TELEOLOGY – UNCERTAINTY – PART I

“Nothing is certain; not even that.” – Arcesilaus.

 

Closely related to chance, complexity, chaos, and accident is the concept of uncertainty. The road to understanding uncertainty in reality is sinuous. It begins in ancient Greece when Democritus realized that  objects in the world can be broken into smaller parts, and the resulting parts can be further broken up into still smaller parts. But of course logic alone instructs us that in this process there will be a part so small, it can no longer be divided. Democritus called this the atom (Greek- a meaning ‘not’ and tomos meaning ‘cut’- i.e. uncuttable). In the materialist world espoused by a later Greek philosopher, Epicurus, and still later by the Roman, Lucretius, atoms and their movements (swerves) were the fundamental building blocks and determinants of reality.

This simplistic physics survived the unscientific middle ages and was augmented in the 17th century when Newton discovered his fundamental laws of motion and gravity that suggested a mechanistic or deterministic explanation of events in the universe.  Newton was committed to a ‘corpuscular’ description of matter (and light as well) in accordance with the logically deduced description of the ancients.

Early in the 20th century, Niels Bohr took the Greek word atom as his label for the tiny solar-system-like structure we think of as the building block of matter. But advances in ‘microphysics’ revealed the atom was not in fact the smallest component of matter opening up the entire field of subatomic physics.  Subatomic particles appear different from classical matter – demonstrating both particle and wave aspects. Electrons, photons, and positrons have finite mass and size, but also motion and energy. All attempts to consolidate matter as particles to waves or vice versa failed and over time it became apparent subatomic entities have a dual ‘particle-wave’ nature.

At this point, the of concept uncertainty appears on the scene when Werner Heisenberg demonstrated that if a subatomic particle’s location is specified, its energy level and motion cannot be determined. Likewise if its energy level and momentum are specified, then its location cannot be determined. Moreover this is not the result of imprecision in our measuring devices, but rather is intrinsic to subatomic matter itself. In fact, he demonstrated that the location and momentum are not even defined until witnessed by an observer. These seemingly irrational conclusions appear to be confirmed by experiment and further validated by virtue of their utility in explaining other features of physics.

The philosophical problem is immediately evident: if determinism requires specification of location and energy of particles to predict events, and such specifications are impossible or non-existent, then the universe at its elemental level cannot be mechanistic as previously assumed. But then what is its nature and what determines location and movement of subatomic particles in the absence of an observer?

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TELEOLOGY – ACCIDENT

“Nothing under the sun is accidental.” – Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, German critic and dramatist, Emilia Galotti (1772)

 

 

To some the last three posts on complexity, emergence, self-organization, and chaos theory amount to attributing the existence of the universe and life to accident – perhaps more than blind chance, but certainly less than planned design. In this post, we will look at some key objections to this hypothesis.1

The counterarguments can be listed as below:

1.   In cases of statistics, mathematicians typically consider anything less likely than one in 1050 as de facto impossible. The probability of a spontaneously appearing universe compatible with life and derived from inert matter is less than 1050. Therefore the universe did not appear spontaneously.2

2.  Even setting aside the question of probability, a reasonable person following the scientific method will not favor a proposition with very low probability over one with a much higher probability.

3.   Calculations of the formation of life by accidental processes are also astronomically low.

4.   Complexity and chaos theory can explain order developing from disorder, but not the information content intrinsic to living organisms.

5.  The laws and mathematics that govern the origin and functioning of the universe indicate that a logic or intelligence existed prior to spacetime.

Other thinkers argue that even now physical laws cannot explain biological finalism or consciousness. Rather the reductionists are in effect begging the question by defining away distinctions in animate and inanimate matter by focusing only on similar physical laws without addressing their fundamental differences.3

At the end of the day, challenge to the accidental notion of reality is the central debate of teleology, itself the fundamental issue for whether the universe has meaning. If the universe is accidental, then the meaning of it and its features including us are suspect. If design can be demonstrated by default as would be the case where both chance and accident are excluded, then there is hope for meaning.

As we continue to dissect this issue perhaps we should stop to assess the definition of the word ‘accident.’ For our purposes. Webster’s has two entries of use:

(1) any event that happens unexpectedly, without a deliberate plan or cause.

(2) Philos. any entity or event contingent upon the existence of something else.4

With regards to the first definition, I find it difficult to think of reality as “unexpected,” however our investigation of teleology is an attempt to establish or refute reality as deliberately planned. On the other hand the second definition makes even a deliberate universe an “accident” in which case philosophically one might say reality can be an accident even if designed. We will come back to this in our synthesis at the end of this section, but moving forward, we look next at uncertainty as a manifestation of the universe.

 

1Overman, Dean L., A Case Against Accident and Self-Organization, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Lanham, 1997. ISBN 0-8476-8966-2, pages 181-197.2

2 This is essentially a reformulation of the ‘fine tuning’ version of the teleologic argument for the existence of God as outlined in the post on this site dated February 15, 2019.

3Davies, Paul, The Cosmic Blueprint. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1988. ISBN 0-671-60233-0, page 101.

4Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2003. ISBN 0-7607-4975-2, p. 12– definitions 3 and 6.

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TELEOLOGY – CHAOS

“A very small cause which escapes our notice determines a considerable effect that we cannot fail to see, and then we say that effect is due to chance.” – Henri Poincaré.

 

In our search for meaning we have been exploring the origin of reality with a focus not on how but why the universe and its many facets came to be. The possibility that everything is the result of mere chance seems to be unscientific and hence untenable. Last time we looked at complex systems and noted their propensity to creation as a result of emergence and self-organization. Today we will focus on the obverse side of that coin – chaos.

Chaos for our purposes will be defined as “seemingly random, unpredictable, behavior in a system governed by deterministic laws.”1 Our interest then is in chaos as the explanation of what appears as the randomness of the universe, the subjective experience of which is interpreted as pointlessness.

Mathematicians and scientists have become aware in the last 150 years that the Newtonian predictable mechanistic description of nature is an oversimplification. In the real world, the conditions under which natural events occur involve innumerable variables which can be specified with only a limited accuracy. When calculations and predictions based on infinitesimally inexact variables are carried out multiple steps, these inexactitudes lead to unpredictable outcomes. Thus tiny changes in causal factors lead to unexpectedly large effects, a process known as the butterfly effect –referring to the image of the flapping of a single butterfly’s wings altering conditions just enough that with magnification a hurricane occurs thousands of miles away.

The mathematics of chaos theory are fascinating but cannot be detailed in brief enough form to allow description on this site. However the key findings are that chaotic systems of different types appear to gravitate to similar patterns: bifurcations in calculated results, recurring ratios and so-called ‘magic numbers’ (such as 4.669,201 and 2.5029), and nonlinearity. What the calculations and patterns reveal is that our universe is not a linear Newtonian system, but a chaotic one. Philosophically we learn that reductionism – the thesis that all complex phenomena can and should be understood by ‘reducing’ them into simpler pieces – ?will not explain the great mysteries of the universe,” and traditional “determinism is a myth.”2,3

In conclusion, the universe may be the result not of chance, but instead the emergence and self-organization of complexity theory coupled with the mathematically demonstrable unpredictability of chaos theory.  Next time we will consider the consequences of his possibility and arguments against it.

1Strogatz, Steven, Chaos: Course Guidebook. The Great Courses, Chantilly Virginia, 2008. Page 116.

2Ibid.Pages 99-102.

3Davies, Paul, The Cosmic Blueprint. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1988. ISBN 0-671-60233-0, pages 35-56.

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TELEOLOGY – COMPLEXITY (CONT’D)

Last time we defined complex systems and reviewed their features such as unpredictability, robustness, and especially non-linear behavior. However, for our purposes, the most critical feature of complex systems is emergence – “the spontaneous creation of order and functionality from the bottom up.”4 The last part of this definition is the basis by which complexity may serve as an explanation for reality in contradistinction to ‘design’ typically meant as ‘top down.’ So for instance the ‘music’ of songbirds is the spontaneous creation of the many individuals each for its own purposes and in response to other birds’ calls while the designed music of an orchestra is directed by a conductor.

Emergence can be simple meaning a macro level property from a system in equilibrium – for example the wetness of water which develops with the aggregation of H2O molecules; or complex where macro level property develops in a system not in equilibrium such as a flame. Emergence can also be weak where the macro level effect would not be expected but can be explained at the micro level, for example a bee colony; or strong where the macro level property cannot be deduced from interactions at the micro level – for instance human consciousness.

The next step then is to think about whether our concerns such as the universe, life, and humanity can be explained by a ‘bottom up’ emergence. Some scientists such as Paul Davies and some philosophers such as Karl Popper believe that, in fact, emergence leads to new states of higher organization not fully explained by lower level laws and entities. In this line of reasoning,  ‘self-organization’ is a fundamental property of nature under conditions characterized as “far-from-equilibrium, open, non-linear systems with a high degree of feedback.”5 The laws involved in emergent phenomena are not the same as those in traditional physics and may not be deterministic in an absolute sense. So then we might say emergence and self-organization appear when the whole is more than its parts. Alternatively in the words of astrophysicists John Barrow and Frank Tipler have written: “We do not think teleological laws either in biology or physics can be fully reduced to non-teleological laws.”6

Complexity then may be a more acceptable explanation for reality than chance. Before we finish our work on an alternative to conscious design as the explanation of reality, we need to make one last stop – Chaos theory. Join me for that next time.

1Eugene Wigner won the 1963 Nobel Prize for physics for his work on elementary particle physics.

2Page, Scott E., Understanding Complexity. The Great Courses. Lecture 1.

3Davies, Paul, The Cosmic Blueprint. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1988. ISBN 0-671-60233-0, pages 21-34.

4Page, Scott E., Understanding Complexity. The Great Courses. Lecture 6.

5Davies, Paul, The Cosmic Blueprint. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1988. ISBN 0-671-60233-0, page 142.

6Ibid. Page 149.

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TELEOLOGY – COMPLEXITY

 “Physics is becoming so unbelievably complex that it is taking longer and longer to train a physicist. It is taking so long, in fact, to train a physicist to the place where he understands the nature of physical problems that he is already too old to solve them.” – Eugene Wigner1

 

Last time we found that chance as typically defined is difficult to employ as an explanation of reality if we believe science is a valid means to understand the origins of that reality. We now consider whether that which seemed to be ‘chance’ in prior times has been revealed more recently to be comprehensible at least in part by virtue of complexity and chaos theory. Today we will examine the first of these – complexity.

We will define complexity as “diverse, interdependent, connected, adapting entities”2 Complex systems have five fascinating features: (1) unpredictability, (2) large event  creation, (3) robustness, (4) emergence, and (5) novelty. Complex is not the same as complicated; a watch is complicated with diverse, connected, and interdependent parts, but lacks adaptiveness. The universe, the Earth, human societies, and living things are all complex systems.

Now most scientific laws are based on simplified or regular models of reality. But of course reality in general and the universe specifically are extremely complex; consider for example the movement of a planet in its orbit. If the only structures were the sun and that planet, the orbit would be a simple calculation. But in our solar system there are eight planets plus an immense number of smaller bodies making an accurate calculation of planetary movement remarkably complex. As an example, take the planet Neptune which was discovered because of unexpected variation in the orbit of Uranus.

The traditional approach to complex systems is to model them on regular systems. Of course the more irregular the system, the less satisfactory the modeling for four main reasons: (1) abrupt behavior changes, (2) large numbers of components or ‘degrees of freedom,’ (3) open rather than closed nature, and (4) non-linearity. This last point is critical; in linear systems, effects are proportionate to causes making them predictable. However unexpected results develop in non-linear systems, not because they are not determined per se, but because the complexity of the calculations becomes unsupportable leading to unpredictability. This unpredictability appears to us as novel and creative outcomes.

(continued next blog)

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TELEOLOGY – CHANCE

 “Then she said … I assert that there is no such thing as chance, and I declare that chance is just an empty word [inanem vocem] with no real meaning.”  – Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy.

 

While questions of teleology can be applied to everything, our interest is in its application to five specific areas:

1.   The origin and development of the universe

2.  The appearance of life

3.  The evolution of humans

4.  The existence of individual men and women

5.  The course of human history

An explanation of how these arose is fundamental to human meaning. This post and the two that follow attempt to answer the question: Do they result from chance alone or is there an element of design?

In the field of teleology, chance and design are effectively opposites. As we discussed last time, chance refers to the absence of any cause of events that can be predicted, understood, or controlled, and thus is a potential explanation of things and events. But unlike design which may or may not justify why things and events are as they are; when chance is deployed as an explanation of how things occur, there is an implicit corollary that there is no why at all.

However by this definition, chance does not appear to be the explanation of much in the universe, at least from the perspective of science. We know this based on two fundamental inconsistencies which result if chance is hypothesized. First science is based on the premise that events in the universe are determined by preceding conditions and events; that is, under given conditions, subsequent events are both predictable and necessary. Second, science aims to understand all facets of the universe, indeed often with the goal of prediction and at times control through technology. Conversely science is undermined if chance alone is the cause of natural events and entities.

Therefore scientists tacitly deny the Big Bang occurred by chance once they attempt to find an explanation such as an unobserved multiverse or a quantum flux. Similarly science rejects chance as a cause of any specific event or entity which it attempts to understand, which is – everything !- including the appearance of life, the evolution of man, even the birth of any individual person. In the case of human history, most events occur through the actions of individuals, and historians go to great length to discover the causes of events making chance a limited factor in human history.

If chance and design are the two main explanations of the universe and other key matters, and if chance is eliminated on the grounds of scientific and historical investigation, then design becomes the default explanation. Or is there an intermediate explanation for these things? Next we will investigate complexity and chaos theory as chance-like explanations of reality.

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TELEOLOGY – DEFINITIONS (CONT’D)

Last time we defined key terms in this section on teleology or design. Before we can conclude our survey of definitions we need to do a more thorough comparison of “purpose” and “function.”  In The Encyclopedia of Philosophy,  Morton Beckner explores the distinction between them as the crux of teleology.2 Purpose by his account can be logically independent of intention or consciousness and is directed, persistent, and sensitive to a goal.The goals of systems that exhibit purposive behavior are the outcome of relatively independent dovetailing processes – that is ‘directive correlation.’ 

He uses the example of a guided missile where the independent processes are position of the target and the direction of the missile as opposed to the non-purposive activity of a river flowing to the sea. Therefore “activity is purposive if and only if it exhibits sensitivity and persistence to a goal as a result of directive correlation.”

On the other hand, functions are contributions to fundamental processes (e.g. kidney functions for excretion; or hair functions to aid in maintaining body temperature). They are part of a hierarchy of functions leading to a process, but lack sensitivity and persistence to a goal. Beckner admits the distinction between function and purpose is arguable, but makes a good case for the distinction.

In any case, a concluding summary of the definitions in the last post and Beckner’s analysis in this allows creation of the following table:

  WHY HOW
Purpose   +++     +
Function    ++   + +
Design    +/-  +++
Intention     +    +
Chance      –   +++
Direction (Trajectory)      –     –
Meaning   +++     –

Thus purpose and meaning address why things occur while design and chance attend to how they occur. Function straddles these designations while intention and direction are more neutral words although connotatively tend to imply how and even why things happen.

Our next step is to look at chance and its relatives – complexity and chaos – as explanations of things and events in the universe.

 

1Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2003. ISBN 0-7607-4975-2, p. 1952.

2Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 8, pages 88-91.

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TELEOLOGY – DEFINITIONS OF TERMS

“Every definition is dangerous.” – Desiderius Erasmus, Adagia.

 

 

In looking at an issue as subtle as teleology we will have to be methodical (very much as when we addressed body and soul, and death and immortality) especially since teleology is neglected in the philosophy literature, particularly with respect to the key areas of life, history, and the universe.

Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary will be our source.1 It defines “purpose” as “the reason for which something exists or is done, made, or used; an intended or desired result, end, or aim.” It also defines “on purpose” as by design, intentionally. Purpose then appears to be not how, but why a thing came to be or an event occurred. Science is an excellent means to determine the how, while we rely on philosophy, logic, or theology for the why.

“Function” is defined as “the kind of action or activity proper to a person, thing, or institution, the purpose of which something is designed or exists, role.” This appears to blend why and how.

“Design” has several definitions, but the relevant one for our discussion is “to plan the form or structure of; to plan and fashion artistically or skillfully.” This definition suggests design may be independent of a reason or the why of an entity or event per se. In theory then, a designer need not have a reason for his or her design.

“Intent” is defined as “the act or fact of intending,” and “intend” is defined as “to have in mind as something to be done or brought about; to design or mean for a particular purpose.” Therefore, intention may or may not include the question of why.

“Chance” is defined as “the absence of any cause of events that can be predicted, understood, or controlled.” Chance then is a particular explanation as to how something exists or how some event happens, specifically as uncaused, unpredictable, and incomprehensible. The why is unstated, but perhaps logic would say chance events and existence have no why.

“Trajectory” is defined as “the curve described by a projectile, rocket, or the like in its flight.” However  it often has connotations of “direction” meaning “the line along which anything lies, faces, moves, etc. with reference to the point or region toward which it is directed.” Trajectory or direction then implies neither how nor why, but simply records progression towards a neutral or intended end.

“Meaning” is defined as “what is intended to be or is actually expressed or indicated; significant, import; the end, purpose, or significance of something.” Meaning then is about why not how.

(continued next post)

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TELEOLOGY – INTRODUCTION

“The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” – Steven Weinberg, theoretical physicist.

 

 

Our next special problem is the place of teleology in the human experience of reality. The Webster’s unabridged dictionary definition of teleology starts with these two listings: (1) the doctrine that final causes exist, (2) the study of the evidences of design or purpose in nature.1 Aristotle worked out this first meaning of teleology referring to the goal of actions as their ‘final cause” – in contrast to the material, formal, and efficient causes.2 Dagobert Runes distinguishes teleology as the explanation of the past and the present in terms of the future instead of the reverse as is typical of mechanics (or physics).3 However he does not believe this requires personal consciousness, volition, or intent. On the other hand, other philosophers identify teleology as purposive or goal-directed activity.4 In speaking of natural phenomena, teleology typically involves a dialectic about functional selection versus intelligent design.

As was the case with human destiny, most philosophical textbooks ignore or provide only a superficial treatment of teleology, but we require a more detailed investigation. Why? Because perhaps the most pivotal consideration in regards to a meaningful life is whether reality itself is meaningful. Underlying that enigma is the interrogation of common words like purpose, function, intention, design, chance, and trajectory. We also need to establish criteria for the word – “meaning.”

This section will be divided into the following parts:

  1. Definitions
  2. Chance, Complexity, and Chaos
  3. Uncertainty
  4. Statistics
  5. Natural Selection
  6. Nagel’s Natural Teleology
  7. Intelligent Design
  8. Anthropomorphism
  9. Absurdity
  10. Criteria for “Meaning”
  11. Synthesis

This area is in my opinion the least clarified by philosophy as it stands today, and by far the most important area which has been neglected. If Professor Weinberg is correct (see epigram above), then despite humanism’s insistence to the contrary, our individual lives are as pointless as the universe. Let’s hope our investigation leads us to a different conclusion.

 

1Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2003. ISBN 0-7607-4975-2, p. 1952.

2See post titled Causation dated 7/19/19 on this site.

3Runes, Dagobert D., Dictionary of Philosophy. Philosophical Library, New York, 1960, p.315.

4Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 8, page 88.

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