Sunday, March 16, 2014

Stop it, you’re killing me!


In an op-ed piece in The New York Times, Ferris Jabr of Scientific American kindly informs us that nothing is really alive, not even Jabr himself or his readers.  Fairly verbose for a dead guy, he develops the theme at length -- not by way of giving an explicit argument for his claim, so much as by putting forward considerations intended to make it appear something other than the killer joke it seems on its face to be.

The routine is familiar, even if Jabr’s thesis is a bit more extreme than that of other biological reductionists.  There’s no generally agreed upon definition of life; there are borderline cases such as viruses; living and non-living things are all made up of the same kinds of particles; so

The “so” part is where these sorts of views get into trouble, because the reductionist conclusions -- let alone Jabr’s eliminativist conclusion -- don’t follow, and even Jabr doesn’t really claim to have established that there is no such thing as life (as opposed to merely putting it out there as a proposal).  Indeed, if the line between the living and the non-living is as blurry as Jabr alleges, one might just as well argue that everything is alive, rather than that nothing is.

That either extreme conclusion equally well “follows” from Jabr’s premises shows that something has gone wrong here.  But then, denying apparently obvious distinctions is typically a mark of imprecise rather than rigorous thinking.  So too is the marketing of such denials as “liberating” (as Jabr claims the denial that life exists is).  As always, the “épater la bourgeoisie” rhetorical force of bizarre claims is doing at least as much work as the philosophical and scientific considerations are. 

The essence of life

But let’s look at the latter.  Jabr begins by noting:

Since the time of Aristotle, philosophers and scientists have struggled and failed to produce a precise, universally accepted definition of life.  To compensate, modern textbooks point to characteristics that supposedly distinguish the living from the inanimate, the most important of which are organization, growth, reproduction and evolution.  But there are numerous exceptions: both living things that lack some of the ostensibly distinctive features of life and inanimate things that have properties of the living.

End quote.  Now, while we Aristotelian-Scholastic philosophers can hardly deny that there is no “universally accepted” definition of life, we maintain that a “precise” definition of life is in fact possible.  Living things, the Scholastic holds, are those which exhibit immanent causation as well as transeunt (or “transient”) causation; non-living things exhibit transeunt causation alone.  Transeunt causal processes are those that terminate in something outside the cause.  Immanent causal processes are those which terminate within the cause and tend to its good or flourishing (even if they also have effects external to the cause).  For example, an animal’s digesting of a meal is a causal process that tends to the good or flourishing of the animal itself (though it also has byproducts external to the animal, such as the waste products it excretes).  By contrast, one rock’s knocking into another is a transeunt causal process, in that it does not in any sense tend to the good or flourishing of the rock itself.  (For recent exposition and defense of this characterization of life, see chapter 8 of David Oderberg’s Real Essentialism, and his paper “Synthetic Life and the Bruteness of Immanent Causation.”)

Now, Scholastics distinguish between the essence of a thing and its properties, where both terms are used in a way that is crucially different from the way they are usually used by most contemporary philosophers.  One way to think of the essence of a thing is as what we capture when we give its genus and specific difference (where a “specific difference” is what differentiates one species from others in the same genus, and where “genus” and “species” are to be understood in their traditional logical, rather than biological, senses).  To take a traditional example for purposes of illustration, suppose we take a human being to be a rational animal (“animal” being the genus and “rational” the specific difference).  The properties of a human being (as the Scholastic uses the term “properties”) are what flow or follow from this essence, and include things like the capacity for perceptual experience, the capacity for self-movement, the ability to form concepts, and so forth.  Rational animality is not the cluster of these properties, but rather that by virtue of which a thing has them.  And “properties” are not any old characteristics a thing has, but only those that flow from a thing’s essence -- that is to say, those that are proper to a thing.  (For exposition and defense of the Scholastic conception of essence and properties, see chapter 4 of my book Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction.) 

From a Scholastic point of view, the problem with too much contemporary thinking about the nature of life is that it focuses on what are really properties of life (again, in the Scholastic sense of “properties”) and tries to characterize life in terms of one of these properties or a cluster of properties.  Since an essence is not a property or cluster of properties (but is rather that from which properties flow), it is no surprise that the essence of life (or of anything else for that matter) comes to seem elusive.  Growth, reproduction, and the like are key to understanding life, but they are not the essence of life.  They are rather properties, which flow or follow from the essence.  The essence is rather a matter of the capacity of a natural substance for immanent causation or self-perfective activity -- that is to say, the ability of a thing to act for the sake of its own good or flourishing.

Now one of the several reasons why we must distinguish essence and properties is that without this distinction we cannot make sense of the distinction between normal and defective instances of a kind.  For example, cats are of their nature four-legged, but that does not mean that every single cat will in fact have four legs.  For genetic defect or injury might deprive some cat of one or more of its legs.  Four-leggedness is a property of cats in the sense that it flows from their essence, but the flow can be “blocked,” as it were.  Now if instead we think of the essence of a cat as a cluster of attributes (as contemporary metaphysicians typically would), we might conclude that “being four-legged” must not really be essential to being a cat (since there are three-legged cats), and thus must not be one of the attributes in the cluster.   But we would fail thereby to capture the way in which a cat’s lacking all of its four legs is abnormal in a way that (say) its failing to be grey is not.  This can be captured only by seeing four-leggedness as a true property which flows from but is nevertheless distinct from the essence (which is why in aberrant cases it may not be manifested), whereas greyness is not a property of the cat at all (in the Scholastic sense) but rather what Scholastics would call a “contingent (as opposed to proper) accident” of the cat. 

In the case of defining life in general, when we fail to distinguish between essence and properties we will make similar mistakes.  We might conclude, for example, that the capacity for reproduction is not really essential to living things, since there are living things (e.g. mules, and organisms whose sexual organs have been damaged) which cannot reproduce.  This would be to fail to see that reproduction could still be essential to life in the sense of being a property (again, something which flows from the essence) even if in some cases it doesn’t manifest itself (where such cases are to be understood as aberrant or abnormal).  In general, looking for some feature that is present in absolutely every single instance -- and then concluding, when a feature isn’t always present, that it must not really be “essential” after all -- is just too crude a way of proceeding when trying to characterize life.  From an Aristotelian-Scholastic point of view, contemporary metaphysicians (and contemporary biologists when wearing their metaphysician’s hats) are simply too conceptually impoverished correctly to approach questions about essence.  (Obviously this raises many questions, but the usual questions are all answered in books like Oderberg’s, and mine, which were cited above.)

Borderline cases

The absence, from contemporary thinking about essence, of the distinction between substantial form and accidental form is, like the absence of the distinction between essence and properties, another source of confusion when thinking about life.  Hence some readers are bound to think of computer viruses as examples of entities that are self-perfective or act for their own good or flourishing, and would thus (it might be supposed) be candidates for living things given the Scholastic account of life.  But computer viruses have merely accidental forms rather than substantial forms.  That is to say, unlike true substances, which have an inherent or “built-in” principle of activity (as e.g. an acorn is inherently directed toward becoming an oak), a computer virus has an externally imposed principle of operation (as e.g. the parts of a watch have no inherent tendency to tell time, but have that function only insofar as it is imposed on them externally by the watchmaker and the users of the watch).  Now a living thing is a kind of substance, with a substantial form; it is inherently directed toward acting for its own good or flourishing rather than being so directed only by some external factor.  Since computer viruses are not like that -- qua artifacts they have only accidental forms or externally imposed principles of operation -- they are not alive, even if they mimic some aspects of life.  (Of course, talk of substantial form raises many questions, which I have dealt with many times.  See chapter 3 of Scholastic Metaphysics for my most detailed discussion and defense of the distinction between substantial form and accidental form.)

What of real viruses?  Are they alive or not?  There is no such thing as “the” Aristotelian-Scholastic position on this question, since Scholastic metaphysics must be applied to such questions in conjunction with whatever the empirical facts turn out to be.  (Criticisms to the effect that the Aristotelian thinks these matters can be settled from the armchair are simply aimed at a straw man.)  Oderberg argues in Real Essentialism that viruses are not alive, but the Scholastic approach to the nature of life certainly doesn’t hinge on the question.  In general, the significance of borderline cases is massively overstated where questions of essence are concerned. 

As I argue in Scholastic Metaphysics, the reality of essences in general cannot coherently be denied, and anything that has a regular pattern of operation or activity must ipso facto have an essence.  If for some substance we find it hard to determine whether it is of kind A or kind B, it will nevertheless in fact be either of kind A or B, or of some heretofore unknown kind C.  It will, that is to say, in fact have an essence, whether or not we know its essence.  Where natural substances are concerned, vagueness is always epistemological rather than metaphysical. 

Obviously this requires argumentation -- again, see Scholastic Metaphysics, and also Oderberg’s Real Essentialism -- but the point is that for the biological reductionist merely to cite borderline or vague cases cuts no ice.  Certainly it begs the question against the Scholastic -- who has independent metaphysical reasons for the claim that vagueness is epistemological rather than metaphysical -- to suggest that viruses and the like show that there is no fact of the matter about whether a thing is alive.  Just as hard cases make bad law, obsession with borderline cases (which is rife in modern philosophy) makes for bad metaphysics. 

Reductionism

A third element in Jabr’s position is the implicit assumption that since living and non-living things are made of the same particles, the former must differ from the latter only in degree rather than in kind.  He writes:

All observable matter is, at its most fundamental level, an arrangement of atoms and their constituent particles. These associations range in complexity from something as simple as, say, a single molecule of water to something as astonishingly intricate as an ant colony. All the proposed features of life — metabolism, reproduction, evolution — are in fact processes that appear at many different regions of this great spectrum of matter. There is no precise threshold.

End quote.  Now, the “no precise threshold” stuff is, like the appeal to viruses as borderline cases, an expression of the idea that the distinction between living and non-living things is inherently vague.  But whereas the appeal to viruses has to do with considerations specific to that kind of entity, here the appeal is to more general metaphysical considerations.  In particular, it is an appeal to the thesis that all natural objects are “really” “nothing but” fundamental particles.  “Therefore” whatever is true of any natural object must (Jabr presumably holds) “really” be a truth about how fundamental particles are arranged.

We saw some time back how this assumption determines how Alex Rosenberg approaches the question of life in his book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.  We also saw, in the same post, how Rosenberg is led -- implicitly rather than explicitly in his case -- to just the sort of eliminative position vis-à-vis life that Jabr endorses.  And we saw too that there are no good arguments whatsoever for that position.  For there are no good arguments for the assumption that it rests on, viz. that whatever is real must “really” be “nothing but” particles and their arrangements.  (See also this follow-up post on Rosenberg’s biological reductionism.)

To be sure, it is often claimed that “science shows” that this is the case, but science shows nothing of the kind.  Rather, the view in question -- essentially a modern riff on the atomism of Democritus and Leucippus -- is read into science and then read back out again.  The Aristotelian-Scholastic position is that there are irreducible natural substances wherever there are irreducible causal powers, and where there are irreducible substances the parts of such substances -- including the particles in question -- exist in them virtually rather than actually.  In that sense, the substances are, metaphysically speaking, more fundamental than the particles, not less.  (For the full story, see chapter 3 of Scholastic Metaphysics.)

Now, in the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition, the fundamental divisions in the natural world are between the inorganic and the organic, between merely vegetative forms of life (in the technical Aristotelian sense of “vegetative”) and sentient forms of life, and between sentient forms of life and the rational sort of life characteristic of human beings.  If atomism or its modern variants had in fact been proved by modern science, then we would expect that none of these divisions would be problematic for the contemporary naturalist.  But in fact they all remain problematic.  The difficulties facing reductive accounts of the “propositional attitudes” (beliefs, desires, etc.) are well-known to philosophers of mind, as are the difficulties facing attempts to give a reductive account of “qualia.”  Yet the distinction between propositional attitudes (with their characteristic intentional content) on the one hand and merely qualitative mental states on the other is, essentially, the distinction between what Aristotelians would call intellective or rational powers and mere sentience; that is to say, it marks the third of the fundamental divisions in nature affirmed by the Aristotelian.  And the distinction between creatures which possess qualia and those which do not is very close to the distinction the Aristotelian traditionally draws between sentient and non-sentient forms of life; that is to say, it marks the second of the fundamental divisions in nature affirmed by the Aristotelian. 

Then there is the division between the inorganic and the organic.  As the atheist and naturalist philosopher Alva Noë has acknowledged:

Science has produced no standard account of the origins of life.

We have a superb understanding of how we get biological variety from simple, living starting points. We can thank Darwin for that. And we know that life in its simplest forms is built up out of inorganic stuff. But we don't have any account of how life springs forth from the supposed primordial soup. This is an explanatory gap we have no idea how to bridge...

[W]e have large-scale phenomena in view (life, consciousness) and an exquisitely detailed understanding of the low-level processes that sustain these phenomena (biochemistry, neuroscience, etc). But we lack any way of making sense of the idea that the higher-level phenomena just come down to, or consist of, what is going on at the lower level…

A living cell is more than just a chemical compound, even if every part of the cell is composed of inorganic elements. A cell, after all, is alive. What we lack, as in the case of mind, is a way of understanding how life happens due to the mere combination of nonliving precursors.

End quote.  In other words, how to reduce the organic to the inorganic is (hoopla over the Miller-Urey experiment and the like notwithstanding) no more evident now than it was when Galileo and Co. pushed the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition to the margins of Western intellectual life.  (I had reason to discuss Noë’s views at greater length here and here, and questions about the origin of life at greater length here.)

So, the traditional Aristotelian divisions in nature are really no closer to being dissolved today than they ever were.  And there is, I maintain, no argument to the contrary that doesn’t beg all the important questions.  “We ‘know’ that the older, Aristotelian metaphysics is wrong and naturalist metaphysics correct because ‘science shows’ this; and we ‘know’ that this is the correct way to interpret ‘the science’ because we ‘know’ that the older metaphysics is wrong and that a naturalist metaphysics is better.”  There really is nothing more to the contemporary consensus than this kind of circular reasoning. 

In any event, I defend the radically anti-reductionist, Aristotelian hylemorphist approach to understanding the natural world at length in Scholastic Metaphysics (as does Oderberg in Real Essentialism).  Reductionist appeals to arrangements of particles etc. that do not respond to Aristotelian arguments merely assume precisely what is at issue, since the Aristotelian would agree with the naturalist on the scientific facts but dispute the naturalist’s interpretation of those facts.  You might say that the rumors of Aristotle’s death have been greatly exaggerated (as this, and this, and this, and this, and this all indicate).  And thus so too are rumors to the effect that “nothing is truly alive.”

87 comments:

Catholicz said...

Interestingly I have sent you an email concerning a Philosophical argument I want a Thomist like yourself to look over involving the nature of ensoulment and 'life'.

Currently I am waiting on another Philosopher friend to look over it - I sent it to him just today...

Hivemaker said...

This is so close to Dennett's paradigm example of a deepity ("love is just a word") that one has to suspect we're being trolled.

You can even watch him committing the use/mention fallacy in real time!

"Life is a concept, not a reality."

"Likewise, 'life' is an idea."

Did you see it? The sudden appearance of the scare quotes where there were none before?

As to the sorities issues, please. This is philosophy 101 stuff. No one is really bald, since there is no precise dividing line...

It's like some bizarro funhouse mirror reflection of the creationists who insist there is a clear dividing line between human and nonhuman fossils, but disagree among themselves about which specimens are "clearly" nonhuman.

Anonymous said...

It seems as if the distinction between essences and properties, made early in the post, could do some interesting work in the homosexual "marriage" debate. (E.g. Not all marriages are reproductive)

Not to hijack the thread... It just struck me as I was reading.

Allen Hazen said...

I rad the Jabr piece when it came out. It's not quite the same form of argument, but part of the argumentation is parallel to some of Peter Unger's arguments: there is a vague borderline, this isn't something good concepts ought to have, so… to find a non-arbitrary borderline we push the requirements to some extreme (perfect geometrical plane for a "flat" surface, absolute certainty for "knowledge") and presto: nothing is flat and we don't know anything.

He mentions (and rejects) a proposal that appeals to me: the … it's analogous to functionalism in the philosophy of mind … idea that "life" is whatever displays features (such as: being subject to evolution by natural selection) that feature in specifically biological ways of theorizing about and explaining things. This proposal, like the scholastic one you favour, has what seems to me to be the clear virtue that on it "exobiology" is not a contradiction in terms: there could be, on another planet, "life, but not as we know it" which would still be, literally and unambiguously, life.

Jabr's argument for rejecting this, as I recall, is that it would allow simulated life (on a computer) to be life, which (appeal to intuition, here!) it isn't, so by modus tollens. A defender of the idea would have to say something about this, of course, but I suspect the defender could come up with something!

Alex Wyman said...

So, the problem with life is that you it has vague cases and no generally agreed-upon reductive definition?

I eagerly await the New York Times' op-eds on the non-existence of knowledge, smiles, causation, and bald men.

Catholicz said...

Maybe Ferris Jabr will be in need of a walk to clear his head after reading this article?

Frank said...

Hi prof. Feser (and everybody else), I'd like to know what are your thoughts about the so-called "iCHELLs".
From what I understand, those "cells" are composed of material things that have no inherent/or built-in tendency to come alive or to manifest life-like behavior of any sort (they are not even carbon based!), but once someone impose them that tendency from outside they "acquire" that built-in capacity which carbon-based forms of life exhibit.
Now, given the possibility (at least for the sake of argument) that one day those cells could become something alive (immanent+transient causation), wouldn't they be a REAL case of "ID" at work?

Frank said...

PS. When I said "they could become something alive" I meant "they could evolve in something virtually indistinguishable form real living things", not just some weirdo in-vitro experiment...

Anonymous said...

In general, the significance of borderline cases is massively overstated where questions of essence are concerned.

Though this seems to highlight the fact that concepts like essences do not seem to actually add to our understandings, but are, rather, parasitical on them, like a virus I suppose.

Brandon said...

Or like bad metaphors that aren't examined critically.

Scott said...

@Frank:

"[G]iven the possibility (at least for the sake of argument) that one day those cells could become something alive (immanent+transient causation), wouldn't they be a REAL case of 'ID' at work?"

I'd say no, or at least no more than the artificial construction of a cell in a laboratory from "ordinary" biological materials. It would just mean that materials other than carbon (etc.) had the inherent ability to participate in living substances.

What other materials might be able to do this is a strictly empirical question about which A-T in and of itself says pretty much nothing at all, even if individual A-T philosophers and scientists have their own opinions about it.

@AirRolfe said...

Feser misunderstands the article. The point isn't that biologists have reduced 'life' to matter; they've altogether disregarded a common-sense concept that wasn't theoretically tractable (ie it covers the huge heterogeneity Jabr lists). This is what science does. eg since Newton, physics hasn't dealt in 'matter'; that doesn't mean that scientists don't believe your house exists; it's just that it's a description of the phenomena that doesn't admit to explanation. If you're happy to deal in surface categories then fine, but it seems rather incurious not to be interested in *why* the world is as it is. There is no 'naturalist metaphysics' at play here; it's just scientists doing science. You can describe the argument as *methodologically* naturalist if you like, but there doesn't seem much point seeing as that's true of science by definition.

Greg said...

@AirRolfe
The point isn't that biologists have reduced 'life' to matter; they've altogether disregarded a common-sense concept that wasn't theoretically tractable (ie it covers the huge heterogeneity Jabr lists).

Is this what "biologists" have done, or what a couple pop scientists have argued? I don't think that most biologists are eliminativists with respect to life, even if they find it difficult to define.

There is not even a prima facie case that heterogeneity as such makes a definition of life "theoretically intractable," anymore than (to take Wittgenstein's example) a lack of necessary and sufficient conditions for games makes a definition of games "theoretically intractable."

This is what science does. eg since Newton, physics hasn't dealt in 'matter'; that doesn't mean that scientists don't believe your house exists; it's just that it's a description of the phenomena that doesn't admit to explanation. If you're happy to deal in surface categories then fine, but it seems rather incurious not to be interested in *why* the world is as it is. There is no 'naturalist metaphysics' at play here; it's just scientists doing science. You can describe the argument as *methodologically* naturalist if you like, but there doesn't seem much point seeing as that's true of science by definition.

Wittgenstein also pointed out that when the physicist claims that the ground under our feet (because atoms are "mostly empty space") is not solid, he has misused language, because he purports to be using a "solid" in a way that the common man does, but he is really talking about something else entirely. (Similar to the way Lawrence Krauss says that he has figured out how something can come from nothing, because physics shows that nothing is actually something.)

That isn't "what science does." When the scientist says that the ground isn't solid, or that nothing is something, or that life doesn't exist, he has stepped out of the realm of science. It's the lazy extrapolation of science onto metaphysics.

Skeggy Thorson said...

If for something to be considered alive the causality of its actions must terminate within itself and Aquinas' first way demonstrates that all causality has to terminate in a pure actuality, would that not make god the only truly living being. Sorry for the stupid question. I am not trying to refute either premise I just am failing to understand how they work together.

Scott said...

@Skeggy Thorson:

"If for something to be considered alive the causality of its actions must terminate within itself and Aquinas' first way demonstrates that all causality has to terminate in a pure actuality, would that not make god the only truly living being."

"Terminate" forward, not backward. The (some) actions of a living thing tend toward its own good. It's doing something to itself, not (just) to something else.

Edmundas Adomonis said...

The op-ed piece by Ferris Jabr is unbelievably extraordinary stupid. Is he really an associate editor at Scientific American?

Edmundas Adomonis said...

@Greg
"Wittgenstein also pointed out that when the physicist claims that the ground under our feet (because atoms are "mostly empty space") is not solid, he has misused language, because he purports to be using a "solid" in a way that the common man does, but he is really talking about something else entirely."

Why Wittgenstein? Hasn't it been discussed by Susan Stebbing in the book "Philosophy and the Physicists"? Nice book.

Brandon said...

Skeggy Thorson,

It's actually not a bad question at all; it would need refinement, but it touches on a lot of important matters. To approach the matter from a different direction than Scott does, when we use the term 'life' in such a way as to apply to both creatures and God, then God is a sort of pure limit case of the term: that which is intrinsically life itself, so to speak. In that sense only God is living. But of course, the usual sense of 'living' is what applies to creatures, and which has to be taken abstractly and to the limit in order to apply to God.

Your question actually has a parallel in serious Thomistic discussion, since a version of it arises when talking about God's goodness. There is a legitimate use of 'good' in which one can say, as Jesus did, "Only God is good". And that use tells us something very important about what goodness is. But it's not the usual use of the term.

Paul Ned said...

Prof. Feser, you suggest that life can be defined partially in terms of immanent causation, which in turn is defined in terms of the flourishing of whatever species is in question. But wouldn't both 'flourishing' and 'species' require appeal to life in their definitions? Seems so. And if that's right, then life can't be defined in the terms you suggest, since life shows up in the proposed definition. Michael Thompson, in his book Life and Action, argues that many attempted definitions of life falter along similar lines. Thoughts?

I object to Jabr's argument at the link below, taking the line that the lack of a conceptual definition is no reason to deny the reality of what a concept is about:

http://iasc-culture.org/THR/channels/THR/2014/03/is-nothing-truly-alive/

Scott said...

@Paul Ned:

"Prof. Feser, you suggest that life can be defined partially in terms of immanent causation, which in turn is defined in terms of the flourishing of whatever species is in question."

I think if you reread the passage in question you will find that the definition of "immanent causation" makes no reference even to "flourishing," still less to "species." Even if it did, though . . .

"But wouldn't both 'flourishing' and 'species' require appeal to life in their definitions?"

. . . no, not as far as I can see. Why would they?

"And if that's right, then life can't be defined in the terms you suggest, since life shows up in the proposed definition."

Even if that were true, it wouldn't necessarily be fatal anyway, as not all circularities are vicious.

Paul Ned said...

Hi Scott, I took this to be Prof. Feser's definition of immanent causation in this post:

"Immanent causal processes are those which terminate within the cause and tend to its good or flourishing".

So there's 'flourishing' in the definition. The def is going to require reference to species in order to make sense of the notion of flourishing, I take it that flourishing is species-specific. Flourishing for a paramecium would seem to share little with flourishing for a human being.

'Flourishing' seems to require definition in terms of life because it seems false that any non-living thing can flourish, and this doesn't seem to be merely accidental to the idea of flourishing. I mean, just try a few cases: "That piece of granite is really flourishing!" "Flourishing molecules of H2O have two hydrogen atoms." Doesn't make sense.

The notion of 'species' is routinely understood in terms of the classification of organisms, and the idea of organism is defined in terms of life.

Sure, not all circularities are vicious. But this one would be. Recall that the context is Jabr's argument which crucially turns on his claim that life lacks a definition. If circular definitions were acceptable in this case, then we could respond by saying "No--'life' DOES have a definition, and it is just this: life." But this would be obtuse, for the point at hand whether life has an informative, i.e., non-circular--definition. And that's why Prof. Feser is attempting an informative def as well. So circularity here would be vicious.

Donald said...

I don't think that materialism can explain consciousness, but maybe it can explain "life". Or at least I don't see any reason why a biologist in his professional life would care what metaphysicians have to say on this, unless there is some testable proposition in the vicinity. Feser seems to hint that there is--he seems to think the fact that we don't know how life originated is somehow evidence in favor of his views. So is that a prediction? That if Feser is right, then none of the work done attempting to find self-replicating molecules has any bearing on the origin of life and we will never see any indication that the life-non-life gap can be bridged?

Scott said...

@Paul Ned:

"So there's 'flourishing' in the definition."

Heh, so it is. I stand corrected.

"'Flourishing' seems to require definition in terms of life because it seems false that any non-living thing can flourish, and this doesn't seem to be merely accidental to the idea of flourishing."

I don't see why that means flourishing requires definition in terms of life. Flourishing just means doing well as the kind of being one is. The point of the Scholastic definition of "life" is that a living thing includes immanent causal processes that tend toward this end, not that only living things can "flourish" at all, even if the latter is also true.

"The def is going to require reference to species in order to make sense of the notion of flourishing[.]"

Only in the general sense in which "species" = "kind." It doesn't require reference specifically to biological/living species.

Greg said...

@Edmundas Adomonis,
Why Wittgenstein? Hasn't it been discussed by Susan Stebbing in the book "Philosophy and the Physicists"? Nice book.

Well, Wittgenstein certainly wasn't the only one to point out that scientific discoveries are often poorly interpreted by philosophers. Stebbing's book looks interesting, though. I'll take a look.

Greg said...

@Paul,

I agree with Scott here. Even if flourishing is particular to life, that does not mean that flourishing has to be defined in terms of life. It can simply be defined in terms of, say, specific kinds of finality.

It's like saying that the essence of humanity is rational animality. One so defining humanity then goes on to specify what rationality and animality are. Perhaps only humans happen are rational animals; that doesn't mean the definition is circular, since rationality and animality don't have to be defined as "those qualities particular to humans."

@AirRolfe said...

Hi Greg,

Thanks for replying to me. I'm afraid you make the same mistake as Feser: (as I explicitly stated in my comment) the article (and my comment) aren't about reduction and aren't about elimination. Consequently, much of your commentary is irrelevant.

The point is this: science has found no underlying unity to the concept 'life' (which is to say it is 'theoretically intractible'), so - being unconstrained by our common-sense talk about the world - has ceased to investigate it. The concept has been disregarded by ALL science: there is NO research programme investigating the phenomenon 'life'. The category is just too nebulous. This has not happened due to 'prima facie' theorising on the concept 'life'; it has happened as science has been carried out and our understanding has advanced.

You seem to recognise in your penultimate paragraph that our common-sense categories our not our scientific categories. But you accord the former a metaphysical significance that escapes me (since you failed to offer any reasons). If you would enjoy constructing a metaphysics of our common-sense category 'life' then go for it. But if you think you are uncovering the underlying nature of biology then you are mistaken.

Scott said...

I'd also add that even though Ed seems to include "flourishing" in his definition of immanent causation, it isn't generally taken to be so included. The real point seems to be that immanent causation, defined as causation that terminates within the cause, is found only in living things and that it is therefore "self-perfective" (directed toward flourishing) since living things act, however imperfectly, for their good.

And Greg, I like your example.

Paul Ned said...

@ Scott
For some F to be essential to some G implies that F appears in G's definition. This is because the essence of any G, I take it, is what it is to be G, and this is also the very thing a definition is supposed to capture. And I disagree that "Flourishing just means doing well as the kind of being one is," since flourishing evidently doesn't apply to inanimate things. My granite and H2O cases seem to support this.

I don't understand your sentence beginning with "The point of the Scholastic definition…" Probably my fault—I don't know much about neo-aristotelian metaphysics.

Maybe you're right that species can be definied without appeal to the notion of life. But even so, since flourishing does require def in terms of life, the definition of life Prof. Feser gave still strikes me as circular.

@Greg
I agree that necessary co-extension (to use a philosopher's term) doesn't imply an essential relationship. So then, we should ask ourselves: Is the necessary implication from 'A is flourishing' to 'A is alive' in virtue of an accidental necessary overlap between flourishing and being alive, or is it essential? Seems essential to me. Non-technical glosses of 'flourishing' often include the concepts of growth, health, and thriving, all of which seem intended in these glosses to be understood in relation to biological organisms. Not a knock-down analysis, but suggestive I think.

Paul Ned said...

@Scott
I gotta run, but one last thought: Why does it follow from the fact that immanent causation is only found in living things that such causation is directed towards flourishing? The only way this seems to make sense is if immanent causation is essentially directed towards flourishing. And if so, then the def of life is circular. I mean, the alternative is that this relationship is a brute—i.e., unexplained and unintelligible—necessity.

Scott said...

@Paul Ned:

"Why does it follow from the fact that immanent causation is only found in living things that such causation is directed towards flourishing?"

Because (according to A-T) we know, on other grounds and therefore as an additional premise, that living things act to further their own good. Thus if immanent causation is found only in living things, we can conclude that it's "self-perfective" everywhere it in fact occurs even though that's not part of its definition.

Scott said...

@Paul Ned:

"I disagree that 'Flourishing just means doing well as the kind of being one is,' since flourishing evidently doesn't apply to inanimate things. My granite and H2O cases seem to support this."

No, I don't think they do. To take an extreme example, an equilateral triangle is also equiangular and vice versa, but equiangularity is in no way part of the definition of an equilateral triangle.

Scott said...

@Paul Ned:

And let's revisit this point:

"'Flourishing' seems to require definition in terms of life because it seems false that any non-living thing can flourish, and this doesn't seem to be merely accidental to the idea of flourishing. I mean, just try a few cases: 'That piece of granite is really flourishing!' 'Flourishing molecules of H2O have two hydrogen atoms.' Doesn't make sense."

If it doesn't make sense, that's because we're observing that granite and H2O just aren't the sorts of things that can "flourish." We also, of course, observe that they're not the sort of things we mean by "alive." But I don't see that the first is the criterion for the second; I seem to be able to tell that rocks and H2O aren't "alive" without ever raising any question about whether they can "flourish," much as I can notice that a triangular is equilateral without ever considering whether it's also equiangular.

You seem to be thinking that just because some property flowing from the essence of X entails another property flowing from the essence of X, both must be included in the definition of X. But as my example of the equilateral triangle illustrates, that just isn't so.

Somewhat similarly, the possession of an intellect is part of the definition of "rational," and it's possible to show that intellect is necessarily immaterial. That pretty obviously doesn't mean the definition of "rationality" must invoke immateriality. But if your own argument were correct, we'd have to say that "'rationality' seems to require definition in terms of immateriality because it seems false that any completely non-immaterial thing can be rational, and this doesn't seem to be merely accidental to the idea of rational."

Scott said...

("A triangular is equilateral." Yikes. Of course I meant "a triangle.")

Greg said...

@AirRolfe,
The point is this: science has found no underlying unity to the concept 'life' (which is to say it is 'theoretically intractible'), so - being unconstrained by our common-sense talk about the world - has ceased to investigate it. The concept has been disregarded by ALL science: there is NO research programme investigating the phenomenon 'life'. The category is just too nebulous. This has not happened due to 'prima facie' theorising on the concept 'life'; it has happened as science has been carried out and our understanding has advanced.

You write as though the position defended by Jabr is remotely common among biologists, but it's not. (The articles like his are notorious only because contrarian.) The continued interest in biology in a definition of life (which is cited in the article) demonstrates that it is not the case that science "has ceased to investigate it."

This is the case in spite of the fact that "science has found no underlying unity to the concept 'life'."

Research on abiogenesis, for instance, would not make sense if scientists had genuinely given up on the concept of life. Biologists do think that they are looking for the origins of life; the only way someone could deny this would seem to be by redescribing such research as a search for "matter under a certain description" (as opposed to life), or something of the sort, which manifestly begs the question.

You seem to recognise in your penultimate paragraph that our common-sense categories our not our scientific categories. But you accord the former a metaphysical significance that escapes me (since you failed to offer any reasons). If you would enjoy constructing a metaphysics of our common-sense category 'life' then go for it. But if you think you are uncovering the underlying nature of biology then you are mistaken.

I said that to radically revise common-sense categories by misleadingly and dubiously projecting scientific findings onto them, is bad metaphysics and is not science. I didn't say that common-sense categories had to be vindicated by metaphysics (nor are common-sense categories always vindicated by my preferred metaphysics).

Greg said...

@Paul,
I agree that necessary co-extension (to use a philosopher's term) doesn't imply an essential relationship. So then, we should ask ourselves: Is the necessary implication from 'A is flourishing' to 'A is alive' in virtue of an accidental necessary overlap between flourishing and being alive, or is it essential? Seems essential to me.

Whether it's accidental or essential does not seem relevant to me. Back to the question of humans as rational animals: the co-extension here is essential. Humans are necessarily rational animals because humans are essentially rational animals. The definition still is not circular so long as "rational animal" is cashed out noncircularly (which is easy to do).

Likewise with "flourishing." If life essentially flourishes (and if things which flourish necessarily are alive), then no circularity ensues so long as Ed can cash "flourishing" out properly. And since he has a thorough system of finality, I don't see any reason why he can't do that.

Step2 said...

Flourish: 1. To grow luxuriantly: thrive 2. a) To achieve success: prosper b) To be in a state of activity or production c) To reach a height of development or influence 3. To make bold and sweeping gestures: brandish

Going by those definitions, I would have a difficult time saying something inanimate could flourish, although activity around or within it might indirectly bestow a sense of flourishing, i.e. a thriving art museum is at the height of its influence.

Paul Ned said...

@Scott
OK, just to clarify where we are in the dialectic, you're claiming that immanent causation isn't defined in terms of flourishing, because if it was, then Feser's definition of life above would appear circular. Based on your recent comments it seems clear that immanent causation for a thing doesn't really *entail* a tendency to act for thing's flourishing. After all, there is no conceptual barrier to something's having the tendency to immanently cause behavior towards its own corruption and demise. But this seems to help your point: since immanent causation doesn't entail a tendency to act towards flourishing, immanent causation can't be defined in terms of flourishing. So definition in terms of immanent causation doesn't imply definition in terms of flourishing and thus life.

The problem then seems to be that clearly non-living things could engage in immanent causation. Imagine a computer that is capable of immanently causing various tasks to run within its electronic parts. I don't see what the problem with this possibility would be in principle, unless the idea of life really is being built-in to the idea of immanent causation.

@Greg
Essentiality is relevant—even crucial—because if Feser defines life in terms of flourishing and flourishing essentially includes the idea of life, then his def is circular. But you claim Feser—or someone—can define flourishing without making reference to life. I'd like to see that alleged definition, but I'm doubtful it can be done.

@Scott and @Greg
I won't rehash his arguments here, but if you think life can be given a non-circular definition, I encourage you to read chapter 2 of Michael Thompson's Life and Action. I found him pretty convincing there that such a thing couldn't be done.

Skeggy Thorson said...

To Scott and Brandon:
Thank you for the assistance, your response have helped me understand it a bit better.

Greg said...

@Paul,
Essentiality is relevant—even crucial—because if Feser defines life in terms of flourishing and flourishing essentially includes the idea of life, then his def is circular. But you claim Feser—or someone—can define flourishing without making reference to life. I'd like to see that alleged definition, but I'm doubtful it can be done.

Take Feser's definition:

Living things, the Scholastic holds, are those which exhibit immanent causation as well as transeunt (or “transient”) causation; non-living things exhibit transeunt causation alone.... Immanent causal processes are those which terminate within the cause and tend to its good or flourishing (even if they also have effects external to the cause).

Bracket the question of "flourishing" for now. Immanent causal processes are here defined in terms of terminating in the agent and tending the agent toward its "good". Scholastics do have a life-neutral account of goodness (rooted in its convertibility with being).

Oderberg's definition may be a bit clearer:

[L]ife is the natural capacity of an object for self-perfective immanent activity. Living things act for themselves in order to perfect themselves, where by perfection I mean that the entity acts so as to produce, conserve, and repair its proper functioning as the kind of thing it is.... Living things, unlike non-living things, exercise immanent causation: this is a kind of causation that begins with the agent and terminates in the agent for the sake of the agent.

"Perfection", on a hylemorphic account at least, can be specified in non-organic terms.

"is perfect" is a logically attributive predicate, which is to say that to say "x is perfect" requires that we know the kind (or in hylemorphic terms, the essence and form) that x is. Some examples:

"My cat is perfect" is read "My cat is a perfect cat".
"This knife is perfect" means "This is a perfect knife".

In other words, for a thing to be perfect depends on a thing's kind. This is generalizable to inorganic kinds, so if the essence of life is understood to be that by which entities achieve perfection by way of immanent causation, then no circularity seems to ensue. (And to read Feser's "flourishing" as Oderberg's "perfection" seems natural.)

Mr. Green said...

Paul Ned: Feser: The notion of 'species' is routinely understood in terms of the classification of organisms, and the idea of organism is defined in terms of life.

Ed specifically pointed out he's using "species" in the metaphysical sense, not the biological one (which of course has its historical roots in the philosophical classification, but has taken on a, er, life of its own in biology). And his definition says "good or flourishing" — "flourishing" being a synonym for "good" when applied to organisms. He could have more explicitly given his definition as "...those which tend to its good, or as we call that goodness in the case of a substance which is otherwise known to be alive, its flourishing." Now I'd agree that the term properly applies only to living things — although of course we use it figuratively all the time — but if we don't know whether something is alive or not, that just means we don't know whether we should refer to its good as a sort of flourishing or not.

The problem then seems to be that clearly non-living things could engage in immanent causation. Imagine a computer that is capable of immanently causing various tasks to run within its electronic parts. I don't see what the problem with this possibility would be in principle, unless the idea of life really is being built-in to the idea of immanent causation.

As indicated in the article, such causation may be "inward" but it isn't immanent, because a computer isn't "a" substance (it's an artifact, a bunch of substances fixed together). Its principle of activity is externally imposed because it doesn't belong to any one [substantial] part. (And conversely if a single substantial part did have immanent causation, then yes, that part would be alive.)

Bob said...

I am confused by essences.

Does accepting the Scholastic view of essences require the rejection of Darwinian evolution?

Is the Scholastic suggesting a Platonic form?

@AirRolfe said...

Hi Greg,

You’re still reading far too much into the article. Its point is very small, and (yes) is universally accepted in science.

Imagine a team of sociologists decided to investigate the day-to-day lives of Europeans. However, once they started they found the phenomena that fell under the category ‘Europe’ had no underlying unity to it. Britain is importantly different to France, which is importantly different to Germany etc. And worse, there wasn’t even a clear boundary: is Russia in Europe or Asia? Therefore the sociologists focussed their research more narrowly: one research programme investigated Britain, another Germany (etc). Does this mean that the sociologists had shown that Europe didn’t exist? Had they reduced or eliminated ‘Europe’? No: look – here’s a European country (Britain), and another (Germany), and here’s a sociologist who studies Europe (Britain), and another (Germany). ‘Europe’ is certainly still a useful category to point at a range of phenomena. But it doesn’t admit to abstract explanation (it isn’t theoretically tractable), so the sociologists don’t use it when doing their sociological research.

The situation the NYT article discusses is like this. What we call ‘life’ is actually the category (mammals OR coral OR bacteria OR fish OR snakes OR …). And worse, there are some phenomena that we can’t decide if we should include or not (viruses). There is NO research programme that studies the category ‘life’; it has been UNIVERSALLY disregarded by science. Equivalently, we could say ‘no one studies all of biology at once’, or ‘what some biologists study is not very similar to what other biologists study’. Nonetheless, the biologists at the university found it convenient to organise themselves into a department called ‘biology’ to share apparatus and apply for funding etc. (This annoys the organic chemists who are constantly walking back and forth between the biology dept and the chemistry dept to use the most appropriate apparatus.) And – when not seeking to explain the phenomena captured by ‘life’ – it remains a useful category for pointing to a range of phenomena. We might do this in our day-to-day lives, or NASA might use its ‘working definition’ of ‘life’ when classifying planets as inhabited or not.

Or to take your example, abiogenesis: researchers studying abiogenesis are researching how the very first living thing came about. They aren’t simultaneously researching how mammals came about and how coral came about and how snakes came about: there is no such single explanation.

So the NYT article is saying very little, and what it does say is utterly uncontroversial. It is making no metaphysical claims. It is not claiming science has reduced or eliminated ‘life’. It is not saying ‘life’ doesn’t exist. It is also not saying [our commonsensical concept ‘life’] is really [the scientific concept ‘life’] (because there is no such scientific concept). Thus Feser’s article misses the article’s point and so do you.

David T said...

AirRolfe,

Jabr doesn't make the qualifications you do. He says:

Here is my conclusion: Life is a concept, not a reality.

That is about as metaphysical a statement as you can get. And he doesn't hedge it by saying this is only a conclusion "for science". In fact, he immediately backs it up not with science but with philosophy:

To better understand this argument, it’s helpful to distinguish between mental models and pure concepts. Sometimes the brain creates a representation of a thing: light bounces off a pine tree and into our eyes; molecules waft from its needles and ping neurons in our nose; the brain instantly weaves together these sensations with our memories to create a mental model of that tree. Other times the brain develops a pure concept based on observations — a useful way of thinking about the world. Our idealized notion of “a tree” is a pure concept. There is no such thing as “a tree” in the world outside the mind.

These are not scientific statements. They are pure, 100 proof Immanuel Kant. The difference between Kant and Jabr is that Kant understood what he was about; he understood that he was reading these views into science, not reading them out of science as Jabr supposes. Jabr has not yet caught up to the best in 18th century philosophy.

Here is something to think about: Jabr says there is no such thing as a "tree" outside the mind, but he doesn't seem to notice that on his view there is no difference between "tree", "nose", "brain", "molecule", or "light" as far as that goes. There is no more a "brain" outside the mind than a "tree", or a "molecule" than a "tree." None of these are "pure concepts." So his entire explanation does not apply to reality but only to his concepts, and in fact can never reach beyond his concepts to reality. This, again, is something Kant understood but contemporary thinkers often don't grasp.

David T said...

In this sentence:

None of these are "pure concepts."

I meant that "None of these are pure observations." They are merely "useful ways" of thinking about the world, just like "tree" is. So trying to explain how "tree" works in our cognitive economny in terms of "brain", "molecule" and "light" doesn't get you anywhere, at least if you want a reality-based explanation, since the latter terms are no less merely "useful ways" of thinking than is "tree."

Greg said...

@AirRolfe
Or to take your example, abiogenesis: researchers studying abiogenesis are researching how the very first living thing came about.

But on your account abiogenesis cannot be about "how the very first living thing came about," because the researchers in such programs have given up on a scientific definition of life.

So the question becomes: how are biologists to describe abiogenesis research in a way that does not commit them to what is apparently a "theoretically intractible" category? I am not aware of any notable attempt to do this, nor do articles like Jabr's indicate that it is of anyone's concern.

They aren’t simultaneously researching how mammals came about and how coral came about and how snakes came about: there is no such single explanation.

I do not find this plausible. Natural selection is regarded as an account of how genetic diversity arises, and the fundamental hole in the story currently is what the common ancestor is. I find it entirely implausible that biologists do not regard research in a biogenesis as part of a unified attempt to explain "how mammals came about and how coral came about and how snakes came about." Those explanations should fall into place if abiogenesis is explained. But abiogenesis seems quite difficult to describe in terms agnostic about a life-concept.

It is making no metaphysical claims. It is not claiming science has reduced or eliminated ‘life’. It is not saying ‘life’ doesn’t exist.

Yeah it is:

Why so much ambivalence? Why is it so difficult for scientists to cleanly separate the living and nonliving and make a final decision about ambiguously animate viruses? Because they have been trying to define something that never existed in the first place. Here is my conclusion: Life is a concept, not a reality. (emphasis added)

If you're correct that Jabr is making a sociological point about scientific research programs and not about metaphysics or anything of the sort, then his argument is hugely ambiguous and misleading. But that interpretation seems quite implausible to me; if it were actually the point he were making, then there might be some attempt to distinguish between saying that the something which does not exist is a scientific concept of life, and that life unequivocally does not exist (which seems to be the upshot of that paragraph).

In case more evidence were needed:

It’s not there. We must accept that the concept of life sometimes has its pragmatic value for our particular human purposes, but it does not reflect the reality of the universe outside the mind.

This is very clearly a repudiation not just of a scientific category but of a metaphysical category; Jabr is claiming that life as a concept in ordinary language should be purely pragmatic and has no ontological correlate.

Your own "utterly uncontroversial" argument is another story. But I don't think there are plausible reasons to attribute it to Jabr's piece.

Paul Ned said...

@Greg

"if the essence of life is understood to be that by which entities achieve perfection by way of immanent causation."

But I don't see how the essence of perfection for living beings—flourishing--can exclude reference to life concepts. And since it will include life concepts, how does the definition of life avoid circularity?


@Mr. Green
I wasn't assuming that Feser was using the biological sense of 'species'. It just isn't clear to me how he's going to account for species of living things without appeal to the concept of life.

"He could have more explicitly given his definition as "...those which tend to its good, or as we call that goodness in the case of a substance which is otherwise known to be alive, its flourishing.""

Right, and since goodness is attributive, goodness is kind-relative. That would seem to imply that there is no kind-independent notion of goodness. But if so, then you can't define life in terms of goodness simpliciter. Instead, life must be defined in terms of goodness-for-a-given-kind. But since that sort of goodness is going to include reference to life concepts (since its part of the essence of every living thing to live), we can still see that the definition of life is circular.

Why would the principle of activity for a computer being externally imposed while the principle of activity for human beings isn't? Seems that the principle is externally imposed in both cases. Computer engineers imposed it in the one case, and God imposed it on the other. I don't what see difference it's supposed to make whether the activity is caused by something simple or by something complex.

Greg said...

@Paul
But I don't see how the essence of perfection for living beings—flourishing--can exclude reference to life concepts. And since it will include life concepts, how does the definition of life avoid circularity?

Take growth. Living things grow (according to the descriptive definition cited by articles like Jabr's). However, nonliving things grow too (both Jabr and Oderberg cite crystals as ambiguous cases which "grow" but shouldn't be included as "living").

But Oderberg points out that crystals "grow" only by accretion, which is not an instance of immanent causation, whereas living things act immanently to grow.

So growth is not a "life concept," since there are things which grow but do not live. But those things which achieve their perfection by growing through immanent causation are alive. (This does not exclude the possibility that growth is perfective of nonliving things, either.) No circularity ensues.

Paul Ned said...

@Greg
Wait--if flourishing is species-relative (see my exchange with Mr. Green), and if flourishing for a species is perfective of that species, and if what is perfective of that species is dictated by the essence of that species, then wouldn't flourishing for a species essentially include reference to life? After all, surely part of what it is for any species to flourish is for it to be alive. Feser's def of life still seems circular.

Untenured said...

Paul Ned:

Your concerns about circularity are valid, but they fail once you appreciate the depth of the Scholastic conceptual apparatus.

In Scholastic metaphysics, good is "convertible" with being so that to exist is to be good and to be good is to exist to some extent.

A mountain, for example, has a trivial and morally insignificant "good": retaining itself in being. It realizes this good insofar as it retains its "mountainhood". But the mountain is not "alive" because it has no intrinsic causal powers that conserve it in being qua mountain. It doesn't have the powers of metabolism or catabolism and it cannot "push back" against entropy.

So "flourishing" is not linked with "life", because "flourishing" is a special case of "good", which is equivalent with "being". Flourishing is the good specific to "life", and thus we can talk about things "flourishing" in the sense that they have the causal power to maintain themselves in existence without external intervention without making essential reference to life.

Untenured said...

I should have been clearer in that last paragraph:

"Flourishing" does not equate to "living", because "flourishing" is a special case of "good", which is convertible with "being". Flourishing is the good specific to "life", and thus we can talk about things "immanently causing" their own good in the sense that they have the causal power to maintain themselves in existence without external intervention.

So being alive means having the power to flourish, but to flourish doesn't circularly require a prior understanding of "life". It only requires an understanding of "good" and "being" and their convertibility.

Paul Ned said...

@Untenured

"So being alive means having the power to flourish, but to flourish doesn't circularly require a prior understanding of "life". It only requires an understanding of "good" and "being" and their convertibility."

Priority of understanding is irrelevant: we're talking about real definitions—the metaphysical natures of things.

I don't see that you've given any reason to think that flourishing-for-a-kind won't essentially refer to life. Sure, IF being and goodness are interdefinable (which they aren't, but I'll let that slide for the moment), then every being has some measure of goodness independent of the kind-specific goodness dictated by its essence. But that doesn't help Feser here. For the sort of goodness in terms of which flourishing-for-a-kind is defined is goodness-for-that-kind. And since that kind of goodness is defined in terms of the essence of the kind in question, it's going to refer to life, since it is part of the essence of every living kind that its good is bound up with living.

Life, as defined by Feser, still seems circular.

Untenured said...

@Paul Ned:

What would a circular real definition even look like? Do you know what a real definition is?

Untenured said...

@Paul Ned:

And I never said that being and goodness were "inter-definable". I said they were "convertible". Which is a different notion altogether.

Scott said...

@Paul Ned:

"Wait--if flourishing is species-relative (see my exchange with Mr. Green), and if flourishing for a species is perfective of that species, and if what is perfective of that species is dictated by the essence of that species, then wouldn't flourishing for a species essentially include reference to life?"

No. Again, the Scholastic definition of life is in terms of immanent causation, and the latter makes no reference ("essential" or otherwise) to "life." Even if it makes reference to "good" (and even that much is arguable), that alone doesn't mean it makes reference to "flourishing-for-a-kind"—and it doesn't.

Again: An equilateral triangle is one with three sides equal in length. Now, it's easy to prove that an equilateral triangle is also equiangular (has three equal angles). The converse can also be proven easily: any equiangular triangle is also equilateral. So it follows from the definition of an equilateral triangle that such a triangle is equiangular, and it follows from the triangle's equiangularity that it's equilateral. But equilaterality was the very thing being defined, and yet the definition doesn't appear to be circular. By your standard, though, it should be, and I've yet to see a reason why (or an explanation of why this example isn't on point).

Like Untenured, I'd be interested in hearing your understanding of real definition—and, for that matter, of circularity.

Gary Black said...

Paul,

The fact is that goodness (or being) is a term understandable without reference to life. A kind or species is a term perfectly understandable without reference to life. Those being the main terms you disputed in the definition, it simply isn't circular.

I agree that if you were trying to establish if something was living and had to accept life as part of its good before starting, this would just be begging the question. However, we can ascertain various goods without knowing the substance in its entirety. Then we can proceed to figure if these goods were procured through some immanent or transient causation. I imagine there are cases where this is difficult to hash out but that is an epistemological problem.

Paul Ned said...

@Untenured
A real definition of a thing tells us what that thing is, where 'is' is the 'is' of identity. So a real definition gives us the essence of nature of a thing. A circular real definition for some thing F would tell us what F is, but would include F in the definition. Maybe your notion of 'real definition' precludes circularity. That's fine. Nothing hangs on this point.

"And I never said that being and goodness were "inter-definable". I said they were "convertible". Which is a different notion altogether."

OK. I assumed you were just speaking loosely of interdefinability. But if not, I have no idea what 'convertible' means, in your sense, nor do I see how the notion is supposed to help your case.

@Scott
The two neo-scholastic definitions that have appeared in this thread, so far as I recall—Feser's and Oderberg's—both define life in terms of goodness. Maybe you have an alternative definition of your own that isn't in terms of goodness. That's fine. But I'd rather stay focused on the definitions we've worked with so far, if that's OK.

On your triangle point: equiangularity necessarily follows from equilaterality, but that doesn't imply that equilaterality is defined in terms of equiangularity. And equilaterality is not defined in terms of equiangularity, nor vice versa. So your example is mistaken.

I'm saying something different: the definitions of life given so far are in terms of goodness, which is goodness-for-a-species, which of course includes reference to life, because goodness-for-a-species is partially defined in terms of life.

Hopefully you can see why this looks circular. Maybe it isn't, but nothing anyone has said so far has given me any hope that it isn't.

I'll be away from my computer traveling for the next day or so, but I'll check back in then.

Paul Ned said...

@Gary Black
Untenured made the same point and I responded in my comment at 9:58AM.

Scott said...

@Paul Ned:

"On your triangle point: equiangularity necessarily follows from equilaterality, but that doesn't imply that equilaterality is defined in terms of equiangularity. And equilaterality is not defined in terms of equiangularity, nor vice versa. So your example is mistaken."

Why? Your objection to the definition of "life" at issue here is not that it makes direct reference to life (it doesn't), but that, by making reference to "goodness," it entails something that in turn entails life. Where does the analogy fail?

Scott said...

@Paul Ned:

"I'm saying something different: the definitions of life given so far are in terms of goodness, which is goodness-for-a-species, which of course includes reference to life, because goodness-for-a-species is partially defined in terms of life."

And I'm saying (as are others) that, as far as I can see, neither of those things is true. A reference to goodness doesn't include any sort of "essential reference" to the goodness of any particular species (living or otherwise), and goodness for a species/kind is not defined even partially in terms of "life."

It's true that the flourishing of a living substance has something to do with its continuing to live, but you're making way too much stew out of that single oyster. Ed's/Oderberg's/the Scholastic definition of life is given in terms of immanent-causation-for-the-sake-of-the-agent and that's that. There's no circularity there.

Greg said...

@Paul
I'm saying something different: the definitions of life given so far are in terms of goodness, which is goodness-for-a-species, which of course includes reference to life, because goodness-for-a-species is partially defined in terms of life.

Perhaps you could respond to the specific counterexample I gave at 8:16. The goodness of two things (one living, the other nonliving, say cats and crystals) might be achieved for both of them through growth. In each case, growth is goodness-for-a-species. But growth is not a life concept, so the goodness-for-a-species (cats in this case) does not "include reference to life."

We hold cat be alive not because their goods (like growth, in this case) presuppose that they are alive, but because those goods are attained by way of immanent rather than transeunt causal chains.

Scott said...

@Paul Ned:

"I have no idea what 'convertible' means, in your sense, nor do I see how the notion is supposed to help your case."

That being is "convertible" with goodness just means that being and goodness are distinguished conceptually but are not different in reality: anything that exists is, thus far, good, and vice versa.

The reason this idea helps Untenured's case is that it makes clear that "goodness" can be (and is) defined and understood without any reference ("essential" or otherwise) to "life."

Whether or not you accept this view of being and goodness yourself, it certainly shows that the Scholastic definition of "life" is not circular merely because it invokes "goodness."

Scott said...

@Bob:

"Does accepting the Scholastic view of essences require the rejection of Darwinian evolution?"

No. There's no reason in principle that an animal with one form can't give birth to an animal with a different form.

Anonymous said...

After weeks of anticipation Scholastic Metaphysics arrived today - and so far my high expectations have been more than justified. It is typical of the lucid prose and forceful argumentation readers of this blog and his other works have come to appreciate. I'm trying to pace myself but the book is a page-turner.

Scott said...

Glad to hear it. The book doesn't come out here (in the US) until the end of May, but then again the US price is only about $20 right now (as opposed to the UK price of about £30, which at current exchange rates is about fifty bucks!).

Anonymous said...

I was lucky to have got it on Amazon.co.uk pre-order for £15.17! Anyway I'm sure you'll not be disappointed when May comes around.

Scott said...

I'm sure I won't; I have a pretty good idea what quality to expect!

Gary Black said...

Paul,

Thank you for directing me to that post. I think the point I ignored is when you said the "metaphysical nature of things".

Now let us assume life is the type of thing that increases various goods - including life! There is nothing in that idea that seems irrational. However, there is a sort of metaphysical circularity there. The assumption you seem to be working off is that if this metaphysical circularity exists, any definition that captures the nature of the object will necessarily be circular. I would disagree with that proposition. I would find it a challenge but I think the challenge has been met.

It would be interesting to consider whether life can be increased in anything more than a metaphorical sense, because if it cannot it also avoids your metaphysical circularity.

Open to correction,
Gary

Greg said...

Parsons has responded to Ed's first question.

Tom said...

I'm a big fan of this blog and all the commenters here, as I've been reading for a few months, but I've just come across an article about a mind-reading, speech-allowing headset for dogs that can be found here: http://geekologie.com/2013/12/mind-reading-headset-for-dogs-allows-the.php

I'm going to assume that, as usual, the neuroscience and the biology doesn't actually affect the metaphysics, but any response would be appreciated.

Anonymous said...

A quote from another philosopher in Parson's response:

"... is just as unclear how we get from the action of this and the action of that as how we get from the Being of this and the Being of that to Being qua Being."

Isn't this glossing over the first and second ways?

Mr. Green said...

Tom: I'm going to assume that, as usual, the neuroscience and the biology doesn't actually affect the metaphysics, but any response would be appreciated.

As usual, there doesn't seem to be anything that interesting from a metaphysical perspective. Indeed, giving dogs human voices is nothing new, they've just come up with fancier technology for doing it. And the brain-scanning part is cool, but it's also pretty vague. In fact, referring to dogs' "thoughts" is a bit misleading — it's not as though a dog has actual intellectual abstractions about taco joints, etc.; as the article points out, an observant human can draw the same conclusions based on the dog's behaviour — and behaviour is all it is.

Anonymous said...

At heart, all are one.
At heart, a human being is not the slightest bit different from the reptiles, the birds, the former dinosaurs, the elephants, the plants, the trees, the wind, the sky, the microbes.
Apart from their function in conditionality, all beings are the same.
Human beings are not uniquely to be Saved.
It is not that only human beings are full of "soul" and everything else should be chopped up and eaten for lunch! If you examine beings other than the human, feel them, are sensitive to them, enter directly into relationship with them prior to the separative thinking mind, you discover that they are the same - and not just the bigger ones, but the mosquitoes,too, which you swat out as if they were nothing.
At heart, human beings are manifesting a potential that is in all and that is inherent in conditional existence itself. Whether this potential is exhibited or not, whether it is made human or not, makes no difference whatsoever to the Divine Condition.
All is One.
All are the same.
All equally require Divine Compassion, Love, and Blessing, the thread of Communion with the Divine made certain and true and directly experienced. All

Paul Ned said...

@Scott and Gary

" Your objection to the definition of "life" at issue here is not that it makes direct reference to life (it doesn't), but that, by making reference to "goodness," it entails something that in turn entails life. Where does the analogy fail?"

My point is not that Feser's definition of life entails goodness and thus entails life, though that follows from my point. Rather, my point is that Feser's definition of life includes goodness, the definition of which includes life. Your analogy fails because it is terms of entailment or merely necessary relations, whereas mine doesn't because it is terms of definition or essence. Your triangle example illustrates why mere entailment or necessary relations don't imply definitional relations. But my point is specifically about definitional relations.

"A reference to goodness doesn't include any sort of "essential reference" to the goodness of any particular species (living or otherwise), and goodness for a species/kind is not defined even partially in terms of "life.""

As I've explained several times now, the sort of goodness in terms of which life is defined—according to the scholastics on this thread—is species-relative. This means that the goodness that figures in any given definition of life for a given species is relative to that given kind. The goodness for a given species is defined in terms of the goodness for that species, and since the goodness of any species includes life, the goodness for that species is partially defined in terms of life. I don't know how to put this any more clearly.

The thing about circular definitions is that it doesn't take many oysters to make a stew. It only takes one: if a definition for F makes ANY appeal to F, no matter how "small", then it's circular. I don't make the rules.

" That being is "convertible" with goodness just means that being and goodness are distinguished conceptually but are not different in reality: anything that exists is, thus far, good, and vice versa."

Well this might explain some of the disagreement we've been having, because I don't care about definitions that diverge from reality. The sort of definition I'm talking about is that which accurately captures the identity of the thing defined. I'm talking about real definitions. Consequently, on your view of the relationship between goodness and being, being cannot be really defined without reference to goodness.

If you (and the other scholastics on this thread) merely have in mind the sort of inaccurate, merely conceptual notion of definition at work in your "different in concept but not in reality" idea, then, sure, such a definition of life need not be circular. Because such a definition need not accurately reflect reality. But then who cares?

@Greg
Sure, if life can be defined merely as immanent causation towards growth, where growth isn't defined in terms of life, then you could have a non-circular definition. But this definition seems too permissive, as I pointed out with my example of a computer with immanent causal powers. The response to that case turned on additional scholastic claims which seemed unmotivated and arbitrary. E.g., something has to be simple to have immanent casual powers, and, if the causal power was bestowed from without, then it isn't immanent. But why couldn't a computer be simple—a simple thing that computes? And why don't human beings fail the "power bestowed from without" test, since presumably on this view God bestowed human immanent causal powers?

Anonymous said...

Might have something to do with artifacts vs substances.

Glenn said...

(Re the dogs and 'speech allowing headsets'... Mr. Green notes the lack of anything interesting from a metaphysical perspective. I think, however, that there is a practical puzzle which may be of some interest. The headsets are available in models ranging in price from $65 to $1,200, and it is alleged that each model will translate dog thoughts into human language. But here is the practical puzzle: why would anyone shell out money to "hear them English", when everyone can watch them Basque for free?)

Untenured said...

@Paul Ned:

"Rather, my point is that Feser's definition of life includes goodness, the definition of which includes life."

That's not right. I think you have it backwards. Life is a special case of goodness, not vice-versa. An entity can exhibit goodness without exhibiting life, but it cannot exhibit life without exhibiting good.

Untenured said...

@Glenn:

You are, pretty much, the Andy Kaufmann of this website.

But, lest you get a big head, know that that is only half a compliment.

Daniel Joachim said...

Off topic again, but I would love to see some reviews on the new campaign by the British Humanist Association with four new videos, all narrated by our all beloved Stephen Fry.

It's just an astounding collection of popularized false dichotomies, caricatures and question-begging. From the people that gave you buses with "there's probably no God, so stop worrying and live life", hereeeeee's....

http://humanism.org.uk/thatshumanism/

It seems very popular among their supporters. Go figure!

rank sophist said...

Too many defenses of the First Way seem to collapse immanent causality into transient causality. Oderberg is really the only one I've seen who's avoided the problem. I'd be interested to see how Prof. Feser solves it, given his defense here of immanent causality.

Glenn said...

Daniel,

From the people that gave you buses with "there's probably no God, so stop worrying and live life", hereeeeee's....

http://humanism.org.uk/thatshumanism/


Interesting.

At about 1:19 in the "How can I be happy?" video, the narrator mellifluently says, "...every person will have many different meanings in their life", and the hand hastily writes "s i n".

Ed McMahon: Sin.
Carnac the Magnificent: How can I be happy?

Quipping aside...

If it is true that behind all sin is a misguided sense of the meaning of 'good', and it is true that each person likely will commit a number of different sins in his life, then it is also true that every person likely will experience a number of different (misguided) meanings of 'good' during their life.

- - - - -

o [T]he cause of sin is some apparent good as motive[.] ST I-II Q 75 A 2 (here)

Scott said...

@Paul Ned:

The Scholastic definition of life is in terms of immanent causation and nothing else—end of story. Even if we take immanent causation to be in some way aimed toward the "good" of the relevant substance, this "goodness" is not defined in any way that presupposes a definition of life, no matter how often you "explain" (that is, repeatedly assert) otherwise.

As a couple of us have troubled to explain to you, the Scholastic understanding of "good" is that it has the same scope as "existence" or "being," so if you don't like the reference to "goodness" in (some) definitions of life, you can replace it by something like "perpetuation in being." Living things are those exhibiting a kind of causation that has, as its effect, the perpetuation in being of the thing itself. Where's the circularity in that?

Sure, for any particular thing, "goodness" will in fact be "goodness as the kind of thing it is." So what? A foot is defined (non-circularly) as twelve inches even though a foot-long plank is twelve inches of wood and a foot-long hot dog is twelve inches of beef.

I don't have anything much else to add, so I'm done here unless something genuinely new comes up.

Greg said...

@Paul
Sure, if life can be defined merely as immanent causation towards growth, where growth isn't defined in terms of life, then you could have a non-circular definition. But this definition seems too permissive, as I pointed out with my example of a computer with immanent causal powers. The response to that case turned on additional scholastic claims which seemed unmotivated and arbitrary. E.g., something has to be simple to have immanent casual powers, and, if the causal power was bestowed from without, then it isn't immanent. But why couldn't a computer be simple—a simple thing that computes? And why don't human beings fail the "power bestowed from without" test, since presumably on this view God bestowed human immanent causal powers?

A scholastic would deny that a human could create an artifact with immanent causal powers (cf. Oderberg's article cited by Feser). More specifically, the general scholastic view of artifacts is that they have accidental forms, and their integral parts retain their own natural ends. So a computer could not properly perform immanent causation unless its parts do. (These are all, of course, rather strong claims. But then the question is the truth or falsity of the scholastic definition.)

I don't know what sort of computer would be simple. In any case, I don't think the scholastic response would be that only simples can have immanent causal powers; you'd have to clarify what sort of simple you mean. (Only God is ultimately simple, although various other entities are analogically simple.) Oderberg explicitly argues that immanent causation cannot emerge from transient causation, so if he at any point claims that only simples (at some specific level of simplicity) can act immanently, then that is probably consequent upon his other arguments.

Since there isn't a "power bestowed from without" test even for artifacts (ie. the reasons artifacts fail to demonstrate immanent causation does not have to do with the fact that their powers are bestowed from without, full stop), such a test doesn't apply to humans either.

Greg said...

@Paul
if life can be defined merely as immanent causation towards growth, where growth isn't defined in terms of life, then you could have a non-circular definition.

I also want to be clear here that life is not being defined as immanent causation towards growth but immanent causation towards perfections (of which growth is one). The example of growth just demonstrates as false the intuition that the goods of living things need to be specified in life-involving terms.

One could say that cats and crystals only analogously grow, so perhaps it is still possible that the growth of cats must be specified in life-involving terms. But the only sense (for the scholastic) in which growth for cats is life-involving is that it is achieved through immanent causation.

In short, the scholastic definition of life looks at perfection/goodness globally, and defines as living those things whose perfections are attained through immanent causation.

Jeremy Taylor said...

Daniel Joachim,

our all beloved Stephen Fry.

I can't remember if it was Peter Hitchens who originated the comment or if he was just quoting someone else, but he described Fry very well as the stupid person's idea of what a clever person is like.

Fry is irritating on a number of levels, not least because he pretends to be some iconoclastic anti-establishment rebel whereas, here in Britan at least, his views are the most bien pasant establishment fare.

With secular humanists the first thing to remind them is that they stole the term humanists deliberately from the New or American humanists to try to neutralise that movement. The American humanists represented actual humanism whereas the secular humanists represent just what the American humanists fought against - and what is not very humanist - like monistic materialism and determinism.

Real humanism, in its historic sense that someone implies when they use terms like renaissance humanism, implies a great focus on human indivility and personality, human agency and free will, human responsibility and moral effort, and, often, the importance of classical, liberal education and learning. This is what the American humanists defended and this is what the secular humanists, for the most part, disliked and do dislike.

That someone like Susan Blackmore could be a distinguished member of the British Humanist Associations should tell us what their humanism amounts to. Paul Elmer More, Matthew Arnold, or Erasmus she is not.

Scott said...

@Jeremy Taylor:

"I can't remember if it was Peter Hitchens who originated the comment or if he was just quoting someone else, but he described Fry very well as the stupid person's idea of what a clever person is like."

He credits the quote to a headline in the "Dictionary of National Celebrity." But it's the single funniest and aptest description of Fry I've ever seen (and I don't say that because I dislike him; I generally at least enjoy him on "QI").

Greg said...

Parsons posts another response.

Prince Randoms said...

I thought humanism was devoted to improving the human condition. Why should they care how people identify? Last I heard the BHS was also doing billboard ads trying to get people to identify as atheists for the census.