Three categories of "objects" which exhibit a common property, that of apparent good fit to a given functional constraint (or set of constraints). Proposed by RichardDawkins
to illustrate the salient features of NaturalEvolution?
, and possibly applying with equal force to NaturalSearch
processes in general.
- those which owe their good fit to functional constraints to a conscious selection process; e.g. if you examine pebbles on a beach, looking for those which most closely resemble the profile of Queen Elizabeth, and consistently discard your best match so far in favor of a better one, you may after enough time end up with a pebble which has is a surprisingly good likeness of Her Majesty.
- those which owe their good fit to functional constraints to conscious intention, careful planning, calculation, explicit reasoning about physical laws relevant to said functional constraints, etc. The space shuttle is as good an example as any.
- those which owe their good fit to functional constraints to causes other than conscious intention or selection. Examples definitely include most living species; we could also think of ExtremeProgramming
's notion of "emergent architecture" as another. (See OrganicSimplicity
, where the link is made explicit.) (EditHint
: We need better/more examples. Do "the little waste metal disks from house construction, that are accepted as quarters in a few vending machines" qualify as Designoid? "Large rocks in the Sahara desert, that have an aerodynamic top surface, reducing their erosion from standstorms"? "Single free-floating soap bubbles that form the shape that surrounds the air captured inside with the minimum surface area"? "Soap films that always form a minimal-energy configuration"? "When I program these robots to try to stay exactly 10 cm apart from each other, they form a hexagonal grid on the floor"? "This tree exactly fits the hole in the boulder it grew through"? "Found" and "Designed" are common English words; is there a better word than "Designoid"?)
Life vs the space shuttle
When I look at the space shuttle, I observe its many wonderful properties. So I ask myself how it came about. Humans built it. So the defining quality of a space vehicle must be that it is manufactured by humans. This is why aliens can obviously never go to space, because aliens aren't humans and so couldn't build human artefacts like space vehicles.
Evolution may have given rise to life. But what relevance does it have? Fuck all. The defining criterion of life is no more that evolution gave rise to it than the defining criterion of the space shuttle is its status as a human artefact. The space shuttle is a space vehicle and its defining characteristics derive from that fact, not its status as a human artefact.
When we observe a space shuttle, it demonstrably has a "why". It is designed; it has a purpose, a function - to carry human beings or other artefacts of theirs to space.
Of life, the opposite obtains. It serves no obvious purpose, design, or function. Strangely, though, it possesses attributes similar to that which designed objects exhibit - organizational complexity, apparent good fit of form to operational constraints.
The purpose is completely irrelevant. It's the capabilities of the space shuttle which are important. There is no magical law of physics which ordains "Thou Shalt Only Use Human Artefacts For Their Pre-Ordained Purpose." so it's entirely ridiculous.
The space shuttle cannot be mistaken for a hodgepodge of various parts thrown together by a miscellaneous assemblage of people over a diffuse period of time; it was clearly designed
. As was dramatically demonstrated in one instance, even a minor flaw in one component was sufficient to bring about a catastrophic - and tragic - failure of the artefact to carry out its mission.
The only thing that links the user's conception of the purpose of an object with the builder's conception of the purpose of an object is 1) the peculiar suitability of an object to different tasks, 2) the shared humanity of the builder and user, 3) shared knowledge of technology and its utilization. Purpose isn't inscribed in the laws of physics, it's derived from those three facts. Now, if the builder and the user come from different time periods, or if they come from entirely different species, then it becomes obvious that a hard-wired concept of "purpose" is as nonsensical for human artifacts as it is for living things. In such cases, you get cases where the purpose of a tank as conceived by the user may be 'a doghouse'. All talk of purpose is inherently subjective and appealing to purpose is nonsense. You can only appeal to suitability and it's pretty clear that some animals are more suitable to some things than other animals.
In effect, you are suggesting that we can take the space shuttle, carve a few windows, doors and whatnot in it and get people to live in it; and if a few thousand years from now, a party of archaeologists were to dig it up, they would mistake it for a house. I doubt that.
If the archeologists were not human and if they had no other knowledge of human culture and no other examples of human artefacts then they might very well mistake it for a house. If they are human and they do know a lot about present human culture then your example is no different from people today mistaking the space shuttle for a house. And of course, I already explained why this is nonsense. You're very good at using irrelevant analogies and useless examples.
If you prefer using "suitability", fine. My argument is not affected. The space shuttle is supremely suited to carry human beings or cargo to locations outside the atmosphere. "Life" is suited to no particular activity that we can discern, other than to perpetuate itself.
How brittle the space shuttle is is irrelevant. You missed my point entirely. If you're going to say "Life is suited to no particular purpose" then I'm going to say "human artefacts are suited to no particular purpose" and indeed they are not. Can you give me a purpose common to mud huts, the space shuttle and music? If you're going to say that the
space shuttle is suited to a particular purpose then I am going to say that cows are suited to a particular purpose.
Ah, but it is in this
context that I dispute the use of the word "purpose". I will grant that the space shuttle exhibits spaceworthiness; and I will grant that cows exhibit good adaptation to their mode of life. Suitability is a good enough word, although to avoid all suspicion of teleological implications I prefer the more precise "apparent good fit to operational constraints".
For living objects, we can determine "good fit" with some precision, though some of our "good fit" indicators will be speculative.
But for man-made objects this "good fit" can be defined very specifically, since we
are the ones defining the operational constraints - and we can
speak of our "purpose" in constructing such objects, since we do
have a purpose in constructing them.
It's even worse with suitability because suitability removes the constraint that the object be useful to human beings. So when you say that the space shuttle is particularly suited as a space vehicle then I am going to say that whales are particularly suited for deep sea diving.
In philosophy of language, you also have the same absurd notion of "purpose" being floated around. The meaning of a sentence is the intent the maker of the sentence had when uttering the sentence. But this is ludicrous. What happens when a sandstorm leaves behind the word 'Water' in the desert? Does the word have no meaning because sandstorms are without intent? No, absolutely not. The meaning of a sentence or word has to be defined
without any reference to the intent of the speaker.
Most sandstorms won't
leave behind the word 'Water' in the desert, just random squiggles. Now I might grant that out of a million sandstorms, one just possibly might leave behind it a collection of squiggles which happens to spell out 'Water'. But to recognize it as spelling out 'Water', rather than a collection of random squiggles, you would have to examine a lot of "sandstorm droppings".
This is, of course, very different from space shuttles, of which only a few instances ever existed or exist. It is also very different from living organisms, of which large number exist - but all
are similarly suited to their observed operational conditions.
The "sandstorm droppings" category of objects complete the trilogy which serves as RichardDawkins
's starting point, in which I have already mentioned the two other categories - "designed" and "designoid" (respectively space shuttles and living things).
But is it a relevant difference? Suppose I go out in the desert today and the first and only sandstorm I experience leaves squiggles in the clear shape of Water with a big arrow pointing somewhere. What kind of possible difference does it do for me? A difference I can never detect, perceive, measure or observe is not a difference.
And likewise, the purpose of an artefact has to be constructed without any recourse to a master designer. This is why dairy cows have the clear purpose of giving us milk and gorillas have the purpose of being seen in zoos. Purpose is suitability plus utility. Nothing more. So Life
has a purpose. It's the purpose we give it.
Erm, is the Panglossian interpretation of the "purpose" of dairy cows and gorillas intended seriously here, or ironically? If you intend to demonstrate that ascribing "purpose" to the existence of living things is absurd, I can but agree wholeheartedly.
Well, it's both serious and ironic. I'm arguing for a specific conception of purpose which treats all objects equally, regardless of the process by which they acquired their suitability. The idea that human artefacts have one and only one purpose as dictated by their master designer is utter nonsense. Hasn't everyone seen The Gods Must Be Crazy at some point? It proves that coke bottles are
obviously musical instruments, and snakeskin polishing boards, and hammers, and toys. Such a wonderful multi-purpose tool, obviously a gift from the gods.
The movie's protagonists were entirely correct in ascribing a definite function to the coke bottle, that being clearly a designed object. That all their speculations as to what
function the coke bottle was designed for turn out to be mistaken, besides being the main reason why the movie is funny, is not particularly damaging.
Naturally the proto-scientists in the movie have a hard time extrapolating the original purpose from such a limited sample of, and limited information about, the object in question. Naturally, their educated guesses as to which properties of the object are incidental (e.g. the optical properties of glass) and which are relevant to its original purpose (e.g. its sturdiness). They still draw the correct conclusion - this was made for
That most man-made objects, while designed for one particular thing, may also be put to other purposes, is also not a particularly useful observation. For all but the simplest objects, the assertion that they are "for" a given purpose is valid even in the presence of other, incidental uses of the same object - in most cases, the object you would design if you specifically wanted to address these other uses would not
resemble the object under consideration at all.
To get back to the space shuttle analogy, a space shuttle could certainly be used for housing, but if you wanted to design something for the purpose of housing, it definitely wouldn't look much like the space shuttle - and in fact
most houses don't look, internally or externally, like the space shuttle.
Now the strategy in the previous paragraph (how would I design this for the function I have in mind) is a good one for assessing suitability.
In some situations where we observe suitability, the language of purpose will be appropriate to explain this suitability. The space shuttle is well suited to carrying people or cargo to space. Why is it so well suited to that? Because we built it for
that. This is the most parsimonious explanation.
In other situations, the language of purpose will not serve. Whales are well suited to aquatic life. Why is that? One explanation is that some Great Designer wanted to have pretty things peopling Earth's seas. A more parsimonious one, which I happen to favor, is that this is the expected result of a NaturalSearch
This discussion is entirely too confused. I will describe the points I intended to argue, the points I agree with you on, and the points I am willing to argue.
, Robert waxes on about evolution being the most important characteristic of life. I did not interpret this as the most important characteristic of the class LifeForm?
but rather as the most important characteristic of all instances of LifeForm?
. In order to undermine this notion, I moved the context to that of human artifacts and pointed out that the most important characteristic of human artifacts is not their status as human artifacts but their suitability and purpose. Whether or not life-forms can be conceived as having a purpose is irrelevant because the direct analogue of "designed for a purpose" is "evolved for an ecological niche". To my mind, the most important characteristic of life in an evolutionary context is what niche they fill and not the fact of evolution. This seems important to me because Robert's arguments are fuelled by naive optimism and oversimplification so any details that weigh down his viewpoint might bring him down from his feverish high.
I agree that natural life is less suitable in general than human artifacts and that it is certainly less purposeful (suited to human utility). I have often argued in the past that the human body is extremely ill-suited and that its extremely poor design is evidence of evolution at work. I once wrote something to the effect that "An engineer that designed the human body would have to be executed as punishment for criminal incompetence." I don't have any enthusiasm for evolution or GeneticAlgorithm
s so that's why all the hype about NaturalSearch
Nevertheless, talking about a single purpose for human artifacts as established by their master designer is nonsense. Humans do not derive the purpose of an artifact by asking its designer. The idea that there is a "correct" purpose to Coke bottles which the bushmen were failing to grasp is absurd. The bushmen were not trying to figure out the purpose of the bottle they found, they were trying to give it
purpose. They were experimenting and seeing what it was good for. All of the purposes they gave they bottle were as valid and "correct" as the purpose we put bottles to.
The tie-in with a Master Designer is important. Why is it that you reject the notion of a master designer for life forms just because it is invisible when you accept the notion of an invisible master designer for human artifacts? What gives an object purpose isn't some invisible designer but the actual usage of that object combined with its peculiar suitability to that usage. To argue otherwise is to legitimize endless inane discussions about the "true" purpose of objects. For example: is the purpose of copper wires to send data or voice? Is the purpose of posters advertising or decoration? What exactly is the purpose of art? To sanction the notion of a single "correct" purpose is to deny the reality of subversion, jerry-rigging, experimentation and human ingenuity. Most loathsome, it is to reject the notion that one has control over the usage of one's possessions and to subjugate oneself to some remote marketroid or corporate executive.
In the above discussions of "purpose", as in NaturalSearchIsaDefinitionOfLife, we are concerned with a "why" question - seeking explanations for a certain class of things being as they are and not otherwise, this class being "living things".
It is certainly valid to ask the "why" question of other classes of things, for instance man-made things, in order to establish context and frames of reference.
My position is that if we are asking why the Coke bottle exhibits the characteristics it does, or why the space shuttle is shaped and internally structured as it is, and not otherwise, the explanations "because it was intended as a beverage container" or "because it was intended as a spaceworthy vehicle" are valid and parsimonious. We can support the assertion by pointing to actual designers, whose intentions are documented.
We are not asking the "why" of a particular Coke bottle being used in different ways later, or the "why" of the space shuttle serving as housing, should that occur.
My position is further that there is no analogous explanation that we can apply of the "why" of living things being as they are; we cannot say that the whale is whale-shaped "because it was designed as a seafaring animal", because that would beg the question of "designed by whom?".
On the other hand, I happen to think that "because of NaturalSearch at work" is an astonishingly good (predictive, consistent, etc.) answer to the question of "why is species X the way it is and not otherwise", where X can be any species of "living thing", under the commonsensical acceptation of "living".
As I explained, I did not intend
to discuss the philosophy of purpose/meaning. But in that discussion it is my entire point
that asking 'why' is useless, irrelevant, absurd and sinister. I will hardly let you presuppose an assumption I am explicitly arguing against.
I can't help but feel that we are arguing at cross-purposes again; I will readily grant that, in the context of "the science of life", the teleological "why" is useless and irrelevant. The explanatory "why" on the other hand is primordial to me; the "how did things come to be the way they are, what processes are or were at work which result in the world as we know it". If this kind of "why" doesn't matter to you, then I would agree that this discussion is pointless.
Getting back to my original point, I argue that "because of NaturalSearch
at work" is a very poor descriptor. It may be relevant in distinguishing life from artifact but this is a trivial and uninteresting question. You claim that it is predictive in contradiction to the truism that evolution is not
predictive. You claim it is consistent. Well, so is "God did it". I hate seeing Evolution being appealed to like some kind of talisman. And evolution per se is completely irrelevant when trying to contrast one form of life with another form of life, which is the vastly more interesting question. In that case, you want information on the ecological niche to which a species belongs. But getting into the nitty-gritty of evolutionary biology kills any enthusiasm for mindlessly repeating mantras.
I think at this point we should probably junk most of the discussion. -- rk
On the contrary, we may have come to the crux of the matter. From what standpoint would you argue that "evolution per se is completely irrelevant when trying to contrast one form of life with another form of life" - if
you are comparing one form of life to another with a view to understanding
the differences? (This is, prudence compels me to add, as opposed to comparing one life form with another to, for example, establish which we should work most actively to save from extinction, or which has shaped human society more, or any question you care to formulate other than how are these differences explained
For instance, "the ecological niche to which a species belongs" is a useful concept only insofar as it tells you what selection pressures will apply there, what evolutionarily stable strategies might be conceived of to explain the role which such a species fills there, etc.
It's because we've come to the crux of the matter that I think previous confused argument should be junked. :)
I'll give an analogy to illustrate. Suppose you have a workplace where the people are trying to accomplish some task. Now you want to help the workers by streamlining the process they use so you call in a systems designer to analyze the situation and design a new process. Of course, different workplaces with different tasks will result in different systems. Now, if you want to characterize the process the designer came up with at Yoyodyne Corporation (especially in contrast to the process at Acme Incorporated) are you going to say "the process exists because the systems designer invented it" or "this process exists because the task involves so and so."? I think that saying "processes exist because a systems designer invented them" is singularly useless. It's like claiming that what defines Ford Motor Co. isn't the fact that they build cars or even how they build cars but rather their freaking management!
To a sociologist - a person concerned with understanding
how processes at Ford came to be what they are, what forces were at work when they were implemented, etc - Ford management would be a very relevant aspect. Different workplaces with different management styles, but the same task, will result in different systems.
To a process improvement specialist or systems rash - a person concerned with practical
considerations - the actual or desired outcomes of the process might be of overriding importance; although I submit that no systems rash would be able to do their job properly without an understanding of the social forces at work, and so at the very least such a person would have to be aware of the sociologist's work.
If you don't care about understanding
life, and more generally the world as we find it, that's fine. Some people prefer practical pursuits. If, on the other hand, you seek knowledge and understanding for their own sake, all
aspects of the thing you are studying and what makes it uniquely what it is are fair game.
It still raises controversy which category Homo Sapiens falls into:
The problem with making a found designed designoid distinction is that it is racist. Caring about such a distinction is racist which is defined as caring about descent
The facts of the matter are that:
- the only difference between living things and human artifacts are due to the primitive state of genetic engineering and MolecularNanoTechnology
- the only difference between evolved and designed things is that evolved things have a really horrible design.
In a hundred years, if a designer wanted to make something indistinguishable from life, all they would have to do would be to:
- produce a normal design
- replace any efficient process by a fault-proof process
- spend > 100 as much time obfuscating the design as creating it
There is, in principle, no difference between a found object and a designed object. People who care about the difference have racist values. Like RogerPenrose
who maintains "AI can never be conscious like human beings because it is artificial".