2012 : WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?

[ print ]

Theoretical Physicist; Aix-Marseille University, in the Centre de Physique Théorique, Marseille, France; Author, The First Scientist: Anaximander and His Legacy

How Apparent Finality Can Emerge

Darwin, no doubt. The beauty and the simplicity of his explanation is astonishing. I am sure that others have pointed out Darwin as their favorite deep, elegant, beautiful explanation, but I still want to emphasize the general reach of Darwin's central intuition, which goes well beyond the already monumental result of having clarified that we share the same ancestors with all living beings on Earth, and is directly relevant to the very core of the entire scientific enterprise.

Shortly after the ancient greek "physicists" started to develop naturalistic explanations of Nature, a general objection came forward. The objection is well articulated in Plato, for instance in the Phaedon, and especially in Aristotle discussion of the theory of the "causes". Naturalistic explanations rely on what Aristotle called the "the efficient cause", namely past phenomena producing effects. But the world appears to be dominated by phenomena that can be understood in terms of "final causes", namely an "aim" or a "purpose". These are evident in the kingdom of life. We have the mouth "so we can" eat. The importance of this objection cannot be underestimated. It is this objection that brought down ancient naturalism and in the minds of many it is still today the principal source of psychological resistance against a naturalistic understanding of the world.

Darwin has discovered the spectacularly simple mechanism where efficient causes can produce phenomena that appear to be governed by final causes: anytime we have phenomena that can reproduce, the actual phenomena that we observe are those that keep reproducing, and therefore are necessarily those better at reproducing, and we can thus read them in terms of final causes. In other words, a final cause can be effective to understanding the world because it is a shortcut for accounting the past history of a continuing phenomenon.

To be sure, the idea has appeared before. Empedocles discusses the idea that the apparent finality in the living kingdom could be the result of selected randomness, and Aristotle himself in his "Physics" mentions a version of this idea for species ("seeds"). But the times where not yet ripe, and the suggestion was lost in the following religious ages. I think that the resistance against Darwin is not just the difficulty of seeing the power of a spectacularly beautiful explanation: it is the fear of realizing the extraordinary power that such an explanation has in shattering rests of old world views.