A Mr Frank Sarat, who has a low opinion of Purpose and Desire, has sent me his review of the book and asked that I post it here:
Mr. Turner desperately wants to be considered a scientist who has written a science book meant to squarely address an unresolved question that he believes “has brought biology to the brink of a philosophical and scientific crises.” preface, p xii. The nature of the crises may be helpfully gleaned from his book’s title, a snappy response to Chance and Necessity: Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology, published in 1970 by Nobel Prize winner Jacques Monod. Monad in turn attributes his book’s title to the Greek philosopher Democritus (460-370 BC), quoted as saying: “Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.”
Since Purpose & Desire is a repudiation of Chance and Necessity, it’ is helpful to review what Monad said:
The cornerstone if the scientific method is the postulate that nature is objective. In other words, the systematic denial that true knowledge can be reached by interpreting phenomenon in terms of final causes – that is to say, of “purpose”….This pure postulate is impossible to demonstrate, for it is obviously impossible to imagine an experiment proving the nonexistence anywhere in nature of a purpose, or a pursued end. But the postulate of objectivity is consubstantial with science, and has guided the whole of its prodigious development for three centuries. It is impossible to escape it, even provisionally or in limited area, without departing from the domain of science itself. (italics in original) Monod (1971) pp 30-31.
Despite Turner’s avowed embrace of science and in counter distinction to proponents of intelligent design theory, who he indignantly declares have “roiled our culture” (p. 295), Turner has actually produced a polemical work of metaphysics. But thanks to his excellent veil afforded by well-honed rhetorical skills coupled with copious distractions afforded by the insertion of fascinating but usually highly irrelevant anecdotal material, it takes careful reading for this to becomes clear.
The demarcation of science from other areas of intellectual enquiry is not a cut and dry matter. By one widely accepted hallmark of scientific pursuit largely heralded in the 1930’s by Karl Popper, a scientific theory must be falsifiable. That is because no number of experiments can ever prove a theory, but a single experiment can contradict one. This was what Monod had alluded to. As an example, at one time the idea that the earth is flat could have been properly posited to be a scientific theory. The qualifying experiment, which could and did disprove the theory, was performed by measuring the length of a shadow cast by two poles of the same length at the same time but at a sufficient distance apart. As it turned out, the shadows were of different lengths and the theory was falsified, cast into the dustbin of history.
The heart of Turner’s theory is set forth in the last sentence of the book. To wit: the truly distinct nature of life –all life – is its purposefulness, intentionality, and distinctive intelligence. While avoiding like the plague the ascription of being considered a vitalist, he nonetheless demands, “what if purpose and desire are fundamental attributes of everything that lives, and everything about them?” p 289. And yet, make no mistake; he is not amongst the “demon-haunted world of the vitalist.” P. 298. But as a point of plain logic, categories that are indistinguishable cannot be different. If he is not a vitalist, whence the distinction?
These theoretical characteristics demarking “all life” are said to pre-exist cellular life forms. Purpose and desire existed in ancient days as soon as corners of the earth’s warm seas contained some material recognizable as homeostasis. This is a term attributable to the nineteenth century French physiologist Claude Bernard and is declared by Turner as life’s antecedent (p. 14), that singular something which can explain the why, as opposed to the how of life’s mechanisms, and that is characterized by the performance (by some subset of reality) of an intelligent effort mounted for the purpose of perpetrating a persistent dynamic disequilibrium p. 22.
Life. That thick and mucky stuff that has covered the earth for millennia. This Bernardian abstraction is what life is and it always exhibits purpose, intelligence, and being intention driven.
Turner goes on to suggest that intentionality and intelligence might stem from wider ranging systems than those that might be held in the hand or even a warehouse. By the liberal application of metaphor and analogy, we are reminded that global weather systems, like life, are subject to the fourth law of thermodynamics that mandates the spontaneous orderliness of open thermodynamic substance and that “life represents a tiny froth on the crest of earth’s standing wave of orderliness.” P. 251. Accordingly, Turner theorizes, we might better think that life evolved down from ordered mega systems such as weather patterns, as opposed to up, from warm pockets of improbable chemical mixtures and rare chemical reactions subject to game stopping rapid dispersion. In any event, opines Turner, because of statistics and dispersive effects, such popular micro-oriented theories of life’s origins never have comported with common sense.
Turner frequently rails that scientists who would deny this notion of life’s defining desires and intentions face ridicule and politically enforced professional consequences. Recall now Karl Popper’s characterization of scientific theories. We may ponder how Mr. Turner might fashion experiments that would stave off the imposition of politically enforced professional opprobrium. What experiment might someone perform that would logically allow an outcome that could show, for example, that it is false that an ancient proto-bird evolved towards flight “because, in a deep sense, the ancestors of birds wanted to fly?” (emphasis in original, p. 289). The scientific experiment must be capable of unequivocally highlighting the non-existence of this reptilian want. It must also disambiguate whether her would be bird-brained want sat deeply.
Turner decries the trend of modern biology, exemplified by Monad, that would leave everything out of life that matters and he laments that to avoid being branded with the scarlet V for Vitalist, a biologist must be a mechanist or materialist. p. 40. Nonetheless and to his apparent credit, Turner is zealously exploring how life acts, changes, and thrives in the face of outside perturbations. He wants to deeply understand what has caused what he has seen to occur, yesterday and billions of years ago. p. 291. While falsibility is a major indicator of whether we are on a scientific path, science is not the only path to knowledge or wisdom. Or rhetoric. But science is not Turner’s actual intellectual instrument.
Empiricist David Hume pointed out that notions of causation are not derived from sensual impressions but constitute mental concepts akin to imagination. Knowingly or not, Mr. Turner has joined the philosophical debate going back for millennia that tries to tease apart what we mean when we say that something has been caused.
The ancient Greeks contrasted telos, causation sparked by a final cause, with proximate cause, our usual way of thinking about something being caused. We now have Turner arguing with Monad as surrogates for two of the respected ancients. Here was Aristotle’s argument posed to a near contemporary:
Democritus, however, neglecting the final cause, reduces to necessity all the operations of nature. Now they are necessary, it is true, but yet they are for a final cause and for the sake of what is best in each case. Thus nothing prevents the teeth from being formed and being shed in this way; but it is not on account of these causes but on account of the end….” Aristotle, Generation of Animals V.8, 789a8–b15.
To illustrate his thinking, Aristotle avowed that an acorn’s intrinsic telos is to become a fully grown oak tree. Aristotle, Metaphysics 1050a9–17.
Given the book’s title, it is not credible that Turner is ignorant of the debate about telos between Aristotle and Democritus. The famous and outspoken English biologist J. B. S. Haldane said, “Teleology is like a mistress to a biologist: he cannot live without her but he’s unwilling to be seen with her in public.” Mayr, Ernst (1974) Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Volume XIV, pp. 91–117.
But the words “telos” and “teleology” do not even appear in his book’s index.
Perhaps it is an embarrassment. Or is it something else?
A strikingly political agenda reveals itself in the last few pages of Turner’s book, styled as an Epilogue. He reminisces upon a recent visit to the Dayton, Tennessee courthouse that hosted the Scopes monkey trial in 1925. Turner characterizes the historical court battle as a “proxy for a larger fight over who control the culture.” p. 295. On one side we had John Scopes and his hollow and godless Darwinism, advocated by the outrageously liberal William Darrow. On the other, stood William Jennings Bryan, representing prevailing popular opinion that our ancestors were not a gaggle of monkeys. Observing that Bryan had a courtyard statute and Darrow did not, Turner concludes “Dayton’s culture has made its choice clear for which of the two, Bryan or Darrow, was the hero of the trial . p. 294.
Turner ponders, “[W]ho shall determine the terms of the culture? – science and enlightment or the ignorant hoi polloi?” p. 295. This reviewer will leave it to the reader to decide if she can draw parallels between Turner’s musings, Bryan’s legacy, and recent national social and political developments.
But there is no need to decide if Turner is espousing vitalism, creationism, or intelligent design. A careful reading of Purpose & Desire reveals a strong but politically adroit argument in favor of traditional religious notions about how life should be lived and the corresponding vital need for a “coherent theory of life”. p. xv.
A blatant clue of his agenda may be early discerned. Although not listed in the index, “souls” are referenced six times on p. 22, where he is engaged in championing Bernard’s revelation of homeostasis. Comparing the awful but beautiful soul that stands revealed under the hood of a Lamborghini automobile with a contemplation of the profound depth of homeostasis, Turner initially waxes poetic upon the soul of the luxury sports car. We then learn that likewise, an appreciation of homeostasis ensures contemplation of the beauty of life’s soul.
Turner peppers his book with the term homeostasis and declares that it represents the rational and proper third path that avoids hollow cored Darwinism, which turns life and people into machines, and the demon haunted realm of vitalism. But there is nothing that does any philosophical or scientific work under Turner’s homeostasis hat. Attempts to tack down a coherent thread lead to an endless card shuffle. Turner says that homeostasis has the soul that we need. But how does it interact with matter?
Describing the characteristics of life, from pre-cellular homeostatic concoctions to humans, Turner throws around subjective words such as want, desire, intelligence, effort, intentional agency, and striving like
confetti. But one must work hard to find how he would link these intangibles (which, not incidentally, evoke personal mental worlds) to the objective world of fleas and algae. It is impossible to understand his argument to the point where it may be fairly paraphrased. So we will content ourselves with a rendition of two key passages:
The body temperature of a lizard is not so much the outcome of a machine regulating it but is a kind of a cognitive state. … [C]ognition and intentionality are flip sides of the same underlying phenomenon of homeostasis. Cognition involves forming a coherent mental image of the “real” world, and the coherence of that mental image depends upon a homeostatic brain. Intentionality is the obverse of this: intentionality is the reshaping of the real world to conform to a cognitive mental image. This also depends upon a homeostatic brain. In short, all homeostasis involves a kind of wanting, an actual desire to attain a particular state, and the ability to create that state. The nexus of strivings and desires in say a lizard may be completely alien and inaccessible to the strivings to say, ourselves, but they are strivings and desires all the same. p. 70
[C]ognition and intentionality had to have actually preceded the origin of cellular life. …. [B]y defining cognition very broadly and generally – as informing a state or process about its environment…An individual nerve cell is cognitively aware of the fluid environment of the brain in which it bathes and of the chemical signals flung at it by the myriad nerve cells communicating with their own cognitive states… A photosynthetic algal cell maps the presence or absence of light onto its encapsulated catalytic milieu, altering the cells physiology In accordance with its environment. Similarly, intentionality can be defined very broadly…as the coupling of cognition to metabolic engines that can shape the world to conform to a cognitive map. p. 253
Multiple re-reading of such passages bears little fruit. Turner constructs complex and ambiguous metaphors, generously mixes scientific terms with psychological intangibles, and concludes that his word salads support his thesis. Manipulating metaphors turns out to be one of Turner’s favorite tools. Here is another exasperating example.
Turner sets the tone with a charming cameo photograph of his mother as a young woman and speaks lovingly of his memories. But we are to understand that his memories of Lucille Turner are a complex subjective phenomenon that bridges the past to the future, serving as a guide and legacy for who he is. The photograph is a memory token. Likewise, an organism’s DNA constitutes memory tokens, not the memories of life that guide evolution. But DNA falls short of being a real memory token for any number of reasons, including not being a “harbinger of the future” (p. 159) like his mother’s photograph. Meanwhile, its necessary to wade through a bathos draped tail of her alcoholism, fighting off his father’s creditors, rehabilitation, breast cancer, the mid 60’s sales volume of the family business, and driving cross-country with as a child with her wet wash clothes substituting for AC.
But wait –hasn’t Turner constructed his own convoluted analogy, and then criticized prevailing evolutionism because his metaphor’s referents fail to measure up the task that he set up for them in his “logical” construct? This isn’t a strike against Darwinism. It is bankrupt logic.
Here’s a final example of Mr. Turner’s brand of science. Discussing the orderly and complex nature found in life’s endless forms, a green leaf for example, he tells us that this may be explained by the Fourth Law of Thermodynamics. That sounds pretty solid. But wait. There is no Fourth Law of Thermodynamics. There is a modicum of professional discussion about certain physical effects that might point toward some type of a Fourth Law. But the science is speculative and inchoate. Thermodynamic Laws would seem to suggest more than a working theory.
The question remains, what was the author’s motivation for writing Purpose & Desire? If it were to urge that a theistic godhead was offering support and guidance, it would represent a science–cloaked prong of the Intelligent Design movement, a widespread and funded alliance of politically, theological, and scientific organizations that are working to steer public opinion to achieve political ends. But where one might expect to find the god’s shadow, one finds the abstract noun – homeostasis – with no suggestion of it being benevolent, wise, or omniscient. There’s nothing to be worshiped. This question will no doubt evade a satisfying answer. But after a long and good faith attempt to understand Turner’s points, one is left with the simple feeling of being had. It may manipulate some. But what of integrity?