[From Bruce Abbott (2016.01.10.2020 EST)]
[Fred Nickols (01.10.2016.1538)]
In Chapter 2 of their book, Rick and Tim, indicate that psychologists rejected or dismissed purposive behavior because cause had to precede effect and a goal was in the future, hence could not be the cause of current behavior.
That seems a bit far-fetched to me. Granted, a goal not yet achieved is in the future but the goal as envisioned, imagined, anticipated or desired is in the present. I don’t see how psychologists could reject an envisioned or desired future state as being in the future; it is every bit as much in the here and now as we are.
Can someone clarify this for me?
The problem may derive from Aristotle’s analysis of “causes.” The two of relevance here (of the four he identified) are “efficient” causation, or what we think of as ordinary cause and effect (or “mechanical causation”) in which causes always precede their effects, and “final” causation, in which a characteristic exists to serve a function, e.g., birds have wings in order to fly. Philosophers took Aristotle to mean by this that the effect (ability to fly) somehow brings about its own cause (the presence of wings and other structures required for flight). This philosophical idea is called “teleology.”
I believe that this interpretation of Aristotle’s meaning is incorrect. In my view, Aristotle used final “causation” to denote the observation, for example, that the wings of a bird (together with other structures) are what give the bird its capacity to fly – that it is their existence in the bird that makes flight possible. I don’t think Aristotle believed that the future capacity to fly somehow acted back in time to bring about those flight-necessary structures, but that is exactly how later philosophers understood him.
As the sciences developed, teleology as philosophers understood it was rejected as unscientific on the grounds that effects cannot precede their causes. Behavior must be caused by prior events, not by a future goal. So the search was on for “efficient” causes of behavior that would explain “purpose” or “intention” as only apparent examples of teleology in terms of ordinary forward cause and effect.
Today there is still controversy with biology about the usefulness of functional (teleological) explanations. Some argue that function or purpose are useful concepts that help to explain why some organ or system has the structure it has. Knowing that the heart is a pump helps us to understand the organization of its physical properties. Others argue that the organism and its systems can be understood perfectly well in terms of ordinary mechanical causation among its parts and that a functional analysis doesn’t add anything to that.
The problem of how an organism’s systems developed so as to apparently serve particular functions was solved by Darwin with his proposal of evolution by variation and natural selection. No teleological force was necessary to cause the organism’s structures, such as wings or heart, to develop in such a way as to serve a future purpose. Blind variation and selective retention would do the job while conforming to ordinary cause and effect. (Interestingly, Aristotle came within a hair’s breadth of scooping Darwin by 2000 years, but did not take the final step because he was unaware that organisms evolve, and thus had no need to explain evolution!) Thorndike’s Law of Effect offers a similar explanation for the “evolution” of behaviors that are functional in the sense of achieving a purpose or goal, as when his cat-in-a-puzzlebox learned to operate a door-latch and thereby free itself from the confines of the puzzlebox. Skinner’s “selection by consequences” expresses the same idea.
In conclusion, I think that the short answer to your question is as follows. Many scientists mistakenly saw intentions or goals as teleological explanations for behavior and rejected them in favor of discovering efficient causal mechanisms that would produce the appearance of intentions or goal-directness. Only a few realized that closing the loop provides a perfectly respectable account (i.e., in terms of efficient causation) of intentions and goals, courtesy of the apparent magic of circular causation.