1.4 Hey, Science, We’re Over Here

Between the physical view that the mind is a machine subject entirely to physical laws and the ideal view that the mind is a transcendent entity unto itself that exists independently of the body, science has come down firmly in the former camp. This is understandable considering we have unequivocally established that processes in the brain create the mind, although just how this happens is still not known. The latter camp, idealism, is, in its most extreme form called solipsism, the idea that only one’s own mind exists and everything else is a figment of it. Most idealists don’t go quite that far and will acknowledge physical existence, but still claim that our mental states like capacities, desires, beliefs, goals, and principles are more fundamental than concrete reality. So idealists are either mental monists or mental/physical dualists. Our intuition and language strongly support the idea of our mental existence independent of physical existence, so we consequently take mental existence for granted in our minds and in discourse. The social sciences also start from the assumption that minds exist and go from there to draw out implications in many directions. But none of this holds much sway with physicalists, who, taking the success of physical theories as proof that physical laws are sufficient, have found a number of creative ways to discount mental existence. Some hold that there are no mental states, but just brain states (eliminativism), while others acknowledge mental states, but say they can be viewed as or reduced to brain states (reductionism). Eliminativism, also called eliminative materialism (though it would be more accurate to call it eliminative physicalism to include energy and spacetime), holds that physical causes work from the bottom up to explain all higher-level causes, which will ultimately demonstrate that our common-sense or folk-psychology understanding of the mind is false. Reductionism seems to apply well in nonliving systems. We can predict subatomic and atomic interactions using physics, and molecular interactions using chemistry. Linus Pauling’s 1931 paper “On the Nature of the Chemical Bond” showed that chemistry could in principle be reduced to physics12. Applied to the mind, reductionism says that everything happening in the mind can be explained in terms of underlying physical causes. Reductionism doesn’t say higher-level descriptions are invalid, just that, like chemistry, they are just a convenience; a physical description is possible. However, both eliminativism and reductionism build on the incorrect assumption that information and its byproducts don’t fundamentally alter the range of natural possibility. This assumption, formally called the Causal Closure of the Physical, states that physical effects can only have physical causes. Stated correctly, it would say that physical effects can only have natural causes and recognize that information can be created and have effects in a natural world.

The ontology I am proposing is form and function dualism. This is the idea that the physical world exists exactly as the physicalists have described, but also that life and the mind have capacities or functions, which are entirely natural but cause things that would not otherwise happen. It is easy to get confused when talking about function because language itself is purely functional, so we have to use functional means to talk about either physical or functional things. So we have to be careful to distinguish the references or words, which are functional, that we use to talk about referents, which are either physical or functional noumena. Here are some general words commonly used to refer to either physical things or functional things:

form function, capacity, information
concrete abstract
things, events feelings, ideas, thoughts, concepts
action, process performance, behavior, maneuver
Note that we have no language that describes biological processes in a functional way beyond words like function, capacity, information, and behavior. This is because most of the functional terminology of language derives from our subjective experience, which leads to a mental vocabulary for thoughts and feelings and a physical vocabulary for things and events. Many words, like hard or deep, have both physical and functional meanings, but we can tell from context which is meant. Since we don’t subjectively experience living processes except for those of our own minds, we mostly just use ordinary physical observational terminology to describe them, e.g. as things and processes. Here, contextually, we might now that certain things and processes are actually biological things and processes, and hence much of what we are thinking about when we talk about them is actually functional and not physical. This is all sort of implied by context, but unfortunately it makes it harder for us to keep track of where information processes are critically involved. Mental vocabulary has a similar drawback. Since we only know what it means from personal experience, it is difficult to attach objective scientific meaning to it. However, the persistence of feelings and thoughts, the degree to which others seem to have similar feelings and thoughts, and plans and behaviors that we can associate with them can all provide confirming evidence of their existence and functionality, though not their underlying mechanism.

Function only becomes a kind of existence independent of physical existence if its existence can cause physical changes in the world. Since function, in the form of information, stored either in DNA or brains, is the product of a higher level of physical systems, specifically of information processors, and the impact is at the lower, purely physical level, the impact is called downward causation34. Downward causation directly rejects reductionism and asserts emergence5, the idea that something new, namely information, is created that can effect change. Information doesn’t violate any physical laws when it causes things to happen that would not otherwise happen. All it has done, really, is create a more complex feedback response in the physical system. Or, put another way, it has stored up potential using information instead of energy, so, like a spring, it can release that potential when it is needed. This complex feedback response is entirely natural, and one we could arguably call physical as well, except that the rules that govern it go far beyond anything conventional physical laws contemplate. First, because this complex response is indirect and uses logic, it is not physical, so conventional physical laws can’t help explain it. Second, the way the feedback has been tuned by long periods of inductive logic to develop specific functional capacities further make it irreducible to physical laws. The consequence, that information is created, is natural but complex and can only be understood by interpreting function as an independent form of existence. This is because “understanding” itself, being a property of information processing, is all about being functional or useful, which can only happen if it can predict what will happen, and we can only accurately predict what will happen physically using physical laws and functionally using functional laws (or explanations, as laws is too strict a term for much of what happens in the functional realm). So any physicalists out there who want to claim victory, on the grounds that the action of information in a physical system is a physical process akin to the conversion of potential energy to kinetic energy, please, go right ahead. Just keep in mind that you will never be able to predict what that release of information will do until you embrace functional existence, i.e. the logic of information processing.

So when happens when information is “released” to cause physical effects? When information is applied, resulting in downward causation, the physical effect is specific, but informationally it can be viewed as a special case of a general rule characterizing things that could happen in similar situations. Events happen that are generally similar to prior events, but physically all that is happening is a set of specific events because similarity means nothing from a physical standpoint. Functionally, it looks like things that have happened “before” are happening “again”, but nothing in the universe ever happens twice. Something entirely new has happened. Yes, it is similar to something that happened before, but only according to some ultimately arbitrary definition of similarity that is relevant to a specific information processor. So we must not conflate things happening in general with things happening specifically. As soon as we even speak of things happening in general, we have admitted the existence of function and we are no longer talking about the physical world independent of our functional perspective of it. Our minds and our language are very function-oriented, so seeing things in general comes very naturally to us, it can be hard to separate functional ideas from non-functional ones, but it is always possible.

Aside from the fact that we have words for concrete or physical things and words for functional or abstract things, nouns of any kind may be specific or general in that they can refer to a unique thing (a particular) or to a class of things (a universal). Wording and context help differentiate these cases. For example, “I own a green car” probably refers to a specific physical object and my conception of it, while “I am going to get a green car” refers to a categorical, functional thing (and not really to anything physical at all). While I am likely referring to my only green car, the indefinite article “a” doesn’t single out a definite car, and I may actually have several green cars, and so have not indicated which one I mean. By using the definite article “the”, as in “I own the green car”, refers to just one unique car, as would use of a proper noun (name). In the functional world of our minds, we are always very clear with ourselves whether our ideas are specifically referring to unique, particular things or universally to classes of things. This distinction is at the heart of function because the way function works is to “extract” order from the uniformity of nature by identifying and then capitalizing on generalities as universals.

Whenever IPs collect and apply information, they are causing function to emerge in a physical world. The word “emergence” suggests something comes out of nothing, and if you are willing to count a preestablished potential to do things as something, then something new has been created. It is not magical or inexplicable; it is just the result of feedback loops exploiting the uniformity of nature. As Bob Doyle puts it, “Some biologists (e.g., Ernst Mayr) have argued that biology is not reducible to physics and chemistry, although it is completely consistent with the laws of physics. … Biological systems process information at a very fine (atomic/molecular) level. Information is neither matter nor energy, but it needs matter for its embodiment and energy for its communication.”6 Arthur C. Clarke’s third law says “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” What evolution has created in life and minds qualifies as being sufficiently more advanced than our own technology to count as magic. We now know that it is technology, but we are still quite a ways off from understanding it in enough depth to say we really “get it”. But increasingly refined deductive explanations, such as I am developing here, bring us closer and will eventually bring our technology up to the level evolution has already attained.

Downward causation (i.e. the application of function by IPs) can be called an “interaction” between life and body or between mind and body because life and mind affect the body and vice versa. The IP, being a complex system with both physical and nonphysical aspects, has established mechanisms to mediate its stored potential capacities with effectors, which are generally proteins in the case of living things and muscles in the case of animals. Physical laws most effectively explain purely physical aspects and functional principles most effectively explain more functional aspects, though those functional principles are often tuned for physical applications. Still, though, what makes them functional is that they work by applying generalities to specific situations.

What other ways do physical things differ from functional ones? Each physical thing is unique, but the same information can exist in multiple ways or formats, which is called multiple realizability. What makes them the “same” is that they refer to the same things in the same ways. This characterization of sameness is itself subject to the judgment of an IP, but provided IPs agree, then sameness can be admitted. This allows information to be abstracted from the physical forms to which it refers and from the IPs that manage it. Information consists of generalizations and particulars derived from generalities, which are only indirectly about physical things and are not physical themselves. Next, while matter and energy are conserved in that they can neither be created nor destroyed (though quantum effects challenge this a bit), information is inherently infinite. The amount of information captured by IPs in the universe is finite but can grow over time without bound.7

Although physicalism specifically rejects the possibility of anything existing beyond the physical world as characterized by the laws of physics, in so doing it overlooks unexpected consequences of feedback. Perhaps overlooks is too strong a word, because physicalists can see life and the mind and can call them physical, but physicalists do presume that the behavior of such systems must be reducible to physical terms just because physical laws were sufficient to create them. But this assumption is both unjustified and wrong. Effects can happen in a physical world that can’t be traced back to the physical conditions that caused them because the connections between causes and effects have been hopelessly muddled by uncountable feedback effects that have become increasingly indirect. Instead, the real spirit of physicalist philosophy is naturalism, which says that everything arises from natural causes rather than and supernatural ones. Instead of declaring up front that the only natural causes to be allowed are from the Standard Model of particle physics or from general relativity, we should be open to other causes, such as information interactions. This is why I conclude that naturalism is best supported not by a monism of form but by a dualism of form and function.

Physicalists see the functional effects of life and the mind (and, not incidentally, make all their arguments using their minds), but they conflate biological information with complex physical structure, and they are not the same. Just because we can collect all sorts of physical, chemical, and structural information about both nonliving and living matter does not mean they are the same sort of thing. As I said earlier, rocks have a complex physical structure but contain no information. We collect information about them using physical laws and measurements that help us describe and understand them, but their structure by itself is information-free. Weather patterns are even more complex and also chaotic, but they too contain no information, just complex physical structure. We have devised models based on physical laws that are pretty helpful for predicting the weather. But the weather and all other nonliving systems don’t control their own behavior; they are reactive and not proactive. Living things introduce functions or capabilities built from information generated from countless feedback experiments and stored in DNA. This is a fundamental, insurmountable, and irreducible difference between the two. Living things are still entirely physical objects that follow physical laws, but when they use information they are triggering physical events that would not happen without it. Because abstraction has unlimited scope, information processing vastly increases the range of what is physically attainable, as the diversity of life and human achievement demonstrate.

What I am calling form corresponds to what Plato and Aristotle called the material cause, which is its physical substance, and what I am calling function corresponds to their final cause, or telos, which is its end, goal, or purpose. They understood that while material causes were always present and hence necessary, they were not sufficient to explain why many things were they way they were. The idea that one must invoke a final cause or purpose to fully explain why things happen is called teleology. Aristotle expanded on this to identify four kinds of causes that resolve different kinds of questions about why changes happen in the world. Of these, material, formal, efficient, and final, I have discussed the first and last. The formal cause is based on Plato’s closely-held notion of universals, the idea that general qualities or characteristics of things are somehow inherent in them, e.g. that females have “femaleness”, chairs have “chairness”, and beautiful things have “beauty”. While the Greeks clung to the idea that universals were intrinsic, William of Ockham put metaphysics on a firmer footing in the 13th century by advocating nominalism, the view that universals are extrinsic, i.e. that they have no existence except as classifications we create in our minds. While classifications are a critical function of the mind, I think everyone would now agree that we can safely say formal causes are descriptive but not causative. The efficient cause is what we usually mean by cause today, i.e. cause and effect. The laws of physicalism all start with matter and energy (no longer considered causative, but which simply exist) and then provide efficient causes to explain how they interact to bring about change. A table is thus caused to exist because wood is cut from trees and tools are used in a sequence of events that results in a table.

Although Aristotle could see that see that these steps had to happen to create a table, it doesn’t explain why the table was built. The telos or purpose of the table, and the whole reason it was built, is so that people can use it to support things at a convenient height. Physicalists reject this final, teleological cause because they see no mechanism — how can one put purpose into physical terms? For example, physically objects sink to lower places because of gravity, not because it is their purpose or final cause. This logic is sound enough for explaining gravity, but it doesn’t work at all for tables, and, as I have mentioned, it doesn’t work for anything life and the mind in general. So was it really reasonable to dispense with the final cause just because it wasn’t understood? How did such a non-explanatory stance come to be the default perspective of science? To see why, we have to go back to William of Ockham. 1650 years after Aristotle, William of Ockham laid the groundwork for the Scientific Revolution, which would still need another 300 years to get significantly underway. With his recognition that universals were not intrinsic properties but extrinsic classifications, Ockham eliminated a mystical property that was impeding understanding of the prebiotic physical world. But he did much more than identify the mind as the source of formal causes, he explained how the mind worked. Ockham held that knowledge and thought were functions of the mind which could be divided into two categories, intuitive and abstractive.8 Intuitive cognition is the process of deriving knowledge about objects from our perceptions of them, which our minds can do without conscious effort. Abstractive cognition derives knowledge from positing abstract or independent properties about things and drawing conclusions about them. Intuitive knowledge depends on the physical existence of things, while abstractive knowledge does not, but can operate on suppositions and hypotheses. I concur with Ockham that these are the two fundamental kinds of knowledge, and I will develop a much deeper view of them as we proceed. Ockham further asserted that intuitive knowledge precedes abstractive knowledge, which means all knowledge derives from intuitive knowledge. Since intuitive knowledge is fundamental, and it must necessarily be based on actual experience, we must look first to experience for knowledge and not to abstract speculation. Ockham can thus be credited with introducing the now ubiquitous notion that empiricism — the reliance on observation and experiment in the natural sciences — is the foundation of scientific knowledge. He recognized the value of mathematics (i.e. formal sciences) as useful tools to interpret observation and experiment, but cautioned that they are abstract and so can’t be sources of knowledge of the physical world in their own right.

Francis Bacon formally established the paramountcy of empiricism and the scientific method in his 1620 work, Novum Organum. Bacon repeatedly emphasizes how only observation with the senses can be trusted to generate truth about the natural world. His Aphorism 19, in particular, dismisses ungrounded, top-down philosophizing and endorses grounded, bottom-up empiricism:

“There are and can only be two ways of investigating and discovering truth. The one rushes up from the sense and particulars to axioms of the highest generality and, from these principles and their indubitable truth, goes on to infer and discover middle axioms; and this is the way in current use. The other way draws axioms from the sense and particulars by climbing steadily and by degrees so that it reaches the ones of highest generality last of all; and this is the true but still untrodden way.”

Bacon built on Ockham’s point that words alone could be misleading by citing a number of biases or logical fallacies that can so easily permeate top-down thinking and so obscure what is really happening. Specifically, he cited innate bias, personal bias, and rhetorical biases (into which one could include traditional logical fallacies like ad hominem, appeal to authority, begging the question, etc.).

Bacon didn’t dispense with Aristotle’s four causes but repartitioned them into two sets. He felt that physics should deal with material and efficient causes while metaphysics should deal with formal and final causes.9 He then laid out the basic form of the scientific method. The objective is to find and prove physical laws, which are formal causes that are universal. While Ockham had rejected such abstractions, Bacon accepted them, but rebranded the only legitimate ones as those that were demonstrable by his method. Using the example of heat as a formal cause, he recommended collecting evidence for and against, i.e. listing things with heat, things without, and things where heat varies. Comparative analysis of the cases should then lead to a hypothesis of the formal cause of heat. Bacon could see that further cycles of observation and analysis could inductively demonstrate the universal natural laws, and he attempted to formalize the process, but never quite finished that work. Even now people would disagree that the scientific method has a precise form, but would agree that it depends on iterative observation and analysis. Bacon had little to say about the final cause because it was the least helpful to his inductive method, and in any case could easily be perverted by bias to lead away from the discovery of efficient causes that underly formal causes. In any case, the success of the inductive, physicalist approach since Bacon and the inability of detractors to refute its universal scope have led to the outright rejection of teleology as an appeal to mysticism when physical laws seem to be sufficient.

We are now quite comfortable with the idea that all our knowledge of the physical world must derive only from observations of it and not suppositions about it. And we concur with Ockham that our primary knowledge of the physical world is inductive, but that secondary abstractive knowledge can group that knowledge into classifications and rules which provide us with causative explanatory power. We recognize that our explanations are extrinsic to the fabric of reality but are nevertheless very effective. However, this shift away from the more magical thinking of the ancients (not to mention the Christian idea that God designed everything) blinded us to something surprising that happens in biological systems and even more significantly in brains: the creation of function. Function is in many ways a subtle phenomenon, and this is why it has been overlooked or underappreciated. Function is not something specific you can point to; it results from creating indirect references to things and generalizing about what might happen to them.

In supposing that knowledge must originate inductively, Ockham and Bacon inadvertently put a spotlight on direct natural phenomena. How could they have known, how could anyone know, that indirect natural phenomena would play a critical role in the development of life and then the brain? Charles Darwin, of course, figured it out by process of elimination (shifting from direct forces to the indirect influences of a nearly infinite series of natural selections), but that is not the same thing as recognizing the source of the power of indirection. Aristotle had already pointed out that every phenomenon had an efficient cause, so of course some sequence of events must have caused life to arise, and Darwin put the pieces together to propose a basic strategy for it to start from nothing and end up where it is now. The events that power natural selection are, taken individually, entirely physical, and so it seems natural to assume that the whole of the process is entirely physical. But this assumption is a fundamental mistake, because natural selection is only superficially physical. The specific selection events of evolution don’t matter; what matters is how they are interpreted or applied in a general way so as to influence future similar events. What it really does by collecting evidence of the value of a mechanism across a series of events is to justify the conclusion of an indirect or general power of the mechanism across an abstract range of situations.

Rene Descartes tried to unravel function, but, coming long before Darwin, he could see no physical source and resorted to conjecture. As I mentioned before, he proposed a mental substance that interacted with the physical substance of the brain in the pineal gland. This is a wildly inaccurate conclusion which has only served to accentuate the value of experimental research over philosophy, but it is still true that knowledge is a nonphysical capacity of the brain whose functional character physical science has not yet attempted to explain. But Descartes’ mistaken assumptions and the rise of monism have led to a concomitant fall in the popularity of all stripes of dualism, even to the point where many consider it a proven dead end. Gilbert Ryle famously put the nail in the coffin of Cartesian dualism in The Concept of Mind10 in 1949. We know (and knew then) that Descartes’ mental “thinking substance” does not exist as a physical substance, but Ryle felt it still had tacit if not explicit “official” support. He felt we officially or implicitly accepted two independent arenas in which we live our lives, one of “inner” mental happenings and one of “outer” physical happenings. This view goes all the way down to the structure of language, which has a distinct vocabulary for mental things (using abstract nouns which denote ideas or qualities) and physical things (using concrete nouns which connect to the physical world through senses). As Ryle put it, we have “assumed that there are two different kinds of existence or status. What exists or happens may have the status of physical existence, or it may have the status of mental existence.” He disagreed with this view, contending that the mind is not a “ghost in the machine,” something independent from the brain that happens to interact with it. To explain why, he introduced the term “category mistake” to describe a situation where one inadvertently assumes something to be a member of a category when it is actually of a different sort of category. His examples focused on parts not being the same sort of thing as wholes, e.g. someone expecting to see a forest but being shown some trees might ask, “But where is the forest?”. In this sort of example, he identified the mistake as arising from a failure to understand that forest has a different scope than tree.11 He then contended that the way we isolate our mental existence from our physical existence was just a much larger category mistake which happens because we speak and think of the physical and the mental with two non-intersecting vocabularies and conceptual frameworks, yet we assume it makes sense to compare them with each other. As he put it, “The belief that there is a polar opposition between Mind and Matter is the belief that they are terms of the same logical type.” Ryle advocated the eliminativist stance: if we understood neurochemistry well enough, we could describe the mechanical processes by which the mind operates instead of saying things like think and feel.

But Ryle was more mistaken than Descartes. His mistake was in thinking that the whole problem was a category mistake, when actually only a superficial aspect of it was. Yes, it is true, the mechanics of what happens mentally can be explained in physical terms because the brain is a physical mechanism like a clock. So his reductionist plan can get us that far. But that is not the whole problem, and it is not the part that interested Descartes or that interests us, because saying how the clock works is not really the interesting part. The interesting part is the purpose of the clock: to tell time. Why the brain does what it does cannot be explained physically because function is not physical. The brain and the mind control exist to the body, but that function is not a physical feature. One can tell that nerves from the brain animate the hands, but one must invoke the concept of function to see why. As Aristotle would say, material and efficient causes are necessary but not sufficient, which is why we need to know their function. Ryle saw the superficial category mistake (forgetting that the brain is a machine) but missed the significant categorical difference (that function is not form). So, ironically, his argument falls apart due to a category mistake, a term that he coined.

Function can never be reduced to form because it is not built from subatomic particles; it is built from logic to characterize similarities and implications. It is true that function can only exist in a natural universe by leveraging physical mechanisms, but this dependency doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. All it means is that nature supports both generalized and specific kinds of existence. We know the mind is the product of processes running in the brain, just as software is the product of signals in semiconductors, but that doesn’t tell us what either is for. Why we think and why we use software are both questions the physical mechanisms are not qualified to answer. Ryle concluded, “It is perfectly proper to say, in one logical tone of voice, that there exist minds and to say, in another logical tone of voice, that there exist bodies. But these expressions do not indicate two different types of existence, for ‘existence’ is not a generic word like ‘colored’ or ‘sexed.'” But he was wrong because there are two different kinds of existence, and living things exhibit both. Information processors have a physical mechanism for storing and manipulating information and use it to deliver functionality. For thinking, the brain, along with the whole nervous and endocrine systems, are the physical part and the mind is the functional part. For living things, the whole metabolism is the physical part and behavior is the functional part. This is the kind of dualistic distinction Descartes was grasping for. While Descartes overstepped by providing an incorrect physical explanation, we can be more careful. The true explanation is that functional things are not physical and their existence is not dependent on space or time, but they can have physical implementations, and they must for function to impact the physical world.

The path of scientific progress has understandably influenced our perspective. The scientific method was designed to unravel mysteries of the natural world, and was created on the assumption that fixed natural laws govern all natural activity. Despite his advocacy of dualism, Descartes promoted the idea of a universal mechanism behind the universe and living things, and his insistence that matter should be measured and studied mathematically as an extension of what we now call spacetime helped found modern physics: “I should like you to consider that these functions (including passion, memory, and imagination) follow from the mere arrangement of the machine’s organs every bit as naturally as the movements of a clock or other automaton follow from the arrangement of its counter-weights and wheels.” 12 He only invoked mental substance to bridge the explanatory gap of mental experience. If we instead identify the missing piece of the puzzle as function, then we can see that nature, through life, can “learn things about itself” using feedback to organize activities in a functional way we call behavior. Behavior guides actions through indirect assessments instead of direct interactions, which changes the rules of the game sufficiently to call it a different kind of existence.

Darwin described how indirect assessments could use feedback to shape physical mechanisms, but he didn’t call out functional existence specifically, and, in the 150 years since, I don’t think anyone else has either. But if this implies, as I am suggesting, that the underlying metaphysics of biology has been lacking all this time, then we have to ask ourselves what foundation it has been built on instead. The short answer is a physicalist one. Both before and after Darwin, traits were assumed to have a physical explanation, and they are still mostly thought to be physical today. And because function does always leverage a physical mechanism, this is true, but, as Aristotle said in the first place, it is not sufficient to tell us why. But if biologists honestly thought only in terms of physical mechanisms, they would have made very little progress. After all, we still have no idea, except by gross analogies to simple machines like levers, pipes, and circuits, how bodies work, let alone minds. Biology, as practiced, makes observations of functioning biological mechanisms and attempts to “reverse engineer” an explanation of them to create a natural history. Much of what is to be explained is provided by the result that is to be explained.13 We assume certain functions, like energy production or consumption, and work out biochemical details based on them, but we couldn’t build anything like a homeostatic, self-replicating living creature if our lives depended on it because we only understand superficial aspects. Biology is thus building on an unspoken foundation of some heretofore ineffable consequence of natural selection which I have now called out as biological function or information. Darwin gave biologists a license to identify function on the grounds that it is “adaptive”, and they have been doing that ever since, but not overtly as a new kind of existence, but covertly as “phenomena” to be explained, presumably with physical laws. I am saying that these phenomena are functional and not physical ones, and so their explanations must be based on functional principles, not physical.

But what of teleology? Do hearts pump blood because it is their purpose or final cause? We can certainly explain how hearts work using purposeful language, but that is just an artifact of our description. Evolved functionality gets there by inductive trial and error, while purpose must “put forth” a reason or goal to be attained. Evolution never looks forward because induction doesn’t work that way, so we can’t correctly use the word purpose or teleology to describe information created by inductive means. But we can use the word functional, because biological information is functional by generalizing on past results even though it is not forward-looking. And we can talk about biological causes and effects, because information is used to cause general kinds of outcomes. Biological causes and effects are never certainties the way physical laws deal in certainties because information is always generalizing to best-fits. Physical effects can also be said to have causes, but we should keep in mind that the causality models behind physical laws are for our benefit and not part of nature themselves. They are conceptual models that make generalizations about kinds of things which we then inductively map onto physical objects to “predict” what will happen to them, which will give us a good idea of the kind of things that will most likely happen.

With our minds, however, through the use of abstraction used with conceptual models we can “look forward” in the sense that we can run simulations on general types which we know could be mapped to potential real future situations. We can label elements of these forward-looking models as goals or purposes, because bringing reality into alignment with a desired simulation is another way of saying we attain goals. So we really can say that the purpose of a table is to support things at a convenient height for people. But tables are not pulled toward this purpose; they may also serve no purpose or be used for other purposes. Aristotle claimed that an acorn’s intrinsic telos is to become a fully grown oak tree.14 Biological functions can be said to be pulled inexorably toward fulfillment by metabolic processes. The difference is actually semantic. Biological processes can be said to run continuously until death, but again, it only looks like things that have happened “before” are happening “again” when really nothing ever happens twice. Similar biological processes run continuously, but each “instance” of such a process is over in an instant, so we are accustomed to using general and not specific terminology to describe biological functions. These processes have no purpose, per se, because none was put forth, but they do behave similarly to ways that have been effective in the past for reasons that we can call causes and effects. Many of the words we use to describe causes and effects imply intent and purpose, so it is natural for us to use such language, but we should keep in mind it is only metaphorical. Tables, on the other hand, are not used continuously and have no homeostatic regulation ensuring that people keep using them, so they may or may not be used for their intended purpose. Designers don’t always convey intended purposes to users, and users sometimes find unintended uses which become purposes for them, and both can be influenced by inductive or deductive approaches, so it is hard to speak with certainty about the purpose of anything. But it is definitely true that we sometimes have purposes and intentionally act until we consider them to be generally fulfilled, so minds can be teleological.

  1. Chemical bonding model, Wikipedia
  2. Pauling, L. (1932). “The Nature of the Chemical Bond. IV. The Energy of Single Bonds and the Relative Electronegativity of Atoms”. Journal of the American Chemical Society. 54 (9): 3570–3582. doi:10.1021/ja01348a011.
  3. Downward Causation, Principia Cybernetic Web, 1995
  4. Downward causation, Wikipedia
  5. Emergence, Wikipedia
  6. Bob Doyle, Downward Causation, The Information Philosopher
  7. Note that I reject downward physical causation, the idea (for example) that snowflakes form symmetrically because a high-level symmetrical force causes water molecules to attach to certain places to maintain the symmetry of the whole crystal. An individual snowflake is only largely symmetrical because all six points of the crystal have similar conditions as the snowflake moves, so new water molecules are attracted preferentially to the same spots around the hexagonal crystal. The apparent symmetry is only a byproduct of each snowflake’s unique journey through space. This is why snowflakes also contain innumerable minor asymmetries.
  8. William of Ockham, on the Difference between Intuitive and Abstractive Cognition
  9. Niels Waller, , Causality, University of Minnesota
  10. Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind, University of Chicago Press, 1949
  11. Ryle’s exact examples are more involved, e.g. that colleges and libraries comprise universities and that battalions and squadrons comprise military divisions.
  12. Descartes, Treatise on Man, p.108
  13. T. L. Short, American Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 20, No. 4 (Oct., 1983), p. 317
  14. Aristotle, Metaphysics

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