Purpose and Desire

Purpose and Desire: What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It is the new book by physiologist J. Scott Turner, author of The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself.

The book may make some “skeptics” uncomfortable, but maybe they should read it anyways.

From the book:

I have come to believe that there is something presently wrong with how we scientists think about life, its existence, its origins, and its evolution.

Without a coherent theory of life, whatever we think about life doesn’t hold water. This applies to the major contribution we claim that the modern science of life offers to the popular culture: Darwinism.

… there sits at the heart of modern Darwinism an unresolved tautology that undermines its validity.

… do we have a coherent theory of evolution? The firmly settled answer to this question is supposed to be “yes” …

I intend to argue in this book that the answer to my question might actually be “no.”

Darwinism is an idea of intoxicating beauty, and yet there has been for many years a muddle at the heart of it, at least in its modern form.

… what it cannot explain is coming into stark relief, making it impossible any longer to ignore the muddle.

The problem for modern Darwinism is, I argue, that we lack a coherent theory of the core Darwinian concept of adaptation.

This type of reasoning is known formally as a tautology…

For Darwinism to make sense (and I want deeply for it to make sense), the tautology somehow needs to be resolved.

… the obstacle to resolving the tautology is not that we know too little — far from it — but that we aren’t thinking properly about what we do know. In short, the obstacle is largely philosophical, and the stumbling block is the frank purposefulness that is inherent in the phenomenon of adaptation.

… the uncomfortable question is this: what if phenomena like intentionality, purpose, and design are not illusions, but are quite real — are in fact the central attributes of life? How can we have a coherent theory of life that tries to shunt these phenomena to the side? And if we don’t have a coherent theory of life, how can we have a coherent theory of evolution?

– Turner, J. Scott. Purpose and Desire: What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It. HarperCollins. 2017.

Biology, we have a problem. He wants Darwinism to make sense, but the book just doesn’t start out well for the Darwin disciples. Maybe someone else here will actually read it and explain how misguided this poor author is. He’s a Christian. Maybe he’s just lying for Jesus.

Another nail in the coffin.

430 thoughts on “Purpose and Desire

  1. keiths: Is there another “challenge” from the book that you’d like us to respond to?

    I do have one…

    What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It

    If you need help with some possible details this challenge may present, please let me know…
    The possible areas to explore are: what made or makes nonliving matter to self-replicate, cell membrane to form and then the cell to replicate?

  2. Vitalism poses two basic questions. We already chewed these over in the Preface, but they are worth repeating: is life a special phenomenon, unlike any other in the universe, and if so, what makes it so? If your answer to the first question is “clearly yes,” you are a vitalist, whether you want to admit it or not. The rub comes with how the second question—what makes it so?—is answered.

    – Purpose and Desire

  3. Mung: Vitalism

    doesn’t sit well with meterialists, so keiths and the team should start working on refuting it…as well as some of the questions I posted…
    It should be a piece of cake for a couple of clever guys like them…

    Maybe we will not hear any more excuses…On the other hand, I fear all we are going to hear are going to be excuses…
    Anybody wanna bet a beer?

  4. To Bernard, life was irreducibly unique, and what set it apart was homeostasis. This is where we encounter the modern misconception about homeostasis: it is not a statement of rational mechanism; rather, it is a profoundly vitalist idea.

    – Purpose and Desire

  5. Mung: The Skeptical Zone isn’t the place you want to be if you really want to discuss a book that in any way challenges Darwinism or modern evolutionary theory. That much I do know.

    You’d think that “skeptical” meant afraid of being challenged.

    The book was released on the 12th, and you’d read it by the 14th? I’m skeptical. You’ve previously used TSZ to advertise books that the Discovery Institute was advertising, and it’s not unreasonable for me to wonder if you’re doing it again.

    As Turner observes, his issues are philosophical. The freely available parts of the book make it plain that he, like most scientists, is an execrable philosopher. For instance, look at how he uses the terms phenomenon and phenomena in your quotations of him. It’s very hard to believe that I should spend time reading a book of philosophy by a scientist so confused about something so fundamental to the philosophy of science. (And, no, that’s not my only objection.)

    How many people are associated now with “The Third Way“? It was 43 when Joe Felsenstein posted, “The Third Way of Evolution announced, but fails to cohere.” In other words, there were at least 43 “third ways” (most of them associated with books) and now there are at least 44. What an astounding event!

  6. Mung: Vitalism poses two basic questions. We already chewed these over in the Preface, but they are worth repeating: is life a special phenomenon, unlike any other in the universe, and if so, what makes it so? If your answer to the first question is “clearly yes,” you are a vitalist, whether you want to admit it or not. The rub comes with how the second question—what makes it so?—is answered.

    – Purpose and Desire

    I would take issue with Turner on this point.

    Vitalism is usually understood as answering the second question by positing the existence of some peculiar substance or force that non-living things lack.

    Aristotle would have been a vitalist if he had thought to ask, “where do souls come from?”, since he did think that the distinction between living and non-living things is that living things have souls and non-living things do not. This is why (he claims) living things are caused to move from within themselves and non-living things only move when they are acted upon.

    The thought that there is something ontologically novel or distinct about life is certainly inconsistent with most versions of reductionism, and one way of opposing reductionism would be by endorsing vitalism. But one isn’t a vitalist simply by virtue of rejecting reductionism, as Turner seems to think. This can be seen by noticing that reductionism is not materialism. (Idealism is also a kind of reductionism, after all — Berkeley reduces physical phenomena to mental phenomena!)

  7. Turner via Mung: is life a special phenomenon

    … is intelligence a special phenomenon…

    … is gravity a special phenomenon…

    Labeling concepts as phenomena is just a rhetorical trick for making them seem fundamental, when they are anything but.

  8. Tom English: The book was released on the 12th, and you’d read it by the 14th? I’m skeptical. You’ve previously used TSZ to advertise books that the Discovery Institute was advertising, and it’s not unreasonable for me to wonder if you’re doing it again.

    Actually Tom, I am familiar with his previous book The Tinkerers’ Apprentice and would have purchased this one regardless of what the DI or anyone associated with it thinks.

    The DI wasn’t founded until 1991. But thank God it came long when it did. I’d gone far too long without having someone tell me what to read and what not to read.

  9. Kantian Naturalist: Vitalism is usually understood as answering the second question by positing the existence of some peculiar substance or force that non-living things lack.

    Here’s what Turner writes:

    By the eighteenth century, vitalism, and the medical practices it engendered, had become the subject of vigorous debate between competing European schools of academic medicine. What emerged from this debate was a radical transformation of vitalist thought from an “essentialist” vitalism (sometimes called “metaphysical vitalism”) to a “process” vitalism (also called “physical vitalism” or “scientific vitalism”). Through this subtle shift in perspective, vitalist thought came to be more concerned with action and mechanism than with some ineffable “vital stuff.” In this way, the seeds were planted for metaphysical vitalism’s eventual rout in the nineteenth century.

    – Turner, J. Scott

  10. Mung: Actually Tom, I am familiar with his previous book The Tinkerers’ Apprentice and would have purchased this one regardless of what the DI or anyone associated with it thinks.

    Had you read Purpose and Desire on the 14th, or were you in the process of reading it? If the latter, have you finished it yet?

  11. Tom English: … is intelligence is a special phenomenon…

    … is gravity is a special phenomenon…

    Labeling concepts as phenomena is just a rhetorical trick for making them seem fundamental, when they are anything but.

    Concepts are called phenomena for a reason unless you don’t understand the meaning of the word… If the origins of the phenomenon were known or explained it wouldn’t be called such…

  12. Mung:
    The Skeptical Zone isn’t the place you want to be if you really want to discuss a book that in any way challenges Darwinism or modern evolutionary theory. That much I do know.

    You’d think that “skeptical” meant afraid of being challenged.

    I’m all in favor of good challenges. My main reservation to Turner so far is that he’s mistaken about the tautology problem, and I worry that he’s veering off towards intellectualism in his response to mechanism.

    I also worry that Turner is conflating two different questions:

    1. can evolutionary theory explain homeostasis?

    and

    2. does an adequate explanation of homeostasis require positing substances or forces for which there is no evidence in any theory belonging to fundamental physics?

    I would like to say that vitalism is the position that the answer to (2) is “yes.”

    However, one can answer (2) in the negative while also answering (1) in the negative.

    This can be seen by noting that homeostasis is a ubiquitous feature of all life, which means that an account of the origins of homeostasis is a request for abiogenesis. But it’s not a problem for evolutionary theory that it fails to account for the origins of life — no more than it’s a problem for optics that it fails to account for the origin of light.

    It seems plausible to me that homeostasis is a nice way of characterizing what it is for something to be alive, and that evolutionary theory has to presuppose some facts about what life is. Evolutionary theory tells us how life evolves, not what it is for something to be alive.

    More and more this looks like a case of Turner complaining that evolutionary theory doesn’t do everything he thinks it claims to do, because he’s been taken in by some extravagant claims by its spokespersons in popular culture.

  13. Kantian Naturalist,

    Vitalism refuted as per wikipedia;
    One of the key themes of the Enlightenment was the search for universal laws and truths that would help illuminate the workings of the universe. It is in such attitudes that we trace the origins of modern science and medicine. However, not all eighteenth century scientists and physicians believed that such universal laws could be found, particularly in relation to the differences between living and inanimate matter. From the 1740s physicians working in the University of Medicine of Montpellier began to contest Descartes’s dualist concept of the body-machine that was being championed by leading Parisian medical ‘mechanists’. In place of the body-machine perspective that sought laws universally valid for all phenomena, the vitalists postulated a distinction being living and other matter, offering a holistic understanding of the physical-moral relation in place of mind-body dualism. Their medicine was not based on mathematics and the unity of the sciences, but on observation of the individual patient and the harmonious activities of the ‘body-economy’. Vitalists believed that Illness was a result of disharmony in this ‘body-economy’ which could only be remedied on an individual level depending on the patient’s own ‘natural’ limitations. The limitations were established by a myriad of factors such as sex, class, age, temperament, region, and race, which negated the use of a single universal treatment for a particular ailment. Ultimately Montpelier medicine was eclipsed by that of Paris, a development linked to the dynamics of the Enlightenment as a movement bent on cultural centralisation, acquiring a reputation as a kind of anti-science of the exotic and the mad. Given the long-standing Paris-centrism of French cultural history, Montpellier vitalism has never been accorded the attention it deserves by historians. This study repairs that neglect.

    https://books.google.ca/books?id=AvqYl4sdwaYC&pg=PA4&redir_esc=y

  14. Tom English: Had you read Purpose and Desire on the 14th, or were you in the process of reading it? If the latter, have you finished it yet?

    I’d read the Preface and the first couple of chapters. So, in the process of reading it. I am now on chapter 4.

  15. Neil Rickert: You are so familiar with it, that you got the title wrong.

    Congratulations! You are today’s winner in the “who can be most like keiths” contest! For the next twenty four hours you can’t possibly be wrong about anything. Make the most of it.

  16. Mung: Congratulations! You are today’s winner in the “who can be most like keiths” contest! For the next twenty four hours you can’t possibly be wrong about anything. Make the most of it.

    Lol

  17. What’s all this mystical stuff about homeostasis? Of course “Darwinism” can account for it. Individuals that fail to keep within the environmental parameters that allow their metabolisms to function die. Those that die don’t contribute to the next generation. There you have it: natural selection promoting homeostasis. Why is this even a question?

  18. Mung: I’d read the Preface and the first couple of chapters. So, in the process of reading it. I am now on chapter 4.

    I try never to punish an honest response. You hold Turner in high regard, having read his last book, but don’t know yet whether he succeeds in what he sets out for himself in the new book.

  19. John,

    What’s all this mystical stuff about homeostasis?

    Turner seems to think there’s something magical about it because in his view, homeostasis involves “wanting”, and mere mechanism can never “want”.

    After discussing the behavioral options open to lizards for modifying their body temperatures, he writes:

    The nexus of strivings and desires in, say, a lizard might be completely alien and inaccessible to the strivings and desires in, say, ourselves, but they are no less strivings and desires all the same. A clockwork vision of homeostasis cannot ever hope to capture this dimension of the problem, because in what way can a thermostat “want” to achieve a particular temperature in the same way, say, a lizard might “want” to do the same?

    No mere mechanism can “want”, Turner thinks. Therefore homeostasis transcends mere mechanism.

    :eyeroll:

  20. Tom English: I try never to punish an honest response. You hold Turner in high regard, having read his last book, but don’t know yet whether he succeeds in what he sets out for himself in the new book.

    Seems obvious Tom English is jealous of book writers not only on ID but even those like Turner who really want Darwinism to be true… 🙂

  21. keiths,

    Is it me or keiths’ comments are pointless…? No that they ever where of any value…
    I just feel like even scanning through them makes me sleeping like reading evo-info search thingy… 🙁

  22. keiths,

    It’s you, J-Mac.

    Beat me to it. He has a way with words, which tend to go footwards. I hope he does not possess a gun. I had similar lols yesterday; it takes a better man than me to resist.

  23. Mung,

    The underlying question here is whether clocks are a good mental model to have in mind when we talk about mechanisms. That made sense for Descartes, and it seems to be important for what Turner is arguing against.

  24. How do you tell whether a bacterium wants anything? How do you tell if a heater connected to a thermostat wants anything?

  25. Does keiths think clocks want to tell the correct time?

    Because in Mung’s confused world, there are only two options: either all mechanisms want, or none of them do.

  26. keiths: Because in Mung’s confused world, there are only two options: either all mechanisms want, or none of them do.

    No, I just wonder what keiths thinks makes the difference. keiths imagines mechanisms that don’t have desires, and mechanisms that do have desires, and John wants to know how keiths tells the difference.

  27. Mung: Does keiths think clocks want to tell the correct time?

    Clocks don’t know anything about time.

    One could perhaps say that a clock want’s to start the next oscillation cycle as soon as it has finished the current one.

  28. Those living within an epistemically closed world become so engrossed in their beautiful, self-referential, and internally consistent universe that mental discipline easily lapses into mental blindness, followed by intellectual pathology and ultimate downfall. Among those pathologies is fractiousness, with intellectual energy directed to ever smaller problems or questions…

    – Turner, J. Scott.

    Wow. He has our number!

  29. …there might be something we call “biology” that we teach to students; there might be academic departments of “biology” in our colleges and universities; but there are, in fact, dozens of “biologies” out there, with new ones coming along annually. Faced with this proliferation, it is reasonable to ask: is there such a thing as a coherent science of life anymore?

    – Purpose and Desire: What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It

  30. The story of how Bernard’s fundamentally vitalist conception of homeostasis became transformed into its modern anodyne, tamed, and neutered form of mechanism—a clockwork homeostasis, if you will—illustrates the most pernicious feature of epistemic closure: its ever-increasing reliance on narrative, rather than evidence, to sustain it.

    – Turner, J. Scott
    Hits the nail on the head.

    My call to the evolutionists here is to avoid the narrative. Let’s stick to what is demonstrable, what we can actually know. Making up stories gives ammunition to the Creationists, and, if compiled into a book, risks the danger of becoming the basis for a new religion.

  31. I’m still not seeing any explanation as to why we would ever evolutionary theory to be a coherent science of life. So what if modern evolutionary theory isn’t a comprehensive science of life? It isn’t a comprehensive theory of pants, and we don’t hear any one complaining about that. That’s just not its job, and neither is being a comprehensive theory of life.

  32. Kantian Naturalist: So what if modern evolutionary theory isn’t a comprehensive science of life?

    The author was clearly referring to biology. Are you arguing that biology ought not be a coherent science of life? Does it even matter anymore whether a theory is coherent?

  33. Mung: The author was clearly referring to biology. Are you arguing that biology ought not be a coherent science of life? Does it even matter anymore whether a theory is coherent?

    Of course any particular theory has to be coherent. The question isn’t internal coherence but comprehensiveness. Turner seems to be saying that’s a problem with evolutionary theory that it hasn’t explained homeostasis. I’m asking why that’s a reasonable expectation to have. Why would expect evolutionary theory to explain homeostasis, so that’s a problem with the theory if it doesn’t do that?

  34. Kantian Naturalist: The question isn’t internal coherence but comprehensiveness.

    Evolutionary theory is comprehensive, but so is Creationism. So surely internal coherence ought to enter the picture. If evolutionary theory is internally incoherent, why should we believe it?

  35. Kantian Naturalist: That’s just not its job, and neither is being a comprehensive theory of life.

    Wait what? The theory of evolution is not intended to be a comprehensive theory of life on Earth?

    Perhaps it should advertise that more clearly then.

  36. Mung: Evolutionary theory is comprehensive, but so is Creationism. So surely internal coherence ought to enter the picture. If evolutionary theory is internally incoherent, why should we believe it?

    We shouldn’t, if it is. But is it? The quotes from Turner you’ve provided haven’t yet established that is incoherent.

    phoodoo: Wait what?The theory of evolution is not intended to be a comprehensive theory of life on Earth?

    Perhaps it should advertise that more clearly then.

    It was never indicated that way to me, and I majored in evolutionary biology in college. (Philosophy was my minor.)

  37. Mung:

    Evolutionary theory is comprehensive, but so is Creationism. So surely internal coherence ought to enter the picture.

    Jesus, Mung. See what I mean about reading comprehension?

    Read KN’s statement again:

    Of course any particular theory has to be coherent. The question isn’t internal coherence but comprehensiveness.

    How did you manage to miss the clear and obvious meaning of those sentences?

    The brighter folks here waste a huge amount of time explaining the obvious to you, simply because you lack the skill, or the discipline, to read for comprehension.

  38. Mung: The author was clearly referring to biology. Are you arguing that biology ought not be a coherent science of life? Does it even matter anymore whether a theory is coherent?

    What you quoted said “comprehensive”, not “coherent”. And evolutionary theory is not a synonym for biology. It attempts to explain how and why life changes over time, and makes no attempt to be a “comprehensive theory of life.” As such, it is perhaps incomplete (at explaining everything about how and why life changes) but it is not incoherent.

    Any theory must be coherent. But a coherent set of related claims is not necessarily a theory.

  39. Flint: It attempts to explain how and why life changes over time,

    And if life doesn’t change over time, does the theory of evolution still explain how and why life changes over time?

  40. keiths: The brighter folks here waste a huge amount of time explaining the obvious to you,

    You know, the thinkers, like keiths, who want a world where they don’t have to think.

  41. Kantian Naturalist: It was never indicated that way to me, and I majored in evolutionary biology in college.

    Well, did they teach you about emergence?

    How about the odds of convergent evolution? The third way? Natural genetic engineering? The evolution of hox genes? The evolving modern synthesis? The formation of the Universal Genetic Code?

    Or did they recommend you go to the philosophy department to learn about those?

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