In February 2013, Steven Poole reviewed Professor Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, a book whose subtitle Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False more clearly indicates the rationale for its great and vociferous criticism by the intellectual community.  In this treatise, Prof. Nagel attempts to resurrect teleology, for “the mind-body problem has more serious ramifications for evolutionary science than ordinarily accepted.”[i]  Mr. Poole attempts to present an objective critique and his own account for the hostile response.  In the process, he reflects the misconceptions and errors inherent in the modern empirical sciences and their relationship with philosophy, with physics in particular.

Mr. Poole begins his critique by stating his own version of teleology.  He truthfully states that teleology grants to all things a natural end, a τέλος, to which they tend.  Thus the acorn tends to the mature oak, the boy to the man, the puppy to the dog.  Objectivity fails, however, when he states the common and mechanistic misconception of the τέλος as reverse causation, such that like Marty McFly, the τέλος reaches backwards in time to bring about a certain result.  He also suggests an alternate explanation of τέλος, that it implies intention in the thing or its creator.  One may object that he only states the positions of modern intellectuals without holding them himself, but his later statements prove this false.

Aristotle himself directly refutes the concept of τέλος as only implying some sort of mind in the thing or its creator.  He states in the Physics, “It is absurd to suppose that purpose is not present because we do not observe the agent deliberating.”[ii]  He proceeds to use the arts as an example, which example Thomas clarifies when he states that art has a purpose inherent within it, yet neither the art nor the artisan deliberates.  Indeed, one who must deliberate is not a true artisan.  He concludes, “An agent does not deliberate, not because he does not act for an end, but because he has the determinate means by which he acts.  Hence since nature has the determinate means by which it acts, it does, not deliberate.”[iii]  As for the other misconception as to the final cause, one must look to the modern desire and determination that all causes have sensibly accessible and measurable foundation.

Any serious thinker will acknowledge that not all things can be measured.  He who denies this ought to explain the repulsion generated upon viewing an image of Auschwitz.  No one can measure repulsion, although he can measure its signs.  These signs cannot be repulsion because other unrelated occasions generate these signs. For example, nausea is a common sign of repulsion, yet some estimate over 700 different causes of nausea, many unrelated.[iv]  As Peter Kreeft’s Socrates says, feelings imply immateriality in men.[v]  If immaterial feelings can affect men, then it is certainly possible that immateriality can affect materiality.

Mr. Poole’s misconception of the final cause requires an explication of the four causes of any natural thing, for he seems to have a single definition of cause.  Before this happens, it is necessary to briefly state what a natural thing is.  A natural thing is that which has a nature, which Aristotle defines as “a source or cause of being moved or of being at rest in that to which it belongs primarily.”[vi]  When he says, “to which it,” the “it” refers to the cause of being moved or being at rest.  A cause also must be understood as the explanation for a thing’s existence.  Every natural thing has four causes: the material cause, the formal cause, the efficient cause, and the final cause.  The material cause is the matter from which something comes to be.  The formal cause is that from which something has a determined quiddity.  The efficient cause is that by which something comes to be.  The final cause is that for the sake of which something comes to be.  Although earlier a distinction has been made between natural and artificial things, still artificial things provide a more easily understood example of the four causes.  In this case, it suffices to consider Michelangelo’s David.  In this statue, the marble serves as the material cause, for the statue is made “out of” marble.  The image of David serves as the formal cause, for the image of David “informs” the marble from a block into a statue.  Michelangelo serves as the efficient cause, for by his sculpting marble was given the image of David, thus becoming a statue of him.  The final cause would be whatever reason Michelangelo made the statue.

Whatever reason motivated Michelangelo did not have an actual empirical aspect, yet one must admit that he chose all the other causes from it.  If, for example, the desire for fame was the final cause, then Michelangelo chose marble and the image of David because he considered them, as material and formal causes, as the means by which he (as efficient cause) might attain the most fame.  Yet, such a treatment of final cause has certain weaknesses as a refutation of Mr. Poole’s concept of it.  He states, “Teleology seemed to imply an intention to pursue such an end, if not in the organism then in the mind of a creator.”[vii]  In the case of David, teleology implies exactly this.  Yet teleology does not imply this alone, for it has three types: simple termination, perfection, and intention.  Perfection as an aspect of final causality can be likened to maturity or a thing coming to its full potential, as has been discussed earlier.  Nothing conscious within the boy guides him to manhood; he becomes a man whether he desires it or not.  Mr. Poole only recalls intention as τέλος, yet in natural things it seems the least common.  In believing this, he even posits, “If matter has purpose, maybe that’s because it has mind as well?”[ix]  To most intelligent readers, such a sentiment screams sarcasm, and perhaps Mr. Poole has such an inflection.

Nevertheless, Aristotle confronts this confusion almost exactly, saying, “It is absurd to suppose that purpose is not present because we do not observe the agent deliberating.  Art does not deliberate.”2  Professor Shields elaborates, “Musicians do not stop to deliberate in the middle of a performance about which violin string to press.”[x]  As the good professor himself realizes, one may object to this example, for the artist himself has a mind and has trained himself in his art.[xi]  Earlier in the Physics, however, one can find a solution to this difficulty; Aristotle cites non-animals, for the plant does not have a mind, yet its roots travel downwards rather than upwards, towards the water.[xii]  The rock does not have a mind by which it falls to the earth, but a certain aspect of it “attracts” it to larger objects.  Thus, simple termination.  Most people subconsciously show their belief in this aspect of teleology when they make such statements as “The heart is for pumping blood,” even Mr. Poole himself says this when he wonders whether teleology is scientific.  Man’s very inability to rid his speech of teleological language would indicate that teleology exists.

Prof. Nagel’s teleology, as Mr. Poole puts it, “is merely a law-like tendency in the universe that somehow loads the dice in favour of the appearance of consciousness.”[xiii]  He had advanced this theory, because he cannot determine the link between the activities of the brain and human consciousness.  He is correct in assuming that the mechanistic laws of the universe cannot explain human consciousness.  Yet he strays too close to intelligent design, this earns especial disregard from Mr. Poole.

Prof. Nagel questions evolutionary biology because its questions of probability seem to “fly in the face of common sense.”[xiv]  Mr. Poole responds with the claim that “it is and has always been the job and the glory of science to fly in the face of common sense.  If a theory that is robustly supported by evidence conflicts with your common sense, you had better adjust the latter.”[xv]  In the first place, such smugness belies an ignorance of history; the philosophers rather than the scientists have the distinction of clinging to their beliefs when contrary to common sense.   One must recall the various pre-Socratics, such as Parmenides, who with Zeno denied motion, Heraclitus, who denied stability, Plato, who denied that the world is real, and countless other philosophers whose theories “fly in the face of common sense.”  Indeed, Webster says that common sense is “sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts.”[xvi]  According to this definition, common sense would change upon the robust support of evidence.  The supposed opposition to common sense championed by Mr. Poole results from a failure by scientists to explain their positions, not a failure of common sense.  Should one doubt that two parallel lines meet at infinity, he need merely perform the mathematical calculations to resolve his doubt; the same cannot be said of philosophical theories.

Both Professor Nagel and Mr. Poole display an incredibly common error in their understanding of probability and evolutionary biology, which mistake ought to overshadow the petty disagreement over the greatest opponent of common sense.  Many men know the scenario: an infinite amount of monkeys on typewriters will eventually write the works of Shakespeare, or something to this effect.  As Cicero says, it makes as much sense as throwing a box of letters on the ground and expecting them to form the Annals of Ennius.[xvii]  Nevertheless, if there was infinite amount of time and an infinite amount of monkeys, the works of Shakespeare would be duplicated.  Yet even these words err, for the infinite number of monkeys would not produce the works of Shakespeare even if they produced every letter in the correct order.

This may seem contradictory, but most men have been infected with a misunderstanding as to the true meaning of chance and causality.  Chance cannot be a cause.  Take the example from Aristotle, of a man going to the market to buy food and meeting a friend.[xviii]  All will admit that the man met his friend by chance, but no one will say that chance itself caused him to meet his friend; rather, he will say that the desire to buy food caused him to visit the market.  In the same way, a bag of letters spilled on the ground which letters form the complete works of Shakespeare, would only form them by chance.

Even if one should object that chance could serve as a cause, he will still lack an organizing principle, something to make the letters into the works of Shakespeare.  Nothing inherent in the letters forms them into the works of Shakespeare, and a breeze or an earthquake could rearrange them.  Should a Spaniard happen upon the letters, he would not even consider them the works of Shakespeare, but rather pile of unrelated letters.  The organizing principle, therefore, is extrinsic to the letters, only becoming something due to an external agent.

This principle of organization has further implications with living things.  All doctors admit that a collection of all human body parts is not a living man.  Anyone who has attended a wake will declare that the dead body is not the same living; something different lies in the coffin.  Nothing within the parts of a living thing forces it to work with the other parts; there is rather something else, which can be called the substantial form.  Therefore, this can be concluded: even if probability should agree and chance serve as cause, a collection of things could never become a living thing, just as an explosion in a graveyard will not assemble a living human.

Mr. Poole quotes Professors Cox and Forshaw’s claim that “the principle that things tend to their lowest energy state is what drives the formation of everything from water to DNA.”[xix]  The statement may seem innocuous, but it contains another pernicious misconception of modern science, s.c. that the laws which describe the causes of phenomena, cause them.  Thus is said, “The principle…drives the formation.”21  Yet it is impossible to discover a principle actually driving the formation of anything; a principle is a description and no one can produce a “law of physics” in any corporeal form.  All such laws exist only in the minds of the knowers.   The second law of thermodynamics, for example, states “in any cyclic process the entropy will either increase or remain the same.[xx]  Neither entropy nor processes exist without a subject; no one will claim that there is an entropy floating around, or a process; entropy and processes happen in things, with reference to things, real and measurable things.

To further identify these “laws” or “principles” and that which they govern, it is necessary to exposit the hylomorphic system first expounded by Aristotle.  At a very basic level, no one will deny that two types of things exist: things which exist independently, and things which exist in others, but not independently.  The former can be called “substantial” and the latter “accidental.”  A Latinist will know that “substantial” comes from the words “sub” and “stans,” which mean “under” and “standing” respectively, while accident comes from the word “accido” with the meaning of “to come to pass.”[xxi]  The substance, or substantial thing, is that which “stands under” the accidents, e.g. the things which “come to pass.”

No one will deny that everything which exists can be otherwise, or everything is potentially something else.  A statue of David is a statue of David, but it is potentially gravel; a tree is a tree, but potentially ashes.  One can call the “potentially-something-elseness”, matter.  There are two types of matter.  Matter can be potentially something else entirely, and this is called “prime matter;” or it can be potentially something else accidentally, in that it takes on a new accident, and is thus called “subject matter,” the thing which is “thrown under.”[xxii]  Yet a thing is not merely its potential for change, but something which has completed its change.  The aspect of a thing at which the change to another substance entirely ceases is the substantial form (which has been mentioned above as the imposer of order on matter), while the aspect of a thing at which the change to another accident ceases is the accidental form.  Ashness is the substantial form of ash, and redness the accidental form of the red thing.   Thus, all substantial things are composites of primary matter and substantial form as substances.

A substance can have many accidents; a man can have black hair, then red hair, then yellow hair.  The man persists through all these, which distinguishes between substantial change and accidental change; an accidental change does not make the subject into another thing, while a substantial change does.  From these points, it becomes evident that the laws of science are not substances: no one can distinguish the “matter” or the “form” of a law.  No one can conceive of a scientific law having accidents or undergoing any type of change; perhaps they are accidents.

One can, as Aristotle, divide accidents into nine categories: quantity, quality, time, place, relation, disposition, raiment, action, and passion.[xxiii]  Every substance has a combination of accidental forms applied to him (or in act) at every moment of his existence and is constantly undergoing accidental changes.  It cannot be that a substance does not undergo accidental change.  Such a substance would never change in any of the abovementioned nine categories; never change its place, its action, its raiment, its disposition, etc.  An accident can be described by scientific laws.  It seems, therefore, that some scientific laws and mathematical describe accidents.

Other scientific and mathematical laws, such as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, do not concern one substance, but more than one.  These ones, then, describe the interactions between substances, but they do not drive the interactions.  The drive comes from something inherent to the substances, something called nature.  The definition of nature must be recalled from above, “a source or cause of being moved or of being at rest in that to which it belongs primarily.”7  Seeing motion and rest, one must resist the concept of locomotion beginning or ending.  Motion is any type of movement, such as the movement to love or hate, or any kind of accidental change.  The nature, however, because it is only the source of primary motions, is not the only agent of motion; other things can as well, such as outside agents.  Regardless, the interactions between two things result in occurrences based on the nature of the things involved, and these interactions are described by laws.

Mr. Poole rejects the thesis that matter has a mind for perfectly fine reasons.  He declares that its conception of consciousness forming from the collation of matter has no ground, and thus doubts it.  Yet he doubts it, not after well-reasoned reflection, but because “it seems difficult to investigate experimentally.”[xxiv]  He immediately suggests reinterpreting teleology as mechanistic causation; this, however, changes the rules of the game in the midst of the contest, and cannot stand scrutiny.  In doing this, he falls into an error faced by Aristotle in the Physics II.8 198b16ff, wherein Aristotle confronts those who hold to a position surprisingly similar to Darwinian macroevolution.  He refutes this concept by reminding his readers that chance (which fuels all evolutionary theory) cannot serve as a cause; it is not reliable enough.

Mr. Poole’s penultimate argument against teleology is its inability for scientific testing.  Here, he repeats the Cartesian emphasis on sensory knowledge which has been refuted already in this paper.  He seems to place his final argument against teleology in theodicy.  He rejects teleology because it gives man a meaning to his existence, a meaning based on inherent moral truths.  He cites Professor Nagel as holding to teleology because “it produces conscious creatures just so as to produce value”[xxv] which he considers synonymous with good/evil.  Then he rejects this thesis because he sees the lack of balance between good and evil as evidence against a value-based τέλος.  Yet he anthropomorphizes the universe to make this happen.  He forgets that all the “evil” of nature completely follows the laws thereof.  No animal does evil, for all animals follow the laws of nature in their activity.  Only men cause evil by violating these laws, but it must be noted, the laws of nature do not bring about evil; only the violation thereof.  Much remains to be said on this topic, but theodicy is too complicated a discussion for this paper, as well as beyond the bounds of natural philosophy.

The review ends with a depressing question as to the true τέλος of the universe, whether it may be a gradual heat death.  This question too natural science cannot answer; it is the realm of ethics.  Mr. Poole’s failure to depart from his misunderstanding of teleology turns his review of Professor Nagel’s book into an expression of the many fundamental errors infecting modern science.  Aristotelian causation and hylomorphism are foundational principles for any true knowledge, yet Mr. Poole’s rejection of them, and the depressing conclusion to his review, shows forth the ultimate emptiness of contemporary science.

[i]Steven Poole, “Your point is?” Aeon Magazine, February 11 2013, accessed February 15, 2013,

[ii]Aristotle, PH. 199b26.

[iii]Thomas Aquinas, Commentaria in octo libros Physicorum, lib. 2 l. 14 n. 268

[iv]“Differential Diagnosis For Nausea: Poisoning (Specific Agent),” DiagnosisPro, accessed April 22, 2014,

[v]Peter Kreef, The Best Things in Life: A Contemporary Socrates Looks at Power, Pleasure, Truth & the Good Life (Downer Grove, IL: IVP Books, 1984), 116.

[vi]Aristotle, PH. 192b23.


[viii]Michael Plas, “What does perfect mean?,” Motley Musings, February 25, 2014, accessed May 1, 2014,


[x]Christopher Shields, Aristotle (London: Routledge, 2007), 73.


[xii]Aristotle, PH.  199a27.




[xvi]Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., s.v. “common sense.”

[xvii]Cic. Nat. D., 2.37.

[xviii]Aristotle, PH., 196a1-5.


[xx]R. Nave, “The Second Law of Thermodynamics,” Hyperphysics, accessed May 1, 2014,  

[xxi]Carlton T. Lewis, An Elementary Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), s.v.v. “sub,” “sto,” and “accido.”

[xxii]Lewis, s.v. “subicio.”

[xxiii]Aristotle, Cat., 1b25-2a10.



This entry was posted in Philosophy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s