Episode 6: Aristotle, Kant and Evolution

Updated: May 1, 2021

Previous episode: Plato's notion of wisdom involved aligning the psyche (the man, monster, and the lion) so that our meta-drives of reduced inner conflict and increased connection to reality are satisfied. Plato also has this idea of wisdom as an anagogic process which he explains through his parable of the cave. Read my post on episode 5 here.

In this lecture, Professor Vervaeke talks about how Aristotle incorporated the aspect of change, development and growth in his notion of wisdom.


Aristotle laid the foundation for a scientific approach to wisdom and meaning in life. He also proposed one of the most profound theories for how we connect the ‘self’ to reality.

When we talk about ‘meaning in life’ we often arrive at the topics of growth and development; aspects that Aristotle felt Plato’s work did not account for. While Plato was more influenced by mathematics in his pursuits, Aristotle took a more biological approach; he was deeply interested in how living things grow and develop over time.

Aristotle took note of the role that form had in growth and development. He used an analogy for this; a block of wood is just a block of wood. But you could use it to make a chair, a ship or a boat. He would ask, ‘what makes the chair behave like a chair as opposed to a table or a ship?’ This is where he got the idea of actuality from (the wood acts like a chair in one case, like a ship/table in the other). If the block of wood is a chair, there is something about its structural functional organisation that makes it like a chair, rather than a ship or a table. He thought of the wood when it was just a block, as potential (the wood is potentially a chair, table or a ship). The concepts of ‘actual’ and ‘potential’ come from Aristotle. When the potential (block of wood) has a particular form given to it, then it starts acting like a chair, table or a ship. This is where we get the notion of in-formation from. When we put a form into something and actuate its potential, it gets in-formation and acts in a particular manner.

He compared this to how an organism grows and develops. Food, for example is potential. When we put it into ourselves, it gets in-formed through a code, that gives it a structural functional organisation, that then makes it part of us. This unfolds across time, which is why we see it as change and development. This is at the foundation of Aristotle’s proposal of how we connect to the world and reality. In order to understand this better let’s take a look at what ‘change’ is through a cognitive-scientific lens.

How do things change? A cognitive-scientific perspective

The Newtonian model suggests that change occurs because of a causal impact. If I were to push a marker, it would roll over. Event A precedes and causes event B. This became the predominant theory of how things work, until Kant investigated it a little further. He was interested in why his Newtonian model became so successful and why it was overtaking the Aristotelian model so rapidly. Kant attributed part of its popularity to its simplicity. It also avoided the trap of circular explanation --- a logical fallacy in which you assume that the very phenomenon that you are trying to explain holds true.

However Kant noticed that living things did not follow this model. For example, look at what makes a tree; the sunlight goes through the leaves and the leaves make the tree...so the tree makes itself? In other words, the tree is self-organising. It has a feedback cycle where the output from the system feeds back into the system. The tree makes the leaves that gather energy and the energy goes back into the process of making the leaves. Living things are self-organising. They use feedback cycles. But if we tried to give an explanation of a feedback cycle, we’d encounter the problem of circular explanation. And so Kant came to the conclusion that there could not be a science of living things; that biology was essentially impossible.

So what did Kant miss?

According to Alicia Juarrero, for a long time we had no way of solving this problem; there was a huge gap between our biology and our physics. This is important for our discussion on growth and development, because the concepts of growth and development are vital to our sense of meaning and identity. In order to fully understand who we are, and our relationship to reality we need to have a proper account of what growth and development is.

Juarrero uses insights from Aristotle to solve this problem using the dynamical systems theory. She first makes a distinction between causes and constraints. To understand this difference, think of the marker example again. Why does it move? Because it was pushed. But think of what else also has to hold true for it to move --- there has to be relatively empty space in front of the marker, the surface should be reasonably smooth, the marker must have a certain shape to it etc. These are not events that made the marker move, but rather, they are constraints or conditions that allowed it to move. Conditions and constraints shape potentiality and possibility so that a certain set of events is more possible than others. Newton thought of the event that causes something to move but forgot about the constraints or conditions that make it possible for something to move.

How does this solve the problem of the tree and self-organisation?

Think of why trees grow their branches and why the leaves spread out. They’re trying to change the possibility of a photon hitting a chlorophyll molecule. The structure of the tree shapes the possibility of the events. Similarly, we have events that happen within ourselves that create a structural functional organisation. This organisation creates an internal environment in which some events have a high probability of occurring and others do not. In any living thing, events form an SFO and then that structure constrains the events. In using this explanation, we don’t fall prey to circular explanations because we’re talking about two different kinds of things --- actuality and potentiality.

Juarrero points out that there are two kinds of constraints :-

  • Enabling constraints - constraints that make a type of event more possible

  • Selective constraints - constraints that reduce the possibilities and make a type of event less possible.

Juarrero uses this to understand one of the most significant theories of development: the theory of natural selection. Darwinian Evolution is arguably the first dynamic systems theory in Science that accounts for growth and development across speciation. The feedback cycle in this case is sexual reproduction. The selective constraints here are the scarcity of resources. According to several biologists, for the first 800,000 years evolution did not exist because there was no scarcity of resources; life was static. But obviously with scarce resources everything would just die. To balance it out, there are planning constraints that open up the options; in this case, variation. Notice how much the foundations of Darwinian theory depend on the development of Aristotelian ideas.

Juarrero refers to the selection constraints as a virtual governor. A governor is a device that limits what you can do on a system. For example, a governor on a steam engine limits the range at which it can cycle. It’s not an actual machine but it shapes possibility. She refers to the enabling constraints as the virtual generator because they’re a set of conditions that generate options for the self- organizing system. When we put the virtual governor together with a virtual generator, such that there is a system regulation of a feedback cycle…..it becomes a virtual-engine.

Taking this back to Aristotle

Aristotle was particularly interested in the growth and development of character. Our character is not our personality. Our personality is part of our general constitution; it partly arises from our biology that we have no control over and our environment that we have no choice over. But character is the part of us that we can change. This change can either happen unconsciously, or can be cultivated deliberately and explicitly. When we refer to someone’s character we’re usually pointing to a set of virtues that they have and act in accordance with (notice the connection between ‘virtue’ and ‘virtual-engine’). ‘Virtue’ here refers to a set of conditions that have been cultivated systematically in somebody. Professor Vervaeke argues that when we talk about someone's character we’re referring to the virtual-engine of their development.

The Theory Of The Golden Mean

The golden mean is the desirable balance between two extreme qualities, one of excess and the other of deficiency. Aristotle proposed that the golden mean is what we strive for when we’re trying to grow, and develop our character. For example, most of us would like to be more courageous. This means finding a mid-ground between the two extremes of courage --- foolhardiness and cowardice. It involves setting up a system where we pay attention to the situation in which we lack enabling constraints and the situations in which we lack selective constraints. We have to be able to train ourselves and cultivate character by engaging in practices that will, over time, create a virtual engine that is self-organising. If we don’t deliberately train this engine, it’ll run automatically. We need to figure out how to train our virtual engine so that it helps us act in accordance with our virtues.

So Aristotle brought in this notion of growth and development as part of what it means to have a meaningful life. He understood ‘wisdom’ as the ability to cultivate a set of virtues and have a virtual-engine that regulates growth and development so one’s potential is actualised.

Aristotle also pointed out that there is a deep form of foolishness that comes from lack of character, called akrasia. Akrasia is a state where you know what the right thing to do is, but you still don’t do it.

According to Aristotle we do the wrong things not because we don’t have the right beliefs but because we don’t have sufficient character to be able to be able to act on our beliefs. Acts of foolishness take place when we have not created a virtual-engine that regulates our growth and development such that we can live up to our potential.

Going back to the analogy of the man-made thing --- what makes something well-made? What, for example, makes something a good knife? Most people would say that it’s good if it fulfills its purpose --- cutting. ‘Purpose’ is often associated with having meaning in life. Human beings are not made the way knives are made. As Francisco Varela says, we are self-making and self-organizing; we are auto-poetic beings. Think of how the word ‘psyche’ originally meant self-moving (we spoke about this in lecture 4).

According to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle we are capable of cultivating our own character rationally and deliberately to become more rational and moral beings. We have a capacity to overcome our self-deception, to realise wisdom and enhance the structure of our psyche to get in touch with reality. According to them our lives should be dedicated to creating this virtual-engine that helps us become more rational beings. It is the core of what it means to be human and it is what differentiates us from all the other living things.

We often talk about things like ‘character’, ‘growth’ and ‘development’ today, but do we really know what they mean? We tend to miss the essence of these aspects, and are led astray when we try to apply them to our lives. How can we re-ignite their original meaning so that they’re not just superficial and overused words we inject into every personal development conversation? That’s why it’s so important to go back to Aristotle and reflect on what these terms meant in the first place.

In the next lecture, Professor Vervaeke talks about Aristotle’s account of worldview, and why it matters so deeply to our sense of who we are and how we interact with the world.

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. If you liked this post, please share it and subscribe to my blog/add yourself to the mailing list so you get a notification when I post. Thank you for your time.

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