On the Locus of Teleology: A Rejoinder

Edwin. B. Holt

PROFESSOR L. J. HENDERSON'S reply [1] to my criticism [2] of his argument for teleology leaves open, it seems to me, several points which are worthy of further consideration. He deems my remarks on the locus of concepts not altogether germane to his teleological argument; they are, rather, a "criticism of the structure of knowledge," and anything of relevance that I advanced "can be met without passing beyond the field of science." On this ground he neglects to consider several of my arguments, and these I will leave, as he has left them, to the judgment of the reader. Nevertheless they concern not so much "the structure of knowledge," as the correct versus an incorrect use of certain concepts within "the field of science," and of some others in the field of philosophy.

The first point which Professor Henderson makes (p. 431) is that, contrary to my contention, he uses the term "unique" in a perfectly definite sense. "The heat of formation of water is the highest heat of formation of any compound from the elements, the solubility of carbon dioxide is such that it distributes itself equally between a liquid water phase and a gas phase," and so on for the other properties of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen and of their compounds. "In general the properties of these three elements and of their compounds very often fall at singular points (maxima, minima, points of inflection, etc.) " and "it is a significant and useful approximation to a description of all the elements to say that the properties of these three are unique." And "the word unique here in question is fully defined by illustrations of every sense in which it is employed, and . . . it is never in my writings used to imply anything but its clearly stated content." It thus appears that the generic predicate "unique" does not refer to some property possessed by each member of the genus, but to a different property in each member. I still submit., as in my earlier paper, that the word "unique" here means nothing; and

(552) this the more since Professor Henderson admits that "of course all elements are unique." The following would be an effort at generalization of exactly the same type: —The rose is red, the hippopotamus is clumsy, the politician is mendacious. Rose, hippopotamus, and politician are unique, and the word "unique is here fully defined" as the redness of the rose, the clumsiness of the hippopotamus, and the mendacity of the politician. I trust that this is not the type of generalization most familiar to "men of science."

Or if, since the properties in question "often fall at singular points," singularity is that which is supposed to be common to the genus, then precisely the same criticism applies to the predicate "singular." Every element and every property is as "singular" as it is "unique."

Secondly, I had previously asserted (pp. 367-8 )that "Professor Henderson has surveyed the elements and their compounds and selected out for further consideration those whose properties do play this important part in life and evolution, that is, those which are fit for this purpose and `fitted' to this end. He has thus slipped in the teleology, at the very outset, which he later brings forth and presents for our respectful admiration." To this Professor Henderson replies (p. 432) : "For the moment it will suffice to deny this criticism and to insist that my statement is a valid approximation taking account of all elements," and that Holt's criticism is "due solely to a misinterpretation of the scientific evidence." This reply seems hardly to articulate with my criticism. I did not impugn the "scientific evidence." I merely said that if Professor Henderson selects for study the most important elements, he need not be surprised on discovering that they are indeed important; or, in my words (p. 378) "are the chief bearers of the process of evolution."

A third point [3] in Professor Henderson's reply is introduced for reasons unknown to me. Though apparently irrelevant, it is interesting. "The variables of Gibbs's mathematical analysis-phases, components, temperature, pressure, concentrations, etc.-are the necessary and sufficient variables for the exact characterization of any physico-chemical system, absolutely without regard to the specific properties of whatever substances may make up the system. Of course the particular values of the variables in any case will depend upon the specific properties." It is interesting, surely, if Willard Gibbs has discovered the necessary and sufficient variables for the exact characterization of any physico-chemical system, absolutely without regard to the particular values of the variables.


Fourthly,[4] Professor Henderson correctly points out (p. 433) that his "whole description of the relation of the properties of the three elements to the characteristics of systems is an illustration of the coöperation of factors in a manner so intricate and so varied, involving not merely individual properties that are maxima or minima, but also combinations of properties not themselves maxima or minima, yet nevertheless so related that maxima and minima result, and then combinations of these combinations." My criticism had been (pp. 369-375) that front these considerations Professor Henderson had leaped in the dark to the conclusion that just this, the actual, distribution of the properties of the elements is the most favorable possible to their maximal coöperation in the evolution of the universe. In his words, "This environment is indeed the fittest." He finds it (p. 433) "a cause of amazement ... that Holt should ever have ventured such a criticism at all." It is equally a cause of amazement to me that Professor Henderson should have totally missed the import of my criticism. His consideration of maxima and minima in elements and in their compounds shows, doubtless, that what does happen can happen. But the next step, the conclusion that therefore this is the fittest of all possible environments, is an utter non sequitur. One could, no less legitimately, conclude that of all possible environments it is the worst.

Fifthly, Professor Henderson explicitly declines (p. 435) to meet my all too "familiar" strictures on the theory of probability, and on his use of it; and feels under no obligation to meet it because, for him, "probability is still, as Laplace once said, `le bon sens réduit au calcul'." My argument was aimed to show that "probability" is in part nonsense reduced to a calculus (pp. 371-5). In spite of such familiar objections, however, the scientist is in the habit of calculating probabilities, and (p. 435) "this habit of the scientist is universal and successful." That the scientist calculates probabilities, and that the scientist is often successful I quite grant. That his success is due to his use of the probability theory, I still venture, for the reasons previously set forth which Professor Henderson does not choose to consider, to disbelieve. His illustration is quite to the point (p. 434) ; "Laplace calculated the probability that, as a chance occurrence, the planes of the orbits of all the members of the solar system should be as nearly coincident as they are, and that all the planets and their satellites (so far as they were then known) should rotate and revolve in the same direction and approximately in the same plane. His calculation ... led him to the conclusion that there must be some explanation of coinci-

(554) dences so improbable." But if Laplace was concerned to learn why the planets and their satellites rotate and revolve as they actually do, it is a pity that he wasted his time with any such idle, preliminary calculation. What should we think of a physiologist who should preface his study of the knee-jerk by a calculation of "the chances" that a tap on the tendon below the patella would produce a contraction of the extensor muscle of the kneel Happily Laplace concluded that there must be "some explanation" of the lie of the planetary orbits and, even more fortunately, "such a conclusion is entirely acceptable to the man of science." Thus the scientific utility of the theory of probability is vindicated !

Meanwhile, 1 would refer the reader once more to my previous argument (pp. 371-5) against the theory of probability (and against Professor Henderson's attempted application of it), which rested on an examination of the concepts of chance, probability, and possibility (potentiality concepts, all, and a snare to clear thinking on the teleological problem), in order to determine their locus and legitimate use.

Professor Henderson's next, and practically his final, point overshadows all the others, and will bring us, I think, face to face with the real crux of his "teleology." And here I gladly acknowledge a previous error on my part. I had asserted (p. 365) that Professor Henderson believed his data to "argue a relation between past phenomena and present that is not mechanical, but is, in some sort or other, teleological." In this, it appears, I was altogether wrong. Professor Henderson (p. 436) is "aware of no such data and can not imagine such an argument." And (p. 435) "the properties of the elements and the characteristics of systems, like the properties of triangles, are changeless in time." It is "the connection between the properties of the three elements and the characteristics of systems" which is "teleological."

I was wrong then in supposing, as I venture to believe that Professor Henderson's audience at large has always supposed,[5] that in his argument for teleology he was still referring to the properties of real chemical elements, real systems, real processes, and

(555) to real evolution; in short, to the concrete physical universe. It now appears that this is not at all the case.

Such a revelation, for it seems to me nothing less, clears the situation at a stroke. For Professor Henderson's argument for teleology is now seen to be of the following type (to revert to the "time dishonored example of a watch"). The relation of the wheels and cogs of a watch to the watch as a whole and to the time that it keeps is a strictly mechanical and non-teleological relation. But the relation of the abstract, timeless and change-less properties of wheels and cogs to the abstract, timeless and changeless properties of watch-designs and of the time-keeping function is purely rational and non-mechanical, i.e., is a "teleological" relation.[6] However it may seem to a "man of science," it is hardly necessary to point out to any philosopher that no "relation" or "connection" subsists between two abstract entities which does not likewise exist between the concrete embodiments of those entities. On this fact rests the sole utility, and indeed the sole significance, of reasoning in terms of abstractions. Now in any case Professor Henderson's teleology is not a relation between past phenomena and present, He is "aware of no such data and can not imagine such an argument." [7] Here-with for any mechanist Professor Henderson's argument for teleology ceases to exist.

What Professor Henderson may do with his teleology in the abstract, timeless, changeless realm, after he has made sure of its being even there, is no concern of the mechanist. But I would beg him first to devote some little study to the process or, may I say, the locus, of abstraction itself. This too has its special kinks. That Professor Henderson is not fully cognizant of these may be gathered from his avowal, concerning an argument which crucially turns on the strictly philosophical issue of abstract universals, that "the small amount of philosophical argument" which he has used is "almost though not quite entirely of secondary importance" (ibid., pp. 430-431). An excellent point of departure for the more intimate study of abstract universals is to be found in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. "That such abstract ideas with names to them," says Locke in the nineteenth

(556) Section of the third Chapter of the third Book, "as we have been speaking of, are essences, may further appear by what we are told concerning essences; viz., that they are all ingenerable and incorruptible. Which can not be true of the real constitutions of things, which begin and perish with them. . . . Thus that which was grass today, is tomorrow the flesh of a sheep ; and, within a few days after, becomes part of a man; in all which and the like changes, it is evident their real essence, i.e., that constitution where-on the properties of these several things depended, is destroyed, and perishes with them. But essences being taken for ideas established in the mind, with names annexed to them, they are sup-posed to remain steadily the same, whatever mutations the particular substances are liable to.... By this means the essence of a species rests safe and entire, without the existence of so much as one individual of that kind. . . . From what has been said, it is evident, that the doctrine of the immutability of essences proves them to be only abstract ideas, and is founded on the relation established between them, and certain sounds as signs of them; and will always be true, as long as the same name can have the same signification. "[8]



  1. 1 Cf. this JOURNAL, 1920, Vol.XVII, pp. 430-436.
  2. 2 lbid., pp. 365-381.
  3. 3 Professor Henderson's "second point," p. 432.
  4. 4 Professor Henderson's "third and final point," p. 432.
  5. 5 Misled, rather inevitably, by such statements as the following: "If changeless in time it [the "connection" just mentioned] must be in a justifiable sense of the term an absolute property of the universe" (ibid., p. 435) ; or, "the connection between the properties of the three elements and the evolutionary process is teleological and non-mechanical (my italics) (Phil, Rev.. 1916, XXV, p. 278) ; or, "biological organization consists in a teleological and non-mechanical relationship between mechanical things and processes" (ibidem).
  6. 6 Cf. "the relationship is rational and non-mechanical the things related mechanical and non-rational" (ibid., p. 278); and "because it is merely a relationship and in no sense a mechanical connection, because it is unmodified by the evolutionary process and changeless in time [the 'connection' between the properties and evolution] is to be described as teleological" (ibid., p. 279). I have hitherto not taken these remarks at their full value, because I was reluctant to impute to Professor Henderson a contention so extraordinary.
  7. 7 This JOURNAL, 1920, XVII, p, 436.
  8. 8 If it is true, as Professor Henderson asserts (ibid., p. 436) that I have attributed to his writings statements which they do note contain, I greatly regret the fact, and shall be glad if he will correct any such errors. I have endeavored rather meticulously to substantiate every ascription which I have made, by a direct quotation from his writings.

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