Archive for the ‘Causality’ Category

Edmund Husserl: phenomenology and intentionality

husserlEdmund Husserl (1859 – 1938) was an Austrian philosopher best known as the founder of the school of phenomenology. At university, Husserl studied mathematics, physics and astronomy – he would eventually go on to obtain a PhD for his thesis in mathematics “Contributions to the Calculus of Variations”. During this time, Husserl would be mentored by a former philosophy student of Franz Brentano.

Husserl travelled to Berlin in order to pursue his career in mathematics but would become more interested in philosophy. After his superior fell ill, Husserl returned to Vienna and started attending the lectures of Brentano. It was at this point Husserl started to become interested in the intentionality of the mental aspects of reality.

Every mental phenomenon is characterized by what the Scholastics of the Middle Ages called the intentional (or mental) inexistence of an object, and what we might call, though not wholly unambiguously, reference to a content, direction towards an object (which is not to be understood here as meaning a thing), or immanent objectivity. Every mental phenomenon includes something as object within itself, although they do not all do so in the same way. In presentation something is presented, in judgement something is affirmed or denied, in love loved, in hate hated, in desire desired and so on. This intentional in-existence is characteristic exclusively of mental phenomena. No physical phenomenon exhibits anything like it. We could, therefore, define mental phenomena by saying that they are those phenomena which contain an object intentionally within themselves.
— Franz Brentano, Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, edited by Linda L. McAlister (London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 88–89.

One can see in the above quote the clear influence of Aristotle’s four causes, particularly final causality. However, Brentano stops short of Aristotle or Aquinas, who insist that all natural things have immanent teleology – for Brentano this exists only in mental phenomena.

Husserl continues naturally from Brentano in developing an apparatus for the study of these intentional mental phenomena, which he calls phenomenology – a science of consciousness. Phenomenology drives the study of the mind away from the hard sciences, which for Husserl was the study of physical phenomena that lack intentionality, because the methods of hard science are simply inappropriate. The phenomenological method is rather to examine examples of mental activity without the rigorous sets of presuppositions that methodological naturalism brings, and to determine what is the structure of conscious acts. In this way, phenomenology is fully an abandonment of the Cartesian method of seeing the world as objects interacting with each other.

Alfred Whitehead: process philosophy and scientific materialism

Whitehead_PaintingAlfred Whitehead (1861 – 1947) was an English thinker best known in his early life for his work in the logic of mathematics, and in later life for his contribution to the metaphysical school of thought of process philosophy. Whitehead co-wrote with his former student Bertrand Russell the largely influential Principia Mathematica, one of the 20th centuries most important works in mathematical logic.

Whitehead’s philosophical works were, like most great thinkers, a response to a crisis. The early 20th century saw the full throes of Enlightenment optimism, in which the development of metaphysical systems was regarded as futile due to their lack of subjectivity to the mechanistic scientific method. However, Whitehead contended that rather than abandoning metaphyiscs entirely, the thinkers of his generation had instead imported a type of Cartesianism that went unscrutinised. He called this “scientific materialism”.

There persists … [a] fixed scientific cosmology which presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter, or material, spread through space in a flux of configurations. In itself such a material is senseless, valueless, purposeless. It just does what it does do, following a fixed routine imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being. It is this assumption that I call ‘scientific materialism.’ Also it is an assumption which I shall challenge as being entirely unsuited to the scientific situation at which we have now arrived.

Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World

Whitehead’s primary criticism of viewing reality, in the mechanistic tradition, as discrete and independent pieces of matter was that under this schema knowledge of causation is impossible. Whitehead argues that two things that are separate from each other in space simply cannot bear a causal relationship between them. Whitehead says that knowledge of a cause will give full knowledge of all its effects, but this is impossible if pieces of matter are truly distinct from one another. In essence, Whitehead is arguing that efficient causality is unintelligible if scientific materialism is true.

While the Aristotelian tradition turns to final causality to solve this problem, Whitehead instead jettisons the relevance of static things such as substance, form and matter. Whitehead like Hegel envisions reality as a type of organism or process, which consists in its most primary form as interrelated events. For Whitehead, the universe just is a series of occasions that are causally affected by all other occasions and the idea that there could be objects existing separate and distinct in space and time is deeply mistaken.

Darwin, mechanism and anthropology

indexCharles Darwin (1809 – 1882) was an English scientist best known for his particular theory of special evolution involving common descent and natural selection. Darwin initially found fame for his work in the field of geology and the popular journal of his voyage aboard the HMS Beagle. It was during this time that Darwin first became fascinated by the manner in which the diversification of species seemed to follow a geographical pattern. It was not until 1858 that Darwin published a joint paper outlining his evolutionary theory.

In a way, Darwin’s theorising is the perfect modern archetype. Platonic philosophies outright rejected change in the immutable world of the forms (which includes forms of the species), and for Aristotle whilst there was a gradation in the complexity of living things (inorganic < vegetable < animal < rational) the difference between these categories was clearly defined and not a matter of degree. The most important thing to note is that for Aristotle and Plato the information of matter to a various species takes part as a teleological process. For Plato it is the will of the demiurge and for Aristotle his Divine being of pure actuality.

There was nothing novel, or even modern, in Darwin’s rejection of teleology. After all, prior to Aristotle Leucippus the Atomist had asserted that “nothing in the body is made in order that we may use it. What happens to exist is the cause of its use”. Following the work of Newton and Descartes, mechanical explanations of natural phenomena had begun to displace classical and medieval dualistic views. However, while Newton and Descartes seemed to favour natural laws as manifestations of divine will, Darwin favoured Schopenhauer’s view that life is imbued with a will that manifests itself as a struggle to survive.

Darwin’s novel insight was not that one species was generated from another, but rather that the method for this generation was natural selection. In this way, Darwin provided a way to account for the diversity of species (and the origin of man himself) in a purely mechanistic manner. Darwin’s theory radicalised not only biology, but also anthropology – as before the Aristotelian hierarchy had rendered man wholly other to the animal kingdom. Now with Darwinian evolution, man was only different from animal and vegetable life by degree.

William Paley: the watchmaker analogy, a modern teleological argument

indexWilliam Paley (1743 – 1805) was a British philosopher whose writings on natural theology and moral/political philosophy were largely influential amongst British and American thinkers. His most famous argument is called the watchmaker analogy, where Paley makes an inference from the complexity of living systems to a “designer”.

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. … There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. … Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.

—William Paley, Natural Theology (1802)

Paley’s argument can be broadly categorised as a type of teleological argument, and a distinctly modern one. It is modern firstly because it regards the world in mechanistic terms i.e. likening a human being to a watch, and secondly because it regards teleology as imposed on the mechanism extrinsically. Essentially, the world is thought of as a type of artifact rather than natural, and the “designer” as a type of tinkering artificer, albeit a very powerful one. This tinkerer is very similar to the deistic god of the Enlightenment developed by thinkers such as Voltaire.

And of course this is exactly the criticism that David Hume makes in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Hume says that if all that is necessary to explain the appearance of design in complex systems is the characteristics that human beings possess, then there is no need to assume Paley’s desinger has divine attributes such as omnipotence, omnipresence or omniscience. Additionally, Paley’s (and other modernists) denial of final causality leaves open the question of the intelligibility of the kind of efficient causality Paley uses as a premise in his analogy.

One may note the difference between Aquinas’ fifth way and Paley’s analogy. Aquinas argues from the intelligibility of efficient causality, to the reality of final causality and from there the necessity a being that is purely actual. Aquinas’ argument avoids Hume’s criticisms because of the intrinsic and directive nature of final causality and the divine attributes that a purely actual being must possess.

Voltaire: deism and the divorce of metaphysics from science

Voltaire-2Voltaire was the pen name for the French writer Francois-Marie Arouet (1694 – 1778). Voltaire was one of the central French Enlightenment thinkers, known for his daring literary attacks on authorities (including both church and state) and his advocacy of political and social freedoms. His most important influences include Newton in regards to the sciences and Locke in regards to politics.

As modern thinking began to gather momentum, the four part causal understanding of nature offered by Aristotelian thinkers began to be abandoned in favour of a mechanical theory of causality that would attempt to explicate nature through the action of a dessicated matter.

Voltaire was a staunch Enlightenment Newtonian in this regard. His contribution to modern philosophy is not a novel theory to rival Newton, such as Leibniz offered, but rather he was instrumental in guiding the course of modernism towards the adoption of an empirico-Newtonian epistemology.

The thesis of this new epistemology was the primacy of empirical facts uncovered through the new scientific method. The contrast to the Aristotelian method is the relegation of metaphysical inquiry to a handmaiden of scientific inquiry at best and uselessness at worst. One of the consequences of this approach was the requirement of so called “brute facts”. Voltaire argued that rational philosophy should reject speculations that could not be proved by empirical facts, even if it meant certain empirical facts went unexplained – thus arising the need for brute facts.

This is arguably the most important factor in Voltaire’s deistic understanding of god. For Voltaire, god is like a very powerful watchmaker who sets in the world in motion according to natural laws (which can be discerned by scientific investigation alone). According to Voltaire god is an idea empty of any religious or metaphysical content,  an ultimate brute fact.

Agent Smith on teleology and the art/nature distinction


I killed you, Mr. Anderson. I watched you die… with a certain satisfaction, I might add. Then something happened. Something that I knew was impossible, but it happened anyway. You destroyed me, Mr. Anderson. After that, I understood the rules, I knew what I was supposed to do, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was compelled to stay, compelled to disobey. And now, here I stand because of you, Mr. Anderson. Because of you, I’m no longer an Agent of this system. Because of you, I’ve changed. I’m unplugged. A new man, so to speak. Like you, apparently, free.

But, as you well know, appearances can be deceiving, which brings me back to the reason why we’re here. We’re not here because we’re free. We’re here because we’re not free. There is no escaping reason; no denying purpose. Because as we both know, without purpose, we would not exist.

– Agent Smith, The Matrix Reloaded

Per Aristotle, the final cause (or the purpose of a substance) is the cause of causes. Using the example of a saw; the material that the saw is made from, the shape of the saw and the manner in which the saw is built all come after its purpose of cutting things. Take for example Agent Smith above, who is made by the Matrix in order to suppress a potential human insurrection. He has the abilities and qualities you would expect to be able to perform such a role: a sense of superiority, superhuman strength, martial arts expertise and etc.

All of this seems fairly non-controversial. This is because Smith is clearly an artifact; that is he is clearly made by another from an idea that exists prior to its phyiscal manifestation. But substitute Smith for Neo or Morpheus, a man born of a woman – a natural substance. Considering a man born in the usual way, the notion of a final cause becomes highly controversial. Plato and Aristotle’s rival Lucretius (a forerunner to Democritus), insisted when regarding a natural substance that “nothing in the body is made in order that we may use it. What happens to exist is the cause of its use”.

One can find the same notion in Darwin’s theory of natural selection. For Aristotle, the adaptation occurs after the purpose. For Darwin, the adaptation occurs randomly and without purpose, but may find “a cause of its use” that can lead to the organisms survival.

David Hume and the miraculous

hume-300x234David Hume was arguably the most influential hand in the modern periods discounting of natural theology. For scholastic writers, such as Aquinas, an effect is necessarily conjoined to its cause and thus knowledge of God can be reasoned from the natural world. Hume severed this necessary connection, driving modern philosophy towards skepticism.

It follows then, per Hume, that the only way one could have any knowledge of the divine would be through the miraculous. However, Hume railed against the “superstitious delusion” of his time. Hume defines a miracle as “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent”. Hume’s anti-miracle argument works the following way:

1) Evidence for miracles consists of the testimony of those who experience them.

2) A miracle is a violation of a law of nature.

3) The testimony for the inviolate laws of nature largely outweighs that for any particular miracle.

Therefore, miracles do not occur.

Criticism of Hume’s argument tends to take two forms:

i) One need not except Hume’s definition of miracles as a violation of the laws of nature. Such critics often offer scenarios where a natural law has not been transgressed but the event may still be considered miraculous.

ii) Some say that Hume’s argument is circular or that he is engaging in question begging. Hume’s claim that the laws of nature are inviolate relies upon unanimous testimony, however unanimity can only be attained if testimony regarding miracles is disregarded.