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Aristotelian hylomorphism and non-reductive materialism.

I Introduction

Contemporary metaphysicians have agreed on very little when it comes to the nature of persons. Perhaps closest to a philosophical consensus is the claim 'I exist' for each person who considers it. Thus, a piece of the Cartesian legacy remains. However, Descartes' attempt at spelling out an answer to the 'What sort of thing am I?' question has received almost the opposite reception as defenders of substance dualism have become scarce. So, there are some (or at least one) persons and these are closely linked with the physical. This link is explicated in a variety of ways, e.g., emergence, supervenience, constitution, animalism, etc. The non-reductive materialist views are most popular as they are the only ones that pay proper homage to the Cartesian insight (I exist.) without being laden with the burden of dualism. Fortunately, philosophers have not rested content with the Cartesian argument (thanks, in part, to those like Hume, Russell, and Unger who reject the view) and have sought to explain why there is something where I am. Or, to put it a bit more descriptively, if there were a bunch of Lego bricks put together in the shape of a human, we would not think there was anything of ontological significance over and above the individual Lego bricks, (1) but the thing that is where my parts are arranged like a person is something over and above the parts (this is where the 'non' in 'non-reductive materialism' does its work), so, how does the one human-shaped thing differ from the other in such a way that one is reducible to its parts and the other is not? The most popular answer (or type of answer) to this question appeals to considerations of internally caused and maintained structure. If a child removes some of the Lego bricks from the person-shaped structure (call it Sid), Sid cannot repair, replace, or otherwise deal with this event. Sid is entirely dependent on external circumstances to be the sort of structure it is. My human-shaped structure, though in need of favorable circumstances, is capable of reacting to such situations in order to maintain the sort of structure that is in place. It is this internal source of organization and structure that sets me apart from Sid.

This is where most non-reductive materialist accounts of persons run dry. They all require some sort of unifying principle and at this point they pay homage to the biologists who will fill in the gaps as to what that is. This is unacceptable. Biology is not in the business of completing partial metaphysical theories. Consequently, non-reductive materialists have work to do. More needs to be said about this unifying principle. After providing a more thorough and compelling account of the shortcomings of non-reductive materialist metaphysics, I present Aristotelian hylomorphism as a way to understand the relationship between the matter of a living thing (or person) and the form or unifying principle which bestows ontological status upon it. I argue that the Aristotelian notion of form is necessary for completing non-reductivist theories. Further, I argue that form, rather than just serving as a theoretical place holder, can be identified with the genetic code. (2)

II Overview of Non-Reductivist Theories

Metaphysical accounts of persons abound. I cannot, for a host of reasons, survey the full variety of explanations showing that each lacks a proper account of unity. While metaphysicians have gone off in several different directions searching for the proper account of human persons, a great many of the various non-reductive physicalist views fall into a few categories. Thus, a large part of the territory can be covered by looking at samples of the following types of theory: emergence, supervenience, (3) constitution, and animalism. The endeavor will be assisted by ignoring reductionism, substance dualism, and merological universalism. (4)

Supervenience, (5) emergence, (6) and constitution (7) theories can be dealt with together. The views that human persons supervene on, emerge from or are constituted by a human organism postulate a special relationship between human organisms and human psychology (which is taken as the basis for personhood). In all three cases, philosophers have been allowed to say too little about how the body plays this role. Lynn Baker provides a classic example of this shortcoming. After defining human being as a psychological kind that is the equivalent of human person, she writes, 'Exactly when a human organism becomes a human being, I leave to biologists to say.' (8) Yet, simple deference to biology is inadequate. While the biologist may tell us many interesting things about organisms and life, she will not be explicitly underwriting any metaphysical theory, at least, not qua biologist. In other words, there are no biological facts that, when taken into consideration, lead one to say, 'Oh, so that's how the body allows the person to supervene or emerge or be constituted'. Whatever it is that biologists have to say, the metaphysician still has work to do. And this work must go beyond the usual mention of complexity. Complexity is, most likely, a necessary condition for a physical entity to allow a person to supervene on it or emerge from it (or be constituted by it), but it is in no way sufficient. Nor is it clear how complexity helps, except to make what is going on in the body obscure enough that we could imagine something of metaphysical consequence resulting from it. William Hasker explicitly exploits physical complexity to hide obscure theorizing when he defends his view that non-physical souls emerge from complex neurophysiological systems. Hasker says, 'And if it strains our credulity to accept that we humans really are crafted from the dust of the earth, we ought to remember that this dust is itself the creation of the all-wise God, and rich with potentials beyond our imagining.' (9) Although Hasker is correct, the phenomena that occur in the material world are surprising while the complexity of our world and ourselves fires the imagination, this is not a reasonable defense for a philosophical theory. On the contrary, any theory which has the substance that I am - person or otherwise--supervening on, emerging from, being constituted by, or any relationship rendering the individual something over and above the body is really nothing more than the outline of a theory, a sketch or suggestion in need of completion. Otherwise, these theories amount to the same thing--holding that there is some magical metaphysical relationship that allows persons to exist over and above the bodies that give them a metaphysical footing. (10)

Animalism, by identifying individual human persons with human animals, provides a much more straightforward connection between biology and metaphysics. Since you, me, and our ilk, metaphysically speaking, are animals--the very subjects of biology and not something over and above the organisms biologists are interested in--the dictates of biology are directly about us and our kin. Animalism avails itself of biology, but biology is not metaphysics. There is work to be done in drawing metaphysical consequences from contemporary biology. In the case of animalism, these consequences are easier to draw and a close look at how animalism is developed will indicate precisely where the work with biology needs to be done. An examination of two noteworthy examples of animalism, those put forth by Peter van Inwagen and Eric Olson, will illustrate how this is so. (11)

Eric Olson presents a version of animalism that explicitly contains a closer link with biology as he advances it under the rubric of the biological approach. Olson explains his view, 'What it takes for us to persist through time is what I have called biological continuity: one survives just in case one's purely animal functions--metabolism, the capacity to breathe and circulate one's blood, and the like--continue.' (12) Olson further elucidates the two central claims of the biological approach. 'First, you and I are animals: members of the species Homo Sapiens to be precise. ... The claim is not that your body is a human animal, or that you are "constituted by" a human animal. That living primate sitting in your chair right now is you: you are numerically identical with an animal.' (13) After placing so much weight on our status as organisms and expending a great deal of energy and argument to undermine psychological accounts of persons, Olson finally takes up the question, 'What is an organism?' (14) Olson's first response is quite disappointing. He answers, 'Ultimately it is the business of biology to answer this question: it is roughly the same project as explaining the nature of life.' (15)

Fortunately, Olson's ensuing comments are much more informative and interesting than his initial response. Olson sketches an account of organisms by appealing to three factors: metabolism, teleology, and organized complexity. An organism's metabolic activity displays its ability to maintain, as Olson calls it, a '... dynamic stability [wherein organisms] ... retain their characteristic form and structure despite a constant and rapid exchange of matter and energy with their surroundings.' (16) Metabolism in an organism, though similar to the activity of a flame, differs because of the second factor, teleology. The end result of metabolic activity, though under a certain degree of environmental influence, is internally governed to a significant extent. Olson claims: 'Organisms are self-directed and self-governing in a way that other dissipative structures are not.' (17) The self-governance of organisms requires a plan or control center of some sort because the level of complexity is so vast. The third factor Olson mentions, organized complexity, contributes to the idea of what distinguishes organisms from non-living things by demonstrating the level of internal control required for maintenance of an organism's characteristic structure in pursuit of its goals (factors one and two). Concerning organismic complexity, Olson states:
 But the complexity of a human being or of any other organism is not
 simply a matter of having a vast number of parts. We are complex in
 a way in which marble statues of human beings are not. Our parts
 are arranged in an extremely delicate and highly improbable way. If
 the atoms that make you up (there are about 1028 of them, give or
 take a few gazillion) were arranged in almost any other way, they
 would not compose a living thing. (18)

The radical complexity of human organisms shows that the level of internal control is on an order such that the any other things that are so complex and so tightly internally regulated are other organisms. So, although Olson doesn't give the necessary and sufficient conditions for something exercising enough internal control to be an organism, he shows that the level of control rules out any simple counter-examples like thermostats, filtration systems and similar internally regulated mechanisms that respond to their environment. Olson's biological approach takes us a long way towards connecting a metaphysical account of human beings with biological considerations, but we are left with two important questions: 'What provides the internal governance to an organism?' (this question seems mostly one for the biologist.) and 'What is the relationship between the governing mechanism and the resulting organism?' (this is mostly a question for the metaphysician.)

Van Inwagen's account of humans, though preceding Olson's, brings us closer to answering these questions. Van Inwagen advances his theory as part of his answer to the special composition question, 'When is it true that there exists a y such that there are x's that compose y?' In short, van Inwagen's answer is that there are x's that compose some y if and only if the activity of the x's constitutes a life. (19) Van Inwagen further clarifies, 'I mean the word "life" to denote the individual life of a concrete biological organism.' (20) To this, van Inwagen adds, 'It should go without saying that I am using "life" in its most narrow biological sense.' Van Inwagen, like Olson, finally comes to the question, 'But what is a life? What features distinguish lives from other sorts of event?' (21) Like Olson, van Inwagen's initial answer disappoints as he claims, 'In the last analysis, it is the business of biology to answer this question, just as it is the business of chemistry to answer the questions "What is a metal?" and "What is an acid"; or the business of physics to answer the question, "What is matter?" ' (22) Once again, we find a metaphysician expecting scientists to complete a philosophical theory.

However, after paying proper homage to the biologists, van Inwagen offers his own, admittedly abstract, account of life. Using an extended analogy of a club (as in a yacht club, not as in an instrument for hitting things), which will not be reproduced here, (23) van Inwagen concludes that lives are self-maintaining, well individuated, jealous events. In his initial elaboration of these special characteristics of life, lives are first described as self-maintaining, but must be differentiated from other self-maintaining events like a flame or a wave. (24) This is where being well-individuated becomes important. Van Inwagen properly points out problems with counting flames and identifying flames across time, but he says very little about what it means to be well-individuated and what he does say is perplexing. In his explanation of why 'there is often a reasonably clear answer to the question of whether a life observed at one time ... is the same life as a life that is observed at another time (or place).' (25) he offers: 'This is because a life is a self-directing event.' (26) This is perplexing because individuation was being called on to separate lives from other self-maintaining events and individuation is explained by self-direction, which prima facie sounds like self-maintenance. It seems as though the explanation is circular. When van Inwagen considers tumors, which are self-maintaining, but not self-regulating, he points to a way out of the circle. The distinction between self-maintaining and self-regulating is not developed past the tumor example. It seems as though the difference must be teleological--self-regulating things do not just keep themselves going, but they do so for a certain purpose or to function a certain way. Something like this must be the difference between a kidney and a tumor. Distinguishing living from non-living things requires an appeal to the teleological considerations that Olson introduced to separate the metabolic activity of organisms from flames and other self-perpetuating activities (like cancer growth).

Van Inwagen adds that lives are jealous events, meaning that lives, unlike waves, cannot overlap. Two waves can share their matter, when they interfere or are in superposition, but two lives cannot (except in one special case, where one life is the life of a cell that is part of a multi-cellular organism). That lives are jealous is a fact about what kind of individuals they are--so jealousy does not help us understand how lives are individuated. That must already be grasped. But, van Inwagen's comments on a life being well-individuated were not very helpful. Perhaps that is why he returns to this issue and asks, 'What is the ground of my unity? That is, what binds the simples that compose me into a composite being?' (27) In response to his own query, van Inwagen states, 'It seems to me to be plausible to say that what binds them together is that their activities constitute a life, a homeodynamic storm of simples, a self maintaining, well individuated, jealous event.' (28) While I do not doubt the plausibility of this statement, I do find it lacking as an account of what a life is. Since van Inwagen's metaphysical theory tells us that the only composite objects are living things, he owes us a better explanation of what living things are, even if producing the full account is the job of biologists.

Jack Wilson raises a similar objection against van Inwagen and others. Wilson claims 'Philosophers such as Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, van Inwagen, and Wiggins have tried to answer questions about the individuation and persistence of living entities, but for the most part, these discussions have drifted away from current biological fact or never had much to do with real biology in the first place.' (29) Wilson's criticism is apt. Philosophers have concocted theories that do not fit with scientific facts. (30) At any rate, even those taking a biological approach (as van Inwagen and Olson do) have simply trusted that biologists would provide (or have provided) the proper underpinnings for their favored metaphysics. If metaphysics theories could rest on naive optimism, then we would all be Platonists. Clearly, more is needed.

However, some of these theorists point the way towards the answer. Van Inwagen admits that his view is markedly Aristotelian while he and Olson both invoke teleological considerations in giving accounts of life. But they do not go far enough. They shy away from the full blooded Aristotelian hylomorphic framework which must be invoked to explain the metaphysics of life. Much of what Olson and van Inwagen offered requires the notion of form or structure. Olson speaks of 'organized complexity'. Reflection reveals this notion to be redundant. Complexity always requires organization. A symphony can be complex, but the cacophony emanating from a playground cannot. A building can be complex, while a pile of rubble cannot. Appeal to physical complexity by any non-reductive physicalists as a way of explaining the metaphysical basis for persons is implicitly an appeal to structure. The physical simples composing a life must be structured in a particular way to do so. As van Inwagen regards lives as self-maintaining and self-directing, he is committed to believing that there is something which guides the simples and orchestrates them into a living thing. It is not the simples themselves that spontaneously form life--rather, the simples are caught up in an organizational scheme expressing itself through its control of and interaction with its immediate environment. As Montgomery Furth insightfully notes, '... [T]hese endlessly repeated, specifically identical, highly organized, sharply demarcated, integral structures or systems ... the biological objects which are the substantial individuals, each one a unitary individual entity ... stands out as a remarkable fact of nature which invites explanation.' (31) Furth is exactly right. The biological individuals we encounter typically exhibit such unity and distinctness from their surrounding environment that we need an explanation for how such a complex structure is maintained. I offer that an explanation of this phenomenon requires Aristotle's form. In what follows, I will provide the Aristotelian account of form, show that it can complete the non-reductive materialist account, and that DNA is a suitable candidate for being the formal element in organismic existence.

III Aristotle's Form

Reviving and defending an Aristotelian hylomorphic approach is no small task. Aristotelian notions of form have long been philosophically suspect as the fountainhead of scholastic explanations which were rejected at the outset of the scientific revolution and replaced by Newtonian physics. (32) In 'Hylomorphism', Bernard Williams offers the following indictment of the Aristotelian approach:
 Hylomorphism earns its reputation as everybody's moderate
 metaphysics of mind, I believe, by in fact wobbling between two
 options. In one of them, soul does basically appear only
 adjectivally, and while the doctrine is, so far as I can see,
 formally consistent, it is only a polite form of materialism, which
 is cumbrous, misleading, and disposed to point in the wrong
 direction from the point of view of deeper theoretical
 understanding. (33)

In what follows, I will attempt to show that just the opposite is true, that hylomorphism is elegant, insightful and provides deeper theoretical understanding. First, it is necessary to describe Aristotle's hylomorphic analysis. Williams provides a good starting point: 'I take hylomorphism to be the view that the relation of soul to body bears some illuminating resemblance to the relation of form to matter: where form is a semi-technical expression, its sense illustrated by the example of shape, but going beyond that example.' (34) The relationship between form and shape is instructive as shape is the simplest example of form and provides an entry point for understanding hylomorphism. Aristotle introduces the notion of form along with the notion of shape and often refers to the two together as though they are different ways of expressing the same idea. In what are often considered earlier works, Aristotle talks about the 'shape or form' (morphe kai eidos) of a thing. However, through the Physics, Aristotle develops (or simply displays) (35) a much more powerful conception of form. Williams is right, form is illustrated by the example of shape, but goes beyond that example. I believe that Williams errs in not appreciating how far beyond the example form goes in the Physics, (36) de Anima, and Metaphysics, as well as in the biological works. In these works, Aristotle's conception of form expands from being epexegetically associated with shape to being a cause, being a principle, being substance, and being soul. Aristotle's favored examples of bronze sphere and bronze statue persists through most of these works, deceiving the casual reader into thinking that the similarity between shape and form remains unchanged. However, the transformation from shape to cause to principle to substance to soul is radical, so much so, that one cannot help but wonder why Aristotle retained the bronze sphere example throughout.

Prior to presenting the four causes in the Physics, Aristotle claims that some things exist by nature, e.g., plants, animals, and their parts (192b9-10). Such things are subsequently said to have a principle of motion and rest and of growth and dimunition. Artifacts, on the contrary, have no innate and non-accidental impulse to change (192b20-4) nor do they contain their own principles of production (192b28). Aristotle considers two candidates for being a nature, form and matter. Though both form and matter are nature in a way, Aristotle unequivocally considers form the better candidate for being a nature (193a7-8).

Having made this distinction between different senses of the term 'nature', Aristotle claims that an investigation of causes is necessary. Aristotle introduces the four causes in the Physics, then, as four explanations of a thing, i.e., a thing's being what it is. Aristotle's idea is not that there are four causes for everything, but that when people seek an explanation, they are looking for one of these accounts. Though there are four such explanations, Aristotle admits that the final and efficient causes are often identical with the formal cause (193a22-6). This preserves the primacy of form and matter as types of explanation, while allowing room for efficient causal and teleological explanations. Form, then, is nature, is a cause, often explains efficient and final causes and is said to be 'completely unchangeable, the primary reality, and the essence of the thing ...' (198b1-3). (37) Aristotle follows this up by identifying form and purpose, 'For [form] is the end or that for the sake of which. Hence, since nature is for the sake of something, we must know this cause also' (198b4-5). Form, then, is an incredibly robust component of Aristotle's physics (and metaphysics) which is essential to the hylomorphic compound, being the primary and unchanging reality which structures or enforms the individual for some end or goal.

As Aristotle's inquiry about nature and cause focuses on form, the role of form changes from being like shape (193a30, b4) to being an archetype (194b27), a nature (193b7), and essence (198b3). Though shape, in some instances, is form; the role form plays often goes well beyond shape. As Cynthia Freeland points out, 'Form is more than mere shape (morphe): though they have the right shapes, animals carved from wood or metamorphosed into stone are not real [animals].' (38) Obviously, in more complex cases, as we are typically interested, the notion of form as shape quickly seems absurd. This becomes clear in On Generation and Corruption. While discussing persistence through growth, Aristotle describes the matter as a substratum (319b8-12) and the form as 'a kind of power in matter--a duct, as it were' (321a28) which directs growth. This leads Aristotle to say later, 'Although food is akin to the matter, that which is fed is the figure--i.e., the form--taken along with the matter' (GC 335a15-16). Matter is characterized as that which 'suffers action' while form is active and is a 'controlling cause' (GC 335b30-2). This relationship between matter and form as passive and active is further described in the biological works. In Parts of Animals Aristotle writes:
 And inasmuch as it is the presence of the soul that enables matter
 to constitute the animal nature, much more than it is the presence
 of matter which so enables the soul, the inquirer into nature is
 bound to treat of the soul rather than of the matter. For though
 the wood of which they are made constitutes the couch and the
 tripod, it only does so because it is potentially such and such a
 form. (PA 641a27-32)

Aristotle reiterates this point: 'Moreover, when any one of the parts or structures, be it which it may, is under discussion, it must not be supposed that it is its material composition to which attention is being directed or which is the object of the discussion, but rather the total form' (PA 645a30-4). Rather notoriously, Aristotle continues the application of this idea in GA and considers sperm as form, active, and controlling while the menstrual fluid is matter, passive and submissive (e.g., GA 716a5-6, 729b12-14). The central tenet of these passages is that the explanation of a things being what it is, e.g., explaining why this is an animal and that is a tripod, must focus on form. It is the form which has the ability to control the matter and structure the appropriate matter into the individual horse, baby or tripod. (39)

Aristotle's discussion of form continues in the Metaphysics while investigating the nature of substance. Aristotle's work on substance poses many difficulties and has generated enormous controversies. Fortunately, I can avoid most of the difficulties and controversies by focusing on the development of Aristotle's notion of form rather than the much more difficult treatment of substance. Two significant changes occur and while the details are difficult to discern, the general contours of these changes are enough for my purposes. The first is that Aristotle moves away from a straightforward (and perhaps naive) view of substance as subject, like the one advanced in the Categories. Aristotle's development of hylomorphism causes this change as seen in Aristotle's claim, 'We have now outlined the nature of substance, showing that it is that which is not predicated of any subject, but of which all else is predicated. But we must not merely state the matter thus; for this is not enough. The statement itself is obscure, and further, on this view, matter becomes substance' (1029a8-9). Since the subject criterion for substance yielded matter as substance, Aristotle has to devise new criteria. (40) What emerges is a set of criteria that includes epistemic aspects. Substance is no longer merely subject, but 'primary in knowledge' (1028a32), 'the only definable thing' (1031a1, 10-14), and 'the starting point of production as of deduction' (1033b31). This shifts the focus from substance as a thing to substance as explanatorily powerful. We see this in Aristotle's claim: 'Since, then, substance is a principle and a cause, let us attack it from this standpoint. The "why" is always sought in this form--"why does one thing attach to another?" ' Thus, in moving away from the subject criterion, Aristotle looks at explanatory power, i.e., ability to explain why something is a certain way. It is this shift that leads Aristotle to discover or unveil the explanatory power of form that began to be revealed in the Physics. As Aristotle searches for the best candidate for answering this 'why?' question, he is forced to explore the explanatory depth of his notion of form in unprecedented ways. Given the appeal of matter as basic subject and his predecessors' notion of substance as water, atoms, elements, the indefinite and so on, a strong case had to be made in order to avoid matter as substance. This dialectical pressure brought out the heuristic advantages of form.

Aristotle's application of form expands in the de Anima. Having uncovered form as a type of cause (in the Physics), realizing the explanatory power of formal cause (GC, PA, GA, etc.) as nature, principle, actuality, and active, and having established form as (at the very least) a type of substance, Aristotle brings the full weight of hylomorphism to bear on living things in de Anima. Perhaps the shift from 'morphe' or shape is most apparent as Aristotle searches for new examples. We find Aristotle making rather awkward analogies such as, 'Suppose that the eye were an animal, sight would have been its soul' (412b18), and 'It follows that the soul is analogous to the hand; for as the hand is a tool of tools, so thought is the form of forms and sense the form of sensible things' (432a1-2). The simple relationship of shape to bronze is clearly inadequate to capture the profound metaphysical role of form in Aristotle's system. In addition to his figurative descriptions of form, Aristotle describes it in new ways as 'a substance in the sense of the form of a natural body having life potentially within it' (412a20-1), 'an actuality of the first kind of a natural organized body' (412b4), and 'what it is to be for a body' (412b12). Thus, Aristotle is attempting to capture the active role form has as an ontological force which he elaborates on in the following passage:
 The soul is the cause or source of the living body. The terms
 'cause' and 'source' have many senses. But the soul is the cause of
 its body alike in all three senses which we explicitly recognize.
 It is the source of movement, it is the end, it is the essence of
 the whole living body. That it is the last is clear; for in
 everything the essence is identical with the cause of its being,
 and here, in the case of living things, their being is to live, and
 of their being and their living the soul in them is the cause or
 source. (415b9-13)

Thus, Aristotle identifies the soul (which is the form of a living being) with the movement, perhaps best understood as the actuality, of existing things. In living things, the soul is the source of life, hence the ultimate cause of existence. As the end, the soul or form does not begin movement in a haphazard way, but according to and in order to express the form which it is. The form, then, is both the source and the goal of the organization of matter. The hylomorphic compound has achieved its telos when the form is fully expressed.

Aristotle further develops this feature of his hylomorphism later in de Anima by claiming, 'Since in every class of things, as in nature as a whole, we find two factors involved, a matter which is potentially all the particulars included in the class, [and] a cause which is productive in the sense that it makes them all (the latter standing to the former as, e.g., an art to its material), these distinct elements must likewise be found in the soul' (430a10-13). Aristotle's description of form as productive is crucial for his theory. Stripped of its productive power, form would then need a further cause to unite it with matter and mold the matter, so to speak, to the form. Aristotle emphasizes that form is the cause which organizes matter in order to avoid the need for a further explanatory element. Furth elegantly describes the notion of form 'as a conceptual instrumentality deliberately fashioned in the course of seeking a theoretical understanding of the agencies (or 'causes') responsible for the simultaneous unity and complexity of biological objects. ...' (41) Mary Louise Gill echoes this sentiment. While discussing the problem of accounting for the unity of individuals (both synchronic and diachronic), Gill states, 'The solution to the problem of unity will finally depend on Aristotle's doctrine of form as an active cause. ...' (42) Frank Lewis extends Gill's point: '[I]t is because a form is the cause of the being of a thing--that is, the causal role the form plays in the analysis of the membership by the thing in its kind--that the form can also figure in the explanation of its unity.' (43) Aristotle invokes the notion of form and attributes a variety of roles to it so that he can explain the structural organization of individuals, with particular attention to the paradigm cases of individuality--living things. In the last analysis, whatever else may be true of it, form is the unifying factor of all material objects. (44)

It is this robust notion of form that is needed to complete the non-reductivist account. Van Inwagen and Olson indicate that such is needed, but lack the nerve to pull back the curtain and reveal the full Aristotelianism underlying such accounts. Similarly, every non-reductionist account of persons having currency in contemporary debates similarly requires an account of structure, purpose or organization. Only a genuinely Aristotelian hylomorphic explanation can accomplish this. Alan Code has described one of two key features of Montgomery Furth's work on Aristotle as 'the hypothesis that the Western conception of a material individual is an original theoretical formulation of Aristotle's.' (45) When Aristotle explored the nature of material beings, he found that their material nature was insufficient to account for their unity (synchronic or diachronic). Thus, Aristotle, in pioneering a philosophical view of material objects, borrowed the only theoretical concept for explaining the properties of material objects, Platonic form. However, Aristotle pressed form into service in order to explain the reality of material objects, not denigrate them as shadowy images of forms. Given Aristotle's commitment to the substantial status of physical objects, especially living things, form had to play a different role in Aristotelian metaphysics. First and foremost, form was pulled out of Platonic heaven and placed right there in the particular statue or sphere. In this way, the example of shape is very informative. The shape of the statue is exactly where the statue is. As Aristotle's account of material objects is more fully developed, form cannot just be present and inert, as shape is. While shape may be what makes bronze into a sphere or statue, it is not what makes flesh, blood and bones into a human. Aristotle needed a more robust notion of form to explain organisms. This led to the notion of form as an internal cause of unity that structures the individual in pursuit of a telos.

IV DNA as Form

Non-reductive materialist accounts of persons fail to explain the unity of the underlying organism which does so much metaphysical work. Aristotle's notion of form provides a grounding of organismic unity. But should we think that there is any such thing as an Aristotelian form? Is it not merely a placeholder, a theoretical construct intended to fill the gaps of non-reductive materialism? Have I not moved the mysterious back one step and slapped a piece of jargon on it pretending to have an explanation? If the paper ended above, these complaints and questions would be to the point. However, there is more to say about form. In particular, DNA (46) is well suited (and genetics in general regardless of their particular manifestation) (47) to play the role of formal cause. DNA fits the bill for several reasons. (48) First, it is formal--as it can be represented mathematically. (49) Second, it is an internal cause of unity, self-regulation and self-maintenance. Third, it fulfills Aristotle's description of form as including efficient and final causes since DNA plays an efficient causal role in the development of living things and, given a proper understanding of teleology, the expression of the genome is the goal of biological activities. (50)

As the following discussion depends on some of the intricacies of genetic biology, a description of DNA's role from a recent biology textbook is worth quoting: (51)
 Coded DNA serves as a central cell library. Tens of thousands of
 messages are in this storehouse of information. This information
 tells the cell such things as (1) how to produce enzymes required
 for the digestion of nutrients, (2) how to manufacture enzymes that
 will metabolize the nutrients and eliminate harmful wastes, (3) how
 to repair and assemble cell parts, (4) how to reproduce healthy
 offspring, (5) when and how to react to favorable and unfavorable
 changes in the environment, and (6) how to coordinate and regulate
 all of life's essential functions. If any of these functions are
 not performed properly, the cell may die. The importance of
 maintaining essential DNA in a cell becomes clear when we consider
 cells that have lost it. For example, human red blood cells lose
 their nuclei as they become specialized to carry oxygen and carbon
 dioxide throughout the body. Without DNA they are unable to
 manufacture the essential cell components needed to sustain
 themselves. They continue to exist for about 120 days, functioning
 only on enzymes manufactured earlier in their lives. When these
 enzymes are gone, the cells die. Because these specialized cells
 begin to die the moment they lose their DNA, they are more
 accurately called red blood corpuscles (RBC's): "little dying [sic]
 red bodies." (52)

In this passage, several points are noteworthy. First, DNA is portrayed as an information center. It is the cell library with messages and information. Second, the information it contains directs the cell in maintaining its life: digesting, metabolizing, photosynthesizing, repairing organelles, and reproducing. It is the information in the DNA which allows the cell to retain its vital functions and respond in a unified way to changes in its environment. This is accomplished through DNA containing codes for the construction of various proteins. (53) Francois Jacob and Jacques Monod offer the following as a description of this process: 'The genome contains not only a series of blue-prints, but a coordinated program of protein synthesis and the means of controlling its execution.' (54) Jacob later reiterates this point, 'What are transmitted from generation to generation are the "instructions" specifying the molecular structures: the architectural plans of the future organism. They are also the means of executing these plans and of coordinating the activities of the system.' (55) Jacob and Monod emphasize the functional role of DNA in the life of the cell/organism. DNA is crucial for cellular life because of its indispensable causal role in the life processes of the cell.

Jacob and Monod's view is akin to a more structuralist account of biological entities as put forth by Herbert Spencer. Spencer claims, 'Hence, a biological individual is any concrete whole having a structure which enables it, when placed in appropriate conditions, to continuously adjust its internal relations to external relations, so as to maintain the equilibrium of its functions.' (56) Spencer's emphasis is two-fold, requiring biological individuals to persist in their life processes while interacting with their environment and requiring this persistence to depend on structural attributes of the biological entity. For Jacob and Monod as well as for Spencer, the organism's life functions are performed and maintained by structural aspects of the living thing. Jack Wilson asserts the essential nature of genetics for sustained life, 'When the gametes fuse, they are subsumed into a new genetic individual and cease to exist. The new genetic individual ... persists from that time until no cell descended from that cell with that genotype exists. If there is a break in the continuity of genetic identity ... that genetic individual cannot begin to exist again.' (57) DNA, which coordinates cellular activity, maintains cell structure, and governs the functions constitutive of life (e.g., reproduction, replication, growth, metabolism, photosynthesis, etc.), is the stable component in a cellular environment characterized by a flurry of activity and change. (58) Since DNA provides the stability through the change, it provides the basis for diachronic as well as synchronic identity. (59)

This connection between structure and function raises questions of teleology. Are the structures there in order to perform the functions? Are the functions the ends (or that for the sake of which) of the structures? If so, is there room for teleology in contemporary biology? A quick survey of the literature reveals strong answers on both sides of the question. Many philosophers and biologists, either responding historically to scholasticism or alarmed recently by the Intelligent Design movement, decry any teleological element. Others insist that teleology is ineliminable, but unproblematic. (60) Andrew Ariew provides a lucid discussion of this topic which illuminates the problem by distinguishing Platonic from Aristotelian teleology. (61) Platonic teleology requires intelligence or intentionality. Functions are performed for some end, more to the point, for some good, but only mind can strive for the good. So, functions require intelligence. (62) Aristotelian teleology differs from Platonic by finding 'an inherent purposive or goal directed force that resides in the material properties of living entities.' (63) The Aristotelian position has no need for designers or intelligence, but allows purposeful activity and structure to arise from material natures. At the same time, the Aristotelian finds that material natures alone cannot explain biological phenomena. The Aristotelian move is to find a place between the reductive materialist and the Platonic dualist. This is attempted by attributing teleological tendencies to material entities without invoking a designer. (64)

Putting aside the confusion with Platonic teleology, there are other bogeymen to dispel. Francis Crick links teleology with vitalism, which is to biology what alchemy is to chemistry. Francis Crick claims, 'Natural selection, Darwin argued, provides an "automatic" mechanism by which a complex organism can both survive and increase in number and complexity. I say "automatic" to mean that we need not involve a special "life force" or "intelligence" to direct this process.' (65) Crick makes this remark early in a book that is largely a diatribe against vitalism, which he defines as the view that 'there is some special force directing the growth and behavior of living systems which cannot be understood by our ordinary notions of chemistry and physics.' (66) Similarly, Ernst Mayr details the legacies that biology had to shake off in order to become a science. After describing the need to break with vitalism, Mayr claims, 'Teleology is the second invalid principle that had to be eliminated from biology before it qualified as a science equivalent to physics.' (67) Mayr and Crick agree that biology has no room for vitalism or teleology.

Yet, Mayr and Crick both help themselves to teleological language. Crick claims, 'But clearly it is not much use having information unless it is used for something, so we must next ask, "What is it that genes do?" The answer is simple: the main function of genes is to direct the synthesis of protein molecules, each gene being used to direct the synthesis of a particular protein.' (68) Mayr concedes that 'anyone who eliminates evolutionary "why" questions closes the door on a large area of biological research.' (69) Crick's question is teleological as it seeks to find out what genes are for, i.e., what purpose they serve. Mayr's 'why?' questions are 'Why do turtles swim to the shore?' (answer: to lay eggs) and 'Why does the wood thrush migrate to warmer climates?' (answer: in order to escape winter). (70) Mayr resolves the apparent conflict by differentiating five uses of 'teleology' and arguing in favor of the use of teleological notions that are compatible with efficient causal explanations. (71) Mayr finds two of these notions acceptable--teleology as teleomatic processes and teleology as teleonomic processes. Mayr disregards teleomatic processes, those that work towards an end state, as too inclusive. He offers examples of radioactive decay and a river flowing to its mouth as teleomatic processes. If there is any teleology in biology, it must be more robust than this. Thus, teleonomic processes, defined by Mayr as 'one that owes its goal-directedness to the influence of an evolved program.' (72) It turns out, then, that it is not teleology per se which is objectionable, but certain types of teleology. Once teleology is understood as teleonomy (as opposed to Platonic or cosmic teleology), Mayr has no objections to it. (73) Quite to the contrary, Mayr states, 'Goal directed behavior ... is extremely widespread in the organic world. ... The occurrence of goal-directed processes is perhaps the most characteristic feature of the world of living organisms.' (74) So, although Mayr forcibly rejects teleology and declares it to be one of the impediments of biology's status as a science, he whole-heartedly accepts teleology, when it is properly defined. In an assessment of teleology in contemporary biology, Mayr claims, 'Even though there are indeed many organic processes and activities that are clearly goal-directed, there is no need to involve supernatural forces, because the goal is already coded in the program that directs these activities.' (75) Mayr's endorsement of teleonomic teleology reinforces Ariew's emphasis on distinguishing which type of teleology is in question. Once we set aside Platonic teleology (also called cosmic teleology--the kind that the intelligent design movement depends on), there is freedom to explore the place of a naturalistic teleology, rooted in natural selection, with the goal encoded in the genetic program and not the intentions of a deity, benevolent or otherwise.

Thus, naturalistically acceptable teleological explanations in biology allow for the understanding of DNA as a paradigmatic case of Aristotelian form. The genetic code is present in the living organism and plays an active role in coordinating and maintaining the life functions of the cell or organism in pursuit of the ends given by the genetic code itself. By structuring the matter of the cellular environment for the purposes of replication, growth, development, metabolism, photosynthesis and other life processes, DNA is the internal source of unity for a living thing. This is exactly what Aristotle takes form to be, the internal source of unity that structures the individual in pursuit of a telos. So, form is not an empty theoretical place holder. It is a useful concept that helps us to understand the shortfalls of contemporary metaphysical accounts of persons and to see how work in biology, in particular in genetics, can be enlisted in support of non-reductive materialism. (76)


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(1) Notice that the mereological universalist is not included in the 'we'.

(2) Thus, my approach has the advantage of having greater explanatory value as it applies to all living things and not just persons.

(3) Roughly, I am taking supervenience theories as those that identify who we are with our mental or psychological features (or some relevant subset of them) and hold that these features, properties or events supervene on the physical, i.e., the body.

(4) Reductionism and dualism are ignored because they are minority views that fall outside of the scope of this paper. However, I take it that strengthening non-reductive physicalism, as this paper attempts to do, weakens the case for either of these alternatives. Mereological universalism is ignored because it does not require an explanation of composition. Again, by filling out the non-reductivist theory, the division between cases of composition and the explanation of composition becomes less arbitrary and thereby undermines an important objection the mereological universalist has against more traditional ontological discriminations. For an interesting recent mereological universalist account of persons, see Hud Hudson 2001.

(5) For a brief overview of supervenience, see Kim 1996, 9-13, 221-6. For a more comprehensive look at Kim's views see his 1993. Also, McLaughlin and Bennett 2005 provides an excellent overview and list of references.

(6) William Hasker 2001 offers a unique emergentist view, where what emerges are not mental properties, but a mental substance. Kim 1996, 226-9 offers an overview of a more traditional emergentism. O'Connor and Jacobs 2003 provides an excellent discussion of several varieties of emergentism.

(7) Lynn Baker 2000 provides a book length defense of constitution. See also Kevin Corcoran 1999. Michael Rea 2000 contains a good discussion of constitution as a general metaphysical relationship.

(8) Baker 2000, 7

(9) Hasker 2001, 119

(10) Hasker begins his paper by arguing that non-reductive materialism about persons is in a state of crisis (2001, 107). While my description of the situation is not as dramatic, I believe that Hasker and I are trying to articulate the same problem, the incompleteness of non-reductive materialism, albeit in service of different ends.

(11) Other support for animalism includes Carter 1989 and Mackie 1999.

(12) Olson 1997, 16, emphasis his.

(13) Ibid., 17

(14) Ibid., 126

(15) Ibid., 126

(16) Ibid., 127

(17) Ibid., 127-8

(18) Ibid., 128-9

(19) van Inwagen 1990, 82, 91

(20) Ibid., 83

(21) Ibid., 84

(22) Ibid., 84

(23) See ibid., 84-7 for the full analogy.

(24) These are van Inwagen's examples--flames and waves sound like things and not events, so they are odd examples. The burning of a candle or the passing of a wave through some medium sound like better candidates for events. Let's take van Inwagen to mean such by his use of 'flame' and 'wave'.

(25) Ibid., 87

(26) Ibid., 87

(27) Ibid., 121

(28) Ibid., 121

(29) Wilson, J. 1999, 27. Wilson's critical comments precede an insightful and interesting attempt to work out the individuality of living things. I am pleased that much of what he says is compatible with the direction taken in the paper as we deal with related but distinct aspects of biological metaphysics.

(30) In fact, this is Wilson's objection. After pointing out the problem just referenced, Wilson proceeds to criticize Wiggins, Aristotle and van Inwagen for taking species to be natural kinds. Darwinian theory raised many problems for the Aristotelian notion of fixed species. For an account of this issue and an argument that Aristotelianism is compatible with Darwinian Evolution, see O'Rourke 2004.

(31) Furth 1987, 25

(32) Lennox 2001, 178-9n1 provides references to many contemporary scholars opposed to Aristotelianism.

(33) Williams 1986, 197

(34) Ibid., 189, emphasis his.

(35) I do not wish to, nor do I need to, enter a debate about Aristotle's development and the nature of form across the Aristotelian corpus. There are heuristic advantages to moving from simpler to more complex notions of form and speaking of this unfolding as a development. Developmental language in the account that follows should be taken as such.

(36) There are many scholarly discussions of these passages and the topic of Aristotelian form. Irwin 1988, 94-102 provides a good overview as does Witt 1989, 65-79.

(37) All quotes of Aristotle are taken from Barnes, ed. 1984.

(38) Freeland 1987, 394. In defense of this claim, she cites PA I 1 640b35-1a6, 641a1421. Freeland also wonders (1987, 407) why Aristotle picked a bronze statue as his example when it serves his purposes so poorly.

(39) Tripods do not seem to fit so well in this list of examples. Aristotle often uses artifacts for examples, while not seriously accepting them as substantial particulars. See Christopher Shields' article in this volume for an insightful discussion of this aspect of Aristotle's metaphysics. See van Inwagen 1990 for a contemporary ontology that is Aristotelian in this very way.

(40) Furth points out that Aristotle distinguishes between ultimate subject and substance in Metaphysics Zeta (1988, 185). Gill 1989, 167-8 argues that Aristotle retains the subject criterion for substance, but that form is the ultimate subject.

(41) Furth 1987, 26

(42) Gill 1989, 9

(43) Lewis 1996, 40

(44) See Paul Studtmann's essay in this volume for an instructive discussion of Aristotle's various uses of 'form' and an argument that what the variety of uses share in common is the notion of form as a principle of order.

(45) Code 1999, 69

(46) I use DNA as shorthand, not for deoxyribonucleic acid, but for the entire 'genetic complex' (my phrase) which consists of nuclear DNA, mitochondrial DNA, several varieties of RNA and enzymes active in the processes of replication, transcription, meiosis and mitosis. As DNA has to be uncoiled, unzipped and transcribed in order to have causal power over the cell, it is, in itself, inert. However, the genetic complex is able to initiate action and regulate the cell's functions.

(47) Hoffman and Rosenkrantz 1998, 300 limits genetic realization to carbon based macro-molecules. My view allows, but does not require, the possibility of much more radical departures from the actual realization of our genetic code.

(48) Max Delbruck gives a ringing endorsement to this view when he claims that Aristotle 'discovered DNA'. See Delbruck 1971, 51. As Delbruck also claims in that article to have discovered pre-natal quotes from Aristotle (some 1500 years before his birth), I believe the tone allows us to take this statement as hyperbole. Unfortunately, some have missed that Delbruck's tongue was firmly planted in cheek and gone on to raise serious criticisms of his view. See Vinci and Robert 2005, 201-2.

(49) That DNA can be represented more abstractly allows for the possibility of the genetic code being multiply realizable.

(50) See Mayr 1988 and Kitcher 2003 for thorough discussions of this point.

(51) I randomly chose a biology text for the purpose of providing an overview of DNA's role. I was surprised at the extent to which DNA is described in philosophically loaded terms, as essential and as information. It turns out that such descriptions are common for the sake of explaining DNA at an introductory level and should not be taken as reflecting the dominant view of biologists or philosophers of biology.

(52) Enger and Ross 2003, 122

(53) It is also accomplished through other genetic regulation, as we now know that less than 2% of the genome codes for proteins.

(54) Monod and Jacob 1961b, 354

(55) Jacob 1973, 1-2

(56) Spencer 1898, 249-50. See Godfrey-Smith 1996, chapter 3 for a contemporary discussion of Spencer's view. Shields 1999, 177-9 offers strong criticism of structuralism completely divorced from function (unlike Spencer's).

(57) Wilson, J. 1999, 87

(58) This is what led Delbruck (1971) to call DNA an Aristotelian unmoved mover.

(59) Wilson 1999, 60 identifies different types of individuals, functional, genetic and developmental. On his view, these can be different biological individuals opening the possibility that some biological individuals do not depend on genetics for their identity. However, a case can be made that development and function are best understood genetically, thereby closing off that possibility.

(60) See, for example, Richard Dawkins 1987, Philip Kitcher 1993, and Peter Godfrey-Smith 1994.

(61) Ariew 2007, 160-2, 172-7

(62) Ibid., 161

(63) Ibid., 161

(64) This is the fundamental idea reflected in the title and content of Dawkins' 1987 book, The Blind Watchmaker.

(65) Crick 2004, 7

(66) Ibid., 16. Crick makes a starker reductionistic statement when he says, 'The ultimate aim of the modern movement in biology is to explain all biology in terms of physics and chemistry' (2004, 10). Mayr 2004 and Kitcher 2003 provide good reasons for rejecting reductionist views of biology in general and genetics in particular.

(67) Mayr 2004, 23, though notably, this work is a sustained campaign against the reductionism Crick advocates.

(68) Crick 2004, 40

(69) Mayr 2004, 45

(70) Ibid., 45

(71) Ibid., 48-61; an earlier, more extensive discussion can be found in Mayr 1988, 3863, among other of his earlier works. Kitcher provides an illuminating account of teleology that is compatible with causation in 1993, 159-76.

(72) Mayr 2004, 51, emphasis his.

(73) However, there are many criticisms of genetics as a program. See Nijhout 1990, Moss 1992, Keller 1995 and 2000, and Vinci and Robert 2005 for some well developed criticisms. Unfortunately, the scope of this paper precludes taking up these criticisms and offering responses to them. However, in brief, these criticisms are (in general) not sensitive to the various types of teleology and often criticize the 'program' view for being vitalistic, requiring design or depending on intentionality. Kitcher (2003, 159-76) offers a view of functions or programs that should withstand the criticisms mentioned above.

(74) Mayr 1988, 45

(75) Mayr 1988, 61

(76) The idea for this paper was developed during the 2004 NEH Summer Seminar, Soul and Substance in Aristotle and the Aristotelian Tradition, directed by Chris Shield and Bob Pasnau. I owe thanks to the participants in that seminar for their comments and suggestions. I owe special thanks to Chris Shields for his help in developing this paper and to Paul Studtmann for insightful comments provided at the Aristotle on Life conference in August 2007 at The University of Alaska, Anchorage, as well as to the other participants who provided significant feedback. Many thanks are owed to the chancellor's office at The University of Alaska, Anchorage, for the grant received through the Chancellor's Fund for Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity which funded the Aristotle on Life conference.
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