Find Enlightenment

BBTC, Chapter 2
Alternative Positions on Vegatative Action
by Rick Minto

Date: 21 Apr 1994
Forum: Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy
Copyright: Rick Minto

In chapter 2, Binswanger uses the controversy about how to classify "vegetative action" as a tool to introduce the various positions in the philosophy of biology in general. It is uncontroversial that purposeful action (in humans and lower animals) is teleological, and that the non-conscious actions of physical nature, on the other hand, are not. But whether the vegetative actions of, for example, plants, are essentially like the actions of raindrops falling or on the other hand, like birds building nests, is basically a question of whether you interpret action mechanistically or teleologically: either they are actions of a non-conscious entity and therefore non-teleological (mechanism) or they are actions of a living entity, and therefore teleological (teleologism). The argument for the teleological position requires a book-length exposition, so Binswanger is really just interested in laying out the various alternatives in this chapter, and seeing how they relate to one another. (The chart of the various options on p. 19 is useful; stick a paper clip on that page so you can refer to it until you've got the two different taxonomies memorized.)

Among those that do believe that vegetative actions are teleological, such as Binswanger, there are various subdivisions. The first is "vitalism" vs. "emergentism." These are both teleologist positions, but the first posits a mystical entelechy or life-force possessed by living things that constrain the action of living entities. The actions of an entity that constitute teleological causation are governed by laws that transcend the laws governing mechanical process -- those atomic, molecular, and cellular processes which can be described entirely in the mode of mechanical causation.

Emergentism (Binswanger's position) is the position that the property of an entity by which it acts in a goal-directed way is not a mystical property, but an emergent property of matter -- a property of biological entities _qua_ organic unities. It is a property possessed by the entity as a whole, but is not a property had by any of the parts. Binswanger emphasizes that the position he is framing here is a metaphysical position, not an epistemological one. He is taking about the nature of the emergent property of being-a-goal-directed-entity.

Quibble 1: It would have been nice if Binswanger had defined what he means by mechanical causation here. Does he mean Aristotelian efficient causation? [In "Life-Based Teleology and the Foundations of Ethics," (LBT) _Monist _ 75:1 (Jan. 92):84-104, Binswanger opts for "efficient" rather than "mechanical" -- are they synonyms?] Does he mean Humean "bump and bang" causation? [This is the position of Nagel, Binswanger's Ph.D. supervisor]. What is the Objectivist position on this? [As he says in his "Preface," p. ii, Objectivism "is the framework for everything I have written ... ] If he interprets Rand's "entity causing action" view of causation to imply a more Humean sort of microdeterminism at the level of cells and down, it would be nice to see the argument for this.

Quibble 2: If goal-directedness is an emergent property of a living organism, then it doesn't make sense to say that goal-directed actions are properties (and the characterization of vitalism (20) is a straw man). Actions are actions. Properties are properties. Goal-directedness is a capacity of a living organism as a whole, a capacity that emerges from a complex interdependency among its parts, and a particular goal-directed (life-sustaining) action or process is the realization of an entity's capacity for goal-directed action (sustaining its life).

What is the relation between the mechanical actions of a living entity and the teleological actions "emerging" from the simple matter? Binswanger describes teleological causation as "a complex form of mechanical causation" (21) In LBT, he says that "every vegetative action is both teleological and mechanical -- the difference being only one of perspective." (LBT, 94) Thus, "teleological causation on the vegetative level is not an alternative to mechanical causation," rather "vegetative action is both mechanical and teleological, in contrast to the inanimate processes which are only mechanical." (BBTC, 21)

Criticism 1: There is a confusion here. If teleological vegetative action is a complex form of mechanical action, then there is no new form of action called teleological action that is qualitatively different from mechanical action. If teleological causation is just a complex form of mechanical causation, then why call it something else? If Binswanger is right, then there is just a quantitative difference: the difference between a few trees and a forest. Such a difference would indeed be just one of perspective. The question of assessing under what conditions and for which purposes a teleological vs. a mechanical explanation is appropriate is then an epistemological question.

How is a rock falling down a hill different than a cell dividing? One is just a mechanical process, the other is both mechanical and teleological. But what is added by saying that cell division is also teleological if it just is identical to a complex mode of mechanical causation? Nothing -- I submit (metaphysically speaking).

If Binswanger is correct, then the distinction between mechanism and teleology is epistemological, and any specific teleological process can be explained either in mechanical or teleological terms. While the criteria of adequacy for these two types of explanation will certainly be different, it remains the case that the explanandum is the same. On the other hand, if it is the case that teleological causation and mechanical causation are fundamentally two different modes of action of a living entity, then the difference is not fundamentally epistemological, but metaphysical. If the latter is true, then teleological causation and mechanical causation are two different kinds of action that biological entities perform.

Binswanger does however deny that teleological causation is metaphysically distinct from mechanical causation. He does not think that this implies that teleological concepts are eliminable from our explanatory repertoire, therefore. He says "even though terms such as "goal-directed action" (23) _are_ definable in non-teleological terms, this does not mean we should dispense with teleology and teleological concepts." Why not? "...explanation on the level of parts does not necessarily eliminate the need for explanation on the level of wholes and vice versa." (ibid.) Binswanger quotes G. S. Simpson approvingly in this context, who argued that biological explanations are a second, albeit legitimate kind of explanation.

This is exactly what Ernest Nagel thinks, too:

"Despite the _prima facie_ distinctive character of teleological (or functional) explanations, we shall first argue that they can be reformulated, without loss of asserted content, to take the form of nonteleological ones, so that in an important sense teleological and nonteleological explanations are equivalent." [_The Structure of Science_, 2nd ed. Hackett (1979), 403.]

What then is the difference between Binswanger's emergentist teleologist and the mechanist? They "agree on the metaphysical status of vegetative action, but disagree about its goal-directedness." (22) For Binswanger, both conscious and vegetative actions are goal directed, the difference between them is that the former is purposeful, the latter not. This is the second difference between the emergentist and the mechanist; both differences are epistemological.

So we could say that Binswanger's position is a reductive emergentism, as opposed to eliminative emergentism, according to which there are no teleological processes, even though there are emergent properties of biological systems.

Binswanger thinks that these emergent properties are indispensable for the formulation of teleological explanations, but that the properties and thus the explanations can be "reduced" to mechanical ones. The eliminativist believes that the reducibility is grounds for dispensability, and is willing to do the job of theory construction and appraisal without teleological concepts. Binswanger, on the other hand, wants to retain them for use in the formulation of explanations which we could not otherwise formulate.

In the section entitled "Other Schools," our author distinguishes his position from Edmund Sinnott's theory, and the cybernetics school, both of which are weird enough I feel that I can safely ignore them here.

In the section on "Methodology," Binswanger explains how "there is an objective basis for extending the teleological concepts derived from purposeful action to include vegetative action as well." (27)

It is a four step process to show that purposeful as well as conscious action are teleological:

1. Note that the perceptual basis for the concept of teleological causation is our own conscious behaviour. 2. Ask what is the mode of causation of purposeful action. 3. Identify the similarities of vegetative and purposeful action and the differences between vegetative and inanimate processes. 4. Identify what common property of vegetative and purposeful action explains both and thus justifies classifying them together.

This is a really nice section: Binswanger is at his best with epistemological issues generally, so all I will do is put a check-mark here.

Summary: Despite the surface clarity of Binswanger's style -- use of first person, keeping the sentences short, using lots of examples -- one central dichotomy threatens to compromise the foundational coherence of Binswanger's program: the dichotomy between causation -- a metaphysical concept, and causal explanation -- an epistemological one.

As someone whose doctoral research is motivated by a desire in part to extend the Objectivist metaphysics and to begin applying it to conceptual issues in the philosophy of natural science, I am disappointed by Binswanger's apparent adherence to some kind of bastard Objectivist Positivism. It would have been nice to see him apply the Objectivist metaphysics as thoroughly to his project as he did the Objectivist epistemology. His view of the reducibility of teleology to mechanism ontologically (even if he keeps their epistemological roles separated) along with his Humean-empiricist view of mechanical causation have the effect of reducing Rand to Hume. Instead of just assimilating theories in the philosophy of science which really have no place in Objectivism and whose inadequacies have been acknowledged by most mainstream analytic philosophers of science for over twenty years, I would have thought he would articulate an alternative. So far, there is no hint of one.

I hope that I am wrong, and I would hope that list members will chastize me mercilessly if my fears are in fact as totally unwarranted as I wish they were.

Find Enlightenment at