Over at Footnotes2Plato, Matthew has written a post responding to some of my recent work that also outlines his own positions.  Since he mischaracterizes my positions in a few places, a few words of clarification might be worthwhile.  Matthew writes:

Levi and I have argued in the past about his materialism and its lack of formal and final causality. I’ve been claiming that ideas and purposes are real, while he continues to argue that only corporeal things, their causal interactions, and the void in which they interact constitute real things. From his perspective, what we call qualitative forms or deliberate intentions are either alternative names for what are really entirely material activities (gene transcription, electro-chemo-neural synchronization, economic exchange, information transfer, etc.), or they are nothing.

Matthew is correct in pointing out that I don’t believe in formal causality.  This is because I don’t believe that there’s such a thing as unformed matter.  The concept of formal causality only makes sense and is required if one advocates the view that there’s unformed passive matter awaiting form to give it structure.  However, in my view, all matter has form or is structured.  While matter is formable as a result of encounters with other entities, it is never without structure.  For this reason I don’t need a concept of formal causation distinct from matter.  A pile of clay is not a formless stuff awaiting structure.  It has all sorts of structure (its molecular structure, the contours of the pile, etc).  It just doesn’t have the form that the craftsman wants (that of a brick or a vase).  Wherever one speaks of matter as formless and awaiting form you can be sure that there’s anthropocentrism lurking in the background.  I’ve written about this issue in an earlier post on hylomorphism.

read on!

It’s not quite correct for Matthew to say that I don’t believe in purposiveness or “final causation”.  What I reject is the idea that things are designed for any purpose.  That is, I reject intelligent design theories of which Matthew’s position is a variant.  A star isn’t for anything, a rock isn’t for anything, a tree isn’t for anything, a rabbit isn’t for anything.  The causes that brought them into being came from behind.  They were not pulled into being by some goal or aim on the part of a designer (in his post Matthew talks about the universe having an aesthetic aim that lures entities into being through the agency of God).  With that said, this position doesn’t entail that purposiveness can’t come into being.  In other words, as we move up the chain of organic life I think organisms become more and more capable of acting in purposive or self-directing ways for the sake of goals.  They develop emergent capacities for self-directed activity.  The Koshimi monkeys in Japan really do wash potatoes for the purpose of cleaning them.  The dog really does bury its bone for a purpose.  I really am writing this post for a purpose.  This kind of purposiveness is a real feature of the world.  The point, however, is that these capacities emerged out of processes that weren’t purposive.

When Matthew says that I think these kinds of activities are just “electro-chemical-neurological” processes, he confuses materialism with reductionism.  While I don’t think that Koshimi monkeys can act in purposive ways unless they have the requisite type of nervous systems, that’s quite different than claiming that I believe their purposive activity is really just electro-chemical-neurological reactions.  Emergent capacities are real things in the world and require the requisite degree of system complexity to exist.  The fact that the properties of H2O are explained through the properties of hydrogen and oxygen does not entail that water somehow loses its power to wet, to boil at certain temperatures, to undergo a phase transition and become ice or steam, etc.  Nor do hydrogen and oxygen have these powers of water if they are not related in the requisite way.  With the proper relation between oxygen and hydrogen a new set of powers or capacities comes into being.  Likewise with neurological systems and purposive activity.  The burden of proof to show that we need design teleology to explain the world around us is on Matthew’s shoulders.  So far I’ve only seen him give “god of the gaps” type arguments for his positions.  For example, he’s argued that because we don’t yet have a well developed theory of consciousness, consciousness must be distinct from the brain, despite the fact that we know that consciousness changes significantly when one uses drugs, has a stroke, as a person ages, etc.

As I argued in an earlier post, all my materialism commits me to is the thesis that if something exists, it is material.  That’s it.  It doesn’t commit me to the thesis of reductionism or that the smallest units of matter are the really real things of the world.  H2O is a real entity in the world and while it cannot exist without hydrogen and oxygen, we have to observe H2O itself to discover what it’s powers are.  Signifying systems are, for me, real material beings in the world that have to be studied in their own terms.  While signifying systems can’t exist without electro-neural-chemical systems, we would learn next to nothing about a particular signifying system by studying neurology.  At most, we would learn about certain constraints on signifying systems by studying neurology, not how a particular signifying system is itself structured.  This is because neurological systems exist at a different level of scale and are composed of different types of elements.  Someone will say “but signifying systems are not like rocks!”, and they would be right.  But hurricanes aren’t like rocks either and no one doubts that they’re material phenomena.  Or maybe they do.  It would be peculiar if they did.

Later in his post Matthew writes:

I’d draw on Bohme and Schelling to suggest, in contrast to Levi, that creative productivity, rather than this productivity’s arrested products or corporeal excretions (natura naturata), is ontologically fundamental. Productivity (natura naturans) is the ungrounded ground; it not a substance or multiplicity of substances, but an unspeakable tension which is at the base of all logos and all ontos.

I find Matthew’s characterization of bodies as “arrested products or corporeal excretions” very telling, as it reflects the analogy to craftsmanship that motivates his call for formal causation and that seems to perceive all of his thought.  The form/matter distinction is, as Simondon argues, premised on an idea of craftsmanship where matter is a passive, formless, lump awaiting form and where the formed entity is the product of the work of a craftsman or a designer.  The product is here conceived as an arrested excretion because all the dynamism or becoming is thought to take place in the work of the craftsman.  Under this view, the thing that is produced is a mere result that has lost its animate life.  Again we find an anthropomorphism here based on an analogy to craftsmanship as a model– albeit unconscious –of being or existence.  Yet as I have repeatedly argued (see here and here, for example), bodies are in a constant state of becoming and development.  They are not “lifeless” lumps that are a result of processes or activities; they are processes and activities.  If these activities cease so too does the body.  Moreover, when bodies enter into interactions with other bodies, they can form new bodies with powers or capacities all their own.  What should be abandoned is not the idea of bodies or things, but the anthropomorphic model of the craftsman in which bodies are mere results, products, or excresences with no activity of their own.

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