The Last Superstition: The Final Insult

Chapter 6: Irreducible teleology, cont.

Having exoriated biologists over the fact that popular science writers use terms like “purpose” and “blueprint”, Feser moves on to nonliving systems, in which he also sees purpose and intentionality. For instance, the water and rock cycles (I’d never heard of a “rock cycle” before, but okay):

The role of condensation in the water cycle, for example, is to bring about precipitation; the role of pressure in the rock cycle is, in conjunction with heat, to contribute to generating magma, and in the absence of heat to contribute to generating sedimentary rock; and so forth. Each stage has the production of some particular outcome or range of outcomes as an “end” or “goal” toward which it points. [p. 258]

Here, Feser implies that the water cycle is supposed to exist, and condensation exists to further that goal. Likewise, of course you have to have pressure, otherwise how can you have magma? It seems as though he is projecting his opinions onto the world so hard that he can’t imagine that maybe water does what water does, and it’s only because the temperature on the surface of this planet oscillates in a certain range that allows water to behave in such an interesting fashion.

Basic laws of nature

Moving on to fundamental science, Feser graces us with a rather interesting idea of how minds work:

Mental images are vague and indistinct when their objects are complex or detailed, but the related concepts or ideas are clear and distinct regardless of their complexity; for example, the concept of a chiliagon, or 1000-sided figure, is clearly different from the concept of a 999-sided figure, even though a mental image of a chiliagon is no different from a mental image of a 999-sided figure. [p. 260]

I’m not quite sure what he’s trying to say, though the best spin I can put on it is that we have trouble imagining complex things clearly. I agree, and this means that we need to be careful when thinking about complex things, because we’re likely to overlook something.

But since Feser brings this up in the context of thinking about abstract things, I have to wonder. When he talks about the possibility of purely material minds, he sounds like someone who thinks that a DVD has to have little pictures on it; that if you put a CD close enough to your ear, you’ll hear the music on it. Maybe I’m wrong; but that’s the impression I get, especially after the bit in Chapter 4 where he seemed to think that thinking about triangles would have to involve part of your brain becoming triangular.

He goes on for a bit against David Hume and complaining about the “anti-Aristotelian ideological program” (p. 261) of modern science. Basically, he tells us, science cannot proceed without Aristotle, but scientists are fiercely opposed to him on ideological grounds. Probably because they just want to sin, or something. In fact,

Despite the undeniable advances in empirical knowledge made during the last 300 plus years, then, the work of the scientists who made those advances simply does not support the philosophical interpretation of those advances put forward by the proponents of the “Mechanical Philosophy” and the contemporary materialists or naturalists who are their intellectual heirs [p. 264]

See, scientists are smart people who have been very successful at figuring out how the universe operates, so successful that we now take things like nuclear weapons and GPS receivers for granted. But they’re not smart enough to figure out the implications of their work.

If you look around the Internet, you can find any number of religious figures or just plain cranks who are convinced that their holy book, prophet, or whoever predicted various facts long before scientists did. They usually do this by taking some vague or poetic passage in scripture, combining it with some scientific discovery, and interpreting the former to describe the latter. For example, this page on Islam and embryology explains that

“The three veils of darkness” [in the Quran] may refer to: (l) the anterior abdominal wall; (2) the uterine wall; and (3) the amniochorionic membrane

And this page explains that “[he that] stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain” in the Bible refers to cosmic expansion.

Likewise, in this chapter, Feser talks about scientists rediscovering the genius of Aristotle. But it’s also painfully obvious that the scientific revolution did not begin in earnest with Aquinas, but rather several centuries later. That, combined with the fact that science has been so wonderfully successful despite the fact that the average scientist probably couldn’t give a summary of Aristotle’s or Aquinas’s ideas strongly suggests that they’re simply irrelevant to science.

It’s the moon, stupid

By this point, Feser thinks that he’s established that the millennia-old ideas of Aristotle, refined by Aquinas’s medieval insights, are correct. He bemoans the fact that they’ve fallen into obscurity:

But if Aristotle has, by virtue of developments in modern philosophy and science, had his revenge on those who sought to overthrow him at the dawn of the modern period, why is this fact not more widely recognized? One reason is the prevailing general ignorance about what the Aristotelian and Scholastic traditions really believed, what the actual intellectual and historical circumstances were that led to their replacement by modern philosophy in its various guises, and what the true relationship is between the latter and modern science. [p. 266]

The blame for the “general ignorance” part seems to land squarely on Feser’s shoulders. It’s up to him and his colleagues to educate the rest of us. But honestly, maybe ignorance is his ally: Feser’s exposition of Aristotle’s and Aquinas’s ideas makes it clear that they’re largely based on ignorance and superstition, and can be safely relegated to History of Ideas class, and ignored in everyday life.

He closes by quoting the proverb, “When the finger points at the moon, the idiot looks at the finger” (p. 267) as an analogy to the way objects “point to” things beyond themselves, but “the secularist” doesn’t realize this. Fittingly, he closes on an insult: “It’s the moon, stupid.” (p. 267)

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: Ubiquitous Teleology

Chapter 6: Irreducible teleology

We’re in the home stretch. In this penultimate section, Feser tries to make the case that teleology, or goal-directedness, permeates the world.

To start with, he tells us that human minds deal with final causes all the time: we conceive plans and execute them, and we build things for specific purposes. So yes, final causes in this sense do exist. But Feser has something much more extensive in mind; not just the existence of final causes, but their ubiquity.

Biological phenomena

[Biologists] speak, for example, of the function of the heart, of what kidneys are for, of how gazelles jump up and down in order to signal predators, and in general of the purpose, goal, or end of such-and-such an organ or piece of behavior. […] Darwin himself once said that it is “difficult for any one who tries to make out the use of a structure to avoid the word purpose.” [pp. 248–249]

Yes, the appearance of design in biology is compelling, so much so that Richard Dawkins wrote in The Blind Watchmaker that “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose”. But of course that was Darwin’s great insight, that while we normally think of minds selecting one option or another, with living things, nature itself can, without thought, “choose” which beings reproduce and which ones don’t. That “natural selection” is not an oxymoron.

And yes, it’s difficult to look at nature without seeing design. It’s also difficult to look at clouds without seeing the shapes of people and animals.

Feser gives us a capsule version of evolution:

To say that the kidneys existing in such-and-such an organism have the “function” of purifying its blood amounts to something like this: Those ancestors of this organism who first developed kidneys (as a result of a random genetic mutation) tended to survive in greater numbers than those without kidneys, because their blood got purified; and this caused the gene for kidneys to get passed on to the organism in question and others like it. [p. 250]


One rather absurd implication of this theory is that you can’t really know what the function of an organ is until you know something about its evolutionary history. [p. 251]

Well, no. We can talk of the function of an organ without knowing anything about its evolutionary history, by seeing what the organ does, and what it seems to be good at. For instance, before we start investigating how it is that such-and-such lizard came to be so good at digesting mulberries, it’s important to make sure that it is good at digesting mulberries. Fortunately, we can test this without knowing anything about its evolutionary history.

This is perhaps more obvious in genetics, where we can ask what a gene does, rather than what an organ does. To find out, geneticists typically try to knock the gene out, that is, to raise a generation of fruit flies or mice or zebrafish or what have you that don’t have the gene in question, then see what goes wrong. For instance, when the eyeless gene in fruit flies is damaged or missing, the resulting flies develop without eyes (hence the name).

It gets more complicated than this, of course. Scientists can try to activate the gene in different parts of the body or at different times, and see what happens. Or they can compare different alleles of the gene, or artificially-mutated versions, to see what happens (perhaps it doesn’t control eyes specifically, but all round body parts? Or perhaps it directs each segment to become whatever it’s “supposed” to become?), but this sort of experimentation and observation allow scientists to figure out what a gene (or an organ) does.

Now, this is a bit different from asking what a gene or organ is for. The latter phrasing implies that the gene or organ only does one thing, or has one primary function, and perhaps one or two secondary ones. And while this works in a lot of cases, there are a lot of cases where it doesn’t. For instance, I think it works to say that “the heart is for pumping blood”, because that’s something it does; it also does a good job of pumping blood; it’s the only organ I have to pump my blood, so I rely on my heart to do this; and I can’t do anything else with it. (One might, however, look at it from the point of view of a man-eating tiger, who doesn’t care what I plan to do with my heart. From its point of view, the purpose of my heart is to provide it with nourishment, same as my liver and lungs.)

But what about a bird’s wing? Is it for flight? (Not in ostriches, it isn’t.) Or perhaps it’s for displaying colorful plumage, the better to attract a mate. Or is it for protecting its eggs? Birds do all of these things with wings. And so, I suggest that it’s better to ask “what can you do with it?” rather than “what is it for?” (Besides, think how boring movies like Cast Away or The Martian would be if their protagonists only used things for their intended purpose.)

Now, it may be that when Feser says that a thing is “directed toward” something, he means much the same thing as I do when I ask what that thing is good for. If so, then I think the difference is that I try to allow for the possibility of a thing having multiple uses, while Feser prefers that things have one and only one use. For instance, we saw that he considers sex to have one main purpose — reproduction — and every other use (fun, bonding) is secondary to that.

Series: The Last Superstition