Establishing a Criterion of Purposefulness

This is a guest post, part of a series of guest posts addressing the question of whether we can discern purposefulness in the natural world.  As such the opinions expressed below are highly likely not to reflect my opinions, as you’re sure to hear in more detail later this week.



Today’s post is by Lukas who has previously blogged at Mo-dernity, Mo-Problems.

In response to Leah’s post, I pointed to the article Anthropic Coincidences and put forward the following argument:

  1. Assuming careful investigation, we are able to discern purposefulness, and from that to infer a purposeful agent.
  2. Careful investigation has demonstrated that the universe appears to have been created purposefully.
  3. Therefore the universe was created by a purposeful agent.

There are numerous objections to this argument, but the subsequent discussion was mainly about question #1. We weren’t able to agree about whether we could discern purposefulness and infer a purposeful agent.

How do we observe something and go on to discern purpose? Our investigation must be properly thorough and must consider alternative possibilities. It is very easy to find cases where people wrongly inferred a purposeful agent. For example, early radio astronomers thought that they might be receiving transmissions from alien life. Further investigation showed that the radiation was coming from a pulsar, not from an alien civilization.

Similarly, biological evolution can produce results that look as though they are the product of design. As Charles Darwin wrote, “The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws.” At one time we thought that the complexity of biological life could only be explained by reference to a Creator God, but further investigation showed that this view was incorrect.

How can we be certain that something is really designed? I don’t think we can ever be truly certain, but in our day-to-day lives we do this all the time – when we find a note on our refrigerator, we infer that it was written by someone and didn’t just end up there by chance. We hear music and infer a musician. There is no algorithm for distinguishing what is the product of design from what is the product of fixed laws; instead we consider both possibilities and decide which is more reasonable.

One might also argue that in our day-to-day experience we can infer design, but that we cannot reason similarly with regard to the universe a whole. For example, Leah commented, “I really don’t think anyone has sufficient data to back reason about how unlikely such a universe is from the set of all possible worlds or all possible physically regular worlds, etc. The only datum we have is the existence of this world and our knowledge of its laws.” To rephrase: you cannot start calculating probabilities until you have made enough observations in order to get a sense of the distribution. But we only have one universe, so we cannot get a sense of the distribution. If this objection is correct, that it would be impossible to reason from any conceivable fact about any conceivable universe to a designer. For example, if we looked into space and saw that the stars spelled out the words, “Hello, this is God,” we could respond, “We can’t back reason about the likelihood of such things. Perhaps there are trillions of universes and we just got lucky and ended up in the one universe with an apparent message from God written in the stars.”

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00994394375019846016 Nathan

    "There is no algorithm for distinguishing what is the product of design from what is the product of fixed laws; instead we consider both possibilities and decide which is more reasonable."Interesting. I think the point where this could turn is in one's estimation of the "reasonableness" of the idea that a given outcome came from a purposeful agent. Also, I'm assuming that your distinction discounts the Deist possibility, that the "purposeful agent" has simply designed the fixed laws, and perhaps guides them here and there.Since Darwin, the primary public debate between science and faith has been about the development of biological life, but I tend to like to step back and look at some of the previous debates where similar arguments have been had. Before people argued about evolution, they argued about geology, and in similar terms. In the mid-nineteenth century, geologists were practitioners of an emerging field. Theories about plate tectonics, subduction, sedimentation, erosion, and vulcanism were just being developed, and were often crticised as far-fetched attempts to cut God out of the creation story. (In fact, only two years before the publication of The Origin of Species, Philip Gosse wrote Omphalos in response to the geology debate, which is still my favorite attempt to find or create common ground between science and faith, though no one else seems to like it.)At that time, when most people were not geologists, had not studied geology, and had no understanding or familiarity with it, the proposition that a canyon had been carved over eons by water erosion would have seemed far less reasonable than the widely accepted proposition that it had been directly sculpted by the hand of God. But today, even many critics of evolutionary biology tacitly accept the principles of geology, while "young-earth" creationism has become far less prominent. As the field has been refined, and our knowledge of the proposed "fixed laws" increases, they seem more reasonable as an explanation of our surroundings. As fixed laws become absolutely more reasonable, they also become relatively more reasonable compared to a purposeful agent.There are also situations where ascribing a product as being from a purposeful agent is clearly not reasonable. I had a roommate some years ago who had a string of nights wherein he woke up at x:x6 each night. He started seeing the number 6 show up in other meaningful areas. And for a while, he was convinced that there was some supernatural cause for him to be seeing the number 6 everywhere. Now I am in no way comparing belief in God to belief in numerology. But in the intersection between God and natural processes, I think we've seen a general pattern that as greater knowledge of the field is developed, the relative "reasonableness" of ascribing a process to direct design vs. fixed laws has shifted.One final, very brief example: before we had meteorologists, it seemed far more reasonable to ascribe each rainstorm to God's direct hand. Today, it seems unreasonable to deny that, if God is directing each rainstorm, he's doing it through atmospheric pressure cells, ocean currents, and moisture patterns.Also this:http://www.radiolab.org/2009/jun/15/Edit | Delete 12:05 PM

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04746612189094458441 Lukas

    I wholeheartedly agree that, "we've seen a general pattern that as greater knowledge of the field is developed, the relative 'reasonableness' of ascribing a process to direct design vs. fixed laws has shifted." I think this is one of the main reasons atheism appeals to scientifically minded people.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    I definitely want to second Nathan's comment. An understanding of physical laws has dramatically lessened the set of phenomena whose effecting mechanisms are unknown. There's also a difference between inferring purpose based on the fact that something would be unlikely to occur naturally versus finding an object that has been shaped to convey a message. It seems like, in this case (some cited by Lukas — a note, a song, etc), we find the message and then infer a message maker. For atheists, the problem is that there's nothing in the natural world that suggests a message.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02713721376647721785 Adam

    Actually, scientists (at least, physicists) aren't necessarily geared towards atheism. This web comic is a not-terrible description of what often happens: http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id;=1763. The question, of course, is where the fluctuating bits end up as time goes on. As the (very good) "Anthropic Reasoning" article shows, a deeper understanding of physics is not always good for one's materialism.In particular, we know that there are plenty of universes which aren't conducive to intelligent life, yet are at the very least mathematically consistent, and that should be all you need for a universe to be "possible" (in some sense). Even if we can weasel our way out of anthropic reasoning by invoking a multiverse with varying physical laws, so we end up in the universe which supports us just as the multitude of planets out there makes Earth's specialness less special, we're still faced with the question of why existence chose to align itself in a way that allows for intelligent life to develop somewhere.* This is a serious problem by which any scientifically-minded person should be deeply troubled.By the same token, however, I fail to see how invoking a purposeful designer does anything other than beg the question. If you're troubled by the Universe being conducive to the existence of intelligence, saying that there was a purposeful intelligence from the beginning actually solves nothing. Perhaps Prof Barr and I are troubled by subtly different things.The analogy at the end, you should admit, is pretty unfair. Anthropic reasoning isn't just about invoking cosmic variance and saying "maybe we just got lucky." It's saying that if we didn't get lucky, we wouldn't be here to talk about it. If we saw a message from God lined out in the stars, that's far more convincing evidence that there's a God than is our simply being in a Universe which allows us to exist. But I'm pretty sure you know that and it's entirely possible I missed the point of that analogy.Incidentally, have you seen Stephen Hawking's initials imprinted on the fabric of the cosmos (in the form of the microwave background anisotropies)? They're in the figure on the last page here: http://lambda.gsfc.nasa.gov/product/map/dr4/pub_papers/sevenyear/anomalies/wmap_7yr_anomalies.pdf. Clearly a sign that Hawking was screwing around with the early Universe temperature fluctuations!*My personal opinion: prior probabilities don't matter, at least not in any way we can discuss. In the context of, say, string theory or other quantum theories involving landscapes, we can certainly assign probabilities to various constants being what they are, but that assumes a framework. I'm not sure what it would mean to ascribe a prior probability to a certain framework being what the Universe follows. Let's say our existence makes sense in a string landscape with 10^500 universes, but doesn't if all that exists is a universe which is described by standard physics with a strongly negative cosmological constant, so it recollapses before any structure can form. I'd be inclined, in absence of an overarching framework, to take both of these equally seriously.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    I'd say there are two separate arguments being conflated by Lukas' post. The message-written-in-the-stars universe would suggest the presence of a designer because it's an example of a category of thing (viz., a message in human language) that we know from extensive prior experience to be produced only by intelligent agents. But there's nothing like this in our universe, as I think we can agree. Leah's argument, on the other hand, was about calculating probabilities for a phenomenon for which we have no prior experience of its type. For something like this, you'd ideally want a set of examples to get a better sense of what kinds of causes normally produce such things.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04746612189094458441 Lukas

    @Leah – you write, "the problem is that there's nothing in the natural world that suggests a message." It seems to me that this is moving the conversation from claim #1 (We can discern puposefulness) to claim #2 (The universe appears to have been created purposefully). I think that Eli and March Hare were arguing that we cannot discern purposefulness and infer an agent, or at least that there is something special about the universe-as-a-whole that makes it impossible to discern purposefulness. You might disagree with Eli and March, and say that we can theoretically investigate the universe, see purpose, and infer a purposeful agent, but then disagree with me about claim #2. Or, you and I might be have a different criteria for discerning purposefulness.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04746612189094458441 Lukas

    @Ebonmuse – We do know "from extensive prior experience" that human language is produced by intelligent agents. But it does not follow from what you have said that prior experience is necessary for discerning purposefulness. The SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) program is premised on the notion that we can distinguish an alien transmission from naturally occurring radiation, despite the fact that we have no experience with Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.@Adam – "If you're troubled by the Universe being conducive to the existence of intelligence, saying that there was a purposeful intelligence from the beginning actually solves nothing." This argument does kindof trouble me. For one thing, isn't the explanation supposed to be simpler than the explanandum? Isn't saying 'a deity' just taking the problem back a step? I think the thing that makes me think that 'a creator' is better than current explanation offered by physics is that it's very odd that a purposeless process would appear ordered to produce beings capable of having purposes.I don't think the analogy was unfair, but let me to explain the point. Some arguments used against the anthropic argument amount to a complete denial of claim #1 – "we are able to discern purposefulness," or they amount to saying that there is something about the universe-as-a-whole that makes it impossible that we could investigate it and discover signs of purposefulness. In either case, I think this forces you to affirm some very counterintuitive positions, such as my final wacky analogy."If we saw a message from God lined out in the stars, that's far more convincing evidence that there's a God than is our simply being in a Universe which allows us to exist."It would be more emotionally compelling evidence, but I'm not sure that it would be more rationally persuasive evidence.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    @Adam – glad you found a way to make SMBC so relevant@Lukas – Yeah, I was blurring the lines between propositions 1&2 in that last comment, but I think there is some overlap between the two when we talk about what kinds of things we recognize as purposeful. A message that carries content is different from something that is simply well designed. I still don't know how much we can judge the design of the universe, so I think that it is more likely, if we were to discern superhuman intelligences, divine or not, it would be through messages, like a sequence of primes.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02713721376647721785 Adam

    @Lukas – Physics doesn't currently have an explanation, it has several possibilities, and I'd imagine there are some that, by your criteria, you ought find at least as compelling as a creator. The problem I pointed out – and what I got out of Anthropic Coincidences – is that we have difficulty explaining why the conditions of Being are right for intelligence. When we posit a creator, we still need to know where that creator came from – or we can just say the creator existed eternally, is just a fact of life, and move on. If we're going to make that concession *anyway*, why not make it in this sort of way: in the beginning, there was the vacuum, and under quantum fluctuations, this vacuum would occasionally spurt out particles and even more occasionally, universes. As time approaches infinity, the likelihood of creating a universe like ours tends to one, so it's very probable that eventually such a thing would happen.Is it really more of a stretch to think that the vacuum, imbued with quantum uncertainty, is eternal and "always has been and always will be" than to think a purposeful creator is?@Leah – Your inbox may have noticed that Google had a habit of appearing to eat my comments, forcing me to repost a couple of times. If so, my apologies.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02713721376647721785 Adam

    By the way, Leah, do you really think God could (even if He wanted to) communicate with us through a sequence of primes? My metaphysics has math and logic supreme over any possible deity and I thought you believed similarly, but I could be wrong.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    @Adam – no, we're in agreement about the primes. I was giving that as an example about a purposeful signal from any intelligent life. The signal is that they are capable of recognizing the sequence as interesting in a particular way, i.e. signalling awareness of math/logic generally.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    "But it does not follow from what you have said that prior experience is necessary for discerning purposefulness."I disagree with that. The story is often told that when pulsars were first discovered, astronomers thought they were some sort of extraterrestrial navigation beacon, because no natural process was known that could produce signals with such extreme precision and regularity. Well, we eventually learned otherwise. Similarly, if we find a radio signal consisting of repeating prime numbers, we might take that as evidence of alien life – but what if we then discover some sort of unusual natural process that coincidentally implements a simple prime-finding algorithm like the Sieve of Eratosthenes?As I said, the way we infer purposefulness is from analogy to prior experience. If we find a message in the cosmos in a decodable language, we'll have good reason to believe it was produced by intelligence of some sort, because we already know that intelligent beings create language. (This doesn't apply to "languages" like DNA that carry with them the seeds of their own reproduction.) The same applies if we find an alien ship filled with tools and instrument panels, even if the precise purpose of those things is initially obscure to us. But I maintain that we cannot infer intelligence from basic phenomena like the natural laws themselves, because we have no prior experience of how such phenomena come into being.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Ah, I see the original post mentioned the pulsar analogy – I should have reviewed that before writing my comment. Nevertheless, I believe the point stands as given.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00994394375019846016 Nathan

    In Lukas's defense, there are certainly artifacts that don't include language but that nonetheless imply a purpose, and therefor a purposeful agent. The classic example is a pocketwatch. If one were to find a pocketwatch on the beach, one could be certain that it was designed with a purpose by a purposeful creator. One needn't even be able to discern the purpose in order to discern that there is a purpose. When the Antikythera mechanism was discovered, it looked like a box of gears, and it wasn't until many years later that its purpose was discovered, but no one could seriously propose that it arose naturally on the sea floor. It clearly had a purpose, and was from a purposeful agent. So I'm far more comfortable disagreeing with the second postulation:"Careful investigation has demonstrated that the universe appears to have been created purposefully."The reason no one could seriously propose that the antikythera mechanism had arisen naturally was that such a thing could not have been produced by any natural force. It was made of bronze, an inert material that requires processing and refinement. It was composed almost entirely of intricately interlocking gears, which have never been observed to arise and assemble themselves except by design. That is to say, we understand fully how such a thing comes about, and it is only through purposeful creation.However, similar claims cannot be made of the conditions for the Universe. It's the only Universe we know, so we have no other "trials" to compare it to. We do not understand fully how it comes about, so it is impossible to discount that it could have arisen through natural processes. This is made all the more convincing by the fact that there may be nearly infinite universes, all working out differently, making a universe like ours nearly inevitable.The same goes for life. True, the chances of the conditions for life developing on a planet, or in a solar system, are vanishingly small and have only ever been observed on this planet. However, the number of "trials" that have been performed by the universe are literally astronomical. The universe is estimated today to contain 300 sextillion stars. As the number of "trials" increases, the vanishingly small odds of life developing from one of them improve greatly. There are a lot of people out there picking lottery numbers. Some of them win.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04746612189094458441 Lukas

    @Adam – it seems like you and I agree that the universe must be rooted in a necessary being. You seem to go on to say, 'Since the necessary being is necessary, then we don't need any further explanation, do we?" Is that accurate? Are you saying that the neccessary being or first cause is different from other beings in that it needs no explanation?@Ebonmuse – The puslars weren't transmitting a complex signal – they were basically just blinking. What if we'd recieved a transmission of prime numbers? A naturally occurring non-intelligent Sieve of Eratosthenes is not impossible, but it seems highly unlikely that such a thing would not only exist but would somehow be capable of sending a transmission.@Nathan – "This is made all the more convincing by the fact that there may be nearly infinite universes, all working out differently, making a universe like ours nearly inevitable." Did you read the article I linked to in my guest post? It addresses this argument.@Leah – "I still don't know how much we can judge the design of the universe." Okay. But when (if ever) can we reason from design to a designer? And why is a message likely to be more persuasive? Is it because an apparent message seems less likely to occur by chance, or is there some other reason? It seems to me that you are making a few arguments – (1) We do not know what other universes there are, so we don't know how likely it is that one should support life, (2) we don't know all the possible forms that life could take (3) messages are better evidence of an intilligent agent than design.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    Lukas, the big problem is that, to recognize evidence of design, the design has to be at a scale that I can recognize (physically and conceptually). I need to be have a decent grasp of the limitations of the relevant natural processes, so I can recognize objects/processes/etc that transcend them (like a watch). I definitely do not have that kind of understanding of the pre-Big Bang processes. If there were purposefulness, I don't expect I would ever be able to recognize it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02713721376647721785 Adam

    @Lukas – Not really. Let me clarify. Obviously whatever the first cause is, it's by definition going to lack an explanation, and we just have to deal with that, though we probably won't know that first cause when we see it.When we see "purposefulness" or an anthropic coincidence, we want an explanation for that and your solution seems to be to posit an intelligent designer (which for simplicity I'll just call God from now on). In my last comment I was latching on to this:"I think the thing that makes me think that 'a creator' is better than current explanation offered by physics is that it's very odd that a purposeless process would appear ordered to produce beings capable of having purposes."We can apply this argument equally well to the purposeful designer and get nowhere; the usual theist answer (and forgive me if I'm mistakenly putting this on you) is that God is eternal and is that unexplainable first cause. This is fine, but it contradicts the foundations of the argument you used (in that quote) for rejecting physical explanations since you're already saying, in effect, "it's okay to posit a purposeful agent without a prior explanation."(To make this more explicit, the two alternatives to the "God is eternal" horn are "God was created by purposeless processes" and "God was created by another purposeful agent." The former forces you to accept materialist explanations for purpose, the latter pushes the problem back and we start over again.)So if we're forced to make something an unexplainable first cause, I'm wondering why you think that needs to be a purposeful designer rather than, as in my example, a quantum vacuum which would in all likelihood eventually produce intelligent beings.In re-reading your comment I think I might better understand your argument, along the lines of "purpose can exist but can't be created from purposelessness." Is that more like it or am I misinterpreting you?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04746612189094458441 Lukas

    @Leah – I'm not too what you mean about design having to be at the right scale. But I think I see your point when you write, "I need to be have a decent grasp of the limitations of the relevant natural processes, so I can recognize objects/processes/etc that transcend them (like a watch)." You don't want to make the mistake of looking at something that appears to be purposeful and find out that there is an explanation involving only fixed laws. In order to avoid being fooled (as we were, for example, with by the "beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell" or by pulsars), you need to understand the natural processes. But, you say, no such "understanding of the pre-Big Bang processes" is possible.Is that a fair restatement of your objection? Assuming this is your objection, I think this line of reasoning is thoroughly answered by the Anthropic Coincidences article. The article considers the possibility that we will come to understand that all of the current anthropic coincidences are explained by a single unified principle or cause:"…suppose that there are twenty numerical relationships [anthropic coincidences] that have to hold in order for life to be possible, and suppose that in some physical theory every one of those twenty relationships happens to hold as a consequence of some underlying physical principle. That would itself amount to an astonishing coincidence."In other words, a more advanced understanding of the pre-Big Bang processes could make the current set of anthropic coincidences appear to be less coincidental, but the more advanced unified theory regarding the pre-Big Bang would amount to a new anthropic coincidence.The article also goes on to address the possibility of many universes (In response to the objection that if there are many universes, then it could be likely that a few are propitious for life). For example: "In the many–universes idea, on the other hand, it is simply posited that many types of universe exist. What types of universe exist and what types do not? That is not a question that the laws of physics can possibly answer, since each universe has ex hypothesi its own laws of physics. If some kinds of universe exist while others do not, it would seem to suggest that Someone has made choices. Far from destroying the case that a cosmic Designer exists, the many–universes idea only strengthens it."@Adam – yes, "purpose can exist but can't be created from purposelessness" is correct. Do you think that is reasonable?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04746612189094458441 Lukas

    @Adam – one more clarification on the statement, "purpose can exist but can't be created from purposelessness." The word "purpose" can mean the purpose a person has in their mind, or it can mean the purposeful activity or artifact. My claim is that a purposeful activity or artifact can only be produced by a purposeful agent. So, we might make your restatement clearer by changing it to, "purposeful activities or artifacts can only be produced by purposeful agents."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02713721376647721785 Adam

    @Lukas – Perhaps we're getting lost in semantics. Are you calling God a purposeful agent but calling intelligent life (e.g. humans) a purposeful artifact? This seems arbitrary.I'm not sure if I find your position inconsistent but it's definitely a bit funny. I'd think that an explanation – however outlandish it may seem to our common sense (which, mind you, physics tends to have little regard for) – is better than no explanation. If we're okay with not having any explanation for the existence of a purposeful agent in God, why should we reject some explanations (e.g. universe nucleation in a vacuum) for purposeful agents in human beings?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02713721376647721785 Adam

    Addendum of minor thoughts: even if you could justify the two things I've found arbitrary (saying that purpose must be created by purpose, and that we can treat the designer differently than we can treat humans when applying that formula), we still have the question of what purpose is: that is, why should humans be considered a purposeful outcome but the laws of physics leading to generation of universes (assuming the necessary physics) are purposeless? There's a way in which I'd consider physics, operating under its laws, to be as purposeful as God, who operates under his own laws, constrained by, say, the Good (I'll stop this before I get *too* Platonist). Is it that as humans we only recognize as purpose analogues of the sorts of creative activities which we ourselves engage in? As I said, we're dealing with muddy waters here.Incidentally, I think other posts in this series have talked about defining purpose and I need to get around to reading those!PS I don't think we disagree as much as it seems; for example, I'd be prepared to defend just about anything in your last comment to Leah, but it's the final step from there to God that gets me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04746612189094458441 Lukas

    @Adam – "Are you calling God a purposeful agent but calling intelligent life (e.g. humans) a purposeful artifact?"No, they would both be purposeful agents. Given that I believe in evolution, it would be hard to see man as a purposeful artifact… man is a 'product of fixed laws' (evolution and natural selection). It is possible that something could both be a purposeful agent and a purposeful artifact – for example, if God literally had fashioned man out of clay. The thing that is a purposeful artifact is the anthropic coincidences.


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