The Biological Basis of Teleological Causation, Chapter 6 Goal-Causation, Harry Binswanger – by Marsha Enright

In the following, I plan to summarize the essence of Binswanger’s argument on goal-causation, and then expand on the issues he brings up and discuss any problems or objections I have with his arguments. Time has not permitted me to be as complete and persuasive in my objections as I might like – I only hope to stimulate discussion of the issues.

In this chapter, Binswanger outlines his theory of how non- conscious actions can be teleologically caused. He defines an action as teleological when the goal causes the action for the sake of achieving the goal. This is what he calls “goal- causation.”

The fundamental question is: how can non-conscious action, i.e. vegetative action, occur for the sake of a condition – the goal – which exists later in time than the action?; without consciousness, by what means does the action move toward the goal?

Purposeful action of conscious beings is Binswanger’s paradigm case for teleological action. Binswanger thinks that, ontologically, our idea of teleological action derives from our direct introspective experience. We know that we can imagine an end or value, desire it and put in motion the actions to obtain it. In purposeful action, the awareness of a desire or value causes the agent to undertake the action towards the goal. This is how a future condition can motivate a present action.

Vegetative action has no awareness of values by which to cause it, therefore, how is the benefit of the goal a cause of the action, by what means is the value of a future state causing present action?

Once again, Binswanger looks to purposeful action to get his cue in regard to the vegetative: he claims that all purposeful action is based on past experience, whether it be memories or perceptions, ideas, imaginings or associations. Men imagine the future by recalling past experiences, valuable objects and conditions achieved, and projecting them as occurring again, although perhaps rearranged somewhat.

Likewise, he claims that current vegetative action is entirely dependent on the forms and organization of the organism already in place, as a result of previous value- seeking activity of the organism or its ancestors. Binswanger claims there are three elements, or proximate causes, to any vegetative action: the fuel which allows the action to be self-generated; the “directive mechanism” which controls the utilization of that fuel; and the triggering stimulus which initiates the use of the fuel.

“On the vegetative level, the stimulus is able to trigger the action because of the way the mechanism for the action is organized. The mechanism has certain _terms of operation_ dictated by the nature of its directive mechanism(s). The way in which the mechanism is organized determines what will or will not trigger its behavior.” (p. 81)

According to Binswanger, the _ultimate_ cause of vegetative action is that which causes the fuel and the directive mechanism to exist, thereby enabling the organism to take the action. The ultimate cause is the explanation for the proximate causes. In Binswanger’s view, there is no means and therefore no possibility for a traditionally conceived final cause to draw the organism’s action to the future in vegetative action; in reality, the final cause must be a different kind of efficient cause.

He proposes that, for any vegetative action, the value- significance of _past_ goals, which has shaped and determined the nature of the fuel used, the directive mechanisms and the response to triggers, is the goal towards which present action is aimed. Just as past conscious experience serves to motivate the goal-seeking behavior of humans, so past vegetative experience determines the goal-seeking activity of vegetative action.

“Putting all these points together, we can say that a vegetative action will qualify as telelogical if it can be shown to be a self-generated action caused by a mechanism whose existence, organization, fuel, and terms of operation result from the survival benefit that past instances of the goal have provided the organism in similar previous circumstances.” (p. 88).

Put in simpler terms, Binswanger’s argument becomes: organisms act like they do because that’s what they did before. In his view, organisms are not pursuing current goals for their own sake, but because they are similar to past goals, and because pursuing such goals has worked in the past.

I don’t think so.

According to Binswanger, a current vegetative action is goal- directed because the organism took this action before – _somehow_ – and the action resulted in a value for the organism. Once taken, the action became an individual or evolutionary habit, and we can call the organism’s actions _goal-directed_ because it is aimed at the past goal.

The organism and its descendents may have been “smart” enough to learn from their actions – but how did the first organism manage to take those actions the first time? Was it completely random, an accident, or what? Does he mean to imply that the whole history of life is one long series of felicitous accidents?

While I appreciate the problem which Binswanger is addressing, viz., how can a non-conscious organism be moved by the future, I find that his theory does not sit well with my knowledge of the nature of living things. What is distinctive about life as opposed to the actions of inanimate matter? It’s _goal-directedness_ – “a process of self- maintained and self-generated action” – it acts to maintain its existence – the goal of its actions is the perpetuation of life. And the essence of my difficulty lies in what I know to be the enormous creative power of life to fulfill that goal. His theory gives no explanation, other than the usual suggestions of accident or chance, as to how _new_ adaptive actions arise. Without the answer to that question, I don’t think Binswanger has solved the “problem” of vegetative action.

The history of life is the history of ever-changing forms, new ways of fulfilling life’s goal of self-perpetuation. Its history is replete with the coming into existence of new forms, new characteristics, new abilities. Certainly, like the knowledge of a conscious being, these are not created _ex nihilo_, i.e. there must be some relationship between the new forms and abilities and the old ones. But, the mere repetition of old forms of action is _not_ an adequate description of living action.

Ultimately, I believe Binswanger takes a too-reductionistic approach to biology, as he takes a too-behavioristic view of psychology. For example, he says “A dog’s desire for an affectionate pat from its master is a consequence of its memory of similar past instances of affection.” (p. 77)

These statements imply an associationist view of dog action. Surely, once the dog has received and enjoyed pats, the memory serves as motivation. But, for one thing, his explanation gives no consideration as to why the dog sought pats _in the first place_. And yet, anyone who has observed animals knows that they initiate all kinds of actions – they seek, they explore, they try things out long before they know what the consequences will be. Purposeful behavior can be self-initiated in a way that doesn’t necessarily depend _solely_ on past experience, either personal or evolutionary.

And in his discussion of proximate causes, he frequently uses the word “mechanism” to describe living action. I think this use, and in general the mechanist approach to living action, is unfortunate. Machines operate automatically to achieve ends set by men. Generally, they act in a straight line to their ends, very unlike the behavior of life.

Organic behavior is characterized by its variability in the face of obstacles, in order to reach its goals. A plant will grow in one direction, and then another and another in its attempts to go around a rock and reach the sun. Ludwig Von Bertalaanfy, who wrote extensively on general systems theory, called this characteristic the “equifinality” of living action: the means vary, the end remains the same.

In fact, exploration of conscious beings is like the multiple attempts of vegetative organisms to reach goals. The constant in the actions is the attempt on the part of the organism to fulfill its needs; its pursuit of values.

Binswanger only touches on the issue of creativity in his comments on purposeful behaviour: “In the case of novel goals conceived by human beings, the cause of the goal-idea is to be found in the psychological effects of the previously perceived constituents of the novel goal.” (p. 79) Note how, in this explanation, he avoids the problem of the generation of the new, by his hand-waving phrase “psychological effects,” and how he attributes the creation of the novel to previous perception alone. While creative thinking is certainly _dependent_ on previous experience, that alone does not account for it. Internally generated needs and values play just as important a role in the existence of creative ideas.

Let’s look back at the nature of conscious action to see if we can understand how vegetative action operates. When an animal is born, it has an internally generated set of needs, and of actions it can take to fulfill those needs. It moves and acts in attempts to fulfill its needs. Often, the more intelligent animals try all kinds of things without apparent ends in mind, but with, apparently, the need to find out about the world in order to learn how to live in it – they explore. During their explorations, they discover that certain actions cause certain desirable, need-fulfilling results – like getting a pat on the head from their master. Consequently, they repeat these actions because they now know that they will have valuable results.

In my analysis of this sequence, the animal’s original actions were _not_ random or accidental in origin or _intent_ – they were taken for the purpose of finding out how some need could be fulfilled. The exploratory actions were quite goal-oriented, that is, to the _internal_ goal of fulfilling a need of the organism. Once the animal discovered by what means it could fulfill that need, it learned to take that series of actions again – it’s apparent goal became the pat on the head. But, ultimately, it’s goal still remains the fulfillment of its needs – in the process of self-maintenance and self-generation.

This applies in a parallel manner to vegetative action. The organism (whether it be a plant or the vegetative levels of an animal’s being) has a set of internally generated needs to fulfill, and of abilities or actions it can take to fulfill those needs. It moves and acts to fulfill those needs, it grows one direction to reach the sun, then another, then another, until it finds the direction of sunlight and gets around that rock. The fulfillment of its internal needs are the goal towards which it is acting, until it achieves the values which fulfill those needs. That is the nature of life.

Thus, the problem of the means by which vegetative action is directed to a future goal evaporates – because the goal of vegetative action is always the fulfillment of the present needs of the organism.

As far as the creation of new modes of action, just as organisms continuously rearrange the sequences of actions which they take to reach external goals, so I think they rearrange their internal sets of abilities to create new modes of action and new values. This is certainly the case in the development of creative thinking. And on the biological level, the origin of such complex systems as the eye are too unlikely to happen by a long series of chance mutations, and are too obviously functional _as a whole system_ in promoting the well-being of the organism, to have been caused by accident.

Binswanger began his argument by saying that purposeful action was the paradigm case from which we get our idea of teleology. In his discussion of vegetative action, he even tended to use concepts of consciousness, such as “value_significance_” and “_terms_ of operation.” Ironically, I think that, in fact, purposeful action is just another expression of life’s basic nature – its ability to act towards goals. It may be that in the ontology of concepts, teleology comes from purpose, but in the ontology of being, purpose comes from teleology.

Interestingly, in the arguments in which he attempts to _explain_ the goal-directedness of vegetative action, his very description of the proximate causes _assumes_ the existence of goal-directedness. On page 39, Binswanger says “Likewise, on the vegetative level, teleological explanation, I will argue, is not an irreducibly separate kind of explanation, but is rather a less detailed form of ordinary mechanical explanation in terms of efficient causes.” And on page 86, he says “The view I am defending, on the other hand, _assigns causal efficacy only to efficient causes_, but distinguishes between two kinds of efficient cause: proximate and ultimate.”

But he then describes the proximate causes as:

1. the fuel and

2. the _directive_ mechanism “whose existence, organization, fuel, and terms of operation result from the survival benefit that past instances of the goal have provided the organism in similar previous circumstances.” (p. 88). And Binswanger quotes Simpson as saying “To understand organisms, one must explain their organization.” (p. 82)

_How_ is the mechanism directive? What does “organization” mean? The Oxford English Dictionary defines “organization” as “The action of organizing or condition of being organized as a living being; connection or coordination of parts for vital functioning…” What do the terms “directive” and “organization” imply but goal-oriented functioning? This makes the proximate causes _already_ goal-directed in themselves, apart from any consideration of any ultimate goals towards which they may be directed. It seems as if final causation, “ultimate” causation, is included in his very concept of proximate cause. And that is not surprising, because I don’t think that one can, in fact, reduce the proximate causes to mere mechanical causation. Life isn’t like that.

Copyright © 1995 by Marsha Familaro Enright. Permission to reprint is granted with attribution to the author and inclusion of her byline.

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