Were You a Quembryo?

…given its implicit Aristotelianism, the computationalist approach provides Thomists and other Aristotelians and Scholastics with conceptual and terminological resources by which contemporary naturalists might be made to understand and see the power of Thomistic, Scholastic, and Aristotelian arguments in natural theology. It might help them to explain both how the conception of nature on which traditional Scholastic natural theology was built is no pre-modern relic but is still defensible today, and how radically it differs from the conception of Paley and “Intelligent Design” theorists, whose arguments naturalists understandably regard as weak.

…what Searle and the Aristotelian can agree on is that the computationalist conception of nature is far more metaphysically loaded than most of its defenders realize.

From Aristotle to John Searle and Back Again: Formal Causes, Teleology, and Computation in Nature

See also:

Information is the new Aristotelianism (and Dawkins is a hylomorphist)

25 thoughts on “Were You a Quembryo?

  1. I’m generally a fan of Wilkins, though I don’t always agree with him. In this case, I mostly agree. I’m a little surprised that you linked to his article, since he is very clear that he disagrees with the way that ID uses (or misuses) “information”.

    I’m generally not a fan of Feser. But I might at least partly agree with him on this occasion. However, I have not yet finished reading his piece, so I don’t really know what my reaction will be.

    Hmm, posting is slow tonight. Was there some sort of football game or something?

  2. Is that document a typical example of Feser’s output? There are at least three glaring errors in the first three pages.

  3. Wilkins, “For some time now [1] I have had problems with the notion of information. Not, please note, with this or that piece of information, but with the notion itself, especially in the natural sciences. In this age of computers and internets, we have taken to mistaking the thing described for the thing itself, and treat information as a property out there in the world, not a representation in our heads and language.”

    Looks like Wilkins still has problems with the notion of information. If the thing described is something different than the thing itself, then what the hell is being described? A bad start.

    Somewhere along the way Wilkins silently corrects (or clarifies) himself and says the following “Information is, as a commentator on Antievolution.org said [8], seen by Intelligent Design proponents as a kind of caloric or phlogiston. But it isn’t. It causes nothing at all. An abstraction cannot cause a physical process, and to think otherwise is a category error, unfortunately common among theoreticians as well as Intelligent Designists.”

    If theoretical physicists and IDists got information wrong, then who’s got it right? “It is time that we stopped making this mistake in science. It is time to give up on hylomorphisms, old or new. In the end, these metaphors (and they are metaphors) only mislead us. I think that is enough about information from me [too much information].”

    Looks like nobody got it right. How informative is that?

    A question to IDists: Wilkins says information causes nothing at all. If information means design and IDist standard phrase is “caused by design” (For example, a quote from Uncommon Descent, “Routinely, on billions of cases, FSCO/I is seen as caused by design.”) then isn’t Wilkins saying ID is false, just a category error? Alternatively, let’s take it by baby steps: What do you mean by “cause”? “Information”? What is being measured when you measure “design”? Etc.

  4. More quotes without commentary. I strongly suspect Mung is attempting to get us to do his homework…..

  5. timothya:
    Is that document a typical example of Feser’s output? There are at least three glaring errors in the first three pages.

    Three glaring errors in three pages?

    Yes, I’m inclined to say that is typical of Feser’s output.

  6. Erik: If theoretical physicists and IDists got information wrong, then who’s got it right?

    Almost nobody. The confusion over information is very widespread.

    Even someone who tries to be careful will slip, because the misuse of the word “information” is so widespread.

  7. Neil Rickert: Three glaring errors in three pages?

    Yes, I’m inclined to say that is typical of Feser’s output.

    Can you guys name the errors, so everybody can admire how smarts you are. Please? Thanks.

  8. Hi Mung,

    I was going to post on this, but you beat me to it. Two minds with a single thought!

    Here’s the money quote from Feser, responding to Searle’s claim that there are no computational processes occurring within nature, and that all computation is observer-relative (pp. 483-490). Emphases are mine:

    We have already seen why at least some physicists, biologists, and neuroscientists would characterize the phenomena they study in terms of notions like information, algorithms, and the like. Searle would have to say that these are at best merely useful fictions and that everything that has been put in these computational terms could be said without recourse to them. But that does not seem to be the case…

    Recall some of the computationalist claims I cited earlier. [Alex] Rosenberg says that the genome “programs the embryo.”… [W]e 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?

    Searle, since he holds that there are no programs at all really running here in the first place, would … have to say that there is no fact of the matter. But that simply does not seem plausible. If there really is such a thing as a difference between a properly functioning organism and a malfunctioning one, then it seems to follow that Rosenberg’s postulated embryo program captures something about the facts of the situation that our imagined “quembryo” program does not. Using computer jargon, our hypothetical “quembryo” skeptic might say of the embryo’s lack of eyes: “Maybe that’s not a bug, but a feature!” But he would be wrong. The lack of eyes is a bug, and not a feature. Unless we are skeptics about the very distinction between properly functioning and malfunctioning organisms—and it is hard to see how biology would be possible given such skepticism—then it seems we have to agree that there really is something to the claim that what we have here is a malfunctioning system running the embryo program, as opposed to a properly functioning system running the “quembryo” program.

    … A natural way of putting this is that all human embryos are running the same program, that the very same software is, as it were, being implemented in different pieces of hardware. That is why what is a “bug” or “feature” for one embryo is also a “bug” or “feature” for the others. Searle’s view seems to be that there is nothing true in the computationalist’s description of a natural physical system that cannot be captured by a description of the causal processes taking place in the system. But that does not seem to be correct. For there is a distinction to be made between normal and aberrant causal processes… The computationalist’s language captures these distinctions in a way that a mere description of which causal processes happen to be taking place does not…

    Now, if all of this is correct, then we seem to have what Aristotle calls an aporia, a puzzle arising from the existence of apparently equally strong arguments for two or more inconsistent claims—in this case, equally strong arguments both against and for the claim that there is computation in nature. And the way to resolve it, I suggest, is to see that, while Searle’s position is unavoidable if we take for granted the essentially “mechanistic” conception of nature to which he and his naturalist critics are both committed, the computationalist approach can be made sense of if we adopt instead a broadly Aristotelian-Scholastic conception of nature... In their use of computational notions, contemporary naturalists have unwittingly recapitulated the formal and final causality that they, like their early modern “mechanical philosophy” forebears, thought had been banished for good.

    … [N]o … observer-relative purposes can be appealed to in the case of the information the computationalist attributes to physical states occurring in nature. That is, of course, why Searle says there is no information to be found in such states. But if we suppose that Aristotelian teleology is a real feature of nature, after all, then we can make sense of such naturally occurring information. In particular, if we suppose that a physical state of type S inherently “points to” or is “directed at” some particular type of effect E down the causal pathway—rather than to some earlier effect D or some later effect F—then we have a way of making intelligible how S carries information about E rather than about D or F. Without such teleology, though, it is hard to see why there would be anything special about E by virtue of which it would be the effect about which S carries information…

    Other writers have explicitly noted the Aristotelian implications of computational descriptions of natural phenomena. The neuroscientist Valentino Braitenberg has said that “the concept of information . . . is Aristotle redivivus, the concept of matter and form united in every object of this world.” Philosopher of science John Wilkins calls information “the new Aristotelianism” and the “New Hylomorphism,” though unlike Braitenberg, he does so disapprovingly, considering the notions in question to entail a regress to an outmoded conception of nature.

    I imagine that Searle would share Wilkins’s attitude, perhaps allowing that Aristotelian and computationalist arguments mutually reinforce one another, but concluding that they should simply all be thrown out together. Indeed, Searle explicitly maintains that not only computation, but also function and teleology more generally, are all observer-relative.

    Now, there are several problems with this. For one thing, there are different respects in which biological phenomena might seem to exhibit teleology. The adaptation of an organism to its environment is one apparent instance of biological teleology. Developmental processes, and in particular the fact that some growth patterns are normal and others aberrant, are another. As several writers have pointed out, while Darwinism might explain away the first sort of example, it does not follow (contra Searle) that it explains away the second. For another thing, the Scholastic would argue that it is a confusion to suppose that one can entirely replace teleological explanations with causal ones because even the simplest causal regularity will itself presuppose teleology. Again, if A regularly generates B rather than C or D or no effect at all, that can, according to the Scholastic, be only because generating B is the outcome toward which A is inherently directed as toward a final cause. If we do not recognize such rudimentary teleology, we will be stuck with Humean skepticism about causality.

    Just a few quick observations. Feser is making three big claims here:

    (1) Teleology (or final causality) is an objective feature of the natural world – not only in living things, which have a “good of their own,” but in any regular causal process. It is a basic fact about reality that causes “point towards” their effects – whatever that might mean. [Note: by “final causality,” Feser does not mean some goal intended by God or some other agent; rather, he means a kind of directedness which is intrinsic to natural objects. Artifacts, however, lack this intrinsic directedness.]

    (2) This intrinsic directedness of natural objects (especially living things) is a primitive or fundamental feature they possess: it is not reducible to something about their forms, for instance, or their (efficient) causal relations to other objects. Rather, causal relations presuppose that natural objects have intrinsic tendencies; otherwise, causality wouldn’t work at all.

    (3) A natural object’s basic (or substantial) form is not reducible to its physical structure. You can never understand what a living thing is simply by examining the structure of its constituents: DNA, RNA, proteins and so on. Form is dynamic, not static. Nor will an understanding of the flow of control within an organism enable you to understand its form. An organism’s form is (Feser believes) something that we cannot hope to understand without first understanding its built-in tendencies, goals or ends. Finality precedes form, and is essential to the proper understanding of form. Teleology is part of the warp-and-woof of reality.

    (In case readers are wondering how Feser gets from these claims to God, his basic argument is that (a) natural objects exhibit future-directed tendencies, but (b) the notion of something possessing a future-directed tendency makes no sense unless that thing is either intelligent or the product of some Intelligence (or intelligences) that gave the object its nature and designed it with those built-in ends. What’s more, this intelligence must either be something whose nature it is to exist, or something whose essence is distinct from its existence – in which case it is a composite of essence and existence, and as such, requires an external cause to hold it together. Since an infinite regress of explanations is impossible, we are ultimately led back to some intelligence in whom essence and existence are identical – i.e. Pure Being. But there cannot be two such intelligences, sine if they are both Pure Being, there would be nothing to differentiate them. So we are led back to the One God of classical theism. That’s Feser’s argument in a nutshell.)

    But I digress. It seems to me that Feser’s three bold claims about teleology can be assessed without reference to his theological views. The question I’d like to address is: which of Feser’s three big claims could a modern evolutionist accept?

    Personally, I don’t see (1) as terribly problematic. All it really says is that things have built-in tendencies. For example, salt has a tendency to dissolve in water. OK. So what?

    The really controversial claim is (2). Scientists like to explain an object’s tendencies in terms of its structure and its relations to other objects. Feser says that won’t work, because even an exhaustive knowledge of an object’s structure and external relations won’t tell us what its built-in tendencies or goals are. Think of the “quembryo vs. embryo” example. Looking at an embryo’s structure won’t tell you if eyelessness is a bug or feature.

    An evolutionist might respond that (a) there are plenty of other clues in the genome that could resolve this question – e.g. genes that still code for optic nerves; and (b) in any case, the true method of resolving “quembryo vs. embryo” disputes is to look at the organism’s environment, and measure the selection coefficients. In the case of the blind Mexican cavefish, blindness is indeed a feature, because there’s no advantage to be gained from seeing. Feser would probably reply that (a) won’t necessarily resolve the matter, as some organs are vestigial, and that the test proposed in (b) presupposes the existence of regular causal connections (without which selection coefficients couldn’t be measured), so it smuggles teleology in by the back door.

    Finally, I imagine that most evolutionists would fight tooth and nail against claim (3), arguing that it reeks of mysticism: instead of reducing form to structure and/or function, it says that built-in goals or tendencies are the very first thing we need to understand about an organism – or indeed, any kind of natural object – before we even attempt to grasp its form.

    My own position is slightly different from Feser’s. I think that while the notion of something’s functioning properly is primitive and irreducible, it is also true that an object’s built-in tendencies or goals supervene upon its structure and causal relations to other objects. That is, we couldn’t have two structurally identical objects with the same set of causal relations to other objects, but with different built-in tendencies. Additionally, I would argue that we usually can deduce an organism’s built-in goals from a consideration of its structure and the structure of other objects in its environment. You don’t have to be Albert Einstein to recognize that a lion’s teeth are for tearing and devouring flesh. Finally, a complete knowledge of an object’s relations to other objects in its environment could, it seems to me, resolve “quembryo vs. embryo” disputes. For instance, we can see that a toothless lion is going to have a hard time getting food, just from thinking about the logistics of devouring flesh in the absence of teeth.

    At the bottom level of reality, however, we find objects exhibiting regular tendencies to behave in certain ways which are described by laws of Nature. I believe there is something deeply mysterious about these basic tendencies: they seems to be norms embedded into the fabric of Nature. Feser’s claim that these tendencies are future-directed strikes me as questionable; but the ubiquity of norms in nature (even in the inorganic world, where objects still behave in a regular fashion) is something I cannot make sense of, without recourse to the notion of a Cosmic Prescriber. On that point, I would say Feser is right.

    Thoughts?

  9. vjtorley: (1) Teleology (or final causality) is an objective feature of the natural world – not only in living things, which have a “good of their own,” but in any regular causal process. It is a basic fact about reality that causes “point towards” their effects – whatever that might mean. [Note: by “final causality,” Feser does not mean some goal intended by God or some other agent; rather, he means a kind of directedness which is intrinsic to natural objects. Artifacts, however, lack this intrinsic directedness.]
    (2) This intrinsic directedness of natural objects (especially living things) is a primitive or fundamental feature they possess: it is not reducible to something about their forms, for instance, or their (efficient) causal relations to other objects. Rather, causal relations presuppose that natural objects have intrinsic tendencies; otherwise, causality wouldn’t work at all.
    (3) A natural object’s basic (or substantial) form is not reducible to its physical structure. You can never understand what a living thing is simply by examining the structure of its constituents: DNA, RNA, proteins and so on. Form is dynamic, not static. Nor will an understanding of the flow of control within an organism enable you to understand its form. An organism’s form is (Feser believes) something that we cannot hope to understand without first understanding its built-in tendencies, goals or ends. Finality precedes form, and is essential to the proper understanding of form. Teleology is part of the warp-and-woof of reality.

    Thoughts?

    Yeah. All three of those are not only entirely unsupported, but ridiculous on their face.

  10. vjtorley: At the bottom level of reality, however, we find objects exhibiting regular tendencies to behave in certain ways which are described by laws of Nature. I believe there is something deeply mysterious about these basic tendencies: they seems to be norms embedded into the fabric of Nature. Feser’s claim that these tendencies are future-directed strikes me as questionable; but the ubiquity of norms in nature (even in the inorganic world, where objects still behave in a regular fashion) is something I cannot make sense of, without recourse to the notion of a Cosmic Prescriber. On that point, I would say Feser is right.

    Thoughts?

    How does recourse to the notion of a Cosmic Prescriber make sense of it. Or of anything? Do you have some information about this Cosmic Prescriber that accounts for nature, or do you just know that some agents cause some things, therefore you assume that some Super Agent might cause a Universe?

    I don’t see how the latter follows, and I doubt that you actually know of aspects of a Cosmic Prescriber that meaningfully account for the universe. Maybe it’s reassuring to think of everything being in God’s hands, but I don’t know how anything about the universe actually follows from that.

    A lot of physics seems to happen because matter/energy aren’t created or destroyed–at least not during the usual operations of this universe. The billiard ball has to move when struck because the energy can’t simply all be turned into heat by the molecular structure of the ball, hence most of the kinetic energy is conserved by the struck ball. The absence of miracles (at least usually), the absence of energy creation/destruction, seems to mean that things act predictably in a universe with limited matter/energy configurations.

    Anyway, why is it that when things act regularly you invoke God, yet when things don’t act regularly (you think that God intervened to create life, at least) you also invoke God for that? I can indeed see that everything is in fact mysterious (we’re “thrown” into a world (our phenomenal world, anyway) we never expected), but it seems for you the boring old answer is “God “whether things act regularly or if a miracle occurs. Why? Because God is a mysterious concept, hence seems to be a conveniently mysterious cause for the mysteries of the world?

    It’s ok with me if you like that answer, I just don’t see what it has to commend it to anyone who wants rather more robust answers–whether these ever show up or not.

    Glen Davidson

  11. vjtorley:
    ….. You don’t have to be Albert Einstein to recognize that a lion’s teeth are for tearing and devouring flesh. ….

    No no no no no. Objects do not have intrinsic function. They only have form, which may or may not lend itself to particular functions. Function is a momentary causal association between one object/entity and another. This association is broken once the objects/entities are separated.

    If I take the lion’s tooth out and use it to scratch drawings in a cave wall, it no longer functions to rend flesh.

    Believing a thing to possess properties based on one’s subjective view of that thing is called the “Mind Projection Fallacy” ( See http://lesswrong.com/lw/oi/mind_projection_fallacy/) It is important to realize that “the map is not the territory” http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/The_map_is_not_the_territory)

  12. Erik: Can you guys name the errors, so everybody can admire how smarts you are. Please? Thanks.

    Not the response I had, but we’ll go with yours. It’s much better. 🙂

  13. vjtorley: You don’t have to be Albert Einstein to recognize that a lion’s teeth are for tearing and devouring flesh.

    Argument from obviousness. But how does that actually work? Here’s some squishy biological thing I pulled out of an animal. What’s it do?

  14. I happily accept that organismal biology can’t be done without teleology, i.e. without talking about the goals of an organism.

    But there’s clearly a difference between goals and dispositions. Salt is disposed to dissolve in water, and will tend to dissolve in water (all things being equal). There’s nothing magical to it — it’s a straightforward consequence of electromagnetism. And there’s nothing magical to organismal goals, either: it’s a straightforward consequence of having both organizational closure and thermodynamic openness that any organism will have goals that it seeks to attain as it delays the inevitable effects of entropy.

    But we don’t need a form/matter distinction in our metaphysics in order to make sense of real teleology. That’s just a mistake. We can make sense of teleology in terms of thermodynamics. So there’s a real difference between embryos and quembryos, but we don’t need Scholastic metaphysics to make sense of it.

    And while we can understand Dennett’s ‘real patterns’ in computational terms, it’s helpful to point out that this is really just a metaphor, one that involves an information-theoretic reading of thermodynamics. As Harry Kincaid points out in the introduction to Scientific Metaphysics, we can understand real patterns just as well in terms of the ability of sources of Shannon information to resist entropy. There is a metaphysics here, but it’s not that of Aristotle, or Aquinas.

  15. Kantian Naturalist: But we don’t need a form/matter distinction in our metaphysics in order to make sense of real teleology. That’s just a mistake. We can make sense of teleology in terms of thermodynamics. So there’s a real difference between embryos and quembryos, but we don’t need Scholastic metaphysics to make sense of it.

    I don’t see how thermodynamics helps make sense of the different between embryos and quembryos nor how it helps us make sense of teleology or even replaces the form/matter distinction, especially if the entropy is just a measure of our lack of information, which sort of gets us right back to the point of the paper.

  16. So KN, I think it’s cool that you accept teleological thinking with respect to living organisms, though I’m not sure you think of teleology in the same way I do, or the way VJT or Feser would, with respect to the living world. but that aside …

    Are you not engaging in a sort of dualism when you separate the world into categories of living and non-living, and teleological and non-teleological, and assigning living=teleological and non-living=non-teleological?

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to admit that there is teleology in the non-living world as well? It at least connects the two worlds. You don’t have to look for an explanation for the arrival on the scene of something never before seen (teleology). There is at least a continuum rather than a discontinuity.

    That said, what is the principle for distinguishing the teleology of living things from the [non]teleology of non-living things? Have you considered that there might be some chemical system that maintains itself in some non-equilibrium state that is not itself a living organism? What then of the supposed distinction?

  17. Erik: A question to IDists: Wilkins says information causes nothing at all. If information means design and IDist standard phrase is “caused by design” (For example, a quote from Uncommon Descent, “Routinely, on billions of cases, FSCO/I is seen as caused by design.”) then isn’t Wilkins saying ID is false, just a category error? Alternatively, let’s take it by baby steps: What do you mean by “cause”? “Information”? What is being measured when you measure “design”? Etc.

    Good questions. It’s me, so we probably will need to take baby steps.

    Is information itself a cause. My first answer is going to be no. Information itself is not something that is a cause. That’s just my initial impression. Having stated it, I can no longer change my mind about it, because, you know, I’m an IDCist. So let me wish you good luck!

    We might say that receipt of a given piece of information caused us to do this or that, but was it the information itself that was the cause of our action?

    Or take a computer reading a sequence of bits and displaying a character on a screen. It read the information which caused it to display a particular character. But did those “bits” cause the display of that character? Again I say no.

    But I admit I have a particular concept of cause that I am working with, and it may not be the best concept of cause to work with. Perhaps a broader metaphysics is in order.

    Which is why I found Feser’s article intersting.

    Back to you.

  18. Hi Fair Witness,

    Thank you for your post. You write:

    No no no no no. Objects do not have intrinsic function. They only have form, which may or may not lend itself to particular functions. Function is a momentary causal association between one object/entity and another. This association is broken once the objects/entities are separated.

    If I take the lion’s tooth out and use it to scratch drawings in a cave wall, it no longer functions to rend flesh.

    First, I wouldn’t call a lion’s tooth an object, while it’s in the lion’s mouth. I’d call it a body part.

    Second, while a body part remains attached to a body, it contributes to the good of the organism it belongs to (unless it’s vestigial, in which case it might not). That’s because living things are characterized by embedded functionality. As Dr. James Tour explains: “[Let’s say that] you see a tree [and] you want to make a table, [so] you chop down the tree [and] you make a table – that’s [building] top down. But, the tree and I and everything else in nature are built from the bottom up. Molecules have certain embedded interactions between them and embedded functionality. Those come together to form higher-order structures called cells and those form higher-order structures and here we are.”

    Third, I think it’s absolutely ridiculous to deny that the function of the heart is to pump blood, and I’d hardly say it’s a “momentary causal association,” since hearts have been doing that for hundreds of millions of years. Teleology is fundamental to biology: as biologist Karen Neander points out, “the apparent explanatory power of teleological explanations which appeal to biological functions is quite robust.” She calls teleology the “conceptual glue” of biology and notes that it would be “hard to exaggerate” the concept’s importance to biology. I would of course agree with you that function must be rooted in form. However, I would note that even with artifacts, one can usually deduce their function from their form. For instance, if we found a knife-shaped artifact on another planet, we’d conclude it was for cutting.

    Finally, I’d happily accept that once you remove a lion’s tooth, you can use it for an assortment of functions. Of course, that doesn’t mean it can be used for any purpose.

  19. vjtorley: Finally, I’d happily accept that once you remove a lion’s tooth, you can use it for an assortment of functions.

    Including rending flesh. 🙂

  20. vjtorley:
    Hi Fair Witness,

    Thank you for your post. You write:

    First, I wouldn’t call a lion’s tooth an object, while it’s in the lion’s mouth. I’d call it a body part.

    Second, while a body part remains attached to a body, it contributes to the good of the organism it belongs to (unless it’s vestigial, in which case it might not). That’s because living things are characterized by embedded functionality. As Dr. James Tour explains: “[Let’s say that] you see a tree [and] you want to make a table, [so] you chop down the tree [and] you make a table – that’s [building] top down. But, the tree and I and everything else in nature are built from the bottom up. Molecules have certain embedded interactions between them and embedded functionality. Those come together to form higher-order structures called cells and those form higher-order structures and here we are.”

    Third, I think it’s absolutely ridiculous to deny that the function of the heart is to pump blood, and I’d hardly say it’s a “momentary causal association,” since hearts have been doing that for hundreds of millions of years. Teleology is fundamental to biology: as biologist Karen Neander points out, “the apparent explanatory power of teleological explanations which appeal to biological functions is quite robust.” She calls teleology the “conceptual glue” of biology and notes that it would be “hard to exaggerate” the concept’s importance to biology. I would of course agree with you that function must be rooted in form. However, I would note that even with artifacts, one can usually deduce their function from their form. For instance, if we found a knife-shaped artifact on another planet, we’d conclude it was for cutting.

    Finally, I’d happily accept that once you remove a lion’s tooth, you can use it for an assortment of functions. Of course, that doesn’t mean it can be used for any purpose.

    I agree with most of this.
    My phrase “momentary causal association” perhaps was too terse.

    My intent was to emphasize that the function of an artifact or body part is entirely dependent upon it being in a particular environment.

    A heart must be in the body of an animal and have all the right connections to that body in order to fulfill the function of pumping blood for that animal.

    A shovel must be in the hands of a person (or perhaps a machine) in order to move dirt.

    When outside of that environment, where we cannot see the function in real time, we rely on comparison of the artifact/body part to patterns stored in our own cultural or scientific knowledge in order to infer function. Form is the thing that we match patterns to. And when I say form, I include the deep chemical and atomic structure, not just the outer appearance.

    I think it is useful to draw a distinction between what a thing is doing now, versus all the things that it might do in the future or what it has done in the past. Separating form from function opens the mind to exaptation, or re-purposing of things.

    I will have to read Neander’s paper to understand her definition of teleology before I can comment on the idea that it is fundamental to biology.

    It was my understanding that the term “teleonomy” was invented to label the apparent teleology in the natural world, but which does not require a conscious agent as first cause.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teleonomy

    And it sounds like this “embedded functionality” is just another name for hierarchical complexity. I have built lots of systems “bottom up” from components. This is not unique to biology.

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