Meat Robot: Continued…

Following on from the last post on my meat robotness. John C Wright had said this:

In his post, John C Wright had said this:

“I will point out that no materialist deigning to present an argument has
ever once given even a single example of describing a why as a how, or
describing a final cause in terms of mechanical cause, or defining a
quality to a quantity.”

To which I replied:

Any example of an living things adaptation to its environment as a consequence of evolution by natural selection would easily do it.
How and why together, with the ‘why’ of an adaptation firmly arising out of the material how of the past.

JCW specifically cited the notion of a FINAL CAUSE and it is important to know what that is in context. Aristotle had suggested that to understand something you need to consider four kinds of causes:

  • The material cause: “that out of which”, e.g., the bronze of a statue.
  • The formal cause: “the form”, “the account of what-it-is-to-be”, e.g., the shape of a statue.
  • The efficient cause: “the primary source of the change or rest”, e.g., the artisan, the art of bronze-casting the statue, the man who gives advice, the father of the child.
  • The final cause: “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”, e.g., health is the end of walking, losing weight, purging, drugs, and surgical tools.

The issue of final cause is the punchline to Wright’s piece because it ties his questioning of the possibility of a mechanical intelligence to his theology.

To see why evolution by natural selection is such an apt response, it is worth looking at the questions Aristotle was asking:

A difficulty presents itself: why should not nature work, not for the sake of something, nor because it is better so, but just as the sky rains, not in order to make the corn grow, but of necessity? What is drawn up must cool, and what has been cooled must become water and descend, the result of this being that the corn grows. Similarly if a man’s crop is spoiled on the threshing-floor, the rain did not fall for the sake of this-in order that the crop might be spoiled-but that result just followed. Why then should it not be the same with the parts in nature, e.g. that our teeth should come up of necessity-the front teeth sharp, fitted for tearing, the molars broad and useful for grinding down the food-since they did not arise for this end, but it was merely a coincident result; and so with all other parts in which we suppose that there is purpose? [Part 8]

In this section, Aristotle muses on the role of necessity in nature and how it corresponds with his notions of causes. Aristotle goes on to reject the notion that teeth (for example) grow typically in a way suited for their task by happenstance.

For teeth and all other natural things either invariably or normally come about in a given way; but of not one of the results of chance or spontaneity is this true. We do not ascribe to chance or mere coincidence the frequency of rain in winter, but frequent rain in summer we do; nor heat in the dog-days, but only if we have it in winter. If then, it is agreed that things are either the result of coincidence or for an end, and these cannot be the result of coincidence or spontaneity, it follows that they must be for an end; and that such things are all due to nature even the champions of the theory which is before us would agree. Therefore action for an end is present in things which come to be and are by nature.

So from Aristotle himself we have a clear example of a case of applying a final cause: our molars grow the way they do so that we can chew our food. The purpose of the teeth is part of how we should understand our teeth.

Aristotle isn’t wrong in so far as making sense of a given adaptation. However, what we now know is that the amazing fitness-for-purpose that we see (mainly – don’t look at my British teeth) arises out of mechanical purposes. It isn’t just that teeth grow via biological processes but that the DEEPER explanation of why our teeth are suited to our eating habits (or not…) is the evolutionary one.

A final cause (the purpose of an adaptation) is best explained by a material process (evolution by natural selection). The why is best explained by a how. And while it doesn’t quite fit a “quality as a quantity” it is heading that way – a quality as an outcome of an accidental algorithm running on natural history as a consequence of genetic variation and mutation against a backdrop of changing environments and competition for resources.



  1. thephantom182

    “Any example of an living things adaptation to its environment as a consequence of evolution by natural selection would easily do it.”

    What caused the environment? Where did the “stuff” come from? What made it go, back at the start? That’s where Wright is going with his argument. The Prime Mover, that without which nothing exists.

    I’d argue that apart from us not having that information, it makes no difference to the meat-robot thing. We’ve already established the meat-robot is a fairy tale. It doesn’t work that way, even accepting Evolution entire as the prime mover.

    Evolved humans are not Turing machines. Evolution as a mechanism of development changes nothing. Humans are Something Else.


  2. greghullender

    Let’s see if I can describe evolution in terms of Aristotle’s four causes. Let’s start with a concrete example of how evolution actually works.

    In a steady-state environment, there isn’t any evolution. All the creatures are optimized for the niches they occupy. Genes that are important to their niche are “pinned” by natural selection, in the sense that almost any mutation in those genes is apt to be fatal, or at least very negative. The gene that makes the lens of the eye is a good example. Genes that are not important to the niche are “slack genes.” They can mutate in countless ways without it making much difference. These slack genes give every creature a pool of genetic diversity.

    Then some catastrophe destroys most of the wildlife. Could be a tsunami or a climate change or any number of things. Most of the niches are now empty. Just by chance, some of the creatures happen to have slack genes that have partly adapted them for now-empty niches. They could never have competed with the original occupants of those niches, but with no competition at all, they can now do better than by competing in their own niche. Natural selection then proceeds (very swiftly) to refine their adaptation to the new niche, and, presto, you have a new (sub)species. (Darwin’s finches are the canonical example of this.) Genes that had been slack are now pinned (and vice versa). You don’t always need an extinction–a never-before-occupied niche will serve as well. So will a slack gene that suddenly gives an advantage in the existing niche.

    In Aristotle’s terms then, we’d say that the genes themselves would be the material cause, right? I’d call the abstract niche-dweller (or maybe the niche itself) the formal cause. And natural selection is the efficient cause. (Plus the extinction event, I suppose.) There isn’t really any final cause. Natural selection is the necessity. That fit with your thinking?

    Liked by 1 person

    • camestrosfelapton

      Yes – but in terms of making sense of an adaptation it is still sensible to talk in terms of final causes (e.g. the beak of finch X is the way it is because it feeds on Y). However, that ‘final cause’ is not the kind of ultimate explanation that Aristotleans would see but rather is something that is rooted in more material causes and is best explained in terms of the material.

      i.e. Wright or Aquinas (!) would argue that material explanations are lacking without final causes (all not all things have final causes) and it is final causes that are the true cause when present. Which gives a chain of reasoning that ends with god QED. I’m saying that we have at least one strong example rooted directly in Aristotle’s example of final causes that works the other way around – we can see the apparent final cause (our molars are for the purpose of chewing) but the chain of reasoning leads us to a better, fuller explanation in material terms.

      That doesn’t by itself demonstrate that minds are material but it does demonstrate that not all Aristotlean final causes cannot be explained in more material terms.


      • KR

        But couldn’t they get around that problem by saying that the final cause is always “to glorify the Maker” — that teeth evolved to allow for better nutritional and survival rates so human beings could go on to serve and glorify, thus rendering teeth (and tools and tinsel and whatever else) to be all part of the way humans are created and trundle along toward perfection as part of the plan for divine service? Once you introduce a maker into the episteme, it subordinates all other claims and explanations. Maybe. I don’t know. More clever people than I have been thinking about this for a long time.

        I’m sort of with the Dalai Lama in the idea that the purpose of life is to be happy and to make others happy. But that is harder than it looks, and there are also a lot of ways to fracture that claim too — what does it mean to be happy? how do you define happy? is it the same for everyone? what if your idea of what should make someone else happy is not the same as their own? is happiness a steady-state abstraction or does it change form and meaning place and time? Also, if I want to be happy, have I already paradoxically ensured I won’t achieve it because I am wanting something and one’s desires inherently lead to disappointment and disillusionment? The most important lesson of Buddhism might just be to turn off one’s brain and just BE (in the body and the moment) and be OK with that, but for people naturally inclined to thinking, that’s a hard one to pull off. Maybe meat robots are better off than humans? Wait, did I just desire to be a meat robot? I think I just disillusioned and disappointed myself 🙂


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