What is the Purpose of Villi?
Kant’s Organic Teleology:
A failure of imagination or a necessity for biological investigation?
"In simplified terms...living tissues are made of cells constantly signaling to one another and often moving around within a three-dimensional community of sorts. Each cell seems to know its place and role in the larger collective that forms and maintains a functional tissue."
- Scientific American, August 2005
To pose the question: “what is the purpose of villi?” is to presuppose a particular telos for that biological structure. The answer to the question is easily forthcoming - villi are structures in the intestine that increase surface area and aid absorption of nutrients. Both question and answer require a judgment that employs the principle of natural purposiveness; such that an “organized product of nature is one in which every part is reciprocally purpose [end] and means.”But to speak of organisms with a notion of purpose is to say, as Andreas Weber and Francisco Varela do, “that there is a certain paradoxality concerning the role of teleology in biological matters – a paradoxality, whose solution is central to the understanding of biological sciences.” Even if post-Darwin biological investigation treats purposiveness only as an analogy, it remains problematically present. It persists because teleology is a feature of our faculty of judgment necessary for proper investigation of organisms, despite the apparent success of the Darwinian mechanical account.
Given that Darwinian methodology is now applied to achieve complex structures that are not designed, but nonetheless have a telos; does this transcend the Kantian legacy? Or, is it simply a failure of the Kantian imagination to understand the very definition of purposiveness and self-organizing structure? Kant understands organisms to be those unique features of nature that propagate and repair themselves; that definition is now beginning to be eclipsed by technology that can replicate these feats. But the empirical examples mentioned do not overrule our faculty of judgment which, presumably, remains the same. We have advanced methodologically in resolving biological problems, but their philosophical implications remain to be addressed.
Kant’s understanding of organisms as necessarily judged teleologically has more merit than it has received since the triumph of
Teleological understanding, for Kant, hinges on the distinction between the determinant and reflective aspects of the faculty of judgment. The faculty of judgment itself is the discrimination of particulars from the application of a universal principle. If a universal concept is available for the classification of a particular the judgment is determinant. Conversely, reflective judgments are those instances where a particular is given and the universal must be discovered. Reflective judgments, seeking to unify all empirical observations into an intelligible whole, borrow directly from experience. That is, they must observe particulars a posteriori, then employ the faculty of judgment to attempt to provide a holistic account of a class that encompasses these particulars. Classes or sets, as they are systematized constructs of reason, are not found in experience, but only in the application of reason. This systematization, not being bound by experience, is legislative to itself within the faculty of judgment, and therefore natural law must be adjusted to nature, and not prescribed to it.
Teleological judgments must be made in regards to artifacts of a will. They must also be taken when evaluating objects which appear to be artifacts, but are products of nature (i.e. organisms). The teleological mode of judgment is not a distinct faculty, but a representative function of reflective judgment. Therefore, the judgment of a telos is merely a reflective judgment with the presence of a particular seeking to place it within a coherent framework of understanding. When judging nature, reason can use certain universal proscriptions a priori, such as the Newtonian laws of universal gravitation. But, the investigation into particular instances of gravity is undertaken by the faculty of reflective judgment and must always be made with regard to experience.
To ascend from the great diversity witnessed in experience to systematized knowledge the faculty of judgment must serve as its own system of measure. It must selectively accept instances of particulars with import, and reject those that are extraneous to form a cogent understanding within a universal concept. This must be done to properly understand the phenomenal world as it conforms to natural law. The consequence of a determinant judgment is that when the law is given a particular is therefore codified. Their a priori possibility is realized, as the principles which subsume the judgments are arrived at before experience. Reflective judgments must deal with instances without recourse to universal understanding – either it is unknown or not possible. As such, particulars within a reflective judgment must be tokens of types not yet available and thus a type unto themselves. The reflective judgments, as they are particulars lacking a framework, are not amenable to the same evaluation that is provided to a priori judgments that are achieved for determining accounts. The reflective aspects are based on maxims, which are “neither true nor false, not even probable or improbable; they are rather rational estimates of the way nature operates, and express chosen normative research strategies thought to render nature intelligible.”
Teleology is therefore necessary for our best understanding of an organic object that it be deemed purposive by reflective judgment. In other words, how can our understanding come to terms with something that appears accidental by simply efficient causation, but has a relation between the parts which seem to operate for the sake of a whole? Substances of this nature are understood by Kant as natural purposes. The coordination of an organism which seemingly has within itself the concept of its purpose, and therefore the coherent coordination towards that concept is its purposiveness. Our judgment based on this principle, within the framework of natural law, is that the object contains natural purposiveness. The nature of this object is therefore represented to our understanding as if the unity of the object were within nature but not strictly determined by efficient causality. 
Purposiveness is found, a priori, in our own faculties when applied to these forms of objects that are not immediately available for explanation under reflective judgment. There is an a priori assumption made that there is an extant reality that can be ordered and understood structurally. We must resort to the “analogy of purpose” when we make judgments about empirical observations in regards to the seemingly indefinable variety of naturally purposive objects. These types of objects do not function contrary to a priori laws of nature, but certainly autonomously within them. Kant understands this as subjective purposiveness, which is the transcendental ability to provide comprehensibility to our faculty of judgment, and to formalize this purposiveness within a system. We are not uncovering biological nature, in a sense, but sorting the particular such that our judgments about them can remain coherent. The concepts whereby we determine objects along teleological grounds do not exist externally; they are the vestiges of a subject in its interaction with natural order. Thus, it is ‘as if’ the teleological judgment is found in nature rather than in the subject.
The purpose of teleological judgment, for Kant, serves to move contingent natural phenomena that are only possible under reflective judgment, to become a constitutive principle. This would allow a new type of investigation within the sphere of natural science that generalizes teleology into a universal and admits is subjective nature, providing “a new causality, which we only borrow from ourselves and ascribe to other beings, without meaning to assume them to be of the same kind with ourselves.” Therefore, to understand the necessity of each natural form, and thus its position as an object of knowledge, is to understand its origin through an analogy of purpose. Otherwise, those things that are not immediately explicable by efficient causality could not be able to studied or understood.
The problem is that of a lock and key, or Kant’s example of the building of a home for the sake of accruing rent, which are the same as the organs of an organism forming in relation to a whole. For there to emerge a lock there must have simultaneously have been a key, or the notion of one to cause the production of the other. This is seen in nature by the relation of the heart to the body, without one the other is impossible. The notion of a natural purpose is a concept that is employed to regulate those judgments that must examine a particular instance, and as we are teleological creatures with willful purposiveness, guide our understanding of other natural objects as though there were willfully purposeful in the same fashion. Or, as Kant articulates this circumstance: “The principle is no doubt, as regards its occasion, derived from experience…but must have at its basis an a priori principle, although it be merely regulative and these purposes lie only in the idea of the judging [subject] and not in an effective cause. We may therefore describe the aforesaid principle as a maxim for judging of the internal purposiveness of organized beings.”
This then allows two maxims of investigation available to reflective judgments, either the mechanical investigation through direct causal laws or a teleological framework. Efficient causality is necessary, as was demonstrated in The Critique of Pure Reason in the Second Analogy, that each event must have its cause. But, those entities which possess natural autonomy, self-organization, reproduction, and regeneration would seem to be inexplicable by strictly efficient causality. Kant says it is highly laudable and perfectly rational to undertake as far as possible mechanical understanding in all aspects of nature, but fundamentally, we are bound to understand organic causality through the supremacy of teleology. To attribute a mechanical explanation remains problematic, if no other reason than “[f]undamental forces simply are not phenomenal. They are the basic theoretical concepts which make possible the construction of the phenomenal character of the mind.”
For Kant, the distinction between physical and teleological explanations of organisms is the basis for an antinomy. This antinomy is the misattribution of determinant and reflective judgments. Because the reflective judgments are maxims without the a priori necessity found with determinant judgments, they allow for autonomy. Determinant judgments must regulate themselves based upon necessary law derived from the understanding. Teleological judgment provides the only means that our cognitive abilities can possibly organize and conceptualize organic experience as it is observed. It is this relation of the faculties of reason to experience, transcendentally through the necessary features of the categories, that teleology gives the possibility of a supreme cause and therefore a framework of judgment for naturally purposive objects. Because the unity of mechanical and teleological causation is said to lie exclusively in the realm of the supersensible, to attempt to construct from natural causes alone a system that can account for those items which are seen as purposive self-organization is to show that, fundamentally, there is no antinomy.
Although organisms are necessarily purposive; they are amenable to both a mechanical and teleological explanation - “not simultaneously, but depending on whether we are considering a part in its efficient causality or in its role in the living whole.” Each method of explanation is distinct but irreconcilable. The teleological judgment must have precedence in the end to account for the intellectual gap between the living and the merely physical. To pursue one maxim of investigation at the expense of the other is in error. Both teleological and mechanical explanations exist in regards the same naturally purposive object without conflict but are also denied the possibility of direct correspondence. That is, the organism cannot be ‘reduced’ to efficient causality without transcending the limits of experience. The salient aspect of this point is that “it is necessary by the constitution of the human cognitive faculties to seek the supreme ground of these purposive combinations in an original understanding as the cause of the world.” The world itself is neither purposive nor mechanical, per se. Just as we are unable to cognize experience without categorical understanding, so too are we bared from conceptualizing purposiveness in any other manner than teleologically. This does not preclude seeking solutions in mechanical terms, but teleological explanations must supersede the mechanical. The ultimate foundation for both accounts is the supersensible substrate, which, necessarily, is unavailable, thus the two are independently valid but irreconcilable. If for no other reason than our capacity to judge natural purposiveness is so constituted to schematize organisms as though they came about through willful design. To deny teleological investigation is to allow but a stub of biology to proceed.
Without the possibility of an intuitive mechanical explanation, as it is transcendent in respect to living things, we must revert to a teleological account. But, the teleological account is not an aspect of the living creature in itself it is the facet of human judgment that is engaged when we seek to understand this portion of nature through experience. As Kant states, “the mere mechanism of nature cannot be adequate to the explanation of these its products…This [teleology] is only a maxim of the reflective, not of the determinant, judgment; consequently only subjectively valid for us, not objectively for the possibility of things themselves of this kind (in which both kinds of production may well cohere in one and the same ground).” Natural mechanisms within organisms are vital to a proper understanding. Mechanical accounts allow for medicine, taxonomy, anatomy, physiology and, postdating Kant, the notion of genetic heritability. Physical methodological effectiveness is not in doubt, nor is it demeaned by a Kantian understanding of organic life, it is “rational, even meritorious, to pursue natural mechanism, in respect of the explanation of natural products… and if we give up the attempt, it is not because it is impossible in itself to meet in this path with the purposiveness of nature, but only because it is impossible for us as men.” Either method, but teleology in particular, is descriptive and experientially based in regards to naturally purposive beings. Kant’s project throughout the Critical project is to prevent the mind from misinterpreting “its own abstract working as the absolute framework of reality” which is true equally of metaphysical investigation as it of biological investigation.
The position advanced by Weber and Varela is that of “naturalized teleology” based upon the assumption that life can only judge life. That is, life at all levels has a purpose of living, even a single cellular organism exhibits purposive action to maintain life. As we are life and the only kind known that can make judgments upon other aspects of nature we are correct in imputing a naturalized account of telos to living organisms because it is found in at the core of our constitution. Although they present an interesting account of Kantian thought, they overstep Kant’s assertions and overstate their theory in attempting to “naturalize teleology” external to the subject. It must be claimed, according to reading presented above, that the reflective judgments necessary for natural purposive understanding cannot have access to organisms in themselves. And, thus there is no possibility that a bacterium is asserting its autonomy towards life, but it is merely our judgment of its actions and organization that presents itself as such. As they state their position:
“It is actually by experience of our teleology – our wish to exist further on as a subject, not our imputation of purposes on objects – that teleology becomes a real rather than an intellectual principle. Thus causality, as it is perceived by us as sentient beings, may be subsumed under the more general principle of life. And if teleology is the way organisms are working, and if the categories of apperception are defined by the way an organism works, then the category of causality follows from the teleology of the living rather than vice versa.”
Kant denied the direct intuitive understanding of biological necessity (the intellectus archetypus). But Weber takes this notion and asserts that we, as animate matter, embody this intuition and are ourselves a knowing intellectus archetypus. However, we are also composed of many billions of individual cells, it cannot be so easily stated we are intuitively aware of biological reality for single celled organisms. For Kant, there is an affinity between our cognition of external reality - the transcendental reciprocity of human intellect - but our means of knowing is also a barrier that is forever guarded. To posit that because we are matter, or living matter, that we have the innate understanding of either of these is to overreach the teleological principle at its core and to make a positive assertion about the supersensible. It is only our judgment that proceeds along a teleological direction, and must necessarily do so.
Just as we are now able to employ the methodologies of evolutionary understanding to produce artifacts that exhibit the traits of natural purposiveness, we are also approaching the ability to have self-replicating, self-organizing and self-healing machines. By invalidating teleology in biological understanding we are overlooking a necessary facet of our ability to understand the operations in both the natural and artificial world. Blind processes can achieve great complexity, as if, they were designed. We now understand the mechanisms by which self-regulating species can have parts that function for the sake of the whole as if they were aware of its concept. But, to gain a full appreciate of these advances in biology we must return to the necessity of the faculty judgment that forces researchers to admit that their investigations are undertaken with our features of cognition so constituted.
 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement. Translated by J. H. Bernard (New York: Hafner Publishing Co., 1972), §66, p. 222.
 Andreas Weber and Francisco J. Varela, “Life after Kant: Natural purposes and the autopoietic foundations of biological individuality,” Phenomenology and Cognitive Sciences. Vol. 1, No. 2 (June 2002): 98.
 See the image on the title page of an evolved antenna which is “designed fully or substantially by an automatic design procedure mimicking Darwinian evolution.” See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolved_ant
 Cf. Daniel Kolb, “Kant, teleology, and evolution.” Synthese Vol. 91, Nos. 1 – 2 (January 1992): 13.
“Could it not be that the entities we take to be organically structured are really nothing more than extraordinarily complex machines? Is the use of teleological explanations nothing more than a declaration of ignorance?”
 Christel Fricke, “Explaining the Inexplicable. The Hypotheses of the Faculty of Reflective Judgment in Kant’s Third Critique.” Nous Vol. 24, No. 1 (March 1990): 53.
 This “reflection upon the laws of nature adjusts itself by nature, and not nature by the conditions according to which we attempt to arrive at a concept of it which is quite contingent in respect of nature.” Kant, Critique of Judgement, Introduction, p. 16.
 Kant, Critique of Judgement, Introduction, p. 31.
 Robert E. Butts, “Teleology and Scientific Method in Kant’s Critique of Judgment.” Nous Vol. 24, No. 1 (March 1990): 4.
 Cf. Kolb, “Kant, teleology, and evolution,” 13. “Explanations of purposive properties in organisms require both a systematic conception of a whole not found in mechanical explanations and a reversal of the mechanical order of cause and effect.”
 Cf. Butts, “Teleology and Scientific Method,” 11. “The concept of god is in this sense replaceable by the regulative idea of an ordered universe in principle always accessible to human comprehension. The postulation of a designer of the universe thus amounts to nothing more than rational acceptance of an assumption about the systematic order of nature and the affinity between our cognitive capabilities and that nature.”
 Kant, Critique of Judgement, §61, p. 206.
 Kant, Critique of Judgement, §66, p. 223.
 Kolb, “Kant, teleology, and evolution,” 16.
 Kant, Critique of Judgement, §71, p. 236.
 John F. Cornell, “
 Kant, Critique of Judgement, §77, p. 258. My emphasis.
 Cf. Kolb, “Kant, teleology, and evolution,” 14. “Given the problematic nature of teleological judgments in biology, one might wonder why Kant insists that we must make them. The answer to that question turns our attention from nature, the object judged, to the intellect, the faculty of judgment. The human intellect for Kant is characterized by its lack of a direct intuitive faculty for grasping the objects of its thought.”
 Kant, Critique of Judgement, §78, p. 262.
 Kant, Critique of Judgement, §80, p. 267.
 Cornell, “
 Weber andVarela, “Life after Kant,” 110.
Burnham, Douglas. An Introduction to Kant’s Critique of Judgement.
Butts, Robert E. “Teleology and Scientific Method in Kant’s Critique of Judgment.” Nous Vol. 24, No. 1 (March 1990): 1 – 16.
Cornell, John F. “
Fricke, Christel. “Explaining the Inexplicable. The Hypotheses of the Faculty of Reflective Judgment in Kant’s Third Critique.” Nous Vol. 24, No. 1 (March 1990): 45 – 62.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgement. Translated by J. H. Bernard.
Kolb, Daniel. “Kant, teleology, and evolution.” Synthese Vol. 91, Nos. 1 – 2 (January 1992): 9 – 28.
Rothbart, Daniel and Scherer, Irmgard. “Kant's Critique of Judgment and the Scientific Investigation of Matter.” HYLE--International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry Vol. 3 (1997): 65-80. Available from: http://hyle.org/journal/issues/3/rothbar.h
Weber, Andreas and Varela, Francisco J. “Life after Kant: Natural purposes and the autopoietic foundations of biological individuality.” Phenomenology and Cognitive Sciences. Vol. 1, No. 2 (June 2002): 97 – 125.