The Purpose Paradox

My ability to recognize purposefulness is incredibly contingent on my ability to understand the natural world and to understand other minds.  I have to have a decent theory of the limitations of natural processes to be able to recognize objects/processes that transcend them.  Lukas’s example of pulsars is apt.  Until scientists realized that there could be stars that naturally emitted radio wave bursts at regular intervals, many of them reasonably wondered if they could be a signal from an alien intelligence.  After all, it looked like the kind of signal we might choose to send ourselves, given the capability.

That leads to the other big problem in investigating purposefulness.  I have to be able to make a guess about what kind of purpose was intended and what kind of being intended it.  After all, there’s a lot that can appear unexplainable, even when I have a reasonable grasp on the problem.  Consider the sailing stones of Death Valley and Racetrack Playa (one is pictured at right).  These stones, which weigh up to 80 lbs, have a tendency to move large distances without any visible source of momentum.  There have been a number of theories advanced and tested, but, to my knowledge, none have been accepted as definitive.

But most people don’t hypothesize that these stones are being moved by an invisible purposeful agent, even though they look like they deviate from physical laws as understood.  Why?  Because it the idea of a poltergeist who solicitously, patiently nudges stones across a desert and takes no other observable actions seems nuts.  We wouldn’t do it, and it’s hard to imagine any intelligent being that would.  There could be a race of invisible aliens that engaged in this kind of rock shepherding the same way that some people take care of Zen gardens, but it feels unlikely.

The ‘fine-tuning’ of the Universe to support human life falls well outside the limits of my ability to conjecture about natural processes.  I really, really do not understand the origins of the Big Bang well enough (despite the much-appreciated help of Simon Singh) to make any guesses about universe-budding, multiverse-worlds, etc.  If there’s natural law-transcending purpose there, I’m almost certainly not going to recognize it.

In fact, the odds are decent that I’m going to have a hard time recognizing a purposeful act by any superhuman being, unless it’s making a special effort to dumb itself down to my level.  Design has to occur at a scale I can recognize conceptually as well as physically.  Purposefully designed artifacts or processes that are tailored to accomplish goals I can’t understand are likely to slip my understanding.

Daniel Abraham wrote “Leviathan Wept” one of my favorite science fiction stories on this topic.  I’m going to spoil it slightly, but if you want to run off and order the Year’s Best Science Fiction collection in which it appeared, I applaud you heartily and I’ll meet you back at this post once you’re finished reading.


Ok, now that you’re done with the collection (wasn’t “Inappropriate Behavior” [Pat Murphy’s story told from the perspective of an autistic girl opporating a robot avatar] excellent?) here’s the brief recap of “Leviathan Wept.”  Abraham reframes terrorism and war as a autoimmune disease affecting the larger, metaorganism that humans are included.  An elite anti-terror military unit begins observing paradoxes and aberrations that  may be an attempt from the metaorganism to communicate with humans.  But the gulf in understanding may be too large to bridge.

Communication with a superhuman entity, whether God, ETs, or AI is likely to always be subject to this problem.  Unless such an entity attempts to communicate with us at our level, we are unlikely to be able to understand the content of a message or even to process it as an attempt at communication.  But if a superhuman entity communicates at our level, it’s hard for it to clearly demonstrate the ways in which it exceeds human understanding.  Either way, our ability to understand its purpose or to recognize it as such are severely limited.

Addendum: the problem of establishing communication between beings existing at vastly different scales is why I find Christianity, with its doctrine of the Incarnation, uniquely compelling among religions.

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  • [tonguecheek]Actually, given that the reputation of poltergeists is precisely that they do idiotic things for no reason, I think it could be argued that, should these rock move by poltergeist power, that would be perfectly in character for a poltergeist[/tonguecheek]I'm always rather wary when people point at the non-human world and start talking about "purpose". The image of God as Engineer, while it has some utility in trying to get across the sense of awe at creation becomes fatal when we stop remembering it is an image and start thinking it is a univocal description of his essence. One might just as well talk with grim seriousness of God as the Ultimate Cook and ponder the mysteries of his "purpose" in designing the Chicken.The fact is, what we get from pondering nature is *glimpses* of God. But we don't really see God himself till we look at Jesus Christ. Nature's revelation of God is real, but only partial. We can, says Paul, discern his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity by the things he has made. But that still leaves out a heck of a lot. It's why supernatural revelation is necessary. Somebody once asked JBS Haldane what he thought we could learn about God from Nature and Haldane said, "He seems to have an inordinate fascination with beetles." Without a Rosetta stone for reading the riddle, much of nature is simply unintelligible or, worse still, partly intelligible–leading us to leap to conclusions. The insistence of the Christian tradition is that Jesus is the Rosetta Stone. The "purpose" of creation is ultimately not that God solve engineering problems he sets himself, but that all creation glorify God in Christ. You get closer to it with this poem than apologetics arguments about Intelligent Design do:AS kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme; As tumbled over rim in roundy wells Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 5 Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came. Í say móre: the just man justices; Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces; 10 Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is— Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places, Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

  • On the topic of humans' inability to comprehend higher beings: I've always found it interesting that Christians claim God is good, and at the same time, claim that God's ways are not our ways and we can't hope to understand his motivations for doing as he does. They never seem to realize that these are incompatible claims. Judging someone to be good requires some understanding of their motivations and their intent, just as judging someone to be evil does. Apologists may say that God allows so much apparent evil in order to achieve a higher good unknown to us, but if it's really the case that we can't know his reasons, they logically have to admit that it's equally plausible that God allows so much apparent good in order to achieve a higher evil. It's only familiarity that makes one of these claims sound sensible and the other bizarre and weird.

  • Also, an addendum: Leah, you said that the doctrine of the incarnation makes Christianity "uniquely" compelling among world religions. But isn't it the case that Hinduism has a similar tradition that's every bit as important to them?

  • I suppose there are Christians who claim that "we can't hope to understand his motivations for doing as he does". Sounds pretty Calvinistic. I think a more Catholic take is that we can know some things about God, but not everything. One thing we can know is something of his goodness (understood by way of analogy). We can only speak about what God is like, not about what he is in himself. And the key to doing that is to remember that he is more unlike, than like, any of his creatures. Jesus, at any rate, did not shrink from saying God was like any number of creatures. The tradition includes both the affirmative and apophatic ways. Logicians gripe about this, but tough beans. You might as well complain that physicist are making things too complicted by describing light as a wave and particle. They, like the saints, are constrained by experience and have to report what they see, not what logicians would like them to see.

  • Does Hinduism really locate the appearance of an avatar in a particular historical time and place? Do the Roman legends of Zeus impregnating Europa really insist that eyewitnesses contemporary to the event are, 500 of them, alive and available for correspondence a few hundred miles away in Judea? Lots of religions have legendary claims of visitations to mortals by the gods disguised in human form "once upon a time". Only one, so far as I know, insists that God was eating with tax collectors and prostitutes at specific locations with GPS coordinates and that he was executed by a Roman bureaucrat and seen alive again by the people fanning out across the Empire to talk about their personal conversations with him.

  • "Logicians gripe about this, but tough beans. You might as well complain that physicist are making things too complicted by describing light as a wave and particle."Yes, Mark, but that's just a verbal metaphor for a theory that has a precise mathematical description, which in turn makes quantitative predictions that we've verified to astounding accuracy. Theology, by contrast, is only the fuzzy metaphors, and doesn't make any testable predictions at all."Does Hinduism really locate the appearance of an avatar in a particular historical time and place?"Don't change the subject, please. My comment was in response to Leah's point that she finds the idea of a god incarnating in mortal form a uniquely plausible means for a superintelligent being to communicate effectively with humans. Christianity is far from the only religion to have conceived of this.However – if you'd like to discuss it, and if our gracious host doesn't mind – there's a notable dearth of extrabiblical records of Jesus' existence, save for a few confused and scattered allusions and some obvious interpolations. In particular, there's a conspicuous lack of anyone outside the Bible noticing the astounding miracles supposedly associated with Jesus' life, such as the worldwide three-hour darkness or the mass resurrection of the saints following his death.On the other hand, there's compelling textual evidence that Christianity began in the same way as other mystery religions: in the sacred "once upon a time" you mentioned, in a heavenly otherworld where a life-death-rebirth deity named Jesus was alleged to have performed his salvific act. It was only after the calamity of the Jewish War, when Jerusalem had been razed and most of the population of Palestine had been scattered to the winds, that gospels first began to appear tying Jesus' life to a specific time and place – long after anyone who could plausibly confirm or deny them would still be likely to be around.

  • How surprising that a post about potential purpose in the universe suddenly jumps to Christianity. I was trying to point out the falsehood of most people who argue this line in that they can't go beyond deism even if everything they said was true, yet they do – all the way to the point that they know the exact purpose of the universe (strangely it involves human sexuality and diets…)