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rob's picture

What I'm trying to say...

In class on Wendesday we started talking about the concept of purpose in a system, so i did some thinking about the meaning of purpose. to do so i came up with an example situation and thought about it.

Here it is:
John felt bored and wanted to get high, so he bought a bag of pot, rolled a joint and smoked it.

Let’s break this down:
Subject: John
Present / Current State: bored
Purpose / Desired State: stoned
Actions: buying a bag of pot, rolling a joint, smoking it

Several things become evident in this breakdown:

1. In order to have a purpose, there must be a subject (john) with consciousness who is having the purpose. If you hit me in the knee with one of those little rubber hammers, my leg will fly up and smack you upside the face, but that doesn’t mean that my leg’s “purpose” is to spazz out. I'd say that without consciousness, an agent can have “reflexes” but not “purposes.” If you put an E Coli colony on a rotten T-Bone steak, the bacteria will replicate, and the population will grow, but it’s not a conscious action, so I’d be reluctant to say that the E Coli’s “purpose” is to replicate. I’m more inclined to call the bacteria’s growing a reflex to the stimulus of rotting animal cells.

2. So why is consciousness essential to purpose? I’d argue that purpose is essentially about having a mental image of things being different than they are and designing a series of actions to achieve that end state. In the original example, John’s purpose in doing the actions that he does is based on a sense of how he’d like things to be NOT on his sense of how things already are. If he couldn’t deal with the concept of things being different, he couldn’t possibly construct a plan for a series of actions to change things from their present state. If the actions that the agent takes to accomplish the purpose lead to an unforeseen result, the actions were still “on purpose” (taken to achieve the imagined state) but the actual end state is “accidental / unintentional” (something other than the imagined state).

3. Because the intrinsic value of the endstate gives meaning to the series of actions, the actions themselves need only be of instrumental value. Buying a bag of dope is nothing in of itself: if you don’t smoke it, it’s just a waste of cash, but in order for getting high to be a purpose in all of this, it must be something John wants in of itself. This then constructs a heirarchy of purpose because while John might peel carrots to make dinner or pack a bowl to get high; the meaning in those actions come from the fact that he wants to make dinner to fuel his body and wants to get high to have fun.

But this too is problematic, because why does he want to survive and enjoy himself? I don’t feel like fleshing this out now, but I would argue that all actions (verbs) are of instrumental value, and the only things that are of intrinsic value are states (adjectives): John may peel carrots, to make dinner, to fuel his body, but ultimately it is his desire TO BE alive that drives the rest of it. While this difference can be semantic, it feels right to me. I’m not sure quite what it means yet, but if it’s true then it means that if we could automatically be healthy and happy, there wouldn’t be any value in doing anything. If that’s true, then there’s something in human nature that ultimately wants things to be static and, fundamentally, we’re all lazy and obsessed with death, which probably we are.

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