Posted by DNW on 2011/08/23
The following posting is intended to be temporarily accessible, and will appear seriously out of context to anyone trying to read it as a stand alone essay. It is in fact, a slightly extended “combox” argument carried over from another blog dealing with philosophical issues. And I am presuming upon John’s offer of bandwidth in order to make it temporarily available should there be a need.
The author of that other blog, is a professor and professional philosopher in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. As he comments unabashedly on issues both social and moral, as well as on metaphysical ideas (“metaphysical” as in speculation in the strict scholastic sense: concerning the notions of causality both proximate and ultimate) he kindles a lot of militant atheist heat and receives a lot of return fire, which he and his regular readers invariably dispose of without much trouble.
Final causes [h]as been an issue recently. Most scientifically minded persons recognize only efficient causes, if they recognize much in the way of causes at all.
I made a couple of remarks in his comment boxes, which had to do with the idea of defending the intelligibility of the notion of objective biological functions as a meaningful – for lack of a better phrase – ontological category. This approach would be in distinction to conceiving of all biological attributes as purposeless evolutionary expressions which are post hoc and adequately defined and explained as to function or purpose by whatever arbitrary use they are put to by intending beings.
I did and do not argue that teleology is an unquestionably valid concept. What I intended to argue [superfluously it turns out, as there are professional philosophers pointing out essentially the same facts over there] is that the counter arguments I encountered in the comment boxes from a class of persons commonly and self-described as “New Atheists” were seriously inadequate when it came to demonstrating that arbitrary use adequately defined biological systems feature functions.
My participation there was as I said definitely redundant. But, because I did say that I would respond to one or two particularly reasonable persons who disagreed with me, I am placing this on-line in the event that they directly request the follow-up.
Regarding then, the concept of an objective natural function, carried over:
So to recap, what we have thus far is agreement on two points at least; but with continued disagreement on other aspects of the broader question.
Furthermore this response is not at this point an attempt to directly address the methodological question of securing Thomistic final causes against all criticism; nor, to outline a process of drawing logically valid prescriptive propositions from descriptive propositions within a framework of accepted rules which allow truth values only to descriptive propositions of a certain type. Since that outlining would obviously be a demonstrative impossibility as a formal result of the granting of the conditioning rules and interpretations.
What this is, is my view of the adequacy of the combox critique presented here attacking the notion of there being any objectively ascertainable teleonomic [in Mayr’s sense] biological function within organic systems.
In the matter of RH and the function or purpose of legs:
1. We find some agreement between RH and me with RH’s acknowledgement that his earlier assertion that legs merely “facilitate” walking with legs, is nonsensical.
This is so, that is to say nonsensical, because to say that what makes something possible in the first place is what makes it easier, is meaningless. If the locomotive i.e., walking, appendages called legs exist, it becomes possible to walk on legs, not easier. If they do not, it is not less easy, it is impossible.
A cane on the other hand, facilitates walking for the halt and unsteady, and shoes facilitate walking for the tender-footed and civilized. But legs are the part of one that make the ambulatory motions we call walking.
We have continued disagreement in the following area:
A. Concerning the logical coherence of RH’s introduction of ballet and line dancing (which as regards the legs are simply ritualized and exaggerated – perhaps mincing – expressions of ordinary locomotion); and wherein, the argument is made by RH that they are cogent counter examples which serve to refute the proposition that the function of the legs is walking.
This rebuttal of objective function is accomplished, he argues, through his providing named instances of other purportedly inclusively disjunctive leg uses or functions; which as different, then ostensibly serve to falsify any claims that walking is the primary and objective biological function of legs.
But some of RH’s “different” uses, particularly those which appear to be the most intuitively relevant substitution instances and which are deployed in hopes of demonstrating that it’s logically unsound to refer to walking as the primary function or biological purpose, are merely different names for what is basically the same phenomenon: walking.
If these examples in RH’s scheme of refutation were sound, then we might duplicate them by saying that the proposition that the function of the legs was walking, could be effectively rebutted by pointing out that legs might equally well be used to amble, stroll, strut, saunter, stride, hike, still-hunt, and skip. Would anyone take that construction seriously?
Once we rule out more or less obvious synonyms for walking, along with variations of gait, intensity of expression, and certain “other” ritualistic activities which presuppose the biological function of walking, what logically coherent examples of biological “use” are left?
Shall we say paraphrasing RH that “Yes, the legs CAN be used for walking, but the point is that they CAN logically be used for many other activities just as well: activities like bread slicing, tack driving, gopher stomping, or as a portable emergency meal?
When you leave the realm of either absurdities or synonymous and/or derivative functions, you end up back with the “final cause” of the legs.
Similarly, and by using RH’s method of logical contradiction through non-contradictory examples, we could go on to “disprove” the naive notion that the function of the eyes was to see. This, because they are alternately and even equally well used to: gaze, to view, to watch, to stare, or to look.
Somewhat further afield but using the same theory of critical method, what about other functions of the “eyes”: as in the use of eyes to glance meaningfully, or in the batting of the eyes’ lids coyly? Do any of those not presume the visual function of the eyes in order to have even derivative meaning?
This leads to the next “criticism” of objective biological function.
B. RH repeatedly refers to sex organs during discussions in which I have not been involved and don’t propose to bother to take up again. But it should be noted that there is a critical and obvious flaw in his “descriptive” rebuttal scheme here as well.
This time it is not partly the result of his deploying synonyms as falsifying cases.
This time it is the result of a type of equivocation regarding the word “sex”.
Now, primary sex organs do indeed typically, and unless there is a defect in expression, identify the genetic sex of the individual. So they may be called, and often are called in the manner of RH, sex organs.
But what biologists also call them is “reproductive organs”.
Unless RH limits himself only to referring to certain exterior features by a somewhat ambiguous description insinuating that the term “sex” be taken as a verb, he cannot avoid acknowledging this. But he tries to do so anyway hoping that the terminology will suffice to imply that these features have no objectively ascertainable primary biological function.
This descriptive tactic of deliberately referring only to “sex organs” however, merely reintroduces the problem after the shortest of postponements.
Their objectively ascertainable end-function is betrayed by the equivocal use of the term “sex” itself; which upon only modest reflection is revealed as rooted in a reference not to any activity with those organs considered only as those organs, but to the very mode of reproduction by which humans as “higher” animals reproduce: i.e., “sexual reproduction”.
They are the organs by means of which a particularly reproducing being generates more of its kind.
To call them reproductive organs would make this clear, though RH might see it as a form of “question begging”. But even to call them primary sex organs would suffice tend to make this function clear by implication as outlined above. “Genitals” is unfortunately no better for an arbitrary-use-defines function crowd, as the very term refers to the begetting; and the notion of arbitrary is seriously suspect.
Now, if RH could find “sex organs” in the stimulation node function sense he thinks is logically equivalent to the reproductive function, located, say, on asexually reproducing prokaryotes, he might have a better basis from which to argue his point.
They would not actually be sex organs, but then why quibble if anything can be used for and called anything with equal logical justification. We might then, expect to see the hypothesized organisms fall into two categories, or better yet only one sort; but of a sort wherein each individual had one or more nerve packed nodes which these organisms stimulated – presumably through some kind of exercise involving frictional contact.
As this activity would be thoroughly pointless from a hovering gods-of-science point of view, resulting in no obvious organic or population change, we might be justified in concluding that this apparently pointless activity was done for no purpose other than the doing of it.
On the other hand we could slice off the nodes and see what if any change took place in the population over time.
Perhaps we will one day observe this very phenomenon in prokaryote slimes. We will then, as a result, have finally found somewhere the promiscuous-sex-as-community-reinforcement fantasy which recently collapsed and left so many persons disappointed, when pygmy chimps failed to live up to the fond hopes which had been pinned on them by some of their nearest relatives.
However back to mammals: even in considering the form of sexually reproducing organisms, if the function of primary sex organs could be stated as providing the organism with pleasure for the sake of the organism having pleasure, then there would be no logical expectation that one would discover the relevant sensory input mechanisms conjoined with elements of the reproductive organs; as my old biology texts assure me they indeed are.
2. In the matter of dguller, we have my agreement with dguller’s acknowledgement that the physical ability to walk is the precondition for other so called examples of non-walking uses of the legs, such as ballet; where he says, “some activities presuppose others, as you have rightfully stated.”
However he disagrees with me regarding immobility saying,
A. ” … when legs are immobile, then they can be used to support standing upright.”, and he challenges me to demonstrate how I know that standing immobile on legs is not the functional use equivalent to walking.
He also, B., adduced the immobility of the legs during meditation as an equivalent use of the legs to walking, as far as any analysis resulting in an inferred function might go.
Regarding A. I have now provided one citation, which is one more than should be needed, to demonstrate that standing immobile on legs as if they were support pedestals has deleterious biomechanical effects on them in otherwise healthy persons – which normal use in walking does not generate. A similar observation could be made about “kicking” considered as a specific type of violent motion. It’s usually I take it, considered by bio-mechanicians as “unnatural” movement and likely to result in injury in a way walking does not.
Regarding dguller’s objection B. “Not using” legs during meditation, is neither the functional, nor, especially, the logical equivalent of “using legs” for walking.
Not using is not an alternate use to a use. Shallow breathing is a type of breathing. Deep breathing is another mode of taking in breaths. Not breathing is not a kind of breathing.
In fact this whole line of counter argument seems by and large preposterous. Would one really assume that the function of the female womb is equally about storing illegal drugs for transport, as it is about providing an environment for the maturing fetus? Or, that the function of the legs was to move a soccer ball across the ground rather than the person possessing them? Or that to lie on one’s back and exercise one’s legs by air-cycling could be taken as the function of the legs? In other words is it logical to tautologically say that “the function of the legs may be said to be the exercise the legs” as an alternate explanation of their usually assumed biological function?
Now, and finally, whether or not prescriptive propositions can be said to have truth values according to certain current doctrines of predicate logic, or how they can be derived within an interpretive system that presupposes they cannot because they are of a different “ontological category”, is another matter.
The answer to that problem is found in whether the assumptions that underlie the theory of definite descriptions, or the logical positivist notion of meaning, or a fact value/dichotomy supposition that seems to ignore the possibility of predictions and prudential statements having an objective meaning, are adequate as general rules of interpretation.
I think that the more widely they become taken for granted, the more obvious it becomes that they are not.
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