BBTC, Chapter 5
by Irfan Khawaja
Date: 15 Feb 1995
Forum: Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy
Copyright: Irfan Khawaja
1. An overview
According to Harry Binswanger, teleological concepts "have as their original and paradigm case the purposeful behavior of man; it is a man's knowledge of his own purposefulness that gives rise to the wider idea of teleological causation" (5). Teleological causation (TC) in human purposeful action, according to Binswanger, is the _unproblematic_ case of TC in terms of which all other cases are to be analyzed. In any case of TC, the goal of the action is the cause, and the action leading to the goal is the effect. At first, this might seem paradoxical: how can an effect temporally precede its cause? It is easily understood, however, in the case of human purposes: the prop- ositional content of the desire, which represents the goal, is the cause of the agent's action; the action, then, is the effect of having the desire (plus the judgment that acting on the desire here and now is good).
If TC is unproblematic in the human case, it is not so in other cases. It is most problematic in the case where no consciousness is present at all-- what Binswanger calls "vegetative action." (This doesn't refer to vegetables, of course, but to non-conscious actions of organisms that appear to be goal-directed.) In the vegetative case, there is no consciousness, hence no desire for a goal. Nonetheless, there is a strong _semblance_ of TC, as Binswanger points out in the opening lines of the chapter. Prima facie, vegetative action seems more closely to resemble purposeful action than it does completely inanimate processes. But if vegetative action is non-conscious, what possible property could both vegetative and purposeful action have in virtue of which both might be called "teleological"? Binswanger's answer is that both sorts of action have "value-significance" for their agents, and that the cause of the action in both cases is the _value_ (or anticipated value) to the agent of the goal in question. This approach to TC has a long and illustrious history in the writings of Aristotle, William Harvey and Charles Darwin. And Jim Lennox.
But is it _true_? To answer that question, we might ask three sorts of questions of this chapter: 1) Are Binswanger's arguments deductively valid? 2) Are his premises true, or at least well supported by the relevant evidence? 3) Are the constituent concepts in each of his premises clear, in the sense of being properly formed and well-defined?
Binswanger is best on issue (3): he is good at defining his terms. He is fairly good on (2) as well; he usually gives us good evidence with which to appraise his empirical claims (but not always: cf. pp. 66-7). He is not nearly as good on (1), and it takes a good bit of reconstruction to make the structure of his argument precise. Where possible, I will try to reconstruct his arguments to make them deductively valid, commenting or asking questions about key premises. I will not be discussing the refutations of the cybernetic model of teleology on pp. 56-8 and 68-72. Nor will I discuss the account of psychological value on 66-7. Since my comment is long, I will probably break it up into two posts.
2. The overall structure of the argument
The overall structure of Binswanger's argument is like this:
This is not a strictly valid argument, but it is a plausible approach to the issue. The main focus of the chapter is on step (7): why does X turn out to be value-significance? What _is_ value significance? I turn to that next. 3. The analysis of "value" Step (7) above is an important conclusion for many reasons. First, it helps explain what is common to vegetative and purposeful actions. Second, it serves to distinguish teleological self-generated action from self- generated actions that have results that cannot be called teleological (see p. 55). Third, since the Objectivist Ethics is teleological, (7) might have important implications for the foundations of ethics. The key term to be analyzed is "value." On pp. 58-61, Binswanger gives an argument that I reproduce in the following ten-step proof:
1. Purposeful action is obviously teleological.
2. Vegetative action is similar to purposeful action: it is self-generated, and it _seems_ goal-directed.
3. But vegetative action is different than purposeful action: it lacks consciousness.
4. Vegetative action is prima facie teleological in virtue of (2).
5. Given (4), we must abstract the phenomenon of consciousness away from purposeful actions to find the dimension of similarity between purposeful actions qua teleological and vegetative actions qua teleological. Call this dimension X.
6. X, whatever it is, is a distinguishing feature of teleological causation.
7. X turns out to be "value-significance."
8. Therefore, value-significance is a distinguishing feature of teleological action.
1. All value-terms can be analyzed in terms of needs.
2. All needs can be analyzed in terms of survival-requirements.
3. All value-terms can be analyzed in terms of survival-requirements.
4. All survival-requirements are agent-relative.
5. All value is agent-relative.
6. All goals can be analyzed in terms of needs.
7. All needs can be analyzed in terms of survival-requirements.
8. All goals can be analyzed in terms of survival-requirements.
9. All survival-requirements are agent-relative.
10. All goals are agent-relative (i.e., must be specified in terms of the agent whose goals they are).
On the basis of this argument, Binswanger produces a definition of the concept of "goal":
Goal: A condition sought for the sake of its ability to satisfy the survival requirements of the acting organism (p. 64).
There is much to be said about this argument and its implications, but I will just list a few questions:
1. Premises (1), (2), and (7) obviously play a crucial role in the argument. How good is the evidence for their truth?
2. The phrase "x is analyzed in terms of y" does not actually appear in Binswanger's text. One might therefore argue that my reconstruction is gratuitous, insofar as it ascribes to Binswanger claims he doesn't make. I don't think this is correct, of course, but I am interested to know what anyone else thinks. My own rationale for using the locution is that I see no other way of putting what Binswanger is saying in the form of a valid argument (in the technical sense).
4. Goals, Life, and Hierarchy
I turn now to the discussion on pp. 61-4. I take the argument of this section to be an elaboration on premise (8) from the last section: "All goals can be analyzed in terms of survival-requirements." What exactly does this mean? I think it can be captured in the following three propositions:
Consider (1) here. The phrase "the top" of the hierarchy is misleading. There is no "top" to the hierarchies that Binswanger has in mind. On the other hand, the "top" of a hierarchy is presumably its most important part. And Binswanger _does_ mean to say that survival is the most important of an organism's goals. How do we reconcile these two claims?
1. An organism's goals are arranged in a complex and integrated hierarchy at the "top" of which is survival.
2. Given (1), no single action is an end-in-itself; no action has intrinsic value.
3. All actions have their value _in relation_ to the end of survival.
Well, think of a hierarchical structure that _does_ have a top--an Egyptian pyramid, for instance. The pyramid has a hierarchical structure reflected in its geometrical shape: the bottom supports the top in layers. And there is a distinctive "top" to a pyramid: the copestone. Notice that the _rest_ of the pyramid supports the copestone; the copestone is specifiable inde- pendently of the rest of the pyramid; and none of the rest of the pyramid is identical with the copestone.
A hierarchy of _goals_ is a very different kind of hierarchy than that-- so different that perhaps the word "hierarchy" conveys the wrong impression. The term is appropriate insofar as it conveys the fact that there are relations of _fundamentality_ among the goals that an organism pursues. Some are basic; some are derived; some are practically optional. But the term is inappropriate if it makes you think of a "top" and "bottom" akin to that of a pyramid. There is no action which is "that for the sake of which the _rest_ of the organism's life exists" in the way that the rest of the pyramid supports the copestone. Survival just _is_: the actions that make up a life, extended in space and time. To use a specific and simple example, think of an amoeba. The actions of locomotion, nutrition and excretion don't support some _fourth_ thing called "life" or "survival". Those actions _constitute_ the amoeba's life, and their proper execution allows the amoeba to continue doing those things.
I take it that this is what Binswanger is stressing throughout p. 64.
5. The Concept of and End-in-Itself: An End that is reciprocally means and end to itself.
On pp. 64-66, Binswanger discusses the concept of an "end-in-itself"-- an ultimate value. But if what I've said in the foregoing section is correct (and it's just what Binswanger said), what sense can we make of an _ultimate_ end? Isn't an ultimate end just like the copestone of a pyramid? Isn't it that for the sake of which "the rest" of an organism's life is undertaken?
At the bottom of p. 64 and top of 65, Binswanger answers: no. The discussion, however, is somewhat brief and sketchy. The idea is that an ultimate end is reciprocally means and end: an end which is simultaneously a means to itself. This is very abstract. What does it mean?
Perhaps a thought-experiment can illustrate the point. Imagine some non- human organism, preferably a simple one. Ask yourself: what are this organism's distinctive activities in its natural environment? Now clearly, life must be a necessary condition for undertaking those activities. But in what sense is life a _sufficient_ condition for the fact that those activities _must_ be undertaken? What would happen to organisms of that type if they regularly failed to undertake the distinctive activities you thought of? If it turns out that the generalization "Activities [A,B...] are survival-enhancing for members of species S," then life is a sufficient condition for undertaking that set of activities. Organisms of the S- species _must_ take those activities if they are to survive in the way that is optimal for S's in their natural environment. Once you have assembled _the_ list of such activities, you have arrived at the organism's "end-in-itself". The organism at time 1 has to make all of its capacities at 1 (its life-at-1) a means to the achievement of the activities that members of its species must do. At time 2, it will have developed new capacities to meet the challenges that face it. So at time 2 it will make _those_ capacities (its life-at-2) a means to the achievement of the activities...(etc.). And so on.
The moral of the story: An end-in-itself must be a necessary and sufficient condition for the distinctive activities of an organism. But it must be more than that. It must be a phenomenon which (i) explains why the organism performs the distinctive activities; (ii) explains the inter- relations between those activities (their integration); and iii) it itself _realized_ in the realization of the distinctive activities. basically, Binswanger's argument is: only "life" fits this description.
6. Final note
Readers of this list may recall the debate that raged here over Jim Lennox's versus Binswanger's analyses of teleology. I wanted to point out footnote 14 of Binswanger's text (p. 241), because it is an example of how Binswanger sometimes states his view in exactly the way that Lennox does:
Actually, 'adaptation' should be defined in terms of those benefits to survival that have _caused_ the selection of the feature in question.
Doesn't this say that the survival-benefits are the _cause_ of the selection and retention of naturally selected traits? Is it at odds with Binswanger view elsewhere stated that final- and efficient causation are two perspectives, but not two sui generis forms of causation? Just a thought.
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