Essay Nine


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I am publishing here several of Guy Robinson's Essays. One or two of them had until recently been posted at Guy's site, which no longer exists. In my opinion, Guy is one of the few Marxist Philosophers whose work is genuinely worth reading. Indeed, I'd go much further: I cannot praise his book, Philosophy and Mystification (Fordham University Press, 2003), too highly; it seems to me that this is how Marxist Philosophy should be done.


I only encountered Guy's work in 2005, but I soon saw that he had anticipated several of my own ideas -- except he manages to express in two paragraphs what it takes me several pages to say! Unlike the vast bulk of material that claims to be Marxist (particularly that which has been produced by academics), Guy's work is a model of clarity. It is no accident, therefore, to see Guy writing in the Wittgensteinian tradition.


[Many on the left think Wittgenstein was a conservative mystic. I have comprehensively refuted that idea here. Moreover, Guy's work alone is testimony to the fact that Wittgenstein's work is in fact conducive to Historical Materialism.]


Sadly, Guy passed away in October 2011.


This material has been posted here with the permission of his son, but no one should assume that Guy would have agreed with any of the views expressed at this site -- other than those already contained in his essays. Nor should anyone assume that I agree with everything Guy says. This is especially so with Guy's comments about dialectics. I have no problem with the word "dialectics" if it is understood in its classical, pre-Hegelian sense, but these waters have been permanently muddied, so I avoid using this word since it only creates the false impression that when I use it, I mean it in its post-Hegelian sense. I would also be much harder on Neo-Darwinism in general, and Richard Dawkins in particular. [On that, see Essay Thirteen Part Three and here.]


I have re-formatted these essays to agree with the conventions adopted at this site; spelling has been altered to conform to UK English. In addition, I have corrected a handful of minor typos and added several links. I have also highlighted any changes made to the original text by the use of curly brackets. [These are modifications that any editor or proof-reader would have recommended.]


This essay comprises Chapter Six of Guy's second book, Philosophy and Demystification, which has yet to find a publisher. Other chapters from this book can be accessed here.




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Chapter 6: Purpose and Purposiveness


Guy Robinson


Creativity and purposiveness are logically linked. Not only does creativity require purposiveness, but the advent of purposive action in human life {coincided} with the self-creation of humanity as creators. So it is not only the notion of creativity that has to be rescued from the passivity that has been projected onto humanity by the ideological framework of thought and the programs of explanation that were adopted in the 17th century. As we have seen, the fundamental notions of purpose, aim and purposiveness were obscured and even denied by the causal/mechanical program that was adopted in the aftermath of the bourgeois revolution. This was at a {time when} philosophers {who were} looking for a secular substitute for the theological world-view of feudalism seized on the sciences and set about trying to turn them into a unitary secular mode of explanation to replace {this} all-embracing theological framework. They aimed to do this by substituting 'Nature' for God in the old system. The program of explanation they adopted then sent them searching for ahistorical and eternal secular principles to rival and replace God in the understanding of things. This attempt at secularization by creating ahistorical God-substitutes denied them the resource of developmental and historical understanding and saddled them with the false conception of a fixed human nature divorced from history. Another effect of that program of explanation and conception of understanding was that they inevitably depicted the new bourgeois order as itself inevitable. However, in Chapter 8 I try to absolve them from intending the ideological consequences of the programs they adopted by showing how the historical situation and the state of knowledge in their time pushed them {in} that {direction} and did not offer them the possibility of a developmental and historical understanding of things. Paradoxically, it was history itself that was responsible for the ahistoricity of their program of explanation.


However, our business here is with the effects, not the causes of the adoption of their ahistorical framework of understanding and their program of explanation. One effect was to obscure or to deny outright not only human creativity by {the} more fundamental ability to act purposively at all. Obviously, we can hardly be creative without purposive action. An ancillary effect was to generate the problem of determinism with which philosophers struggled unnecessarily and {ineffectually} for so long.


If we are to understand the uniqueness of humanity and the radical difference between human history and the trajectories of development of all other species still subject only to evolutionary development, we are going to have to disentangle the notions of purpose and purposiveness from the various thickets into which they have been thrust by interested parties. Describing as 'interested' the treatment of the two notions by the founding philosophers of the modern era may seem {over-the-top} and {in need of} some explanation. Those philosophers were attending at the birth of the new order of social and economic relations based on private property and the purchase of the obligation to work for another, which were displacing the feudal relations in which those obligations were fixed by birth and were presented as 'ordained by God'. The philosophers in trying to develop a framework for making rational sense of the new social order took their conception of explanation from the dominant paradigm of the concurrent scientific revolution. That meant that they needed to show those new social relations as 'ordained by Nature' and as implicit in something called 'human nature' -- and in that way those institutions could be represented as becoming inevitable as soon as the 'unnatural' feudal relations were overthrown. The presentation of the new social order as 'inevitable' and 'natural' served the interest of those who benefited most from the new relations, namely those who were in a position to profit from purchasing from others the obligation to work for them and to make a profit from it. At the same time that claim of inevitability required that the human creativity implicit in purposive action be restricted or explained away entirely so as not to suggest the possibility of alternatives to those particular social relations.


The notions of purpose and purposiveness have also to be rescued from those such as Richard Dawkins, who would empty them of all content by applying them to genes and suchlike entities which clearly are not purposive agents with ends or aims in view guiding their behaviour. This is {an example} of image-making that makes a negative contribution to our understanding and simply muddies the waters and debases the linguistic currency.



The Two Threats To Purposiveness


There are two seemingly opposite sources of threats to the notions of purpose and purposiveness. The most obvious threat is from the mechanical world-view, which has no place for either of those notions in its program for a unitary form of explanation of everything in mechanical/causal terms. And the narrow conception of cause which arose with the mechanical world view and almost defines it, has no place for the notion of agent causation and purposiveness. In this dominant modern conception of cause, only what has a prior existence is allowed to be called a 'cause' of anything. Since the notions of agent causation or agency involve the idea  of being moved by something which does not yet exist precisely because it does not yet exist -- namely a goal or end-product -- those notions necessarily stand outside the range of this modern conception of 'cause' and the explanatory program of the mechanical world-view which is built round it. From that point of view, recognizing agent causation would be in effect to recognize something 'uncaused' and therefore inexplicable. Small wonder that the mechanists have sought to deny or to explain away agent causation and purposive action.


One can see it as a mark of the dominance of that mechanical world-view in modern times that the inability of its program of explanation to make any sense of something so commonplace and obvious as purposive action is not taken as evidence of the inadequacy of that single form of explanation to explain everything. However some enthusiasts for the program have felt so threatened by these commonplace facts that they have resorted to what amounts to no more than empty invective in trying to dispose of them, calling our everyday recognition of such things, "folk psychology". The willingness to coin such phrases simply signals a commitment to that mechanistic program so extreme that it lives in hope of being able to dispense with and find mechanical replacements for, those concepts with which we conduct our lives and regulate our relations with others.


We can easily see that the denial of purpose and purposiveness by proponents of the mechanical world-view is nothing but empty words {...} with no substance. All we have to do is to ask how someone who genuinely rejected those notions of agency and purposive action -- would conduct her or his life and relate to others without an unacknowledged appeal to the ideas of motive, action, aim or goal. Anyone who seriously eliminated those ideas from her or his life (and not just the words from their mouth or pen in the course of setting out some philosophic position) and tried to conduct their life and relations with others from the point of view that we all were only complex mechanisms incapable of purposive action -- that person would be quickly, and rightly locked up.


Of course proponents of that style of philosophy will object that all they are trying to do {is delineate} the conceptual boundaries and chart the logical relations between those ideas -- much as Descartes enjoined us to do with his method of 'hyperbolical doubt' and the sceptical method. I have argued elsewhere ('Skepticism about Skepticism' in my book Philosophy and Mystification) that there is no genuine doubt in Cartesian scepticism and his 'Method' is no method {for} doing anything. Here the argument, though allied to the one against Descartes' 'method', is slightly different. It is that once the words are cut loose from the concrete and practical sense they are given in the language, they will have lost anything firm we can work with.



'Machine Intelligence' And Mechanical Explanation


What we have here is the obverse of the so-called 'problem' of machine intelligence. (It is in effect that of showing the unintelligence of people.) As I have written elsewhere,1 anyone would also be locked up who seriously and genuinely believed in the intelligence of some machine and went beyond being confused or mouthing some words, and showed the genuineness of their belief by actually behaving toward the machine as if it were capable of intelligent, purposive action. From any other point of view not trammelled with the single-mindedness and blindness of that mechanistic program and its associated assumptions and conception of cause, it should be obvious that agent causation and purpose-driven action are precisely what distinguish humanity from the rest of nature, (including machines).2



The Theological Threat To Purposiveness


At first sight it seems surprising that the other threat to our understanding of the notions of agency and purposiveness, as well as that of purpose itself, come from what could be described as the polar opposite point of view -- a theological world-view that attributes to God the primary and founding purpose and purposiveness in and of the world, from which all others derive, including human agency and purposes. However, that surprise may be modulated somewhat by the observation that this theologically based world-view shares one fundamental feature with the mechanical: they are both attempts to impose a unitary vision, understanding and form of explanation of everything, one which derives from a program and a visionary requirement of subsuming everything under the single form of explanation to which the mechanists are committed. That vision has more about it of faith than of rationally-based argument.


But now we must try to set out the difficulties posed by this attempt to derive all purpose and purposiveness from God.


This theological view[,} of course{,} provides a convenient framework for accounts of good and evil, justice and injustice as consonance with, or departure from 'God's purpose'. It also helped consolidate Christian doctrine by undermining the attempt of the Manichean heresy to create out of the concept of evil a separate entity or principle that could even be personalised into a second deity in contention with God. In his arguments against the Manicheans, Augustine saw that evil could be analyzed as a 'falling away' from God's goodness and God's purpose and therefore not as something positive and separately existing. And it is interesting to note that that continuing echo of Manichaeism, the Devil, is described in Christian doctrine as a "fallen" angel, once God's favourite, Lucifer, the "bringer of light", who has "fallen away" from God's goodness and grace.


Our problem with this theological account of the origins and source of purpose and agency or ability to act purposively is {trying} to make out what sense, if any, can be given to the idea of God imposing either purpose or the ability to act purposively. We can start by noting that neither purpose nor agency and the ability to act purposively can be imposed on anyone. If I am in a position to impose my purposes on others, they are still my purposes and not those of the others -- until or unless they make the purposes their own by accepting them. And the idea of imposing agency and the ability to act purposively on others makes precisely the same sense as that of "forcing them to be free" -- which is to say, no sense at all.


To say that God brought purpose to the world and that all ends are but a reflection of the one transcendental end of all, is to take the subject of purpose and purposiveness out of the ambit of philosophy, and is neither to explain nor even aim to increase our intellectual grasp of those notions but is rather to assign them the status of mysteries and simply express an attitude to the world rather than making a definite verifiable claim. There is{,} of course{,} a place for mystery and the inexplicable within the framework of a religious perspective, and it is also important to see the limits on our understanding where they may exist. But that particular assignment to the status of mystery would hardly be claimed to advance the clarification and further the philosophic understanding of the notions of purpose or purposiveness.  On the contrary, even to make sense out of that theological proposition deriving all purpose and purposiveness from God, we need to have some prior, though perhaps unanalyzed understanding of the notion of purpose, one which arises out of and reflects the role of that notion in ordinary human contexts. There it has its primary home and there it gets its primary sense.



The Source Of Our Ideas Of Purpose


Because we are going to rely on that latter, Wittgensteinian view of the source of the sense words have, we should perhaps here take a brief detour and examine alternative views about where concepts or ideas come from and where words get their sense -- other views such as Descartes' that ideas are 'innate'. The question that hangs over this pale shadow of Plato's Theory of Forms, is whether it is a philosophic account at all or rather an abandonment of philosophy and in fact a barrier to philosophic understanding and clarification.


If the Cartesian view is tendered as part of a philosophical clarification, the first questions it has to face is: how are those ideas supposed to be embodied in the newborn infant and how do they come to be there? Are the ideas and concepts supposed to be embodied somehow in the genetic makeup of the infant or even the foetus and somehow derive from that physical constitution in a way which is analogous to the way the physical development of the infant, its organs, its ability to focus its eyes or control its limbs are brought about by the physical development of the nervous system?  Some, such as Piaget, have seen the emergence of certain concepts and intellectual abilities as developmental rather than a matter of acculturation and learning, and Chomsky has looked forward to the day when biological and even neurological explanations will be given for human linguistic ability and certain features which are common to human languages. The better explanation would be that there are certain features which are necessary for anything to be counted as or function as a language at all.


The difficulty with all those attempts to picture human abilities as caused, determined or explained by physical makeup is that the material constitution  and physical development can only be their condition and not their cause. This is because any particular physical or neurological arrangement is logically and conceptually compatible with the failure to develop that ability for which it has been identified as the condition. This fact denies those material arrangements the status of cause -- at least where the notion of cause is taken in the modern sense of "that which uniformly and necessarily brings something about".



Purpose And Cause


This is perhaps a convenient place to take a break from what is already a diversion from our primary problem of elucidating the notions of purpose and purposiveness and spend a moment on Aristotle's notion of cause -- because his discussion of that notion will be useful later on in our project of  elucidation.


Aristotle would agree with Chomsky and others in calling those neurological and other material arrangements 'causes' of the linguistic capacities -- but he would be so describing them in his own sense of the word 'cause'. It is important to be aware that Aristotle's concept of cause is not directed, as the modern one is, at the practical aim of manipulating the material world. His treatment of the notion of cause is part of his project of providing a framework for a perspicuous grasp of things, one that will lead us not into confusion and mystification in the way that the modern manipulative concept of cause too often has. This happens generally when that latter concept of cause is taken out of the practical sphere where it is directed at discovering ways of manipulating things and events, and is given elucidatory and philosophic work to do --  when, for example, it is made the basis of a whole mechanistic world-view.


Aristotle's elucidatory concept is broader and recognizes four different ways of being involved in the existence of anything. His concept of cause is subdivided into two pairs of dialectically linked concepts: matter/form and agent/aim, all four of which are described as 'causes' -- where that word has the broader meaning that they are implicated somehow in the existence of any identifiable thing. The above physical and neurological arrangements would come under his heading of "material cause" which is something necessary to, but not sufficient for the existence of anything. But at the same time, that of which those neurological arrangements were the material cause would, in addition, necessarily have what he called a "formal cause". The "formal cause" is equally necessary to the thing's existence and consists in that set of characteristics which something has to have to qualify for the particular descriptive term by which it is identified.


In order to exist at all, any particular identifiable thing must have a form which constitutes it that particular kind of thing, even where the "kind" may be something as vague and negative as "a break in the clouds" or "an embarrassing silence". Still, there must be something which identifies it as that particular kind of thing and distinguishes it from everything other kind of thing. Otherwise we would not even be able to talk about it at all. And if it has a form there must be some material of which the form is the form -- even though, again, that material need not be palpable physical material. It might be a set of notes whose pattern constituted them the sonata form. Some things are even constituted by absences -- the "break in the clouds" would be one example; another would be the failure to respond to an invitation or to an outstretched hand -- either of which could constitute a snub. Still, there is a whole constellation of conditions, from social conventions to the particular apprehensions and intentions of the principals, which must be in place for that immobility of hand and arm to count as an abstention and be given the weight of a snub. Those would be the "material" conditions for the existence of a snub. But they must occur on this occasion in a certain order and degree for it to constitute a snub.


It is{,} however, not necessary to a thing's existing that there be an agent that brought it into being, nor need it have a purpose or aim ("efficient cause" and "final cause" in the usual translations of Aristotle's terminology here.) Some things just come into being by accident. The crag that looks like the profile of Sitting Bull was not shaped by an agent to that end; it just happened through the combined eroding forces of water, wind and freezing.  However, anything which has got a final cause, purpose or aim must have an agent either shaping it, or else simply using to that end. The first human tools were no doubt rocks, bones and animal horns that were simply picked up and used without modification to dig, pound or whatever, and were given a purpose by those first tool users. But the purposes that attach to things don't come out of the air. Things are either made and shaped for some purpose by an agent, or else they are simply used for a purpose. A third way in which things may be said to have purposes is for there to be, or to have been a tradition or practice in a particular culture of using them for some purpose. Agents will be involved in one or other of those three ways in the purpose which attaches to anything.



The Dialectical Link Between Agent And Aim


Equally, the notions of agency or agent causation necessarily involve those of end or purpose. Blundering, random or aimless behaviour does not constitute agency or purposive action. Of course, things that have come into being through  aimless or even blundering action may be pressed into use by an agent and thus given a purpose, as in the above examples of the first tools of homo habilis. But even in that case the one who uses it is the cause of the thing's having a purpose, and in that way, the agent transforms it: what was simply a stone becomes a hammer or a missile, a tool or a weapon. The two notions of agent, on the one hand and aim or purpose on the other, are dialectically linked: no agent action without purpose and no end or purpose without agent action or at least intention or tradition of use.


In asserting a necessary link between agent and aim we have generated for ourselves a major problem that will occupy much of the latter part of the analysis. We will have to deal later with the threat which this seems to pose of landing us with a doctrine of Special Creation in order to supply an agent for the functions and purposes of the organs, limbs and instinctive behaviours of the various species of living creatures. In dealing with that problem, we must also face the fact that neither Nature nor Evolution can be dressed up and personified or turned into separately existing entities in order to play the role of 'agent' here. And we will have to look later at Richard Dawkins' mischievous promotion of genetic material to the status of purposive agent by attributing motive (i.e.{,} "selfishness") and therefore agency to the genes that shape the constitution of (and the instinctive behaviour of some) living beings. Looked at closely, this description turns out to be no more than a poetical trope and not a piece of serious scientific analysis.


Also, because we need to note that 'species' is an abstraction and a classification, not a physical entity to which agency could be attributed, we seem to be left dangling in the search for an agent to go with those functions and purposes. This poses our problem. We will have to see how to avoid temptations to mystified 'solutions' to this problem which has been  posed by the dialectical link between the notions of agent and purpose.


For the moment we need to return to our original  project of bringing out the difficulties and incoherencies involved in the attempt to elevate the material, physical, biological conditions of the acquisition by human beings of language and linguistic ability to the status of explanations of those linguistic abilities and the concepts that are involved. There is a deeper difficulty in this would-be type of explanation namely, that the program of  explanation in terms of the physiological preconditions has no place for the notion of the function of human language in human life, nor would it allow us to bring the point and role of particular concepts or words in the lives of those humans who employ them, into our understanding of the particular characteristics and history of development of those concepts.



Language And Purpose 


It is impossible to give an intelligible account of human language and particularly of the change and development of languages without bringing in, and indeed basing it on the role and function of language in human life, in the development of that life, and in the history of any linguistic community. That very development in the life and physical environment of a people which is facilitated by language and later by writing will of course reflect back on that language and mandate matching developments in the language itself, creating an endless dialectical cycle, one which helps to generate the history of that people. Without that role and function in human life it would not be language at all, but merely decorative arabesques of sound without sense or point. Even the songs of birds, though their individual sounds have no sense attached to them, nevertheless have functions such as attracting a mate or warning rivals out of their territory.


Even more fundamentally, there can be no coherent or intelligible 'explanation' of human language or linguistic ability which does not base itself on human agency, on the ability of humans to endow sounds, shapes or gestures with a use or purpose -- that is, to create symbols. Agency, creativity and ability to use things for purposes is not something which can be imposed genetically nor 'explained' biologically in the way Chomsky envisages. Biology and genetic endowments can at best provide the conditions for that creativity and ability to endow things with purposes. That creativity and agency, as we have said, can hardly be caused or necessitated by anything external to humanity. Again, that would make as much sense as "forcing" someone to be free, which is in effect to say that they are 'not free' to be 'not free'. Make sense out of that if you can!


However insisting on the necessary involvement of function, purpose or role in something's being described as a language, lands us with the problem of identifying a shaping agent which gives it that function or purpose. Clearly there is no individual who shapes a whole language and calls the changes over what might be millennia of development.


To solve this problem we will have to think clearly about how languages do actually develop and change over the generations. Individual members of a linguistic community may come up with new concepts and new usages but can hardly unilaterally impose them on the community. It requires a communal recognition of the usefulness of those concepts or usages for them to be incorporated into the language. A language is a historical artefact of a community over time, a community whose way of life, whose aims, skills and material environment will be changing in ways that call for corresponding changes in that language to reflect that new environment. These developments in their language enable the community to operate in the new environment according to the new aims that are made possible by developments in skills, understanding, and social institutions. To these developments we have to add changes in the built environment -- the clearings, houses, towns, bridges, boats or factories -- as well as the minefields, deserts or polluted rivers which have also resulted from human activity. The upshot of all this is that we have to see the linguistic community (taken over time) as the collective historical agent shaping the language and giving it whatever functions and roles it has at particular time. (If that conception of a historical community as collective agent creates difficulties for adherents of the mechanical world-view -- so be it!)



Discarding Innatism


There is perhaps one further consideration that will put the innatist conception of the origin of concepts and language out of contention and leave us free to search for the origins of the concepts of purpose and purposiveness in the humble surroundings of their role and use in the language of the ordinary life of a people.


It would strain credulity beyond breaking to try to imagine that the enormous variety of human languages, ways of life and ways of grasping the world could be accounted for within an innatist framework. An equally destructive strain on our credulity would be exerted by the suggestion that the historical development of languages from, say the Palaeolithic grunt to classical Greek, or from the Goidelic form of the Celtic language to the Brythonic, could be given an intelligible account within that innatist framework. That would-be framework of understanding of the source of concepts and language offers us no way of accounting for the immense variation between languages on the one hand, nor of the historical developments within them, on the other. We need to leave innatism in the dust by the roadside and carry on.


Philosophers too often talk as though there were some single unitary thing called 'language', eternal and unchanging existing like a Platonic Form outside of all human languages. Of course there is no such entity. There  are only the hundreds and thousands of languages past and existing, languages that came into being at a certain time and which are now disappearing at an unprecedented rate as the economic and cultural pressures of globalization overwhelm previously isolated and self sufficient communities and cultures.



Language And Evolution


There will, of course, be those who try to invoke evolution to account for historical developments within languages. To do this is merely to muddy the waters and to engage in sloppy thinking.  We can of course talk about the 'evolution' of all sorts of things from Gregorian Chant to airplane design, farm machinery or Paris fashion.  But in talking in that way we are hardly invoking some agency called 'evolution' to explain how or why changes occurred in those human practices, tools or undertakings. To describe such a series of changes as 'evolving' is hardly to offer some separate thing, 'evolution' as the explanation for their occurrence; it is rather to describe each phase as related to the previous phases with a kind of dependency which might range from certain developments being a condition of later ones, to the suggestion by certain developments of further extensions to an intelligent practitioner. There are also those developments which call for others by posing problems or offering opportunities that hadn't previously existed. All this takes place in a context of human practices and purposive, intelligent action. Without that context those relations of dependency would not exist nor would those developments take place which we can call "evolutions".


We can, of course, also talk about "evolution" in circumstances where neither natural selection nor human agency is involved -- and this in at least two ways. We can talk about the "evolution" of the Universe or the stars or of various physical systems, and would in that case be asserting a physical, mechanical causal connection between each phase and the succeeding one. We can also talk about evolution in a classic Darwinian sense in which the subject of evolution is a whole species and the developments are species-wide changes in instinctive behaviours or the biological makeup of the members of the species. It is here that we come up against the problem earlier signalled, the problem which is generated for the dialectical linkage between the notion of agency (or 'efficient cause' in the Aristotelian terminology) on the one hand and the notions of aim, purpose (or 'final cause' in that same terminology). If we accept it that the notions of agency and purpose are conceptually linked -- so that it makes no sense to talk of agency except in relation to purposive, directed action and production, nor to talk of purposive, directed action or production except where there is a shaping, directing agent, we seem to have generated a problem for ourselves.



Function Without Design


Given the obvious functionality of the limbs, organs, drives and instinctive behaviours that are part of the genetic endowment of the members of each species it looks as though we are going to have either to give up that claim of dialectical linkage between agent and aim or else perhaps to accept the Creationist argument that there must be an agent responsible for the functionality and purpose shown by the form of each species. This seems to land us with the Argument from Design and in that way burdening God with the task of designing the millions and millions of species both existing and extinct. [The Creationists who are so keen on this argument ought to be made aware that they are at the same time convicting God of being a pretty incompetent designer -- given the billions and billions of adjustments in design that have had to be made and the millions of failed experiments in the form of extinct species which fell by the way because they were not fitted properly to cope with their environment. In any case, creationism is in no sense a theory; it illuminates nothing, suggests no research and in no way holds itself open to refutation. It simply consigns the problem to the status of 'mystery' and is the equivalent of the "Don't ask" reaction of a parent to a bothersome child's persistent questioning.]


Of course{,} the main point of the Darwinian analysis was to obviate the need to retreat into mystification when faced with the problem of understanding and accounting for the intricate adaptation of species to their environment and it aimed as well at finding a natural process that would account for the developmental transformation of species which is shown in the fossil record. To explain those transformations and the divergence of species that resulted from them, Darwin proposed a process of 'natural' selection on analogy with, but in contrast to, the deliberate selection by plant and animal breeders designed to develop species in directions chosen by the breeders for their own purposes.



"Nature" And "Natural" As Descriptive Not Explanatory


We have to analyze that concept of 'natural' selection and try to understand it in ways which avoid mystifying it by turning 'nature' into a separate entity which could stand to species as causal or originating agent. If we were to fall into that kind of mystification we would not have advanced one bit beyond the position of the Creationists. In fact we would be worse off because we would have dressed up what is essentially the same position in words that make it look scientific and would be subverting the usefulness of the words "nature" and "natural" by following the 17th century philosophers and turning 'nature' into a separated, and therefore mystified, existing thing that could stand in some sort of causal/explanatory relation to  the things of this world. [Here again we would do well to look again at the status which Aristotle gives to the term "natural". For him it is a purely descriptive term, not an explanatory one. It simply designates "what happens by-and-large and for the most part". It offers an observation about how things are -- not an explanation of them.]3


We are going have also to analyze and clarify the kind of explanation offered by Darwin's 'natural selection' if we are to understand the particular way in which the notions of purpose and function attach to the organs and instinctive behaviours of living species. Through that analysis we would aim at avoiding the commitment to the Argument from Design which accepting a dialectical connection between the concept of purpose and that of agent would otherwise appear to force on us.


Perhaps we need to begin by distinguishing between strict Darwinian understanding and the short-hand talk of many ethologists and evolutionary biologists who, for example, may describe the males of some species as "mating with as many females as possible in order to leave as many reproductions of themselves as possible and ensure the continuation of their line." Those males are, of course, doing no such thing. They are simply behaving as they were programmed to behave by the selection process that made it likely that their own parents were the product of similarly productive males, and passed that productivity gene on to them.  And here we must resist taking literally talk such as Richard Dawkins' attribution of agency, purpose and "selfishness" to those genes themselves. To take this metaphorical and even poetic talk literally would be to fall into a mystification about on the same level as Creationism. The genes may in fact shape the species and its behaviour, but hardly because they aim to or have any purpose in so doing. To take that 'as if' talk as literal truth is to undo Darwin's work by reintroducing the notions of agency and purpose where he showed that we could understand species evolution and adaptation without them.


The confusions which threaten here, and which Dawkins seems to have fallen into, are the result of the modern rejection of the Aristotelian conception of nature and the natural as simply recording and describing observed patterns of change and development. In place of that conception, the philosophers of the scientific revolution attempted to put a conception of 'Nature' as the agent of change which controlled them through its 'laws'. This introduced the confusions and pseudo-explanations examined in Chapter 2. Here it tends to turn our attention away from the possibility of explaining the functionality of organs, limbs and instincts in terms of normal patterns of development (which are precisely the Aristotelian concept of "the natural"). That is what we must do if we are to deal with the problem we set ourselves by affirming a dialectical relation between agent and aim the consequent problem of seeing how {...} the notion of function can be understood in this context without invoking the notion of an agent and falling into the hands of the Creationists.


To resolve our problem about the apparent purposiveness of the organs limbs and behaviours of even the simplest species we will have to be very careful about the underlying suggestion of agency and purpose-driven action that is associated with many of the words and phrases we use in discussing evolution. Even Darwin's phrase "natural selection" could have traps for the unwary since the word "selection" has its root sense and origin in the choices of purposive agents. But of course Darwin was using the word deliberately in order to offer an analogy with the deliberate selections of plants and animals by humans to suit human purposes, and in that way to provide a familiar model to help grasp the new paradigm of understanding that he was offering to make sense of the development of species shown in the fossil record and to understand what appeared to be a purposeful arrangement and behaviours of individual species{,} one that did not imply that a purposive agent was involved.


Our problem is the more difficult one of showing that since there is no purposive agent involved, what overwhelmingly appears to be a purposive arrangement has to be seen and understood as involving no more than a simulacrum of purpose. Even though it is clearly tempting and convenient to talk about the 'purpose' of the liver or the pituitary gland we have to be clear that this is not to be taken literally as implying a purposive agent.


What appears to be positive and purpose-directed is in fact the result of a double negative -- the elimination of the less well-fitted or well-adapted. Now it may look as though we are sneaking purpose back in when we talk about 'well-adapted' or 'well-fitted' and we have to go on to identify the legitimate source of the temptation to talk in purposive terms about the organs and behaviours of living creatures.


We are led to see the organic arrangements and instinctive behaviours of biological species as purposive and understandably use the language of purpose to describe them because we identify something as belonging to a particular living species precisely through its having a characteristic pattern of behaviour and development which has its source inside rather than outside it. These characteristic patterns of development and behaviour not only allow us to group living things into species but they allow us to introduce the ideas of benefit and harm in relation to individuals of those species, and in a different and extended sense, to the species themselves. Talk of harm and benefit to individuals has to be understood as what interrupts or distorts those characteristic patterns on the one hand and what aids and enables them on the other. That sense will do for individuals of a species, but when it comes to species themselves it is changes in those patterns themselves which are at issue and so we have to reframe our definitions in terms of the survival of the species itself and harm becomes what threatens the survival of the species and benefit what aids its chances of survival or helps it to multiply and flourish.


The patterns of development, form, and characteristic instinctive behaviours by which we identify individuals as members of a particular species are now understood as determined by genetic material in ways whose mechanisms we are beginning to unravel. Naturally, we find in existence only that genetic material which has determined the form and behaviour of species in ways that have enabled them to survive. Variations in that material, whether accidentally caused or manipulated by genetic engineering may lead to increased or diminished chances of survival. That is the core of evolutionary theory and helps us to see that what appears at first sight to be positive and purposive is to be understood negatively in terms of the elimination of those who do not fit well into their environment and flourish there.


It is the contrary of helpful to try to strike the imagination by reintroducing the notion of purpose in a metaphorical trope of second-rate poetry such as Richard Dawkins phrase: "the selfish gene". Apart from selling books, it is hard to see what is meant to be accomplished by this personification of genes, by attributing selfhood and motive to them. What the attempt to put this poetic trope forward as a piece of serious analysis does accomplish is to muddy the waters and to devalue and confuse the notion of purpose to the point where it is no longer useful. It also undoes all the careful work of evolutionary biology by positing little mini-gods inside each living being. This is just as unhelpful as the mechanistic pretence that we can do without the notion of purpose altogether.


That failure of the mechanical/causal model of explanation to provide any understanding of purpose or of the actions of rational, purposive agents has generated many layers of obscurity which we have had to dig through in trying to rescue and clarify those notions. Some, such as Descartes, have left in our path problems which are both insoluble and unnecessary, by conjuring up a whole realm of 'immaterial entities' (which {is} how he represented 'minds'){,} which were meant to be exempt from the laws of mechanical causation and were yet at the same time meant to be able to insert themselves somehow into a world of purely physical bodies and direct their movements. This piles mystery on mystery and creates rather than solves problems.


The conjuring of immaterial entities to solve philosophic problems has a history going back to Plato but what is surprising is that in all that time it seems not to have become clear that those conjurings solve nothing but only create the inevitable problem of how those immaterial entities are meant to relate to the ordinary world. In this case, thinking that he was preserving rationality and purposiveness from the march of mechanical explanation, Descartes created the body/mind problem by conjuring two separately existing entities out of each ordinary rational human. One of these purported separate entities was meant to be subject to the 'laws of motion' and the other not. Naturally and inevitably it was impossible to give an intelligible account of the relation between these separated entities, the immaterial mind and the material body (what Gilbert Ryle called "the Ghost in the Machine".)


With living species we already encounter an internal principle of movement, nourishment, development and reproduction, which Aristotle called their "nature", and which is not found in the same fullness in the inanimate. (Inanimate things and substances have natures{,} too, but not such as would allow us to talk about their 'development' but only about the change they undergo under certain circumstances.) These principles are internal to the individual members of each species and are presumed to result from the genetic material specific to them. Those principles and that genetic material are themselves subject to a higher order principle of development under environmental pressures and it is this principle of development of species which has given rise to the appearance of purpose and the consequent usefulness of purposive language in describing the organic arrangement and functioning of living species. But that usefulness of purposive language in describing those organic arrangements must not deceive us into thinking that they are to be explained purposively as having been shaped and determined by the purposes they are to serve.


Genuine purpose and the purposive action of rational agents is directed at, and directed by what does not yet exist, precisely because it does not yet exist. There we encounter a principle of movement which is not only utterly different from those imitations of purpose generated by environmental pressures, and it is one which is in its turn subject to principles of development which are historical and not environmental. The purposes and aims that I may have are in one way rooted in the past, but not after the manner of evolution. Those purposes I can entertain do not come out of thin air -- nor are they 'innate' as some philosophers adhering to the individualistic agenda have been forced to imagine because of their commitment to the ideological program of presenting the individual as self-standing and formed independently of any social milieu. Those possible aims, aspirations and plans are created for me by the whole history of development of the culture which I have inherited and into which I have been inducted by training, example, instruction, reward and punishment. By those means I have acquired the skills, the knowledge, the conception of human life and what it is to be a member of a particular society -- all of which contribute to the range of things I can envisage and can set out to do.


However, that history has not come to a halt with me and it is even possible for me to contribute to it and to extend the range of aims and actions which are possible in my society. But again, whatever extensions I may make will not be made arbitrarily or out of the blue, nor, on the other hand, will they be causally determined by that previous history. To develop and extend a practice and to open up new possibilities, one has to step outside that practice reflectively and engage in what could be described as a "dialogue" with one's previous practice. Collectively, human history, insofar as it is intelligible, and not just a catalogue of accidents, arises out of just that sort of dialogue with the past and reflection on past practices and institutions to see how they may be developed and extended{,} or perhaps need to be rejected and replaced by new practices. Of course that reflection and that distancing need not involve a conscious act. Simply in seeing and adopting alternatives to, or extensions of given practices, a people has distanced itself from them.


The institutions and practices of human societies grow in this way out of previous practices. Even where the changes are radical and involve a large scale rejection of previous practices and institutions it is nevertheless a rejection of just these particular ones and is shaped by that fact. It is for these reasons that humanity's historical development has been described by Marx as "dialectical". Despite the clouds of mystery that have been raised around the word "dialectical"{,} this is in fact a prescription and a program for making history intelligible -- rather than a gaseous metaphysical pronouncement. It also helps us to see why history has to be put at the centre of our understanding of the world in the way that Historical Materialism enjoins.


I have tried to clear away a few impediments to a clearer understanding of both purpose and the ability to act purposively in pursuit of self set goals. That ability characterises rational beings and distinguishes them from the rest of living species because it introduces a principle of movement and development that goes beyond, and even runs counter to the development in response to environmental pressures which characterises the rest of living beings.



1. In chapter 5, 'How to Tell Your Friends From Machines', in my book Philosophy and Mystification (London and New York, Routledge, 1998;  and in Paperback at a better price and {with} a better cover, by Fordham University Press, 2003).


2. I realize that there is a world of argument to be conducted over that bald statement and that much work has to go into distinguishing a number of simulacra from genuine agent causation. These simulacra would include instinctive behaviours, conditioned behaviours and drives. I have had something to say about these in several places -- particularly in Chapter 9, 'Language and the Society of Others' in Philosophy and Mystification. We will return to this problem later.


3. These matters are gone into further in Chapter 1, 'Historical and Ahistorical Views of the World' as well as in Chapter 2, 'The Concept of Nature, its Mystification and Demystification'.



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