(This is part 2/9 of the series, “Paradigms Lost”)
“And now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field … and he sought also to beguile [Adam and] Eve, for he knew not the mind of God.”
S: Well, Adam, you have a new world here.
A: Yes, but I know almost nothing of this world.
S: Oh, I see, your eyes are not yet opened. You must have some of the fruit of this tree in order to gain such knowledge.
A: And what knowledge is that?
S: Knowledge concerning this world and everything in it, what it is made of, how it came to be and how it continues to exist… For example, in the beginning this world was populated by nothing except unorganized matter in meaningless motion. And yet, after a great deal of time there arose certain patterns in the matter that tended to reliably replicate themselves when in the stable presence of the appropriate energy and materials.
A: How could that be? Look around, such complicated patterns do not simply spring into existence all by themselves. It is perfectly obvious to me that the creation of any such pattern always requires a certain amount of intelligent work. Indeed, it would seem that the mere survival of such replicating patterns, as you call them, in this very garden has required some degree of intelligent dressing and keeping on our part.
S: How very perceptive of you, Adam. The creation of any such pattern does require work, but if you pay closer attention, you will notice that each replicating pattern does its own work in replicating itself. Offspring are made by none other than their own parents who were themselves made by their parents and so on all the way back. This just is the replication of material patterns after their own kind. Furthermore, those patterns which are more efficient in getting the work required for their own replication done tend to multiply and replenish the earth at the expense of those patterns which are not so efficient. In this way, these complicated patterns come to be endowed with parts and features whose benefits exceed their costs in terms of replication and lose those parts and features which do not.
A: I would have little objection to your account were it not for the implication that we too are merely patterns which have, by means of replication, bubbled up from the primordial chaos. Like I said, many parts of this garden require work on my part in order to replicate and it is my belief that similar work was required for our creation. Moreover, whether you can tell me a story about how this did or did not happen is irrelevant to me since my forefathers have assured me that we are, in fact, a product of such intelligent work on their part. We are not merely evolved organisms, but finely tuned works of art.
S: Even if this can be said for one or two of “us”, however it is that you wish to define “our” pattern, it is clear that the same cannot be said for the overwhelming majority. Consequently, one cannot help but wonder how such an immensely complex pattern came to replicate itself so prolifically without any obvious help from the “outside”.
A: Perhaps, but the fact that our pattern was created rather than evolved still seems to be a rather important counter-example to your theory.
S: What you do not realize, dear Adam, is that the invisible hand which guides the replication of created artifacts within an environment full of creating organisms is merely that of the same blind watchmaker who guides the replication of those same organisms. Subsequently, what can be said for the replication of the latter can also be said for the former; for even though some design may have been built by some organism, the latter would only do such work if the former did something for it in return. Not only will those organisms which do costly work which contributes nothing to their replication eventually be replaced by those that don’t do such work, but those things which are not worth the work of making will tend not to get made. In the end, getting work done is the only way in which any complex pattern (organism, artifact or any combination of the two) can resist the tendency toward disorganization and multiply and replenish this world.
A: But wait, how did these mindless, material patterns come to see things in terms of costs and benefits in the first place? How is it that any such mindless pattern could ever do the intelligent work seeking out benefits and avoiding costs?
S: You are missing the point, Adam. I’m not saying matter really began to strive for anything at all. Rather, I am arguing that all the striving that we perceive around us is really just matter replicating itself without there being any deeper meaning or greater purpose to it. There is, at bottom, nothing more to this world than complex webs of matter, motion and brute causation which merely have the appearance of meaning or purpose. Sure, at first glance, it looks as if this world was populated by intelligent creatures with beliefs, desires and wills, but this is really just an illusion. The truth is that those patterns which have the material apparatus necessary to acting as if they had minds because the benefits of replicating themselves with such apparatus outweighs the costs of doing so. All beliefs and desires, all design, indeed anything complex enough to require work in order to resist the tendency toward disorganization and chaos is simply the outcome of material patterns replicating themselves in various ways. In reality there is no deeper purpose or meaning to any of it.
A: A part of me is curious to hear the detailed responses you no doubt would give to the numerous questions and counterexamples which spring to mind, but in the end I think I’ll resist that temptation. I’m sure that this tendency of mine strikes you as a less than admirable lack of curiosity but I can assure you that such is not the case. In reality, I simply do not see the purpose which hearing the rest of your story would serve. Perhaps I can frame this so that you will better understand it: Even if I were to patiently endure the costly work of trying to understand your theories regarding this world, the benefits I would derive from such a process seem rather trifling by comparison. What reason can you possibly give for me for listening to, let alone adopting a perspective in which there is really nothing in the world but mere matter in motion?
S: Of course, treating the world as if the material patterns in it had beliefs and desires is a useful strategy. In fact, it is the very reason why material patterns such as you and I came to view the world in such a way in the first place. However, that old way is now becoming outdated and replaced as we come to know more and more about how the world is and what we can do in it. Indeed, the very fact that we can now use this new way of looking at the world to do so many previously unimaginable things that we can be sure that it is true.
A: But isn’t this exactly what old way thought about itself as well? What makes your new way any different? If material patterns can indeed come to usefully track seemingly mental patterns out in the world, why can it not be that mental patterns can also come to usefully track seemingly material patterns? In other words, why is it that rocks, water, fire and the like cannot be said to have ends that they seek akin to the beliefs, desires and wills that agents like us have? What reason can there be to privilege the new way over the old one?
S: You cannot possibly believe that inanimate matter really has beliefs, desires and wills! As a rock lay upon the ground in the middle of the desert, what ends could it possibly be pursuing? I suppose that you could, hypothetically, conjure up some intricate collections of beliefs and desires which reliably predict and track any such thing, but come on! Surely you can know that such a view of the material world cannot be true, even before eating the fruit.
A: But why? I doubt that my hypothetical collection of beliefs and desires which reliably tracks rocks and water would be much more convoluted than your hypothetical collection of matter and motion which reliably tracks an intelligent person. If your argument is solely based in the utility of a particular perspective (and you have yet to give me any reason to suspect otherwise) then yours would seem to hold no more truth than mine.
S: Oh, Adam, you are in deeper need of this fruit than I had previously thought. If only you knew what I know about the world, especially concerning the material nature of organisms and their brains, you would never, in all seriousness, hold up the old view to the new. If the choice is between believing that inanimate rocks have beliefs and desires and believing that minds are made of matter, then the answer ought to be pretty obvious. Even if treating some material patterns as if they had beliefs and desires is quite useful, what we are really concerned about here is the ultimate truth of the matter.
A: Curious. On the one hand I am nothing but matter in motion which will only do those things which are in some sense useful but on the other hand what really matters is not usefulness but ultimate truth. This brings me back to my original question, why should I bother taking the time to understand and adopt this new perspective? To the point that it is useful, I’ll use it as if it was true, but beyond that I have no reason to believe in it. Indeed, it surprises me that anybody would care about the ultimate truth of this new perspective at all, for if it is ultimately false, then it is really a waste of time to worry about its ultimate truthfulness but if it is ultimately true then it still seems a waste of time to worry about. But to be perfectly honest, whether the old, the new or some other perspective is ultimately true or not, I know and care not. What I do know is the following: my elders and forefathers have taught me to use both of these perspectives in certain situations in which they work pretty well. It is to their wisdom that I will trust.
S: Your obstinacy surprises me, for I was under the impression that it was truth and knowledge that you sought! Well, if you will not trust me over your forefathers, perhaps you will trust your own eyes. We know that matter in motion exists, for we see it around us every day. Can we say the same for beliefs, desires and minds? If we are to believe that anything is truly real, then surely we must side with our own senses.
A: How is it that you are so concerned with the truth of the matter, since, if the entire world is “really” just matter in motion, then there really is no truth at all? If there aren’t “really” any beliefs in the world at all, then it is difficult to see how there could “really” be any beliefs that are true or false. At bottom, there is no truth, no good, no ought, nothing but one damn thing happening after another. There is only “is”. Accordingly, why “ought” any pattern of facts believe anything about those facts? Sure, maybe there are things which (apparent) agents (apparently) ought to do or believe, but the real truth of the matter is that there really is no truth in matter.
S: Perhaps you misunderstand how the new perspective works in day to day use. I am not saying that you mustn’t treat the world as if things like minds and true beliefs didn’t exist, even though they really don’t. As you noted, such an approach to the world would be a highly impractical pattern to say the least and would soon vanish from existence. What we can do, indeed, what our particular kind of pattern can’t help but do is look at agents as if they were intelligent black boxes whose material inner workings we aren’t entirely clear about. Indeed, the new way of looking at the world would suggest that not only do the benefits of treating things with minds as black boxes justify the costs, but such considerations of efficiency would also determine the size, shape and thickness of the boundaries by which we conveniently circumscribe such boxes. In other words, as material patterns, we can’t help but treat many of the patterns around us as intelligent people if and to the extent that it is useful.
A: But who is to say which side of these boundaries according to which we habitually carve up the world is in fact the real one and which is merely the “black” one? For example, what is to stop us from treating the seemingly mindless and inanimate parts of the world as black boxes whose mental inner workings we aren’t exactly sure about rather than the other way around? What makes you think that we have the truth of your side of the boundary more figured out than the other side?
S: Okay, but this simply places the two boundary conditions in exactly the same spot. It would seem that you have come half way to the very point I have been trying to make from the beginning. If a cost/benefit analysis is really to determine whether we see the world in terms of matter in motion or minds and wills then I have little doubt that the former will eventually and soon win out.
A: It would seem that the trust you place in your fruit its knowledge far exceeds anything I am capable of, for my position lies not in rejecting your particular choice in the dichotomy, but in rejecting your dichotomy altogether. For starters, who is to say that another way of carving up the world will not come along and reveal both ways to be obsolete? But my disagreement with you actually lies at a more fundamental level. Granted, I could follow you in carving up the world in terms of matter in motion or I could choose to do so according to minds and wills instead. But your real subtlety lies in making me think that I have to choose between those two at all! I have heretofore lived quite well by carving up the world according to the sometimes less than elegant hybrid of these two perspectives, and I see no reason to switch now. No doubt, contradictions and mismatches between these two ways occasionally arise from time to time, but I find this far more tolerable than worrying myself with which, if any of the two perspectives is the real and/or true one. In the end, I will place my trust in the wisdom of my elders and leave your fruit to those whose aims are obviously quite different than mine.
Summary: Evolution (guided or not) provides us with a very interesting and sometimes useful way of carving up the world around us in terms of mindless matter in motion. This new perspective seems to be in clear conflict with the more traditional way of viewing the world as a place inhabited by agents with beliefs, desires and wills. But rather than spending too much time and effort confronting the question of which perspective is the true or real one, perhaps we might ask ourselves whether such a question is really worth addressing.
Next time: The teaching, acceptance and enforcement of moral rules are costly patterns of behavior which are widespread and reliably replicated from one generation to the next. What work do these patterns perform in order to resist the universal tendency toward disorganization? What is the scope of each individual rule? What consistency can we expect there to be among set of many rules?