Analyzing Aquinas IV: The Teleological Argument

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Videmus enim quod aliqua quæ cognitione carent, scilicet corpora naturalia, operantur propter finem (We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end).
~Thomas Aquinas

In order to move things along, I have decided to forgo explanations and arguments for Aquinas' Third and Fourth Ways, the Arguments from Contingency and Degree, respectively, and skip to the Fifth Way. There are a number of reasons for this decision. First, this series has already been going on for almost ten weeks and there are so many other interesting topics sbout which I would like to write. I would prefer to complete this series sooner, rather than later. Second, out of the five main arguments put forth by Aquinas, his Third and Fourth Ways are the ones which I personally find the least convincing. This does not mean that they are not ultimately correct and sound, but simply that if I were an atheist I would likely not be convinced by those arguments (whereas I find the Arguments from Motion, Efficient Causality and Final Causality to be very persuasive, indeed). The last reason, which is likely tied to the second, is that my understanding of these arguments is not as full as the others; they would be the hardest for me to explain and defend. So, in brief, this will be my last post for a while in this series on Aquinas. It should be noted again, that much of this post (as with previous posts) is taken directly from Edward Feser's work in Aquinas and The Last Superstition. Without further adieu, let's get to work!

The first thing that needs to be known about this argument is that it is not the same as the modern Teleological Argument for the existence of God, advocated by the likes of philosopher Robin Collins, scientist Francis Collins, and many more. The modern argument, also called the Argument From Fine Tuning goes something like this: there are initial conditions and constants in the universe that appear to be so precisely tuned for intelligent life, that it is improbable that a random natural process gave rise to what we see. This claim, defended rigorously by modern thinkers in such places as The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, is not the focus of today's post; the focus of today's post is on the classical Teleological Argument, which has to do with the apparent purpose or goal-directedness in the natural bodies that make up the universe. A major difference between the two is that while the modern argument merely aims at showing a Creator is more probable than a naturalistic process, the classical argument is a metaphysical demonstration which, if successful, shows that a Creator is necessary. In short, the classical argument is much stronger in what it attempts to prove. This does not mean to say that the modern Teleological Argument is worthless; the authors of this blog certainly do not believe that. We plan on covering that in our eventual series on the Blackwell Companion mentioned above.

The Teleological Argument

As usual, I feel it is best to let Aquinas himself give us the first look at his argument:

The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.

There seem to be two claims here which must be broken down and defended before we can make sense of this argument:

1. Natural bodies "act for an end." This is the "teleology" in the argument's name.
2. Anything which lacks intelligence can only act for an end if it is directed by something with intelligence.

Another Look at Final Causality

As mentioned above, the first claim of the argument that needs to be defended is that "things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end." I have already explained, briefly, in a previous post how Aquinas believed in the existence of final causes in nature. It is the idea that all things act toward an end-- and this is why they always act consistently in the same manner. But what reason is there to believe that final causality is real in the first place? Hasn't science proven that final causes are no longer necessary to give explanations of phenomena? As it turns out, this is not at all true. Science has not proven that final causes do not exist, or are not necessary, but rather has simply rejected them for the purpose of method. In modern times science has narrowed its focus to the prediction and control of nature through mathematically modeling those aspects of phenomena which are quantifiable; this has led to a rejection of the referencing of final causes because they are not, by nature, quantifiable. This does not, however, mean that final causes do not exist, but rather that modern science just pretends they don't. This is a philosophical axiom and not a scientific proof. I will give several reasons below as to why final causes should never have been rejected in the first place, and why they are clearly defensible today. One further clarification that needs to be made is that the words "final cause," "teleology," "goal directedness" and "purpose" will all be used synonymously.

1. Metaphysical Problems

The rejection of teleology in nature has been the cause of several problems in modern metaphysics. These are not often viewed in the broad context of history, but, as we will see below, they were not problems at all until this happened.

A. Efficient Causality/The Problem of Induction
The Problem of Induction is widely seen as an open question in philosophy. It is a necessary consequence of a section of David Hume's book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding where he argues that there is no necessary connection between a cause and effect. Hume argued, like all good British empiricists, that we can only know anything through the sensory experience of causes and effects. When we say that A causes B, what we are really saying is that in our past experience, event B has always been produced by an object with perceptual qualities like A. However, we cannot deduce that A will always cause B since there is no logical contradiction with the idea that A could cause another effect than B. Similarly, we cannot induce that B will always follow A because induction itself cannot be justified empirically without begging the question, or arguing in a circle. On the contrary, he argues that we cannot even in principle show a necessary connection between a cause and effect. While throwing a brick at a glass window has always had the effect of breaking the window in the past, there is no reason why it could not instead turn into flowers and bounce off the window in the future. While morphine has caused drowsiness in the past, there is no reason why it could not instead turn its consumer into a frog in the future. These examples are definitely exaggerated, but they clearly convey the problem with causation according to Hume. The Problem of Induction was a later realized consequence (the phrase itself was never used by Hume) that if there is no necessary connection between cause A and effect B, there is no reason at all to assume B will follow from A in the future.

Fortunately, this is only half of the story. The truth is that Hume was absolutely right-- those conclusions follow necessarily if we reject an Aristotelian metaphysics, and that is just what the moderns have done, beginning with the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution! As I have discussed in previous posts, modern thinkers only accept material and efficient causes as real. The problem dissolves immediately when we adopt Aristotle's system of Essentialism, inherent powers, and formal and final causes. The only way for A and B to have a necessary connection is if B is the final cause of A; that is to say that object A is inherently directed toward outcome B. A brick is inherently directed toward the outcome of breaking fragile substances when thrown. Morphine is inherently directed toward the outcome of drowsiness in those who consume it. A match is inherently directed toward the outcome of producing heat and light when struck. And so on. Additionally, we are able to know that objects of type A will always be directed toward outcome B in the future, because objects of type A do not just give off the same sensory perceptions, as Hume would say. Rather they all share certain inherent powers which will always direct them toward the same outcome because they all share the same form, or formal cause. A quick note should be made here, that while teleology was rejected as part of the Scientific Revolution, it is not in any way against the practice of science, but merely serves to answer questions that are beyond the scope of science.

So you see that efficient causation only makes sense in light of formal and final causes. Removing formal and final causes from our view of the world has caused the above problem, and this is reason enough to recognize they are real and adopt them back into our metaphysical system. Hume's Enquiry will most likely be discussed in a more detailed manner in a future post.

B. Philosophy of Mind: The Problem of Intentionality
This subject is far too deep and interesting to attempt to explain well here. There are many issue within Philosophy of Mind that can only be solved by returning to the realization of formal and final causes. One interesting question that has risen is The Problem of Intentionality. Intentionality, or intentional states, in philosophy of mind are defined as an "about-ness." When I picture my cat in my mind, I am thinking about my cat. When I am excited to go to the movies, I am excited "about" the movies. The problem here should be very obvious: how can a purely mechanistic, material substance be "about" anything at all? Can a rock be "about" something? What about a tree or a river? Some philosophers, such as Rene Descartes, attempted to solve this problem (among others) by proposing a sort of substance dualism: human beings are really sort of a ghost in a shell. We are a soul, which thinks about and feels things, operating through a material/mechanistic body. Since a purely material substance cannot be "about" something else, the mind/soul must be an immaterial substance. While this certainly does solve the problem, given the assumptions of a mechanistic metaphysics introduced upon the rejection of formal causes, there didn't need to be a problem in the first place. The only reason a material substance cannot be about something is because the modern view of material substances is an explicitly mechanistic one, devoid of formal and final causes. However, under Aristotle's hylemorphism, a material object always is about something-- it has formal and final causes which give it a sort of purpose, or goal-directedness. A rain cloud is about the water cycle, a match is about the production of heat and light, a heart is about the act of pumping blood throughout the body, etc. The human person is not unique, under Aristotelian metaphysics, in having a material and immaterial component-- everything has a material and immaterial component in its formal and material causes. And this allows it to be directed towards or about other things. To be sure, there is a major difference between rocks and human persons: while they can both be about something, the latter are conscience about the things their mental states are about, while the former are not. This is because human beings have an intellect. The difference here will be expanded upon later in this post. The obvious conclusion here, however, is that the rejection of Aristotelian metaphysics has again led to a major problem in philosophy.

2. Evolutionary Biology and DNA

The theory of evolution was supposed to have taken the idea of purpose out of the world of biology. Until this theory, most of the world thought that animal life, and specifically human beings, had a purpose-- possibly coming from a creator of sorts. The theory of evolution supposedly replaced this idea by providing a completely natural explanation of the variation in biological species, thereby removing the need for any reference to "purpose" in biology. Right? Well, maybe not. The problem is that even with the theory of evolution it is "impossible to give an adequate description of an animal's organs, behavioral patters, and the like except in terms of what they are for, and thus in teleological language."1 Scientists and philosophers have attempted to find ways to discuss these things without reference to purpose or function, but have been unsuccessful. For example, the gall bladder could be explained by saying that the predecessors to the first animal with one tended to survive more often than those similar populations without one. This caused the gene to be passed on through the surviving population. But this "explanation" doesn't get rid of the need for final causality, it simply ignores it in lieu of a different type of explanation. This explanation gives an account of how such an organ was formed, but it does not relieve the need to give an explanation in terms of what its purpose is: to aid in fat digestion. Additionally, under this scheme, we could not know the function of a biological entity unless we knew its evolutionary mechanism. Furthermore, unless something evolved, it could not be said to have a function at all! The lack of a true explanation and the serious issues that come from this should make it obvious that biological study is only possible because teleology is real.

The discovery of the DNA molecule in 1869 provided further evidence of final causality in biology. It is impossible to describe this molecule "without references to the 'information,' 'data,' 'instructions,' 'blueprints,' 'software,' 'programming,' and so on, contained within it; and for good reason, since there is simply no way accurately to convey what DNA does without the use of such concepts. But every single one of them entails that DNA is 'directed toward' something other than itself as a type of 'end' or 'goal.'"2 Strands of DNA are directed toward the production of organs, the encoding of proteins, etc. It is impossible to discuss DNA with reference, even if implicit, to final causes.

What does it mean?

So we've seen that final causality, or goal-directedness, must be treated as a real component of natural bodies. Not only are natural bodies directed toward something, but they are directed toward the same thing in every similar circumstance. They are directed toward their final causes. But this seems to entail that a natural body can be caused by something which does not exist! How can "the production of heat and light" be the final cause of a match if it does not yet actually exist? How can an oak tree be the final cause of an acorn if it does not yet exist? Feser asks us in his book to consider how this sort of final causality works out in us. A builder is able to build a house because the final cause, the house itself, exists as an idea in his intellect before it exists in reality. In the same way, the natural bodies in the universe can only act consistently toward the same ends if those ends exist in some sense prior to their being achieved. But as we've seen, it is incoherent to think that something abstract such as a final cause could exist on its own in a Platonic sense. Like the house, all final causes require an intellect for them to exist prior to being instantiated. Since this intellect is sustaining all the final causes in the universe simultaneously, it must transcend the physical universe. As Aquinas notes above, this intellect we call "God." Notice a few things about this conclusion: first, the argument makes the case for a transcendent being which is currently, in the here and now, sustaining all physical causes. This means it cannot be the god of Deism, a god that created the universe and then abandoned it. Also, the cause is an intellect of some sort, which makes it a personal being. This, coupled with the other arguments in this series, leads us to the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe. This being is already very similar to the monotheistic gods of the major religions, even without the use of additional arguments about such a being's character.

1. Feser, Edward. Aquinas. One World Publications. 2009
2. ibid
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