Lecture on Bacon’s Attack on Final Causes & Teleological Explanations

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All right, this is a lecture on the second
of our readings from Francis Bacon, talking about Bacon and his treatment of the four
causes. This is just a couple of pages in the reader,
so I expect you to have read it somewhat closely, with help of the reading questions. I want to go through the text very carefully
with the help of some stuff that I’ve put on the boards around the room. Bacon here in this excerpt from the Novum
Organum is talking about Aristotle’s four causes. And he’s going to be talking in particular
about the final cause, this telos or purpose, the innate purpose that natural things have,
which is the foundation of… at the foundation of Aristotle’s account of nature, also adopted
by later figures including Thomas Aquinas. Bacon, and we’ll see later also Descartes,
is sharply critical of the idea of natural… of final causes in nature. Natural objects, which we study by means of
our senses and through this emerging scientific method, doesn’t have any need of causes, of
the final cause. So very briefly, you guys should remember
from PHIL 103 that according to Aristotle there are four causes to each object, whether
it’s natural or supernatural: the material, efficient, formal, and final causes. To understand a thing completely is to have
a grasp of all four of its causes. This knowledge through causes is the fullest
and most complete kind of knowledge that one can have. So, material cause, what it’s made of, efficient
cause, its maker or process of making, formal cause, its essence or identity or shape, then
the final cause, its innate purpose. Not the purpose to which we put it, but the
purpose that is built into its very structure. That’s the cause that is going to be evicted
from the new modern science. We’re given an account of nature that doesn’t
include any attempt to account for the innate purposes of things. This is from page 55 of the text. “The unhappy state of man’s actual knowledge
is manifested even by the common assertions of the vulgar. It is rightly laid down that true knowledge
is that which is deduced from causes.” So that’s right, that’s correct. “The division of four causes also is not
amiss: matter, form, the efficient, and end or final cause. Of these, however, the latter is so far from
being beneficial, that it even corrupts the sciences, except in the intercourse of man
with man.” Let’s pause at that point and let me turn
back to this text. I want to talk about my second bullet point
up here which is the teleological versus the mechanical accounts of nature. What does he say the first couple sentences
of this section? The division of four causes is not amiss,
but the latter, the final cause, is so far from being beneficial that it corrupts the
sciences, except in the intercourse, the interaction, of man with man. So I’ve put up here a contrast between Aristotle
and Bacon on the question of how we understand the physical world, the world of matter and
bodies and things that move through space, and the human world, the world of people who
act with purposes to achieve things. So if I were to ask you, “How did you get
here?” you can give me a purely physics answer: I
exerted force against the floor and the friction of the bottom of my shoes with the top of
the carpet propelled me forward. I do this thing called walking, which involves
balance, and so my legs brought me here, my car brought me here… the pure physics answer. Or I could say: I came here because I have
to, because I want to, because I need to achieve this goal, because attending this particular
class session is part of an overall project where I pass this class, graduate from this
university, and achieve some life goa. I’m talking in terms of purposes or ends. So what we have in Aristotle is a teleological
account of the physical world. Natural things, planets, pendulums, natural beings, animals: all of them are invested with natural purposes, they have built in end that they’re directed
towards and that they pursue as part of their overall living and flourishing. And also of course the human world is full
of purposes: humans act for reasons, they don’t act without reason, they seek to achieve
goals. When they act without reason sometimes…
we can think of an example. If somebody goes insane and begins doing things
completely without reason, what do we do? We isolate him so he doesn’t hurt people,
and we say to ourselves: he’s lost part of his humanity. He can’t act for goals anymore. What we have in Bacon, in the early modern
period, is a shift. We don’t have teleological explanations of
both. Instead, we get mechanical explanations of
the natural world… We see this explicitly with Galileo, who wants
to give a mathematical account of the laws of nature which govern the movement of bodies. That’s going to give us that power that we
wanted over nature. But we still maintain a teleological account
of human activity. Why do people do things?
People do things for causes in their minds. They don’t just walk through the door propelled
by friction of their shoes with the carpet. They come into the room in order to achieve
some human goal that is only understandable in terms of human purposes. We’ve got two levels of explanation for human
affairs. We can talk about human affairs in mechanical
terms, insofar as they are bodies, and also in moral terms, insofar as we have purposes
which can be good or evil, which can be evaluated according to standards appropriate to them. The suggestion here is under “later” since
we may find somebody later who endorses this. This looks a little bit unstable, but at the
very least it’s complicated in a way that this was not complicated. So one threat would be, what… would be adopting
a purely mechanical understanding of human affairs, including of my own human affairs. That is, I’ve experienced happiness, but
I realize that it’s just a high level of endorphins in my bloodstream. That’s the way I begin to think about myself:
not “I’m happy” but “I’m experiencing a high level of serotonin” or whatever hormone
controls these things. I raise the question mark here, this is going
to be one of our discussion questions today. What happens if we adopt strictly mechanical
understanding of ourselves? Can I live a fully human life, can I flourish,
if I think of myself as being solely matter obeying material laws? The threat here, the possibility here, is
that if there’s something that we need in teleology, in terms of ends and goals and
purposes, to understand ourselves, to make sense of our activity, to find our sense of
meaning, then we’re not going to have it in a fully mechanistic or materialistic account
of human affairs. It occurs to me that we can think about the
change that’s happening here in human knowledge. Think about, what is human knowledge for?
Why do we know things? We seek to know things in our world. Well the classical answer, from Plato to Aquinas,
is: We seek to know ultimately in order to know the truth simply because it is the truth. The goal of our knowledge is the contemplation
of truth, which is a disinterested, not seeking any sort of advantage or gain from it, knowing
of the truth. And ultimately the highest object of that,
in Thomas Aquinas and in Aristotle in his own way, is knowledge of God. To contemplate God, to know the truth about
God, is the final purpose of the human person for Aquinas. So this whole idea of contemplating the truths
being the goal of human knowledge is part of the background for what Bacon and later
Descartes are doing. But what if we think now about human knowledge
as being not just contemplation of truth but, either in addition or instead, aimed at gaining
power over the material world? This is the “knowledge is power” equation
that we’ve seen in Bacon already. If knowledge is aimed at helping us to acquire
power over bodies, to understand how they work and then to make changes to how they
work for our benefit, (remember that philanthropic motive that is right there at the very beginning with Bacon,) what’s the ultimate goal of knowledge, then? We have knowledge that has two goals, the
same way we have both a teleological and a mechanic, a mechanistic account. Maybe there’s a kind of mechanistic knowledge,
dealing with technology, technological advancement and the benefit of the human race. And also some kind of other sort of knowledge
in philosophy or metaphysics which leads us to religion, which leads us toward God. But again we’ve got, where formerly we had
one understanding of knowledge, now we have at least two, possibly, many people today
might I tell you, this is the only kind of knowledge that really should count as knowledge. This stuff was a kind of superstition. “Formerly all the world was mad,” says
the Last Man. People used to be a little crazy or stupid
before, but now we’ve figured it all out. I’ll say a bit about what I was thinking
when I put this up. Think about the old and the new systems of
physics, or the study of nature, and its relation to metaphysics. On the old system, and again this is basically
Plato through Aquinas, material that PHIL 103, the prior course (covered), physics involves
the study of bodies, sure, and we have to use the senses to study bodies. We begin with the senses, but the study of
the senses and the knowledge we get out of it is inherently limited. You don’t get very far in this. Think of Plato’s analogy of the cave world. It should be obvious that knowing bodies for
Plato really isn’t worth much at all. There’s no true wisdom inside the cave. You have to turn away from the cave to begin
making progress towards true knowledge, that would be the entire point of Plato’s philosophy
at the beginning. So, knowledge of bodies can point us higher. There’s something in the natural world which
points beyond it, and that’s precisely where Aquinas, and I think Aristotle as well, take
us up to the study of metaphysics and ultimately the study of God. Metaphysics is the study of essences, not
just the bodies of things but their identity or their essence or their form, beyond the
material. It uses not just the senses, it begins in
the senses then applies the intellect to the senses, to abstract some sort of knowledge
of them. So I don’t just know individual horses, I
come to some knowledge of equine nature, of the essence of a horse. So I make this leap from merely sensible knowledge
to intellectual knowledge of the form or the essence of the thing. And this can be perfected, perhaps not in
this world, not by human powers, but it’s ultimately made perfect in the contemplation
of God. And this whole system of physics, which leads
to metaphysics, which ultimately leads to this religious truth of God: this is part of the Christian synthesis we saw with Thomas Aquinas. What about this new system? Suppose we begin with a physics which studies
bodies, but has far more confidence in our ability to know the sensible reality of those
bodies, and then especially also the attention to the power that we can have, to manipulate
and change those bodies. Notice: if your goal here is to know God,
a perfect, unchanging being, the idea of actually making changes to the world around you is
not that significant. Some people have asked, why is it that the
ancient Greeks didn’t develop technology? They were certainly tremendously clever, and
had a great deal of natural resources. Their model was oriented towards transcending
physics into a more important branch of study. So my question mark here: what becomes of
metaphysics, then? What does Bacon say about metaphysics?
What does Galileo say about metaphysics? They say: Well, they’re okay in their proper
area, but I don’t want… confined to their proper place. I don’t want metaphysics to get in the way
of acquiring this knowledge which gives us power over the material reality. What is the purpose of studying nature? Do we study nature in order to know the truth
about it? Do we also or instead seek to know the truth
about nature in order to acquire power over nature, including the parts of nature which
are ourselves and our bodies? If you think about the difference between
the level technology and human comfort and well-being in 1600 versus now, you can see
a great deal of difference. What’s the purpose of studying nature? Do we have two purposes or one? Do we need final causes to explain nature? Is there a fully satisfactory understanding
of natural objects that does not include any sense of their innate purpose? Is understanding just the mechanical reality
of them, the material reality of them, sufficient? We might apply that to the special case of
us, human beings, we human beings, as natural beings, as animals that have an animal body
and animal needs and desires. How do we understand those, in a chemical
and physical sense or in a moral, spiritual, or teleological sense? Then lastly, what happens if we were to adopt
a purely mechanical understanding of ourselves? Could we live like that? Do we need to keep some sort of psychology
or some other understanding of the immaterial and the motivational and mental aspect of
a human being, having purposes and acting for goals, at least that they see in their
own regard? Can I account for a human being in the same
way that I would account for the activity of a rabbit, saying that it just acts on instinct,
it doesn’t have an inner life, or not any kind that [unintelligible]. That last one is really a question about the
fate of philosophy in the modern world. So we’ll be coming back to that I’m sure when
we do Galileo next class, and then Descartes.

 

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