1. Purposiveness

2. Organic functions

3. The continuity of life


1. Purposiveness

The concept of purpose is initially and primarily one relating to human action. We mentally visualize, or conceptually and verbally project, a state of affairs that we would like to bring into existence or to ensure the continued existence of, and proceed to do what we consider necessary to achieve that aim. The goal may be something within us – a spiritual quality (such as strength of character) or a mental content or skill (such as knowledge of logic) or a bodily condition (such as not catching a cold) – or it may be an external acquisition (such as a meal or new clothes). The means is something we do to fulfill the desire concerned.

Thus, propositions concerning purpose basically have the form “I am doing this for that”, or more broadly “agent A does X in order to achieve or obtain Y”. Such a proposition concerns volition, its subject (A) being a human agent, the means (X) being some act(s) of direct or indirect will by the agent in hopeful pursuit of the goal (Y), which has been projected by the consciousness of the agent.

Note that the agent may be right or wrong in thinking that Y is at all possible to him (let alone ‘good’ for him!), and he may be right or wrong in thinking that X specifically is something that can lead him to Y. Indeed, he may admit that his goal Y is uncertain and/or that his proposed means may be inadequate, and still be considered as doing X for Y.

In a second phase, the concept of purpose is passed on to higher animals (those assumed to have volition), and such propositions can be used for them too. And as we shall see further on, in a third phase, the concept is applied by analogy and in a diluted sense to the non-volitional functions of our and their organs, as well as to other living organisms (without volition) such as plants; we may refer to such ‘as if’ purposes as quasi-purposive.

Furthermore, we commonly apply the concept of purpose to inanimate objects. This does not mean that we consider such objects to choose purposes for themselves, or to have inherent natural purposes. They have the purpose we – i.e. any volitional being – assign to them. This refers, then, more precisely to the utility of the object or some part of it to the purposes of some agent. The useful object may be artificial or natural. For example, the utility of a chair is to be sat on by people; a chair is an object designed and manufactured with this use in mind. For example, a monkey uses a stone it picked up to break open a nut; although a natural object, the stone (by virtue of its original size and weight) has utility for this monkey.

Works of fine art are, of course, commonly considered as intentionally ‘without utility’. But this is using a restricted sense of the term utility, without excluding the utility of aesthetic expression (for the artist) or pleasure (for the viewer or auditor), or of communication (between artist and admirer) or of offering (to God or other loved one). What we would prefer to exclude from artwork are vanity and mercantilism (the pursuit of fame and fortune), and other such more materialistic and less spiritual aspects of human endeavor.


2. Organic functions

The definition of the concept of function in biological discourse is simple and clear:

The ‘function’ of an organ (i.e. of any part of a volitional or non-volitional organism) and of its characteristics and activities refers to the causative role that these play in the preservation, development and furtherance of the life of the organism as a whole – or more broadly, in widening circles, in the furtherance of the life of its kind(s), or of life on earth.

This, note well, is a derivative of the concept of causation, not of volition. When we use the term function in volitional contexts, we intend the purpose or utility of the entity, character or action concerned in the achievement of some more or less conscious end, as already discussed. Here, the term function refers to something unconscious, i.e. it is intended as analogous to purpose or utility but without implying an agent’s goal.

Nevertheless, the concept of organic function is somewhat analogous to that of willed function, in that the organ seems to tend to the survival, improvement or reproduction of the organism. It is quasi-purposive.

Many philosophers have struggled with this issue, trying to reconcile the idea of mere causation in nature with the impression that life tends to life, as if some mysterious inner force impels it in that specific direction. In particular, Aristotle proposed a concept of ‘final cause[1] to cover such unconscious tendencies. Others have compared such apparent striving to conation, and named it ‘conatus’. Modern biology has explicitly eschewed such teleological explanation; although in practice, at least in elementary or popularizing texts, the discourse of biologists is implicitly full of quasi-purposive expressions[2]. (If the reticence is justified, it is necessary to analyze why such linguistic habits persist and what more consistent and accurate verbal formulae might practically replace them.)

Yet, as the definition of organic function proposed above shows, we can have our cake and eat it too! It is an observable fact that certain material entities differ in some significant manner from most others: for instance, if you plant a seed in the ground, it grows into a vegetable that eventually gives birth to new seeds; but if you plant a stone in the ground, it may suffer changes by erosion or by fusion with other stones, but it will never ‘reproduce’. On the basis of such observations, we have over time distinguished between living beings and minerals (inanimate matter).

The peculiarity of living beings is that (although natural, and not man-made) their parts are organized in systems, sustaining each other and the whole in various ways. Of course, nowhere in an organ or organism is there a sign where it is written “I am doing this for that”. Still, unlike non-living entities, all (or more precisely, most) the qualities and activities of life demonstrably cause (i.e. are natural or at least extensional causatives of, or in Aristotelian language: are efficient causes of) continuation of individual life (or more broadly, through procreation and social protection and support, the life of the species or of the genus, or life as such).

The expression “for” (or similar ones, like “so as to” or “in order that”) allows us to communicate briefly a lot of information, concerning organs and the direct and indirect outcomes of their features and movements. For example, teeth are organs “for” eating. The shapes of some of them are such as to enable them to cut food up; the shape of others, to crush it. As the upper and lower teeth are moved against each other, they begin the digestive process that results in nourishment of the blood with new matter, which keeps the body (including the teeth) strong and healthy.

It should be stressed that the epistemological basis for a claim to quasi-purposive events in living matter is not merely that the isolated event under scrutiny results (by mere causation) in longer and multiplied life, but that all (or most) events in living matter have this same concrete and abstract result. The reason we have to admit an incomplete frequency – saying ‘most’ instead of ‘all’ – is that we do observe a minority of parts, traits or activities of organisms to be (or occasionally, become) useless to life or even antithetical to it. These situations we put aside as abnormal or diseased[3], considering them as effectively incidents or accidents in life processes.

The concept of organic function is thus not directly ontologically evident, but a product of adductive logic. There is no logical irregularity in its formulation or defense. It is an empirically based hypothesis, a tool of discourse through which we manage to collect and order our observations of certain entities, characters and movements in the natural world. It facilitates biological discourse, placing particular observations in a wider system of explanation. It is a causal concept entirely based on causation, and not on volition. It is not purposive, but merely quasi (as if) purposive.

All the concept of conatus asserts ontologically, then, is that the physical processes of life (mostly) take a certain direction (more life) rather than any other (less life), just as we might for instances propose that ‘bodies continue in their state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line unless acted upon by a force’ or ‘like charges repel, opposites attract’. It simply refers to certain causative necessities or inertias for certain classes of natural objects (namely living organisms, not dead ones and not inorganic matter). We can simply say: ‘things just happen to be so’ or ‘that is their nature’. The idea of inherent orientation is logically quite compatible with the ideas of natural law and physical mechanism.

We can argue that just as, at a subatomic (quantum mechanical) level, events may appear naturally spontaneous, and yet, on a larger scale (of visible physical bodies), they seem ruled by natural laws – so may the directionless events of inanimate matter collectively (when brought together in the specific structures of life) result in the effectively directional events of animate matter. Here again (as we saw in the discussion on volition in relation to the laws of physics), what prevents some scientists from admitting conatus is their reductionist mentality, their dogmatic[4] refusal to consider that ‘the whole may be more than the parts’.

No conscious purpose is intended by it, and there is nothing mystical or metaphysical about such an underlying force[5]. Indeed, although the concept of organic function may have originated by analogy to that of conscious target (keeping the idea of goal, while artificially dropping its implication of consciousness) – volitional function may ultimately be viewed as a subset or special case of organic function, in the sense that the volitional agent generally thinks he is serving his life by pursuing his goals.

We may on this basis envisage the development of a ‘natural ethics’, one with simply ‘life’ as its standard of value, or summum bonum. However, the main difficulty facing such an undertaking would be precisely to arrive at a consensus as to the meaning of the term ‘life’ which can be variously understood, in a materialistic, psychological and/or spiritual sense, with reference to the individual or more universally, in one lifetime or many, and so forth. Everyone claims to be pro-life in one sense or another! For example, abortionists do. The question is: whose life? Or: what sort of life?[6] So, we come round full circle.

Nevertheless, I think the logical problems are surmountable, probably by means of dialectical or dilemmatic arguments. Such arguments may have forms like: “whether Y or notY is preferred, the requirement is still X rather than notX” or “whether X or notX is pursued, the result is still Y rather than notY”, where X, notX refer to alternative intermediaries and Y and notY to alternative consequences. Certain means are necessary, whatever the ends one pursues; and there are certain overarching outcomes, whatever our chosen course. We might by such teleological reasoning reach at least some common ground.

It follows that, from a biological point of view, the soul and its faculties and functions (cognition, volition and valuation) should be regarded as no different from other organs of the living organism possessing them, whether physical or mental. The spiritual ‘organs’ are equally functional, tending towards the maintenance and perpetuation of life. Their complexity compared to other organs gives them increased sensitivity, flexibility and power to fulfill that function; but also, this very advantage increases the possibilities and probabilities of error and breakdown.

The natural imperative to life inherent in all organisms, as a sort of conatus, is transformed into an ethical imperative to life in specifically conscious, volitional beings, in proportion to their cognitive powers and freedom of will. In lower animals, cognition and volition function instinctively, whereas in higher animals, there is progressively more mindful choice, reaching a peak in humans; and indeed, in the latter species, there is also a range of behavior, depending on the spiritual development of each individual.

Note lastly that our above definition of organic function is broad enough to include not only the functions of organs of individual organisms, but also populations of organisms. Reproduction minimally implies transmission of life; but in many species (even some plants), the parents continue to support (e.g. feed, protect, train) their offspring for some time. Individuals not directly related may help each other within a variety of social arrangements, in groups of various sizes (like a small tribe of ants or a large nation-state of humans).

Moreover, different species may behave symbiotically, effectively favoring each other’s life. Sometimes, they are not merely of mutual use, but unilaterally or mutually dependent. One species may actively cultivate another in order to feed on it. Culling may be useful to the group culled, preventing depletion of environmental resources. Even when no benefit to the victim is manifest, one species feeding on another may be asserted to have as function the maintenance on earth of life as such or diversity of life or higher forms of life.

Although inanimate matter per se cannot be said to have functions, we may of course say that it is used in many unconscious life processes. For example, plants use nitrogen and sunlight for their growth. This enlarges the concept of utility that we introduced earlier with reference to conscious purposes.

In conclusion, we have here shown that it is possible to formalize ‘functionalism’, with reference only to causation and to the common character of certain natural entities called life. We have thus shown quasi-purposive events in an unconscious nature to be conceivable, and justified teleological discourse on this basis.


3. The continuity of life

As we have seen in the previous section, the great majority of the features and processes of the organs of living organisms have ‘functions’, meaning that they play some causative role in the support of life. This object of organic functioning, i.e. ‘life’, may be understood at many levels. In a first phase, we apply it to the physiological factors of the individual living being. Later, with respect to the increasing complexity of animal and human life, we apply it to the psychological factors, the mental and spiritual.

a. One of the great discoveries of modern biology is that, despite their many differences, all living organisms are composed of one or more tiny ‘cells’, which are visible to everyone under the microscope[7]. Some cells are devoid of a nucleus (prokaryotes); others have one (eukaryotes). The former include bacteria and other unicellular organisms; the latter, both unicellular and multi-cellular organisms – plants, fungi, animals and humans composed of up to billions of cells. Thus, when we refer to a potato plant, a cat or a man or woman as ‘an individual’ organism, we are already really discussing a symbiotic grouping of smaller organisms (the cells that make up the organs that make up the whole organism).

Upon further reflection, it is becomes evident that life is not just an individual phenomenon, but applicable to populations. This is not mere metaphor – in many species, the individual has no chance of survival for any significant duration in isolation from the particular group (family unit or larger) it belongs to. In effect, the group is the organism and the individual is a mere organ of it, with a specific function in relation to the whole (for example, a bee in a hive). It is a prejudice of human conception to regard ‘an organism’ as necessarily something whose organs are all spatially contiguous and inseparable. We can also logically view as ‘an organism’ an entity whose parts can move around some distance apart from each other for some time, provided the interactions of the parts are sufficiently important to them all.

Moreover, since all living things reproduce, we may consider offspring as organs of their parents, and parents as organs of their offspring. Again, these are not mere words, but reflect material and temporal continuities. In some species, notably among higher animals and humans, behavior, information and material possessions are also passed on from generation to generation. Such genetic and cultural inheritances are artificially ignored in conceptualizing discrete individuals. Furthermore, parents (plants or animals) may support the life of their offspring for some time – feeding them, warming them, protecting them from predators, and so forth. Sometimes, the offspring later in turn serve the parents in various ways, and may even serve each other (which refers us back to the groups above discussed). Thus, any line of living organisms may ultimately be viewed as a single organism changing form over time, splitting up and merging.

Thus, at least some groupings of two or more living organisms may be viewed as single organisms with detachable parts, the function of such parts being to ensure the subsistence and to enhance the life of the whole – as in the case of organs stuck together, only with greater flexibility. This concept is applicable to the continuity of generations in any family line, as well as to population groups that may include many families.

The causal relations involved in such spatial and temporal, as well as material, mental and spiritual, continuities are all basically of the form: “without the organ, the organism could not live or would have much more difficulty doing so; with the organ, the organism’s chances are made possible or increased”. This formula clearly applies to parts of individuals and to individuals within groups. Cut out our hearts, we die; cut off our left hand, our chances of survival decrease; without our parents, we would not be born or survive long after birth; without the younger generations, the older ones are doomed as soon as they weaken; taken out of society, most of us would quickly die off.

All of this suggests the continuity of life. Moreover, life is truly uniform in a material sense, as suggested by another crucial finding of modern science, namely: the universality of the genetic material of life (DNA). We can also point to numerous anatomical, metabolic, behavioral and other similarities between living beings to buttress and broaden the concept of continuity. For example, the observation that ontogeny retraces phylogeny (how a human fetus successively resembles a fish, then a reptile, and then a lower mammalian with a tail) is impressive.

b. We might go one step further in this widening perspective on life, and argue speculatively that ultimately all life is one, i.e. all living organisms on earth are apparently part and parcel of one and the same giant living organism. This is here conceived, not to ‘prove’ some pet thesis, but merely to put the continuity of life into perspective, taking the concept to an extreme for the sake of argument.

The ecological perspective is significant in this context. The single living organism inhabits a mineral environment that is always in flux due to physical causes (like the Sun’s rays, ice forming or melting at the Earth’s poles, wind, rain, floods, etc.). But additionally, this environment is constantly changed by that living organism, wittingly or unwittingly. Furthermore, within this theoretical overall creature, neighboring species and individuals constitute the organic environment for each other at any given time and place, together with the mineral surrounds. Plants compete with each other for space and mineral resources; sometimes, they effectively cooperate, as when one species provides the chemicals needed by another; plant life provides a changing theater for animal life; animals destroy, cultivate and eat plants; animals hunt, raise and eat other animals. Thus, the vegetable and animal environment is also constantly in flux. Species in the same geographical region interact, and likewise individuals in the same group. All living beings in a given milieu very dynamically interact and affect each other to various degrees over time.

As earlier mentioned, there are sometimes symbioses between individuals or groups of different species or genera. For instance, one may feed and protect another, and feed on it or be protected by it – as in the relationships between humans and wheat, cattle or dogs. Going further, we could interpret the situation when one organism eats another, as the same larger living entity exchanging its parts, feeding one part of itself with another, moving matter and energy around itself. On this basis, we could argue that it is ‘natural’ for a lion to eat a gazelle, and that the gazelle does its job in the wider context by being eaten. One kind is made tributary to another.

If we consider in one dramatic sweep the history of life on earth[8], since its appearance some 3,700 million years ago, about 800 million years after the formation of the planet, the idea becomes quite thinkable that it is all one organism, which has over time split-up into a multitude of ‘detached organs’ (individuals) composed of a multitude of ‘attached organs’ (components of individuals)[9]. Each such ‘organ’ of the whole organism comes, moves, reproduces with others, changes and goes, in reaction to changing conditions within the organism itself (the organic environment) and its mineral environment, always tending to the conservation of life as such, the life within it – life being nothing other than this very behavioral tendency.

Some such extrapolation might eventually be found useful for the development of a natural ethics. Some ecologists use this idea of the unity of life to encourage widespread protection of nature, in an age when mankind is destroying more and more of it. Some contend that this is excessive and utopian, though I doubt mankind will ever be guilty of self-destructive altruism! No doubt, a balanced model is conceivable – one that erects reasonable hierarchies of value, which give due consideration to human social needs while maintaining a broad focus on maximum protection of life on earth.

[1] See Appendix 2 on Aristotle’s doctrine of “the four causes”.

[2] For example, when we say “Nature does so and so”, or similarly reify a species making it seem like an agent, or tacitly imply the events – which it is a passive subject of – to be its activities. Such anthropomorphisms are often concealed in the use of equivocal verbs, like ‘adaptation’.

[3] For examples, an extra finger or a cancerous breast.

[4] I say ‘dogmatic’ because it is a doctrine adhered to without specific proof (i.e. without experiments and mathematical formulae deriving the living from the non-living), but by anticipation.

[5] It is a secular concept, although theists remain logically free to assert that this state of affairs was instituted by the Creator or is regulated by Providence, i.e. that nature was or is so programmed. Similarly, animists may suppose an underlying ‘will of Nature’.

[6] For example, in the case of abortion: “whose life?” – adult needs or desires are favored over those of the unborn; “what kind of life?” – the life of the aborting adult is thenceforth weighed down by the selfish choice made.

[7] Viruses are not cellular; however, they are not independent organisms, but rather bundles of genetic material and protein that multiply parasitically.

[8] I make no attempt here to describe this history in detail, but every reader should make the effort to read about it, and get acquainted with current discoveries and scientific theories. There are many excellent books on the subject; and of course, there is lots of interesting material on the Internet.

[9] I am here of course referring to the self-replication of the first unicellular organism(s) – the prokaryotes, followed some 1,800 million years ago by the eukaryotes; and then to the first multicellular organisms, aggregated algae appearing some 1,500 million years ago. Animals only made their appearance much later, less than 600 million ago.

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