Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Case for Purpose

Over at Greta Christinas blog I have gotten into a discussion with her about theism/atheism. She has written many articles at AlterNet and other places about her encounters with christians and her strong atheist views. I like her writing and feel she has something important to say. Her main "gripe" if you will (which is shared by many of the more prominent atheists) is that religion and religious believers hold their arguments to a completely different standard than they hold atheists arguments. They also act like atheists have no right to argue them or anyone else out of their positions. Well this idea is prevalent among theists, especially evangelical christians, and frankly it is absurd. They would take no other topic and declare it off limits for rational debate but their faith is not to be "offended". First off there is a difference between a person becoming offended by a comment and someone making an offensive comment. Too many evangelicals wear their outrage on their sleeves. They act as if every question about religion is a personal affront. Well honestly that is part of their tactical agenda, declare something too offensive to discuss in public and voila all atheists are just trying to offend people by putting up billboards or teaching their children evolutionary biology. So I really share her frustration with the way the public in this country treats subjects that can and should debated. Especially one like religion and some of its more tenuous claims which have the potential to change the way certain people are treated in this supposedly democratic country.

Anyway over at her site I got into a discussion with her regarding the idea that there may be hints of evidence that our universe has a purpose. Not to point to a particular god that "inspired" a particular text thousands of years ago but some sort of greater force that when we subjugate to it we can actually improve our existence and reach a higher realm of understanding, peace and happiness. I've been inspired by much of Robert Wrights writing. He is a big question guy like I am
(I generally tire quickly of small talk and want to find out deeper stuff about someone fairly soon) and he's a tireless researcher. You may read his books and disagree with some of his conclusions but you cant say he didn't do his homework. Further, you better be able to explain the evidence he uncovers or your claim that he's wrong doesn't hold any water.

Here is my response to her when she tells me to bring it on after I commented that I think there IS at least faint evidence of purpose in our universe.

It seems from studies of evolutionary theory that beyond individual selection pressures there are also group selection pressures. These emerge from the same biologic source (DNA) but do manifest themselves in different manners. Individual selection would best be characterized as zero sum in most cases. Group selection is more non-zero sum, we can all benefit or at least we can all not suffer a loss by working together. It is here that morality emerges it seems. Morality is completely contingent upon "others" being around. It seems that within our DNA there is a "predisposition" to carry out moral actions, group selection constraints if you will. So it looks like DNA as a natural replicator was under some sort of "pressure" to create an array of organisms, which in turn were under some sort of pressure to procreate and multiply, which in turn allows the moral behavior to emerge.

Again I dont believe there was a conscious choice by some omnipotent mind to "make" DNA this way, just that our cosmic environment is tuned so that first DNA emerges, then variety of life, then sentient beings who live in groups, then selection pressures within the groups to behave in ways which maximize the groups chance of survival not just the individuals. If this is true, why is the groups chance of survival an emergent property? Are we becoming all small parts of a larger organism which we will "discover" later? No answers there but certainly legitimate questions.

The discovery in physics that all we are is an existence in a very small corner of reality (4 of maybe 11 dimensions) lends some support to a small part of a greater organism idea. MY next question is, can we extrapolate at all from current conditions and possibly see what might emerge at the next level of understanding. Is the "greater organism" a greater good? Is it something we will find pleasing? Again if you look at what strategies seem to be programmed into our DNA I think we can be hopeful. Its a matter of trusting that the mechanism we've discovered, DNA replicating and producing larger and larger organisms (not individual size per se but collective size), will continue in its present manner. Small changes over billions of iterations make huge changes but each iteration results from a cooperative process.
DNA it self had to be created in much the same process at the molecular level. Each strand of DNA
is composed of thousands of genes which must sit in the correct spot and only pass their information at a very specific time. It too is a "cooperative" process at the smallest level. Cooperation seems to get 'it" done. Understanding that there are "others" whose needs supercede yours at the present time seems to be selected for. Taken to its logical conclusion with universal milieu-- DNA--individual organisms--multiple organisms-- groups of organisms-- groups of groups all operating under "pressure" to cooperate an subjugate individual needs at times, what in the end will/should this mega organism be subjugated to?

Why is cooperation seemingly selected for at so many levels of the universe? What factors at every level seem to influence the greater likelihood of cooperation? In humans certain emotions and mindsets are more conducive to cooperation? Do these appear as more prevalent within a population? I think they do.

These are more questions but I do think that there is a faint hint of something we are "subjugated" to and the best way, it seems, to achieve that is to forget self (a very buddhist notion), sacrifice your individual needs (a very christian notion) and look at our existence as a "spiritual" journey we are going on together( a new age church notion)

Part of the reason i started my blog was so that I would have a place where I could keep my ideas and possibly one day put them into book form. I dont know why anyone would want to read it really but I promise it would be more accurate than Sarah Palins book. Actually I think that is a great reason to like Sarah Palins book (not that I have or ever will read it) because her book sets a standard for what can be accepted as "Non Bullshit". If you ever want to publish something and the publisher says your manuscript is bullshit you can immediately argue that Sarah Palins book has more documented bullshit than any book ever written (except mabe the book titled " On Bullshit" by Harry Frankfurt.


  1. Hi. Greta here. Thanks so much for the links and the kind words! I've been thinking over your argument, and am seeing a couple of serious problems with it: so I'm going to do you what I hope you'll see as the courtesy of taking it seriously, and arguing against it.

    The main one is the assumption that cooperation is universal. It's anything but. Cooperation is a common survival strategy -- but competition, predation, and parasitism are also common survival strategies, not only on the level of macroorganisms but on the microorganism level as well. Cooperation is far from universal.

    Perhaps more to the point: There's no evidence that cooperation exists anywhere outside the biology of life. There's no evidence of cooperation between planets, stars, quasars, galaxies, black holes.

    Your assumption that, because there are probably dimensions outside the ones we perceive, therefore we are part of a larger organism... that's an unsupportable leap. The universe is larger than we are, and we're a part of it... but that doesn't mean we're part of it in the way cells or organs are part of an organism. Life is a pretty specific way for matter and energy to be structured... and the universe as a whole looks nothing like that structure.

    Finally, on a similar note: You seem to be implying that the universe is not only an organism, but is an organism with consciousness. But a preponderance of available evidence points to consciousness being a physical, biological process of the brain. And the universe does not have a brain. It has stars and planets and black holes and stuff. Again: It's not alive.

    Anyway. Thanks for taking the time to think about my ideas and respond to them so thoughtfully. Take care, and I hope to talk with you more!

  2. Hey Greta. Thanks for being the first respondent on my site. I wish I had some sort of prize for you. Maybe I'll print your response and tape it to my desk kind of like the first dollar at a business.

    I appreciate you taking my post seriously and I'm not surprised you have an argument against it.

    I'm not sure I assume cooperation is universal... well yes it is universal but not exclusive. There are many strategies that have emerged at the biologic/behavioral level as you noted but all those (except predation) do require a degree of cooperation to be successful. A parasite lives off something else but must not live too well or it kills its host so its not completely selfish. Plus if you are aware of Axelrods game theory work (using iterated prisoners dilemma games where no one knows when they will end) the ONLY strategy that was capable of exisiting within 100% of the population was a cooperative strategy. Non cooperative (defectiion) strategies were unable to take over a population for obvious reasons. You cannot have a complete society of selfish/cheaters. A cheater needs some "marks". So my point is that yes not everyone is a cooperator but cooperation IS the only strategy that could flourish if 100% of the agents adopted it.

    Its true to an extent that measurable cooperation doesnt exist outside biology but molecules are "cooperating" on a certain level to form compounds are they not. Besides the cooperation I'm most interested in is biologic. That is who is seeking purpose on this planet. I think biology may end up falling into a category of "emergent" properties within this universe.

    I think you may have conflated two different things I said regarding a mega organism here on earth and the universe as a whole. Regarding human evolution here, I was referring to a mega organism possibly emerging, using the same basic non zero sum logic (cooperative) that has brought us to today. I see possibly a group consciousness (here on earth) emerging from our biology. Its not inevitable by any means; One predatory idiot with the right size nuclear weapon might ruin it for all of us.

    I see I did use the term organism when talking about our existence in 4 of possibly 11 dimensions. That was sloppy language in that context. My point should have been there that all the physical world we measure only occupies four of possibly eleven dimensions. That leaves a lot to account for. What we see and know is miniscule to what there is.

    To further my thinking I dont think the universe has a brain but it may have a "command". Just like a computer has a command to perform a particular operation. Now this command played over and over on the variety of molecules and atoms in this universe resulted in us. We emerged from the milieu and we are STILL emerging, no longer only as individuals but as cultural/collective beings. I think the "purpose" might emerge eventually and it will be the result of the command iterated gazillions and gazillions of times on every conceivable atom in the universe.

    I saw a science channel program where some robot designers were trying to replicate ant foraging behavior in their robots. They wanted them to go into an environment of black and white discs which were randomly strewn and separate them. The ants behavior (real ones) appears random; picking up food turning and then dropping it and turning again picking something else up but in the end the desired stuff gets separated from the undesired stuff. The robots were given a variety of 3 line commands and eventually they found one that made the robots identify and separate the whit from black discs.
    In this vein I wonder if maybe one of the commands that our universe is "giving" is "Its not about you"

    Thanks again for the grist for my brain mill.

  3. Hi Greg.

    Your argument about the universe being tuned to create us seems rather like firing an arrow at a barn and then painting a target wherever it hits. In order to prove that the universe was in some way designed to create intelligent macro-organisms, it's not enough to just go "Okay, we've been created, so the universe must be designed for the purpose of creating us".

    Douglas Adams has a great line about this kind of effect-therefore-cause logic: "Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' "

    Anyways, it's not as though microorganisms haven't also been evolving all this time. Maybe the universe was designed to create the most prolific and efficient possible virus, and we're just test subjects with a case of mass megalomania. :-)

  4. " But a preponderance of available evidence points to consciousness being a physical, biological process of the brain. And the universe does not have a brain. It has stars and planets and black holes and stuff. Again: It's not alive."

    I wouldn't rule it out so quickly. It is possible that we are as unaware of the universe's consciousness as a single neuron in the brain is aware of the conversation which it is a part of. What I think we CAN safely say is that the human brain is material and mechanistic. So is the universe.