Saturday, May 27, 2006

Purpose inherent or purpose imposed?

Are purpose and design inherent in the universe, as theists believe, or do humans impose the idea of purpose on the universe as we look at the world through rose tinted glasses?

Many Christians that I’ve spoken to appeal to creation as evidence for God. They list examples of incredible and intricate structures found in nature, such as the cell or DNA, and then argue that these structures, that work together so efficiently, indicate purpose and design. “If this is design, who is the designer?” the theist asks. The natural answer is God.

On the other hand, Michael Shermer, in his book, Why People Believe Weird Things, argues that purpose is imposed. The human mind is a skilled, pattern and causal finding machine. This ability allowed humans to detect connections between things and events in the environment, which made us extremely successful animals. However, the pattern-seeking ability of the brain is so good that it sometimes makes the error of observing patterns where none actually exist.

For example, if we look at clouds we automatically see recognizable shapes, but few would argue that clouds are intentionally created by an intelligent designer to look like dragons or cars. We know that clouds are created purely by natural means, through processes that we know well. In other words, when we look at clouds, the brain automatically thinks it observes design when in fact there no design at all.


What does the cloud below remind you of?



Could the theist’s belief that purpose and design are evident in the universe be a cognitive mistake of the same nature? As in the case of clouds, is it possible that the universe had a purely natural beginning, without a creator, but the human mind mistakenly imposes the belief that design is present?

So which is it? Do we live in a purposeless universe in which we impose design, or do we live in a created universe in which we discover design?

What do you think?

10 comments:

scott vieira said...

Great question! I think that the question of what purpose is and how one views this in relation to nature is a pretty important philosophical presupposition. Whether you are a theist or atheist it is important in how you will want to construct your understanding of purpose. Personally, since I'm agnostic I'm not sure exactly how we can adequately address this question. It always seems to come down to one's presupposition. Can one really prove this empirically one way or the other? And if we did, would this be but a human construction of pattern? Nevertheless, I will pose another question about Shermer's analysis. If we can as humans construct purposes and act purposely, isn't anthropocentric to say that nothing outside of our minds acts purposely, say a rock, bacterium, or something else, maybe even the universe?

John W. Loftus said...

I just put a link to your site on ours!

Casey Kochmer said...

In Taoism there is a third answer to the question. It doesn't matter, what matters is how we live life.

neither a purposeless or a purposeless universe changes our nature, nor our desires to live and live well.

so a Taoist will smile at this debate. give an answer depending on their mood, (more often than not answer it in such a way to cause more debate and to illustrate the meaninglessness of the question relative to life) and then happily bounce onward to enjoy the sun, or the rain , or what ever happens to be next in line to explore.

:) life is so good...

marc said...

I think the universe is too detailed to be an accident...I think we are here to discover design but we are going to make some mistakes..

Cori said...

I like the Taoist position very much and think that perhaps Jesus may have given a similar answer: that what matters most is how we live.

Interestingly, C.S. Lewis writes in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, that he lost his faith because of the 'design argument'. He writes that if God designed the universe, there would not be so many flaws (which I think Kevin also suggested in an earlier blog post).

I suppose it is an endless philosophical conundrum - does reality exist or do we create our reality etc...

Kevin Parry said...

Scott wrote
Can one really prove this empirically one way or the other? And if we did, would this be but a human construction of pattern?

Welcome, and thank you for your comment. Shermer goes on to argue that scepticism, doubt and the scientific method can be employed to determine which patterns are true, and which are false. But I always have the uncomfortable feeling: is the scientific method itself a pattern that we have constructed? If so, is there any way in which we can determine that that pattern is correct in some way?

Casey wrote

so a Taoist will smile at this debate. give an answer depending on their mood

This is a great response! The Taoist is the one lying peacefully on the beach, sipping a cocktail, while others fight over sand castles of philosophical ambiguity.

All the best
Kevin

Kevin Parry said...

Scott wrote
Can one really prove this empirically one way or the other? And if we did, would this be but a human construction of pattern?

Welcome, and thank you for your comment. Shermer goes on to argue that scepticism, doubt and the scientific method can be employed to determine which patterns are true, and which are false. But I always have the uncomfortable feeling: is the scientific method itself a pattern that we have constructed? If so, is there any way in which we can determine that that pattern is correct in some way?

Casey wrote

so a Taoist will smile at this debate. give an answer depending on their mood

This is a great response! The Taoist is the one lying peacefully on the beach, sipping a cocktail, while others fight over sand castles of philosophical ambiguity.

All the best
Kevin

Casey Kochmer said...

:)

in my case sipping green tea mixed to apricot juice. Cocktails are a bit hard on me now a days. But I like the beach part, sign me up!


and yes I would have to agree that the scientific method itself is also a pattern, which has limits to how far back you can go before you reach limits.

At some point you reach a point of faith, which at first glance appears must be bridged. Which upon examination can appear to be infinately deep. Quite the daunting prospect actually. Until you realize its just a game of perception, simply a matter of turning the whole thing around to have faith in oneself.

At which point we can each be at that beach together sipping our drinks of choice and enjoying our lives :)

Anonymous said...

I feel like these discussions and understandings are very depressing and they just again and again lessen and lessen the significance and purposefullness of humanity.

I feel strongly that a world govenment to tackle general issues
of humans and human civilization should come up and should stop all these depressing thoughts sharing etc for the sake of scientific and non scientific progess of our civilization..........If there is no purpose its hard to see why we all should be doing what we do.
--bishwajit

Anonymous said...

Just a suggestion to everyone out here. Pls do not pass on these depressing to our next generation i.e. children and others and delete the web contents on the same. Make as many people as possible believe in some religion or the other. Atleast religions give some significance to humans (there exist a god and the god is aware of we humans). Living a life out in false illusion is better then knowing the reality.
-bishwajit dutta