The Origins of  the Crisis and a Proposed Solution



Thomas Patrick Burke  D. Phil., D. Th.

Temple University Emeritus


The aim of this book is to defend the paradoxical and highly controversial thesis that living beings are alive. For in scientific circles, including those in biology, it is an almost universal assumption that they are machines. Of course biologists will agree, if we ask them in these precise words,  that living beings are "alive," but what they mean by "alive" is just a specially complex kind of machine. A very remarkable and even marvellous machine, no doubt, a machine that reproduces itself, heals its wounds, consumes food and converts the substance of the food into its own flesh, and does all the other astonishing things we expect living things to do. But underneath the appearances, scientists in general, with honorable but very few exceptions,  believe there is only one kind of causation in the universe, and it is mechanistic. I will shortly go into the enormous differences between these two.  But in the meantime there are one or two other things that need to be said by way of preface.

This is not an attack on science. I have always loved science because of its dedication to the truth. Although human nature would often like to put its thumb on the scale to favor its own opinion,  in the short space of some 400 years modern science has existed it has created a great global conspiracy for rationality, honesty and impartiality. And this has increased our knowledge of the world we live in, and so of ourselves as part of that world,  more than all the previous thousands of years combined.  Science has been humanity's great source of enlightenment in the modern world.

But that is not the whole story, for there is also another story. That other story is the story of a particular viewpoint, the mechanistic philosophy, which has claimed the mantle of science, but with little right. In its telling, as I say, there is only one kind of causation in the universe, and it is that of the machine:  all living beings, plants and microbes and animals and human beings are in the last analysis nothing more than mechanisms, it claims. The intellectual crisis of the modern world is the conflict between this mechanistic philosophy and the richness and depth of human reality. The mechanistic philosophy teaches that what happens, happens of necessity, and what people do, they do of necessity. There are no genuine purposes, but only appearances of purpose, and there is no genuine human meaning, but only appearances and imitations of meaning.  It tries, though so far unsuccessfully,  to explain the mind and human consciousness as just a complicated mechanical process.  It does not recognize the qualities that most set human beings apart: the astonishing ingenuity of the imagination, the spontaneity or the tenacity  of the free will, the sublimity of  heroism, or the horrors of deliberate evil. The banishment of true purpose and meaning has cast a long  pall over human existence. It has given us a deeply impoverished conception of ourselves and our world. In the words of author Raymond Tallis, the result is “a picture of humanity that is not only wrong but degrading.”[1]

In accepting the mechanistic philosophy,  as it so widely has, Western civilization has been going down the wrong path: a path to intellectual self-destruction. This  philosophy places us in a critical situation where in an important sense we deny our own existence, in that we do not recognize the reality of the qualities that are most central to our existence and most characteristic of us as a species. 

As just mentioned, the core of the mechanistic philosophy is a certain view of causation.  According to that view all the changes that take place in any corner of the universe are the product solely of chance and necessity. The aim of this book is, while acknowledging the value of the mechanistic philosophy for understanding a certain portion of the universe, to argue that a thoroughly different and far more interesting causation prevails in the remainder.

The realm where the mechanistic philosophy is useful and appropriate is the inanimate world. The domain where it is misleading, inappropriate and false, and where the alternative and non-mechanistic causation prevails is that of living beings.  For the alternative philosophy I will suggest is centered on a specific conception of the phenomenon of life. Namely,  that it consists in the power of self-movement.

If our understanding of living beings in general is deepened in accordance with this non-mechanistic alternative, it will provide an intelligible foundation for the freedom of the human mind and will, as I believe, for human action, for purpose as well as for consciousness and subjective experience. It will thus provide a foundation for the human values that spring from that freedom, consciousness and subjectivity, and which on the mechanistic hypothesis remain utterly incomprehensible. 

We will begin by examining how and why the mechanistic philosophy came to dominance.  For it does not rest on any substantial theoretical arguments, but is the product of purely pragmatic considerations which have attained the status of dogmas, and is undermined by its own history.

In its power and influence the mechanistic philosophy for the most part is a creation of modern times. But its beginnings reach back to the earliest days of science.  To understand the  situation in which we now find ourselves it will be helpful to commence the story from its beginnings, which took place in ancient Greece. We will start with Socrates. 




1.  Science and Socrates..............................................6

2.  On Being Alive: Plato..........................................19

3.  On Being Alive: Aristotle....................................33

4.  The New Science.................................................41

5.  Man The Machine...............................................51

6.  Natural Purposes.................................................61

7.  Darwin................................................................70

8.  Genetics..............................................................84

9.  Vitalism..............................................................93  

10 The Physics of Life: Schrödinger.....................100

11.  Epigenetics...…………................ .................107

12.  Emergence......................................................126

13.  The Freedom of the Human Will....................132

14.  The Restoration of Meaning......................... .147

15.   Science and Knowledge.................................158

16.  The Purpose of the World............................. .163

Notes for an Additional Chapter............................168


The Problem

            Modern science—by which I mean the physical or ‘hard’ sciences of physics, chemistry and biology—has been  arguably the most successful of all human enterprises. From the inconceivably large down to the unimaginably small, from the galaxies and dark matter to atoms and quarks, and going back to the earliest moments of time in the Big Bang, science has expanded and transformed our understanding of the universe beyond measure. Consequently science in our society has immense authority. It sets the standard for knowledge. Claims to knowledge, no matter how important the field in which they are made, that do not conform to the standard of scientific knowledge lack the prestige that accompanies even the slightest scientific discovery.  But alongside this scientific knowledge something else has grown which is not scientific knowledge but a philosophy or perhaps we should use the term ideology: a quasi-philosophical perspective which in the last analysis views all living beings, including all human beings, merely as pieces of machinery, as related in the preface.

            I am far from being the first to highlight this problem. In  the twentieth century alone a substantial literature has developed around it. In 1962 the American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars pointed out the "radical difference" between the "manifest image of man" that our ordinary experience gives us and the "scientific image" of man. He considered the latter closer to the truth. . In 1970 French biologist Jacques Monod published what became in effect the manifesto of the mechanist philosophy, Chance and NecessityLe hasard et la necessite'. proclaiming a new ethics centered on scientific knowledge as the supreme value.  For man knows he is alone in the indifferent immensity of the universe from which he has emerged by chance."   In recent years the tension between the two images of man has become especially acute as a result of developments in neuroscience, whose practitioners tell us, for example, that "we are our brain," and the chemical changes in our brains dictate our actions to us so that our traditional belief in free will and responsibility no longer makes sense. Here are a few samples.   In 1983 Benjamin Libet, of the department of physiology of the University of California in San Francisco, appeared to demonstrate that the brain primes itself for movement prior to any conscious decision by the person to move. For some people Libet's experiment by itself was sufficient to disprove the reality of free will.  In 2003 Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner appeared to show that feelings of intentionality--such as having the intention to move a limb--can be mistaken. In 2009 French neuroscientist Michel Desmurget and his colleagues showed that electrical stimulation of areas of the cortex provokes a desire to move one’s foot or roll one’s tongue. American researcher Michael Gazzaniga has argued that despite neuroscience "we are still in charge" of our lives, but that moral values can no longer be sought within the individual, but only in the relationship between individuals and society.  Eric Kandel, a Nobel prize-winner, wrote in Principles of Nearal Science (2001): 'All biological phenomena are properties of matter.'  Similarly, Larry R. Squire in Fundamental Neuroscience (2008) states that all behaviour and all mental life have their origin in the structure and function of the nervous system.  If this is so, however, it raise very serious problems for the conduct of human life.  How can there be such a thing as human dignity or natural rights?   How can there be moral values?  More and more such ideas are being voiced in courts of law, where they are used to lessen or eliminate the personal responsibility of individuals for criminal actions.

            The situation is confused because there have been revolutions in the history of science, and there have been revolutions also in the quasi-philosophical perspective  associated  with science and often used to interpret experimental results. In order to understand this confused situation properly it will be helpful first to trace the dramatic and fascinating story of how our current situation arose.  This I plan to examine in the next few lectures. From that story I believe it will be possible to see the direction we must take to find a remedy.  For I believe there is a remedy, and it is hiding in plain sight.


            The story began some twenty-five hundred years ago with Socrates, as depicted in the writings of Plato. I plan to read with you the initial episode of the story as Plato tells it in his dialogue, Phaedo.  Specifically the story begins with Socrates sitting on a bench.  The question to be discussed is: what is the explanation of the fact that Socrates is sitting on this bench?  Curiously the answer to this apparently simple question will lead us into the heart of the intellectual crisis of the modern world. There are four stages. The first is to become acquainted with Socrates's own answer to the question. The second, in our next lecture, will be to see Plato's timeless contribution to the question. Then in our third lecture we will examine what Aristotle and his followers made of Socrates's answer and Plato's contribution. Aristotle's interpretation was to govern science for two thousand years, while Plato's contribution was to be completely ignored. The fourth will be to grasp how, beginning around the year 1600, the great founders of modern science, such as William Gilbert, Francis Bacon, Galileo and Descartes, responded to Aristotle. Each of these stages bears directly on our current predicament.

            The story begins in the prison of Athens in 399 BC. For this was where Socrates and his bench were located. As you no doubt know, he had been put on trial for corrupting the Athenian youth; he was found guilty and condemned to death.  His execution had been delayed, but now the appointed day has come, and his friends are paying him a last visit.  It would have been possible for him to escape during this time, and it seems plausible that the authorities even wanted him to escape, but he refused to do that. The right thing for Athens to do was to declare him innocent and free him. If they were not willing to do that, they should take responsibility for their actions, he felt.

            The group of friends in the prison cell have been discussing the question whether the soul lives on after death. Socrates has been trying to convince his visitors that there is good reason to believe both that the soul existed before it entered this body, and that it continues to live on after the body's death.  But one, Cebes, still has doubts. Socrates begins now in response to him by saying that when he was young he wanted to become a scientist,  because science reveals the causes of things.  “I had a prodigious desire to know that department of philosophy which is called the investigation of nature. To know the causes of things, and why a thing is and is created or destroyed appeared to me to be a lofty profession.” 

            The earliest accounts of nature and causation in Western civilization were given by the Greek myths, those stories about the gods told especially by the poets Homer and Hesiod several centuries before Socrates. These myths are a lasting presence in our civilization to this day, for example in the names we give to the planets and the stars. The stories are often vivid reflections of human nature,  and many people feel there is deep wisdom in them. But by the 6th century BC a number of thinkers sought to understand nature on its own terms, leaving aside the poets, the myths and the gods. The first of these thinkers is generally considered to have been Thales, a citizen of the city of Miletus on what is now the west coast of Turkey. Thales came up with an amazing statement, which I will tell you in a moment. But unless I tell you why it was amazing you will laugh, which would not be the right reaction. It was an amazing statement because it was a theory of everything, and to our knowledge no one had produced a theory of everything before. As you no doubt know,  modern scientists are still searching for a theory of everything. But Thales was the first. In modern English Thales’s statement would be translated, Everything  consists of liquid or fluid. But ancient Greek did not have a word precisely for ‘liquid’ so Thales used the next best word. He said, Everything consists of water. This was an epoch-making statement because it did not belong to the world of myth or poetry, but was to be taken completely  literally.

His example was followed by Anaximander, Anaximenes, Anaxagoras and several others. These were the first scientists.  They pursued causes: what causes what? What is the world made of? What are the most basic substances?  Various theories were suggested.  Thales reasoned that the basic substance must be water, since it is so widespread; others opted for earth, fire or air. Some, such as Leucippus and Democritus, suggested that everything was made of indivisible particles, "atoms."

            Socrates, however -- to return to him -- found after a while that his enthusiasm for discovering causes led him to forget his common sense.  “I was always agitating myself with the consideration of questions such as these: is the growth of animals the result of some decay which the hot and cold principle contracts, as some have said? Is the blood the element with which we think, or the air, or the fire?”  He had always known as a matter of common sense, for example,  that peoples’ bodies grow in size by eating and drinking: that was a self-evident truth. But now, as a result of his constant search for causes, he became thoroughly confused. For what is the cause of mathematical truths?  This seemed a complete mystery.  “I should be far enough from imagining...that I knew the cause of any of them, by heaven I should; for I cannot satisfy myself that, when one is added to one, the one to which the addition is made becomes two, or that the two units added together make two by reason of the addition. I cannot understand how, when separated from the other, each of them was one and not two, and now, when they are brought together, the mere juxtaposition or meeting of them should be the cause of their becoming two: neither can I understand how the division of one is the way to make two; for then a different cause would produce the same effect,—as in the former instance the addition and juxtaposition of one to one was the cause of two, in this the separation and subtraction of one from the other would be the cause.”  This confusion has led him to give up the quest for causes.  “I am no longer satisfied that I understand the reason why one or anything else is either generated or destroyed or is at all.”   

            But he hoped to be rescued from this despairing state by a book which would suggest to him a new mode of thinking. The book was written by one of the leading theoreticians of early Greece, Anaxagoras, whom we have just mentioned, and who argued that on a fundamental level there are not one but two irreducibly different kinds of reality: there is matter and there is mind:  an opinion which is still of the utmost relevance to the most recent debates. The world is not merely matter, said Anaxagoras, as some of his fellow thinkers assumed, but must be the product of mind, for there is order in the world, and only a mind can produce order. But where there is mind, Socrates reasoned,  there will be value judgments: some things by nature will be good and other things by nature will be bad. In that case the important thing to find out will be, not merely facts, what is or is not the case, or what causes or produces what,  but above all what is good and what is bad, what ought to be and what ought not to be. This was what Socrates expected to hear from Anaxagoras. But Anaxagoras’s actual message was to turn out very different from what Socrates imagined.

I will quote Socrates’s words, as recounted by Plato, at some length, so that you can see more accurately what he had in mind, so far as possible, because they were to have a very great effect on the history of human thought.  Please note particularly the words I emphasize by printing in bold, since his usage is very different from what we are accustomed to today. 

Then I heard some one reading, as he said, from a book of Anaxagoras, that mind was the disposer and cause of alland I was delighted at this notion, which appeared quite admirable, and I said to myself: If mind is the disposer, mind will dispose all for the best, and put each particular thing in the best place;  and I argued that if any one desired to find out the cause of the generation or destruction or existence of anything, he must find out what state of being or doing or suffering was best for that thing, and therefore a man had only to consider the best for himself and others, and then he would also know the worse, since the same science comprehended both. And I rejoiced to think that I had found in Anaxagoras a teacher of the causes of existence such as I desired, and I imagined that he would tell me first whether the earth is flat or round; and whichever was true, he would proceed to explain the cause and the necessity of this being so, and then he would teach me the nature of the best and show that this was best; and if he said that the earth was in the centre, he would further explain that this position was the best, and I should be satisfied with the explanation given, and not want any other sort of cause. And I thought that I would then go on and ask him about the sun and moon and stars, and that he would explain to me their comparative swiftness, and their returnings and various states, active and passive, and how all of them were for thebest. For I could not imagine that when he spoke of mind as the disposer of them, he would give any other account of their being as they are, except that this was best; and I thought that when he had explained to me in detail the cause of each and the cause of all, he would go on to explain to me what was best for each and what was good for all. These hopes I would not have sold for a large sum of money, and I seized the books and read them as fast as I could in my eagerness to know the better and the worse.

Socrates, however, found he had jumped prematurely to conclusions about Anaxagoras's theories.

What expectations I had formed, and how grievously was I disappointed! As I proceeded, I found my philosopher altogether forsaking mind or any other principle of order, but having recourse to air, and ether, and water, and other eccentricities. I might compare him to a person who began by maintaining generally that mind is the cause of the actions of Socrates, but who, when he endeavoured to explain the causes of my individual actions in detail, went on to show that I sit here because my body is made up of bones and muscles; and the bones, as he would say, are hard and have joints which divide them, and the muscles are elastic, and they cover the bones, which have also a covering or environment of flesh and skin which contains them; and as the bones are lifted at their joints by the contraction or relaxation of the muscles, I am able to bend my limbs, and this is why I am sitting here in a curved posture—that is what he would say; and he would have a similar explanation of my talking to you, which he would attribute to sound, and air, and hearing, and he would assign ten thousand other causes of the same sort, forgetting to mention the true cause, which is, that the Athenians have thought fit to condemn me, and accordingly I have thought it better and more right to remain here and undergo my sentence; for I am inclined to think that these muscles and bones of mine would have gone off long ago to Megara or Boeotia—by the dog they would, if they had been moved only by their own idea of what was best, and if I had not chosen the better and nobler part, instead of playing truant and running away, of enduring any punishment which the state inflicts. There is surely a strange confusion of causes and conditions in all this. It may be said, indeed, that without bones and muscles and the other parts of the body I cannot execute my purposes. But to say that I do as I do because of them, and that this is the way in which mind acts, and not from the choice of the best, is a very careless and idle mode of speaking. I wonder that they cannot distinguish the cause from the condition, which the many, feeling about in the dark, are always mistaking and misnaming. And thus one man makes a vortex all round and steadies the earth by the heaven; another gives the air as a support to the earth, which is a sort of broad trough. Any power which in arranging them as they are arranges them for the best never enters into their minds; and instead of finding any superior strength in it, they rather expect to discover another Atlas of the world who is stronger and more everlasting and more containing than the good;—of the obligatory and containing power of the good they think nothing; and yet this is the principle which I would fain learn if any one would teach me. 


Scientific Explanation

            Socrates has distinguished between two very different conceptions of explanation. The explanation that he depicts Anaxagoras as offering him in terms of bones and muscles was a mechanistic explanation, one that explains things by means of mechanistic causality. A mechanistic cause is one that produces its effect by physical necessity, like a machine, according to the law of cause and effect. This is the kind of explanation that science invariably offers us still today. When an earthquake occurs, it causes buildings to topple.  If we put the kettle of water on the fire, it will cause the water to boil. When we turn on the electric light switch, we get electric light.  In modern times a scientific explanation of any phenomenon is always a mechanistic explanation.  This proposition is true even of quantum mechanics, as its name implies. Isaac Newton's explanation of the movement of the moon around the earth  in terms of the law of gravitation was a mechanistic explanation.  The equations of both inorganic and organic chemistry are mechanistic. Darwin's explanation of evolution as occurring through the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest was intended to be a mechanistic explanation, and has been widely thought actually to be one, but, as we shall see, is not. 

            There are two main reasons why scientific explanation now is always mechanistic.  One is the basic principle of science, attributed popularly to the mediaeval philosopher William of Ockham and  known as Ockham's Razor, though it was clear already to Aristotle (Physics Bk 8).  Ockham's Razor lays it down that "explanatory factors should not be multiplied beyond what is necessary" in one mediaeval formulation (entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate.). Or, all things else being equal, a simpler explanation is always to be preferred to a more complex one. This is sometimes referred to as the principle of parsimony in explanation.  If you can explain something mysterious by using two explanatory factors, do not use three. This is a rational principle. But the simplest explanation of any phenomenon is always a mechanistic one. So the scientific explanation of Socrates's sitting on the bench is that it is the product of his muscles, his weight and his bones.

            A second reason why modern scientific explanation is always mechanistic is that mechanistic causation is predictable, and therefore can be tested. Given the sufficient cause, the effect follows by necessity. If a necessary consequence of a belief is not true, the belief cannot be true. The result is that all accepted scientific theories make possible valid and reliable predictions about what is going to happen in the universe. The law of gravitation makes it possible to predict accurately where the moon will be on any given date you choose.

            Mechanistic causation has three qualities we should take notice of.  One is that it moves only in one direction. If I hit a billiard ball with a cue, it goes off in the direction that the cue is pointing in. The ball does not come back and move the cue. Second, mechanistic causation is predetermined. If I succeed in hitting the billiard ball, the ball does not have any choice about where to go. It must go in the direction in which the cue pushed it. The water in the kettle does not have a choice whether to boil or not. Third, mechanistic causality of itself is neither good nor bad: it does not involve any evaluation. In itself it is neither a good thing nor a bad thing that water on a fire boils or that electricity causes light: these are just facts.


Purposive or Teleological Explanation

            But what Socrates was looking for was not a mechanistic explanation, but something else.  He was looking, he said, for a "new method."  Overall, he was looking for an explanation of why the world is the way it is.  Ancient peoples generally did not have the concept of creation-out-of-nothing. They took it for granted that a material world of some kind had always existed. The work of the Gods was only to give form or shape or order to the world, to make it a cosmos. The question then was not so much, why is there a world at all? but why is the world the way it is?  Socrates wants to know that the shape of the world is justified, that it is the way it is for a good reason. He would consider it was explained satisfactorily if it was the work of a mind, because a mind would see to it that everything was as it should be. "If mind is the disposer, mind will dispose all for the best, and put each particular thing in the best place."  A good philosopher would be able to show and explain why each particular thing was as it should be. Is the earth flat or round? Socrates did not particularly care which it was, but whichever it was, he wanted to know why that was necessary, why it had to be so. It would have to be so because that was the best way for it to be, and the philosopher would be able to show why that arrangement was best.

            To explain anything adequately for Socrates is to show that it is good. As an example of this general principle he gives his own decision not to escape but to stay in the prison. The true explanation of the fact that he was sitting on the bench was not the mechanistic one pointing to his bones and muscles, but the fact that it wasgood for him to do so. He made this decision because in his view it was the right thing for him to do. The moral goodness of obeying the law is the ultimate explanation of the fact that he is sitting on the bench in prison.

            This kind of causation is what we all normally use to explain human actions. When an adult is acting consciously and deliberately, if we wish to explain his action we invariably do so in terms of his motive or purpose or intention or reason.  This is very different from referring to causes. A cause in the strict sense of the word leaves no room for choice.  When my doctor, testing my reflexes, hits my knee with his hammer and my knee responds by bouncing out, its movement has been caused by my doctor and his hammer.  It is not my action. This is very different from when I myself intentionally kick a ball. When I kick a ball, I do so for a purpose, to play football or just to exercise. It is my action. The explanation of my action lies in my purpose.

So it was natural for Socrates to explain his own action in the same way. And he was right: that was the true explanation of his action, not the bones and muscles of Anaxagoras, though of course they played a role.  In English the purpose for which an action is done or a thing is made is often referred to technically as its "final cause" (from the Latin, finis, an end or purpose or intention) or "teleological cause" (from the Greek, telos, which has a similar meaning).  Since “final” also has another meaning, namely what comes last,  it will sometimes be useful for the sake of clarity in this book to use “teleological,” even though it is somewhat cumbrous.  This terminology comes from Aristotle, who distinguishes teleological or purposive causes from “efficient” causes, which are what we now usually mean by “cause” without qualification. My doctor hitting my knee with his hammer is the efficient cause of my leg's movement. When I kick a ball, the game is the teleological cause or purpose of the movement.

Of course, a purposive cause always includes an efficient cause. When I put the kettle on the fire, I am producing a change in the world. But there is an additional factor. The change is guided by a concept which exists antecedently in my mind. It is not that the muscle in my arm undergoes a seizure, outside of my control. I have the idea of making tea before any tea is made, and I guide my actions in order to make that idea a reality.  Only minds have purposes in the true sense of  ‘have’ here, that is, decide on or create.

            The distinction between efficient and teleological causes, or between causes and reasons, has been the subject of much debate among philosophers during the twentieth century and there is a large literature on it. Since we are here concerned to tell a story, however, we will leave that aside for the moment and return to it later.


Socrates and Science

            Now, however, Socrates takes a step that was to have far-reaching consequences. He not only explains human action in this way, teleologically, by reference to purposes and values, but wishes to apply this teleological kind of explanation to the shape of the earth, to the sun and moon and stars: in short, to everything in the universe. He suggests this is the kind of explanation that scientists should use in attempting to understand the world of nature. The suggestion will be plausible, he thinks, no doubt, because, having been arranged or designed by mind, everything will be good, and this will be plain to us, if we understand things rightly. We will know in advance that in point of fact everything will be good, if we believe in Mind,  but it will still be up to us to discover in each particular case concretely why that is so.       

            There is, in fact, a whole branch of nature where something analogous to this kind of explanation by purposes seems right and appropriate: the realm of living things. It is true that, unlike human actions, the bodies of plants and animals are not in our experience directly the product of a mind. Yet we see that, as Plato observed (we will see more about Plato in the next chapter), they move and change themselves, and the changes they undergo as they grow and develop are governed by inherent natural purposes. A rosebush aims by its nature to produce roses. A seed aims to grow into a tree. And the tree to produce more trees. If a living thing is wounded, its body will aim to heal the wound. Mysteriously, even a being that does not have a mind can nevertheless embody a purpose or goal.

            The causation that is distinctive of living things lacks the three characteristics of mechanistic causation we saw above. Instead it has three different features. Instead of functioning in only in one direction, like the billiard cue and ball, it is reciprocal. The roots of the tree cause the leaves, and at the same time the leaves cause the roots.  Instead of being predetermined and predictable, living things have the quality of sometimes being surprising and often unpredictable.  Animals that have been kept for many years as peaceful pets can suddenly turn hostile. The plants in my garden manage to move themselves around it from year to year: the flowers that used to grow in one corner are now growing in a different place altogether, simply because the wind carries their seeds. And instead of being merely factual and devoid of value in themselves, as soon as a living thing appears on the scene values arise immediately: the question presents itself straight away of what is good for the thing and what is bad for it.

            The modern scientific community assumes that the teleological causality or purposive behavior which in our experience characterizes living things will ultimately prove to be explainable in terms of mechanistic causation.But this is only an assumption. They believe this mainly because they believe Darwin showed that everything could be explained mechanically.  In fact, however, as we will see, it is nothing less than a breath-taking act of faith, which flies in the face of an immense body of contrary evidence. Paradoxically it is comparable in its scope and significance to the faith that characterizes religion. Faith may be justifiable in matters of religion, which do not aim or claim to give us knowledge of the empirical world. But can it be justified in an undertaking that claims to give knowledge of the empirical world? I will argue it can be justified in science only as a heuristic methodology, that is, as a device that is useful and necessary solely because of its practical consequences. For there is no way to prove a universal negative a posteriori. In order to prove that there is only one kind of causation in the universe it would be necessary to experience the whole universe.

Although living things typically incorporate many mechanistic elements, they merely use them as tools to accomplish their ends. The decisive consideration is that they have ends!  Which inanimate objects do not.


            Socrates has rejected mechanistic explanation. He has asserted the importance and necessity of teleological explanation.  Yet there is now a problem. The foundation on which science rests will henceforth be belief in a supreme mind. How will science fare in the hands of scientists who do not believe in such a mind?  There does not seem to have been a shortage of such thinkers even in Socrates’s day.  Everything that exists in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity, said Democritus.

 There is a second problem. No doubt it is true that as soon as you have something alive, the question arises immediately of what is good and bad for it. But for an inanimate thing nothing can be either good or bad.  Nothing can either benefit or harm a rock. What can it possibly mean, to attempt to explain the natures of inanimate things by showing they are good?

There is a third problem. While mechanistic explanations can be tested and proven, teleological ones cannot, or not so easily. This is most obvious in the case of conscious human purposes, because we cannot read other persons' minds. How do we know that the real reason why Socrates stayed in prison was because that was the morally right and best thing to do? Only because he has told us so. Freud might offer a different explanation. But the difficulty is also true of natural purposes, the kind of unconscious purposes we find at work in plants and animals. We see that the sexual organs of male and female dogs fit together exactly, in a way that the organs of two males or two females do not, with the result that new young dogs are produced, and it is natural (or we considered it natural before Darwin) to conclude that these organs were made for that purpose.  But if someone wishes to dispute this, it will come down to the question which explanation is more plausible. This was of course a main reason why Anaxagoras and his fellow scientists fastened on bones and muscles.

 If Socrates had limited his teleological explanations to living beings, and had been willing to accept mechanistic explanations for inanimate beings, he would have been entirely right, and the great adventure of science would have gotten off to a balanced and brilliant start. But he does not do this. He makes no exception for the inanimate world, but allows only one kind of explanation for everything. The error would not be corrected till William Gilbert in the year 1600:  2,000 years later. And when it was corrected, that would be only at the price of a comparable error in the opposite direction.