2013-02-06

Purpose of the Universe

During a conversation the other evening about the unforeseen consequences of relatively small actions, my interlocutor and I found ourselves pressed to conclude coincidence is just coincidence, despite the overpowering human urge to ascribe meaning to coincidences of significance. Today I happened upon this clip, wherein a sage of our time discusses the kindred question of whether the universe has purpose:


As you'll see, his answer boils down to 'I don't know, but probably not.'

Religious idea systems, themselves in some ways representative of human effort to understand and explain the world, sometimes address this question directly and sometimes don't. However, even in traditions without explicit explanations of the purported purposes of existence, the imputation of meaning to coincidence is nigh universal (pun intended). Indeed, religion has long served as an explanatory framework imputing meaningful purpose to significant phenomena: it rains because the sky spirits approve our offering; she died because God willed it so; their wealth dwindled because they lost Fortune's favor; and so on.

Religious ideas historically filled these explanatory roles so well for two large reasons. First, humans want to understand significant occurrences because that understanding is adaptively valuable. For instance, if the fisher understands why the fish are more plentiful at a certain time he'll be better able to take a good catch consistently. Understanding the fishes' behavior accurately is a matter of marine biology, but our ancient fisher, untrained in scientific methodology, must have recourse to another mode of explanation. Our minds, eager to understand the significant, apply meaning to facilitate that understanding, then tend to accept that supposed or fabricated meaning as truth, often in the absence of observations to support it, and even in the face of observations which appear to disprove it. Our fisher may conclude (or believe someone else who tells him) the fishes' movements are matters of their travel to and from the undersea court of the Merfolk King.

Second, the ideas we come up with to give meaning to significant phenomena tend to mesh with or reflect our understanding of human socialization, which we like to project on more or less anything and everything. That tendency merits much discussion of its own, but here it suffices to take it as a given and note how assigning some human social meaning makes something very intuitively understandable. As soon as the fisher realizes the fish are busy about the business of the Merfolk King, their behavior all makes sense. He and his colleagues will be able to build on this understanding, combining some observation (the fish are plentiful near the shore at such a time) with additional meaning-making (that must be when the Merfolk King grants the court a recess) based on their knowledge of human social behavior.

The value of possessing some understanding of significant phenomena and the ease of understanding things in terms of human society combine to make what end up being religious ideas highly transmissible. In the absence of strong disproof those ideas become very resilient, and over time they grow even more unassailable by dint of their own endurance. Moreover, the human urge to know the meaning and purpose behind significant phenomena around us is so strong we are sometimes resistant to accept disproof of the meaning we've ascribed to things, even when it's plain we didn't discover that meaning but invented and attributed it ourselves.

To be fair, it's tough to face up to the absence of meaning when we have such a well-developed neurological inclination to find meaning in order to understand what's going on. It's doubly difficult when we inherit longstanding cultural traditions, not easily shrugged off, in which man-made understandings are the cornerstones. However, we've passed a threshold beyond which our capability to observe and study the world is sufficient to base our understanding of phenomena on empirical fact. We're getting better and better at it lately, largely to the benefit of all, and there's now no excuse to prefer fabricated meaning over empirical understanding. One of our greatest challenges now is owning up to the knowledge of the universe we've begun to gain while getting over our old habit of believing stuff we made up is actually the case.

On the other hand, we really haven't explored much of the depths of the ocean, and for all we know the Merfolk King is down there, waiting.

4 comments:

  1. I know this is rather unscientific of me, but regardless of the legitimacy of assigning agency or meaning to events, or even the actual usefulness of such an exercise, I find it is good for me to do these things. It gives me comfort to make up reasons for things. I try to live mainly by logic, but it makes for a rather meaningless time. So even if coincidences are purely coincidental, isn't it good to not only recognise that but also continue exercising that adaptive quality, tempered with discretion from that knowledge? Or should we not, and learn to totally remove irrational meaning from what we experience?

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    1. It is good for you in the sense of being psychologically stabilizing. Confronting the possibility of the utter meaninglessness of all existence (at least the absence of the sort of meaning we'd like to impose) can leave one shaken.

      However, it's not good to make up reasons for things that have no basis in reality. Our adaptive behavior of cooking up meaning for significant phenomena becomes profoundly maladaptive when we insist on doing that when, simply put, we have come to know better.

      Ultimately what that means isn't we should be nihilists, because even if the universe is purposeless and meaningless (again, in the sense of lacking the sort of purpose and meaning we though we wanted for it) that doesn't mean the universe and our existence in it are not significant. We just need to come around to committing to understanding ourselves and the universe by expanding our actual knowledge of it rather than by insisting that what we wish were true is so.

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  2. So, when will your book come out? About the Merfolk King ;-P

    Seriously, trying to use human society as an analogy to understand natural phenomena through religion makes perfect sense. Which is also probably why you see so many societal relationships associated with the god figure (father, shepherd, king, and progenitor of a line [I'm thinking Amaterasu here]).

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    1. The Merfolk King's office and I are working on finding a suitable publisher. As you can imagine, his oceanic majesty has concerns about distribution.

      We use human social and emotional interactions to understand pretty much everything. In terms of religion, find me a deity who isn't represented in humanlike relationships to its worshipers and other deities and we'll have a real head-scratcher.

      Beyond that, though, we want to use human behavior to understand nonhuman behavior so badly we not only personify natural forces (and elaborately describe their society), we personify whatever we can get our hands on. Naming pet animals is one thing (they're alive, after all, and are persons inasmuch as they have personality), but what about pet rocks? We'll name and to a certain extent treat as if they were persons inanimate objects of all kinds, especially machines (cars, computers, &c.) whose responsiveness suggests they're maybe a little bit alive. All this behavior comes from the same human drive to apply understanding of ourselves to everything else we encounter.

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