No computation without teleology

Support for the suggestion in my last post, that we are likely to be missing significant biological truths by not recognising Aristotelian formal and final causation, comes from a philosophical direction in a recent article by Thomist analytic philosopher Ed Feser .

Feser addresses fellow-philosopher John Searle’s claim that the widespread use of computational concepts like algorithms, information, software and so on in natural science (and especially biology) are invalid because computation is necessarily an observer-related matter, not a feature of the real world.

To most, this might seem an unlikely claim. This article , as just one small example, explores the practicalities of using DNA for general compuational work, which surely depends on hi-jacking its existing ability to compute “genetic algorithms” in order to code living organisms.

Feser, though,  presents strong arguments that, given the mechanical conception of nature espoused by modern science, “Searle’s critique of computationalism is ananswerable.” However, it may be rescued (ie, the common-sense impression that such computation is a real feature of nature may prevail) if, and only if, Aristotelian concepts of form and finality are re-admitted to the discussion.

Early in the argument, he mentions the great, though frequently unrecognised, conceptual problem which has arisen over the “laws of nature” once the divine lawgiver of the early-modern scientists was removed from the picture:

But if we abandon both the Aristotelian apparatus of immanent formal and final causes and the early modern conception of God as artificer, it seems we are left with neither an intrinsic nor an extrinsic source of the order in the world, and thus with no source of order at all.

The importance of this is that there can be no particular significance in any sequence of efficient causes:

That is, of course, exactly what we find in Hume, for whom all events are inherently “loose and separate.”

This seems to be illuminated by the realisation that scientific accounts of causation, in effect, dispense with the reality of the entities that produce them. David Chalmers, seeking to show that information processing is at the root of reality, demonstrates this truth:

Following Bertrand Russell, Chalmers notes that physics does not tell us the intrinsic nature of the fundamental entities it posits: “Physics tells us nothing about what mass is, or what charge is: it simply tells us the range of different values that these features can take on, and it tells us their effects on other features.” Having mass or charge, like carrying syntactic information, is simply a matter of being in one of several states in a space of different possible states that might generate various outcomes at the end of causal pathways leading from those states. Now, if the fundamental entities of physics are essentially characterized in terms of their effects, and if to be information in the syntactical sense is just to have certain characteristic effects, then what physics gives us (Chalmers proposes) is essentially an informational conception of its fundamental entities.

In other words, there is no “aboutness” within nature: informational state A simply gives rise algorithmically to informational state B, neither of those states being significant of anything particular. Nothing new ever happens:

A key property of computations is that you will not get more information out of them than went into them. As [John] Mayfield puts it: “Algorithmic information shares with Shannon information the property that it cannot be created during a deterministic computation. The information content of the output can be less than that of the input, but not greater. Thus, algorithmic information conforms with our intuitive notion that information cannot be created out of thin air.”

Alex Rosenberg is a philosopher of biology and an eliminative materialist, but the latter is a tough discipline for he recognises:

Molecular biology is . . . riddled with intentional expressions: we attribute properties such as being a messenger (“second messenger”) or a recognition site; we ascribe proofreading and editing capabilities; and we say that enzymes can discriminate among substrates. . . . Even more tellingly . . . molecular developmental biology describes cells as having “positional information,” meaning that they know where they are relative to other cells and gradients. The naturalness of the intentional idiom in molecular biology presents a problem. All these expressions and ascriptions involve the representation, in one thing, of the way things are in another thing. . . . The naturalness of this idiom in molecular biology is so compelling that merely writing it off as a metaphor seems implausible. Be that as it may, when it comes to information in the genome, the claim manifestly cannot be merely metaphorical, not, at any rate, if the special role of the gene is to turn on its information content. But to have a real informational role, the genome must have intentional states.

If intentionality has no place in science, one must mentally consider all such processes as “really” simply the meaningless manipulation of information considered in the strictly Shannon sense of bit-processing.

And so, as I briefly paraphrase Feser’s statement of John Searle’s argument, a computer likewise is simply performing operations with digital bits: it only computes because of the meaning that we humans attach to the bits put in, to the output, and the processes our program performs on it. And so a “natural computer,” such as a genome which man did not even design or program, can even less be said to be computing anything.

That might seem to be unproblematic for a materialist who, in any case, claims that biology is undirected and purposeless. But does that actually hold up? After some discussion of a well-known philosophical contruct called “quaddition”, Feser asks us to consider a completely purposeless embryological development program:

For instance, we can imagine what we might call a “quembryo” program that, when the genome runs it, produces the same results that the embryo program does except that the embryo does not develop eyes. Now, consider a human embryo that never develops eyes. Should we say that the genome that built this embryo was running what Rosenberg would call the embryo program but that there was a malfunction in the system? Or should we say instead that the genome was actually running the “quembryo” program and that there was no malfunction at all and things were going perfectly smoothly?

Now, someone might reply that an error producing a blind human could, conceivably, have adaptive advantages (perhaps his parents are troglodytes not needing their eyes). Such errors, it is claimed, are how evolution progresses. But actually, it would be improper to talk about “errors” at all, and there would be no explanation for the fact that all kinds of factors in embryology appear to be coordinated with the very aim of producing a human being conforming to some specification – one with eyes, barring the failure of one or more of the controls.

In brief, Feser concludes that Searle is absolutely right to deny that computation, such as “DNA algorithms,” can be said to be more than an artifical construct put on to nature by human observers. And that entails that whatever science we do in unravelling computational patterns of cause and effect would be no more than the weaving of fictional tales around the disconnected and meaningless processing of bits.

Not many of us, however, have the ascetic capacity of an Alex Rosenberg to eliminate all significance from natural events – and neither does Rosenberg, in practice, for his eliminative claims include human thought, too, making the meaning of what he thinks to write on eliminativism, or anything else, illusory too. In other words, it is self-contradictory.

The way out of this rat-maze is simple, as Feser says. Simply give up on the attempt to exclude teleology from nature, and especially from living things. He is quick to point out that what he means here is the internal teleology by which organisms have their own aims and goals based on their substantial forms. As always with Feser, he rejects the Paleyan (or Cartesian) concept of a living creature as a mechanical artifact composed of accidentally connected molecular parts. Instead, like the “target morphology” in the scienctific research mentioned in my previous post, the goals of creatures are a global feature of what they are. Remember in my last post how the final form of an animal appears to be “known” both to the organism as a whole and single cells.

Thus we are able to identify things like normality and error. Real computation can be allowed to exist in the natural world. Our human embryology can be legitimately viewed in terms of a programmed process with the goal of reproducing after our kind. And hence the congenitally blind baby can be justly viewed as the result of a failure in that program, and so be seen as fully human (not a new type of “Quuman being”) and, perhaps, deserving of remedial treatment if possible to correct what is defective.

This acceptance of form and natural teleology (as Thomas Aquinas pointed out) does not preclude the providence of God over even the errors. There are unsighted people who regard their blindness as an advantage – but if so it must be seen as a special and unusual kind of advantage, for in the land of the blind, human survival would be unlikely. Teleology, then, should be seen as a necessary feature of the natural world, not as an indicator that God would make everything turn out perfectly. The mystery of suffering, and of providence, still remains:

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.

It is simply more natural and rational to include genuine formal and final causation in our study of nature, whether that be simply in the activities of daily life, or in working out the hugely complex computational features of the genome. However, as Feser points out (and Thomas Aquinas before him), teleology does have inevitable theological connotations. It is as difficult to account for teleology apart from God as it is to account for evidence of intentionality without teleology.

In the end, the desire to exclude God seems the only reason for the intellectual contortions required in eliminating teleology, and the far more common intellectual fudges in assuming it in practice whilst denying it in theory.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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16 Responses to No computation without teleology

  1. Ian Thompson says:

    If there is teleology in nature, what would it look like? How would we recognize it?

    Perhaps it is ‘final causes’ we seek.

    Do you see them as described at : ‘The final cause of a natural object—a plant or an animal—is not a purpose, plan, or “intention.” Rather, it is whatever lies at the end of the regular series of developmental changes that typical specimens of a given species undergo. The final cause need not be a purpose that someone has in mind.’ ?

    If final causes existed, would they make a difference to physics?
    Presumably physical parts do behave differently by final causes (otherwise, why have them?).

    But do the final causes ‘micromanage’ all the differences from standard behaviour, or is there some more global ‘control system’ in physics that takes care of all the detailed molecular management?

    (I have been thinking about final causes too!)

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      All good questions, Ian.

      The Aristotelian concept of final causation is, of course, very basic, as Thomists like Feser point out. It is as teleological that salt dissolves in water as that monkeys choose ripe fruit – and that is because both depend on the substantial form that determines the ends towards which each will tend.

      If final causes existed, would they make a difference to physics? You’re the physicist – and the one seeking to start physics from God! My own answer would be, “probably not”, because of the self-limitation to efficient causes physics places on itself. In cases where an effect happens beyond what can be predicted from the antecedents, it’s called an “emergent phenomenon” – but would it be better understood as the achievement of a goal?

      The previous Hump piece deals with that more, since there seems to be a set of findings in which emergence, as such, is inadequate, and biological form appears to be a goal towards which everything within the organism tends. That’s very “Aristotelian substantial form.”

      The question of how such final causes would manage efficient causes is really interesting – and of course, unaddressed by scientists because final causes simply aren’t investigated. Analogically, I’ve long been interested in the fact that my own actions are driven by final causes. I’ve just switched the light on as dark clouds came over – and realise I barely remember doing it.

      But the sequence would have been, “I can’t see the keyboard, so must switch the light on.” I didn’t even think about standing up and crossing the room to do it, let alone the mechanics of each muscle movement. So in a voluntary movement, final cause acted through the complex physiology and anatomy of the human form, and those can be studied and explained – but without casting much light on my keyboard.

      In biology, preumably if there is a “form template”, it exists somewhere, as my intention to switch on the light existed in my brain. Perhaps it could be understood by scientific investigation – but if it could be “explained” in terms of efficient causes, it would actually have been explained away as the prior cause. So I suspect one needs some new language for a science of forms.

      The same must apply, I guess, at the lower level of physics, if final causes operate in that non-choice realm (or is quantum mechanics an analogy of such choice?). We’d need to be employing the same “new language” of form that was required in biology – in its absence, it’s obviously hard to identify final causation at all.

  2. Ian Thompson says:

    If we are serious, then we should try to imagine how physics would be different if final causes exist. Even simple organisms should be able to use them, e.g. to get molecules folding or moving in ways to achieve a specified end, rather than move from physical laws that ignore anything like that. Just look at all the things supposed to orderly happen in molecular biology!!

    Molecules, or cells, or people moving across the room, will then move differently when final causes exist. What does that mean for physics? Would physicists be able to observe different properties or behaviours of molecules when they are being guided towards final causes? Could we make a prediction for anything that could be observed to be different?

    Even if we have to imagine what sort of world God would make in order to make final cause work more easily. Especially, as you emphasize, they do seem to operate in so many places in such important ways that they ought to be (in some sense) rather obvious, even if they are presently ignored.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      “Molecules, or cells, or people moving across the room, will then move differently when final causes exist.”

      Not sure if I’ve understood you right. The question isn’t “What would change if final causes existed?” but “if final causes are a feature of reality, how do they account for what we see happening?”

      In other words, by not taking them into account we’re likely (as you suggest) either to be missing obvious things, or attributing them to other causes. It’s equivalent to what I’ve described as happening in biology, ie that the claim that God’s hand is invisible is based on attributing his visible activity to an imaginary efficient entity called “chance” (and one might add, dubiously efficient entities called “laws.”)

      As far as I understand the Aristotelian concept, final causation is simply the propensity of entities to produce certain results rather than others, which dictates the forms of the entities involved, which in turn governs the efficient causes.

      In the human analogy I mentioned of my switching on the light, one could theoretically unravel a train of efficient causes which would account for each step, but leave an unsatisfactory hole in understanding why the light is on, even with a complete chain of efficient causes from my brain to “Voila! The light shines.”

      I’m not a physicist. In human and animal behaviour it’s rather perverse to deal with the goals creatures have without considering them as goals, but in physics there would appear to be fewer degrees of freedom: ice will always melt in the heat, salt will always dissolve in water, etc. So it’s easier to conceive of chains of efficient causes as a complete explanation.

      My impression is that some features of the behaviour of, say, water are unpredictable from its chemical structure. But even if they are explicable in terms of “the nature of water”, that is a matter of form and hence finality – unless, that is, we believe there is a reductionist, bottom-up theory of everything with no emergent properties. But I don’t think that’s what we believe, is it?

  3. Ian Thompson says:

    If divine, spiritual or mental things are to have any effects in or on us and our world, then it cannot be that all our bodily actions would be determined by efficient causes operating by laws of nature that pay no attention at all to those things.

    You are already beginning to think about what I am trying to imagine, when you give the order of causes as “final causation . . . dictates the forms of the entities involved, which in turn governs the efficient causes.” That is: final > formal > efficient causes.

    A physicist should, in such a case, observe material things behaving differently from different efficient causes. I am trying to see if we can imagine more details of this and how they might be caused from the other kinds.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Ian, I find that easier to imagine in biology than physics, whether we’re thinking of intrinsic teleology or divine external governance (eg in creating new species).

      So I can imagine the final form of a species being reached by various alternative means, for example when the usual process is damaged… we might also see evidence (as in Jim Shapiro) that the genome is more a library exploited by the higher levels of causation, rather than being itself an efficient cause.

      An analogy I’ve used before is my own library: any work I do will depend on using the sources available to me, but I would be likely to produce the same kind of work from a different collection of books if the subjects were broadly similar. Mutations, HGT etc would then just provide raw materials for formal and final causation.

      It’s less easy for me to think of how that might pan out in the more fundamental world of physics. Do you have possible examples?

  4. Ian Thompson says:

    Here is a problem that might be easier to solve if final causes exist.
    This is the issue of protein folding, which is a problem in molecular biology.

    See, which outlines the main problems:
    1. What is the folding code?
    2. Structure prediction?
    3. What is the folding mechanism?
    4. Why is the folding speed is fast?

    Maybe efficient causes are enough to get folding to go fast enough, but final causes would certainly be important if they were present.
    This problem has been known for 50 years or more now.

    (I can send you some review papers if you like:
    Dill et al: Annu Rev Biophys. 2008 June 9; 37: 289–316.,
    Hingorani et al: Curr Opin Struct Biol. 2014 )

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      What a wonderful world we live in!

      The problem is multilevelled: firstly, what’s the physics of protein folding itelf, and then how do living organisms engineer what is needed. Related to the second are the permissible variations in sequence in living systems, which agsin raises (at least to me) the question of whether the final form comes first.

      It’s dangerous ground though, because in Thomistic terms, only God can create substantial forms.

      I’d be interested in the two papers, though they may well be beyond my pay grade. Any chance of e-mailing them to me, Ian?

  5. Ian Thompson says:

    I have emailed 2 pdf papers to you.

    If you think that the more fundamental are the ‘substantial forms’ (to be distinguished of course from ‘plain’ forms or shapes or structures), then you can revise your scheme so it reads:
    substantial forms > final causes > efficient causes > actual effects.

    It is certainly a multilevelled problem.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks Ian – will try to read them today. I won’t argue too much about the precise order of causes until I understand them better.

      But since our last exchange, I was thinking of the gut response of the scientist, or of any modern: “How can something like the final form of a protein or an organism be a brute fact, and not the sum of small causes.” Reductionism dies hard.

      And yet, I reasoned, the properties of DNA for biology are a brute fact even when one knows the efficient causes that put it together. Maybe the universe actually has to be taken more on trust than we think. As in GD’s post, we have to take water as we find it, and be thankful it’s not fickle. Maybe we have to do the same for proteins.

  6. Avatar photo GD says:

    I have tried to comprehend “what is real?” from the point of scientific understanding.

    “…….by the realisation that scientific accounts of causation, in effect, dispense with the reality of the entities that produce them..”

    I have gotten as far as: (a) science provides a description of something, and (b) the universe is accessible to human intellect.

    If we use water as an example, science describes its components, properties, and also how it is part of a universe that “depends” on its behaviour and properties. ie., if water changed by chance the Universe may not cope (?)

    Is this a conclusion, or an indication of a teleology in nature? I cannot say. But if we accept that reality consists of the universe in toto, than physics, maths, chemistry, biology, are describing bits and pieces of a reality.

    I may add that if water, by chance, changes in some way, biology cannot cope?

  7. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    “…if water changed by chance the Universe may not cope.”

    I like that thought! Apart from reminding us that we are indeed in an interdependent cosmos, it kind of makes the point i was attempting in your quote, which is that science doesn’t tell us what water is, but only what it does.

    What I take from your comment, rightly or wrongly, is that the concept of a cosmos of relationships is enhanced by the idea of water (etc) as being “what it is,” with its various powers (only the latter described by science), playing its part in both biology and the Universe.

    The idea may not further science much, but it seems to contribute to a christological theology of nature.

  8. Avatar photo GD says:

    Aspects of science (eg folding or proteins) that rely on dynamics of complex systems are a source of fascination. Since I thing all of nature is dynamic, science must work (conceptually?) on ‘slices’ of observed aspects of any system, and yet deal with the fact that we would make a measured observation of a dynamic system, often with great accuracy.

    One area that is increasingly utilised is modelling of dynamic systems. From my limited experience, I wonder if causality becomes irrelevant to a scientist when she creates models of systems that increasingly mimic with greater accuracy, real systems. We come closer to imagining what is studied and reproducing a specific area.

    Does this mean we are closer to a theater in which we mirror ‘creative’ acts? Or should we conceive of a grand system of causality that places human creativity on a higher plain than mere observation and measurement.

    A lot to think on.

    • Avatar photo GD says:

      that should read “folding of proteins”.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      From my limited experience, I wonder if causality becomes irrelevant to a scientist when she creates models of systems that increasingly mimic with greater accuracy, real systems.

      That struck me in the first of the papers Ian sent me (on in vitro folding of proteins), in which until recently nearly all the progress on protein folding has been in the collection of vast sets of data from nature and modelling based on the results.

      Doing that you can modify or even synthesize proteins, but with no real idea of why what you’re doing works – imitating nature, but scarcely thinking God’s thoughts after him.

      It also says that theoretical knowledge of the mechanisms has increased, to be fair… but the second paper remonds us that very little of what is true about folding of proteins in weak solution in vitro applies to what happens in the cells, where the same folding is achieved under almost infinitely more complex circumstances.

      I was amazed to realise that, since proteins are a biological “invention,” all the R&D work on protein folding since the Precambrian has been done in those infinitely complicated conditions – there never was a protein that learned how to fold on its own!

      • Avatar photo GD says:

        Hi Jon,

        I should clarify – by models I mean computer simulations of molecules that endeavour to mimic some behaviour of those found in nature.

        I have often commented on the complexity of biology (and other areas) and our abilities are meager within this context.

        The notion of causality continues to fascinate.

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