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Monday, June 21, 2010

Rule Six: No Teleology!

Kant famously argued that we simply cannot make sense of life without the notion of teleology -- it is a transcendental a priori category in respect to biology, or, as Oakeshott might call it, a presupposition of the discipline. Now, those recently asserting he was correct here have been ridiculed by, for instance, Ernst Mayr, for ignoring the fact that Darwin did away with the need for all that rubbish. Besides the fact that Mayr seems to be confusing philosophical and scientific argument, there is the remarkable inability of any biologist I have read to stop talking teleologically. I'm re-reading Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale (well worth reading, despite what an annoying dweeb Dawkins can be at times), and find the typical situation: We have 99% teleological talk, leavened with 1% "of course I don't mean it!" For instance, he quotes Darwin, with approval, telling us to "Never use the words higher and lower." But a couple of pages later, he again cites Darwin, this time mentioning that one branch of the Ascidians "retrograd[ed] in development... [while the other rose] to the crown and summit of the animal kingdom..." Then a few pages later Dawkins himself calls something "a highly degenerate bivalve mollusc."

He also claims, at one point, that it is "snobbish" to speak of any animal as "primitive." But he has no problem referring to atheists like himself as "brights," implying, of course, that theists are "stupids." Now, that's not snobbish, unlike the insult you might deliver to a tapeworm by referring to it as primitive.

(Bonus quiz: The post title is a reference to a comedy skit. What one?)

22 comments:

  1. "Kant famously argued that we simply cannot make sense of life without the notion of teleology -- it is a transcendental a priori category in respect to biology..."

    Is it your position that we cannot make sense of blue eyes and fair skin without supposing that these features were developed for the purpose of enabling humans to migrate to higher latitudes?

    Or do you agree with the anti-teleological theory that the migration happened long before anyone developed fair skin and blue eyes?

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  2. "Or do you agree with the anti-teleological theory that the migration happened long before anyone developed fair skin and blue eyes?"

    Of course I agree with that theory, but that theory is NOT "anti" teleological -- it simply does not involve teleology. (A theory about bunting in baseball is not anti-libertarian simply because it says nothing about libertarianism!)

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  3. "...that theory is NOT "anti" teleological -- it simply does not involve teleology."

    So we just made sense of a complex biological life phenomenon without the notion of teleology, right?

    I don't see why there's any need for teleology at all when discussing biology. It never gets more complicated than blue eyes, does it?

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  4. "So we just made sense of a complex biological life phenomenon without the notion of teleology, right?"

    No -- all you said was "It happened after humans moved north." That hardly "makes sense" of it.

    Read a biology text, and try striking out every sentence that says anything like "The purpose of the heart is to pump blood through the body," or "The eye was designed to capture light." See how much text you are left with!

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  5. One could as easily (and erroneously) say that the purpose of a river is to carry rainwater back to the ocean.

    The heart pumps blood. The eye captures light and converts it to electrochemical impulses.

    Those are not teleological statements, are they?

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  6. 'The eye captures light and converts it to electrochemical impulses."

    The eye also acts as a good place for a predator to stick a claw up into your brain. The heart also has attacks which cause it to stop pumping blood. How would you distinguish between the healthy functioning of an organ and some accidental feature or an organic illness without some notion of "that's what the organ is for"?

    In any case, if it's as easy as you say to get rid of teleological language, why in the world do all of these biologists use it all the time? I'm sorry, but the case that "teleology can be banished from biology" has been defeated by the complete failure of the people who make the claim to banish it from their own writings.

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  7. "How would you distinguish between the healthy functioning of an organ and some accidental feature or an organic illness without some notion of 'that's what the organ is for'?"

    The same way I'd do it for a geological process. Sometimes hearts stop pumping blood because the arteries that deliver oxygen to them become blocked. Sometimes rivers stop delivering rainwater to the ocean because they become blocked by advancing glaciers.

    " ...if it's as easy as you say to get rid of teleological language, why in the world do all of these biologists use it all the time?"

    Sloppy editing.

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  8. OK, bestquest, I must not have been clear, because you answered some other question. It's as though I asked what distinguishes mathematics and literature, and you said, "That's easy! Mathematicians and literary professors sit in different buildings at the uni!"

    Try this one: a living heart circulates blood. It also gives off heat.

    Why does every biologist say the function of the heart is to circulate the blood, and not a single one says its function is to give off heat?

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  9. "...the function of the heart is to circulate the blood..."

    Teleological statements make claims about purpose, not function.

    A flea can function as a vector for the delivery of the Black Plague bacterium to human bodies, but only a superstitious mystic would claim that this is the flea's purpose.

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  10. Bestquest, please answer the question:

    Why does every biologist say the function of the heart is to circulate the blood, and not a single one says its function is to give off heat?

    The heart does both things. Why is one called its function and the other not? Please offer me your explanation of that.

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  11. And you're being obtuse: No biologist says the function of fleas is to spread the plague.

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  12. Sorry, for some reason I cannot get bestquest's last comment to publish, but he wrote:

    "I wrote: 'A flea can function as a vector...'

    "You implied that I wrote: '...the function of fleas is...'"

    No, I certainly did not "imply" that you wrote that. I was saying that's what I was discussing, and that's what you OUGHT to have been writing about, but that YOU changed the subject from "the function of" to "can function as."

    You prefer verbal games to discussion, and keep playing dodgeball with the question I have been asking you. Goodbye.

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  13. So, what happened here is that I asked bestquest a very straightforward question three times, a question that would have forced him to confront the real difficulty in avoiding teology in biology. And since he couldn't figure out a way to answer it while avoiding teleological language -- not surprising since no one else has either! -- he just kept trying to distract from the fact he wasn't answering.

    Folks, don't lets waste both our times playing games! If you're sincere about discussing something, I'm all ears, but if you just want to grind a personal axe, get your own toolshed.

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  14. Amazing, folks: This bestquest fellow has now posted like three or four more times, each time entirely refusing to answer my question, each time scrambling to talk about something else, like why function talk is not teleological.

    (The question I asked was, "Why is one thing the heart does (circulation) called its function and another (heat generation) not?")

    My time wasted shall be not. If you want to have a conversation, then you have to address the things the other person in the conversation says, and not just go rambling on on your own. That's monologue. You can put up your monologues on your own blog.

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  15. Fair enough, Gene, but you force me to choose: Will I still get mad when Brad DeLong deletes comments that he thinks are stupid, or will I think you shouldn't be doing it on your blog?

    I shall have to think on this one.

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  16. Bob, it's not that I thought bestquest's comments were stupid -- in fact, they were clever ways to avoid answering the question I asked him. It's the fact he was avoiding real discussion that made me give up.

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  17. "Try this one: a living heart circulates blood. It also gives off heat. Why does every biologist say the function of the heart is to circulate the blood, and not a single one says its function is to give off heat?"

    Your assertion is false. While biologists frequently say that a primary function of the heart is to pump blood, no competent biologist would claim that this is the heart’s only function. It is not difficult to locate an academic paper that says the heat generated by the heart has a function: It is used in “endothermic reactions”:

    http://www.springerlink.com/content/v82r38001647t542/

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  18. You're still playing games, bestquest, but at least you're coming closer to addressing the question. Your "you're assertion is false" is fatuous. If you ask a biologist, "What is the function of the heart?" he will answer "to pump blood" and will NOT answer "To generate heat." If you had a quiz in biology and answered the first you would get it right and the second, wrong. So, last chance now, why is that?

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  19. "What is the function of the heart?" ... "If you had a quiz in biology and answered the first [to pump blood] you would get it right and the second [to generate heat], wrong. ... why is that?"

    I think you are asking me to get inside the head of a straw-man biology teacher, but I will give it a try. I can think of several possibilities:

    1) The teacher chose not to teach his students that the heart has more than one function and he firmly believes that none of them know that fact.

    2) The teacher is ignorant and believes the heart has only one function.

    3) The teacher wrote the question in a sloppy manner, failing to correctly phrase it as "What is the PRIMARY function of the heart"?

    4) It is a multiple-choice quiz with the following choices:
    a) To pump blood
    b) To secrete peptide hormones
    c) To generate the heat necessary to drive critical endothermic reactions
    d) All of the above, and possibly more
    Although the correct answer would be (d), the teacher's ignorant assistant who graded the quiz thought it should be (a), so it was marked wrong.

    5) The teacher thinks, incorrectly, that the words "function" and "purpose" are synonymous. Furthermore, the teacher is superstitious and believes the heart was designed by a supernatural creature for the exclusive purpose of pumping blood, and he insists that his students pretend to believe the same thing.

    6) Although both answers (to pump blood, and to generate heat) are incorrect by themselves (because neither provides the WHOLE truth), at least the first answer describes the heart's PRIMARY function, so the teacher decided to be lenient and mark the answer "correct."

    7) Because the teacher thinks anyone who answers "to generate heat" is being a smart-ass and is trying to embarrass him, so he lashes out by marking the answer "wrong", which is typical of the ways insecure, petty people act.

    These are my honest answers to the specific question you posed, Gene. If I have misinterpreted the question then please re-state it so I might finally understand it the way you intend.

    If you can propose additional answers to your own question then I am eager to read and contemplate them.

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  20. You're still playing games and avoiding the question, bestquest. It should be obvious that 3) was meant, and that's just common, not "sloppy" usage. If someone says, "What is the purpose of the bat in baseball, it is correct to answer "hit the baseball" and wrong to answer "knock the dirt out of cleats."

    So WHY is it correct to say "The primary function of the heart is to circulate blood?" and ridiculous to say "the primary function of the heart is to make a ba-dum sound"?

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  21. "So WHY is it correct to say 'The primary function of the heart is to circulate blood?'"

    Because the heart does, in fact, function as a blood pump; and...

    ...because, given that the heart has several functions, a failure of the pumping function is the thing that would lead most quickly to the failure of all the other functions.

    My first paragraph explains the "function" part of your question and my second explains why the pumping function is generally considered "primary."

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  22. Fair answer, bestquest. And it uses teleological language. (To fail, a thing must have something it *should* be doing.) Don't worry, no one else has solved the problem of how to discuss an organ's function without teleological language either!

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