Saturday, December 03, 2005

another paper

I guess this would be my seventh paper, as I've kept count on this blog, but it's out of order in real time... I just forgot to put it up here.

This was for my History of Philosophy class, I got an A.

Leon Kass, in his book, The Hungry Soul[1], sets out to answer, among other questions, “What kind of ‘world relationships’ are entailed by the necessity of finding food? What, finally, is the relationship between what one is and what one eats?” “At stake in this inquiry,” Kass says, “is the adequacy or sufficiency of a materialistic explanation of metabolism and animal eating, and therewith of life as such.”[2] Kass breaks down the first chapter of this philosophical treatment of eating and being into ten parts. This essay will focus on the fifth part, “The Cause of Nourishing,” in which he discusses cause and responsibility vis-à-vis “metabolism and animal eating” and modern science’s explanation for these.[3] To be sure, the entire chapter (and the entire book for that matter) is rich with valuable insights and lessons both to the scientific community and to the common thinker. We will focus on the fifth part of chapter one, and the important lessons it holds, because it marks the start of a new tone in the chapter, and the book as a whole.

Kass begins by explaining that his reflections up to this point have “hardly broken new ground,” thereby implying that we should be familiar with what he has treated so far. If not, the reader is forced to wonder why and how his reflections have evaded us. Any good writer knows how to make his reader think, even about “the same ‘ol stuff.” Kass keeps us thinking throughout the entire work. After starting this part the way he does, he makes his reader suspect that a groundbreaking is eminent. But not only is he about to break new ground, he is about to enter into “controversial” territory. What he has treated so far should be of no surprise. Description and facts are more like surface coverage, explanation and cause take us to the real heart of the matter, literally and figuratively.[4]

Kass says that the act of nourishing not only drives performance, an action of the animal and man, but it is its own action as well, “one of the whole’s performances. As the many recent references to ‘self’ imply, an organism feeds and nourishes itself.” These references[5] to “self” include: “For the organism, unlike a machine, to nourish means to maintain as well as to fuel, and the organism is self-maintaining and self-repairing”[6] and “Nourishing is thus the activity of self-renewal as well as self-fueling, self-maintenance, self-healing, and self-maturation.”[7] These examples reinforce the idea of nourishing as an “accomplishment” and not just something that happens to or in an organism.

Here Kass also teaches us to think in terms of wholes with parts as even in this statement he gives the five parts of the nourishing-accomplishment: the “impulse to feed,” ingestion, digestion, absorption, and regenerative biosynthesis. Here also, he does not use the words “impulse” and “accomplishment” very lightly; he even puts the latter in italics. First, the word “impulse” comes from the Latin, impulsus, from the past participle of impellere, “to impel,” or “to push, strike against, drive forward, urge on.” And his use of the word “accomplishment” brings very human connotations with it: a sense of will, intention, volition, and as we’ll see very shortly, responsibility. Nourishing and metabolism are not just the processes that keep an organism alive, they are initiated by the very organism they sustain.

“What is in the organism that is responsible for these activities?” Again, Kass is invoking very common, human language to walk us through his points. How many times have we heard a mother ask her misbehaving child, “What’s gotten into you!”? What is in the child that is responsible for his actions? As was mentioned above, “This is, of course, the heart of the matter.” (emphasis mine) “At issue is the very nature and being of living things.” But, unfortunately, Kass states that this is a question “once much debated by philosophers, but now virtually neglected even by biologists.” Even by biologists! Of course philosophers would be consumed by such matters[8] but they are such a fickle crowd. But biologists!? Their whole science deals with “living things”! One can almost hear the underlying tone in Kass’s voice, making the comments above. With these three subtle words, “even by biologists,” he shows the folly of modern philosophy and science.

“Nothing less than a complete ontology[9] can answer the question [of the “very nature and being of living things”], and I am, quite frankly, unequal to the task” (emphasis mine). Here Kass introduces through his own witness the necessity for humility when entering into philosophical discussion. Socrates exhibited the same; for him wisdom was not in knowing all there is to know, but knowing his own ignorance and also being willing to inquire. Kass makes us wonder about his colleagues, “Is this humility in them?” A sort of intellectual pride must be at the heart of their experiments. At any rate, although Kass is “unequal to the task” he feels the question is important enough that we must do what we can to answer it and in a footnote he reassures us that the via media is always difficult, especially with matters as important as these.

The problem with society and its scientists today is that we want an explanation for every “organic change” we come across, we are not content with mystery. We must know what is “beneath” the change. We want to grab the change so we can hold it still and look at it from all sides, poke it, prod it, see what is under the hood, take it apart, dissect it, and put it back together again. If we cannot do that, it becomes a constant source of tension and grief. “When we ask about responsibility for metabolism, we are asking about such an under-lying cause, the stable something beneath or behind the flux.” In another footnote Kass implies that he uses the word “responsibility” rather than “cause” because we are not ready at this stage in the discussion to handle the 2500 years of baggage that this phrase brings. The good reader patiently proceeds.

Kass then says that “this question of responsibility or cause was first elaborated in classical antiquity” thus calling to mind the classics: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Then he goes right ahead and uses them in answering why, for example, the chair the reader is sitting in is “the way it is.” In Aristotle’s Four Causes, we see the Efficient Cause of the chair, its “from-what,” is the “carpenter-upholsterer who made it” and “his art and tools.” The Material Cause, its “out-of-what,” is “the wood or springs or cushioning.” The Formal Cause, its “what,” is “the shape or structure it displays.” And finally the Final Cause of the chair, its “for-what,” is “the use it serves, sitting.” These are all “modes of responsibility” and carefully bring us into the notion of cause.

Next, Kass moves into a more heavy-handed critique of modern science and its shrinking of the “notion of causation” to mean “only the moving cause or the efficient cause,” the first “Cause” we described above. For example, the Newtonian explanation for movement takes the easy way out: “[I]t proved easier to describe and quantify these changes than to identify the sought-for underlying substantive cause.” The modern scientist denies his very own innate capacity for wonder. He denies the “underlying substantive cause,” the “Why,” for an empty “How.” But this empirical tendency not only pervades the scientific community but the larger society as well. Kass states that the “common opinion” too has embraced these “laws of motion,” laws that at the end of the day, “do not explain motion or address its cause.” We force phenomena into our “preconceived parameters of space and time” rather than allow ourselves to be amazed.

Despite these difficulties, scientists are “by orientation” drawn to materialism and “[b]iologists are no exception.” Notice how Kass uses the phrase “by orientation” rather than “by nature.” He leaves an opening for science to change. If one is faced in the wrong direction, one can always change his “orientation” to face the right direction. Changing one’s “nature” is a whole different and eminently more difficult problem. Remember, “Descartes [a scientist] broke with his philosophical ancestors to present his doctrine of the ‘animal machine’ and a purely mechanical explanation of vital phenomena,” including “feeding, nourishing, and metabolism.” Descartes’ method, the modern method, wasn’t always the method. Kass is frustrated that modern biology has made such “enormous progress” by “eschewing all such speculation” of “form, or soul or purpose” in understanding “metabolism or, indeed any activity of life.” One can sense that he would like to put “progress” in quotation marks.

Kass then goes on, in the second to last paragraph of this part, to give examples of progress made in modern biology. He explains how scientists have figured out all of the pathways, structures, mechanisms, elements, processes, and “chemical bas[es]” of “ingestion, digestion, absorption, and regenerative biosynthesis” and even appetite! Any reader with some knowledge of philosophy will know that “appetite” carries with it quite a bit of baggage as well, but that did stop the modern scientist from clasping it under his microscope.

“[T]he whole is treated in terms of its ‘parts’” and this is how “most scientists vindicate their mechanistic and materialistic presuppositions, not only as heuristic[10] but as ontological hypotheses.” But isn’t an understanding of wholes and parts good? Isn’t that what Kass did in the beginning with the “nourishing-accomplishment”? Yes, but objects must be understood in a concept called the hermeneutic circle, when a whole is interpreted in light of its parts and the parts are interpreted in light of the whole, rather than primarily in one direction. Both directions in the hermeneutic circle, in the interpretation of an object, must be taken together. When this concept is not used, we come to a point where a flippant phrase like “you are what you eat” becomes serious science. Kass is the last one to make such a blunder.

In his closing paragraph of this part, Kass says, “Against the stream I want here to argue for the necessary supremacy of living form.” By saying he is about to embark “against the stream” he reminds his reader of the “controversy” he mentioned in the first paragraph. He has only scratched the surface. Kass also warns the reader not to interpret him wrongly; the “How” of metabolism is “both illuminating and useful.” But, now he will approach the “What” and “Why” by breaking out of his “form-material” discussion and moving toward one of “the relation of living form to its own material” which “differs markedly.” But in order to do this, we must first understand “form and material.” And so he sets us, and modern science, on a different orientation, to face the right direction.

[1] The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature by Leon R. Kass, M.D., University of Chicago Press ©1999. Any page numbers given in this essay are to be understood to come from this text.
[2] p. 20
[3] The fifth part, “The Cause of Nourishing,” is in the above book on pages 31-34. This essay is designed so that the reader can follow along with the Kass text. It steps through the fifth part, paragraph by paragraph in its analysis, so page number citations for each quote are omitted unless they reference a different part.
[4] Pun intended
[5] From the fourth part, “What Use Is Food?” p. 27-31
[6] p. 28
[7] p. 31
[8] Puns intended
[9] From the Gk. ontos “being” + logia “writing about, study of”
[10] From Gk. heuretikos “inventive,” related to heuriskein “to find,” meaning “serving to discover or find out”

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