Huffington Post Writer Appears to Engage in Blatant Confirmation Bias and Scientism

Matthew Hutson wrote a blog post for the Huffington Post a few days ago called “Even Top Scientists Believe Everything Was Created By Magic,” that seems unintentionally to deconstruct its own premise, practicing blatant scientism and confirmation bias against teleology in relation to a new psychological study “currently in press at the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General” whose findings, contrary to the interpretation of the psychologists, seems to suggest that teleological thinking is intrinsic to the human mind, thus apparently confirming that final causation is valid in some sense.

By way of a disclaimer, although Hutson’s book, The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane, apparently argues that teleological thought is comforting and even beneficial for the living of life (a supposition with which I generally agree), his blog post, to which I’m primarily responding here, seems to assume that final causation can’t possibly be true in any real sense. Without reading his book, it’s unclear if the piece is being ironic and deliberately provocative, but I’ll take him at his word and respond to what he seems to argue in the blog post, which leaves us with the pleasant thought that “one cold fact is unavoidable, particularly in science: Sometimes shit just happens. So watch your step.”

The post suggests that “many countries have done a better job than we have at quashing creationism and intelligent design,” two rather different concepts that Hutson conflates in order to dismiss them, seeming to argue that fundamentalist creationism is the only option if we are to believe in teleology, a vast oversimplification of the issue. In fact there’s no scientific way for anyone to know if “something more” (to use William James’ phrase) than pure materiality exists or not; it’s not empirically provable one way or the other, so Hutson’s unsubtle query, “why are those nonscientific beliefs so persistent?” assumes that scientific knowledge is the only valid knowledge as an article of faith, which merely exchanges one credo for another. Hutson goes on to state that “new research suggests even top scientists are not immune to such magical intuitions,” a seemingly condescending and trivializing way of stating the result of the study, which basically found that even scientists have a hard time avoiding interpreting teleological statements as valid. In the comments to the blog, some have raised the question of if this is merely a problem with the study’s methodology, in which case it wouldn’t say anything at all about teleology but merely about the imprecision of language. However, for the sake of argument, I’ll assume that this is not the case and that the study does in fact offer data genuinely reflective of teleological intuitions. If we employ Occam’s razor that the simplest explanation is usually the best one, rather than suggesting that teleology is an unaccountably persistent superstition, these “tenacious teleological tendencies” (as the study puts it) perhaps suggest that the world is susceptible to interpretations in terms of final causation just as it is susceptible to scientific interpretations based on material and efficient causation. And certainly, that Hutson facilely equates “magic” with “teleology” and “intelligent design” betrays a lack of nuanced understanding concerning the many sophisticated volumes of philosophical discourse exploring the interrelations of these subjects in their various inflections. For one instance of many, Henri Bergson writes in Creative Evolution:

Finalism is not, like mechanism, a doctrine with fixed rigid outlines. It admits of as many inflections as we like. The mechanistic philosophy is to be taken or left; it must be left if the least grain of dust, by straying from the path foreseen by mechanics should show the slightest trace of spontaneity. The doctrine of final causes, on the contrary, will never be definitively refuted. If one form of it be put aside, it will take another. Its principle, which is essentially psychological, is very flexible. It is so extensible, and thereby so comprehensive, that one accepts something of it as soon as one rejects pure mechanism (33).

Hutson seems to assume a priori that teleology is false in any real sense. (note: the subject of his book reveals this apparent assumption possibly to be the product of egregious miscommunication on Hutson’s part in the post, though it’s impossible to tell, which I would contend is a fault of the writer, not the reader.) Although there is no empirical way to prove the supposition that teleology is a silly superstition, both he and the scientists he cites interpret the data according to their implicit and ultimately extra-scientific beliefs. It seems to me that a more straightforward interpretation of the data is that the mind is inherently geared towards teleological thinking because the world is in some sense teleological. Wouldn’t a real empiricist, a “radical empiricist” (as James puts it), examine the evidence without any presuppositions as to the nature of the phenomena and conclude that if final causation can’t be conditioned out of “even the most skeptical and well-educated of us” (which are not, as Hutson seems to suggest, identical qualities), perhaps there’s something to final causation after all? As numerous widely respected philosophers demonstrate in different valences, including James, Bergson, and Alfred North Whitehead, the human mind is evolved from and embedded in the cosmos, so it must share something of the underlying cosmic structure. As Richard Tarnas puts it in The Passion of the Western Mind: “The human mind is ultimately the organ of the world’s own process of self-revelation.” How could it be any other way? We are made of the stuff of the universe, and we have the capacity to know ourselves to varying degrees, so it logically follows that we are the universe coming to know itself. To my mind, although this supposition has often been anathema to the scientistic culture of modernity, the burden of proof should lie with those who seek to deny this seemingly obvious and irrefutable fact.

Ultimately it seems to me that the only insight Hutson has to offer, at least in his post, is that it’s easy to knock down a straw man because he can’t fight back, a phenomenon that we’ve also seen recently in TED’s censorship of talks by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock, which I discuss in an earlier post. As I said before, these kinds of hysterical, knee-jerk reactions to anything that contradicts materialist, scientistic dogmas (as Sheldrake puts it) appear to indicate that the old paradigm, like the church fathers who condemned Copernicus and Galileo and insisted the world was flat, is on its last legs, is backed into a corner, and that a new world view that integrates scientific knowledge, partially true within its domain of validity, with other forms of knowledge based on formal and final causation is in the process of emergence. Even if Hutson believes that teleology, though “irrational” and plain wrong, can act as a beneficial placebo effect (though this is far from clear based on his blog post alone), he’s still apparently recycling the same old scientistic platitudes that keep so many of us from engaging in a real dialogue about the nature of reality just as surely as the dogmas of the medieval church.

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41 responses to “Huffington Post Writer Appears to Engage in Blatant Confirmation Bias and Scientism

  1. Matthew Hutson

    Hi, Grant. Thoughtful post.

    You write: “It seems to me that a more straightforward interpretation of the data is that the mind is inherently geared towards teleological thinking because the world is in some sense teleological.” So when people say, “The sun makes light so that plants can photosynthesize,” your assumption is not that they have made a common mistake but that in some sense the sun would not have come to be if plants had not evolved three billion years later?

    Matt

  2. Hi Matt,

    Thanks for your response. Bergson’s concept of a “vital impulsion” and Whitehead’s assertion that “the essence of life is the teleological introduction of novelty” both seem to suggest that there is an intrinsic tendency built into the structure of the cosmos towards the emergence of increasing novelty, order, and consciousness. If we can judge by cosmic history, this seems to be the case as there has been one emergence after another (you know the litany): elemental particles into molecules into proteins into single-celled organisms into plants into animals into humans into language, culture, technology, and discussions about it all on blogs. There’s probably no way to prove this teleological trajectory through purely materialist empiricism because it essentially posits another force of nature (beyond the four physical forces) that seems to exceed the current explanatory scope of science. But I find this to be a more compelling explanation than the idea that evolution is a purely “random walk,” as they say in mathematics.

    So, yes, in some sense the sun exists so that plants could eventually emerge. Something in the nature of process appears to urge the world’s evolution ever onward and upward. As Nietzsche wrote, life is “that which must overcome itself again and again.” Thus, it’s not plants that cause the sun’s existence, but something like a transtemporal telos in which both sun and plant participate in an analogous process to the fractal “strange attractor” of chaos theory. I agree with your seeming implication that the type of teleology posited by fundamentalist religious people is an unsupportable hypothesis precisely because it is almost impossible to reconcile with science, which I think has great value. But the more subtle kinds of teleology that the philosophers mentioned above discuss is perfectly compatible with scientific empiricism as long as science follow its own rules and doesn’t claim to have exclusive access to truth.

    Best,
    Grant

    • Matthew Hutson

      Hi Grant,

      For there to be any evidence of teleology (beyond the doings of humans and other agents with intentions), one would have to show the known laws of physics being violated with some statistical certainty. To my knowledge, this has not been done. You write, “the more subtle kinds of teleology that the philosophers mentioned above discuss is perfectly compatible with scientific empiricism.” Teleology, subtle or not, is only compatible with scientific empiricism if one agrees that the universe never actually acts upon its goals and intentions in any observably way. So the only scientifically compatible form of teleology is deism.

      Matt

  3. Hi Matt,
    I see what you’re saying, but don’t you see that you’re reverting to scientistic dogmatism again, the idea that every phenomenon must be explicable using the tools of science or it doesn’t exist? I love science, too, but the kind of statistical verification you seek is quantitative, while final causation is qualitative. If what you’re saying is that there probably won’t be scientific verification of teleology, at least as science is currently conceived, you’re probably correct. But science relies on one epistemological mode among others. As the man says, “there is more in heaven and earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy.” I think we should start out any inquiry into the deepest nature of existence by admitting our ignorance, by admitting that we only know a tiny fraction of what there is to be known. If we start from that place of humility, it seems to me that we must then essentially be Jamesian pragmatists (Pragmatism is a short, great book if you haven’t read it). If we probably can’t know the fundamental nature of the cosmos any time soon, we should act upon the assumptions that are most fruitful for the living of life, which seems related to what you say in your book (which I’m looking forward to reading). But just because a mode of thought is outside the scope of science certainly doesn’t mean that we must delude ourselves to find truth in it. Truth is not ready-made to be found; truth is forged through our participation in the development of process.

    I think part of the issue is that you seem to be conflating teleology with intelligent design. My personal intuition is that there probably isn’t a conscious intelligence guiding cosmic evolution, though there’s no way for us to know this one way or another. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a blind teleological impulsion towards novelty, consciousness, and order. Although there’s no way that I can think of to verify this supposition quantitatively, a qualitative appraisal of the evidence, the simple fact that things have generally been getting more and more novel, conscious, and ordered for billions of years suggests teleological directionality. We only have one available data set, the universe, but that data set appears to be heading inexorably in a particular direction. If you think about it, Darwinian evolution is similarly unprovable through quantitative experiment. Rather, we have amassed many small pieces of evidence that seem to suggest that evolution has occurred through natural selection. The forms of argument are the same, though evolution is now a scientific assumption (and one that I happen to believe in), while teleology is anathema, in large part because of its connection to the particularly Christian brand of finalism (which I don’t believe in). But it seems to me that the choice is no longer between rigorous science and credulous religion as it was in the Enlightenment, but between modes of thought that claim to possess the definitive approach to understanding reality, in which category I include both fundamentalist religion and fundamentalist scientism, and an “integral” mode of thought that sees partial validity and value in many modes of thought and tries to negotiate between seemingly incommensurable epistemologies. As John Stuart Mill writes:

    “All students of man and society who possess that first requisite for so difficult a study, a due sense of its difficulties, are aware that the besetting danger is not so much of embracing falsehood for truth, as of mistaking part of the truth for the whole. It might be plausibly maintained that in almost every one of the leading controversies, past or present, in social philosophy, both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though wrong in what they denied; and that if either could have been made to take the other’s views in addition to its own, little more would have been needed to make its doctrine correct.”

    Contrary to what you assert, none of the four known laws of physics have to be violated in order for teleology to be valid. In fact, the known laws of physics have nothing at all to say about final causation one way or another because teleology exceeds the current explanatory scope of science, though I think a genuinely empirical science would eventually expand to encompass the vast domains of reality that remain to be understood.

    Grant

    • Matthew Hutson

      Hi Grant,

      You suggest there may be a “blind teleological impulsion towards novelty, consciousness, and order.” I would say there is the *capacity* in the universe for local order to increase under the right conditions. And there’s even room for order that has the ability to create higher levels of order. We see this in evolution. But I’m not sure why this is evidence for a “impulsion” rather than just a potentiality for order. If you flip a coin a hundred times you’ll probably get three heads in a row at some point. Does that mean the coin has an impulsion to produce three heads?

      One might also consider the second law of thermodynamics: even though local order may increase, overall the order in a closed system decreases. Eventually the universe’s matter and energy will be dispersed into a thin soup of entropy. No order and no consciousness.

      Also, you write: “none of the four known laws of physics have to be violated in order for teleology to be valid.” If the known laws of physics say that matter will behave one way, and teleology says something different, then teleology violates the known laws of physics. If teleology does not say something different, then it is meaningless.

      Matt

  4. I enjoyed your post, Grant. So much so that I’m just going to cut and paste my “Reply” to you on footnotes to avoid distracting too much from what you’ve written here about Hutson’s HuffPo piece. I’ll just say that natural science is a stunningly beautiful and devastatingly powerful belief system. We must dream it and use it wisely. I think scientists, and scientifically-minded people, might benefit from a bit of irony concerning their own “scientific” beliefs. Irony can give us distance from our own beliefs, which is important, because without this distance, we have a hard time acknowledging our beliefs as beliefs.

    More soon…

    Best,
    Matt

  5. Pingback: Teleology in Science? Purpose in Nature? | Footnotes 2 Plato

  6. Hi Matt Segall, thanks as always for your eloquence and insight. I really enjoyed your evocation of Goethe, Newton, Spinoza, and Teilhard to corroborate my defense of teleology.

    And Matt Hutson,

    I agree with what you that “there is the capacity in the universe for local order to increase under the right conditions. And there’s even room for order that has the ability to create higher levels of order.” However, I think the difference between “impulsion” and “potential” that you highlight is largely semantic. From the very limited data set that we’re working with, it seems that the underlying structure of the universe tends towards increasing novelty, consciousness, and order when the potentiality for that increase is extant. Novelty does not arise from the chance throwing of a coin, but from the tendency of things to form emergent wholes out of disparate and seemingly incommensurable parts again and again. It’s true, as you say, that entropy increases over time in general, but novelty’s order of magnitude of ingression seems to increase concomitantly, so there’s no contradiction between the two perspectives: entropy and novelty both seem to increase over time. Indeed, the sheer number of times that “higher levels of order” have emerged from seemingly incompatible elements in our experience of the one planet we know where “the right conditions” exist should place the burden of proof squarely on those who think that this clear trajectory over billions of years is merely the product of random chance, not those who suspect that the one example we have at hand is indicative of the way things tend to be in general. Ideally, we might at some point have a larger data set, but for now, our one piece of evidence is firmly on the side of there being an intrinsic tendency in the nature of things to produce novel emergence after novel emergence, which describes the process that has led to us.

    Furthermore, contrary to your assertion that teleology must either violate the known laws of physics or be meaningless, it seems to me that the very meaning of the world resides directly in the choice between opposite interpretations that can result from the same material arrangement. Whitehead calls this affective shift “that slightest change of tone which yet makes all the difference.” For instance, on an individual level, Bob Dylan (about whom I’m writing a book) has asserted on numerous occasions that he has “always felt an extreme sense of destiny,” which is another way of expressing teleological affect. It’s clear from reading Dylan’s memoir and interviews that it would not have been possible for him to create the music he did without believing in his destination. And that his embrace of this felt sense produced the fulfillment of that potentiality is validation that he was in fact drawn towards a final cause, the man he felt destined to become. But had he not believed in his felt sense of destination, it is clear that he could not have created the great music that he did. And because there is no way empirically to prove the case either for or against teleology precisely because there is no measurable material difference between the two, the decision must be made based on the fruits it bears for lived experience. As James writes, belief “creates its own verification” because it produces the thing that is believed in, while “it is often impossible to distinguish doubt from dogmatic negation” because doubt impedes the activity that belief would have impelled as surely as disbelief. Put simply, we can’t ultimately know if the world is meaningful or not, so we might as well believe that it is so. As James suggests, there’s no middle ground in this regard, for ambivalence and fixed doubt produce the same effects as “dogmatic negation.”

    I’m getting the sense that your book is in fact based on the premise that teleology cannot possibly be true, so I don’t expect you suddenly to change your mind now that you’ve publicly committed yourself to that perspective. On the other hand, a public conversion to a new mode of thought by a noted intellectual can have a profound effect on culture, and can be beneficial to both the writer and his audience. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m sensing that you’re ambivalent about teleology, that you have one foot in and one foot out, so to speak. You clearly see enough value in final causation to write a book about its benefits for happiness, health, and sanity, but you’re having a hard time reconciling it with your philosophical and scientific beliefs. My advice to you (if you care to hear it) is to read James, Bergson, and Whitehead, as they seem to have some of the most profound insights into the subject, which may perhaps impel you to reassess your beliefs. People love a good conversion narrative, and the teleological perspective could use another smart advocate.

    Having said that, I’m enjoying our conversation and I’m happy to continue it if you have more you’d like to say.

  7. Matthew Hutson

    Hi Grant,

    It seem to me you’re just describing the natural forces as teleological. When water becomes cold, it forms ice crystals, which are ordered. This is because of attractions between electrons and protons. To say that the individual particles “want” to be part of a larger ice crystal would be teleological. A particle doesn’t even know what a crystal is. To say individual particles are attracted to other individual particles, which is the only mechanism that’s important here, is just science. What does it add to make the teleological (and anthropomorphic) claim that electrons “want” to be near protons?

    Scale this up to evolution. Evolution results from the interactions of individual particle blind to any larger pattern. Even if the evolution of life tends to happen when there is the potential for it (this is an uncertain claim as we have only one example so far), that tendency exhibits nothing beyond what sometimes happens when individual particles interact.

    “I’m sensing that you’re ambivalent about teleology, that you have one foot in and one foot out, so to speak.” I treat teleology as I treat unicorns: it’s possible they exist, and I can’t disprove them, but so far I see no convincing evidence for them and so I base my worldview on their nonexistence. “You clearly see enough value in final causation to write a book about its benefits for happiness, health, and sanity…” Just to be clear, the book discusses the benefits (and drawbacks) of *belief* in destiny and other supernatural phenomena, whether or not they exist.

    Matt

  8. Hi Matt,

    I certainly don’t believe that particles “want” anything in the human sense that you seem to mean, which is simply setting up a straw-man again, but I do think that all entities possess internal relationality as the precondition for the emergence of agential consciousness. Whitehead discusses this in Process and Reality, a concept that is generally referred to as “panexperientialism.”

    Furthermore, I think that the four physical forces and teleology are qualitatively different but complementary explanations for some of the same phenomena, whether ice crystals or evolution. Aristotle, the “father of science,” originally posited both material and efficient causation (the explanatory modes of science) on the one hand and formal and final causation (the explanatory modes applicable to teleology) on the other hand. You keep reverting back to the assumption that the first two kinds of causation are self-evident while the second two kinds of causation are suspect, but there’s no empirical way to substantiate this belief. It is merely your implicit premise for which there is no deeper possible justification, so your arguments are tautological: science is the only fundamental arbiter of truth because . . . science is the only fundamental arbiter of truth. All we can really say with certainty is that the world is viably susceptible to interpretations in light of both causal modes.

    It seems like we’re talking past each other at this point, so let me try a new tack. I don’t expect you to have a sudden change of heart, but consider these questions:

    Do you deny that, in the one instance we know of where the conditions are favorable for the emergence of life (the Earth), there has been a steady emergence of higher and higher levels of novelty, order, and consciousness over billions of years?

    Similarly, do you believe that deluding ourselves is beneficial for happiness, health, and sanity? If so, do you agree that delusion is actually a good definition of insanity or psychological disease? Or alternately, do you think it’s possible that we have become unhappy, unhealthy, and insane in the modern world because we have systematically repressed and denied our intrinsic teleological intuitions in order to produce the individuation of the autonomous rational intellect? The latter explanation seems to me a much less contorted and more plausible line of reasoning.

    Finally, do you think the premise that the scientific mode of thought is the only valid way of knowing the world is itself empirically provable, or do you believe in it simply because it “works”? What if other modes of thought, like the subtler forms of teleology, also “work”? That is, what if acting on the assumption that final causation is valid produces effects just as significant for human experience as the effects of scientific knowledge? What if these two explanatory modes fit the data equally well, but in radically different ways? You say that your “book discusses the benefits (and drawbacks) of belief in destiny and other supernatural phenomena, whether or not they exist,” but are there similar benefits and drawbacks to belief in science? Or is science a transcendent a priori dispensation given to the great prophet Newton at the dawn of modernity? In this light, doesn’t exclusivist scientific certainty sound suspiciously similar to the dogmatic certainty of religious fundamentalists?

    Grant

  9. Matthew Hutson

    Hi Grant,

    “Do you deny that, in the one instance we know of where the conditions are favorable for the emergence of life (the Earth), there has been a steady emergence of higher and higher levels of novelty, order, and consciousness over billions of years?”
    •No.

    “Similarly, do you believe that deluding ourselves is beneficial for happiness, health, and sanity?”
    •Sometimes.

    “If so, do you agree that delusion is actually a good definition of insanity or psychological disease?”
    •Not a good definition but a frequent component.

    “Or alternately, do you think it’s possible that we have become unhappy, unhealthy, and insane in the modern world because we have systematically repressed and denied our intrinsic teleological intuitions in order to produce the individuation of the autonomous rational intellect?”
    •Repressing teleological intuition can sometimes make one unhappy. And it can sometimes make one happy.

    “Finally, do you think the premise that the scientific mode of thought is the only valid way of knowing the world is itself empirically provable, or do you believe in it simply because it ‘works’?”
    •Because it works.

    “What if other modes of thought, like the subtler forms of teleology, also ‘work’? That is, what if acting on the assumption that final causation is valid produces effects just as significant for human experience as the effects of scientific knowledge? What if these two explanatory modes fit the data equally well, but in radically different ways?”
    •Then we would not be able to decide between them. But I don’t believe that to be the case, unless by “subtler forms of teleology” you mean things like a system of two oppositely charged particles seeking an end state of being near each other, which most people would not categorize as teleology but rather everyday electromagnetism.

    “You say that your ‘book discusses the benefits (and drawbacks) of belief in destiny and other supernatural phenomena, whether or not they exist,’ but are there similar benefits and drawbacks to belief in science? Or is science a transcendent a priori dispensation given to the great prophet Newton at the dawn of modernity? In this light, doesn’t exclusivist scientific certainty sound suspiciously similar to the dogmatic certainty of religious fundamentalists?”
    •Apples and oranges. You’re comparing belief in phenomena (destiny, etc.) with belief in a system of obtaining knowledge about phenomena (science). Religious fundamentalists are dogmatic about their beliefs. Scientists are not. They may be insistent about the usefulness of the scientific method, however. To argue that it is not useful one would need to call into question the validity of such things as observation and reason. Which one can do, but that’s a good way to go insane.

    Matt

  10. OK, now it seems like we’re getting somewhere. It appears that our fundamental difference is that you believe we must “decide between” science and teleology, while I believe that these are two potentially compatible and complementary interpretive approaches that illuminate different domains of process. Contrary to what you say, it seems to me that both teleological thought and scientific thought are two “systems of obtaining knowledge about phenomena.” I would argue that the forms of “radical empiricism” developed by yogis, mystics, shamans, and saints for millennia to interpret the generally affective manifestations of final causation are equally valid to scientific empiricism within their appropriate domains of application. Whitehead calls these often complex forms of affective information “lures for feeling.”

    By “subtler forms of teleology,” I mean the method of relation to final causation that Bob Dylan practices in which he chooses to follow his felt sense of destination in the production of his art by developing his intuitive capacities to a high degree, which, in my opinion, has allowed him to create some of the greatest music ever made. And by “subtler forms of teleology,” I also mean that the underlying potentialities for the emergence of life out of non-life or consciousness out of vegetable slumber tend towards their fulfillment just as the acorn tends to become the oak, though the specific shape of the tree is not determined in advance. These processes can be explained through both efficient causation, the idea that one thing leads to another, and final causation, the idea that things tend towards the fulfillment of their potentiality. And these two modes of thought lead to different relations to immediate experience that produce different results, both of which are valid and, I would argue, necessary within their range of activity. One has to do with physical description and one has to do with meaning.

    Finally, you say that scientists are not dogmatic about their beliefs, but what I’ve been arguing all along is that you in particular seem to be dogmatic about your scientific beliefs. If you think that the absence of “reason,” which was developed in its nascence by the Greeks and then codified in the Enlightenment, can be interpreted evidence of insanity, then you seem to be suggesting that all humans up until a few hundred years ago, with a few rare exceptions, as well as pre-rational people alive now, are insane.

    By the way, I tried to post a link to this dialogue in the comments to your Huffington Post article, but it’s not showing up. Are you involved with the approval of those comments? I’d like for other people to be able to participate in the fascinating discussion we’ve been engaging in here.

  11. Matthew Hutson

    Hi Grant,

    “One has to do with physical description and one has to do with meaning.” Yes, now we are getting somewhere. It seems you are using teleology merely as a heuristic or a story. E.g., an acorn exists so it can become a tree, or Bob Dylan was put on the Earth to make music. You are not proposing that goals or final causes actually exist in nature, just that they are a way for us to gloss the complex, blind, deterministic processes that add up to order in the world. If that’s all you’re saying, I can agree with that.

    I don’t think lack of reason necessarily leads to insanity. Worms lack reason and they are not insane. But denying the validity of one’s own reason would lead to insanity. For instance, you would then deny your ability to deny the validity of your own reason, and then deny your ability to do that, and so on.

    Sorry, I have no control over Huffington Post comments.

    Matt

  12. But don’t you see that the meaning of what we’re discussing hangs on the word “merely,” Matt? I was trained in the discipline of English, so I’m extremely aware that narrative plays a dominant role in our experience. There’s nothing “mere” or trivial or unreal about narrative. Science itself can viably be seen as a kind of narrative that we tell ourselves just as religion and philosophy are narratives. These kinds of narratives all hang on facts, but the facts themselves do not tell a story; we must interpret the facts one way or another to make them meaningful and coherent.

    It seems to me that the narratives we tell ourselves constitute the meaning of the world. If we tell ourselves on an individual or collective scale that the world is only a meaningless collision of particles and that consciousness is an accidental and peripheral epiphenomenon, than that is what it will be, which seems to me a recipe for madness, what Tarnas calls the “post-Copernican double bind.” But if we believe that life is an epic narrative of profound significance, then it will be so.

    And don’t you see that our thoughts are in nature, too? There is no such thing as “outside” nature, because we embody nature at its most novel stage of evolutionary emergence (as far as we know). So our thoughts, teleological or otherwise, have real effects on the development of process just as much as the collisions of material objects do. Material places constraints on our thoughts while our thoughts produce different arrangements of material through our actions. The separation of mind and matter was a convenient narrative for the purposes of intellect’s individuation, but that process has largely been accomplished and the Kantian dualism of subject and object is no longer necessary or constructive.

    To be clear, I believe that teleology is inherent to the nature of things because the only world we know has gone through a series of emergences towards the telos of increasing order and consciousness. Again, if you believe that this process is not teleological, the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate your case because things do in fact move in a direction, which you readily admitted above. To say that this vast trajectory of increasingly higher order entities emerging one after another over the course of billions of years is the product of random chance alone is far less plausible than the idea that the world has intrinsic directionality because it very simply and demonstrably does consistently go in a direction.

    I agree that denying reason is a bad idea, whether in the name of teleology or of nihilism. But so is denying teleological affect, which often leads to an unfulfilled life. Science and teleology can happily coexist as long as we do not pretend that one perspective holds the key to the ultimate truth of existence. Isn’t that reasonable?

  13. Matthew Hutson

    Hi Grant,

    I guess we’re not getting anywhere after all. “To say that this vast trajectory of increasingly higher order entities emerging one after another over the course of billions of years is the product of random chance alone is far less plausible than the idea that the world has intrinsic directionality because it very simply and demonstrably does consistently go in a direction.” You apparently see teleology as more than a mere heuristic. Here you pit it against “chance alone,” portraying it as some additional force. I don’t think this directional force is needed. Scientists can fully explain the emergence of order using the standard forces and particles. Ice crystals form because of hydrogen bonds, etc. There is no need (or room) for an additional ice-directionality force.

    Or, to scale up, there’s no need for a macromolecule-directionality force, a cell-directionality force, a multi-cellular-organism-directionality force, a mammal-directionality force, or a human-directionality force. Sometimes, by chance, a more complex system occurs in nature, it replicates itself, one of its descendants eventually by chance becomes slightly more complex, and so on. The order gets ratcheted up, bit by bit, completely by chance. You understand how evolution works. To me, the output is amazing but the concept is very simple and far from implausible.

    Matt

    • A casual observer

      Scientists can’t explain what particles do most of the time when we are not observing them (quantum physics). Nor can they explain where most of the mass is in the universe in order to make their continually evolving model of it work…

      To make the claim that “Scientists can fully explain the emergence of order using the standard forces and particles”, is incorrect.

      Science like all intellectual frameworks for explaining the world around us has limits. When I hear someone state that “X or Y does not exist because science can’t detect it or scientific theory Z proves it can’t happen”, I’m reminded of an earlier time when scientists could not detect /see bacteria.

      Back then there were many “scientific” theories about why people got sick. Most of them we now know were very wrong. Don’t be the modern day equivalent of one of those people.

      • Hello Casual Observer, Thanks for stopping by. I generally sympathize with the trajectory of your critique, and your point about bacteria is nicely observed. Another paradigmatic case is when some Newtonian physicists of the late nineteenth century thought that they only had to fill in a few more decimal places to possess a complete mathematical description of reality, only to have relativity and quantum mechanics prove Newtonian physics to be one special case of a larger reality. I think the analogy between the current scientific establishment’s general rejection of teleological thought and these two situations is probably very close. Anyone who claims that teleology is obviously foolish superstition simply hasn’t done the homework of reading profound and hugely influential philosophers like James, Bergson, Whitehead, Tarnas, and now Nagel. Even if they ultimately disagree, everyone should be informed of the best arguments of those who disagree with them. “Pragmatism,” weighing in at 116 pages, is a great place to start and I think every educated person should read it.

        One small clarification: I’m not sure we know enough to say that the statement “scientists can fully explain the emergence of order using the standard forces and particles” is correct or incorrect. It’s something that a lot of smart people have vehemently disagreed about for the last few centuries, and I’m not sure if asserting one or the other perspective, the reductive materialist and the teleological, to the denigration of the other can appreciably advance discourse. The suggestion I’ve made here and in a few more recent posts is that while the reductive materialist explanation is internally coherent and may even be true within its domain of validity, it seems to be a partial truth as there is no way, as far as I know, scientifically to prove the validity or invalidity of teleology (though I’m certainly open to such empirical verification). Materialism and finalism are two internally coherent theories of the world that I would argue are both true within their appropriate range of applicability. However, having said that, I totally agree that the general gist of Hutson’s argument, which is that science works so we can disregard teleology, is rather simplistic and unsophisticated.

      • Matthew Hutson

        “To make the claim that “Scientists can fully explain the emergence of order using the standard forces and particles”, is incorrect.”
        I disagree. Scientists will acknowledge that there are things in the world they don’t understand, but that does not mean the things they do understand are insufficient to explain the emergence of ice crystals and biological evolution.

      • Hi Matt, Hope you’re having a good holiday weekend. You’ve probably gathered by now that while I think what you’re saying is coherent and probably true, at least partially, I also think it’s a belief that is not empirically provable. Nether exclusive reductive materialism nor subtle teleology are empirically provable given the current state of science. However, I’m not convinced that because reductive materialism is a valid and coherent explanation, it is the only valid and coherent explanation. That’s what James calls an “over-belief.” But like religious fundamentalists, you are trying to deny my teleological belief in favor of your own, while conversely, I’m saying that I acknowledge the validity of your belief and I’d appreciate your consideration in acknowledging that teleology cannot yet be definitively disproved, that the rejection of teleology is bound up with the historical rejection of the more extreme forms of finalism espoused by medieval Christianity, and thus that the more subtle forms of teleology I’ve alluded to here are still a potentially valid hypothesis, regardless of your personal inclination. Can you grant us that much?

      • Matthew Hutson

        Hi Grant,

        You write: “Nether exclusive reductive materialism nor subtle teleology are empirically provable”. No, but, as I said, I choose to believe in the scientific mode of thought “because it works.” If you have a set of particles, you can, in many cases, use the known laws of nature to get a pretty good idea of how they will behave and whether they will become ordered and what that order will look like. Using some vague notion of teleology in addition to those laws does not help at all, and using it instead of those laws will actual decrease your predictive ability. Just assuming that order tends to increase will not tell if you if it is likely to increase given these particles, or what that order will look like.

        You write: “I’d appreciate your consideration in acknowledging that teleology cannot yet be definitively disproved”. As I wrote previously, “I treat teleology as I treat unicorns: it’s possible they exist, and I can’t disprove them, but so far I see no convincing evidence for them and so I base my worldview on their nonexistence.”

        Best,
        Matt

    • So just to reiterate, Matt, your belief that the scientific mode of thought is correct and the teleological mode of thought is incorrect (you “base” your “worldview” on its “nonexistence”) is an unprovable assumption. You feel that reductive materialism is superior because it works, but I feel that both science and teleology work in different processual domains. So there’s ultimately nothing to justify what you’re saying other than your opinion. You can’t prove that teleological thought is invalid because that would require the assumption that quantitative proof is privileged, while teleology is precisely a qualitative mode of thought that I believe is complementary, and probably not susceptible to the quantitative mode. Your belief system, as with all belief systems, is circular and founded on your intuitive sense of things.

      Now that we seem to agree that there’s no transcendent basis for your assertion of materialism and your rejection of finalism, let’s look at your rhetoric: you dismissively and condescendingly refer to “some vague notion” of teleology, when I have, in good faith, given you a number of specific and concrete examples of teleological thought. (In fact, I have a peer-reviewed paper on Bob Dylan and final causation that’s about to be published by the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. I’d be happy to send it to you if you’d like more specific examples of teleology). I find your tone to express prejudice plain and simple. The fact that novelty, consciousness, and order tend to increase is no vaguer than the fact that objects tend to fall towards the center of large masses. Just because our science is not yet sufficiently developed to have discovered a mechanism for the apparent teleological quality of nature, which is merely the fact that the world tends in a temporal direction, does not mean that we should pretend this quality doesn’t exist. In my opinion, you would do better to put your faith in the highest ideals of empiricism, constituted in a radical openness to all phenomena, rather than in the provisional and incomplete scientific understanding. There’s a very good reason why science refers to “hypotheses” and “theories.”

      As I’ve said from the beginning, you seem to affirm science as your religion, which is fine with me until you denigrate my mode of thought in favor of your own. Just because you do not experience the pull of teleological affect does not mean that many others don’t, and you shouldn’t generalize from your subjective experience to impose your ultimately unprovable disbelief on others. Debating with you thus far is as fruitless as debating a fundamentalist religious person because you are irrationally committed to your belief at the expense of all others.

      • Matthew Hutson

        It sounds to me like you’re saying, in the same comment, that notions of teleology are (1) “qualitative” and “not susceptible to the quantitative mode,” and at the same time (2) just as un-vague as the equations for gravitation. To me, this seems like a contradiction. If it doesn’t to you, let’s agree to disagree.

        Until teleology can produce specific, falsifiable predictions, it is by definition not science. As I keep saying, that doesn’t mean it’s not true, but it’s not science. Again, if you disagree, then let’s leave it at that. 🙂

      • Hi Matt, I’ll go ahead and take the last word here on my blog. The sticking point is that you think the qualitative mode is vague while I think it is very specific, but in a radically different way than the quantitative. However, I can agree that teleology is not science as science is currently conceived, which I think is a fault of science and not of teleology. I’ve enjoyed our conversation and I’ll look forward to reading your book.

  14. OK, Matt. I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this. The issue seems pretty clear cut to me, but perhaps that’s “my individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos,” as James puts it. If you want to familiarize yourself with the highly influential stream of philosophical thought that finds validity in teleology, I’d recommend reading “Pragmatism” by William James, “Adventures of Ideas” By Alfred North Whitehead, “Creative Evolution” by Henri Bergson, and “The Passion of the Western Mind” by Richard Tarnas. Have a good weekend.

  15. Matthew Hutson

    Thanks. I’ll keep those in mind. Nagel has also recently stirred the waters by supporting teleology in his new book. Enjoy your weekend.

  16. Pingback: The Teleological Incline: Reconciling Materialist Reductionism and Final Causation | Rock and Roll Philosopher

  17. You can read my response to Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos in a more recent post. Good conversation.

  18. Pingback: President Obama’s Implicit Philosophy | Rock and Roll Philosopher

  19. Pingback: Reflections on “The Function of Reason” (1929) by Alfred North Whitehead | Footnotes 2 Plato

  20. IntelligentAnimation

    It was an interesting conversation on a topic that I find profoundly interesting. Oddly, although I am a staunch advocate of teleology and a harsh opponent of materialism, I thought Mr. Hutson made some powerful points. My collegiate education and ongoing study is in Biology, so I can more intelligently address life science rather than general cosmology.

    Hence, I can’t address particles to molecules as well as I can cover molecules to proteins. I remain open-minded on non-biotic intelligence, but I consider the role of teleological intelligence in life forms to be the most certain fact in all science. Matt’s assurance that life and evolution are explained without teleology is hopelessly false beyond question.

    It is inexcusable that we are in the year 2013 and still have authors promoting Darwinistic ideas of evolution. It is well established that evolution does not and can not occur by Darwinian means. This is established on a daily basis in evolution experiments worldwide. Genetic changes are no longer considered to be random copy errors as we believed in the mid-twentieth century. Genetic changes are an intelligent and purposeful response to a changed environmental need. That is how evolution works.

    Each living organism has trillions of movements of matter internally on a daily basis, and literally all of these varied and usually complex movements are ubiquitously purposive. If there were ever any random movements in any aspect of any living being, we would have detected it by now. Purposeful movements are too consistent to ignore, as materialists do, and too difficult to achieve by rank luck or any sort of chance “explanation”.

    And all of this is before we even begin to discuss self-aware consciousness, free will, instinct or any other of the myriad undeniable permutations of intelligence. To flippantly claim that this is all explained by random mess is intellectual dishonesty. In fact, the oxymoronic claim of accidental intelligence is actually paradoxically impossible, and no combination of matter explains away consciousness.

    The fact that you can throw three heads in a row tossing coins does not mean that everything conceivable can also happen by luck.

  21. Hello, and thanks for writing. I agree with you that there seems to be clear evidence of teleology in the evolutionary record. I also agree that Matt Hutson’s denial of teleology is untenable and that he asserts materialism dogmatically, though I find it interesting that he is so fascinated by the positive value of teleology, which indicates to me that he might not be as single-minded as he claims. However, I disagree with you that “it is well established that evolution does not and can not occur by Darwinian means” because it seems to me that the vast majority of people who believe in evolution at all (i.e. not creationists) believe that random natural selection is its mechanism.

    I certainly agree that unbiased common sense would suggest that teleology is a valid and indispensable mode of thought if we are to understand the nature of evolution, but it seems to me that this is still a relatively marginal view as far as the current practice of science is concerned. If you have data to show that a majority of people who believe in the efficacy of science also believe in teleology, I’d love to see it. But I think that the reality is that those of us who assert the validity of both science and teleology are still in the minority, so we bear the burden of trying to shift the collective discourse towards a more balanced approach.

    Since I cannot definitively prove that random natural selection is NOT the mechanism by which evolution occurs because I will probably not live long enough to witness evolution first hand in any significant way, I find myself compelled, for the sake of intellectual integrity, to admit that this theory is potentially a true description of some aspect of the process. However, I will happily join you in vociferously denouncing anyone who pedantically dismisses finalism outright based on scientistic confirmation bias. To repeat a passage from John Stuart Mill that sums up my approach: “It might be plausibly maintained that in almost every one of the leading controversies . . . both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though wrong in what they denied; and that if either could have been made to take the other’s views in addition to its own, little more would have been needed to make its doctrine correct.” As I see it, the real controversy is not between science and teleology, but between oppositional absolutism and integrative moderation. But even absolutism has its place at a certain developmental stage.

    • IntelligentAnimation

      You say the vast majority of those who accept evolution see “random natural selection” as the means and I said the defeat of Darwinism was “well established”. We may both need further reflection, not that this is a democratic vote truism.

      A Gallup Poll shows that 48% of American adults are creationists who deny evolution, while 10% believe in fully materialistic evolution. Over 40% believe in evolution, but believe that intelligent causes are behind life, first life and/or evolution, at least to some extent. The way the question reads, though, that last group could believe partially in Darwinism and partially in teleology, as you seem to. I also fall in that 3rd grouping. Another poll shows that 70% of HS biology teachers refuse to teach full bore materialistic evolution, despite laws mandating it.

      The laws mandating the teaching of Darwinism give a false impression that it is settled science, while the public has many misperceptions. Darwinism advocates love to promote the falsehood that there are only two camps: Darwinists and Creationists, while touting massive evidence for their theory (evidence of evolution, not Darwinism) while conflating Darwinism and evolution.

      Is Darwinism mainstream science, as it claims to be? I don’t think so. Despite laws forcing Darwinian teaching and despite the monetary enticement of pharmaceutical funding, I think only a small percentage of biologists and teachers believe in materialism and Darwinism, while opposing teleological concepts. Even the staunch NAS now considers mutations to be non-random.

      The Next Generation Science Standards have eliminated the word “random” from the section on mutations and have relegated “errors” to just one of three types of genetic changes and have dropped the claim that errors can lead to beneficial traits. The evidence is becoming mountainous showing evolution to be a natural response to a changed environmental need, not random at all.

      The greatest biologists of modern times, including Carl Woese, James Shapiro, Lynn Margulis, Barbara McClintock, Luc Montagnier and John Cairnes are anti-Darwinian, while winning Nobel Prizes and National Science Medals of Honor.

      • I’m happy to hear that the majority of people who believe in science do in fact believe in some form of teleology, though I wonder if the case would be different if we were talking about scientists. However, regardless of collective opinion, I’m not sure that the emerging idea that evolution is “a natural response to changed environmental need” necessarily implies teleology. It could be argued that this shift simply transfers the locus of randomness from the individual trait to environmental caprice, which seems to be a higher order randomness. But let me be clear: I’m not asserting that randomness is the only mechanism of evolution, just that it is probably impossible to prove that it does not play some role. Without randomness, we would live in a fully deterministic universe, which is an absurd proposition. I’ll assume that you’re not arguing for pure teleological determinism, which leaves us with a compromise between final causation and randomness as our only viable option. You keep arguing with me as if I’m defending the rejection of teleology by certain Darwinists, which is simply incorrect. What I’ve said again and again is that the strict form of Darwinism is right in what it affirms, that evolution occurs with some element of randomness, but wrong in what it denies, namely teleology.

      • IntelligentAnimation

        Grant, I agree that there is some randomness involved in evolution, but it is not the primary storyline explaining evolution, and it is mostly a hindrance to evolution’s success. I do not believe in full determinism and I see the intelligence involved in life as being limited. I think you and I are in fairly close agreement overall.

        Darwinists often claim that genetic changes are random but selection is not. The contrary is more true: Genetic change is almost always purposeful and yet the haphazard story of life or death selection as well as sexual selection is mostly a wild card.

        All matter movements within organisms, including nucleotide changes, are directed toward function by some intelligent agency. There is occasional chemical or radiological mutagenic damage to DNA, and this is indeed random. However this type of mutation is extremely rare percentage-wise, almost always repaired, almost never heritable and not a helpful factor to evolution.

        Since it is now clear that genetic change is tied directly to a changed environmental need, of what use is random chaos as a counterintuitive explanation? Are you saying both Darwinism and teleology are in play?

      • We certainly seem to be in general agreement about most of these issues. Let me answer your question with another question: what do you see as the positive assertions of Darwinism, that is, the claims that do not implicitly or explicitly deny the assertions of other explanations for the same phenomena?

  22. IntelligentAnimation

    Matt claimed “Scientists can fully explain the emergence of order using the standard forces and particles”. Casual observer said that was incorrect while Grant admonished that we are unable to know if it is correct or incorrect.

    I agree with Casual. Teleology is testable, predictable and repeatable, contrary to assertions made on this thread, so I have no idea what the mystery is, let alone outright denial.

    Teleology is any intelligent thought or any purposive movement of matter, both of which are abundantly observed in living organisms, and both are heavily tested and researched. There is no serious question that both types of observed examples of teleology are factual and, in fact, necessary for every moment of life.

    If movement is explainable by random happenstance or a physic0-chemical necessity, then that is not teleology, but we see no such thing in life as we study it. There are certainly those extremists who hope to find some kind of explanation that fits a materialist religion, but this is known as “promisorry materialism”, basically those who insist that somebody will think of something someday that validates their religious materialist beliefs.

    Teleology is so certain that it must be accepted as axiomatic. If you can’t trust that you have an intelligent consciousness perceiving reality, then you may as well discard all scientific findings.

  23. I agree with you in principle that teleology is a valid explanatory mode, but I find that you drastically mischaracterize the current scientific consensus, which largely denies teleology. You can aggressively assert your beliefs until you’re blue in the face, but I don’t see how such activity will convince anyone but the most pliant among us. In my opinion, the best tactic is to find common ground with one’s interlocutor, particularly as in this case when we seem to agree about most of these issues. For instance, saying that I “admonshed” casual observer mischaracterizes my carefully considered tone and the intention that it expresses, which is conciliatory rather than divisive, which is how I would describe your rhetorical style.

    Let me restate my point just to be clear: I believe that there is a great deal of evidence that can be (and has been) marshalled to support both random natural selection and teleology in evolution, so ultimately our belief in one, the other, or both is affectively motived.I prefer the approach that keeps the positive content of each perspective and jettisons the negative content. I think there is randomness at the micro-scale of the evolutionary process, but I think that the macro-scale of the process exhibits directionality. I do not think these two ideas are mutually exclusive as you seem to. I hope that clears things up.

    • IntelligentAnimation

      Grant, first let me assure you that I meant no criticism of your approach. I thought the word “admonish” was a gentle note of caution, not anything harsh, but that may be my ignorance. The civility of the discussion in general is due largely to your admirable conciliatory tone. My apologies for the misunderstanding.

      I am a centrist politically and in more general terms I am comfortable in finding middle ground. I do consider my advocacy for intelligent evolution to be a middle ground position between Creationism, which denies evolution and Darwinism, which denies intelligent causation.

      Where is the middle ground with materialism? It refuses to accept any type of volition or intelligence at all, except for as a supposed accident of random movements of materials, as if that makes any sense. As you noted, the problem with materialism is what it dissents from, not what it asserts. The middle ground accepts both matter and immaterial intelligence, but even that is extreme to materialists.

      True, I am quite extreme when it comes to the roles of materialism versus teleology in life science, but that comes from decades of study. I love compromise, but there is no room for it here. Nothing in life is explained by materialism. If any organism is to lose teleological forces for even a moment, we would die. There is no lucky yet automatic chemical chain reaction. Teleology is in every aspect of all formations, activities and thoughts of all life forms, without exception.

  24. We seem to agree that the middle ground is the most fruitful site for the reconciliation of opposed viewpoints. And I very much agree with you that science as it is generally practiced would do well to expand its scope to consider the possibility of teleology. I think the primary question that requires our attention is not whether scientists should be more open-minded about final causation, an issue on which we seem to agree, but how we can contribute to the liberation of science’s discursive networks from dogmatic scientism. I think the only way to do that is to provide a viable alternative, one that is both deeply substantive and aesthetically presented.

  25. Hi Grant, fascinating exchange between you and Matt – I’ve corresponded with him about this. I’ve set up a Google+ community called The Puzzle I think you’d be interested in (I’ve posted the exchange there). Kind regards,
    Steve

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