Uncommon Sense

November 18, 2019

Ah, It Is Called Promiscuous Teleology

Filed under: Philosophy,Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 9:44 am
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I ran across this very interesting blog post by George Hargrave (Promiscuous Teleology: Mislead By Our Evolutionary Past). Here are a number of excerpts:

“Humans, in particular children, frequently view and interpret the world in terms of purpose. They attribute something’s existence to its role or telos rather than its causal necessity. If you were to ask a child, ‘Why do mountains exist?’ they are more likely to respond, ‘so that animals have something to climb,’ than they are to with a more careful response that considers how they were actually formed. This cognitive bias — where humans use heuristics in an attempt to award a purpose or role to everything — is called ‘promiscuous teleology’.”

“The purpose-seeking psyche of humans is an evolutionary by-product of an historical struggle for survival that generously rewarded teleological rationalisations.”

“The perils of this cognitive tendency extend to religion also where its prominence has contributed to the propagation of beliefs in the supernatural. Even today only 47% of Americans believe Darwin’s theory of evolution to be true, with the other half opting for a belief in creationism and a transcendent deity.”

“Purposes are something reinforced by evolution and seemingly created by evolution.”

Scientists, actually natural philosophers, were not immune to this fallacy. Aristotelian physics, for example, claimed the four elements (earth, air, fire and water) were striving to reach their natural place in the universe. A rock fell not because of the forces of gravity but because it strived to reach its natural place. This is why I refer to Aristotle as a natural philosopher, rather than a scientist. Philosophers start with thoughts, add more thoughts, and conclude in thoughts with an occasional sprinkling in of evidence. Sciences, by contrast, have thoughts but immediately try to link those thoughts to observable behaviors that can tell the scientist whether their thoughts are any good as a description of nature. Scientists have a full-time arbiter of their ideas (nature) whereas philosophers have only their thoughts. (This is why philosophers are professional disagree-ers. To agree with their colleagues would leave them with nothing to say.)

So, purposes are something reinforced by evolution and seemingly created by evolution. I can hear apologist heads exploding all the way from here.

October 31, 2019

The Meaning of Meaning and Purpose of Purpose

I have been having a running disagreement over two words with John Branyan. This disagreement emerged, I think, from my opinions that life has no intrinsic purpose, nor an intrinsic meaning either. These opinions were mocked by Mr. Branyan, who is very good at mocking. (Hey, some opinions should be mocked . . . yes, I am talking about you, Flat Earthers.) He apparently wanted to debate those opinions and I did not, which created another point of disagreement.

Actually, to clarify my opinion I expanded upon my original comments and shared that I thought all “purposes” and “meanings” were quite synthetic, that is fictional, that we make up such things to provide a narrative for our lives.

Consider the following scenario.

*** Start of Scenario ***

The Earth seems to be about 4.543 billion years old. If some aliens happened to fly their spaceship by 300,000 years after Earth’s Birthday (EB hereafter) they would have seen a planet still very, very hot but also covered to some extent with water containing possibly some monocellular life. Puzzled, they wondered what was the meaning of this? What was the purpose? They decided to come back later.

When Earth had it’s 1500 millionth anniversary of its birth, the aliens dropped by again. Their records showed their prior visit and now this planet had cooled considerably and the surface water, much in abundance, was teeming with monocellular life but nothing else. Again, they wondered what was the meaning of this? What was the purpose? . . . and decided to come back later, which they did 3 billion EB. Everything was much the same: no plants, no animals, vast oceans, but now they discovered that there was some multicellular life present. And, as before, they wondered what was the meaning of this? What was the purpose? . . . and decided to come back later. This time they waited until 4 billion EB and voila, there were plants and animals, some very, very large. Some of the animals ate the plants others ate the animals that ate the plants. Some animals walked, others ran, some swam and some even flew. The land was very green, the animals multitudinous. What was the meaning of this? What was the purpose? . . . they decided to come back later. They did so 4.542 billion years EB (1 million years ago). Life had become very much more diversified. The very large land animals were largely gone and smaller animals had grown much more numerous and varied. But none of these species possessed a language they could comprehend so communication with any of the denizens did not seem possible. Wondering what all of this meant and what its purpose was, they decided, since the pace of change seemed to be accelerating, to come back shortly, which they did just now. They found the planet covered by this one species of mammal, which had languages and cultures, oh my. Excited, they established communication with several of these cultures independently so they could compare notes afterward. Once mutual communication was established, each contacted group understood the questions “What was the meaning of this? What was the purpose?” but had completely different answers to those questions, so no consensus existed as to why this planet existed the way it did and what its future might hold. Puzzled, the aliens decided that they had better things to do and decided not to come back.

*** End of Scenario ***

So, just when did the meanings and purposes of “all of this” get created? Did they exist earlier than that last visit? Is great puzzlement.

John asked (I am paraphrasing) “If meanings aren’t real, what are dictionaries, then?” Words have meanings, otherwise we would not be able to communicate. A word I thought “meant” one thing and you thought “meant” another would make communication difficult, especially if there were a great many words being used that fit into this situation. But do your meanings and my meanings line up, exactly or even at all? Are they the same? If you ask college students to write definitions for a list of words, you will find amazing variation in those definitions, almost to the point of unintelligibility. If you ask two of those students to defend one of their definitions to one another, a conversation would take place, information exchanged and usually the two agreeing that they “meant” the same thing or that the word “means” different things in different contexts.

As an example of this consider the following hypothetical conversation:

Mom: How was the game DeSean?
DeSean: It was okay.
Mom: How did your friend play?
DeSean: He was bad, very bad!
Mom: Oh, I am sorry to hear that.
DeSean: No, we won, and he was great!

So, for at least a sizable fraction of this culture, “bad” has become “good,” the usual exact opposite of what bad “meant” at some point in recent time. Apparently we allow people to make up meanings, even contradictory ones, as they wish.

And dictionaries, well, they are for when we encounter words whose meanings are obscure or just unknown. But, if you read a dictionary definition of a word, do you then know what it means? How about when “bad” meaning “good” hadn’t showed enough legs to get included in a dictionary? And, you may have noticed that all of the definitions found in dictionaries use words found elsewhere in dictionaries! These meanings are not objective, they are subjective! Oh, my, oh, oh, oh. . . .

We make up the meanings of things to be able to communicate. Enough good will exists that if there are misunderstandings we negotiate what was “meant” so as to be clear about that . . . and this happens a lot because what one person’s meaning for a word is can be quite different from another’s. (Especially when you consider there is more than one language.)

Christian and religious apologists believe that each of our lives has a purpose. This is linked to their belief that we have been “created” as only created things have purposes and only the creators know what those purposes are, although they may try to communicate, aka share, that purpose with the curious. When sentient entities create things, they often do such things “for a purpose” that is “for some reason or use later.” Other times we create with no purpose (doodling, noodling, whittling, etc.) A whittler may be making shavings of wood for the purpose of using the shavings to kindle a fire . . . or . . . they may be just passing the time doing something rather than nothing . . . or . . . they wish to create something pleasant to the eye to give as a gift . . . or. . . . The very same activity could have a multitude of purposes and no one by the whittler can tell you which was the “actual purpose.”

So, the belief that “life has meaning” that “life has a purpose” is tied to life being created by someone or something that can articulate what their purpose was in making the creation, but . . . but just because the creator had a purpose, the creation doesn’t inherit that purpose as its own. A painting, deemed to be a lovely piece of art, originally was created to get paid and satisfy the aesthetic senses of the painter and patron, can become an investment or a gift or symbol of a decadent society or whatever. Similarly, if we were created by some creator god, that god’s purpose in creating us also puts us under no obligation to accept that as a guiding principle to live our lives. We are not bees or ants, we are not created to be anything in particular.

And, for those of us who cannot believe the fairly tales that are our creation myths, any of them, since there was no creator, there is no purpose coming from the outside to inform our lives. If we want our life to have a purpose, an inner, conceptual guide for our life, we are free to create one . . . or not. But, unlike “meanings” no one has compiled a “dictionary” of generally accepted purposes for us to consult when we are confused. We are on our own.

And that is good . . . or bad . . . or, well, you know what I mean.

August 5, 2019

Exploring “The Absence of Evidence . . .”

Filed under: Philosophy,Reason,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 9:47 am
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Theists have been known to claim that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” when defending their belief in their deity. This is often accompanied by “you can’t prove my god doesn’t exist, so . . .” comments.

The aphorism isn’t quite true or possibly doesn’t really apply to the subject. If you, for example, state that you believe in your deity because: evidence1, evidence2, evidence3, . . . and I find your evidence incoherent, weak, or unfocused, I do not have to accept your argument. Nor do I have to offer a counter argument, because there is nothing to counter.

In this vein, atheists are often challenged to back up their “disbelief” with evidence, that is they should prove the non-existence of whatever god is being claimed. This is not how it works. (Nonbelief is not disbelief, it is merely the lack of belief; this is the minimum criterion to be met to classify anyone as atheistic.) If we don’t find the existence of, say, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, unicorns, pixies, Zeus, etc. to be proven, we are free to ignore them and go about our lives. I do not, and I think most people do not, feel an obligation to prove these things do not exist. It is not worth the time it would take.

So, often absence of evidence is evidence of absence, and therefore no further attention is warranted until some decent evidence is provided. If I may quote Christopher Hitchens “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

Another pertinent quote, this time by Carl Sagan, is “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This second quote can be a lot of fun. When, for example, theists claim that the extraordinary beauty of nature is evidence for the existence of their god, I like to say, “No, you have it completely wrong; that is evidence for your god not being involved.” Gobsmacked they usually sputter “But, but, but . . .” If you want to follow through you can ask them to establish the link between their god and the beauty of nature. (They will ignore all of the ugly bits, the predators eating prey while they are still alive and whatnot, but that is another argument.) After they provide their argument (In scholarly circles it is called the Argument from Beauty.) you can then say: “There were humans once who did not see beauty in nature, but they were too depressed by all of the ugliness and terror to pass on their genes, so the only ones left were those who did see the beauty in nature. See, no god required, only the theory of evolution.”

All snark aside, this last bit was supposed to be a segue to my second point, namely that theists use this argument both ways. You will hear from theists, ‘Since science cannot explain <fill in the blank>, therefore my god must have done it.” What happened to “absence of evidence is not . . .”? In this case, the absence of evidence is evidence of absence of any evidence that could possibly be found in the future that will prove them wrong.

And, just how the heck does one establish that “science cannot explain . . . anything”? There are a great deal of things that science has not explained. There are a great many things to be discovered that science will not be able to explain right away. But how does one back up a contention that science cannot explain something? Do you recall that people felt that railroad trains could not go much over 20 miles per hour because the people on board would not be able to breathe? Remember when people felt that no one would ever run a mile race in under four minutes? If so, do you also recall that when someone did, several other people did it in rapid succession? Do you recall that in the US it was recommended that the Patent Office be closed because pretty much everything that could be invented or discovered had been? I think this was right before Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity. I think any claim that begins with “science cannot explain . . .” belongs with these other horrific miscalculations, the dustbin of history.

The duplicitous nature of theistic apologists, however, means that this “argument” will be continued to be used for its propaganda value. It should not be used at all because “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” I do not think that any evidence exists that “science cannot explain . . .” that could not be overthrown by discoveries in the future, as has been demonstrated over and over and over in the history of science.

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