suggest that this is doubtful. Clarity about this requires seeing that there certainly is such a thing as a physical law; but such laws are not irreducible principles; they come from causes, and differ as causes differ.

– Indeterminacy as a real principle, more and more operative as one descends to the more material.

– A failure to understand laws as a function of causes renders this principle unintelligible.

– There are two kinds of “always or for the most part.” There is a material one, which pertains to the subject of probability theory. There is a formal one, which is an entirely different thing; the formal “always or for the most part” is perfectly capable of using the materially rare.

Probability theory is a genuine middle science; its subject is the material quantitative conditions of the choosable. We may illustrate this in three immediate ways: the first is through the first principle of probability, which is indifference or symmetry of possible outcomes. This indifference or symmetry is a material one, as in a coin toss, where heads and tails are equally likely. “Likely” means that there is no material advantage of one side over the other; it is not defined in terms of any intention or agency (except as a principle ex quo). And thus the second sign of the nature of probability is that agent and intention play no role in its theory; and lastly the third note may be seen in Pascal’s triangle, of which the normal curve is the ultimate limit. Pascal’s triangle can be seen as an array of the sum total of symmetric binary possibilities. The greater probability in the center of the triangle does not derive from any preference of intention, but exclusively from the fact that symmetric binary possibilities overlap in the center more than they do at the periphery.

– continuity of telos

– Darwin understands that the sort of evolution he is advocating requires gradual changes. Opponents ranging all the way from early to late – Mivart to Behe – have thought this to be incompatible with the manifest beauty of design in natural things, which is to say with the presence of all but perhaps the most crude sorts of final causes. They see final causes as evidently the work of intelligence, and they see a characteristic mark of intelligence in the fact that the not present can be envisioned and aimed for. This they see quite naturally as opposed to “mechanistic” thinking, which tries to reduce all causality to a function of what is already present, and in the extreme makes natural reality blind and completely devoid of intelligence.

– There is some truth in these intuitions of Darwin’s opponents, but also some serious misunderstanding. Darwin himself sees well enough that his theory absolutely requires that whatever of perfection comes through evolution must come through gradual changes, and he concedes forthrightly that any proof to the contrary would tell against his theory. Yet he finds the cogency of the theory as a whole compelling enough to doubt that any such proof will be forthcoming.

– Darwin is like other great naturalists such as Galileo: they intuit that there is a right way of thinking which is genuinely conformed to the real mode of intelligibility of the natural world; but they are not necessarily able to articulate in the most universal philosophical way why their way of thinking is right. To see why Darwin’s intuition is intelligent, and that of his opponents not intelligent, we must go beyond Darwin’s candid admission that evolution can only happen through gradual changes, and begin to see this requirement not so much as a limitation of the theory as rather a sign of its philosophical soundness.

To do this, we must first understand that natural teleology is not the same as providential teleology. (Because natural teleology is always a work of Providence, but not the reverse.) Natural teleology requires that both natural agent causes and natural final causes be the natural endowments of the natural objects themselves. We require both because there is a real distinction, but never a real separation between agent causes and final causes. The concept of “force” has obscured this for centuries; but what we have written about this concept elsewhere is a clarification of the truth about it.

– Once this is understood – but only once it is understood –, we can then understand that the mode of intention in natural things must follow the mode of knowing. It will no doubt seem strange to speak of a “mode of knowing” in inanimate natural things; but if we see that there is no such thing as force, then the way will once again lie open towards seeing that all natural processes are the result of intention. And hence, since intention follows apprehension, it follows that even inanimate processes are the fulfillment of an apprehended intention. But there is only one sort of apprehended intention that is appropriate to inanimate things, and that is the sort which belongs to the materially present apprehended reality. (The analogy with the directed arrow that one finds in St. Thomas and elsewhere is very easily misunderstood, if one fails to note that art and nature are never the same.)

– 1. comparison with sensation: the sensation of lower animals versus that of higher

– 2. comparison of the meaning of “noetic” with “intelligible” and “intelligent,” or the Latin intelligibilis. Passivity is not devoid of desire for what is received.

3. on all activity as intentional, at least in an extended sense. To see, for example, is to fulfill an intention, even if it does not reach forward beyond the present.

Once we have understood all of this, we can see that, far from being deficient in its understanding of teleology, and in contrast to the theories of his opponents such as Mivart, Darwin’s theory is actually far more adequate as an account of natural teleology. The “design theory” of Darwin’s opponents is really a sort of Providentialism, which also deserves by extension to be seen as a sort of occasionalism. But today, because of a failure to understand this, both evolutionists and anti-evolutionists assume that teleology means “far seeing”; they fail to grasp that this is not the widest definition of teleology, even though it is certainly true of teleology in its highest form. (E.g., Mayr, Chs. 8-9.) And so both evolutionists and opponents argue with each other as a result of what they agree on, which consists in their mutual misunderstanding of what teleology is.

– Two critical binary distinctions concerning evolution: 1) Evolution of instruments versus evolution of primary beings; 2) evolution of instruments relative to the environment versus evolution of absolute instruments and powers. Since things are what they are through their causes, instruments and perfections of which the natural intrinsic perfection is relative to the environment must also have causes which are also relative to the environment; to say otherwise is providentialism and occasionalism.

– Darwin versus his opponents: intuition of genuine universal causes versus assertion of pseudo-universal causes (in Mivart, for example). The characteristic of the former is that it is genuinely unified; it does not have within itself the divisions that will later be found in its effects. Note that instruments often begin to manifest the divisions that are brought forth in the effects of universal causes: in the instruments of sensation, for example.

– Mivart’s opposition to Darwin: a study in low-grade philosophical opposition to high-grade intuition. Mivart and Suarez: both fail to understand contingent causes, and consequently become prone to reducing everything to “laws.”

– There is a legitimate desire among modern biologists to understand “emergence.” They see in a more concrete and deeper way than the ancients did that the development of form must lie in the power of matter. (Distinguishing “power” from “potency” really can obscure the truth of Aristotle’s insight about “potential”; the point was that potential really is power, designated by the same word in Greek as “power” itself.) But the force of real experience allows modern biologists and scientists to see further into this truth than the ancients did; for they begin to see the extent to which higher physical forms, and life in particular, really come from the power of matter. But this raises the question: is “emergence” really the same thing as “reduction”? In other words: how can we say that matter really has a “power” for form, without reducing all things to the lowest things?

The concept of the “energeia of the potential” constitutes an answer to this question in a deeper way than one might observe at first; indeed perhaps in a deeper way than Aristotle anticipated. We must understand that “act” is not just the “fulfillment” which corresponds to potential; this is not most deeply what the “of” signifies. Rather, the “of” in energeia of potential means that potential beings have an activity, a doing, which characterizes them, just as all other distinctive beings have such an activity. This paradoxical but true state of affairs becomes possible, as Aristotle intuits, because of continuity; for it is the continuity of motion – the literal material joining of the actual with the incomplete through infinitesimal parts – that allows motion to exist at all as a distinctive kind of being. In other words, we see that in motion, as opposed to the completion of motion, the potential as such exercises itself. There really is not, therefore, a complete difference between “active power” and “passive potency”; that is, though they may in fact be different, there is a genuine actual exercise of both kinds of power. The continuity of the actual with the potential is what makes this possible – what allows the actual to genuinely “emerge” from the potential, without simply being reduced thereto. (One may also note that there is a likeness between what we find here and what Aristotle suggests elsewhere about the infinite: for the latter as well exists only “in potency,” but even this potency has a corresponding “act,” namely one which as Aristotle says is “like the day or the games.”)

But in this we should see a sort of answer, at least in principle, to the deep problem posed by thinkers such as Schrodinger, who begin to understand profoundly and experientially that the higher must genuinely emerge from the lower. For Aristotle, “motion” encompassed much more than local motion; indeed it encompassed, in a way, the whole circle of physical generation, starting from the most exterior sorts of becoming and culminating in generation itself, which bears most intimately upon real physical existence. To say, then, that “motion” is an “activity” of potentiality is, in the end, to say that potentiality does indeed exercise itself in the coming into being of the higher from the lower; and just as we see most easily perhaps with local motion, so also it happens that even with generation – at the other end of the spectrum of becoming – it is a sort of continuity of stages of becoming that makes it possible for potentiality to exercise itself.

But typically modern thinkers try to describe these things in terms of laws: they say that the higher must exist in a way which simply continues to fulfill the “laws” of the lower. Thus Schrodinger thinks that the living must simply continue to fulfill the laws of physics, and of quantum mechanics in particular, and therefore also of chemistry. Monod, likewise, thinks that there is an “epistemological contradiction” in the fact that living things are “teleonomic” even while they simply continue to fulfill the laws of physics, and in particular the law of thermodynamics. This easily results in misunderstanding, because laws are propositions, whereas real physical causes are physical things, and admit of the variability of reality and determinacy which real being admits of, unlike the uniformity of modality of assertions or propositions. Replacing causes with “laws,” thus easily creates the appearance as if there is no room for the higher to develop out of the lower; it must simply reduce to the lower. This confusion is amplified still more because of the deep dominance of the Newtonian mindset, which supposes that everything both is and must be deterministic. Laws therefore seem to exclude the principle of indeterminacy. An understanding of physical being in terms of causes and principles avoids this, especially if we also understand that efficient cause is not coextensive with “cause” itself; there are four interconnected causes, and “to cause” means something different in each case. The material cause entails indeterminacy.

By distinguishing these things it becomes possible for us to see that evolution really can be a development, and not a reduction.

– We may then go a step further. On the first page of Ch. 1 of Chance and Necessity, Monod writes that the “basic premise of the scientific method” is that “nature is objective and not projective.” There is deep confusion here, between one thing which is a profound truth and another which is a serious error. The truth is that the sub-animate teleology is indeed not a “projective” teleology. This is something which we could learn from Darwin, if we but see how to interpret his discoveries from a philosophical point of view. But what is false is what is expressed by Monod’s word “objective” – which, as Monod later explicitly reveals, is nothing but a name for the wholesale rejection of teleology as such. Monod shares this misunderstanding with even his greatest opponents; indeed it can be truly said that the debate over evolution is almost always a debate over whether “projective” teleology is appropriate in in the sub-animate world; those who reject it see, at least vaguely, that this sort of teleology is inappropriate to the sub-animate, and even in a way to the sub-rational, in fact; while those who accept it do so because they think that to do otherwise is to reject teleology as such. Both sides, in effect, confuse “projective” teleology with teleology itself. Seeing this, it cannot surprise us that the debate over evolution is never-ending.

But the ubiquitous ordering of the lower to the higher means this: that intention can become instrumental, and lower modes of intentionality can become instrumental to higher modes. It is in the nature of intention to be orderable to the higher; it is not in the nature of that which lacks intention to be orderable. There is, for example, no ordering of forces. Indeed what we have said above about the continuity of motion being what allows there to be a genuine “activity of potential” means just this: that it is in the continuous, most of all, that the activity of potentiality is fully realized. Perhaps we can even say that quantitative continuity has this as its very telos.

The confusions about this are similar and related to the confusion about force itself, because the concept of ‘force’ results from a misunderstanding about the instrumentality involved in human movements, where a lower order of place and its causes are subordinated to higher orders of place and their causes. This misunderstanding brings it about that “force” – a quantitative agency which has repercussions in the order of physical space – is mistakenly taken as something having no telos at all – because its instrumental telos is thought to be the only telos it has, and this is finally, even if but vaguely, recognized as extrinsic to its interior essence. In like manner, the “projective” intentionality, which is only fully realized in the rational, has non-projective intentionality as its proper instrument. But it is the characteristic of all instruments to take on the character of their governing causes – but to do so in the manner of instruments, which is to say only extrinsically and in a transitory fashion. But then it is easy – yet mistaken – to suppose that the instrument must be what it is, even in its own essence, through this extrinsic form; and when this is seen as impossible, the instrumentality is simply denied. And so the instrumentality of sub-rational intentionality is first confused with “projective” intentionality, and then, by a kind of implicit reduction to the absurd argument, sub-rational intentionality is denied altogether.


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  1. entirelyuseless

    Perhaps because these are notes, it isn’t exactly clear to me what you are saying about the modern question of whether e.g. living things follow the physical laws that apply to non-living things. It sounds like you are saying that this is a bad question to ask in the first place. And of course there is such a thing as a bad question, as for example a question which takes for granted something false.

    Are you saying that the question about laws takes for granted something false? If so, what would that be? Surely not that physical laws exist, since even if they are mere descriptions of what happens, both what happens exist, and the description of what happens.

    I am not convinced that matter implies indeterminacy in the way that you say. But I don’t think it matters: if the physical world is indeterminate in that way, then the true laws (i.e. a true description) of what happens will be statistical, but such a description will exist nonetheless. And then it will be a meaningful question whether the parts of living things can continue to be described by those statistical principles or not, and the answer will either be yes or no. There is nothing wrong with the question.

    And I think there are very good reasons for saying yes, the same statistical principles will describe both living and non-living things. But this would not be a reason to say that living things do not differ in kind from non-living things.

    • sdcojai

      Hello David. There isn’t time for me at the moment to elaborate a complete response to your queries, but just a couple of comments. I completely agree with about the reality of physical laws: they certainly are real, contrary to what has been suggested at times by others. But the failure to grasp that laws cannot take the place of causes makes has often, I think, made thinkers try to either imagine how laws themselves could be quasi-causal, or else fail to grasp how the nature of a cause that lies behind a law (material versus formal, for example) changes in a way the character of the law. As bare assertions, the laws might be thought of as indifferent to the kind of cause that lies behind them, but as expressions of the cause not so. It’s one thing to assert something; it’s another to understand it as it derives from a cause. And those who try to make laws stand in for causes typically conceive of them in an “absolute way,” which is to say as both the sort of law that would derive from a material cause, and the sort that would derive from a formal cause, simultaneously.

      I think that this has considerable bearing on the way debates tend to take place over the theory of evolution. Among other things, for example, the contingent and the necessary get confused that way….

    • David

      Matter implies indeterminacy by its very definition. Matter is that which can undergo substantial change. Matter can’t ever exist by itself, without being specified by a form.

      • entirelyuseless

        None of that is relevant to the kind of indeterminacy that we are talking about. That is like saying, “being a man” is indeterminate by its very definition, since a man can be tall or short and this is not determined by being a man.

        But obviously this does not mean that a man’s height is random. In the text we are talking about whether the events that take place are determined by what comes before, and they could be entirely determinate in this way, even though matter is indeterminate in itself.

  2. RP

    Haven’t read your notes yet. But good to know you are not dead.

    • sdcojai

      Hah! Yes, thanks … I’m still kicking.

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