Monday, March 02, 2015

The Ends of Functions and Goals

Geoff Holsclaw, who I consider to be a friend, wrote this very helpful, enlightening, and thought-provoking piece on Genesis 1. In it, he spells out and discusses the differences between our modern, scientific lens by which we interpret the creation story, on the one hand, and the ancient hermeneutical camera, on the other. In our modern scientific mode of thinking, we tend to tie the creation story to material beginnings through our thinking in terms of a thing’s measurable properties. For ancient’s, though, Holsclaw points out that the creation narrative is, instead, about teleological beginnings. Based on the work of a guy named John Walton, Holsclaw refers to these ancient ideas of cosmic beginnings as functional origins. For the sake of taking care that a contemporary audience hears what is actually being said in discussing this ancient lens for the creation story, I would like to sound a note of caution in conflating function with telos (see above link for the meaning of the term “telos”).

"The 16th century therefore is the time when, with Vesalius in particular, a scientific method started to be adopted in anatomy. Be it in the Fabrica or in the Epitomy, Vesalius denounced not so much the observational mistakes of his predecessors as their lack of method; he also had the singularity of addressing nothing but anatomy, refusing to discuss faith and religious topics or philosophical interpretations, and sticking to the description of how the body is « fabricated », how the parts of the body are organized. Contemporary anatomists are still amazed at the acuteness of Vesalius’ observation, at his deftness, and at his ability to understand and reconstruct the whole from an observed detail. Aristotle, Galen and many others used to ask « What is this for ? », presupposing a finalistic conception of the body. But Vesalius asked a scientific question: « How is it made ? », and opened the way for future discoveries. One can say that with Vesalius, the notion of use that Galen had attributed to the various parts of the body was replaced by the notion of « function » in a strictly anatomical dimension."

From "Anatomy in the 16th Century", by Jacqueline Vons
With that in mind, my thoughts on why we have to be careful about the term “function” are as follows:

Languages imply worlds. So, if I think of anatomy in the world of scripture, I think of Ephesians 5: 22-24. In the historical context, "head", to them, meant the source of life, because they knew, for example, if David cut Goliath's head off, then the body became lifeless. Somehow, we now tend to turn those verses into almost the opposite of what they mean, precisely (and partially) because the figurative meaning of "head" has been lost, which implies a world where figures were actualities (I mean to say that actual reality was thought of as figurative). Now we live in a world where figurative is "just figurative" - the seat of authority or dominance in the household - whereas the real meaning, for us, of the term head is that of a functional gear in a machine (thanks partially to the scientific method mentioned in the quote above). Because we live in the world we live in, we tend to stick to the meaning of those verses in Ephesians 5 that would be natural to us, based on our "functional" meaning of "head", despite its being contrary to the verses' references to submission and, in the ancient context, implied reference to Christ's resurrection and life-giving Spirit.

Now, I realize I sort of just made a cartoon out of our modern world's separation of the "functional" and "figurative" meanings of the term "head", since the figurative meaning obviously still serves a function in our households, but...

To connect what I mean by figurative to the reference to "use" in the quote above, I think the connection between a "finalistic conception of the body" and the ancient teleological idea of "use" implies a figurative world that is immediately available to us.

My point is, the term telos implies that ancient world of figures, which is a world of immediacy, which implies a connection between a thing's "end" (part of the meaning of telos) and its beginning (which we also now think of differently, as Geoff pointed out in his original blog post). Function, in and of itself and without qualification, now tends to imply a mechanically operative application from a distance (from one mechanically functional object to the next, or from the originating idea to the determined mechanical part).

So, I could see how, in a world of immediacy, you would end up thinking of the head as the source of life for a body. And, in a world of mechanical function, I could see how you would end up thinking of the head as what houses the brain, which is the neurological headquarters for the body's movements and sensations. According to Vons in "Anatomy in the 16th Century", the ancients thought of the cranial cavity as what housed the soul.

Anyway, obviously, these two different worlds (of immediacy vs. of mechanical application) also imply two different epistemological models. So, once people started thinking in terms of a functional machine rather than in terms of a cosmos of teleological immediacy, where what is seen is immediately interwoven with what is unseen (reminding me of some of Scot McKnight's thoughts I have seen on ecclesiology and eschatology), then they began to make "advances" in figuring out (so to speak) how the seen world "works" (as Vons pointed out in her paper).

In other words, I think part of what "functional" now means is pretty much co-opted by what Geoff referred to in his post as material beginnings (thinking in terms of measurable properties). But the history of when the change began to happen, at least according to Vons, says that the co-opting started long before quantitative properties definitely and obviously took precedence and primacy over anything remotely qualitative, unmeasurable, or not mechanical enough for our liking.

Here I took the head as one example to illustrate my point of the difference between thinking purely in terms of function, in and of itself, and thinking in terms of "telos", and all that that implies. I am sure there are many other similar examples, both in anatomy and elsewhere. But, the basic point is, I think the two terms imply two different worlds. And, although we now don't think in terms of the cranium housing the soul (for example), the differences in our anthropology and epistemology (and probably other things), which I'm suggesting are latent in the terms "telos" and "function", I would say, are still important.

Here is another example of what I mean. My professor in Architecture school and I had a long and ongoing (throughout all of my Architectural schooling) conversation about the difference between ancient and modern. He would sometimes note that it used to be a good thing for something to be functional, because that meant it was useful (which fits well within the meaning of the ancient idea of telos). Then, my professor said, "But now....", at which point he just shook his head, as if to say that the word "function" now is a very dangerous word, because it means a whole lot more than that. Considering the reductionistic implications of the quote above, from "Anatomy in the 16th Century," I associate danger of the word "function", for example, with the fact that Pragmatism has nothing to say about death.

So, in the end, although I very much affirm the point of Geoff’s post (and learned from it, as well), I just think we have to be careful about using the terms telos and function synonymously. I mean, what does the average American Positivist Pragmatist think of when they hear the term “function”? This line of questioning implies another, as well, to which I referred in the title of this post. If we set goals for our life, are they for purely mechanical or material ends or purposes that rob us of the image of our selves given in the Genesis narrative? Or, rather, are our goals set for larger ends or purposes that fit the “end or purpose” of our humanity - and the cosmos - from its origin or beginning?

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