35. Aristotle vs. Darwin

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) argues that all natural things have an end or purpose they are trying to consciously or unconsciously achieve. Nature is thus teleological: it is purposeful and all natural processes are undertaken for the sake of realizing essential or natural potentials (telos=end or purpose). This view of nature was by no means accepted by all thinkers in Greece. For example, Empedocles, anticipating Charles Darwin, claimed that processes are not for the sake of purposes.  Rather, chance processes occur and some of these processes lead to forms that work and support life.  These processes can be understood mechanistically without reference to purpose. Obviously Darwin’s vision has been widely accepted in the scientific community and their verdict is clear: Aristotle is wrong and nature is NOT teleological. But Aristotle argues that if chance were the ground of natural development then we wouldn’t have the consistent replication of forms that we do.  Chance can only explain breaks from the norm: it cannot explain law-like activity. For example, we see that acorns do, for the most part, make oak trees if the proper conditions are present. To be sure, once in a while we have an aberration and an acorn produces some deformed object we can’t recognize as an oak.  But that would be chance.  If everything was a matter of chance, Aristotle would argue, we would never have millions of acorns producing millions of well-formed oaks on a regular basis.

For more on chance and law, go here.

4 replies on “35. Aristotle vs. Darwin”

  1. Aristotle Reigns As Usual on

    Someday, hopefully soon, the poor thinkers infesting “science” and claiming its unerring mantle will fade into oblivion or become sane, and put Aristotle common sense back where it belongs.

    Lilliputians cannot forever tie sanity down. Hopefully.

    • Dwight Goodyear on

      Thanks for your comment. I disagree with Aristotle on many things. But as I get older, I find myself returning more and more to his ideas and finding wisdom in them. Sometimes I am surprised to see how well they account for various phenomena and this, in turn, leads me to question certain prevailing ideas in the various sciences. I find this questioning process instructive and this blog represents one of the central issues I am pondering. If you have time, consider some of the other comments posted under this blog…

  2. Buckethead on

    Chance does explain all natural phenomena. Consider rolling a magical die with one blank side. This particular die has been rolled for millions of years. Over that time period, all of the markings slowly faded out of existence, so no matter how many times you roll it now, it will land on a blank side even though there was only one blank side in the beginning. That is how evolution works. Of course, that analogy cannot account for the mutations that still occur, but I think it still gives some insight; and maybe the billions of dies representing the course of existence of all living species now just haven’t been around long enough to have been worn smooth. Or maybe these billions of hypothetical tokens of chance each have billions of sides. It is far more complex than we may ever understand. I love Aristotle, but purpose need not be included in the study of the natural world in order to understand it.

    • Dwight Goodyear on

      Thanks for your interesting comment! I enjoyed thinking about your magical die and its troubling fate as it bounced around over millions and millions of years. Of course, it is hard to compare living organisms to dies since a die is, for the most part, passive in its relation to the forces of nature whereas organisms are also active: they can select, organize, intelligently respond, and, in the case of humans at least, imagine, negate, judge, critically assess, etc. And it certainly makes sense to say that we usually have a purpose when we imagine, negate, judge, and critically think. And if this is the case then it makes sense to say these goal-oriented actions are not completely the products of chance (it strikes me as odd that this response I am writing is the product of chance alone). I discuss some my reasons for these beliefs in blog #41 on freedom and critical thinking. But, more importantly, I think we should ask: is the die bouncing around for millions of years in accordance with laws of nature? If so, would we be able to say, as you do, that “chance does explain all natural phenomena”. It doesn’t seem so. Rather, we would also appeal to laws to make sense of the changes that occur. We explain particular things using laws and we explain particular laws by appealing to more general laws that subsume them. I would even argue that the chance mutations to which you refer are law-like. W. B. Gallie, in his book Pierce and Pragmatism, claims that “the idea of pure chance, or of a purely random distribution of characteristics, presupposes the ideas of (a) a law determining how the purely random character of the distribution shall be ensured, and (b) certain actual physical conditions whose persistence (predictably regular persistence) will ensure the applicability of the law that determines the randomness of the distribution” (Dover, 1966, p. 225). I think this is right. I don’t think we can really have a scientifically intelligible explanation of chance without (a) and (b). Chance, to function intelligibly, seems to need law. Of course, some argue (for example, C.S. Pierce) that law can come from chance. But for such a genetic account to be intelligible, there would have to be some regularity within the chance; and thus such an account would assume the law-like dimension it seeks to explain. If there is no law-like dimension to the chance out of which law comes, then it is unclear how the appearance of law would be scientifically explained. Indeed, it would seem totally mysterious. But if that is the case, why not just assume law can exist without any explanation? In any case, I am no scientist and I certainly don’t think Aristotle has all the answers. But I am sympathetic to accounts of the world that include law and purpose and I think some of these observations go a long way to vindicating Aristotle’s view that chance can only explain breaks from the norm: it cannot explain law-like activity.

      P.S. I see you go by the name “Buckethead”; I hope you are fan of Buckethead the musician! I have been listening to him since the late 80s and he is one of my all-time favorites…

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