Regularity in the Natural World

A Teleological Understanding of Nature

As we saw in a prior lecture, Aristotle refers to Thales and the Milesians as φυσιολόγοι and to the theologists as θεολόγοι (Metaphysics I.5.986b; Metaphysics III.4.1000a), as "those who talk about nature" and "those who talk about the gods." Aristotle, then, with his "teleological" conception of natural bodies, is someone who "talks about the end." Aristotle's conception of natural bodies is teleological. His "account" (λόγος) for why they behave in the kinds of way they do is in terms of an "end" (τέλος).

He thinks that natural bodies have natures, that a nature is the organization of the material so that there exists a natural body that behaves in the ways characteristic of the natural kind, and that natural bodies of the kind have these behaviors because it makes them better.

In this way, with his teleological conception of natural bodies, Aristotle pushes back against the thought in the inquirers into nature that regularity in nature is not to be understood in terms of the activities of the traditional gods. Aristotle does not return to the picture in Hesiod and the theologists, but neither does he accept the conception in the inquiry into nature.

Aristotle's teleology is not straightforward to understand, but it is possible to begin to see what he has mind by considering a complaint Plato has Socrates press against Anaxagoras.

Socrates and Anaxagoras

"My glorious hope, my friend, was quickly snatched away from me. As I went on with my reading I saw that the man made no use of intelligence, and did not assign any real causes (αἰτίας) for the ordering of things, but mentioned as causes air and ether and water and many other absurdities. And it seemed to me it was very much as if one should say that Socrates does with intelligence whatever he does, and then in trying to tell the causes of everything I do, to say that the reason that I am sitting here is because my body consists of bones and sinews, because the bones are hard and are separated by joints, that the sinews are such as to contract and relax, that they surround the bones along with flesh and skin which hold them together, .... He would mention other such causes for my talking to you: sounds and air and hearing, and a thousand other such things, but he would neglect to mention the true causes, that, after the Athenians decided it was better to condemn me, for this reason it seemed best to me to sit here and more right to remain and endure whatever penalty they ordered" (Phaedo 98b).

  "Because, Callicles, you know, Polus and I, if you recollect, decided that everything we do should be for the sake of (ἕνεκα) what is good. Do you agree with us in this view—that the good is the end (τέλος) of all our actions, and it is for its sake that all other things should be done, and not it for theirs? Do you add your vote to ours, and make a third?
  I do, Socrates" (Gorigas 449e).
In the Phaedo, Socrates says that when he was younger he hoped to learn from Anaxagoras but was disappointed. He says that Anaxagoras promised to explain things in terms of νοῦς ("intellect" or "mind") and thus to explain that things are as they are because this way is the best. Anaxagoras, however, according to Socrates, omits νοῦς from his explanations.

To explain why it is a mistake to omit νοῦς, Socrates provides an analogous explanation he thinks is clearly unacceptable. He says that the reason he is sitting in jail, as opposed, say, to making his escape with Crito, is that he decided that this course of action was best. Anaxagoras, however, according to Socrates, would say that he is sitting in jail because his bones and sinews are arranged in a certain way. Socrates thinks that this explanation "neglects to mention the true causes," that he is sitting in jail because it "seemed best to" him to sit in jail.

The problem with the Anaxagorean explanation, it seems, is that the connection between Socrates' sitting (or doing whatever he is doing) and what he thinks is best to do, is not a coincidence. The two happen together regularly, and the arrangement of bones and sinews is not a cause of Socrates' sitting that makes the regularity of this connection intelligible.

The "For Something" is in Nature

Aristotle tries to provide the sort of explanation Socrates wanted to learn from Anaxagoras.

Aristotle thinks that the "for something" is present in natural bodies. He thinks that otherwise it would be a coincidence that they function in the way they do and that this behavior is better for them, just it is a coincidence that Socrates' bones and sinews are arranged so he is sitting and that sitting in jail seems better to him and "more right" than escaping with Crito.

Aristotle thinks of an "accidental" (αὐτόματος) outcome as incidental to the cause. He thinks of "luck" (τύχη) as accidental outcome that happens in connection with a choice someone makes. So, e.g., to use one Aristotle's examples, if a man goes to market and happens onto someone who owes him money, collecting the debt happens by luck.

"Among the things from thought some, such as a house or a statue, never owe their existence to accident (αὐτομάτου) or necessity but always to be for something (ἕνεκά του); others, like health and security, may also be due to chance (σωτηρία)" (Posterior Analytics II.95a).

"It is clear, then, that when any causal agency incidentally produces a significant result outside its aim, we attribute it to an accidental outcome; and in the special cases where such a result springs from deliberate action (though not aimed at it) on the part of a being capable of choice, we may say that it comes by luck" (Physics II.VI.197b).
"The question arises why we should suppose nature acts for something and because it is better, but instead just as Zeus does not drop the rain [a dead metaphor for "it does not rain"] to make the corn grow but of necessity the rising vapour is condensed into water by the cold, and then must descend, and incidentally, when this happens, the corn grows. If corn on the threshing floor is ruined, it does not rain for this, so that the corn is ruined. This is incidental to the raining. What, then, is to stop the parts of nature from being like this--the front teeth of necessity growing sharp and suitable for biting, the back teeth broad and serviceable for chewing, not coming to be for this, but by coincidence? And similarly for the other parts in which the for something seems to be present. So that when things turned out just as they would have had they come to be for something, but instead were suitably set together as an accidental outcome, they surived. Otherwise,
"Thus Empedocles says that at the beginning of Love [one the two forces Empedocles thinks moves things in nature] there were born first, as it happened by chance (ἔτυχε), the parts of animals, like heads, hands, and feet, and that later these came together, that is, composites of cattle and human beings. And all the parts that were assembled with one another in such as way as to be capable of surviving became animals and continued to exist because they satisfied each other’s needs, the teeth cutting and chewing the food, the stomach digesting it, the liver turning it into blood. And a human head, coming together with a human body, ensures the survival of the whole, but with a cow’s body it is not adapted and is destroyed. For whatever did not come together according to an appropriate relation perished. It is in the same way that everything happens now too" (Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B 31 61).

This is not the evolutionary-style explanation, according to which the ways living natural bodies function were initially accidental outcomes that subsequently became behavior that happens over and over again because these ways conferred survival value. Empedocles seems to have thought that there are two forces, Love and Strife, that Love brings things together and that Strife pulls them appart, and that these two forces explain why things are the way they are.

Agin, it may be asked, how is it that varieties, which I have called incipient species, become ultimately converted into good and distinct species, which in most cases obvously differ from each other far more than do the varieties of the same species? ... [It follows] inevitably from the struggle for life. Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring. The offspring, also, will thus have a better chance of surviving, for, of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive. I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man's power of selection" (Charles Darwin, On the Origin of the Species III.61, 1859).
they perished and still perhish, as Empedocles says of the man-headed calves [that Love happened to bring into existence]" (Physics II.8.198b).

Aristotle admits that the way the inquirers into nature try to understand regularity in nature "might give us pause," but he insists that their understanding is mistaken.

"This account [of regularity in nature], or something like it, might give us pause, but it is impossible for things to be this way. The things mentioned, and all things due to nature, come to be as they do always or for the most part, and none of these things is the outcome of luck or an accidental outcome. We do not think it is luck or chance that there is a lot of rain in winter, but only if there is a lot in August; nor that there are heatwaves in August, but only if there is a heatwave in winter. If, then, things seem to be coincidental outcomes or for something, and the things we are discussing do not coincide as accidental outcomes [since they happen regularly over and over again], they must be for something. But all such things are due to nature, as the authors of the views under discussion themselves admit. The for something, then, is present in things which are and come to be due to nature" (Physics II.8.198b).

Aristotle thinks that because over again and over again in nature the regular ways in which natural bodies behave are better for them, this occurrence is not coincidental. He thinks that an occurrence can be coincidental only if it is infrequent, like a heatwave in winter.

The Beginning of a Solution

Socrates hoped to learn from Anaxagoras that things happen as they do because νοῦς, in arranging things, arranges them so that things happen for the best. Aristotle can provide the sort of explanation Socrates hoped to learn if he can work out a way in which the natural bodies function in the ways they do because "nature acts for something and because it is better."

To work out this understanding of natural bodies and the ways they function, Aristotle argues for the existence of the "unmovable first mover" (πρῶτον κινοῦν ἀκίνητον).

How the unmovable first mover causes natural bodies change in the ways they do is not easy to understand in detail. The idea is perhaps most straightforward in the case of the development of reason in human beings, so is is helpful at this point to turn to Aristotle's discussion of the "soul" (ψυχή) and the role it plays in the explanation of the way human beings function.




Perseus Digital Library:
Aristotle, Metaphysics.

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
αὐτόματος, automatos, adjective, "just happens, without cause, accidental" "[N]one of these things is the outcome of luck or an accidental outcome (τῶν ἀπὸ τύχης καὶ τοῦ αὐτομάτου οὐδέν). We do not think it is luck or chance that (οὐ γὰρ ἀπὸ τύχης οὐδ᾿ ἀπὸ συμπτώματος δοκεῖ).... If, then, things seem to be coincidental outcomes or for something (ἀπὸ συμπτώματος δοκεῖ ἢ ἕνεκά του εἶναι), and the things we are discussing do not coincide as accidental outcomes (ἀπὸ συμπτώματος μήτ᾿ ἀπὸ ταὐτομάτου,) [since they happen regularly over and over again], they must be for something (ἕνεκά του)" (Physics II.8.198b).
ἕνεκα, heneka, preposition followed by the genitive case, "on account of, for the sake of, because of, for"
ἕνεκά του, heneka tou, "for something" (του is an indefinite singular pronoun in the genitive case)
συμβαίνω, symbainō, verb, "to come together, coincide"
συμβεβηκός, noun, nominalization of a perfect passive participle from of σῠμβαίνω, "accident"
κατὰ συμβεβηκός, "accidentally"
σύμπτωμα, symptōma, noun, "thing that has befallen"
τέλλω, verb, "to make arise, accomplish"
τέλος, noun, "fulfilment or completion"
τύχη, tychē, noun, "luck, fortune"

Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary:
forma, noun, "form, contour, figure, shape"
species, noun, "the outward appearance, outside, exterior; shape, form, figure"

"[T]he judge of things was, they held, the mind—they thought that it alone deserves credence, because it alone perceives that which is eternally simple and uniform and true to its own quality. This thing they call the ἰδέαν, a name already given it by Plato; we can correctly term it form (speciem)" (Cicero, Academica I.30).

Aristotle recognizes four "predicables" (κατηγορίαι): "genus" (γένος, genus) and its subdivision "difference" (διαϕορά, differentia), "definition" (ὅρος, definitio), "property" (ἴδιον, proprietas), "accident" (συμβεβηκός, accidens) (Topics I.101b).

In his Isagoge (an introduction to Aristotle's Categories), Porphyry (3rd to 4th century CE) puts "species" in the place of "definition." Boethius (5th to 6th century CE) translated the Isagoge in Latin. This translation become the standard logic textbook in the early middle ages (from 5th or 6th century to the 10th century CE).

"Since it is necessary, Chrysaorius, both to the doctrine of Aristotle's Categories, to know what genus (genus), difference (differentia), species (species), property (proprium), and accident (accidens) are..." (Isagoge I, Corpus Scriptorum Latinorum).


Arizona State University Library. Loeb Classical Library:
Aristotle, Physics
Empedocles, Early Greek Philosophy, Volume V: Western Greek Thinkers, Part 2




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