Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Essentialism in a Designoid Universe

Whether or not there is some cosmic force of design behind the structure of the Universe, I think that people of all metaphysical persuasions could agree that the Universe at least appears designed. We see order and function all around us, and while we may disagree on the conclusions to be drawn from these observations, the observations themselves are fairly undisputed*. But like a Rorschach ink blot, the Universe simply is what it is, and anything we read into it is simply the result of what we project onto it.

And we project so much! All our language is boxes and labels for categorizing the variety of experience that comes our way: this class of objects goes in this box; that individual object gets this label; these labelled objects kind of fit into a box all together; these boxes seem to deserve a special label all their own; and so on and so forth.

These boxes and labels are certainly very useful tools for trying to make some sense of the world, and for trying to communicate with one another, but they are not without their flaws. Chief among these flaws would be the inescapable problem that no label or box ever "truly" fits. For all our categories - tables and chairs, Nick and Lisa, chordates and fungi, good and evil, tools and weapons, numbers and grammar, art and literature - none of them is immune to the central problem that the Universe came first, and we slap our categories upon it as a metaphysical afterthought.

Why is this a problem? Ultimately, I suppose it's not - if I wanted to be rigorous, I could say that "problem" is just another category that ultimately breaks down and has fundamentally arbitrary (or at least intersubjective) borders, so there's really no such thing as a problem anyway. This is the issue, in a nutshell: the things in the world come first, and then we come by and divide them into categories which we've made up; but since we're making up the categories after the things in the world (instead of making the things in the world after any pre-planned categories), we can't reasonably expect these categories to "stick."

All I've said thus far is that language is secondary to reality, that there is a fundamentally impassable gap between the way we talk about a thing and the thing itself (the ding an sich, to borrow Kant's term) which will prevent the former from ever "really" corresponding to the latter. What does this have to do with the Universe at large, or the fact that it appears designed?
First of all, it tells us that "apparently designed" is yet another label that we slap onto the world. It's a category that is built, at some level, on our ability to recognize patterns. We seem to be surrounded by patterns, and when we start to take the Universe apart, we see that it behaves in patterns all the way down (or at least as far down as we've come). We see these patterns, and we infer design, and whether or not we disabuse ourselves of this notion, we can all recognize the "apparent design" that appears to be behind the patterns. But "pattern," after all, is itself just another label that we slap on to certain things we encounter in the world, and so on and so forth. Do you see where this is going? "Apparently designed" and "pattern," useful though they are, can never really "stick" to the Universe.

This is exactly what we should expect to see in a Universe that is built from the bottom up: from complex interactions of fundamental principles, other more superficial patterns emerge; and those patterns act as the fundamental principles from which the next layer of superficial patterns emerges, and so on and so forth. As the tree of life stymies our taxonomic endeavors, so the tree of causality stymies our attempts to get labels to stick to the world. The reason for this in both cases is because of the tree itself: we stand at the tips of the branches and try to say which tips "go with" which other tips, and certainly some of them seem very different and some of them seem very similar, but how far back down the tree we go before we say "this is separate from that" is ultimately an arbitrary decision. No matter how clever our labels are, and no matter how well things may contingently fit into our boxes for the time being, there is no principled way to decide how far back to the trunk we "ought" to go before drawing a line between this and that category. The tree is continuous, the tree is one; but we see it as many and so try to make it fit the notion of many that is in our heads because we cannot deal intelligently with undifferentiated experience.

Compare this with what we should expect to see in a truly designed Universe. Objects that are, dare I say it, intelligently designed tend to show a pattern which makes them good candidates for going into one of our boxes: they are organized from the top-down. This is going to get hairy, but please try to stick with me here. Take our language, for an example: though many elements of it are organized from the bottom up, it does show several top-down elements of genuine design (insofar as "genuine" has any meaning, given the foregoing on labels & such). These top-down elements we may call designed, and the patterns that simply emerge on their own from the bottom-up elements we may call designoid (to borrow Dr. Dawkins' term).

Though this top-down design does not "truly" apply to any discrete object we see in our bottom-up world (and don't forget to keep in mind that these are all just labels, anyway!), we can see something closer in the world models we create with computers. For clarity, I think that a computer's world model is better classified as an "idea" than as an "object," it's just an explicitly codified idea. In such a model, the better-designed it is, the more top-down organization it will show. "Things" in the model will behave as discrete "kinds" of things, they will adhere well to categories, the labels can really stick to the world (model). Were the real world like this, we could expect to find that our categories stuck to it, and then words like "sacred," "kosher," "good" and "evil," "abomination," "table" and "chair," "soul" and "mind," could all have unambiguous referents which lacked fuzzy borders and were not victim to classification problems.

Instead, we have fuzzy borders galore, as many classification problems as we have words, and no apparent top-down organization no matter how we slice the world. Psychoactive drugs find themselves used for different treatments throughout their careers - Abilify (aripiprazole) was once used as an anti-psychotic, and is now also used to combat bipolar disorder and clinical depression - we discovered that the category describing its function upon the human brain didn't really stick to it, so we moved it to a bigger box. Klonopin (clonazepam) similarly has various effects upon the human body. The marijuana plant has myriad uses as a source of cloth, oil, fuel, various cosmetic products, and one of the most benign intoxicants known to man, and it's prolific & hardy to boot - what is this supremely useful plant doing in such an otherwise hostile world, and how could it possibly come to be demonized despite it's marvellous apparent design? Tobacco is way more popular, but is significantly more difficult to grow and carries more cons along with it. Corn is another hardy and useful plant, but it doesn't naturally occur - it's a modified wheat-like plant born from the dialectic of selective breeding that blurs the distinction between "invention" and "discovery." Mammals nurse their young while birds & reptiles lay shelled eggs, but then monotremes came along and had to have their own category invented out of whole cloth to solve the "problem" of their own existence.

The problem was never with the monotremes, the problem was (and is) with our boxes. Whenever our boxes break down, we try to find a different set that works better, or we modify our current set to make it work better. This isn't bad in itself, but it's a never-ending project: there is no set of boxes for us to discover or invent that will magically accommodate everything. In a top-down Universe, there would be such a set of boxes, because everything is explicitly designed: the top-down Universe is discrete, discontinuous, and totally boxable. Our bottom-up Universe is exactly the opposite: indiscrete, continuous, and fundamentally boxless.

The exception to this might be "philosophical atoms," a placeholder name for whatever it is that comprises the most fundamental building blocks of reality. However, even that most basic of labels may not stick, for there is an alternative to the existence of philosophical atoms: "gunk." We don't know enough about Universes to really say whether there must be any philosophical atoms, and it very well could be that the Universe is composed of infinitely subdivisible gunk all the way down. (Dammit, now I have to revise my whole metaphysics!)

I guess what I'm saying with all this, to revisit the Rorschach test, is that we need to project our categories onto reality in order to deal with it, but we should also keep in mind that this is ultimately artifice and contrivance - at the end of the day, it's just philosophical atoms (or gunk) arranged blot-wise, so we just need to be careful how seriously we take our boxes and labels. Taking them too far, thinking that the Universe is actually created according to a top-down plan with discrete "kinds" of whatever, is just foolishness. It's metaphysically backwards and it gets in the way of our attempts at understanding things. This goes for Essentialism as well as for Creationism, and it goes double for anyone who believes in the "microevolution/macroevolution" distinction.

It goes triple for philosophers, though. If tables and chairs are just ideas that we superimpose upon reality, then so is "knowledge" merely a category, which makes epistemology into a language game. "Good" is also a mere category, which makes ethics into a language game. Metaphysics might not be a mere language game if philosophical atoms exist, but if it's gunk all the way down, then metaphysics is also just a language game. And until or unless we break all our arguments down to symbolic logic (which would reduce philosophy to "competitive language gaming"), most of the serious disagreements in philosophy start to seem rather silly, like so much table-pounding from people who really ought to know better.

* - With a few notable exceptions such as Flat-Earthers.


K.Greybe said...

My response to the language game charge tends to be to point out that whatever you might say about the games, they're damn good at getting us to understand things and frequently to see things as remarkably close to what in any effective sense is how they are. Imagine how difficult a conversation with a mate would be if at some point we couldn't agree to a great enough specificity where the ketchup bottle is? I'd even go so far as to say the great Snark of philosophy of mind, experience for the subject itself, is a problem we surmount all the time in really knowing how people around us are feeling.

The point I guess is, if the inside of another person's head isn't an impossible barrier, how much easier the world?

That said, I think you're right on the question of the appearance of design; if you go into the question the wrong way without enough experience or knowledge, your conclusion is bound to be either wrong or simplistic, simplistic in this case.

D said...

Hey, thanks for the comment!

Y'know, on a conventional, everyday, "yes-of-course-tables-and-chairs-exist" sort of level, I completely agree with you. That's kind of the amazing thing about language, is that it lets us communicate at this "good enough" level without needing to meet an impossible degree of precision.

But at the end of the day, we can only talk about our understandings of things (since the way we use language comes from in our heads), and there will always be a gap - however narrow - between our understanding of things and how they "really" are. Conventional truth has pragmatic value, but necessarily lacks precision; metaphysical truth has precision, but lacks pragmatic value.

I think I'll put up a post on the bubblegum theory of language to explain why I keep talking about language "sticking" to the world and to more clearly talk about some of the issues that come up.