Three kinds of teleology

Some comments on my last post sidetracked into a discussion of evolution, teleology and design and under what circumstances the language of “purpose” or “intention” can reasonably applied to a natural system. I’ve had a new insight while thinking about that discussion, so I’m going to write about it a bit more. And yes, I am aware that this discussion may appear to overlap with Daniel Dennett’s notion of the intentional stance, but I’m actually addressing a different set of issues.

For historical background, see Wikipedia on telos or final cause.

To understand why teleology matters, it helps to remember that human beings are prone to project intentions on everything. We are animists by instinct. Our religions and our folklore are full not merely of gods, angels, devils, and elves but talking trees and rocks as well. We need to think clearly about intention, purpose and design not so much to see it where it is but in order to avoid imputing it where it is not.

Applying the language of purpose and intention to human beings, animals, and hypothetical other beings that we suppose to have desires has never been controversial. Human action has teleology; humans want to satisfy desires, and the anticipated future state of satisfaction is a cause of behavior in the past of that state.

Nor is it controversial to apply teleological language to human artifacts. We may say, for example, that a firearm has the purpose of firing bullets or an airfoil has the purpose of generating lift without supposing that inanimate objects have intentions. What is relevant is that these functions express the designer’s intention for the artifact. I will call this “teleology of the first kind”.

We perceive somewhat more difficulty applying the language of purpose and intention to natural systems that lack an obvious designer. What do we mean when we say that the purpose of the nectar in a flower is to attract bees? Is it at all meaningful to say that a flower intends to attract bees?

If you are a creationist, then the nectar in a flower can have purpose in the same way that an airfoil or a firearm can have purpose; that is, as an expression of purpose in the mind of a designing God. But if you are doing philosophy, creationism is a self-destroying position; when anything can be explained by the action of a (causeless, inscrutable) God, philosophy dies because there is no point in causal accounts or explanatory theory at all. The moment anyone says “miracle”, it’s game over.

So we’re left with a much more pointed question: is it ever meaningful to say that natural systems have purposes or intentions – teleology – in the absence of a designer? Intuitively, we feel that it is reasonable to say that the nectar in a flower has the purpose of attracting bees because the flower and the bees behave as though the flowers had been designed to attract bees, even if we can’t identify a designer. We have less tendency to attribute intentions to a flower because, outside of mythology, we don’t think of flowers as having mental lives.

Historically, a school of so-called “natural theology” inferred a designer from the purpose of attracting bees. But, even if you could ignore the many internal problems with this position (starting with the one I pointed out in my next-to-previous paragraph) Charles Darwin pretty much killed natural theology stone-dead more than a century ago by inventing what I’ll call “teleology of the second kind”.

Darwin said: Competing replicators are selected under pressure, and adaptation produces design without a designer. The nectar in a flower has the purpose of attracting bees because flowers that spread their pollen more effectively have more descendants, and attracting bees are an effective tactic which genetic lines of flowers have been competing to learn for millions of years.

This one huge final cause in biology – that which replicates, survives – substitutes for a designer and separates teleology from design. It becomes a driver of behavior that can be usefully described as purposive all through biological systems. This account kills “natural theology” because it has more explanatory power than natural theology and proceeds from a premise that is both simpler than the existence of God and actually testable. We can observe evolution in action at many scales.

All this is old news to anyone who has thought seriously about the philosophical implications of evolutionary theory. But now I enter new ground, because as an ex-mathematician I consider “two” to be a suspicious and unstable number. This suggests a simple question which as far as I’m aware no one has broached before: might there be a third kind of teleology?

That is: are there natural systems in which the most natural description of behavior includes “purpose” or “intention”, but the driver is neither design nor Darwinian selection? Somewhat to my own surprise, I realized a positive answer within minutes of formulating the question. Not only that, I can identify the answer with a specific term in an equation of physics.

First, an example. Trap about a centimeter thickness of water between two horizontal parallel glass plates. Apply uniform heat to the lower plate. If you watch, you’ll see the same increasing roiling and turbulence you’d get in a conventional tea kettle – except that past a certain critical temperature the turbulence abruptly disappears, and the water forms a regular, honeycomb-like array of hexagonal convection cells.

Order – order that looks designed – has spontaneously appeared from turbulent chaos. What’s going on here?

In the language of intention and purpose, the water “wants” to shed heat as rapidly as it can. At a certain temperature, it needs to form convection cells to do so. This is like the macroscopic order found in an artifact or an evolved adaptation, but the final cause is neither design nor Darwinian selection; rather, it’s the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

The physical causation seems to work like this: randomly occurring convection micro-cells shed heat faster than neighboring chaotic regions and expand. The size of the resulting macro-cells is determined by the radius and depth that maximizes flow rate. Because the water is isotropically uniform, equal forces acting on all cells, you get a regular hexagonal close-pack – the most efficient (minimum-energy) tesselation. (In a real experimental setup of finite size, there will be distortions and broken cells at the edges).

This kind of spontaneous order was explained in a more general way by a physical chemist named Ilya Progogine in the 1970s. What he discovered is that in thermodynamic systems far out of equilibrium, the tendency to remain disorderly may be overwhelmed by the tendency to dissipate heat as fast as possible. Such systems may spontaneously develop a dissipative macroscopic organization that looks purposive. Another well-known example is the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction.

This is teleology of a third kind, neither designed nor Darwinian. Prigogine showed that it corresponded to an additional term in the equations of thermodynamics that is zero or unobservably small near equilibrium. For this he got a Nobel Prize in 1977, and well deserved it.

Are there more kinds of teleology? I haven’t thought of any. But it’s an interesting question, isn’t it?

109 thoughts on “Three kinds of teleology

  1. More generally, the third kind of teleology is tendency toward equilibrium.

    > as an ex-mathematician I consider “two” to be a suspicious and unstable number.
    Is this a deliberate Asimov reference?

    Nit:
    > other beings that we suppose to have desires has ever been controversial.
    “Never”

  2. >Is this a deliberate Asimov reference?

    Heh. No, though I think I get it now. The Gods Themselves, yes?

  3. > Heh. No, though I think I get it now. The Gods Themselves, yes?
    Yup. And very nearly a direct quote. (If I’m remembering it right, “the number 2 is impossible and can’t exist”.)

  4. But if you are doing philosophy, creationism is a self-destroying position; when anything can be explained by the action of a (causeless, inscrutable) God, philosophy dies because there is no point in causal accounts or explanatory theory at all.

    I don’t think this actually follows. In particular, I don’t see why there is a philosophical difference between ascribing purpose to a human designer and to a divine designer–in either case, we’re positing the existence of an entity with a mind to which we can ascribe purposefulness, and whose purposes are reflected in the design of another artifact. For the purposes of teleology the explanation by human design and the explanation by divine design seem to be equally parsimonious. I especially don’t see why the causelessness of God is problematic, since any sequence of causes eventually arrives at something causeless and inscrutable, whether it’s the divine purpose or the spontaneous appearance of particle-antiparticle pairs in a vacuum.

    (To avoid getting caught up in the weeds, I’m not trying to argue for the existence of $diety =~ /[Gg]ods?/ here, I’m just questioning whether the objection that esr gives to explanations involving $diety is really tenable.)

  5. Many physical systems display similar self-organizing behavior due to tensions between different laws. Lightning bolts’ branching behavior comes to mind, I’m sure here are many others.

  6. >Yup. And very nearly a direct quote. (If I’m remembering it right, “the number 2 is impossible and can’t exist”.)

    I admit, unconscious influence seems quite likely here.

  7. >In particular, I don’t see why there is a philosophical difference between ascribing purpose to a human designer and to a divine designer

    It’s because a human designer fits inside a causal account of the Universe, while a creator-God is supposedly outside that account – causing but uncaused. The former is not an attack on the program of constructing testable causal theories; the latter intrinsically is. For it not to be you’d have to have a causal model of God’s mind. I’m sure you can see the implied regress…

    Divine intervention is a problem in a way the microscale causelessness of particle/antiparticle creation is because, in general, the latter doesn’t allow you to propose “Miracle!” to explain anything for which you can’t form a justified causal account.

  8. All right…but why is 2 a suspicious and unstable number? (Feel free to post elsewhere if that would take this discussion too far afield.)

    I must admit that the first kind of teleology gives me the willies because it can easily be misused: “The purpose of a gun is to kill.” Yes, the purpose of an airfoil is to efficiently generate lift, but that’s still fuzzy thinking: the purpose of an airfoil as the shape of the wing of an airplane is to generate lift.

  9. “We are animists by instinct.”

    Yes, and exactly this is why the problem of meaningfulness is such a big problem in trying to live a good life and not one of escapism from reality. The concept of meaning is intricately linked with the concept of intention: understanding the meaning of a word a symbols means understanding the intention of the person who have used it. Thus, purely natural phenomena are by definition meaningless, by discovering a cause, we are throwing out a set of possible meanings.

    But the problem is, our life is lived facing the problem of death. And this exactly where our instricts tend revolt against a meaningless because causal description of the universe. When someone dies, especially when young, there is a strong urge to see some sort of meaning in his or her very fact of living – and dying. That it was not “in vain”, so to speak. There is a strong urge to see or seek meaning in our lives, and our deaths, and to see meaning in the whole life and history of the civilization we are living in. Without discovering a meaning or least keeping looking for it, life is not worth living, because we are hungry for some deeper goal than a stream of pleasant experiences. And this is where we face a huge problem. We don’t believe in teleologies of the first type anymore, therefore we rule out an external intention behind the very fact of our lives and deaths, which in turn removes the possibility of at least one kind of big meaning in it. Which means the life and death of the individual was “in vain”, and even the life of civilization and history, say, the battles in which millions perished, were “in vain”. We can try to generate meaning for ourselves, the Existentialist stuff, but it doesn’t seem to work well, Jacko have tried and it really didn’t work, self-generated meaning tends to create a big, vulnerable and deluded ego. Of course there are other possibilites, Buddhism has a rather elegant solution, by looking for a state of mind which is capable of imputing an inifinite level of meaningfulness to every phenomena, and there are some others, but in general, this whole problem is the root of the existential problem of modernity and all that craziness that have appeared in modernity. Every time you see people believing in crazy political ideologies, it is because they are hungry for a meaning behind the life of the individual and the civilization. Every time you see smart people destroy themselves with hard drugs, it is because of that. And so on.

    I don’t have a solution. I don’t think anyone has a working one either, if there was one, it would have long became widespread. At the moment, the reflection of the modern culture to the problem, like in movies like Cold Mountain or Saving Private Ryan, is simply leaving open a path of hope for finding a meaning behind the human life, even when there are no actual reasons to think so and the possibility of this happening is less year by year.

  10. 2 is “impossible” because, Asimov stated, there’s either 0, 1 or infinite possibilities. To limit yourself to 2 immediately leads to ‘might there be 3?’

  11. >All right…but why is 2 a suspicious and unstable number?

    Mathematicians just learn to think that way. The stable numbers are 0, 1, and infinity; anything else means there is likely to be a generalization that you’re missing. It’s not a law, just a heuristic about what sorts of things you should look at next.

    >“The purpose of a gun is to kill.”

    It’s interesting to look at how “The purpose of a firearm us to shoot bullets” differs from “The purpose of a firearm is to kill”, and why the former is a justified statement but the latter is not. The features of a firearm are all predicted by a generative theory that starts with “it wants to trigger an explosion, then trap the gases behind a bullet to accelerate it”. But nothing about the design of the firearm tells you what the bullet will do after it leaves the barrel; the implied telos doesn’t extend that far.

  12. “It’s because a human designer fits inside a causal account of the Universe, while a creator-God is supposedly outside that account – causing but uncaused. The former is not an attack on the program of constructing testable causal theories”

    Ok, then how did the universe start, and what was the cause of that?

    Note, I don’t believe in God. Am I missing a key difference here between ‘There’s a God, who caused things’ and ‘First there was nothing, which exploded and formed the universe’?

  13. >Am I missing a key difference here between ‘There’s a God, who caused things’ and ‘First there was nothing, which exploded and formed the universe’?

    Yes, you are. If your God is the Deist version that creates the Universe and never screws with it afterwards, then there is no philosophical difference from ‘First there was nothing, which exploded and formed the universe’. In both cases you have a causal account with one singularity.

    The problem arises if God performs miracles after creation. Now you live in a universe where causality is disrupted by an arbitrarily large number of acausal events. What’s worse is that you can’t know whether anything you observe has a causal account in the Universe or only in God’s inaccessible mind. It’s not like QM, where you think there may be acausal events but only at microscale and you can predict the distribution; it really is “game over” for theory formation.

  14. >Eric, you’re inviting violations of Rule #2.

    Er, what’s Rule #2? Any relationship to Rule 34?

  15. The former is not an attack on the program of constructing testable causal theories; the latter intrinsically is.

    Intrinsically? Here I disagree. The supposition of God can (and often has) been used to close off investigation into other causes, but that’s not intrinsic in the theory. The existence of the human designer that provides the telos for the airplane wing doesn’t preclude intermediate, explanatory causes such as “the wing has that shape in order to provide lift” or “the wing has that shape because it was molded that way by the manufacturing process”, all of which are complementary to the explanation that the human designer wants to be able to fly to Paris in less than 12 hours. Likewise, the evolutionary explanation for flower nectar doesn’t really compete with the teleological explanation that God like bees.

    For it not to be you’d have to have a causal model of God’s mind. I’m sure you can see the implied regress…

    Yes, and for that reason I’m sure you have a causal model of spontaneous particle decay. Or maybe not. The nature of ultimate causes is to be arbitrary; if there were a reason for them, they wouldn’t be ultimate causes. The objection to invoking God has to be found on other grounds.

  16. “The problem arises if God performs miracles after creation. Now you live in a universe where causality is disrupted by an arbitrarily large number of acausal events.”

    Suppose, for the sake of argument, that there are rules or limitations governing miracles. After all, if we assume that the world was created by a Creator, and the world manifestly runs according to regularities, then we could infer that the Creator had a reason for preferring such a system, and would intervene in it sparingly.

    Back to the “0, 1, many” problem, I suppose, but you seem to be lunging too quickly to the other extreme.

  17. @esr, having read your response to Adriano, I think we mostly agree. My points were just that (1) the deist explanation is philosophically equivalent to the naturalist explanation, as you said, except that (2) the deist explanation allows for creation to have a telos which is accomplished by non-miraculous means, and which doesn’t preclude investigation into intermediate causes.

  18. #1: Every gun is loaded.
    #2: Never index anything you don’t intend to kill and destroy.
    #3: Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to fire.
    #4: Be sure of your target and everything beyond it.

    These are paraphrased from memory of my CCW course. If you google “four rules”, something very similar comes up. Apparently, somebody named Jeff Cooper came up with these. The common criticism, it seems, is that the first two rules are often violated for good reasons, so the rules must be flawed. I disagree with that criticism, in the same sense that I think “the customer is always right” is a good rule. (Sometimes I prefer a different version: “a customer who is wrong, won’t be for long!”) That is, the purpose of a rule is to improve behavior and thereby yield good results. The literal untruth of a good rule is an obstacle only for pedantic pinheads.

    Sophistic statements like, “…nothing about the design of the firearm tells you what the bullet will do after it leaves the barrel; the implied telos doesn’t extend that far.” are to be avoided, even though they may be literally true, because of the threat they pose to our decision-making. I wouldn’t want to share a range or hunting woods with anyone who would say something like that.

  19. It seems to me that in many cases, spurious teleology can be eliminated by replacing the word “purpose” with “function”. Examples:

    The function of the nectar in a flower is to attract bees.
    The function of an airfoil is to generate lift.
    The function of a firearm is to propel a projectile accurately toward a target.

    Phrasing things this way doesn’t require any inferences about intentions or creators. It simply states, based on observation, what the object does.

    You can choose to go beyond this and talk about design and purpose, of course. But it’s useful to be able to separate function from intention, rather than conflating them.

  20. A somewhat simpler form of the example of hexagonal tesselation.

    Bees make honeycombs in hexagonal shapes for maximal packing density – and they do it by starting with round holes with multiple bees pushing on them – this results in a hexagonal pattern.

    It is not that the bees have a design for hexagonal honeycombs.

    It is not that making hexagonal honeycombs provides an inherent replicative advantage.

    It is that hexagonal honeycombs are a natural outgrowth of forces in equilibrium.

  21. Great. Now I’m trying to imagine teleology porn. Lotta use you 140+ IQ people are.

  22. >Am I missing a key difference here between ‘There’s a God, who caused things’ and ‘First there was nothing, which exploded and formed the universe’?

    With all due respect to ESR, I think there’s a much simpler distinction between the two. The second statement says nothing about causes; it just describes what happened. Let me try paraphrasing the two statements to make the implied differences explicit:

    1. God created the universe, and is therefore the original cause of everything.
    2. First there was nothing, which exploded and formed the universe. We don’t know what caused this to happen.

    In other words, the second statement only addresses what happened; the first attempts to explain why.

  23. “it really is “game over” for theory formation”

    Actually it is historical fact that this was at least once a game over for theory formation for a civ: there was a time where Muslim countries were ahead of the West in philosophy and science, and Al-Ghazali have managed to pretty much single-handedly destroyed any further chances of developing philosophy and science within the Islamic culture with http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Incoherence_of_the_Philosophers

  24. @Pat: true, that’s a workable translation of the previous two phrases – as worded. (I’ll even grant the “we don’t know what caused this to happen” – while it’s an embellishment, it’s implied.)

    But then, we could rephrase the original into “there’s a God, from which all things came” and “there’s a massive explosion, from which all things came”. Both agree with the beliefs of Christians and physicists respectively, under STP. And now both phrases look markedly more similar.

    I’d say, in fact, that there’s no appreciable difference between the two, which is good enough to throw a lot of people. I think the counter-intuitivity(sp?) of this notion stems from all the decorations that are in fact attached, such as “we don’t know why that explosion happened” and “we don’t know why this God decided to create the universe” and “that’s what the evidence says” and “His mind is as unknowable as any human mind”. Cast out all those decorations (if you even can), and the two really are functionally identical.

    Of course, if you can take those propositions completely in isolation, they also don’t say much. Which is another way of saying that you can’t really take them in isolation.

  25. ESR’s proposed three types of teleology are, I think, very interestingly subcases of a general condition that I can no longer recall enough thermodynamics to express as clearly as I would like. The common factor is that in each case the normal natural drive toward physical disorder is being overridden by some other critical factor.

    Obviously, life is the biggest example of this, but any energy source/system that tends to drive toward an (especially physically ordered?) outcome could be described this way.

    Does superchilled water ‘want’ to freeze? Does a river “want” to cut an efficient path to the sea?

    Mmm. Not sure if I’m going anywhere useful with this…

  26. >Sophistic statements like, “…nothing about the design of the firearm tells you what the bullet will do after it leaves the barrel; the implied telos doesn’t extend that far.” are to be avoided, even though they may be literally true, because of the threat they pose to our decision-making.

    No. The design of the firearm doesn’t have to be the only basis for reasoning in this case. In fact, it shouldn’t be, because the same safety rules apply to (say) airguns and crossbows. The correct ground of reasoning is “anything in line with this thing could have a lot of m-v-squared transferred to it without warning”.

  27. >Actually it is historical fact that this was at least once a game over for theory formation for a civ

    Indeed. I had that example in mind, actually.

  28. I think the canonical form is usually credited to Ellen Degeneres: “In the beginning there was nothing, which exploded.”

  29. >Suppose, for the sake of argument, that there are rules or limitations governing miracles.

    This would be equivalent to having a predictive model of the mind of God. To the extent it’s true, divine intervention would just become the operation of a comprehensible though peculiar set of causal laws that simply happen to operate within God’s mind.

    And there’s no solution in this supposition, just a regress. If there’s a remaining part of God’s mind that behaves acausally we’re back at square one. If there isn’t, God is a robot – just another piece of the universe-machine.

    /me thinks “God is a Robot” would make a great name for a rock band…

  30. > If there’s a remaining part of God’s mind that behaves acausally we’re back at square one.

    1) If God is knowable by your finite mind, then God is finite, and does not deserve to be called a god. In other words, any god that you or I can successfully second-guess is none too impressive!

    2) If God exists and is unknowable, then by definition any faith you have in God is unfounded. You can’t know that God will provide for you if God is unknowable.

    3) If you believe that your faith in God is a miracle that can not be understood by finite minds (therefore magically invalidating #1 and #2) then you were created to believe in God and have no free will to choose otherwise, and likewise all non-believers were created to burn in hell forever. Creating helpless creatures to torture them is evil, therefore, God is evil, therefore your faith in God is unfounded.

    Airtight. Why do we still have religion?

    [This same line of reasoning can be rephrased to prove that infinity either does not exist, or if it does exist, your finite mind can never know it.]

  31. > Airtight. Why do we still have religion?
    Yeah, but God says it’s not airtight. Your finite mind just can’t comprehend why.

    So no, religion is /not/ logical. (Just in case there was any doubt.)

  32. >[This same line of reasoning can be rephrased to prove that infinity either does not exist, or if it does exist, your finite mind can never know it.]

    That application would be false, however. We can reason about infinity even though we cannot apprehend it. Mathematicians do this all the time.

  33. > …nothing about the design of the firearm tells you what the bullet will do after it leaves the barrel; the implied telos doesn’t extend that far.

    > The correct ground of reasoning is “anything in line with this thing could have a lot of m-v-squared transferred to it without warning”.

    These two propositions are not compatible. You are splitting hairs, in a bizarre attempt to obscure the fact that firearms are, and have been since they were first designed, intended to kill. From time to time human beings need tools for that purpose. That’s why I own guns; presumably your motivations are similar.

  34. “If God exists and is unknowable, then by definition any faith you have in God is unfounded. You can’t know that God will provide for you if God is unknowable.”

    One might say that if “God” is essentially the part of the universe-machine we do not (and may not ever) understand, we cannot know with certainty that God will NOT provide based on logic, reason and evidence of the senses. This is obviously the weak case for God which transmogrifies into “God WILL provide” under the auspices of traditional religion. Is “God may provide” a good band name? :)

  35. >These two propositions are not compatible.

    OK, I was sloppy. I meant that nothing about the design tells you the purpose of the energy transfer. It could be killing, or it could be plinking at a milk jug.

    If you don’t know of any interesting things to do with firearms other than killing, you’re missing a lot of fun.

  36. My philosophical position tends towards seeing science as a process of describing the brain’s interaction with physical reality, and what the physical conditions are for various conscious phenomena. I think that this view provides a framework that helps to face a wide variety of questions.

    As ESR often points out, the map is not the territory, so ‘purpose’ may mean several things – for some of them, the conscious agent is involved in contemplating the mental states or intentions of others, and the use of certain neural or biological machinery may correlate with this (mirror neurons maybe?).

    In other cases it may be used to identify a role that some object plays in some system – like nectar in pollination and the ecosystem. In many cases the system is an emergent one.

    But I feel that the distinction between biologically evolved systems and others is less important than the one between animate, intentional behaviour and unintentional behaviour, i.e. that your second and third kinds of teleology are essentially the same.

  37. Another reason why “2” is suspicious:

    Once you have two things, you automatically also have the relationship between those two things. If you have two points, you have a line passing through them. If you have two fundamental fermions, you have a boson mediating their interaction. If you have two numbers, you have their order (< = >) their sum, their difference, product, quotient….

  38. Let me ask a question about this whole thing.

    A pitcher plant has mechanisms built in that when an insect flies into its pitcher it closes the lid. The creature drowns in the accumulated fluid, and is eventually dissolved and absorbed into the body of the plant.

    A lion sees an antelope strolling by. It leaps on the creature, and mauls it with its jaws, placing the creature’s body inside its stomach, where it is absorbed into the lion’s body.

    A man waits for a rabbit to run by. When he sees one, he fires a bow and arrow, kills the animal, skins it, roasts it and eats it, eventually absorbing the creature into his body.

    To me, all three things are basically the same. An set of stimuli lead to a set of reactions, which eventually lead to very similar results. Now for sure, the pathway between stimuli and yummy meal become more complicated and combinatorial as you move through the examples, moreover, with the two animals the stimuli also have certain memory effects built in that incorporate not just the genetic code of the creature itself, but various influences from socially introduced memes. However, that is just a more complex form of genetics: indirect genetics so to speak.

    So what does “designer” really mean? How is the designer of nectar different than the designer of the curved wing? Just in the level of complexity between the stimulus and the result. Our human language contains a hidden meaning in this word “designer” that makes us feel better about ourselves, namely it assumes a free will, a disembodied sentience, perhaps a soul. However, these things are just emergent properties from natural systems, they are not what we thing they are. You or I have no more free will than the water forming those cells, of the pitcher plant consuming the fly.

    This reality is brutally unpleasant, and so we have constructed all sorts of complex systems and institutions to pretend that this distressing, naked truth isn’t true. What is interesting is that the construction of these systems is also a natural process, outpouring from our genetics and other chaotic events. Which is to say our genes, or the information they contain, have put on a concerted campaign of disinformation and propaganda, the likes of which would make Joseph Goebbels blush.

  39. > Are there more kinds of teleology? I haven’t thought of any. But it’s an interesting question, isn’t it?

    One of the standard papers on the idea of teleology is Ernst Mayr’s “Teleological and teleonomic: a new analysis” (1974). I don’t think the full text is online, but you can get large chunks of it here via Google books. I commend it to ESR if he hasn’t read it yet; it’s the jumping-off point for most subsequent writing.

    In brief, Mayr distinguishes three types of teleological processes in the broadest sense: (1) teleological processes proper (end-directed, intentional human actions); (2) teleomatic processes (end-directed processes that result from the mindless playing out of a program, such as embryological development; (3) teleomatic processes (end-directed process that are simply the result of the playing out of physical laws, such as the condensation of a gas cloud into a planet).

    It seems to me that ESR’s water convection case is just a simple example of a teleomatic process, no? There are all kinds of situations in the physical world that “settle into” an end state if left alone. That settling-into isn’t teleology sensu stricto (Mayr and most of us who have followed him would say), but teleomaticity (an ugly word, but a good idea).

    Teleology and essentialism are two of the Big Ideas that were overturned by evolutionary biology, and they are topics of special interest to me. It is in rejecting these two notions that the radical depth of evolutionary thought really manifests itself, since both ideas are deeply rooted in human psychology. (“We are animists by instinct” is a very good formulation.)

    But teleological thinking has certainly given us some beautiful literature. I often quote this magnificent passage from Herman Melville’s “White Jacket” as an illustration of the idea of teleology:

    “As a Man-of-War that sails through the sea, so this earth that sails through the air. We mortals are all on board a fast-sailing, never-sinking world-frigate, of which God was the shipwright; and she is but one craft in a Milky-Way fleet, of which God is the Lord High Admiral. The port we sail from is forever astern. And though far out of sight of land, for ages and ages we continue to sail with sealed orders, and our last destination remains a secret to ourselves and our officers; yet our final haven was predestinated ere we slipped from the stocks at Creation.”

  40. Was it Peter Medawar who compared teleology to the beautiful foolish maiden? You can’t keep your hands off her, you can make her do anything, and you don’t want to raise her children.

  41. >It seems to me that ESR’s water convection case is just a simple example of a teleomatic process, no?

    In Mayr’s language, yes. But there’s a difference between the cases Prigogine was thinking about and the cases Mayr had available to him that I think is important. Prigogine’s case, unlike “the condensation of a gas cloud into a planet” involves the emergence of spontaneous macroscopic order. That is interesting, and I think it deserves to have a linguistic/ontological category of its own that doesn’t trivialize the difference.

    Ultimately I don’t much care what word gets used, teleology or teleomatics. The important information is that there is a complexity ratchet, producing behavior that begs to be described as goal-directed, in both the Darwinian and dissipative cases, that is absent in what Mayr and followers would think of as a “normal” teleomatic process.

  42. >This reality is brutally unpleasant, and so we have constructed all sorts of complex systems and institutions to pretend that this distressing, naked truth isn’t true.

    I think your analysis is correct but incomplete. Please see my essay Predictability, Computability, and Free Will for an attempted resolution of this problem. My answer would be that the information processing in the last case, “man sees rabbit”, cannot be predictively modeled by a mind at human scale, so the man (unlike the lion or the pitcher plant) has “free will” with respect to such an observer – though not necessarily with respect to observers with much larger computational capacity.

  43. > Prigogine’s case, unlike “the condensation of a gas cloud into a planet” involves the emergence of spontaneous macroscopic order.

    How about the formation of a crystal (any kind, but perhaps think of a snowflake). Would you think of that as being one of Mayr’s teleomatic processes (I think I would), or is it an example of the something-more you want to place in another linguistic/ontological category? The reason no two snowflakes are alike (so the saying goes) is the historicity of their formation, i.e., a complexity ratchet.

    (An interesting approach might be to ask whether these concepts should be treated as a spectrum rather than as distinct boxes: teleomatic teleonomic teleological.)

  44. >How about the formation of a crystal (any kind, but perhaps think of a snowflake). Would you think of that as being one of Mayr’s teleomatic processes (I think I would)

    I think I would too. Crystals are unlike the convection hexes in Prigogine’s example in that there isn’t really an increase in the informational complexity of the system – they look more ordered to us, but they’re actually very simple to describe.

  45. RJO > The reason no two snowflakes are alike (so the saying goes) is the historicity of their formation, i.e., a complexity ratchet.

    ESR > they look more ordered to us, but they’re actually very simple to describe.

    Partly answering my own question:

    We can make some progress here perhaps if we qualify the target more precisely. The growth of a snowflake *as a snowflake* (generically) may be simple to describe and may be simply teleomatic. But the growth of a particular individual snowflake *as an individual that is different from every other* can only be described by referring to the unique series of historical events that happened to it alone. (Because of a puff of wind, molecule 3546523 bonded on the top rather than the bottom of branch 3.4.2.7.4, etc.) Described as an instance of a class, a snowflake is “simple”; described as an individual, it contains “something more.” In physics, people are generally interested in generic classes; in history (and in many parts of evolutionary biology) we are interested in unique historical individuals (historicity).

  46. esr Says:
    > Please see my essay Predictability, Computability, and Free Will

    Interesting read, thanks for sharing. Reminds me of Aurthur Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    Back to your teleology article, the comment that Morgan made that prompted it (I believe it was Morgan anyways), is that it is a mistake to call a natural form “designed”. I understand his reticence of course, I too worry that we teach our school children that magic made the world, however, in a sense I can claim a floral ancestor designed nectar just as well as Morgan can claim that Bernouli, Wright and others designed the wing. Both come from an set of natural processes.

    However, if I accept your construction in your aforementioned essay, I will grant you that a flower probably could not understand the physics of a wind tunnel.

  47. > OK, I was sloppy. I meant that nothing about the design tells you the purpose of the energy transfer. It could be killing, or it could be
    > plinking at a milk jug.
    >
    > If you don’t know of any interesting things to do with firearms other than killing, you’re missing a lot of fun.

    I agree! But killing is interesting too, and might offer something of a solution to your recently-articulated dilemma with respect to organic food. Nothing tastes better to me than venison I harvested myself (well, maybe razor clams I harvested myself, but I don’t live on the coast now). Sorry to be disagreeable, but I expect you would have gotten worse from several range instructors I know.

    The actual topic of discussion here is fascinating. I wonder, does our mental computational power affect what we perceive as “spontaneous order”? At some level, “temperature” is a strange quantity, but few people would call it “emergent”, I think. We have an instinctive feel for the concept of “average”, and if energy is conserved it makes sense to think that the average kinetic energy of particles in a system is stable and repeatably observable. Might brainier observers think the same thing about the heated-water demonstration and the BZ reactions? That is, that they are obvious consequences of initial conditions and known physical laws? Would that make these “obvious” phenomena more like artifacts of technology or more like life in the turbocharged minds of these hypothesized supergeniuses?

  48. > “The purpose of a gun is to kill”

    The purpose of a hunting firearm is to kill. In particular, to kill animals. The only non-hunting guns intended to kill that I can think of off-hand are specialized assassin weapons of the sort stereotypically designed by various spy agencies. For self-defense and even military guns, the targeted person surviving doesn’t mean that the gun failed.

    And it’s ironic when the anti-gun types cry “we don’t want to take your hunting guns away!” when those are precisely the guns that have killing as their purpose. (As opposed to most handguns, which aren’t allowed to be used for hunting even in handgun-hunting season – because they weren’t designed to kill and aren’t good enough at it.)

  49. >>[This same line of reasoning can be rephrased to prove that infinity either does not exist, or if it does exist, your finite mind can never know it.]
    > We can reason about infinity even though we cannot apprehend it.

    But does that mean infinity exists?

  50. >But does that mean infinity exists?

    Show me a testable consequence of “existence”, or any reasonable number of them you like, and I’ll tell you.

    You’ve asked exactly the sort of pseudo-meaningful question that is best handled with a dose of brutal operationalism.

  51. I’m afraid I don’t see the problem. Darwinian evolution is specifically not teleological. Ghiselin discussed this at some length in “The Economy of Nature and the Evolution of Sex,” but it’s also well understood that evolution is not aiming at any result. Or as Nietzsche put it, “Man is absolutely not the crown of creation. . . .” So there’s only one occurrence of teleology in the world: human purposeful action.

    Or say rather than there’s at most one. There might be zero, if human purposeful action is susceptible to a reductivist or eliminativist account.

    On the other hand, do you know C. S. Lewis’s evolutionary hymn, beginning “Lead us, Evolution, lead us. . . .”? I think particularly of the lines “Far too long have sages vainly/Glossed great Nature’s simple text./He who runs may read it plainly:/Goodness = What comes next.”

  52. >Darwinian evolution is specifically not teleological.

    Darwin thought he was reinventing Aristotelian telos, and I agree with him. It’s true there isn’t any retrocausation involved, but then telos was a rather fuzzy concept in Aristotle.

  53. Compare Stafford Beer’s POSIWID: “The purpose of a system is what it does”. It’s difficult with many biological systems to say “this piece of the organism has this unique function” because the structures are so interlinked, and one component may do many jobs. In medicine, it’s wrong to say that a drug has side effects – really, we should think that a drug has all sorts of effects, some of which are desirable and others less so, and this classification depends on context. What then is the purpose of the drug, other than the ensemble of its effects?

    > they look more ordered to us, but they’re actually very simple to describe

    I’d replace “but” with “because”.

  54. @Deep Lurker:

    For self-defense and even military guns, the targeted person surviving doesn’t mean that the gun failed.

    While I agree with your general sentiment and intent, I have to say that this statement is rather misleading. The statement is generally true of any firearm. A firearm is only counted as ‘failing’ if the gun fails to fire or misfires.

    Furthermore, for any firearm, whether the targeted person or animal survives has more to do with the shooter than with the gun. For example, police carry handguns. Police officers are trained to always shoot to kill when firing their handguns. If the perp doesn’t die when shot, the failure doesn’t lie with the gun, but with the police officer who shot him; i.e., the officer missed.

  55. Eric, couldn’t all of this be generalized as “bottom seeking” behavior, regardless of the causation (“desire”)? I mean, in all instances, isn’t the direction of intent to achieve some end-goal (satisfying hunger, insuring the survival of a species, or expelling heat as rapidly as possible) with the least inputs or expenditure of resources? The only difference I see is that Human consciousness allows us to set artificial barriers to achieving that goal (e.g. I want to be a Mr. Universe AND a vegan).

    Perhaps I’m being thick here.

  56. For self-defense and even military guns, the targeted person surviving doesn’t mean that the gun failed.

    Perhaps the greatest irony of the “Assault Weapons” legislative battles is that true assault weapons (not those that are banned because they look scary) use smaller calibers than previous designs to deliberately not kill enemy soldiers, but disable them. The thinking is that killing a soldier takes him out of the fight, but wounding him also takes a couple of his buddies out while they carry him off the battlefield, then ties up a lot of resources replenishing lost blood while getting him to a hospital, surgery to repair the damage, recuperation and rehabilitation… It costs the enemy far more if you wound a soldier than if you kill him.

  57. @The Monster:
    Also, a dead soldier does not scream. I think some observations on morale drop because of that have been made, but I’m not too sure of their correctness: “dead, silent comrades are less worse for morale than wounded, screaming comrades”.

  58. @Morgan Greywolf-

    > Police officers are trained to always shoot to kill when firing their handguns.

    I thought they were trained for “center mass”- ie to shoot at the largest target, namely the body, which leads me to believe that the intent is to disable, with killing an acceptable alternative. I’ll “cop” (no pun intended) to a certain ignorance at this point- perhaps shooting center mass does more often than not result in a dead perp.

    Your point about the skill of the shooter, though, certainly hits the mark…

  59. I have had conversations with cops who said you don’t shoot something you don’t want to kill. And that a wrongful death suit won’t cost you as much as keeping a badly-disabled person on The Machine That Goes Ping for a few decades.

  60. Jessica Boxer says:
    > This reality is brutally unpleasant, and so we have constructed all sorts of complex systems and institutions to pretend that this distressing, naked truth isn’t true.

    esr says:
    > I think your analysis is correct but incomplete. Please see my essay Predictability, Computability, and Free Will for an attempted resolution of this problem. My answer would be that the information processing in the last case, “man sees rabbit”, cannot be predictively modeled by a mind at human scale, so the man (unlike the lion or the pitcher plant) has “free will” with respect to such an observer – though not necessarily with respect to observers with much larger computational capacity.

    I think most free will debates are malformed. esr’s essay has this line:

    The free-will question is classically put thus: do we really have choices, or are our actions and behavior at any given time entirely determined by previous states of the universe?

    I think this is a fair formulation of the traditional dichotomy, and most intelligent people I know tend to choose the “deterministic” side of the coin (or the indeterministic “quantum” side; in either case you don’t have, according to the traditional wisdom, what people would call “free will”). They do this because the concept of “free will”, to these critics, contains religious and mystical baggage that it’s best to avoid.

    There is a third option: we have choices, *and* our choices are determined. I realize that some people see this as a contradiction in terms, but if that is the case then I respectfully submit that the terms need to be redefined.

    Free will, to my mind is just a given, ordinary feature of human existence that needs explaining, like “sex” or “jokes”. There is a clear, *behavioural* difference between entities which have free will will and those that don’t. A human being selects one road or the other. A rock or a plant does not. They are both made up of the same stuff – they are both physical entities. What’s the difference? It’s the behaviour, the arrangement of the “stuff”, and it’s very tangible.

    Anybody who denies the existence of free will because s/he thinks it’s a throwback to religious superstition is, in my opinion, thinking about the problem in the wrong way. It used to be that people thought things could only be “alive” if they possessed some kind of special divine “substance”. You can imagine a rebel scientist of a bygone era proudly denying the existence of such a “substance”.

    He could do it, but then he’s left with a dilemma. True, there’s no such thing as a “vital substance” – and yet, you are still left with the task of trying to distinguish between, say, a cat that just licked your hand, and a cat that just got crushed by a big rock and isn’t moving anymore. Normally you’d use the terms “alive” and “dead” to do this. But “alive”, in this era, is *defined* as the possession of a “vital substance”. So what to do? Well, you can:

    a) bite the bullet and say that all the things we thought were “alive” are actually “dead”, including that cat that just licked your hand.
    b) admit that, since there are *obviously* things in the world that we should call “alive”, you were wrong and that there *is* is fact a “divine substance”
    c) redefine “life” to not include any mention of a divine substance. This is the route I favour.

    People who deny free will are in the same boat as a). You can deny that human beings have free will. But then you are faced with the task of distinguishing between someone who drove his car off a cliff to commit suicide, and someone who car went off the cliff while he was tied down to the seat. You would be faced with the task of distinguishing between “sex” and “rape” – a tough trick to pull off, unless you have a very clear idea of what it means for someone’s will to be violated.

    Having read ESR’s essay, I must respectfully disagree with it. Why should “unpredictability of the agent” be a feature of free will at all? If I offer a cat lover $5 to set a kitten on fire, to which she must answer yes or no, I suspect her answer would be *very* predictable. And she would, to my mind, be exercising her free will. Or would you disagree here?

    The vast majority of human action is predictable on some level. People go to work every day, avoid hitting each other on the highway, avoid driving off cliffs, smile or laugh at jokes (mostly), etc. Perhaps we underestimate just how predictable people really are. Any description of free will has to take this into account.

    Would Paul Bernardo be any less “responsible” (however you want to define “responsible”) for his crimes if we could somehow trace the exact set of circumstances (physical causes, etc.) that led him to commit them? It doesn’t *seem* that being able to predict the actions of another would render said actions any less praise or blameworthy.

    What matters is that a person’s actions flow from that person’s character (yes the language is mushy. I don’t know how else to phrase it). Predictability doesn’t enter into it. Yes, of course, one’s “character” does not just spring fully formed from the void. The external world goes into shaping it, and alot of it is based on your genes. There’s no perfect line in the sand here. But at some point a person hardens into a predicatable pattern of behaviour that we call her “personality” and when judging her actions, we have to take this as the “given”.

    I would, in fact, say that this is one of the defining characteristics of free will. It’s what people normally think of when we say “free will”. It’s why, for example, a man who is forced to ingest a strong hallucinogenic drug and then kills someone might not be considered responsible for his actions. His actions flow from the drug, not his character.

  61. @Gerry:

    I thought they were trained for “center mass”- ie to shoot at the largest target, namely the body, which leads me to believe that the intent is to disable, with killing an acceptable alternative. I’ll “cop” (no pun intended) to a certain ignorance at this point- perhaps shooting center mass does more often than not result in a dead perp.

    Sure. Targetting center mass is the easiest — you’re more likely to hit a larger target. However, the center part of “center mass” contains vital organs such as the heart and lungs. You’re an intelligent person, I’m sure you can do the math.

  62. “Shoot to kill” is simply too a vague term, one could put it more precisely as there is version A, “shoot for maximum stoppage and no regard to lethality” and B, “shoot for maximum lethality”, and I figure the media would be all over their asses if they would try B because they are law-enforcers and not executioners.

  63. “Show me a testable consequence of “existence”, or any reasonable number of them you like”

    Wow, interesting topic. One possible version is “existence on the relative level”, which can be defined that a thing exists on the relative level if we can reasonably imagine a decision-making being which should take the properties of that thing into account at making some decision because he has higher chances of failing at achieving his goals if he does not. But of there is that tricky aspect that if something merely exists as an imagination in people’s minds the existence of such imagination is still a social fact which can and should influence decision-making just like a real natural fact does. In other words f.e. from the viewpoint of a stock market investor myths in other people’s heads are just as important facts for predicting reality as the real actual properties of a product. Which means the ability to influence decision-making is not a property of existence. Oops. Back to the drawing table. Well at least I’ve excluded one option.

  64. >Well at least I’ve excluded one option.

    And, better yet, you are learning to think like a brutal operationalist :-).

  65. @Shenpen

    Back to the drawing table. Well at least I’ve excluded one option.

    I thought of that one, too, but came to the same conclusion. Most of the testable consequences of “existence” revolve around stuff that can be measured or directly observed. Unfortunately. the given example of “infinity” doesn’t fit into this category. Sure, mathematical computations of, say, the density of black holes reach infinity, but that’s only because we’ve reached the limits of the theory. It doesn’t actually prove a physical infinity.

    Probably the closest we can come to is in cosmology. The universe has been proposed to be infinite mostly because stars and other galactic observables have been shown to be getting further and further apart. But even that doesn’t prove that the universe is, itself, physically infinite. It just shows that the universe is expanding.

    Interestingly, Cantor’s infinity proof proves, mathematically, that there are infinitely more real numbers than counting numbers, which are themselves infinite. That means that there isn’t just one infinity, but multiple infinities of infinitely different sizes. So, in fact there are an infinite number of infinities.

    Still doesn’t prove that physical infinities exist, though.

  66. Infinity cannot physically exist in this universe (we have a maximum size and resolution to deal with), and so that definition of ‘existence’ is off the table. However, we can do math with infinity, even with multiple infinities of different values (way to break your brain), and it comes out consistently. So in the same sense that ‘3’ exists, infinity exists. As far as I can tell, it’s simply a Useless Definitional Argument ™ on the word ‘exists’, a la the tree-in-a-forest question.

  67. Desmond Says:
    > There is a clear, *behavioural* difference between entities
    > which have free will will and those that don’t. A human being
    > selects one road or the other. A rock or a plant does not.

    Sorry, you are assuming your conclusion here. Some insects given a choice between two roads choose the one with the higher density of pheromones. Sunflowers turn to face the sun. Even rocks, when rolling downhill “choose” one path or another based on the physical gradient. Certainly the stimulus to action network is much more complicated for humans than rocks, but it is all just more of the same stuff.

    > and it’s very tangible.

    See this is the problem, you (and I) are smart enough to understand the choice the rock makes because we can grok the full reality of a rock. However, we really can’t grok the full network of inputs and stored data pathways that make up human choice. It is tangible in this simple sense: you and I are to dumb to fully understand.

    I have often wondered what it would be like to be much smarter than I am. What would it be like to be 50 IQ points smarter? What about 200 IQ points smarter? What would it be like if you could double the speed at which your mental processes worked? I have an idea of what the other direction is. Anyone who has spent time in a foreign country where their grasp of the language is weak will know what it is like to feel stupid, and not really grasp what is going on. But to be smarter? What would that really be like? In a sense, I think you would cease to be human.

    FWIW, I also wonder what it would be like to have additional senses, or dramatically more acute senses. I read somewhere about some guy who invented this device that goes around your ankle. It has small vibrators which are hooked up to a compass. The effect is that your leg has a mild buzzing feeling on the north side of your body at all times. Apparently this integrates deep into your subconscious. If it wasn’t so spectacularly dorky, I’d really want one.

  68. >As far as I can tell, it’s simply a Useless Definitional Argument ™ on the word ‘exists’, a la the tree-in-a-forest question.

    This is why I’m brutally operationalist about such questions; it’s a way of cutting through the map-territory confusion. Tell me what you think the observable consequences of “exists” are and I’ll give you an answer.

  69. esr Says:
    > This is why I’m brutally operationalist about such questions;

    I like the way your phrased this. One of the toxicities of online communication is battling over the meaning of words, as if words have a pinpoint semantic precision. What is that rule that you automatically loose an web discussion as soon as you make a comparison to Hitler? I think you automatically loose a discussion as soon as you quote the dictionary.

  70. @Shenpen: ““Shoot to kill” is simply too a vague term… I figure the media would be all over their asses if they would try B because they are law-enforcers and not executioners.”

    Cops taught my CCW course, and they made it very clear that one should shoot at a human only to kill. The reasons are partly ethical (one has no right to use a firearm to win an argument), partly practical (one can’t trust oneself to make a temporarily disabling shot in the heat of combat, and in a justified self-defense situation one’s life is more important than one’s target’s), but mostly financial, as The Monster indicated. Of course all of the foregoing assumes that the actions of one’s target have rendered one legally justified to use deadly force in the first place. Otherwise one must think of a less violent resolution to the situation (which resolution, of course, one should attempt even when deadly force is justified).

    Philosophies may differ in other states (in particular, I believe that the “duty to retreat” that can disallow self-defense varies), but I haven’t heard any good arguments against “shoot to kill”. (If you have, I’d like to hear them.) Cops are typically allowed (although IMHO not well-advised) to brandish their weapons for purposes other than self-defense, but civilians are not. When one unholsters a firearm in public, one really ought to be in fear of one’s life. Any other way of thinking invites terrible errors.

  71. hahaha, except for at the range or in other socially-acceptable shooting or brandishing situations, of course.

  72. Certainly the stimulus to action network is much more complicated for humans than rocks, but it is all just more of the same stuff.

    That depends on whether or not you’re a strict behaviorist. :)

    See this is the problem, you (and I) are smart enough to understand the choice the rock makes because we can grok the full reality of a rock. However, we really can’t grok the full network of inputs and stored data pathways that make up human choice. It is tangible in this simple sense: you and I are to dumb to fully understand.

    Seriously, we can understand it pretty well, actually. Look at the post-behaviorist theories that have begun since the cognitive revolution. Some people think that cognitive psychology stands in stark contrast to radical behaviorism, but cognitive psychology is really just an extension of radical behaviorism that goes beyond physical actions, which behaviorism ignores since at the time behaviorism began they couldn’t directly be observed, and into mental states and mental processes.

    One big problem that people have in trying to understand human behaviors by looking only externally is that people often make irrational choices based on emotions. Emotions are difficult to understand by looking only externally, but when we gaze inside the brain, we can understand them very, very well.

    Every emotional response has neuropeptides attached to them. These neuropeptides are produced by the hypothalamus. There are neuropeptides for anger, for sexual arousal, for joy, for sorrow, etc. Every cell in the body, literally, has receptor sites for these neuropeptides, which then cause physiological responses. For example, when we get angry, our hearts race, our blood pressure goes up, our respiration rate increases, etc.

    And just like any other chemical (drugs for instance) that can enter the body’s cells through receptor sites, we can actually become addicted to these neuropeptides. The more of them we get, the more we need. Which means we can actually become addicted to an emotion. In fact, a common human behavior is to literally set ourselves so that we experience the emotional states we’re addicted to over and over.

    A programmer, for instance, gets a little emotional rush every time he or she makes a program do something they want. The more they do that, the more they get the little rush, the more they need, so they keep programming more and more. Sooner or later, they may end up as an ultra geek, like esr. :)

    This is just one aspect of cognitive science. There are others, of course that explain other aspects of human behavior.

  73. >But the problem is, our life is lived facing the problem of death.

    The question is:

    Do we have the courage to live a meaningful life despite knowingly facing the void.

  74. >Which means the ability to influence decision-making is not a property of existence.

    Does it? The myths in people’s heads really *do* exist. Myths and delusions might not reflect something real, but they are themselves real, and, as you say, it is quite right to take them into account when forming a model of the world on which to base decision making.

  75. ESR,

    This would be equivalent to having a predictive model of the mind of God. To the extent it’s true, divine intervention would just become the operation of a comprehensible though peculiar set of causal laws that simply happen to operate within God’s mind.

    Not precisely. What I meant is that we might assume for the sake of argument that miracles are not unbounded, and are in fact consistent with a deeper understanding of universal laws. This says nothing, just yet, about predicting when miracles might happen.

    Really I am uneasy with the term “miracle” in the first place. It originates in an understanding of what “God” means that is fundamentally inconsistent with “God’s” role as Creator of the universe. The Jewish tradition is that so-called “miracles” were actually built into the design of the universe from the beginning. In fact, to my knowledge there is no Hebrew word with the precise meaning of “miracle” in the English sense. (The word typically translated as such is nes, which IIRC literally means “banner.”)

    And there’s no solution in this supposition, just a regress. If there’s a remaining part of God’s mind that behaves acausally we’re back at square one.

    The problem with that statement is that you are implicitly assuming several things about what the concept of “God” means—first of all that God has a “mind”. (This is not surprising, since you live in a culture that has a deeply, profoundly anthropomorphic view of what “God” is.)

    For my purposes, we can distinguish between God’s nature (whatever that may be) and God’s relationship with the universe (which is all that is relevant here). The nature of that relationship can be inferred by observing the world around us. It is evident that the world works by universal physical laws. Therefore, speaking of “God” need not exclude trying to understand causality.

    You might call that Deism, but Deism too is crippled by the anthropomorphic fallacy, i.e., by assuming that you can speak of a “God” who winds up the clock and lets it run without further involvement, as opposed to a “God” who constitutes the world through a continual relationship. (Whatever that means.)

    (This whole discussion is shot through with categorical logic, which I distrust. I’m more of a fuzzy-logic guy; Greek categorical logic may have set the stage for the scientific method, but it also set the stage for Hegel’s remarkably obtuse theories of matter vs. spirit. We know where that led.)

  76. > Cops taught my CCW course, and they made it very clear that one should shoot at a human only to kill.

    My understanding is that in self-defense situtations one should shoot to stop, and that one can’t count on either killing or not-killing. So one should only shoot if both outcomes are acceptable.

    This means “shoot only if killing the bad guy is acceptable,” but that’s not the same as “shoot only to kill the bad guy.” When hunting, fear of only wounding the beastie should cause you to pass up the shot. When shooting in self-defense, fear that the bad guy might end up in the hospital rather than the morgue shouldn’t hold you up.

  77. Desmond Says:
    > There is a clear, *behavioural* difference between entities
    > which have free will will and those that don’t. A human being
    > selects one road or the other. A rock or a plant does not.

    Jessica Boxer Says:
    >Sorry, you are assuming your conclusion here. Some insects given a choice between two roads choose the one with the higher density of pheromones. Sunflowers turn to face the sun. Even rocks, when rolling downhill “choose” one path or another based on the physical gradient. Certainly the stimulus to action network is much more complicated for humans than rocks, but it is all just more of the same stuff.

    I agree with you – it’s all just more of the same stuff. It wasn’t my intent to say otherwise. What I was trying to say is that the “free will” we associate with a human being is nothing over and above the certain kinds of behaviour (and, possibly, the certain kinds of internal states) arising from the extra complexity inherent a human being.

    Reading over my last comment, I didn’t mention anything about internal states, but I guess it would be very important to the concept, as Morgan Greywolf said in one of the comments. To say that something has free will is to make a statement about the behaviour and/or internal states of that thing.

    But I still maintain that to say that something has free will is *not* to make a statement about the relative unpredictability of its actions. Unpredictability has nothing to do with it. The cat lover who decides not to set the kitten on fire is acting freely, despite that fact that her actions are predictable in the extreme. You don’t need deep physical knowledge of a person’s brain functions to be able to predict what s/he’s going to do.

  78. Thanks ESR, an interesting essay. I would suggest an ordering for these three teleologies, opposite to the order you presented them:

    1) The heated water example: natural laws mechanically acting to immediately cause the orderly-looking phenomenon;

    2) Biological attributes: natural laws do not immediately cause a flower to produce nectar, but evolution produces these seemingly designed phenomena in subsequent generations of flowers.

    3) Engineered artifacts: airfoils are not spontaneously produced by natural phenomena, nor do they arise over time by themselves like flowers have. A conscious mind has had a purpose in mind, and has actually [i]designed[/i] the artifact to achieve a desired outcome.

    I am tempted to label these first-, second- and third-order teleologies, since the subsequent ones appear to build on the previous ones: biological organisms are a form of order emerging from action of natural laws, and conscious minds develop evolutively as far as I have evidence.

    Furthermore, in Asimovian spirit, I would suggest adding a zeroth-order teleology:

    0) Why the natural laws are what they are.

    This is to say, the prevailing natural laws are the immediate reason why the heated water forms hexagonal shapes. In other words, the water cannot behave (without external influence) in any other way, since the natural laws are what they are. At the zeroth order, the end result of our reasoning are the natural laws. I understand there are some physicists working on this topic. ( ;) )

  79. 0) Why the natural laws are what they are.

    Hmmm….the engineered airfoils are, actually, a result of the natural laws. IOW, you can’t successfully make an aircraft that violates the laws of physics. So, like the heated water, an airfoil is shaped the way it is because it has to be. Number 2, as mentioned arises from the action of natural laws.

    So, one would have conclude that natural laws underly all teleology.

  80. Other interesting examples of “Naturally Occurring” phenomena –
    Crystal Structures
    Fero-Fluid Reactions to Magnets
    – I am not aware of any naturally occurring fero-fluids, but their reaction to magnetic fields appears to be “designed”. I believe the shape can generally be controlled by modifying the viscosity of the fluid and concentration of the iron. Regardless, the actual shape of the fluid is a function of physical laws, not design.

  81. Morgan Greywolf Says:
    > Seriously, we can understand it pretty well, actually.

    Not so much. I don’t doubt that you can understand small individual events in the human cognitive process, but to understand why people make decisions from a purely mechanistic point of view? I don’t think so.

    Give me any specific line of the code from gcc and I can pretty much understand what its behavior is. However, ask me why it decided to emit this code segment for this input, and it is far harder to know. To understand the full gestalt of gcc is something that takes many years of careful dedicated study.

    gcc is trivially simple compared to the least complicated animals. For example, in one important respect it is basically stateless, which is to say given the same input it always generates the same output. I make different decisions in the same circumstances all the time because I am stateful. In fact, I also bend to social pressures, because I am dependent on the broader social state as well as my own local state.

    If you can understand why gcc makes the decisions it makes, congrats, you are one of a tiny elite group. However, not even a smart guy like you can understand why I make the decisions I make. Chocolate cake or salad? Which am I going to choose?

  82. >If you can understand why gcc makes the decisions it makes, congrats, you are one of a tiny elite group. However, not even a smart guy like you can understand why I make the decisions I make. Chocolate cake or salad? Which am I going to choose?

    Or, as I put it in my essay on the subject, human beings have “free will” with respect to observers operating at human cognitive scale because those observers can’t predict human behavior when operating within the specified computational and observational limits. It’s the same objection, really; I just put it in more precise language with sharper predictive consequences.

  83. # esr Says:
    > I just put it in more precise language with sharper predictive consequences.

    When I was thinking about what Desmond said earlier, I considered presenting it in equation form. Basically, what Desmond argued that:

    C + R + FW = D, where C = Circumstances, R = randomness, FW = free will and D = decisions

    I would argue that FW = 0, because the forces of nature are well enough explained as to have no room for spooky things like that. There is no basis in physics to support such a thing.

    Of course “circumstances” is meant to be taken in very broad terms, I suppose in a sense it represents the whole state of the universe, but perhaps a narrower definition might be offered.

    However, thinking about your formulation, I come up with a different form:

    C + R + UC = D,

    Here we redefine C to be measurable, comprehendable circumstances, and define UC to be uncomprehended, unmeasurable circumstances.

    In essence, you are substituting UC for FW. Which is certainly an interesting formulation, and does have some of the cultural attributes associated with FW. However, no spookiness is necessary here at all.

  84. This is an interesting essay, but there’s one very questionable argument that I can’t leave unaddressed: “But if you are doing philosophy, creationism is a self-destroying position; when anything can be explained by the action of a (causeless, inscrutable) God, philosophy dies because there is no point in causal accounts or explanatory theory at all. The moment anyone says ‘miracle’, it’s game over.”

    Huh? Either there was a first entity, or there wasn’t. If there was, it doesn’t matter (for your point) whether you think the first entity was God, the universe, or something else…the existence of the First Thing wasn’t caused by something else. If there wasn’t a first entity (and time had no beginning), then I still don’t see how your conclusion follows…why is it again that anyone in particular would be unable to do philosophy, develop causal accounts, or theorize about explanations?

    Put another way, your argument applies equally to everyone. So if your argument is valid (which it isn’t), then not only creationists, but everyone would be stuck without any abilities (permission? reason?) to pursue philosophy and so on.

    I think it would be better simply not to address the creationist issue than to dismiss it off-handedly with a non sequitur.

    Cheers,
    Matt

  85. >f there was, it doesn’t matter (for your point) whether you think the first entity was God, the universe, or something else…the existence of the First Thing wasn’t caused by something else.

    Wrong. See later discussion on the actual problem not being First-Causing creator-gods, but the imputation of miracles after the singular point of creation.

  86. >> If there was, it doesn’t matter (for your point) whether you think the first entity was God, the universe, or something else…the existence of the First Thing wasn’t caused by something else.

    > Wrong. See later discussion on the actual problem not being First-Causing creator-gods, but the imputation of miracles after the singular point of creation.

    I have to disagree that a later point should somehow distract me from the earlier point, but if all you meant to do was assert that your understanding of science precludes the occurrence of miracles as you understand them, I have no objection. :-D (I see now that JS Bangs and I were taken aback by the same point. I also see your response to that, and I respect your position. Yep, believing in miracles can be a tough row to hoe.) But this has become a side discussion about a small point, and side discussions suck. So I’ll try to say something substantial about your real point…

    The “third teleology” you discuss seems to me to be the same as the Darwinian kind, only working at a different layer. Both of them are working straightforwardly by physical laws, both of them actually arise from the same physical laws. It seems to me that the real difference between your third teleology and Darwinian [so-called?] “teleology” is that the old creationist debate has introduced the concept of “teleology” in the space where Darwinianism lives, but almost nobody ever talks about teleology at the lower levels of basic physical/chemical processes.

    I think you’ve got a good point that we can think of an example such as yours in teleological terms, but I think the Darwinian kind of teleology really collapses into the kind you’re describing, rather than continuing as a different kind. But this is somewhat subject to my inclination to think of the sciences in a moderately hierarchical graph, with biology being roughly “above” chemistry, and chemistry being “above” physics, and physics being at the root… If it makes sense to think of the sciences being related in that way, it seems to make sense to see Darwinian-teleology as simply another level of lower teleologies.

    But in each of these cases (other than where somebody’s invoking a personal agent) we seem merely to be anthropomorphizing anyhow. Water wants to shed heat efficiently, proto-birds wanted to fly, and software wants to be free…

  87. >The “third teleology” you discuss seems to me to be the same as the Darwinian kind, only working at a different layer. Both of them are working straightforwardly by physical laws, both of them actually arise from the same physical laws.

    Well, sure. How could it be otherwise? Unless you believe in miracles and the supernatural (which I don’t) physical laws are all that can be at the bottom of any kind of teleology. Everything is emergent from those.

    The point of my essay wasn’t to deny this in any way. It was, basically, to start on the development of a taxonomy of the different kinds of emergence – the different kinds of complexity ratchet – that we observe producing behavior that looks designed.

  88. I’d suggest that instead of the term “teleology,” which denotes end purpose and connotes /someone’s/ intended purpose, the term “emergent pattern” might be closer to what you mean since you’re expressly disallowing the someone in “/someone’s/ intended purpose.”

    In any case, I think these teleological planes that you discuss actually match the observable structure of complex and discrete systems that emerge, pseudo-layered one from the other. That is, to the extent that we observe an object (particle, mechanism, structure, organism, sentient being, population, etc.) distinct from the complex system in which it has its existence, we can observe another “teleological” plane. The higher level system in inherent, inevitable and intrinsic in the properties of the lower level entities of which it is composed, given the right conditions.

    For example, given a generic set of protons, neutrons and electrons, thrown together in a space, they’ll naturally condense into larger discrete structures we know as atoms with the electrons whizzing/fuzzing about a nucleus cluster of protons and neutrons. (I simplify to keep myself from being duller than I am already — I presume you get the point.)

    Even more interesting, depending on the number of protons which clustered into the nucleus, we observe a diverse array of properties arise out of these atoms which we know as the elemental behaviors across the periodic chart. Inherent in properties of protons, neutrons and electrons is the behavior and properties of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, osmium, argon, mercury and lithium. We can continue to observe these emergent patterns up and down the orders of complexity.

    Inherent in hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and some friends (okay, we’ll let the whole gang play) and the environment of primordial planets are molecules, amino acids, peptide chains, RNAs, DNAs, proteins, cells, tissues, organs, organisms, colonies, biotopes, ecosystems, the biosphere… Evolution /is/ what complex systems /do/. Unstable simpler arrangements are replaced with more stable more complex ones — all the way from wave/particles to hegemonies and economies which eventually collapse and replaced or are absorbed by more complexity until entropy takes over in the form of a black hole or grey goo.

    We can, if you’ll allow, start with a Grand Unified Theory (or pretend that we had a Theory of Everything, Gödel notwithstanding) and end with this sentence. Well, perhaps not /that/ sentence but something demonstrating sentient life, sharing knowledge and participating in a collective intelligence.

    Leaping directly from the ToE to esr’s blog comments is absurd and unsustainable but, given enough insight and perspective into the workings of the universe, I think we can see that each particular behavior and pattern emerges unavoidably from the underlying systems in a continuous, deterministic chain. Verb tenses are inherent in quarks and Japanese TV shows are in inherent in gravity (which seems poignantly ironic).

    Regarding the “miracle/game-over” discussion above, I’d suggest that you’re using a rather particular (albeit widely held) caricature of what “miracle” means. I’d submit that there are those, myself included, who hold that miracles can exist as a transcendent purpose across a deterministic system. If I’m the one who set up the dominoes, I can set up Domino Universe miracles (relative to those observers in Domino Universe) without violating the consistency of the rules of the Domino Universe.

    This perspective sustains the ability to have philosophical and scientific discussions without becoming mired in the mystic pit of miraculousity. One can, in fact, talk about God, miracles and causality all in the same sentence without being ironic. At least, not unintentionally.

    It’s interesting that you used the word “teleology” in fact. When I look at this structure of emergent behaviors starting from the fundamental parameters of the universe and the self-aware, mutually identifying organisms fixated on connection, purpose, relationships I see teleology. I see creator and end purpose. An end purpose which is not merely us and our relationships, but rather our personal and transcendent relationship with the creator.

  89. It’s entirely possible that I don’t grok the essay but-

    Why is this deserving of it’s own category while another thermodynamic process, like water changing to steam, is not? As you describe it, “in the language of intention and purpose” the steam arises because the water wants to attain equilibrium due to increases in temperature and pressure beyond a critical point, right?

    Put another way, why isn’t your third teleology more generally a final cause due to physics?

    The “spontaneous order” seems to be the distinguishing factor here, but I guess I’m having trouble seeing how that’s a characteristic of a kind of teleology.

  90. > Hmmm….the engineered airfoils are, actually, a result of the natural laws. IOW, you can’t sucessfully make an aircraft that violates the laws of physics.

    Of course and so what? The same is true of biological beings — they don’t initially arise against laws of physics, nor do they evolve features in violation of physics.

    At the zeroth order, the questions we are looking for answers to concern the apparent design in natural laws — for example, why are stars and planets possible. It looks as if the fundamental physical constants are extremely finely tuned to allow a rich universe experience such as the one we are witnessing. Heck, why do we even have neat and orderly physical laws at all? And why are elementary particles arranged in neat families? Explaining that (i.e. the natural laws) is akin to explaining the hexagons in heated water, only we are operatiing at a lower level.

    > Why is this deserving of it’s own category while another thermodynamic process, like water changing to steam, is not?

    Because there is no surprising structure in water boiling. It is a homogenous chaotic process (when seen at the macroscopic level), unlike the orderly hexagons.

    Likewise there is no need for a specific explanation if we find a random rock in the ground. It’s just a rock, shaped by random events. But if we find a rock that has been chipped in just the right way to make for a sharp axe, we need to ask how such a thing came to be — and the answer is a caveman made it, i.e. a conscious mind.

  91. Jessica Boxer said:

    > When I was thinking about what Desmond said earlier, I considered presenting it in equation form. Basically, what Desmond argued that:
    >
    > C + R + FW = D, where C = Circumstances, R = randomness, FW = free will and D = decisions
    >
    >I would argue that FW = 0, because the forces of nature are well enough explained as to have no room for spooky things like that. There is no basis in > physics to support such a thing.

    Errrr…no, I was trying precisely *not* to argue that – not very well obviously :o)

    Free will, I was arguing, is a largely behavioural and detectable consequence of the extra complexity inherent in a human being. It is the human faculty of being able to make deliberate and informed decisions (again with the mushy language, but again I don’t know how else to phrase it). It is not, as you thought I was arguing, some kind of spooky “extra ingredient” over and above the natural laws of the universe.

    You think that FW is 0 in this equation:

    C + R + FW = D, where C = Circumstances, R = randomness, FW = free will and D = decisions

    and I neither agree or disagree – I think the equation itself is wrongly formulated. Free will is not some extra “substance” that you add (or don’t add) the mix.

    To borrow a tactic from Dennett: imagine that a doctor is trying to explain to someone how the different parts of the human body worked. She talks about the heart, the liver, the kidneys, the eyes, etc. The layperson receiving this lecture then says “Yes, that is all very informative, but where is this thing called ‘health’ that I keep hearing about? You’ve pointed out the heart, the eyes, the kidney’s and the liver, but you haven’t pointed out the ‘health’ to me…”

    The doctor will obviously not be able to “point it out” – it’s not the kind of thing that you “point out”. But the layperson would be wrong is assuming that “health” does not exist, or that it is some kind of mystical substance added to the human body over and above the internal organs or that there’s some kind of equation that looks like this:

    FB + H = FHB where FB = Functioning Body, H = Health, FH = Fully Functioning Human Being

    The H doesn’t belong there at all. It’s a consequence of FB.

    It’s like the case of the medieval scientist who denies vitalism. Vitalism defined life in terms of a mysterious substance distinct from the chemistry of the human body. It’s wrong, of course, and the scientist is right to deny it. But he’d be wrong to deny *life itself*, wouldn’t he? He’d be wrong to say that nothing is *really* alive, because this mystical substance does not exist, right?

    His cat continues to lick his hand. The cat is as “alive” as he was before the day he denied vitalism. What are we supposed to say? That the cat is really “dead” because we’re not silly enough to believe in mystical, invisible liquids that we can’t detect? Are we supposed to invent new terms to describe the difference between a cat which shows all signs of being “functional” (who purrs, runs, eats, etc.) and one who doesn’t do any of that because, he was, say, crushed by a big rock, because the existing terms of “life” and “death” are forever tainted by superstition? Seems a bit silly to me.

    There is a large behavioural (detectable, etc.) component to the concept of life, even with all the religious baggage. We can take that, and throw away the rest. There is a large behavioural (detectable, verifiable) component to the concept of free will. We can keep that and throw away the rest.

  92. The example cited for the third kind of teleology is an observation of the transitional behavior of water molecules when subject to a specific type of confinement and energy flow. How can this be a final cause? The molecules are merely responding to physical forces and exhibiting an observable characteristic, but nature is filled with such uniform phenomena. For example, water molecules are slightly polar in charge orientation and consequently within an aqueous solution will spontaneously form an exterior boundary layer on a larger charged particle (known as the sphere of hydration). It seems to me that nature being nature is not unique enough to be worthy of the distinction of being cited as a third kind of teleology.

  93. “you are learning to think like a brutal operationalist”

    To be honest, when you first blogged about it, I though meh, yet another kind of boring Comtean positivism. But now I’m beginning to see some possibilities in it. One is that, assuming that you are familiar with the truth in the absolute sense vs. truth in the relative sense distinction in Buddhism, operationalism seems to be the correct definition for relative truth. Plus, perhaps not openly stated, but implicitly operationalism seems to hint at a very similar attitude to truth as Buddhism, namely, everything ever said in words can only be understood as a map, judged solely by its usefulness, such as helping us get from one place to another, and one should never waste cycles on wondering about whether something is “really true” in some absolute sense.

    Another interesting thing is that if I get it right, you use operationalism not only with regard to truth, but also with regard to causality. If a statement is predictive, unless by random chance or correlation, it must be inevitably pointing to a cause of what it predicts, in other words, anything predictive could, should and must be regarded a cause, this is why use use the term final cause with regard to evolution? If so, then all four classes of Aristotelean causality are real causes, because all four are predictive. This means the modern, Baconian reduction of causality to only material and efficient causes and throwing out formal and final causes is a mistake, but if so, well that can have some interesting consequences…

  94. “Or, as I put it in my essay on the subject, human beings have “free will” with respect to observers operating at human cognitive scale because those observers can’t predict human behavior when operating within the specified computational and observational limits.”

    Or, one could say, that if we see a person walking from his home towards a library with a book in his hand, we can more reliably predict what will happen by assuming an intention or a decision towards a future event (bringing the book back) than by any causal event in the past (being kicked out from home, home has collapsed etc.), a large subset of human behaviour is more predictable when back-predicted, as opposed to forwards-predicted.

    BTW today I learned that there is a significant probability that there is no such thing as a drug addiction in the strict sense, with regards to the usual recreational drugs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rat_Park , if it is true, then the human or even a rat’s brain is less manipulable i.e. less predictable by external means than what we usually think.

  95. >Plus, perhaps not openly stated, but implicitly operationalism seems to hint at a very similar attitude to truth as Buddhism, namely, everything ever said in words can only be understood as a map, judged solely by its usefulness, such as helping us get from one place to another, and one should never waste cycles on wondering about whether something is “really true” in some absolute sense.

    That is interesting; I didn’t know about this “relative truth” idea. What’s your Buddhist source? What lineage of Buddhism is it associated with?

    Because as stated, yes, this is an operationalist critique. Not only that, but it sounds a lot like Korzybski on the map/territory distinction.

    >Another interesting thing is that if I get it right, you use operationalism not only with regard to truth, but also with regard to causality.

    I think that’s true, though it’s not the way I would put it. I would say that, inverting Hume, ‘causality’ is just a shorthand for compressing observations about observed correlations between events, and that only predictive success justifies using that shorthand.

  96. There is a tangential but related topic I’d like to hear your opinions on. Essentially, there ideas that are wrong but not stupid, and there are ideas that are both wrong and stupid. Wrong and stupid is an idea that does not require any kind of scientific equipment to disprove, common life experience, plus intelligence and common sense should be enough to doubt them. Intelligent people in general aren’t supposed to believe in wrong and stupid ideas, not even if they were born in the 12th century and had no modern equipment. Any kind of creationism that implies a god sculpting mountains, cloning trees and carving river beds is both wrong and stupid, you do not need machine-measurement-based scientific data, this is something any intelligent person should have figured out no matter how long ago they lived. So how comes that some extremely intelligent people, like Aquinas, have _apparently_ believed in just that? There is a contradition and I think I have a solution for that and I’d be interested in what you think.

    Essentially, it goes like this. A mountain becomes a mountain only in the mind of a human or another kind of intelligent (sophont?) observer, in the sense that picking out a certain set of direct and indirect sensory input and assigning an name, identity or “esssence” or “class” to it is strictly a mental event. Classifying what is originally a huge blob of data into distinct classes, identities or names has multiple stages, roughly speaking, stage one is experiencing the world as an undifferntiated blob, like the baby or the meditation master does, is stage one, focusing on a certain kind of input and ignoring other kinds is stage two, forming a certain kind of mental image or model is stage three, and expressing it in a language is stage four. Only in stage four does the mountain “solidify” or becomes differentiated fully into a mountain, although through all four stages there is a increasing differentiation, or an increasing solidification of a world experienced as an amorphous blob into something consisting of classes and names and identities.

    So. What if the intelligent creationists have never ever believed into a god carving mountains, but have rather believed in a god teaching one or more stages of classification to the human mind? As the mountain becomes a mountain only in the human mind, creation could mean essentially creating a “narrative”, a “point of view”, instead of carving the mountain, creating mountains could mean “thou shalt conceptualize this blob of information as a mountain”.

    This would of course be still wrong. But it would not be stupid – it would not be shameful to hold for intelligent medieval or antique people.

    Of course the big question if intelligent people in the past believed in creation as the creation of a narrative and interpretation, or in carving mountains, which would be stupid. Well one thing is clear, f.e. John wrote in the beginning was the word and not a gigantic excavator, so he might have held this kind of wrong-but-not-stupid idea, but I’m not sure about the rest, that might require more looking into to decide.

    What do you think?

  97. “That is interesting; I didn’t know about this “relative truth” idea. What’s your Buddhist source? What lineage of Buddhism is it associated with?”

    That’s surprising, because I cannot really remember myself ever reading about B. without being aware of this distinction, my gut instinct would be to answer “all of them”. But my memory is not very good. I think I have first read about the popular Zen and Zen-influenced folks, Watts, Suzuki, Osho, Krishnamurti who generally focus on the absolute level, i.e. that the true nature of things is beyond words, Heart Sutra, mind-terrain problem, finger-and-moon problem, I think this you know well enough.

    Then somewhere later on I’ve discovered the Tibetans, the Karma-Kagyu school through http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ole_Nydahl and their general attitude was that yes, this is very true, but this sort of “ultimatism” preached by Zen is not practical enough. According to them, saying that a tree is a tree is not true on the ultimate or absolute level, so far the Zen folks are right, but it is true on the relative level, in the sense that it gives you useful information, such as if you kick it barefoot your toes will hurt.

    This “useful information” definition of relative truth is basically a less formal, more colloquial definition of predictionalism/operationalism. Ole teaches that one should keep both the absolute and relative level in mind, using the analogy that one should have a toolbox on his belt and use it to fix things when things need getting fixed but the toolbox should be on the belt and in the hand not before the eyes, not obscuring the ultimate or absolute level, and everything ever expressed in words, including the B. teachings themselves, is such a toolbox. I think one ancient sources is the parable of the raft in the Diamond Sutra.

    I think it is safe to say that the absolute vs. relative truth distinction was always in the three older schools or “red hat” schools of Tibetan Buddhism, probably the Dalai Lama’s yellow hats (gelugpas) have it too, but I’m not so sure about that.

  98. >What do you think?

    Actually, I think there was a time when believing creation myths wasn’t obviously stupid, and I’d go so far as to say that was as late as 1690 or so. Before Bacon and Newton, mechanistic cosmology wasn’t really available as an alternative to “somebody did it”. Yes, Greek intellectuals had the idea of logos in the beginning, but this was more a way of intellectualizing “somebody did it” than denying it.

    I think that to understand “logos” in prespective you need to join it to the idea that recurs in Greek polytheism and elsewhere of an “unknown god” of which all the visible gods are emanations, but unworshipable because its qualities are unknowable to humans (compare Brahmanic Hindu Atman). This view of the world isn’t really like early Buddhist idealism where the mountain is only a thought in the observer’s mind, it’s more a reach in the direction of the Deist God-as-abstracted-First-Cause.

  99. This blog thread has taken an interesting turn and is continuing to attract posts; so if I may be so bold, I would like to add another thread branch.

    I have always used the term “God” as a reverential synonym for the totality of the universe. Each individual may contribute other aspects to this definition as they see fit or based upon teachings they have accepted, but ultimately, every other variant of God is either a real or conceptual subset of this definition. Religion exists and persists in most cultures and societies because it “works” in the sense that it contributes positively to the survival of the group. Debating about the metaphysics is about as useful as arguing over why we have opposable thumbs and bicameral vision.

  100. TomA,

    “I have always used the term “God” as a reverential synonym for the totality of the universe. ”

    The reason I like to avoid using the term “God” – which is difficult because I tend to read a lot of those folks like the Thomists or Platonists who use it rather a lot – is that etimologically speaking it just does not mean that. This word was not derived from a term meaning the totality of the universe.

    You see the problem is that this term was not invented by Greek philosophers, or the kind of sophisticated theologians like Karl Rahner, nor even by Christianity or Judaism. This term – god, theos, deus – is rooted in the antique religions, describing entities like Zeus, Aphrodite, Iuppiter or Mars, Thor or Freya, who are simply supermen and superwomen, comics book heroes, so to speak. (Actually some comics books did import some ancient gods like Thor as modern-time heroes and they were a surprisingly good fit.)

    The real problem is not that they are very anthropmorphic, very human-like. Actually it is not crazy to say that the universe shares some qualities with the human mind in its fully developed, fully actualized form, as in macrocosmos-microcosmos, if for no other reason then for that reason that whatever we as humans are able to conceptualize about the universe must at some level fit to the structure of the human mind, and all that doesn’t fit we find real hard to conceptualize – express in it math, yes, but to actually understand it on the level of common words and concepts, and to actually imagine it not. Squares can’t conceptualize N-dimensional cubes, although if they are smart squares they might compute and model it in math.

    So humanizing the universe at some level would be OK, but the problem is with the how. The ancient gods listed above weren’t imagined as something similar to the human mind in its fully developed state, they were imagined as something similar to humans in our common everyday state of mind: beings driven by desire, pride, jealousy, deeply personal and judgemental, the gods of the old were imagined to beings who might like you or might not like you, reward you or punish you as they see fit. In short, as beings who have the same kind of mind we have in our everyday mindset. As even we humans can do better, and can reach higher states of consciousness, conceptualizing the universe as such a personal, judgemental being is deeply wrong.

    I have some intelligent Catholic friends who understand this problem and are trying to workaround it. For example one of them told me that intelligent Catholics don’t believe that if you commit sin, God will punish you after death i.e. don’t believe that God is something as personal and judgemental that he likes some people and doesn’t like some other people, they believe that it is more like that that sin is something akin to addiction – that’s why they consider gambling a sin – that if you get hooked on sin your mind will suffer a psychological closure, and due to this closure you will be unable to connect to God after death and this is how the afterlife should be understood and not as rewards and punishments.

    This is an intelligent idea but I always tell them that my big problem is that even though they are clearly talking about some sort of an impersonal force of love or something, they are still using that word “god” which historically originates from the noun used for Zeus, Thor and Freya, i.e. a very personal being who likes some people and doesn’t like some other, who gets offended and punishes the offenders etc. etc.

    I tell them that if they can stop using the word “god” we can have a good talk, because actually their whole idea does not sound irrational to me, the kinds of activities they consider in their vocabulary sinful are roughly correspond to the activities which I do consider as something that can make a person too self-centered, too self-adsorbed and therefore indeed can result in a psychological closure, just please stop using the word “god”. No meaningful model of the universe should be described with the same term as Zeus or Thor or Freya were described, this is wrong in the same way as calling an airplane a metal dragon.

  101. I have some intelligent Catholic friends who understand this problem and are trying to workaround it. For example one of them told me that intelligent Catholics don’t believe that if you commit sin, God will punish you after death i.e. don’t believe that God is something as personal and judgemental that he likes some people and doesn’t like some other people, they believe that it is more like that that sin is something akin to addiction – that’s why they consider gambling a sin – that if you get hooked on sin your mind will suffer a psychological closure, and due to this closure you will be unable to connect to God after death and this is how the afterlife should be understood and not as rewards and punishments.

    There certainly are some official Catholic theological justifications for this thinking, and Biblical passages which back them up. It’s too bad this thinking isn’t more common in Christianity. In some ways, it’s similar to the Buddhist concept of karma (actions) in relation to Nirvana.

  102. If there wasn’t a universe, we wouldn’t be having this internet-based discussion. Therefore I think it is quite appropriate for us sentient beings to have reverence for this enormous framework in which we live and interact. I personally find benefit in maintaining cordial social interactions, and therefore am comfortable making reference to “God” in my conversation, while also being careful not go into detail about my personal definition. The ancient anthropomorphic gods, to the extent that they may be real, imagined, or unknown, are still subsets of my definition.

  103. Would the tendency of charged particles (or any particle producing some kind of force) to react with each other count as a separate type? They do vibrate all over the place, and it’s technically possible for them to move contrary to whatever force fields surround them, but this is unlikely to happen for long periods of time. Instead, a mixture of differently-charged particles will tend toward heterogeneity.

    Come to think of it, the only thing which causes these short-term deviations from perfect heterogeneity and uniform distribution is vibration due to heat. So maybe that’s why fluids “want” to dump as much heat as possible? So they can resume their primary task of tending toward disorder?

    Honestly, I’m not sure if that qualifies as a separate type of teology. I think it might be an equivalent way to say the same thing.

  104. Also, long-term macro-scale deviations from heterogeneity (for example, distillation) are driven by heat as well.

  105. Whoops, looks like Mike E. beat me to it.

    (As an aside, is it possible to edit these things after I post them?)

  106. Pardon the necro post, but this post and comment thread are the subject of a current reference, and this one could have real world consequences….

    >> Cops taught my CCW course, and they made it very clear that one should shoot at a human only to kill.

    Those cops taught you poorly, and may get you put in jail for murder. Your PURPOSE is to shoot to stop, but you may only do it if killing is an acceptable side-effect, i.e. you are acting to prevent grave bodily harm to yourself or others. (That ‘prevent grave bodily harm’ winds up as both your justification and your goal.) Your purpose is not specifically to kill.

    This distinction becomes very clear, and gravely important, in the case where you shoot and manage to stop the bad guy, without killing him. What do you do then? What are you justified in doing then? Is your purpose truly achieved? If your real purpose was actually to kill, then you’d naturally shoot him again to make sure he’s dead- but then you’d (rightfully) be convicted and sent to prison as a murderer.

    >My understanding is that in self-defense situtations one should shoot to stop, and that one can’t count on either killing or not-killing. So one should only shoot if both outcomes are acceptable.

    Yes, there’s that prevention of grave bodily harm thing. The stakes have to be sufficiently high. In certain states prevention of theft/destruction of property is considered high enough stakes, but be sure of local laws before acting.

    >This means “shoot only if killing the bad guy is acceptable,” but that’s not the same as “shoot only to kill the bad guy.” When hunting, fear of only wounding the beastie should cause you to pass up the shot. When shooting in self-defense, fear that the bad guy might end up in the hospital rather than the morgue shouldn’t hold you up.

    If you hunt, take a shot and only wound an animal, you have a positive responsibility to attempt to finish the job and cleanly kill the animal. Very different from the case with self-defense shooting.

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