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more (or less) purpose

Kathy Maffei's picture
Ok, I’m no philosophy major, but I’m going to try to better explain my feelings about the concept of purpose: To start, I find only 1 definition of the word purpose that appears to relate to our discussions: what something is used for. Sure, it’s also affected by context (i.e. “What’s your purpose for being in this building right now?” vs. “What is the program’s purpose?” vs. “the purpose of my existence”), but either way, it boils down to pretty much the same thing: function / use / reason. Now, I think it’s safe to say that anything and everything can have more than one use. Take for example something as straightforward as the Hello World program, which simply prints the statement “Hello, World” onto the screen. It can be said to have the purpose of printing “Hello, World” onto the screen, or its purpose could be to serve as a basic example for beginning programmers, or it might be used to quickly test your success at installing C libraries on your machine, etc. Furthermore, the purpose of a particular agent can be presumed by the agent, the creator, the user, or an observer, and each purpose may be distinctly different. It can be argued that none has any stronger claim to validity, except within a particular context. In other words, purpose isn’t a fixed aspect of the agent, itself, but of the intention of the person describing it in a specific situation. In all cases, the concept of purpose is simply an artificial construct of the mind – a device we use to contemplate and describe something at a particular moment of existence / contemplation / creation / use / observation. It does not exist as a provable absolute. Just to muddy the waters a little, I expect there’s a condition under which this whole argument becomes moot. If there is no such thing as free will and if there is a designer who deems it desirable to assign purposes to things, then there’s no argument against them. On the other hand, if there is no free will yet still no designer – for example, if the universe is only one huge deterministic CA that accidentally came into being – then there’s still no purpose without someone to think it up. I believe that as long as there is free will, there is no real thing as purpose – that it is subjective and useful only in terms of expressing a personal opinion or plan.


DavidRosen's picture

How can you have a designer if there is no free will? What would determine its decisions?
Kathy Maffei's picture

I meant no free will for us "created" things, not for the creator/designer. Those kinds of concerns seem to come up when one talks about a designer. After all, if there is a god who created everything, then who created god, right? Same issue. Personally, I'm not promoting the possibility that designer(s) exist. But since some people contemplate the possibility of a designer, then for the sake of argument, I considered how the existence of a creator would affect my presumptions about purpose.
Laura Cyckowski's picture

I agree with Kathy on most of her definitions, because they do not necessarily imply intent. It seems like intention should be teased out of the definition of purpose, that way purpose can be seen as something imposed on an agent/system (by some kind of second order entity), rather than inherent within it.
PaulGrobstein's picture

I agree that an object/entity can be made use of in different ways by different outside observers, and so can have as many purposes as there are outside observers. I still think though that two additional layers of exploring "purpose" are meaningful. An observer may not only find an object/entity useful for its own purposes but may ascribe (or not ascribe) "intrinsic purpose" (intentionality) to that object/entity/agent. What observations (behaviors of the object/entity/agent) cause an external observer to ascribe intrinsic purposefulness in some cases (dogs? other people?) and not in others? And then, in cases where an external observer does ascribe intrinsic purposefulness to an object/entity/agent, what is the internal organization that produces the relevant behaviors?
Kathy Maffei's picture

What concerns me is that any two observers might interpret the same behaviors in very different ways. In fact, in Cognitive Science, we were directed (by Doug) to build our own computer-generated versions of Braitenberg's vehicles, to then show them - without explanation as to the underlying programming - to several people, and to record their responses to the question "what is it doing?" There was a surprising array of explanations, and it seemed that people's interpretations were colored by all sorts of things, possibly including: 1) context & setting of the experiment 2) expectations - maybe based on the demonstrator's demeanor or what they knew about the demonstrator 3)personal beliefs 4)personal interests 5)what they read about or saw that day 6)what kind of mood they were in, etc, etc. That's why I consider purpose to be subjective and not terribly useful. Or are you just wondering what kinds of behaviors tend to prompt people to think something has purpose? In other words, what kinds of (simple) internal structures cause complex-looking behaviors? Not whether or not those behaviors really are complex or the agents truly are "purposeful" or what those purposes might be, but whether or not the majority of observers would consider them so. Is this what you're suggesting we consider?
Laura Cyckowski's picture

"What observations cause an external observer to ascribe intrinsic purposefulness in some cases and not in others?" For other humans/animals, I think a likeness to our own behaviors (unless you're a solipsist...); an assumption, without having to look inside at any internal organization.
jrohwer's picture

It seems to me that purpose is not a very useful concept unless we define it in concrete terms, and once that's done I don't think there will even be a need for the word. I think that when people get into philosohpical discussions with ambiguous or poorly defined concepts, it is impossible for them to escape from the ambiguity; it will plague any assertions they might make about the original idea. So, although it would be clumsy to think about everything this way, I think it might be useful to break down "purpose" into its most basic components. It seems to me that purpose is concerned with what is likely to occur, or 'to be done by' some agent at some future time. If we think intuitively that an object's purpose is what it wants to do, this is just another way of saying that it is what the object is likely to do, given the right environmental conditions which permit that action. Biological life on earth is likely to attempt to reproduce, thus replicating their genes, simply because that's the logical outcome of...: the configuration of proteins that make up our bodies and our DNA, acting under the rules of our environment, i.e. the laws of physics. If we think intuitively that purpose is what an object is "meant" to do, this is just another way of saying that it's what some other object wants the object to do, as in: a hammer's purpose is to stick things together with nails, because thats what human designers designed it to do. But in all cases, it seems much better--and by better I mean clearer and less ambiguous--to describe "purpose" the second, more specific way. Langdon's ant is an agent with a simple set of internal rules, placed in an environment with another simple set of rules. It will eventually build roads--because that's the logical outcome of the interaction of those rules. Not because it is the ant's "purpose" to build roads... using that word brings in all kinds of ambiguity. If we want to know what the ant does and why, we should ask, "What does the ant do, and why?" The answer is just a logical explanation of the rules of the agent and environment. If we want to consider such questions as free will, God, and determinism, we should just explicitly ask, "is there free will?" "Does God exist?" and "would it be possible to calculate the future from a complete knowledge of the initial state?"... that way, it's clear what's being asked. Although I do concede that the "purposeful" behavior of the ant raises some of these questions--I still think it's a mistake to have the whole debate in terms of the word "purpose" when that word's relation to the observed phenomena is so incredibly poorly defined.