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Discipline Filosofiche

xxviii 1 2018
Discipline Filosofiche xxviii 1 2018
Ancient Ontologies. Contemporary Debates Discipline Ancient Ontologies.
Edited by Riccardo Chiaradonna, Filippo Forcignanò
and Franco Trabattoni
Filosofiche Contemporary
Sommario xxviii 1 2018 Debates

Contemporary Debates
Ancient Ontologies.
Riccardo Chiaradonna, Filippo Forcignanò e Franco Trabattoni, Edited by Riccardo Chiaradonna,
Presentazione • Francesco Fronterotta, “Do the Gods Play Dice?”. Sens-
Filippo Forcignanò
ible Sequentialism and Fuzzy Logic in Plato’s Timaeus • Riccardo Chia-
radonna, Massimo Marraffa, Ontology and the Self: Ancient and Con-
and Franco Trabattoni
temporary Perspectives • Gabriele Galluzzo, Are Matter and Form Parts?
Aristotle’s and Neo-Aristotelian Hylomorphism • Riin Sirkel, Essence
and Cause: Making Something Be What It Is • Marilù Papandreou,
Aristotle’s Hylomorphism and The Contemporary Metaphysics of Artefacts
• Gabriele De Anna, Substance, Form, and Modality • Maddalena
Bonelli, Dipendenza e indipendenza ontologica: la modernità della
posizione peripatetica • Enrico Postiglione, Aristotle on the Distribution
of Consciousness • Diego Zucca, Neo-Aristotelian Biofunctionalism •
Matteo Pietropaoli, L’οὐσία come presenza costante e l’esser vero come
autentico essere. Heidegger interprete di Aristotele, Metafisica Θ 10

ISBN 978-88-229-0221-4

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Ancient Ontologies. Contemporary Debates

ed. by Riccardo Chiaradonna, Filippo Forcignanò and Franco Trabattoni

5 Riccardo Chiaradonna, Filippo Forcignanò e Franco Trabattoni

13 Francesco Fronterotta
“Do the Gods Play Dice?”. Sensible Sequentialism and Fuzzy Logic in
Plato’s Timaeus
33 Riccardo Chiaradonna, Massimo Marraffa
Ontology and the Self: Ancient and Contemporary Perspectives
65 Gabriele Galluzzo
Are Matter and Form Parts? Aristotle’s and Neo-Aristotelian Hylomor-
89 Riin Sirkel
Essence and Cause: Making Something Be What It Is
113 Marilù Papandreou
Aristotle’s Hylomorphism and The Contemporary Metaphysics of
137 Gabriele De Anna
Substance, Form, and Modality
159 Maddalena Bonelli
Dipendenza e indipendenza ontologica: la modernità della posizione
177 Enrico Postiglione
Aristotle on the Distribution of Consciousness
201 Diego Zucca
Neo-Aristotelian Biofunctionalism
235 Matteo Pietropaoli
L’οὐσία come presenza costante e l’esser vero come autentico essere.
Heidegger interprete di Aristotele, Metafisica Θ 10
Diego Zucca

Neo-Aristotelian Biofunctionalism

Abstract: Neo-Aristotelian Biofunctionalism

Current biological sciences standardly ascribe proper functions to biological parts,
traits and mechanisms. In addition, realism about proper functions has an important
space within the ongoing debate in philosophy of biology. Functional ascriptions are
often conceived of as tracking objective, observer-independent higher-level features of
the inquired object, rather than merely depending on a methodological, descriptive or
epistemic attitude. In this paper, I argue for a realist account of proper bio-functions
based on standard causal explanations of an organism’s behaviour: such explanations
are most intelligible if the autonomy of special sciences rests on the (relative) ontologi-
cal and causal autonomy of their respective objects. I take into consideration the Aris-
totelian theoretical framework on teleological causation and reconstruct his arguments
against his reductionist rivals. Finally, I consider the recent revival of Emergentism
and try to establish to what extent the Neo-emergentist framework fits with the Aristo-
telian model, which I show to be partially valid also within an evolutionist view.
Keywords: Aristotle, Teleology, Biology, Metaphysics, Emergentism.

1. Functional ascriptions in biology1

(1) “The function of the heart is pumping blood”.
Assertions of this kind are often found in biological writings, and mostly
are not meant as mere façons de parler but rather seem to have an in-
eliminable and structural role in biological explanations and descriptions.2
What relevant theoretical framework does (1) presuppose and/or entail?
First, it is assumed that hearts – as parts of certain populations of organ-
isms – have a function, at least a most relevant function: that of pumping
blood. The ascription of such function is more than the attribution of a
causal role: if functions in general are causal roles, those functions typically
ascribed in biology are something more. Pumping blood is just one of the

I wish to thank the anonymous referees for their precious critical comments and suggestions.
2 A realist view on natural functions is the prevalent attitude among biologists (sometimes
implicitly, often explicitly). Among philosophers, people like Dennett 1978, 1987, Searle 1992
and Ruse 2002 are anti-realist about natural functions, people like Dretske 1988, 1994 and
Millikan 1984, Neander 1991 are realists.

many causal roles of the heart, besides, for example, that of emitting a cer-
tain noise. Nobody would say – not even a layperson – that the function of
hearts is that of emitting a certain noise.3 The causal roles of a certain bio-
logical trait/organ/part/feature are assumed not to be all equally relevant
for individuating what the trait/organ/part/feature in question fundamen-
tally is. Thus, among the many causal roles of a given biological entity, there
is a causal role that is kind-individuating and most explanatorily and also
definitionally relevant: no good characterization of a heart could ever omit
its blood-pumping causal role, because hearts are blood-pumpers in addi-
tion to pumping blood de facto, while they are not noise-emitters even
though the do emit noise.
The methodological choice of certain causal roles over others depends
on knowledge (or belief) about why the given entity is there at all. Do
hearts exist (in hearted animals) because they emit noise? Certainly not: they
rather exist because they pump blood in the blooded animals’ bodies. To
borrow a thought experiment from E. Sober,4 suppose there are only big
red balls and small blue balls, so that only the blue balls pass through a
basket (suppose such an event has important effects). However, [being
blue] is not causally relevant in passing through the basket, just as [being
red] is not causally relevant in not passing through the basket, but rather it
is [being small] or [being big] that respectively causes a ball to pass or not
to pass through the basket. The colour of the balls is analogous to the
noise-making property of the hearts, as it is clear from a simple counterfac-
tual: had the red balls been blue, they would not have passed through the
basket anyway; had the blue balls been red, they would have passed any-
way; had the blue balls been big, they would not have passed; had the red
balls been small, they would have passed. Likewise, had the heart not
pumped blood, it would not be there at all; had it not made a certain noise,
it would most likely be there anyway. However, balls and baskets are not
parts of organisms.
Parts of organisms, insofar as they are credited with functions by bio-
logical sciences, appear to exhibit a normative dimension, at least function-

According to Nagel 1978, pp. 411-412, who reduces bio-functions to causal roles, saying
that the heart has the function of pumping blood is no more than saying that the heart pumps
blood, and this is all there is to say; likewise, “the teeth are functional to mastication” means
“they are cause of mastication”. But blood-pumping for hearts and mastication for teeth re-
spectively satisfy a more demanding condition than just being caused by their realizers: it is
that their realizers are there at all and are made as they are because they have that respective
causal role. For an analysis of function on these lines, see Wright 1973.
4 See Sober 1984: his “selection-game” is a mental experiment of a great complexity, from

which I only take a basic point.


ascription involves a lato sensu normative characterization: a particular

heart can be characterized as malfunctioning, in a way in which a ball, or an
atom, or a molecule (or any other entity over which physical sciences quan-
tify) cannot. For something to be malfunctioning is for it to fail to do what
it is designed for, to indeed perform its proper function.5 A heart that does
not pump blood is an objectively malfunctioning heart. We obviously also
speak of malfunctioning artefacts (a car, a chair, a lamp, an engine), but
their supposed function is observer-dependent and essentially conventional.
We (designers and users) select certain causal roles as the function of an ar-
tefact – indeed we make the artefact in such a way that it can have that
causal role – but there is nothing intrinsically wrong in a mechanism that
does not do what we would like it to do. So (supposed) functions of arte-
facts are conventional and observer-dependent, proper functions in physi-
cal non-living entities are absent: causal roles or “mechano-functions” are
spread over the world, but proper functions or teleo-functions appear to be
limited to living beings and their parts. Only for living beings and their
parts – the biological domain – does it make sense to adopt a normative vo-
cabulary like: successful/unsuccessful, well-functioning/malfunctioning,
something “doing its job” and something not doing so, and the like.6

5 The notion of proper function has been thoroughly characterized by Millikan 1984; see
also Neander 1991.
6 For a critical view on realism about bio-functions, see Lewens 2004. He argues at book

length that the normative dimension (involved in talk of “function”, “design”, “purpose”, X’s
being for φ-ing) is primarily applied to the artificial domain and only derivatively applied to the
biological realm. Firstly, here a misunderstanding is likely to arise: it is true and even trivial
that our ordinary mastery of functional concepts firstly applies to artifacts, and only then may it
be extended to biological items; but such a primacy concerns our ordinary semantics and be-
liefs indeed, it does not support as such a “projectivist” view on bio-functional normativity; as
Aristotle would put it (see infra), the artifact model is a “first for us”, the biological objective
function-ascription may well be a “first per se”, i.e. prior from an ontological point of view,
even though posterior (discovered) according to the order of our knowledge. Secondly, Le-
wens mainly focuses on the analogy between the process of natural selection and intentional
design of artifacts: but functional biology attributes objective functions to organisms and their
parts (the products of selection), without necessarily committing to the idea of a strict analogy
between the process of selection and the production of artifacts. Thirdly: as for the selectional
origin of the difference between essential- and accidental causal roles, Lewens provides inter-
esting counterexamples but finally fails to show that teleological talk in biology is (mislead-
ingly) derived from artifact talk. For example, he discusses cases in which there is increase of a
population of organisms with a certain trait just because something else has changed in the en-
vironment, in such a way that there was no variation of that trait and therefore no selection of
it: but a certain trait can well be credited with an objective essential function not only insofar
as a respective variation was selected, but also insofar as the trait has been maintained – be it
the direct outcome of a variation or not – in virtue of its survival-value in its (changed) envi-
ronment. On functional ascriptions in organismal biology, see also Wouters 2005.

On the one hand, parts of organisms can fail or be successful in perform-

ing their proper function, on the other, organisms are organized wholes
whose function-realizing parts are integrated as “contributors” to the suc-
cessful behaviour of “their” whole: there is something like “the good” and
“the bad” for an organism (“good” being what maximizes its fitness and
survival). When explaining the behaviour of living beings (plants, animals)
we often search for different kinds of causes of such behaviour. What is the
“behaviour” of a living being, and how is it that the causal explanation of it
seems somehow to exceed the basic level of causal explanations that are
typically applied to the physical realm? How does the (weak) normativity of
teleonomical descriptions/explanations peculiar to biology fit together with
the descriptions/explanations provided by physics, given that living bodies
are made of the very same “stuff” as that that is inquired by physics? Let us
take into consideration some examples of behaviour explanation.

2. Behaviour: structuring causes vs. triggering causes

In explaining a piece of behaviour of a living being, we search for causal
explanations of something it does, which is not just something that happens
to it. Not everything that happens to a living being is a piece of its behav-
iour. A sequence of movements or changes counts as a piece of behaviour
insofar as it (also) has an internal cause. The active/passive distinction and
the internal/external distinction come together: S does something, such as
behaves a certain way – φ-es – insofar as an internal cause is responsible for
movements or changes in which φ-ing consists.
To borrow examples by Dretske (see Dretske 1988, Chapters 1 and 2):
a) when a rat moves its paw to press a bar, this is a piece of rat behaviour,
and such a behaviour is made of a sequence of bodily changes and move-
ments, but it is not simply identical with such bodily movements. On the
contrary, the movements are a piece of behaviour insofar as the sequence
has its origin within the system whose parts are moving, i.e. within the rat.7
Of course, such an origin may well depend on an environmental stimulus,
and it typically does. A rat’s moving its paw (and so pressing a bar) is a
piece of behaviour, the bodily movement of its paw is not as such a piece of
rat behaviour, it is rather the outcome of a piece of behaviour. If I am to
explain the movement of the rat’s paw, I can consider simply the chain of
events involved and for example individuate nerve and muscle cells, come
back to the neural circuits in the rat’s brain, then inquire into what trig-
gered this brain’s electrochemical activity and perhaps focus on environ-

7 If I move the paw of the rat, it is not then a piece of rat-behaviour.


mental stimulus responsible for bombing the rat’s retinal cells with pho-
tons, and so on. Nonetheless, a fine-grained description of the causal chain
– even if the chemical level of analysis was reduced to a basic physical de-
scription8 – would be incomplete in an objective and observer-independent
sense. I still would not have grasped why a given stimulus has caused a cer-
tain bodily outcome (a bodily movement). I would have grasped a complex
efficient causal chain from a stimulus O to a bodily movement M, going
through details of the internal machinery of the rat’s body, but in no way
would I have addressed the question: why does O cause M? To address this
question, I need to frame O’s causing M as a piece of rat’s behaviour, so as
a rat’s doing something (pressing a bar) through doing M (moving its paw)
as a response to an environmental stimulus O, and thus as an internal re-
sponse to an external stimulus. I will then be in a position to inquiry into a
deeper causal structure that explains why O triggered the rat’s behaviour
having M as its outcome: it may depend on previous training of the rat (a
food-reward every time it presses the bar), for example, so the explanation
will refer to the search for food. b) Plants also exhibit behaviour (in the
above restricted sense). Something happens to a plant (being shaken by the
wind, being cut by human beings), something is “done” by the plant, as
some of the changes it undergoes are brought about from within, typically as
a reaction to environmental conditions. Of course, individual learning that
characterizes animals like rats is not to be found in plants, but nonetheless
plants are subject to an analogous plurality of levels of causal explanation.
For example, many trees shed their leaves just before winter and we may
ask why a tree of a certain kind behave like this. For example, we can indi-
viduate certain processes that weaken the mechanical bond between leaf
and twig by the withdrawal of chlorophyll from the leaf, then we identify
the environmental cause that triggers the process, such as the sensitivity of
an internal mechanism to the lowering of temperature or the shortening of
daylight, or some other biological “clock” that kicks off in certain circum-
stances (coincident with the arrival of winter). We will have grasped the ef-
ficient cause of a certain change in the tree (the fall of leaves) but our ex-
planation will be structurally incomplete, no matter how complex and fine-
grained it could be: we still do not know why the whole mechanism – the
circumstance C’s causing the fall of leaves – is in place at all. Why do de-
ciduous trees shed they leaves before winter? Because in winter the weather
is cold, cold weather is dry, and shedding leaves is a way to retain moisture

8 Some philosophers of chemistry, like Hendry 2006, argue that such a re-description

would be impossible in principle, not just for empirical limits; but let us leave this issue behind,
as it is marginal for our purposes here.

inside, to minimize dispersion of liquids. The whole mechanism in virtue of

which cold weather makes leaves fall is there because of its adaptive value,
and can hardly be spelled out without reference to the benefit of the tree as
a whole organism. The second explanation accounts for why certain trees
behave a certain way; the first explanation accounts for how those trees
manage to behave this way.
The moisture retention (essentially connected with preservation and
survival) is the structuring cause of trees’ shedding their leaves before win-
ter, and the event which starts the chemical process through which this be-
haviour is realized is the triggering cause of the fall of leaves from those
trees.9 Likewise, the desire for food together with the acquired association
between pressing a bar and getting a reward is the structuring cause of the
rat’s pressing the bar. The physico-chemical intercourse from the stimulus
to the bodily movement (involving neural firings, nerve and muscles activa-
tion and so on) is the triggering cause of the paw of the movement of the
paw of the rat. We may sometimes be interested in triggering causes, some-
times in structuring causes, and we may get the structuring cause first but
without clear knowledge of the triggering cause; sometimes we get the trig-
gering cause but we are in search of a structuring cause. In any case, there is
a relevant difference between such two kinds of explanatory paths: What is
X for? (Why-question, structuring cause) and How does X happen? (How-
question, triggering cause). Once the structuring cause is established, the
question about triggering causes becomes a how-question, rather than a
why-question. The complex causal chain that makes hearts pump blood in
the circulatory system accounts for how hearts manage to pump blood and
thus preserve the life in the whole animal. Of course, this has nothing to do
with “magical” ascriptions to hearts of any will, intentions, or conscious
goals, but with the ascription to hearts of their objective proper function
(acquired by natural selection). When we face genuine behaviour and there-
fore structuring causes, we explain certain processes in terms of their suc-
cessful results. When a sequence of bodily changes and movements trig-
gered by a certain cause C and having an outcome R as its result is a piece of
behaviour, it is structured by a cause that can be understood only in terms
of the value (good/bad) of that result for the system as a whole.10

9 I take this distinction from Dretske 1988, but it echoes a well-rooted distinction within

biological sciences.
10 In intentional behaviour – proper to animals that can learn – the god/bad distinction

has also a subjective dimension: X may appear as good or bad without being such, and an ex-
planation will have to take it into consideration.

Some processes have a typical triggering cause without no intrinsic

structuring cause. For example, white-tailed deer lift their tails when dis-
turbed by some predators. This phenomenon has no apparent intrinsic
function, so is not a “behaviour”. It simply results from the nervous stiffen-
ing due to the animal’s preparation to escape.11 Perception of predators is
its triggering cause but, even if such cause has almost always the same effect,
the latter may be said to be an accidental effect (or a result accidentally
caused) of the perception of predators. Preparation for escape has percep-
tion of predators as its structuring cause, but tail-lifting is a side effect
(though materially necessary) of preparation for escape: it is caused by a
process that does have a structuring cause, but it has no structuring cause
on its own. So, there is an objective sense in which certain triggering causes
and triggered effects are accidental, but this has nothing to do with absence
of regularity or low frequency. The tail-lifting perfectly co-varies with
predator perception, but still the structuring/triggering distinction makes
some typically triggered processes accidental and others non-accidental
(those having a correspondent structuring cause rather than being caused
by other processes having it). Preparing for escape and lifting one’s tail are
not on the same level:12 just like pumping blood and emitting noise are not,
nor is our ball being small and being blue.
These two kinds of causal explanation are neither alternative nor in-
compatible. On the contrary, they must both figure in a complete and satis-
factory explanation of living beings and their parts, although the causes
they respectively refer to exhibit a counterfactual asymmetry. Had the
structuring cause not been there (e.g. had the leaves-shedding not had an
adaptive value), the corresponding triggering process would not be there ei-
ther, but had that specific triggering process not been there, there could
well have been another triggering process with the same adaptive effect.
Another process (e.g., exploiting other properties that co-vary with the ap-
proaching of winter and other internal detectors of such co-varying proper-
ties) could have been “recruited” during the evolutionary history of the

11 See Alcock 1984. Of course, if it was discovered that such a tail-lifting works, say, as a

signal for letting other deer know that there is a danger around (a similar hypothesis was made
by La Gory 1987), then the tail-lifting would have not just a triggering cause but also a struc-
turing cause.
12 Preparing to escape for the deer (when predators are perceived) is like pumping blood

for a heart, and lifting the tail for it is like emitting noise for a heart, as both lifting the tail and
emitting noise are accidental with respect to (respectively) preparing to escape and pumping
blood insofar as the latter are benefits. They are not absolutely accidental, as given the physical
structure of deer and hearts, they are rather necessary: it is a necessary consequence of such
physical structures.

relative species. In any case, it seems that no complete biological explanation

can avoid using an axiological and normative vocabulary that refers to bene-
fits, success, well- or malfunctioning and the like13. In short, a teleological
vocabulary involving the ascription of proper, objective teleo-functions.

3. Higher-level biological causality

Why does such a manifold explanatory approach only apply to the do-
main of living beings? Stones, atoms and molecules (and electromagnetic
fields, etc.) do not behave in the restricted sense above, despite their rich
causal powers: indeed, they have no structuring causes at all. There is no
benefit/damage, no well- or mal-functioning for such entities, just statisti-
cally prevalent trends and/or mere (non-normative) regularities. There are
no teleo-functions but “mere” causal roles and mechano-functions. They do
not exhibit any active internal causation.
The issue of how to distinguish life from non-life is one of much debate
in philosophy of biology.14 Most thinkers we take to represent the mainstream
view on the matter individuate some distinctive features of life, such as in-
ternal complexity, metabolic activity, self-replication (Von Neumann 1966),
teleonomy and reproductive invariance (Monod 1970), self-regulation and
self-maintenance (De Duve 2008), plus a certain specific material composi-
tion (i.e., carbon). Life presents itself in the form of organisms (Goodwin,
Dawkins 1995, p. 47), which are individual members of a given species or
population.15 Individual organisms are characterized as “capable of having
a determinate trajectory of development” (Huxley 1853), as “chemical ma-
chines having the peculiarity of preserve themselves and reproduce” (Kauff-
man 1995),16 as “systems endowed with a program” (Ageno 1986)17, “cen-
tres of causation and action” (Wilson 2005); another fundamental distinc-

13 Merely statistical account of biological functions like that proposed by Boorse 1974,

2014 have been widely criticized precisely because they fail to distinguish functioning from
malfunctioning. On that, see Casini 2016. On the ongoing debate about biological functions,
see Allen, Bekoff, Lauder 1998 and Ariew, Cummins, Perlman 2002.
14 For some introductory elements, see Sterelny, Griffiths 1999, § 15; Borghini, Casetta

2013, cap. 1.
15 Realist and anti-realist views also can be held about species, but we can live aside this

debate here.
16 According the so-called immunological theory (see Pradeu 2010, 2012) the presence of

an immune system is the distinctive (necessary and sufficient) condition for being an organism.
17 Mayr 1974 (see also Mayr 1988) defines “teleonomical” those processes whose goal-

directedness is due to a program (such as the genetic program coded in the DNA). The word
was first introduced by Pittendrigh 1958 to mark a distance from the metaphysical assumptions
often connected to the use of the classical term “teleology”.

tive feature of them is recognized to be “self-organization” (Kauffman

1995), which entails causal integration and cohesion (Mishler, Brandon 1987).
Here, integration is an active interaction between the parts, and entails that
the organism behaves as a whole, with respect to certain processes at least.
All the parts respond to these processes in a unified way.18 Such characteri-
zations offered by leading biologists and philosophers of biology are clearly
meant to have an ontological import rather than just a methodological, de-
scriptive or epistemological value: they aim at isolating certain distinctive
properties of a special field of reality, not just of our knowledge or our de-
scriptive and linguistic attitudes.
It may seem that many of these features also characterize artefacts: the
so-called functional analysis – understanding a whole complex system
through the causal contribution of their components (see Cummins 1975) –
is ordinarily applied by engineers who design engines, even very simple
ones. If you want to make an X that does F (only) when condition C holds,
you need an indicator of C (a sensory sub-system reacting to some property
that co-varies with C or to C itself) and an effector E which triggers the re-
sponse F when the internal indicator is in the appropriate state. The indica-
tor and the effector are functional subsystems (which may well be com-
posed of respective subsystems) that need to be connected in such a way to
correlate the right response to the right external input. This is, for example,
what a thermostat does: it makes the heater start as soon as the ambient
temperature drops below a given threshold, and makes it stop as soon as
that threshold is reached. On its own, the thermostat is a subsystem of the
heating system, and contributes to regulate the heating function, but the
“malfunctioning” of a thermostat is just a user-dependent conventional as-
cription, as its subsystems have no proper functions but just objective causal
roles, which may or may not match with the intentions of a designer or of a
user. In contrast, organisms’ subsystems contribute to the objective benefit
of “their” whole (the organism itself), and this benefit-maximizing property
is the reason why they are there and have been selected. In addition, stan-
dard engines do not replicate or repair themselves, do not belong to natural
species,19 and do not exhibit the distinctive functional plasticity that are of-
ten found in living beings and their parts. For example, there is evidence
that when certain neural areas of our brain – the most complex object in

On “holistic” commitments in standard biology, see Lewontin 1985 and Goodwin 1994.
Such a belonging is essential to a part/trait/feature having a proper function: the proper
function of X in the individual O is the function X normally has in healthy members of O’s
species: selection goes on through speciation. If something identical with an organism O was
produced by accident or artificially construed, its parts – despite appearances – would have no
proper functions but just de facto causal roles.

the universe as far as we know – are damaged, other parts with other origi-
nal proper functions acquire the function of the damaged part.20 If you in-
terfere at a certain (limited) extent in the development of an embryo, the fi-
nal result may turn out to be almost exactly the same as if you had not inter-
fered at all, as if the causal addiction was a perturbation “absorbed” by the
whole process, the outcome of which appears to be an effect relatively “in-
different to its causes” (Canguilhem 1992, p. 119).21 This is of course nei-
ther a miracle nor a violation of physical laws, but it must have essentially to
do with the distinctiveness of biological causality. Specifically, engines do
not currently produce by themselves their own bodies and parts (through
metabolic activity). This special sort of “self-referential” unity of biological
individuals, involving the primacy of the whole over its parts,22 appears to be
a distinctive feature of living organisms as organized “selves”. Are there pe-
culiarly biological, higher-level causal properties which are not reducible to
the causal properties of organisms’ physical constituents? And how are we
to conceive them, in naturalistic and not “mysterious” terms?

4. Aristotle’s Reasons for Bio-teleology

Aristotelian Nature is the domain of those things that have an inner
principle of change and rest, where that principle also is the nature of the
respective thing, so that Nature is the domain of things having a nature
(Phys. II 1, 192b 1-16). Such principle is a set of constitutive causal powers.
Not only do the basic elements of water, air, fire and earth have “natures”
as their constitutive causal powers,23 but also trees, dogs and human beings
qua trees, dogs and human beings respectively have natures, namely, inner
principles of change and rest. Basic elements and the non-living bodies
made of them have passive natures, i.e. passive causal powers. A stone can

20 There is a large amount of literature on neuroplasticity of the brain and its functional

re-organization after injury. For some examples, see Nudo 2013.

21 Wimsatt 1996, discussing emergentism (see below), speaks of “dynamical autonomy”

for complex wholes like organisms in which micro-level physical changes do not make a real
causal difference. As Klee 1984 remarks, the basic constituents of organized systems exhibit a
much greater degree of variance and fluctuation from moment to moment than does the
macro-level of organization of the whole they are constituents of. The physics Nobel prizewin-
ner B. Laughlin talks of “protected properties”, properties that are insensitive to many changes
at a microscopic level (Laughlin 2005).
22 “Thus, when we try to explain how the whole system behaves, we have to talk about the

context of the whole and cannot get away talking only about the parts” (Gilbert, Sarkar 2000).
23 Causal powers of the four elements (air, water, earth, fire) depend on the four basic

qualities (cold, hot, dry, moist): air is hot and moist, water is cold and moist, earth is cold and
dry, fire is hot and dry. See GC I 10, 328a 28-33.

break a glass, but only insofar as it is launched or moved by someone or

something. Living beings, although they are also made of basic elements,
are active natures: for them the active/passive distinction makes special
sense, between things they do and things that happen to them (see above:
Part II). A tree behaves a certain way (has a proper basic set of causal pow-
ers) qua tree, not just qua made of certain constitutive elements (for exam-
ple, qua wood): it exhibits a tree-behaviour, it does what trees do. Artefacts
do not have natures qua such: a bed qua wooden has a nature (it is a piece
of wood with certain passive causal powers), but that piece of wood qua
bed has no own nature, no inner proper causal powers (Phys. II 1, 192b 28-
33).24 We therefore have passive natures of non-living bodies, active natures
of living beings and no nature of artefacts as such. Active natures of living
beings are called souls by Aristotle. The identity or what-it-is of a living be-
ing is the proper set of its basic capacities: being, for a living being,
amounts to being alive (DA II 4, 415b 14), and its “life” is the whole set of
the basic activities due to its nature or soul.25 A soul is nothing immaterial,
rather it is a capacity of a living body:26 that active nature is the essence or

24 In particular, a bed does not generate another bed: a basic mark of an active na-

ture/form is the power of self-replication.

25 Life is the capacity for self-preservation (DA II 4, 416b 17-18), but also higher ways of

self-preservation are, for Aristotle, as many ways as life is spoken of. Such ways are also per-
ception, locomotion, and thought; thus, our activity of thinking is a way of living a human life,
as thinking is among the basic parts of what it is for a human being to live and to be alive.
26 Soul is the form of a natural body that is capable for life (DA II 1, 412a 20-21), the first

actuality of a natural body which is potentially alive (412a 34-35), the first actuality of a natural
instrumental body (416b 6), the primary cause in virtue of which we live, perceive and think
(414a 12-13), cause and principle of the living body (415b 10). Soul is form/essence of the or-
ganism as its first actuality (entelecheia): the Aristotelian neologism entelecheia (for which see
Johnson 2005, pp. 88-90) denotes a “completed state resulting from an internal movement to-
wards this state” (Leunissen 2010, p. 53). A first actuality is a set of proper active powers or
capacities possessed by the body, thus soul is “a unified set of goal-oriented capacities” (Len-
nox 2001, p. 169): it is “first” because it is a set of dispositions (like metabolism and reproduc-
tion, perception, thought, locomotion) which can be recursively manifested in occurrent exer-
cises (“second” actualities or energeiai). It is cause and principle of the living body in three
senses (415b 13-22): it is formal cause as the essence of the living organism, so of the organized
body; it is efficient cause because it is principle of reproduction (generation) and production
as metabolic self-maintenance of the body, and it is final cause because life is self-preservation
of itself, and soul just is the set of capacities for life. Soul as the essence of the living body is
thus also the end of itself, so to speak; here lies the unique selfhood of living beings. Soul is not
material cause either of the organism or of the body, because the body itself is the organism’s
material cause. We must, however, consider that the organized body (see DA II 1, 412a 33-35;
GA I 1, 715a 9-11; PA II 2, 647b 21-25) – that which is capable of life – is the “proximate”
matter of the organism, which is ultimately identical with the form (it is a body qua capable of
living), while the basic constituents of the body are the “remote matter” of the organism,

form of the living being whose body possesses those capacities. Such ca-
pacities are constituted by the sub-capacities of organs or parts of the body,
which make them possible.27 Here a causality peculiar to living organisms
comes into the picture: proper capacities are goal-oriented proper functions
and sub-functions, or teleo-functions. Thus, as one of the four Aristotelian
causes – alongside matter, principle of movement as our “efficient” cause,28
and form/essence – the for-the-sake-of-which or final cause is co-extensive
with life: it is indeed a peculiarly biological cause.29 As causes are explana-

which is only contingently related to the organism as a formal unity (see Met. VII 10, 1035b
30-32; VIII 4, 1144a 15-b3). We constantly change our remote matter through metabolism but
we remain the same as living unities (with the same proximate matter: the functional, living
body), instead our remote matter remains, at least for a while, when we die. On the fundamen-
tal distinction between proximate and remote matter, see Irwin 1988, §§ 149-158 and Whiting
1995. Bodily functions of living beings’ parts are protected properties, to use the locution of
Laughlin 2005 cited above.
27 See PA I throughout. Leunissen 2010 (Chapter 3) analyses in depth PA I to extract

from it the Aristotelian theory of teleological explanation in biology. See also Quarantotto
2005, Chapter 5.
28 Met. I 3, 983a 2634; III 2, 9965-8; V 2, 1013a 24-b3; Phys. II 3, 194b 16-195a 27; Phys.

II 7; GA I 1, 715a 1-14; PA I 1, 639b 11-21; AP II 11, 94b 20-24.

29 I think that Aristotelian final causes are 1) immanent to certain beings and never exter-

nal to them 2) limited to living beings, at least in our sublunary world (here I cannot even
touch the issue concerning the alleged teleology of the heavens in De Caelo, for which see
Leunissen 2010, Chapter 5). Some scholars – for example, Furley 1987, Sedley 1991 – hold
that there is an “interactive” teleology in Aristotle’s nature such that certain beings are for the
sake of certain other beings, according to a sort of vertical cosmology. I cannot enter into this
debate here, but I just point out that the main example on which they base their view is that of
rainfall in Phys. II 8, 198b 17-21 and 199a 1-8 where it seems to be said that if rains a lot in
winter it must be either by chance or for the sake of something, but it does not happen by
chance – it happens always or for the most part – therefore it is for the sake of something (like
the harvest). But for Aristotle it rains by efficient/material necessity (Meteor. I 9, 346b 20-31).
This example is meant to illustrate the rivals’ position, who take the relation between genera-
tion of part of organisms and their beneficial effects to be like the relation between rainfall in
winter and their good effects for the harvest. On this passage, see Rossi 2010, Johnson 2005. In
any case, sometimes Aristotle attributes to something a “for-the-sake-of-which” status that
concerns a secondary, non-intrinsic effect on something else: for example, a certain matter
happens to be apt for technical production of an F, so that matter may be said to be for the
sake of F’s production (Phys. II 2, 194a 33-35). In this sense says Aristotle (Pol. I 8, 1256b 15-
20) that plants are for the sake of animals and animals are for the sake of human beings; in
these cases, X is for the sake of Y non qua itself but only from the point of view of the benefi-
ciary of Y: this is what Kullmann 1985, p 173, calls “secondary teleology”. On the scope of Ar-
istotelian teleology, see also Matthen 2009, who convincingly limits it to living beings. For a
deep and extraordinarily useful inquiry on the role of Aristotle’s teleology in scientific explana-
tion, see Leunissen 2010 (see Chapter I for a subtle treatment of the rainfall example).

tory factors with ontological import,30 this kind of causality is not just a de-
scriptive or explanatory tool, it rather belongs to the reality that is ex-
plained (only) through it. Forms of non-living entities are sets of proper
passive powers (the four elements and the bodies made of them, like stones,
pieces of clay and the like), forms of living beings are active and essentially
goal-oriented powers, which is why formal and final cause tend to coin-
cide31 in living beings. If the form-essence of X is a set of proper goal-
oriented capacities of X’s body, specifying the goals that individuate the ca-
pacities is both providing the form-essence of X and the essentially teleo-
logical dimension of X, namely, its “final causes”. As a consequence, with-
out appeal to final causes biological phenomena cannot be fully under-
stood. Material and efficient causes are fundamental but insufficient for
biological explanation, depending on the objective features of biological ac-
tive natures with their objectively teleological dimension.32 But how can we
ascertain whether teleology is an objective aspect on living nature rather
than just an anthropomorphic projection we make onto natural processes?
The arguments provided by Aristotle for natural teleology33 are illumi-
nating. Democritus and Empedocles only recognize material and efficient
necessity, holding that any prima facie teleological process is nothing more
that the outcome of such “blind” kinds of necessity immanent in the (pas-
sive) nature of elementary constituents of living organisms. Aristotle’s first
objection is that what happens always and for the most part cannot be by
chance, so it must be for the sake of something (Phys. II 8, 198b 35ss.). This
initially sounds like an arbitrary assumption rather than an argument: only
if you have already assumed that things happen either rarely and by chance
or always/for the most part and for the sake of something, can you conclude
that if X does not happen rarely it must happen for the sake of something.
This patently fallacious line of reasoning, despite appearances, is not Aris-
totle’s point, as he recognizes many non-teleological regularities and many
rare but teleological events.34 He is rather suggesting that the rivals of final

30 For example, Nussbaum 1978, Wieland 1970, Le Blond 1939. Aristotle says (Phys. II 8,

199b 1516) that those who deny final causes “abolish things by nature and nature itself”, not
just our explanation or description of natural things.
31 Phys. II 8, 198a 25-29; see GA V 8, 789b 3-22.
32 Organs develop because of the good they serve (Phys. II 3, 195a 23-24; PA I 1, 640a 36-b1).
33 See Phys. II 8, GA 778b 7-10, PA I 1, 640b 4-17 against Empedocles, Democritus and

Anaxagoras who deny the “for-the-sake-of-which” as a natural cause. A fine-grained recon-

struction of Aristotle’s arguments for teleology in Phys. II 8 is to be found in Leunissen 2010,
Chapter 1.
34 Non-teleological but regular phenomena, for example, are meteorological phenomena,

as well as astronomical phenomena like eclipses, but also all kinds of material but not acciden-
tal causation in non-living substances; also, in living beings there are regular but non-

causes are not in a position to explain why there is a regular connection be-
tween physical arrangements of organic parts and processes, and their bene-
ficial results. If it was by chance that sharp front teeth were suitable for bit-
ing and broad back teeth were adapted for chewing the food, why would
the relation between these features’ being there and them being beneficial
be regular and for the most part? Individuals suitable for living successfully
– for the most part – keep generating individuals suitable for living success-
fully.35 The following alternative: “the relation between biological processes
and the good of organisms is either teleological or by chance” is both exclu-
sive and exhaustive: the argument is neither based on mere regularities nor
on mere success, rather it is based on the regularity of success. A chance or
coincidental relation between biological features/processes and the good of
organisms would not be systematic; instead, a systematic or quasi-nomic re-
lation between biological processes/features and the good of organisms, just
is a teleological relation, and this is exactly what we experience in living na-
ture. So, the argument rests on an inference to the best explanation of mani-
fest phainomena: denying teleology is just leaving Nature unexplained.36

teleological phenomena: for example, GA V is devoted to goalless parts of animals, therefore a

part P, even if it always characterizes the species S, may well be without a function. Teleologi-
cal but rare phenomena, for example, are a lot of our intentional actions directed toward an
end, that we do not elect as an end always or for the most part.
35 A human being always generates a human being (see Phys. II 8, 193b 8, 194b 13; PA I 1,

640a 25-26): this cannot be by coincidence, it must have an intrinsic cause: it depends on that
forms are natures essential to what they are form of, not accidents of the matter as the rivals of
teleology wrongly suppose.
36 It is worth noting that Aristotle’s empirical commitment to spontaneous generation

(automatos genesis) is embarrassingly inconsistent with the arguments for teleology provided in
Physics (as it is duly stressed by Balme 1962 among others): it is as if Aristotle in this case
committed himself to the same mistake he charges Empedocles with. Every instance of entire
kinds such as testacea (like shell fishes and sea urchins) and even insects (see especially GA III
11, 762a 9-3; see also HA V 1, 539a 21-25; V 19, 550b 32-551a 13; VI 15, 569a 25-26) are said
to be generated “spontaneously” (by chance) rather than by sexual replication, due to the
presence of certain material conditions, in particular: of vital heat in the air and water. Now,
such a biogenesis is not unusual, not random, it does not bring about organisms of a kind
which is normally due to natural generation, nor is it the by-product of a teleological process
which has another end (as for the characterization of chance/automaton in Phys. II 4-6). Len-
nox 1982 provides a compatibilist reading, but its price seems too high: a) he takes spontane-
ous generation to be of what is normally produced teleologically insofar as generation is “teleo-
logical” for animals in general, which looks an ad hoc extension of the domain in order to ob-
tain a contrast-class 2) he argues that being an incidental by-product of a teleological process is
not a requirement for a process’ being brought about apo automatou, contrary to what is said
in Physics (e.g. II 5, 197b 35-37) as well as to each of the examples provided there; 3) he takes
it that spontaneous generation is unusual because the material conditions that bring about this
animals are not always the same: but the generation of these animals is regular and not random

Another argument also has the appearance of a dogmatic assumption

but in fact it is based on experience: in living nature, what happens before
appears to occur for the sake of what happens next. If a house was not an
artefact with no intrinsic nature but had an inner active nature, it would
come to be just as it does now, through the agency of art.37 Likewise, if
natural things were produced by art they would be produced in the same
way as they are now. Aristotelian teleology is modelled on the aetiology of
artefacts, but this analogy is not a priori, it rather comes from experience.
Leaves grow first to protect the fruit and roots grow down because there is
nourishment,38 while the embryo develops in an “art-like” way: first the
heart is formed then the heart produces the bloods necessary to form other
tissues and organs, and so on.39 Art and nature share a fundamental feature.
Processes of generation and development of individuals and their organs
are such that not only what is made first is a condition for what it will be
made next (this holds for any causation), but this also happens according to
a complex progression of steps that would hardly happen by chance exactly
in this efficacious order and with a good result. Furthermore, the plausibil-
ity that the “good” associated to biological feature is by chance becomes
lower and lower if you consider very complex chains of biological causa-
tion, in which all the process would be ruined if you temporally inverted
just one of the many links composing the chain.40 The probability that a
house is brought about by chance (say, by a storm) are extremely low, be-
cause to make a house you need to conceive in your mind a complex form
in the first place, then to realize an ordered series of steps to obtain it (start-
ing from appropriate materials for specific parts, and so on). The simplest

at all, so they cannot be among what is generated apo automatou; furthermore, we need to
credit Aristotle with the idea that such allegedly different circumstances must have something
in common in order to bring about always the same effects. Even if the notion of chance in
physics and zoology was the same, it would remain the inconsistency between “chance-
generation” in zoology and the absurdity of a “chance-generation” of well-organized forms of
life Empedocles is explicitly charged with in Physics II 8. Panaydes 2013 attributes to automa-
ton in zoology a different meaning than in physics, namely, the self-motion instigated by matter
without presence of seeds, by analogy to automata meant as self-moving puppets: again, it
looks like an arbitrary and ad hoc distinction; moreover, when Aristotle says that “everything
comes to be by art, by nature, by luck, or spontaneous” (Met. XII 3, 1070a 6-8) he is clearly
providing an exhaustive list. So, the puzzle remains.
37 Phys. II 8, 198a 8-15; see Met. Z 7, 1032a 20ss., GA I 22, 734b 21ss., II 1, 734b 21ss.
38 Phys. II 8, 199a 23-30; DA II 4, 415b 27-416a 15.
39 See GA II 6, 744b 16-27, where nature is compared to a good housekeeper who keeps

the “best food” for the most essential parts of the organism: blood, flesh, heart.
40 In addition, biological processes often are chains of chains, for they are processes consti-

tuted by other processes, each of which has its steps or rings which must be causally and tem-
porally coordinated with the other chains’ rings.

living being is incredibly more complex than a house – it is a unified self-

sustaining whole of many coordinated functions, each of them constituted
by many sub-functions – so the random generation and development of a
successful living being is incredibly more unlikely to occur than the already
highly implausible production of a house by chance. In Aristotelian terms,
biological processes of development, like art and human action, exhibit
“hypothetical necessity” somehow at work:41 X is hypothetically necessary
for Y if, in order to get Y, you need X or something that X satisfies. We ob-
serve in living nature that when a sequence of A, B and C is produced and
C is good for the organism, in order to get C B was needed and to get B, A
was needed: this is just the pattern we apply to account for human action
and its means/ends coordination (EN I 1, 1094a 18ss.). We should not be
misled by the analogy between biological directedness and art or human ac-
tion: there is no anthropomorphism involved here (pace Sedley 1991),
rather art and human action are seen as particular expressions of a more ba-
sic causal dimension. They exhibit subjective teleology but are also special
cases of the objective teleology which characterizes living beings as such,
since taking decisions, making projects and deliberating about means are
kinds of processes through which certain living beings preserve and direct
themselves towards their good, i.e., behave as all living beings behave.
Accounts through hypothetical necessity involve a normative compo-
nent in biological explanations. Given that something is to be, then some-
thing else is needed.42 This is not a moral or deontic “to be”, of course, but
the [good] enters into the explanation as an essential ingredient. If blood is
to be pumped through the system, then the heart will have to be such-and-
such.43 The “hypothesis” is something good for fitness and survival, some-
thing that is there to be accounted for. Many of its properties are accounted

PA I 1, 639a 26-39; GC II 11, 337b 14ss.; Phys. II 9.
On the logical structure of hypothetical necessity, see Charles 1991, Cooper 1987, Pav-
lopoulos 2003, Leunissen 2010, pp. 101-109.
43 Hypothetical necessity is in the matter, when the matter enables a certain end to be real-

ized, while the for-the-sake-of-which is in logos or essence/definition (Phys. II 9, 200a 14-15).

The essence of functional parts and features is their function (DA II 4, 416a 5-7): if a saw was a
natural being, its essence/form/soul would be its capacity to cut (412b 11-13), if an eye was an
animal its soul would be the capacity to see (412b 19-20). But saws are artefact, so they have
no soul or functional essence but only conventional, user-dependent and assigned functions:
they have no intrinsic essence qua saws. The eye is not a whole organism, so it has no soul ei-
ther; although, it has an intrinsically functional essence: the natural goal-oriented capacity the
eye realizes, namely, sight. It is important to point that the animal, rather than the eye, sees
(408b 2-16): therefore, the essence/function of the eye is its contribution to a power/activity
whose proper subject is the whole organism, which entails that the essence of functional parts
ontologically and definitionally depends on the wholes they are parts of.

for on the basis of the function it has and its material conditions. Once you
individuate a process in terms of its (good) result, you search for its material
conditions of possibility and try to find them out: you will account for them
also through considering the good result they make possible.
Hypothetical necessity concerns how what we called the structuring
causes and processes of behaviour are, and how they must be bodily imple-
mented or realized. “Simple” or mechanical necessity,44 far from being an
alternative kind of causal necessity, is essentially involved in the first kinds
of explanation: it is true that to obtain B, A is needed, because it is true that
A (plus the other internal conditions needed for B) “mechanically” causes
B, if nothing external prevents it.45 For any hypothetical proposition (A is
needed to get B) there is a non-hypothetical proposition that expresses non-
teleological necessity (without A there is no B46). Something must be hard
and sharp in order to cut, just because if something is hard and sharp it will
cut softer things and if it is not such it will not cut them. Mechanical neces-
sities are truth-makers for statements of hypothetical necessities: the “end”
or good result – what it is to be –is often already there as an explanandum
for the biologist – we see birds flying, then we start studying the anatomy of

44 See GC 336a 27: “that which is the same and in the same condition always naturally acts
in the same way”. Simple necessity involves the lawlike nature of causation: if a token of F
(non-accidentally) causes a token of G, then occurrences of type F for the most part cause oc-
currences of type G (see Phys. II 3, 195b 27-29).
45 See Met. IX 5, 1048a 16-21; Phys. II 8, 199b 15-18.
46 Here a clarification is required. The truth of (a) = (if B is to be, A is needed) depends

on the truth of (b):(if A is there, then B will be there if nothing prevents it) and (c):(without A
there is not B). But as many means are suitable for the same end, so many realizers may be
suitable for the same functional goal (even if nature is likely to “choose” for the best): so,
without a spongy material able to expand and contract, there is no respiration, which is why
lungs are made as they are (PA II 17, 669a 14-b2); without transparency there is no acquisition
of colours, which is why the eye-jelly is made of water (DS 2, 438a 12-14): but perhaps there
are other spongy tissues in nature than those lungs are made of, as there is air that is as trans-
parent as water. Functions are multiply realizable also for Aristotle, and are multiply realized
in different species: our “A” is a spongy material (not necessarily the actual material of lungs)
or a transparent material (not necessarily the actual water the eye-jelly is made of); sometimes
the property A is realized in realizer X rather than in Y or Z because A is contextually avail-
able in nature (as the osseus material for horns and teeth, see below), sometimes the realization
of a function, given other arrangements of the organisms, is best realized by a certain material
of kind A than by another material of kind A. For example, the eye-jelly needs to be contained
in the organ without dispersion, therefore – among transparent materials available in nature –
water is more suitable than air (DS 2, 438a 15-17). More generally, functions-realization always
is a “compromise” with matter. This is a reason why material cause essentially enters in bio-
logical explanations, but as we will see it does not only insofar as it has the merely negative role
of constraining the realization of functions (as Lennox 2001 holds, among others).

their wings – sometimes it is a matter of empirical conjecture.47 Further-

more, mechanical necessity also explains many biological phenomena that
do not result in any benefit. The accidental side effects of goal-directed
processes may well be both accidental and necessary without contradiction;
they are materially and mechanically necessary, given that other processes
are in place, but they are also accidental with respect to their deep causal
structure, which is another goal-directed process. If B is there because it is
good in terms of survival value, and B causes C, and C is neither good nor
bad, then C is explained by reference to the existence of B (just like the
noise by the pumping of the heart in hearted animals or like the tail-lifting
by the preparation for escape in deer: see above).
An Aristotelian example can make clear how complex biological expla-
nations non-linearly involve the appeal to different kinds of causes: it does
not matter that this particular explanation is wrong or obsolete, what mat-
ters is the explanatory pattern, which is structurally analogous to the ex-
planatory style of contemporary biological sciences. Many horned and ru-
minant animals have three stomachs and no front teeth.48 Why are such
properties (F=being ruminant; G=no front teeth; H=having three stom-
achs) nomically correlated, why are F also G and H always or for the most
part?49 Horns are for protection (final cause) and are made of osseus matter
(material cause), but there is a technical limit in internal production of
osseus material50 (efficient cause), so the matter necessary for horns is sub-
tracted to teeth (efficient/material cause), therefore front teeth are absent.
Front teeth are for breaking food into pieces (final cause) so it can be in-
gested for nutrition. Without front teeth, food reaches the digestive appara-
tus poorly broken (efficient cause). Digestion enables nutrition which is
necessary for movement (final cause) and for maintenance and reproduc-
tion of the body (material cause) so to keep the animal alive (formal and fi-
nal cause). As the food is poorly broken (efficient cause), three stomachs
are needed to process it (final cause). This complex explanandum (co-
occurrence of F, G and H) could not be accounted for without appealing to
all four interlinked causes. A necessary side effect of a goal-oriented process
(protection) shapes and determines the realization of other goal-oriented

47 For teleological principles as heuristic tools, and final causes as starting points of scien-

tific inquiry, see Leunissen 2010, especially Chapter 4, pp. 119-135. Leroi 2014 (a leading bi-
ologist) nicely illustrates – through an overwhelming quantity of examples – how “contempo-
rary” are the methods, attitudes and often the empirical results of Aristotle’s biological inquiry.
48 AP II 14, 98a 16-20; HA II 1, 501a 12-13.
49 The explanation that follows is to be found at PA III 2, 663a 21-b11 e III 14, 647a 31-b 17.
50 All tissues and anhomoiomerous parts are produced from blood, which is produced by

the heart (PA III 5, 668a 17-24).


processes (nutrition). Perhaps a purely “efficient” (Democritean) causal

story could be told about the development of three stomachs, the formation
of horns and the growth of teeth, but it will be dramatically incomplete
without appeal to the necessity of protection from predators in addition to
that of nutrition (with ingestion and digestion as their necessary sub-
functions); likewise, you can tell a purely “formal-final” story about protec-
tion and nutrition, but you would be simply unable to account for the
above correlation.

5. Teleology and Selectional History

The Aristotelian view of life is not evolutionist, as it is well known: spe-
cies are eternal and each of them embodies a particular way of being en-
souled or alive, so of telic powers and activities. Thus, certain structuring
processes and causes have always been intrinsic and essential to certain
kinds of beings and to their individual examples.
We know that hearts, horns, digestive systems, escaping mechanisms,
fall of leaves before winter and the like came about by chance from genetic
mutations in the respective ancestors. So, it is true that hearts are there be-
cause they pump blood (but not because they emit noise) and – when well-
working – they pump blood now because such an activity was beneficial in-
sofar as it had survival value: but such “because” are not teleological but
“mechanical” and even accidental in a sense. It just happened that such
properties brought about by chance had survival value, and they have been
maintained because their survival value caused certain individuals to repli-
cate and spread their genes. Not only have such traits not come into being
because they were good, but the sense in which they have been maintained
because they were “good”, is a selectional – descriptive rather than norma-
tive – one: they happened to make survival more probable in a certain envi-
ronment. Our knowledge of the fine-grained mechanisms of genetic replica-
tion and our well-warranted hypotheses about speciation render the core of
Empedoclean conception all but absurd. According to Empedocles,
adapted individuals came about by chance, then they happened to survive
(DK 31 A 72, B 57; see Phys. II 8, 198b 16-34). Without the idea of genetic
replication and the Darwinian idea of an incredibly slow, long-lasting ac-
cumulation of mutations over mutations, it is absurd to take the many-
layered and highly hierarchized self-developing and self-preserving order of
organisms as an outcome of chance, as Empedocles did51. To think that a

51 Aristotle assumes that its rivals like Empedocles are committed to the idea that every-

thing could come out from everything (PA I 1, 641b 26-29; Phys. II 8, 199b 7-15), for example

well-structured leg or that a well-working eye just pops up out of chance is

just insane, so the Aristotelian arguments based on the incompatibility be-
tween randomness and systematic aptness of organisms and parts are good
within that framework.52
Even if there is a broad sense in which our Darwinist view agrees with
Empedocles and disagrees with Aristotle, the very fact that the biological
phenomena of prima facie teleological organization have emerged through
natural history does not speak as such in favour of a reductionist or an
eliminativist approach to such higher-level causal properties. On the con-
trary, grounding proper functions in natural history provides a historical ae-
tiology of the emergence of such functions, making room for their naturali-
zation rather than for their elimination: indeed the epistemological irreduci-
bility of biological explanations to merely physical explanations is taken by
many biologists and philosophers of biology – none of them anti-evolutionist!
– to support a realist view on proper functions, thus proposing an ontologi-
cal ground for such irreducibility.53 After all, as an outcome of natural his-
tory it is true that living beings are “Aristotelian” active natures, complex
organized wholes made of functional parts that respond in a unified way
and promote the self-maintenance and self-preservation of their wholes,54
just as it is true that certain processes are to be accounted for in terms of
their beneficial result, selectional facts are responsible for emergence of fit-
ness-promoting processes. Another important common claim to Aristotle
and contemporary functional realism in biology is the normative reference
to the species for ascribing proper functions to individuals’ traits: the func-
tion of F in individual O is that causal role in virtue of which the trait has
been selected and has been acquired as a genetically fixed feature of the

a plant of olive from a plant of grape. See also GA II 1, 735a 3-4; for criticism against De-
mocritus, see GA V 8, 789b 2-15.
52 I totally disagree with O’ Rourke 2004 and Pavlopoulos 2003 (see also Balme 1972, pp.

97ss.) who hold that Aristotelian philosophy of nature is compatible with evolutionism.
Among the many philosophical and textual reasons for rejecting this view, one is his theory of
becoming (see especially Phys. I 7): in any becoming – be it generation/corruption, qualitative
alteration, locomotion, increase/diminution – a pre-existing matter/substrate acquires a form
from a mover which already possesses it in act: forms cannot be created but only transferred
into matters; species are forms par excellence, and could never be created ex nihilo, according
to Aristotle’s metaphysics of becoming. If a human being is generated, it must be from human
53 See Kauffman 1970, Wimsatt 1972, Millikan 1989, Garson 2014.
54 For the importance of the part/whole relation in Aristotle’s view on organisms, see

Quarantotto 2005, a deep critical survey onto the meaning of Aristotle’s teleology and its in-

species.55 Thus, there is room for a difference between what an O’s trait
does de facto and what it is supposed to do in O, only insofar as O belongs to
species S.56 What is normal for an individual’s trait is not its actual causal
role, nor is it all it statistically does in members of the relative species, but it
is that (narrower) causal role which has been selected at the level of its spe-
cies. Selection depends on success of a certain number of individuals, but
its results are embodied and maintained at a species-level. The Aristotelian
picture has been only partially condemned to obsolescence by evolutionism,
as many views in contemporary life sciences – such as that of Realism on
proper functions – may well be referred to as neo-Aristotelian.
Returning to Aristotle’s view: besides explanatory and epistemological
issues, how can final causes make a difference in the material, efficient and
“mechanical” processes driven by the organism’s elementary constituents?
If the final cause is not a mysterious force intrinsic to matter57 or a vital
force à la Driesch,58 where and at what point, does the formal/functional
higher-level of causation come into play? In terms of contemporary biology,
Aristotle does not know carbon and other ingredients essential to life, but
for him vital processes are enabled by a special material composition: he
but individuates pneuma as the causal factor responsible for goal-directed
development, maintenance and movements of organisms.59 Like carbon,
pneuma ultimately is a ratio of physical entities, i.e., of the four basic ele-

55 This is the so-called Aetiological Theory (AT) of proper functions (e.g. Millikan, Dret-

ske, Neander), in which proper functions are already selected traits; another (realist) view is
the Propensity Theory (PT), proposed by Bigelow and Pargetter (1987), according to which
functions are effects that increase an organism’s propensity to reproduce. While AT looks at
the remote past of our ancestors, PT also looks at the future, so that a present trait could be a
function even if it has not already been selected. Of course, for Aristotle species are eternal – at
least they are eternally instantiated – therefore there is no tension between past and future.
Proper functions are species-specific. But some of them, like the capacity of learning
from experience, may well give rise to individual-specific acquired functions: something like
[pressing a bar] can acquire the function of indicating [food reward] for a particular rat as a
consequence of training; animals that learn have the possibility of function-acquisition, but this
possibility is a species-specific proper function: learning capacities have been selected insofar
as they maximized survival in ancestors.
57 As it was traditionally interpreted by Zeller 1876-89, among many others.
58 Driesch’s Vitalism – the idea that life depends on a non-physical, “mind-like” force he

(wrongly) called entelechy; see Driesch 1908 – has been completely abandoned both in phi-
losophy and in biology.
59 In 1944 the physics Nobel prizewinner Schrödinger individuated the physical peculiar-

ity of living beings in the molecular structure of genes. Chromosomic material is an aperiodic
crystal; that special property (all other crystals have a periodic structure) would account for
mutations, self-replication, complexity and many other features of the biological realm (see
Schrödinger 1944). The later discoveries in molecular biology about DNA, RNA etc. both con-
firmed and articulated Schrödinger’s hypothesis.

ments (water, air, fire, earth) everything is made of in sublunary world.60

Pneuma “starts” the generation as it is contained in the male’s seed – the
form/soul giver – as soon as it informs the female’s menses (the mat-
ter/receptor)61 to shape an embryo, but it vanishes away as the embryogene-
sis has started its own self-development.62 As “connate pneuma” is also said
to be responsible for vital activities in developed organisms,63 we must think
that this pneuma has been formed anew from the (previously informed)
embryo itself, so it must be made out of basic four-fold matter. So, our
problem remains: how can an even very peculiar material constitution give
rise to a higher-level causality besides the material/efficient one? Is such
peculiar material constitution not sufficient for causing life-activities of any
sort? If the circular “self-relation” involved in life-activities is structured by
a material principle, what else besides the material and efficient causality
could ever be responsible for life and for its so peculiar causal powers mani-
fest in behaviour?

6. Emergentist approaches
There are many interpretations of Aristotle’s final cause, but without en-
tering into the details of such a huge and long-lasting debate we can distin-
guish at least two main approaches: final cause can be regarded as a causal
60Even if it is said to be similar with celestial ether (GA II 3, 736b 30ss.).
GA I 22, 730b 8ss.; II 3, 736a 24ss.; 737a 7-12. The male’s semen – coming from the
blood – is a form-giver as an efficient cause in the embryo, not as a matter (this is the female
menses’ role), i.e., as a set of movements (GA I 22, 730b 8; II 3, 736a 24ss.; 737a 7-12). On Ar-
istotle’s embryology and its metaphysics, see Cooper 1990.
62 See GA II 3, 737a 23.24. The menstrual fluid also is a seminal residue, so a sort of

sperma, though less concocted and pure, coming from the female’s blood as the sperma comes
from the male’s blood (GA I 20, 728a 18; II 3, 737a 27-30).
See SV 2, 456a12; MA 10, 703a 10-15; GA v 3, 781a 24. In fact pneuma is responsible:
a) for the self-organization (Gill 1997) and the self-limiting processes (Balme 1987; Bradie,
Miller 1984) on inner matter in embryogenesis, of which it is a sort of controlling cause (Coo-
per 1990) or inner program (Berti 1989-90), and the male’s semen is an internal transmitter
(Gotthelf 1987) insofar as in contains pneuma; b) for the transformation of psychological states
(insofar as they are “numerically” identical with physiological processes) into bodily move-
ments and behaviour. We may think of chromosomes for 1): indeed, they contain a “program”
for the constitution of the embryo and the mature organism, and of course such a “program”
is nothing else than a set of physico-chemical structures and reactions, as pneuma is a set of
physical movements. We may think of neural cells and nervous system for 2): indeed, they
have a special physical constitution which transmit electrochemical signals in an incredibly
rapid way. Pneuma has exactly such double functional role (chromosomes, neural
cells/nervous system). Furth 1988, p. 117, associates the form-giving power of pneuma to the
information contained in genes and chromosomes; the notion of information does not involve
anything ultra-physical.

factor internal to material processes,64 or as being at a different level than

matter.65 The first views material-efficient conditions as not sufficient to
produce teleological behaviour, but by adding the final cause it risks trans-
forming it in a further efficient/motor cause (as we have seen with pneuma,
a physical realizer of vital processes). The idea of pneuma and pneumatic
heat as a directive agent endowed with a sort of program appears to be
similar the Cartesian pineal gland hypothesis, as pneuma is a physical agent
whose telic action turns out to be an explanandum rather than an explanans.
Advocates of the second approach who take material-efficient conditions to
be not sufficient for teleological behaviour66 are at pain to account for how
final cause can make a difference in the present “from the future”, being an
end or result toward which the process is directed rather than a factor in-
ternal to material processes. Those advocates of the second approach who
take material-efficient conditions to be sufficient for teleological processes67
face the problem of making the final cause inert; why should Aristotle
commit both to the ontological and epistemic import of something that
does not make any difference in the real arrangement of the world? In what
sense would it be worth calling it a cause?68 Each interpretive option has its

64 For example, Gotthelf 1987, Lennox 1982, Balme 1987, Berti 1989-90.
Charles 1988 convincingly argues that the Aristotelian defence of final cause does not
entail the falsity of materialism but just the inadequacy of Empedocles’ and Democritus’ kind
of (reductive) materialism, according to which biological processes and generations happen
out of chance.
66 Gotthelf 1987, p. 211, Waterlow 1982, p. 69, Lear 1988, p. 22. They hold that Aris-

totle’s defence of teleology rejects the thesis that all happens by material-efficient necessity: so,
for them the truth of teleology would entail the falsity of materialism.
Nussbaum 1978 (but she shares an epistemic interpretation of Aristotelian teleology),
Sorabji 1980, p. 153, Irvin 1988, pp. 109-112, Charles 1988, Meyer 1992.
68 You can be realist about high-level properties without attributing to the latter any

autonomous causal job, if you are an epiphenomenalist. For sure Aristotle is not just an
epiphenomenalist, otherwise he would not talk of formal and final causes but just of forms and
ends. If we searched in the Aristotelian corpus something that exists but that has no causal
power at all, I think that our search would be frustrated. On the other hand, the way in which
ends are causes is not stricto sensu a “productive” one: “What is productive (poiêtikon) is a
cause in the manner of that from which motion has its origin. But that for-the-sake-of-which is
not productive, and so health is not productive, except in an extended sense (kata
metaphoran)” (GC I 7, 324b 13-15): ends individuate certain processes, so make them what
they are; ends also are reasons why certain processes individuated by them are in place at all,
but they do not start any of these processes. The genuine inception of change is always due to
proximal efficient/material factors instead, where the agent is spatio-temporally contiguous
with the changing subject.

problems,69 but the very same problems are at stake in the contemporary
debate on Emergentism, a theory currently undergoing a major revival.70
Emergentism is simply aimed at vindicating the apparent ontological
and causal autonomy of certain complex systems, their distinctive causal ef-
ficacy relative to the lower entities they are composed of and upon which
they depend. Such manifest autonomy is reflected by the tree-structure of
special sciences; it is as if physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology
etc., were dealing with their own real causal and ontological level, despite a
synchronic dependence of the higher levels on the lower levels. The puzzle
emergentism has to face is that if a higher-level property H1 caused by an-
other higher-level property H depends on a lower-level property L1, which
is is caused by the lower property L, then H1 will also be caused by the
lower property L on which H depends, rather than by H itself. If so, where
is the higher-level causal autonomy? An eliminativist solves the puzzle by
denying that H and H1 are real, a dualist prefers to deny the dependence of
H on L, an epiphenomenalist denies that H is causally efficacious, and a re-
ductive physicalist denies that H is really distinct from L. Eliminativism and
reductive physicalism do not vindicate ontological (and causal) autonomy,
dualism does not vindicate dependence and epiphenomenalism does not
vindicate causal autonomy. Can we conceive an emergentist model that
could consistently vindicate ontological autonomy, causal autonomy and
dependence? Can we attribute to Aristotle a form of emergentism, or does
his view on final causes inevitably entail some form of dualism? The rivals
of Aristotle on teleology, like Empedocles and Democritus, may be inter-
preted as reductive materialists or as eliminativists (on this point, see Meyer
1992), as it is not always clear whether they denied only causal autonomy or
also ontological autonomy.71 Both options for Aristotle are radically wrong,
but depending on his polemical target we may attribute different positive
views to him.

69 For a good reconstruction of the debate and some criticisms of the principal options,

see Quarantotto 2001.

70 See, for example, O’Connor, Wong 2005, Humphreys 1996, Searle 1992, Wimsatt

1996, Wilson 2002, Van Gulik 2001, Bedau 1997.

71 Democritus is more likely to have been an eliminativist, for he holds that only void, at-

oms and their movement are ultimately real. Instead, one may think that Empedocles does not
deny the existence of biological organisms as such, he only denies their originally good-
oriented nature. However, ancient physicists in general attribute substance and nature only to
basic elements (be them atoms in the void, homeomeriai, an original element or the four ele-
ments), such that individual organisms and their species are conceived of as accidents of the
matter or as contingent properties of the basic natures. For Aristotle living beings are sub-
stances “most of all” (malista, Met. VII 7, 1032a 19; VII 8, 1034a 4).

Within the disordered jungle of emergentisms we may – following Wilson

2015 – individuate two broad approaches: Weak Emergentism (WE) and
Strong Emergentism (SE). General, brief characterizations of these are:72
SE: A token higher-level feature H i) synchronically depends of a token
lower-level feature L but ii) H has at least one token causal power not identi-
cal with any token-power of L.
SE is a form of robust emergentism and “solves” the puzzle above by
denying that every physical effect must have a sufficient physical cause.
Thus, even if there is a synchronic dependence of higher-level properties on
lower-level properties, L as the “base” of H may be not sufficient for caus-
ing H1 and its base L1: H has some causal power not had by L.
WE: A token higher-level feature H i) synchronically depends on L and ii)
H has a proper subset of the token powers had by L.
According to WE, a token of the higher-level property L has a narrower
causal power than the token of lower-level property on which it depends
(while in SE a H-token has a broader causal power than its L-token). As L
and H are distinct there is ontological autonomy, and as H has a distinctive
set of powers (even though it is included in the broader set of L’s powers),
there is causal autonomy.73
WE is a form of non-reductive materialism:74 L and H are not identical
(as they are for reductive physicalism) and both cause L1 and H1, so there is
causal overdetermination, as even if L would be sufficient for bringing
about H, H is not causally inert. However, H is realized by L now but it
could be (multiply) realized by L, Lx, Ly, Lz: L, Lx, Ly, Lz all share the subset
of powers had by H, but each also possesses other powers not possessed by
H and perhaps not possessed by each other L sharing the H-powers. So, if
you have a causal chain L-L1-L2-L3, and a token-by-token corresponding
causal chain H-H1-H2-H3, H may cause H3 as part of a different system of
laws than L. For example, biological laws can emerge from physical laws as a
subset of causal powers had by physical realizers, thus without having to

72 Here I give a simplified version of the characterizations offered by Wilson 2015, p. 11,

that is sufficient for our purposes.

73 Causal autonomy does not mean independence. In WE causal autonomy is guaranteed

because when a certain physical condition L causes another physical condition L1 it can be the
case that L qua H causes L1 qua H1, namely, such a causation may be subsumed under an intel-
ligible system of laws in which H and H1 figure rather than L and L1.
74 We would say “physicalism” but I prefer to use a broader term which could fit also with

Aristotle’s view of physical world.


“force” physical laws or imposing on them a parallel causal line (as for dual-
In SE a token of H has more power than the token of L on which it de-
pends, while in WE the former has less power than the latter.75 If WE only
entails overdetermination, SE also entails downward causation: if a token of
H has more power than the L-token on which it depends, then its causing
H1 will also influence L1 on which H1 depends, in a way that could not have
been done by the L-token alone.76
For Aristotle, a whole like an organism has a causal power that is more
than the sum of the effects of their parts: the whole is unified and exhibits
feedback circularity in many of its processes.77 Likewise, the parts have a dif-
ferent causal role than that they would have if they were not constituents of
the whole.78 Emergentism also vindicates the element of novelty – though
not a historical novelty in Aristotelian biological properties. At a certain
level of complexity new genuine (causal and ontological) properties ap-
pear,79 and new causal laws. Does Aristotelian bio-teleology fit with con-
temporary emergentisms models, and if so, does it fit with SE or WE? One
may think that in WE there can also be an indirect downward causation, as
the whole has causal effects on its parts insofar as it is an emergent feature
of its parts as joined and unified, which would be a feed-back circularity
without any violation of physical closure and bottom-up necessitation.
However, this apparent downward causation is just the imposition of lower-
level constraints, while Aristotle’s formal/final cause in the whole, on the
contrary, seems to impose limits and constraints to the low-level material
necessitation. His bio-teleology entails that basic elements as constituents of
living beings are for the homeomerous parts like blood and tissues, which
are for anhomeomerous parts like organs, and the latter are for the organism

Yablo 1992 and Wilson 2009 see this realization-relation as a determinable/determinate
relation, where the realizer is a determinate with richer causal powers than the realized high-
level property (determinable also by other realizers).
76 To accept downward causation, SE need to deny closure of physical domain, i.e., the

idea that for any physical effect there is a purely physical cause/condition that is sufficient for
bringing about that effect.
77 On the dynamical whole/parts relation as essential to Aristotelian teleology in biology,

see Quarantotto 2005, pp. 237-338.

78 A severed hand or a severed finger, despite appearances and physical constitution, are a

hand or a finger only “by homonymy” (same name, different being) like a “saw” without the
power of cutting (DA II 1, 412b 11-13). See GA I 19, 726b 22-24.
79 This point is stressed by Humphrey 1996. Wilson notes that in SE the novelty is funda-

mental, in WE the novelty is real but not fundamental. The basic level is thus sufficient for the
high level, so the holistic effect of the whole on their parts is on its own an effect of the interac-
tion of the whole’s parts (as unified in certain ways).

as a whole80 (and the organism is for itself81) in such a way that the higher
levels are causally and ontologically more relevant than the lower levels,
even if the firsts nonetheless depend on the seconds. So, Aristotle’s down-
ward efficacy seems to involve new genuine powers, as in the SE model.
My proposal is that Aristotle’s teleology can be considered a form of
emergentisms, but it crosses the SE/WE distinction due to his non-
evolutionist background theory: as organisms belonging to certain species
always generate conspecific individuals and species are eternal,82 teleo-
formal properties do causally depend on low-level material properties,
which I take to be sufficient for the formers in Aristotle’s view.83 However,
teleo-formal properties have always been there as a “selection” of narrower
causal roles than their physical lower realizers,84 so they are ontologically
80 PA I 1, 645a 28-35; II 1, 646b 11-15; GA I 1, 715a 9-11; as the bodily organs are the

end of the their homoiomerous matter (PA II 1, 646b 10-14), their end is the body as a whole,
the body as a whole is for the sake of its soul (DA II 4, 415a 17-21; PA I 1, 642a 10-13.
81 See PA I 2, 639b 15-19.
82 Through replication, organisms realize at least an eternity “in form”, not being possible

for perishable individuals any eternity “in number” (see GA II 1, 731b 24-732a 1; DA II 4,
415b 2-7). In a well-known paper Lennox (Lennox 1982, now in Lennox 2001, pp. 67-93) de-
nies that Aristotelian species are eternal and argues that Aristotle is rather committed to the
idea of an everlasting, continuous generation of individual organisms that are one “in form”.
Anyway, for our concern his point does not make any substantial difference: even if species are
only so qualifiedly eternal, individual forms/essences – consisting of teleological features and
shared by conspecifics – have always being there and are never come to be instantiated for the
first time, they have always been transferred through sexual replication: indeed, as shareable
forms they have no history at all, nor will they be modified in the future: thus, the continuity in
replication of the same form entails its fixity, as Lennox himself acknowledges (Lennox 2001,
pp. 90-91).
83 We can find in Aristotle many explicit examples of causal overdetermination, none of

which he sees as problematic. For example, front teeth fall both because the jawbone is thin
and weak and because it is good to change teeth, the hair grows also on account of humidity,
not just to protect the head (PA II 14, 658b 3): there is no need of supposing any competition
between material/efficient causes and formal/final causes. I agree with Meyer 1992 and
Leunissen 2010 that material and efficient necessity are incorporated in teleology, rather than
being somehow opposed by it. Leunissen 2010 (Chapter 6) argues at length that final causes
do not figure as middle terms in scientific explanations, but as starting points: in explaining
generation and coming-to-be of useful parts, teleology is a heuristic tool but material and effi-
cient necessity receive causal priority in scientific syllogisms (they figure as middle terms). This
does not mean that final causes have no ontological and definitional priority in living nature –
they have – but that efficient and material causes are sufficient for generation of functional
parts. Even if a complete biological explanation cannot omit the “for-the-sake-of-which”, as I
hope to have shown, this does not mean at all that the material/efficient level is “pulled” from
the ends as if they were extrinsic forces backwardly interfering with the causal processes.
84 GC I 10, 327b 23-27: certain causal powers of elements are only potential in the ho-

moiomerous parts they constitute, and do not account for what these parts really are; their
power also remain after the organism is dead. The reason why they do not account for what

and causally autonomous as it is by nature that certain bodily movements

and changes produce organized self-preserving wholes endowed with uni-
fied proper functions.85 It has ever been the case that certain organized
wholes transmit their species-specific identity through mechanisms of gen-
eration and embryogenesis, where the seed imparts certain fine-grained
movements – at an efficient and material level – to a matter, the menses,
which is by nature – again, by its material and “efficient” nature – able to
start a self-organizing development resulting in a new living form able to
generate others conspecifics. Teleological properties are intrinsic powers of
their bearers, only remotely potential in the constituents of such bearers be-
fore they are unified in a certain whole: namely, before they are essentially
what they are now (a dog, a tree, a human being). Those realizers also have
other causal powers that are extrinsic with respect to these telic activities
and powers of the living wholes. Some of these extrinsic causal powers do
not “disturb” the telic activities (like the noise of the heart or the tail-lifting
in deer) or are absorbed by the self-sustaining system, while others are re-
sponsible for the way certain telic activities are shaped and realized (like the
three stomachs and the absence of front teeth in deer). What matters for re-
sisting the rivals of teleology is the difference between intrinsic causal roles
(structuring causes and processes) and extrinsic causal roles of physical re-
alizers.86 A realizer of a telic property will thus have a narrow subset of

parts really are is not that there are not causally sufficient for making up those parts, but that
“what the parts really are” is determined by the higher-level rather than by the lower-level: by
the parts being constituents of anhomoiomerous parts rather than by them be constituted by
basic elements. Their functional causal role is only a part of their total causal role, that which is
functionally relevant. A fundamental difference between homoiomerous and anhomoimerous
parts is that the firsts only have passive qualities (like hardness and softness), the seconds have
active powers to do things, like the tongue and the hand (GA I 18, 722b 30-33). A hand essen-
tially is a realizer of prehensility.
Aristotle’s commitment to the eternal instantiation of species and consequently to the
non-historical originality of telic-formal properties, allows him to consider certain activities of
natural beings as an absolute and intrinsic value: this is the fundamentally anachronistic di-
mension of his natural teleology. Contemporary biofunctionalism sees teleological processes as
outcomes of selection, and the latter as depending on mere survival, while for Aristotle there is
an important difference between certain teleological powers that are for the sake of mere liv-
ing, and other teleological powers that are for the sake of living well. This difference is nicely
treated by Leunissen 2010, Chapter 2.
86 Extrinsic does not mean simply accidental, but accidental with respect to the higher-

level, causal teleological order. Something can cause something qua itself or qua something else
(Phys. II 8, 198b 27-32). Returning to our original example, the heart pump blood qua itself
but emits noise qua something else (qua a piece of moving matter). In particular, for Aristotle
two tokens L and H can be identical “in number” but different “in being” (see. Phys. I 7, 190a
13-22; 190b 24-25). An organism is numerically identical with a certain piece of matter as well
as with the sum of its parts, an action is numerically identical with the sum of the bodily

causal powers intrinsic to that property and another subset which is extrin-
sic to it, and positing this difference is enough to ground the relative ex-
planatory autonomy of special sciences like biology in ontological and
causal autonomy of their objects, which is quite compatible with the de-
pendence of biological facts from basic physical facts. Final causes are not
mysterious forces acting from the whole to their parts, nor are they ghostly
forces acting from the future to the present.87 They are the truth-makers of
bio-teleological explanations (irreducible to merely physical explanations as
structuring processes are irreducible to triggering processes), i.e., emergent
causal properties dependent on a narrow subset of the causal powers of
their physical realizers. For Aristotle, the self-promotion and self-organization
of life is always “in circle” through generation, it cannot be explained and
understood without the appeal to hypothetical necessity, telic explanations
and structuring causes. For many contemporary biologists and philosophers
of biology, telic properties are objective but due to natural history, so they
need to explain how a substantial downward causation (if SE is true) came
out of merely physical interactions, or how an only indirect downward causa-
tion (if WE is true) can bring about the novelty and autonomy of biological
laws (which entail the teleonomy of proper functions).
Teleo-functions are narrow causal roles of organism’s physical constitu-
ents (as in WE), subsets of their broad causal roles (mechano-functions),
which nonetheless pass a test of counterfactual efficacy: had they not been
there, their physical base would have not been shaped as it is (as in SE).
The truth-maker of such a counterfactual for Aristotle is a brute metaphysi-
cal fact, or a primitive and eternal arrangement of Nature, while for con-
temporary evolutionists it rests on selectional facts of natural history. In ei-

movements it is composed of, a sense is numerically identical with a physical organ that real-
izes it (DA 425b 27, 426a 16, 427a 3, 431a 14, 432b 1), a heart is numerically identical with a
piece of matter. However, organisms, actions, senses, organs are different in being from their
respective realizers or underlying physiological processes, and such a difference involves an-
other level of causation and explanation. It is qua organisms, qua actions, qua senses, qua or-
gans, that functional items cause and constitute behaviour. If souls are sets of proper func-
tions/capacities, any occurrent exercise of a “psychical” capacity is numerically identical with a
certain physical process, but it is essentially the exercise of a certain capacity (only as being
such, can it be a good or bad exercise).
87 Once the charge of backward causation is dismissed, Aristotelian teleology ceases to

appear an anachronistic dogma and becomes theoretically interesting for the contemporary
debate of biological functions. Against the classical charge of backward causation or “mysteri-
ous causal pull from the future” to final causes, see Leunissen 2010, Chapter VI: I totally agree
with her when she writes that “for Aristotle, the theory of natural teleology is not an a priori
assumption, but a scientific hypothesis, much like contemporary etiological or propensity
theories of function are” (Leunissen 2010, p. 9).

ther case, the new emergentist models (SE or WE), even if problematic and
incomplete, provide new conceptual tools for accommodating a realist on-
tology of proper teleo-functions as well as that autonomy of biological sci-
ences which Aristotle strenuously defended against the reductive physical-
ists of ancient times.
I hope to have shown that Aristotelian teleology – despite its ante lit-
teram anti-evolutionist commitment – is far from being obsolete, as it ex-
hibits an analogous structure to the explanatory attitude of contemporary
biological sciences, and that oscillations in scholars’ interpretation of the
Aristotelian final cause capture the very same issues and challenges that
animate the new recent debate on Emergentism.88

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