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.
I’ve been asked to write today about whether or not we can “discern purposefulness, and from that infer a purposeful agent.” Lukas believes that we can do this if we only investigate carefully, and he’s right at least insofar as he recommends careful investigation; careless investigation certainly wouldn’t get us anywhere. Still, that doesn’t help us too much because we don’t yet know what constitutes carefulness. For all we know, proper care in investigating purposefulness is either impossible for humans or else so demanding that very few of us will ever actually achieve it. I don’t think either of those is actually the case – I think we often use proper care in searching for purposefulness and in inferring the existence (and even likely motivations of) purposeful agents – but I do think that our reach exceeds our grasp disturbingly often. Moreover, I think we can tell pretty reliably when those inferences are wise and when they’re foolish.
To illustrate all of this, and maybe more importantly to give me a chance to blog about this subject, I’d like everyone to think back to David Lynch’s short-lived TV series Twin Peaks. Unfortunately, some fair number of you are probably around my age, which means you can’t really think back to Twin Peaks because you were (like I was) too young to watch something that incredibly twisted, so I’ll have to fill in some background.
Twin Peaks, I am told, was the LOST of the previous generation. That is to say, people would watch it intently one day of the week and then talk about it incessantly for the other six. They would ask questions like, “What is that midget doing there? Why is he wearing that suit? Is that woman talking to a log? What does this have to do with the murder of Laura Palmer?” and so on. Similarly, characters on the show would ask questions of each other and of themselves. (Since most of the protagonists were law enforcement officers investigating a mystery, that can’t really come as too much of a surprise.) Also like LOST, Twin Peaks fans invented a number of minimally plausible theories in a desperate attempt to generate the answers that the show seemed unwilling to give. Bizarrely, apparently none of these answers was of the form, “Oh, this is just David Lynch being psychotic like he always is,” but that’s an issue for another post, I think. For our purposes, all we need to know is why some of these answer-generating methodologies succeeded and others failed. (Spoilers ahead, naturally.)
On the one hand, the show contained many examples similar to what most of us do every day. When Lucy, the receptionist at the Twin Peaks sheriff’s office, visits her sister who lives out of town,* she leaves a post-it note on the front desk with her sister’s name and phone number written on it. Although none of the characters saw her do this, they safely and correctly infer from the presence of the note and Lucy’s story that she was the one who wrote it. They (and we viewers) make this inference because it bears a striking similarity to instances of purposeful, agent-directed action that we’ve seen before: not only have we witnessed intentional writing, we’ve specifically seen people write down the names and phone numbers of the people with whom they’ll be staying on an upcoming trip. It is, moreover, not something that could plausibly have happened on its own, that is, without the intentional action of an agent. Although there was in fact some error involved here in that Lucy hadn’t actually written down her sister’s phone number (see the asterisk) and so some of the specific intentions imputed to her turned out to be inaccurate, the basic inference (i.e., that an agent did it) was correct. Moreover, the mere fact that Lucy deceived her coworkers in this way is evidence that the inference is in general a reliable one: it makes no sense to try to deceive somebody by doing something you know that they won’t trust in the first place.
A third type of case can be discerned from the viewers’ reaction to the show itself. As previously mentioned, Twin Peaks shares with LOST a certain volume of half-baked fan theories. tvTropes calls such theories epileptic trees in order to emphasize how far off they typically are.** [Ed. note – my apologies to everyone who, like me, clicked that link and fell into the TV Tropes black hole of distraction ~Leah] Much like the previous case, fans know that the show itself is the result of some purpose or other because they can draw on the right kind of experience but have no experiential grounds on which to identify which purpose David Lynch had in mind. Unsurprisingly, that lack of grounding led to a lack of accuracy. No matter how right their theories felt, it’s safe to say that nobody figured out what was really going on until they were told in one of the show’s rare moments of exposition.
So far, we’ve seen that experiential grounds are sufficient to justify an inference of purposefulness and also to guess at the specific purpose in question. Likewise, we’ve seen that some events can have a kind of secondhand grounding in experience that works in much the same way. It should be obvious that these aren’t binary considerations but are instead questions of degree or extent (so that, for instance, a stronger experiential grounding leads to a more strongly justified inference), but if I were to let that aspect detain me I’d finish writing this post approximately in time for the sun to burn out. Let me, then, assume that Leah’s readers are perspicacious enough to get the gist so that I can wrap this up some time this eon. Given certain complicated qualifications, experience of purposefulness is sufficient for justified inference of purposefulness – is inexperience therefore sufficient for unjustified inference? We’ve already seen that inexperience on the part of viewers led them to make a large number of unjustified inferences, but that only had to do with discerning the specific purpose at hand. What, then, about purposefulness in general? Can we reliably infer it without the relevant experience?
I suggest not, and in fact I suggest epileptic trees could not exist otherwise. You see, the problem with epileptic trees is not just that the fans are reading the signs wrong. It is, much more interestingly, that the fans are reading signs that are not actually signs. Yes, clearly David Lynch purposefully created Twin Peaks, but that does not mean that he purposefully created any given collection of moments from Twin Peaks. Intending to do a number of things individually is, after all, not the same as intending to do them as a group. Since any epileptic tree is based in a collection of evidence wrongly thought to be purposeful, it follows trivially that a whole forest full of epileptic trees is an indication that there’s a lot of mistaken inferring going on. Although it’s clear that the specific series of events in Twin Peaks or any epileptic-tree-generating show is unusual in a way that frequently seems implausible or meaningfully coincidental, neither implausibility nor coincidence is a get-out-of-irrationality-free cards for guesses that turn out to be totally inaccurate. To bring all of this, at long last, to the point, it is my contention that God is an epileptic tree, especially when invoked as a creator. Consider: we have no experience at all of the creation of a universe (even for the broadest definition of “we”); the creation of the universe is not part of a broader context for which we do have experience of purposefulness; and we cannot even say that the universe is coincidental or implausible (we might be able to say this in the future, but as for now we lack the physics). Although the universe generates in us feelings of implausibility, coincidence, or other specialness, everything we know tells us that specialness is what we want to avoid when making our conclusions. Experience, after all, renders those feelings mute – why feel curious or excited by something you know to be banal? Thus, while we can and do properly infer purposefulness and thus the existence of agents, those inferences depend for their properness on a kind of epistemic humility present in religious skeptics and early-90s TV cops but notably absent in theists.
*Which she did in part to cover the fact that she had been looking into having an abortion.
**You ever seen a show with epileptic trees on it? Didn’t think so.