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I usually enjoy reading the discussions at New Cool Thang because there aren’t a ton of forums online where philosophies are discussed with Mormonism in mind.  However, I stumbled upon an interesting point embedded in this recent post about Daniel Dennett and Douglass Hofstadter.  Jeff G admittedly isn’t trying to make some profound statement or defense of Dennett or Hofstadter, but simply pointed out an interesting implication of Darwinian thought in the culture wars.  However, I did take the opportunity to point out one of my objections to Dennett that makes it hard for me to delve into his work. Here was our exchange (emphasis added by me):

Syphax: I have read neither book (though I have read a few things by Dennett). A question – do they actually make the argument that formal and final causes don’t exist or do they just take this for granted? That’s what I don’t get about this line of thinking. Evolution is only a “universal acid” if nothing like formal and final causes exist – but the question of whether they do can’t be determined by looking at evolutionary biology (even if true) – it’s a metaphysical question. If formal and final causes DON’T exist and matter just behaves mechanistically, then Dennett’s view might carry some weight.

Jeff G: Hmmm, I think you misinterpret Dennett (which is really easy to do). Dennett holds that of course there is teleology and intentionality out in the world…. and evolution is the sole source of ALL of it. *That* is the universal acid, that there is no source for design or meaning in the world except evolution by natural selection. This is why none of the social sciences can isolate themselves from Darwin, for the very thing that makes them a social science is their teleology and intentionality and evolution is the exclusively responsible for both. Thus, Dennett’s is a strong position indeed, but not in a mindless, physicalist kind of way.

Syphax: How could evolution be the source of teleology in the planets’ motions, or tectonic plates moving, etc.? I don’t understand. For an Aristotelian or a Thomist, natural bodies are “directed at” certain outcomes or ranges of outcomes due to teleology (electrons are “directed at” flowing down copper wires and not rubber, for instance). The intentionality and teleology in human minds is just one mode or sub-type of natural final causality. I’m not sure how evolution could have created that, if anything like an Aristotelian/Thomistic/Scholastic view of nature is correct. So I’m wondering whether Dennett argues that this view of nature is NOT correct to start his argument.

Jeff G: I’m sorry Syphax, I misunderstood your original question. Dennett does not accept any kind of final, ultimate causes or purposes to the universe. Rather, his view is that all causes and purposes are both in and products of the universe and not the other way around. But then, he doesn’t really argue for this position so much as dismiss it as an uninteresting question to begin with. For him it is enough to show that evolution created people who believe in final causes and the like.

This is why I always leave these kinds of discussions scratching my head. I don’t see how Darwin’s idea can be a universal “dissolving acid” without first making the a priori assumption that formal and final causes don’t exist objectively in nature. Without that assumption, evolution doesn’t “dissolve” anything. But Dennett feels that the discussion of whether final causes objectively exist in nature is “uninteresting?” I don’t understand this at all. It seems that a philosopher of all people should consider the axioms that he uses to bootstrap his conclusion from to be, at the very least, interesting. Evolution COMBINED with a mechanistic view of matter can certainly lead to the impression that evolution “dissolves” any semblance of teleology or purpose in nature, shoving those things into our minds, but for the Aristotelian or Thomist evolution could just be viewed as nature unfolding her final causes in a way consistent with its forms. Then, the teleology we perceive with our minds is a result of our minds being evolved enough (or with the right ingredients) to discover the teleology that really exists in nature. Dennett only proves teleology is only in our minds by assuming that it doesn’t exist in nature, and dismisses the alternative as “uninteresting.”

I am wondering whether Dennett can really be this sloppy or presumptuous in his thinking; it could be that I haven’t given him a fair chance. I’ve only read a few of his essays in journals, but never one of his books. Does he ever try to argue that formal and final causes don’t actually exist in nature or is it really question-begging like I think it is? Jeff in this post seems to assume (though I could just be reading this into his words) that final causes are purposes imposed on matter by a designer, and this is what Dennett rejects (or ignores as “uninteresting”), but this is exactly the sort of reading of final causality that Aristotelians and Thomists deny – they say that final causes are built into the essences of things and not imposed from outside. So if Dennett really did a good job of showing why this older view of matter is wrong, then I would think one of his fans would at least be familiar enough with the concepts to define them properly. Right?