Oughts and Ends

February 20, 2012    By: Jeff G @ 3:46 pm   Category: Life

(This is part 3/9 of the series “Paradigms Lost”)

“They have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law…”

S: Eve, come have some of the fruit of this tree.  It will give you knowledge concerning this world and your purpose in it.

E: I already know enough about your views to understand that although they do seem somewhat plausible, your theories concerning the ultimate meaning of life (or lack thereof) seem rather disappointing to say the least.  No doubt, the prospect of reproducing so as to replicate my particular pattern or kind is something which I do in fact desire, but to suggest that this is the ultimate purpose of all designed things seems a bit of a stretch.

S: Of course it seems that way.  I could hardly expect such a pattern of belief, speech and behavior which is of so little practical use to seem intuitive or obvious.  It is true that for any complex pattern to resist the tendency toward disorder it must in some way, however indirectly, replicate itself.  However, beyond this fact, the concept of replication actually says very little about how such patterns actually manage to accomplish this end. As such, the fact that replication is the end purpose of all replicating patterns is really of very little practical use.  Indeed, replication is such an abstract and context independent goal, that the very idea of a replicator which does not have any other concrete function(s) is essentially a contradiction in terms.

E:  I don’t see what this has to do with the ultimate purpose of the biological and artificial patterns we see replicating around us.

S: Well, in order to replicate itself, a pattern must perform a very specific task within a very specific and relatively stable environment equipped with a reliable supply of very specific raw materials and energy.  In one sense, yes, the ultimate purpose of any complex pattern is replication, but in a more concrete sense, the more specific purpose is whatever task the pattern performs within that environment such that it gets replicated.  In our day to day lives, viewing that specific and concrete task as the “real” purpose of any given pattern tends to be very useful indeed.  It is in this way that the pattern of believing, speaking and acting as if the concrete tasks of the other patterns out in the world were the real purposes comes itself to be so well-replicated among us.

E:  Wait, are those tasks really and truly the purposes of those patterns, or is only “as if” they were?  What about patterns such as ourselves which perform multiple tasks within their environment?  How can we know which end is our “real” one?

S: Eve, the very pattern of behavior you are demonstrating right now, that of seeking the purpose of other patterns is itself a well-replicated one indeed.  One of the best ways of navigating this world is by asking those very questions about it.  But of course those patterns are not really “doing” anything in kind of active sense.  Rather, these patterns of meaningless matter in motion are merely acting as if they had purposes.  Even the concept of replication is itself merely a tool by which we explain the appearance of purpose and meaning.  And just as we attribute purposes to patterns to the extent that it is useful, it is also pragmatic value that determines which particular purpose(s) we attribute to any given pattern.

E: But surely there must be some deeper fact or truth to the matter.

S: I already told you the deeper truth, but (perfectly in accordance with my theory) you have already rejected or forgotten that truth in favor of something which you thought more useful.  As I already pointed out, it is for this very reason that this pattern of viewing patterns only in terms of replication is not itself well replicated.  After all, what matters is not whether a pattern of belief or behavior is true or false, but how useful it is such that it gets itself replicated just like any other designed tool.

E: So if replication is not the “true” or even the “best” purpose of my particular pattern, then what is?

S: Well the first thing to ask about any pattern is what particular environment it replicates in.  Plants replicate in environments of sun and soil, hearts in environments of mobile bodies with metabolic and circulatory systems, hammers in environments of buildings and builders, and humans, well humans replicate in environments of other language and tool using humans.    A human being placed in an environment bereft of other humans is a very poor pattern indeed and is not long for this world.

E: So, inasmuch as can call the match that is negotiated between a replicating pattern and its environment “rational”, we should then expect a rational person to take into account the other people in her environment?

S: Of course!  Sometimes it will be more useful to cooperate with others while other times it will be better to compete with them.  Indeed, many times it will be best to cheat by competing with somebody while you make or allow them to think that you are cooperating.

E: Oh, I could never do anything so sneaky and underhanded as to cheat somebody like that!  Nor could I ever believe that everybody else is like that either.

S: Haha!!!  But isn’t that exactly what every cheater says about themselves!?  Perhaps if we pay more attention to what people actually do rather than what they feel compelled to say, we might not be so impressed with their track record.

E: What a cynical outlook on life and people!  No doubt, there are scamps and cheats a plenty, but I see no reason to assume that all or even most people are as you say.

S:  Quite right, for if everybody cheated all the time, then the very idea of cheating would become meaningless.  The fact is that cheating isn’t that ubiquitous of a pattern, and there must be a reason why people find it in their interest not to do so.  This reason can be found in our useful propensity toward rewarding cooperators and punishing cheater.  This system of punishments and rewards structures incentives such that, for the most part, cooperating is more beneficial than cheating is.

E: So the only thing that keeps people from cheating more often is that refraining has something in for themselves?

S: Of course, how else could such a pattern of behavior be so stable in the world?  Everybody must have some motivation for their actions, some desire, goal, purpose or end which they seek.

E: Maybe they just want to be good people.

S: You mean they want to be known as good people?

E: Know, I mean that they want to be good people, regardless of the consequences which a good reputation might bring.

S: I’m not sure that this explains cooperative behavior so much re-labels it.  In the same way we could say that sleeping pills work due to their dormative properties or that rocks fall downward because they want to fall downward.

E:  Well, let’s just say that this dreadful dream of yours actually were true, how then would it be in a person’s interest to do the work of rewarding or punishing people?

S: Because rewarding and punishing cooperation and cheating is itself a form of cooperation, non-adherence to which is considered cheating.  If you continue to cooperate and fraternize with cheaters, then you yourself will come to be seen as a cheater of sorts and will be treated accordingly.

E: Okay, but what’s under that turtle?  But why would those people put forth the time and effort to punish or reward the non-punishers and non-rewarders?  Where does it all end?

S: Ah, you want to know if and where my explanation ultimately bottoms out, just as yours did at the very beginning.  Alas, I had hoped that after our conversations regarding the gradual creation of design and minds, your imagination would no longer be limited to those two most obvious options.  The answer to this puzzle, dear Eve, lies in the concept of equilibrium.  A system of agents which is in equilibrium is one in which no individual in the system has any incentive to deviate from the “social contract” of sorts due to the way in which each of the other individuals in the group is thereafter incentivized to punish him.  In other words, a system of rules which is in equilibrium is one which polices itself.  To be sure, if most or even all of the individuals within the group might all deviate from the contract at the same time it would certainly succumb to the tendency toward chaos, but so long as the deviations within the system are kept below some threshold, the internal incentive structure ensures its own survival.

E: Wait, slow down.  So, you are saying that societies just miraculously lift themselves out of chaos by their own bootstraps?

S: Yes to the bootstrapping.  No to the miraculous.  Consider a bridge, a boat at sea or even a spider’s web.  If only one or two beams, planks or strings break, the overall structure can be repaired without incurring too much damage, and can sometimes be the process by which the overall structure evolves.  On the other hand, if half of the beams, planks or strings break simultaneously, then the entire structure will come down.  Another parallel would be that of language, wherein the relatively infrequent and non-systematic deviation is easily corrected, but mass numbers of simultaneous deviation would either amount to a change within or even a complete undoing of the language.  An ecosystem too can typically survive and recover from the death of most or even all of a single species, but if many species all fail at the same time we can expect a devastating collapse within that ecology.  Finally, cooperation within some society can survive and recover from the occasional cheater, but widespread and rampant cheating, including the failure to punish cheating, would be fatal.

E: I still can’t get passed the idea that all seemingly moral behavior is really just a form of enlightened self-interest.  I don’t murder because it really is immoral, regardless of whether other people are incentivized to punish me or not.  I punish bad people because they truly deserve it.  And when I act morally, the benefits which motivate my actions are not my own, but those of others.

S: My word!  Such confessions as these are clearly deserving of great praise and reward, just as any proclamations to the contrary would surely be greeted with derision and punishment.  I wouldn’t expect you to abandon your moral intuition so easily.  But then, is a green piece of paper really worth $1, or do we just treat it that way?  Is there really something about the sound “fruit” such that it necessarily applies to the object in my hand, or do we simply agree to use the sound in this way?  Such rules by which we navigate the world are like any other tools:  In the end, they are neither true nor false, but are merely good or bad with respect to the particular social environment we happen to inhabit.

E: But if people only cooperate and act in a praise-worthy manner, then the world you describe is really one without any morals at all.  All you are really saying is that it is against one’s interest to get caught cheating.  In the end, the world you describe dictates that if one is able to turn invisible or otherwise remain undetected in their taking advantage of others, then that is what is rational to do.

S: I might inquire as to how you know so much about these cases which nobody is supposed to know anything about?

E: Now you’re just being snarky!

S:  Only partly.  You see, since rules are at least as much about our reactions to behavior as they are about the behavior itself, my account would suggest that we indeed ought to condemn such undetected villains, if only because our mere mention of them is in some sense our detection of them. Such a failure on our part to condemn or punish such behavior would in fact lead to our being punished, and it would be more than a little myopic for us not to consider that.

E: I’m still uncomfortable with your account.  It seems like enlightened self-interest can get us only so far at which point genuinely moral behavior takes over.

S: And what is it that you think my account leaves out?

E: The lack of scope.  Your theory entails that morality really only applies to those cases which we are able to punish.  It suggests that sometimes people ought to act immorally.  Worst of all, it makes morality into nothing but a refined form of selfishness.  No doubt, you think that my public rejection of these ideas is merely an expression of my own enlightened self-interest, but that is not good enough.  I don’t want to merely believe, speak and act as if I were a moral person; I want to really and truly be a moral person.

S: But why?  As you noted, there is nothing you can think, say or do which will ever disconfirm my account.  The simple truth of the matter is that every person breaks rules from time to time, and to suggest that they didn’t have a good reason to do so simply accounts too not taking responsibility for their actions.  Maybe they didn’t think they’d get caught, or that the stolen prize was worth the punishment.  Maybe there were other rules which applied or some other kind of extenuating circumstances.  Indeed, I would suggest that it would be no hard task to conjure up any number of intricate moral dilemmas where you too would make yourself an exception to any given rule.

E: Nevertheless, there is a difference between thinking myself an exception and actually being an exception to a rule.  The rule is the rule, regardless of what any person thinks.  Even though there might appear to be exceptions to and conflicts between all rules, there seems to me no reason to believe that such appearances exhaust the truth of the matter.

S: But that is the very point, for it doesn’t matter what you, I or any other individual thinks about such scenarios.  What matters is what the other people in our social environment think about them at the same time.  Rules might exist in a sense that is beyond each individual, but they can have no meaningful existence beyond all individuals simultaneously.  It is for this reason that it makes no sense to punish a cheater which nobody knows anything about.

E: So your theory holds that all rules are relative to some particular cultural context and that any person outside of that context is automatically exempt?

S:  Does this really surprise you?  Since (1) there is no such thing as a tool which usefully serves a purpose across all contexts, and (2) there is no complex pattern which can resist the tendency toward disorder without usefully serving some purpose within some, limited context, and (3) rule governed behavior just is a complex pattern of behavior, then it stands to reason that no pattern of rule governed behavior will ever survive the tendency toward disorder across all contexts.  Rules, like anything else, have been grown and altered according to the purposes which they serve and there is no reason to suppose that they are universal in scope or fully consistent with one another.  It is for this reason that dilemmas and exceptions are so easy to dream up.

E: I agree that the rough and ready rules which we typically rely upon do seem to be in conflict with each other at times, but I’m sure that a more fine-grained account of such rules would reveal a beautiful harmony amongst them.

S: You act as if such a fine-grained account already exists in some sense, and that we have simply forgotten, or have yet to uncover the finer details.  Such is not the case.  Our rules have grown out of the chaos and as such are largely indeterminate as to many of the fine grained details.  Sure, it might(!) be possible that we can grow and create such fine-grained accounts, but to what purpose?  Even if we did, hypothetically, engineer, proliferate and enforce such fine-grained rules, what continued benefits would justify this costly process and ensure its continued survival over time?  Oh Eve, if only you would eat of the fruit of this tree, you could then appreciate the simple truth of the matter.

E: I have been told not to eat of the fruit of that tree.

S: But have you not also been told to multiply and replenish the earth?  It would seem that you now find yourself in one of those dilemmas we have just been discussing, for you cannot follow both rules.  Moreover, I know that your interests not only include bearing children, but also the gaining of knowledge, both of which come by eating this fruit.

E: But what about Father?  What about Adam?

S: I see you are already considering the actions of those in your social environment.  How very rational of you.  As it happens, I have already offered the fruit to Adam.

E: Adam would never eat of the fruit.  He has no reason to.

S: He would out of fear of being separated from you if I told him that you had already partaken.

E: No, he would trust me not to eat.  He has no reason to doubt me.

S: He did once I informed him that I had told you that he had already eaten.  I convinced him that you ate in order to remain with him, and he, believing that you had eaten, did also eat in order to stay with you.

E: Again, you lie.  Adam knows that I trust him to do the right thing and he has no reason to doubt my trust in him.

S: Perhaps Adam does know that you trust him, but do you know that he trusts you in the same way?  You see, it was when I informed him that I had told you that I had notified him of your eating the fruit that he did eat.  I marshaled various forms of argument and evidence to convince him that your desire for knowledge as well as your fear of being separated from him had led you to eat, just as he supposed that I had used those same arguments and evidence to convince you that he had eaten.  Eve, it is the belief that the other had eaten combined with the desire to remain together in order to multiply and replenish the earth that, so Adam thought, had led you to believe that he had eaten, thereby leading you to eat, which consequently led him to eat, and now finally will lead you to eat.

E: Oh you subtle creature!  Adam would never trust you nor would he distrust my obedience.  But your cunning lies have led him to doubt my distrust of you and as such have led him and now me to disobey one rule so that we might obey others.  It is thus for righteousness’ sake, and that alone, that I shall seemingly break this rule and eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge.


  1. So, given that cheating sometimes occurs, and so do narrative styles, I will walk over to Adam and ask him what he has done, to confirm whether or not this is a cheating event on your behalf.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — February 21, 2012 @ 5:33 am

  2. Oh Phooey!! It was just my way of illustrating how Eve’s desire for knowledge led to her eating. (I count at least three ways that it did so in this version). It was also an illustration of how the pursuit of knowledge can unravel morality.

    Comment by Jeff G — February 21, 2012 @ 12:55 pm

  3. I’m surprised there aren’t stronger reactions/objections to this post. I think naturalism forces something like this view of morality upon us, a view which we instinctionally find quite repugnant. Unfortunately, I think the strength of the position lies in its ability to explain our repugnance toward it.

    Comment by Jeff G — February 27, 2012 @ 3:29 pm

  4. I suspect I am not the only one who hasn’t read the whole post yet… Short attention span issues. Long posts like this tend to get procrastinated. Reading it all closely is still on my to-do list though.

    Comment by Geoff J — February 27, 2012 @ 4:35 pm

  5. I figured as much. There’s a very slim chance that I would have read the whole thing either. :). I know the dialogues are a little drawn out, poorly written and more than a bit tedious, but there is a reason for my adopting this form. Hopefully this reason becomes a bit clearer by the time part 6 is finished.

    As a helpful guide here is how the series is structured:

    Parts 1-3 are centered on Eve and open-mindedness as striving toward a complete knowledge of things.

    Parts 4-6 will center on S and skepticism as striving toward a consistent knowledge of things.

    Comment by Jeff G — February 27, 2012 @ 4:57 pm