Lecture 6: Purposes

Foundations of Liberty
The Intellectual Crisis of the Modern World

A Lecture Series with Prof. Thomas Patrick Burke
In recent lectures we have seen how the new science that emerged around 1600 is based on mechanicism, the theory that there is only one kind of causation in the world and it is mechanistic.  We have seen also that this theory of mechanicism does not represent a discovery made by science about the world on the basis of evidence, as most scientific theories are, for example the theories of Newton and Einstein, but is an a priori assumption  required by scientific method because of its demand for parsimonious explanation and for empirical proof.  It results from this theory, as we saw in the last lecture, that all living beings must be considered machines: plants, animals and human beings, and that, as de la Mettrie asserted, life itself is a machine. It is generally assumed in the scientific community that eventually all the phenomena we associate with life and mind will eventually be able to be accounted for by mechanical explanations.

The advent of quantum mechanics has not changed this state of affairs. For although quantum mechanics teaches us that many outcomes we once assumed were necessary are in fact only probable, that very probability is itself a necessity. The pattern of diffusion of a split light ray, for example, or the fate of any particular photon, is not precisely predictable, but is only probable; but the probability itself is predictable. Quantum mechanics is, after all, mechanistic.

This theory of mechanicism is not without the most serious difficulties, however. These difficulties are of two kinds. One kind of difficulty arises from our experience of living beings. Another kind of difficulty results from the theory’s consequences for human existence. Let us look at these separately.

Our Experience of Living Beings

In our experience living beings are in many ways profoundly different from inanimate beings.

  1. Living beings have the power to move themselves. They are not merely passive recipients of action from beings outside them but they initiate and produce action from within themselves. A seed begins to grow into a tree, not because there is something pushing it from the outside to do this but because it has within itself a totally mysterious generative power which stones do not possess.  It is true some external conditions must first be fulfilled; the temperature must be right, perhaps there must be food, and so on. But these conditions do not have the causal power that the seed evinces.
    Animals move themselves from one place to another without any external force moving them.  You might wish to object that they are attracted by desire for an external object such as food. But this desire is a force that originates within themselves.
  2. Living beings change themselves internally through metabolism.  Unlike stones, they use up energy just to exist. Consequently they not only respond to objects they perceive but they seek energy out in their environment and absorb it. They digest food, incorporating inanimate matter into themselves and transforming it into living flesh and substance which has the characteristics of their particular species and the form integral to this particular individual.  We may analyze the chemicals that make up the food of a plant or animal, but if we try to do what the plant does and make the food come alive, we do not know even where to start.
  3. The life of a living being is not merely an incidental addition to it, as if we could take something that was inanimate and make it live by adding life to it, but the life of a living being is its very existence. If you take its life away, you have not merely deprived it of a particular part, or even a particular quality, but you have destroyed the being itself.  The physical object or body that remains is merely its husk. This is true not only of human beings, but also in a proportionate way of plants and animals. If someone takes the life of your cat, this is not like cutting off its tail.  The cat itself no longer exists, but only its carcase. (This was the original fact that lay at the bottom of Aristotle’s general distinction between substance and accident.)
  4. Living beings have the power to create other beings of the same mysterious kind    as themselves. They produce out of their own substance new living beings that have their own independent existence. This is often called “the miracle of life” by people who otherwise claim not to believe in miracles.
  5. Living beings are organized.  They have parts, organs, that are specialized for the purpose of carrying out the various actions and activities that are needed to keep them alive, such as digestion, growth and reproduction. They are self-organizing. They create order in themselves. Especially, each organ causes the other organs and is caused by them.
  6. A living being has an essential unity. It constitutes a single whole in a way that nonliving beings do not. Each part not only causes the other parts but exists for the sake of the other parts and the being as a whole.  Nothing like that is true of a rock.
  7. Each part is possible only because of its relationship to the other parts and to the whole. In a watch, the springs and wheels are made independently, and then they  are put together to form a working mechanism.  They are possible without any reference to the watch they will eventually be part of. But the ear of a dog is simply impossible unless there is a dog.  It is true, biologists have been marvellously successful in recent years at growing new organs. They can make a framework and grow living cells on it to form an organ. Nonetheless, they must begin with something already living.
  8. Once living beings have come into existence they proceed to create themselves. They grow. This activity is absolutely different from the mere passive increase in size that, for example, according to recent theories, led to the growth of the moon through the accretion of bodies falling onto it.  Living things grow by transforming a part of their environment into an integral part of themselves.
  9. Living beings have purposes. Their first purpose is to continue living, to survive.  Their organization is for the purpose of survival. Inanimate beings have no purposes. I do not mean that all living beings are intelligent, but that something analogous to intelligence is clearly operative in their organization and structure.  It is obvious to common sense that leaves exist for a purpose, and roots also exist for a purpose.
  10. All and only living beings give rise to values.  Some things are good for them and benefit them, other things are bad for them and harm them. Outside the realm of life values do not exist. You cannot benefit a rock. Living beings belong to a higher order of being than nonliving ones. This is the true biological basis of ethics and morality.  But it is not one that can be explained mechanistically.
  11. What happens at death?  According to the mechanistic viewpoint, not much. A complex mechanism is replaced by a bunch of simpler ones. But all are on the same level of being. Our experience, however, tells us something very different, that death is the extinction of self-movement, and of all the things that go with that: of goodness and badness, feeling, thought, will, consciousness and experience itself.

Purposive Causation

All this suggests that living beings possess a new and different kind of causation which is not possessed by inanimate beings. It is not mechanistic but purposive or teleological.

Mechanistic causation goes only in one direction, following Newton’s laws of motion. If I hit a billiard ball with a cue, it goes straight ahead in the direction of the force applied to it.  It does not come back and move the cue—let alone create the cue. Mechanistic causation works in what is sometimes called a descending series. A produces B which produces C which produces D.

But a living being is both cause and effect of itself. In a living being A causes B and at the same time B causes A.  The roots of the tree cause the leaves, and the leaves cause the roots. The causation is reciprocal. More, the roots exist for the sake of the leaves, and the leaves exist for the sake of the roots.

The fact is that the causation we observe in living beings is entirely mysterious to us and we cannot even begin to explain how it is possible. To see this it will be helpful to examine the idea of purpose a little further. It is not merely slightly different, as if it were just a version of the same thing, but belongs to a fundamentally different order of being from that of a mechanistic cause.  The idea of a mechanistic cause is the idea of production: the cause necessarily produces or brings about or gives rise to the effect.  The existence of the effect is dependent on the cause, but the existence of the cause is not dependent on the effect. The cause must preexist the effect. That is, the being or reality of the cause must preexist the being or reality of the effect. Consequently a mechanistic cause acts in only one direction: from the cause to the effect. It does not also act in reverse, from the effect to the cause.

(Of course the quality of being a cause comes into being only once there exists an effect. In that paradoxical sense it is possible to say that the effect creates the cause, meaning, not that it brings the being or reality of the cause into existence, but only that it brings into being its quality of being a cause.)

The idea of a purpose, however, is entirely different from this, and is in fact the very opposite of it. The purpose for which an action is done, by which I mean the objective goal which is to be attained by the action, does not preexist the action. The being or reality of the goal does not preexist the being or reality of the action.  I bake a loaf of bread in order to have something to eat, let us say. My goal is to have something to eat. The condition of having something to eat does not preexist my baking. It is to be brought about by the act of baking, which must take place first.  The existence of the purposive cause, the bread, is dependent on the effect of that purpose, the action of baking. The existence or reality of the effect, the action of baking, is not dependent on the prior existence of the bread.

But it is dependent on the prior concept of the bread. To have a purpose or goal it is indispensable to have the idea of a thing or state of affairs to be brought into existence. The goal must first be formulated in thought before it can be viewed as something to be attained in reality. This is the mystery of living things: they act as if a mind were directing them, but no mind is in evidence. They possess a plan, but no planner is to be seen.


Let us now turn to the topic of chance. Normally we consider chance and purpose to be opposites. We are inclined to say that an event happens by chance when it does not happen in virtue of an intention or purpose, and vice versa.

An event or state of affairs can also be the result of a law of nature. For example, the gravitational attraction between the moon and the earth, and the movement of the tides that results from that. Sometimes we consider this to be different from chance because it is the product of laws, but also sometimes we can consider it a product of chance because it is not a product of an intention or purpose.

Paradoxically, chance and necessity go together. An event that happens as a necessary result of the laws of nature can also be an event of chance, when, as just mentioned, it does not take place as a result of human intentions. But a purpose is neither chance nor necessity. It is a product of free will, which is something different from both.

Now I have just pointed out that some things are possible only as purposes, and not as products of chance,  nor merely as products of natural law.  It is solely the fact that they are purposes that makes them capable of existing at all.  An example is any piece of machinery, such as the celebrated watch. Watches are human purposes. They exist only to serve a purpose that belongs to a will. Everybody knows it is impossible for mere chance to bring about the existence of a watch. Everybody knows equally that watches cannot be produced merely by the operation of the physical laws of nature. (Sometimes an argument is made that in the course of an infinite period of time all possible combinations, including watches, will be made by chance. But this is not true. An infinite period of time can elapse without exhausting all possible combinations.)

But in nature we find another kind of purpose, and so another kind of causation,  that does not belong to a human will: in the make-up of living beings.  If I cut my finger, the rest of my finger will not ignore this event but will attempt to heal the wound, bringing the two sides of the cut together. This is a natural purpose.

Since Darwin, the universal explanation of natural purposes accepted by educated people has been the mechanistic one assumed by science.  It is widely but mistakenly believed that Darwin demonstrated that the apparent natural purposes we find in living things are actually a product of chance. We will discuss Darwin in more detail in a coming lecture. But for the moment I want just to ask: how likely is it, in the light of what we have seen about natural purposes,  that they can be accounted for by mechanistic explanations?

In my view it is extremely unlikely. The two kinds of causation are diametrically opposed to one another. Although life makes use of mechanisms, life in itself is in many respects the exact opposite of a mechanism. The possibility that the one kind of causation may be reduced to the other seems little more than a fantasy.  It is true that we cannot disprove it. We cannot absolutely rule out the possibility.  More than that, the thesis of universal mechanicism can be accepted as a pragmatic requirement of the purely practical methodology of science. But if intended as a statement of truth it resembles more an act of faith than knowledge.  Perhaps some day it will prove possible to demonstrate that the natural purposes of living beings are mechanistic.  But I would not hold my breath.

Holding their breath, however, seems to be just what the scientific community is doing at the present time in the search for signs of life on Mars and the other planets. Numerous scientists have appeared on our television screens saying they are fully confident that life will be found throughout the universe. This is because they assume there is only one kind of causation in the world and it is mechanistic, so there is at bottom nothing remarkable about life. They think it can arise easily out of the ordinary mechanical processes studied in physics and chemistry.  I am not criticizing the search for life. On the contrary, science should do whatever it can. To repeat what I have said earlier, I am not suggesting that science should change in any way. But many scientists do not seem to be aware of the true cognitive status of their mechanistic beliefs about life, which is that they are nothing more than an a priori assumption, and has not by any means been scientifically established. We should not be tremendously surprised if no independent life is found.  If life is found, it is likely to be an offshoot of earth’s.

“…the organization of nature has nothing analogous to any causality known to us.” (Kant, Critique of Judgment, Hackett, trans. Pluhar,  p. 254,  Par. 65;   375 Akad).