Regularity in the Natural World

A Teleological Understanding of Nature

Aristotle's conception of natural bodies is "teleological." He thinks they possess their specific behaviors (the behaviors that characterize the kind) because this behavior makes them better.

This raises a question.

There is a connection between the specific behavior of natural bodies and the fact that this behavior benefits them. The connection is not a coincidence. It happens regularly.

What explains this regularity?

In his answer, Aristotle pushes back against the the idea in the inquirers into nature that regularity in nature is not to be understood in terms of the activities of the traditional gods. He does not return to the picture in Hesiod and the theologists, but neither does he accept the way the inquirers into nature give explain the connection between behavior and benefit.

Aristotle follows Plato instead, but he also pushes back against the understanding of the teleology Plato gives in the Timaeus in terms of the "divine maker."

How Aristotle finds room for his teleology between these two historical positions takes several lectures to understand, but we can take a first step by considering a passage in the Phaedo.

Socrates and Anaxagoras

"One day I heard a man reading from a book, as he said, by Anaxagoras, that it is intelligence (νοῦς) that arranges and is the cause (αἴτιος) all things. I was pleased with this cause, and it seemed to me to be somehow right that intelligence should be the cause of all things, and I thought that intelligence in ordering all things must order them and place each thing as it is best for it to be" (Phaedo 97b).

"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 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).
In the Phaedo, in remarks in which he sets out his intellectual autobiography, Socrates says that when he was young he hoped to learn from Anaxagoras but was disappointed. Anaxagoras promised to explain things in terms of νοῦς ("intellect" or "mind") and thus to explain that things are as they are because being this way is best, but Socrates complains that when Anaxagoras gives his explanation, he he does not make use of νοῦς at all.

(This double use of νοῦς is a joke at Anaxagoras's expense.)

To explain his disappointment, Socrates gives an example. He explains that Anaxagoras would agree that Socrates acts for reasons and thus "does with intelligence whatever he does." Yet, to explain why Socrates is sitting in jail, Anaxagoras would say that Socrates' bones and sinews are arranged in a certain way. In this explanation, Socrates thinks Anaxagoras "neglects to mention the true causes." Socrates thinks that it is obvious that he is sitting in jail awaiting execution (as opposed to making his escape with Crito) because this "seemed best" to him.

Socrates does not provide much detail about the problem with the Anaxagorean explanation for why he is sitting in jail, but it seems to be that it reduces a regularity to a coincidence. The connection between Socrates' sitting in jail, on the one hand, and what he thinks it is best to do, on the other, is not coincidental. In general, what Socrates does is what he thinks it is best to do because he "does with intelligence whatever he does." So the arrangement of bones and sinews cannot be the "true cause" of his sitting in jail because this cause does not explain the regularity of the connection between what Socrates thinks is best and what he does.

The "For Something" is in Nature

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

Aristotle thinks the "for something" is present in natural bodies because otherwise it would be a coincidence that they function in the ways they do and that this behavior benefits them.

Aristotle thinks that an "accidental" (αὐτόματος) outcome is coincidental to the cause and that "luck" (τύχη) is accidental outcome that happens in connection with a choice someone makes. If, to use one Aristotle's examples, a man goes to market and happens to see someone who owes him money, collecting the debt is a coincidence due to luck.

"Among the products of thought, such as a house or a statue, some never are due to accident or necessity but always the for something; others, like health and security, may also be due to luck" (Posterior Analytics II.95a).

"It is clear, then, that when any causal agency coincidentally 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 someone capable of choice, we may say that it comes about by luck" (Physics II.VI.197b).
Aristotle raises the question in the following passage:

"The question arises why we should suppose nature acts for something and because it is better. Zeus does not drop the rain [a figure of speech that means "it does not rain"] to make the corn grow but of necessity the rising vapor is condensed into water by the cold, and then must descend, and coincidentally, 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 coincidental 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 survived. 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, 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).

"These are Empedocles's words: Many grew double of face..., races of man-prowed cattle, while others sprang up inversely, creatures of cattle-headed men" (Aelian, On the Characteristics of Animals XVI.29, DK 31 B 61).

Empedocles is not giving an evolutionary-style explanation. He is not thinking that he ways living natural bodies function were initially accidental outcomes that subsequently became behavior that happens regularly over and over again because these ways conferred survival value. He thought instead that there are two forces (Love and Strife), that Love brings things together, and that Strife pulls them apart. A living being is a collection of parts Love has brought together and Strife will pull apart.

"[I]t 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 obviously differ from each other far more than do the varieties of the same species? ... [The answer is that this occurrence 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. Struggle for Existence, 61; published in 1859).
they perished and still perish, as Empedocles says of the man-headed calves [that Love happened to bring into existence during its reign]" (Physics II.8.198b).

Aristotle admits this Presocratic explanation of the regularity "might give us pause," but he thinks that further reflection shows that it is really no explanation at all:

"This account, 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 accidental outcomes do not 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).

Because the characteristic ways natural bodies behave are better for them time and time again, Aristotle thinks that this connection cannot be coincidental. He thinks that something is coincidental only if it is infrequent, like for example "a heatwave in winter."

The Beginning of a Solution

About the sort of explanation Socrates had hoped to learn from Anaxagoras, Aristotle thinks that he can give such explanations if he can show that natural bodies function in the kinds of ways they do because "nature acts for something and because it is better."

As part of his explanation to show that "nature acts for something and because it is better," he argues for the "first mover, which is unmovable" (πρῶτον κινοῦν ἀκίνητον).

How Aristotle thinks the first unmovable mover causes natural bodies to change is not easy to understand. It in fact is one of the more difficult ideas in the corpus, but perhaps the best way to begin to understand it is in the case of the development of reason in human beings.

At this point, then, it is helpful to turn to Aristotle's discussion of the soul.




Perseus Digital Library

Aristotle, Metaphysics.

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon

αὐτόματος, automatos, adjective, "just happens, without cause"
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, coincidence"
κατὰ συμβεβηκός, "by accident, coincidentally"
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"

"This thing they call the ἰδέαν, a name already given it by Plato; we can correctly term it form (speciem)" (Cicero, Academica I.30).

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




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