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Kant on Intelligent Design (2): Organisms as Natural Purposes

180px-Paramecium Kant uses the term natural purpose to refer anything that could be construed to be both cause and effect of itself. He notes: In such a product of nature every part not only exists by means of the other parts, but is thought as existing for the sake of the others and the whole, that is as an (organic) instrument.” He further states: Only a product of such a kind can be called a natural purpose, and this because it is an organised and self-organising being.

This concept behind a self-organised being has a history that pre-dates Kant to a great extent, but only in terms of the related themes. It was Kant who singled out self-organisation as a factor, and this appears to have been an influence on Ross Ashby, who introduced it into modern cybernetics (which now uses the concept extensively). The comparison with design (i.e. teleology) breaks down in respect of such self-organised beings; Kant notes that watches are not like this: “a watch wheel does not produce other wheels, still less does one watch produce other watches”. He writes:

An organised being is then not a mere machine, for that has merely moving power, but it possess in itself formative power of a self-propagating kind which it communicates to its materials though they have it not of themselves; it organises them, in fact, and this cannot be explained by the mere mechanical faculty of motion.

In this concept was the beginnings of the modern concept of an organism, and Kant has surprisingly nuanced views on the subject. On the one hand, he asserts that they are natural purposes (or natural ends) because we can conceive of the possibility of the existence of such things only in accordance with the idea that they were produced by design, but he denies that they should be thought of as being the products of conscious design at all, insisting they must be seen as products of nature.

A person who had naively swallowed a blanket belief in evolutionary theory might object to the idea that we must conceive of organisms in respect of design, but the evidence abounds in the language used to talk about the relationship between organisms and evolution. When we talk of a tail having the purpose of a counterbalance in mammals, or of incisors being used to cut food, or of camouflage as serving to conceal we are talking in terms of design. It may be the case that most modern folk attribute the origin of these features to natural selection et al, but this does not change the fact that discussion of the features of organisms is universally couched in design terms. The teleology may have changed, being now attributed more commonly to evolution than to God (or at least to God directly, since there are many people who subscribe to theistic evolution), but we still talk about the features of organisms by thinking in terms of design.

Note Kant's reluctance to proceed from the observation that we must talk about organisms in terms of design to the conclusion that organisms must have been consciously designed. He astutely recognised that the question of whether they were designed or otherwise was an untestable issue, observing “that would be to meddle in an extraneous business, in Metaphysic” (metaphysics being the philosophical domain of the untestable). Instead he states that it is enough to recognise that there are some objects which are “alone explicable according to natural laws which we can only think by means of the [design]”.

He goes on to conclude:

Hence we speak quite correctly in [philosophy], so far as it is referred to [science], of the wisdom, the economy, the forethought, the beneficence of Nature, without either making an intelligent being of it, for that would be preposterous; or even without presuming to place another intelligent Being above it as its Architect, for that would be presumptuous.

Thus in his consideration of organisms, Kant considers it “preposterous” to make Nature an intelligent being, and “presumptuous” to derive from the observation of nature an intelligent architect. Intelligent design, therefore, is to Kant “presumptuous” – it postulates something more than is necessarily indicated. He is, in fact, extremely keen to keep teleological concerns out of science:

But now why is it that Teleology usually forms no proper part of theoretical natural science, but is regarded as [an introduction] to Theology? This is done in order to restrict the study of nature, mechanically considered, to that which we can so subject to observation or experiment that we are able to produce it ourselves as nature does, or at least by similar laws. For we see into a thing completely only so far as we can make it in accordance with our concepts and bring it to completion.

Kant therefore asserts that the kind of arguments advanced by proponents of intelligent design have no business being in science at all, since “theoretical natural science” is concerned with “observation or experiment” i.e. empirical research. Opponents of intelligent design advance by varying degrees precisely this argument, at least when they themselves do not fall into “fanaticism” of a rather different kind.

Yet Kant is by no means finished on this subject, and theists need not think that Kant has abandoned them completely. He would have dismissed as ridiculous the idea that intelligent design was a subject to be taught in science classes, but on the relationship between God and life on Earth he has yet more to say.

Next week: Mechanism versus God

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