Purpose of the day

Russ Douthat caused Jerry Coyne to have another tantrum. There is no need to respond to the whole rant, but this part begs for commentary:

Yes, secularism does propose a physical and purposeless universe, and many (but not all) of us accept the notion that our sense of self is a neuronal illusion. But although the universe is purposeless, our lives aren’t. This conflation of a purposeless universe (i.e., one not created for a specific reason) with purposeless human lives is a trick that the faithful use to make atheism seem nihilistic and dark. But we make our own purposes, and they’re real. Right now my purpose is to write this piece, and then I’ll work on a book, and later I’ll have dinner with a friend. Soon I’ll go to Poland to visit more friends. Maybe later I’ll read a nice book and learn something. Those are real purposes, not illusory purposes to which Douthat wants us to devote our only life.

Sure. Neuronal illusions in a purposeless universe can delude themselves into thinking they have some real purpose.


Coyne’s purpose is to write for his anti-religious blog, write on his anti-religious book, read some books, and have dinner with a friend. The purpose for another atheist might be to play some video games, get drunk, and get laid. For another atheist, his purpose of the day might be to make a hateful anti-religious image and try to get it to go viral on the internet. It doesn’t really matter if any of these atheists actually accomplish their purposes. But they are good ways to distract yourself from your beliefs about being a neuronal illusion in a purposeless universe. After all, that seems to be the unifying theme of all the different atheistic purpose-of-the-days – to distract oneself from one’s own beliefs.

BTW, did you notice what was not on Coyne’s checklist of purposes – go into the lab and do some science. Despite all their posturing about science, that doesn’t seem to be a purpose for most New Atheist leaders.

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29 Responses to Purpose of the day

  1. James says:

    Jerry’s philosopher hat really needs to be increased a few dozen sizes. His head is getting absurdly too large to fit in the poor thing.

  2. Kevin says:

    This has been a point that I simply cannot get across to an atheist (typically when I’m asking them how they could possibly be so selfish as to try to convince people that existence is meaningless). If the universe is meaningless, then so are all the components of that universe, which includes human lives. If atheism is true, my life has no more meaning than that of a housefly or a pebble buried under the dirt on the surface of Mars.

    And relative purpose is a pretty ridiculous concept. A father’s purpose may be to love his wife and children, a murderer’s purpose may be to kill that same wife and children. Whose purpose is more valid, the father’s or the murderer’s? Jerry’s idea of his purpose is a head-in-the-sand delusion to escape the inevitable conclusion of his worldview, that the universe is meaningless and so is he if he is right.

  3. Do you know who Joss Whedon is? He is the writer and director of the cult sci-fi classic movie “Serenity”, the sequel to his short-lived show “Firefly”. Whedon is an ultra-virulent feminist and atheist.

    I wrote this:

    The real theme of [Whedon’s movie Serenity] is man’s underlying need for faith. Shephered Book says it the most clearly when he tells Mal “I don’t care what you believe, Mal. Just believe”*. Of course, there’s something deeper going on with that line that Whedon probably never intended. He is literally saying that it’s better to believe in a lie than to look into the void and find nothing; it’s better just to make up a substitute, to fool yourself. This isn’t only an atheist idea. C.S. Lewis explores this concept in the climactic scene of the fourth Chronicles of Narnia book, “The Silver Chair”, where the character of Puddlegum tells the Lady of the Green Kirtle (if I’m remembering her name correctly) that he’d rather believe in Narnia and Aslan even if they don’t really exist, because it’s a better life than the awful reality staring them in the face. Whedon, an excellent writer, senses this even if he doesn’t state the idea outright. Atheism as a worldview is ultimately dead; the only way to survive it is to avoid its implications.

    http://malcolmthecynic.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/serenity-a-philosophical-review/

  4. TFBW says:

    Ignostic Atheist — heads up — please read this if you see it.

    I posted the following over at Coyne’s blog, but the articles there have a really short shelf-life, and the crowd has moved on to the next outrage-du-jour, whatever it is.

    Yes, secularism does propose a physical and purposeless universe, and many (but not all) of us accept the notion that our sense of self is a neuronal illusion. But although the universe is purposeless, our lives aren’t.

    If the sense of self is a neuronal illusion, as you say, then surely any sense of purpose that the self has must be doubly illusory? What is “purpose” such that a life can have it, even given a purposeless universe, and how can it be something other than an illusion?

    I decided to post that over there, rather than here, because I want the people who believe the idea that personal purpose can exist in a universe with no purposes or selves to defend the idea in the manner they formulate it. The silence has been deafening, however, so I’ll charitably assume that I missed the opportunity to attract anyone’s attention.

    All is not lost, however, because we have atheist participants here who evidently hold to the same view. Specifically, Ignostic Atheist recently remarked:

    I’m not scared of dying, I’m scared that I’ll die before I have a chance to make the world a better place. Now, seeing as you are instructed to plan not for the future of this world, but only the next, we can be sure that my purpose is not derived from your divine overlord. And it is a clear purpose, so your drivel about atoms is a load of hooey.

    And then:

    The fact that atoms are without purpose does not mean that things made up of atoms are without purpose.

    Then, in response to a fairly solid challenge from ChazIng, Ignostic spake thus:

    DNA and RNA have a purpose, and that is to survive and replicate. Everything from there on has purpose.

    It seems to me that this makes “purpose” more or less synonymous with “behaviour” — an interpretation guided by the assumption that you do not mean they were intentionally created for that purpose. Aside from the fact that this is not how I understand purpose — it is possible for a thing to be used or behave in a manner contrary to its purpose, for example — it is also the case that this seems to defeat Coyne’s remarks about Douthat: specifically, “those are real purposes, not illusory purposes to which Douthat wants us to devote our only life.”

    If “purpose” is merely “behaviour” (as per basic chemicals), then what kind of distinction is Coyne making between “real purposes” and “illusory purposes”? I can’t make sense of this comment if I treat “purpose” as synonymous with “behaviour”. I’ve tried to read between the lines to see how his distinction is made, but I’ve been unable to come up with a charitable interpretation. It seems to me that it is grounded in nothing more than whether the behaviour in question receives his atheistic stamp of approval.

    So, Ignostic (or any other like-minded individuals who think that Coyne makes sense), if you can shed any light on the nature of purpose in a universe without purpose, I’d appreciate it.

  5. Crude says:

    Excellent question, TFBW. I missed that angle.

  6. The Deuce says:

    A couple things:

    1) As TFBW points out above, the denial of objective purpose in the universe rules out the possibility of individual purpose as well. Jerry Coyne has already claimed that free will and even the self are illusions, on the assumption that “we” are just machines blindly operating according to the laws of physics in mechanistic, deterministic fashion, and that there is no room for such things as “free will” or “the self” to exist or have any effect in such a world (the very possibility of an illusion of a self implies the existence of a self to have the illusion, but let’s just gloss over that for now, because we’ll be here all day if we try to cover *all* the ways in which Jerry Coyne is a logically incompetent moron).

    Likewise, “purpose” must also be an illusion according to Jerry’s argument. It’s all matter in mechanistic motion according to his assumptions. There’s no more room for “real purpose” to do anything than there is for “real free will” or “a real self.” And on top of that, if “Jerry” is not real “himself,” then “he” cannot really have any real purposes.

    And note how Jerry attempts to prove that he has “real” purposes: By giving examples of himself doing things that FEEL purposeful to him. But this phenomenal sort of argument is exactly what he rejects when someone gives examples of how they made real free choices to illustrate the reality of free will.

    So Jerry must say that he only has the illusion of purpose. Except, he can’t say that either, because he’s already said he himself is also an illusion. I guess he should say that there is an illusion of “himself” having an illusion of “purpose.” Or something. Best not to put too much more thought into Jerry’s insane ramblings than he does, lest you get a headache.

    2) And if purposes are not objectively real, then neither is rationality. Whether or not an action or argument is rational depends in part, after all, on whether it is conducive your goals (aka purposes). If I wish to fly, and attempt to make that a reality by jumping in a river and drowning, I’m clearly behaving irrationally. Likewise if I wish to argue for the benefit of the minimum wage, but offer up arguments suggesting the deleteriousness of the minimum wage. Hence, rationality must be as illusory as objective purpose. And if rationality is illusory, then so must be all those things we know of through our rationality: truth, falsehood and the laws of logic.

    Then again, Jerry Coyne argues very much as if truth and the laws of logic are illusory, so maybe he’s ahead of the curve on this one.

    3) Coyne’s personal purposes are to write blog posts and books attacking Christianity. But why? Presumably he thinks it’s because Christianity is false and atheism is true, and that people should know what is true and disbelieve what is false.

    But that commits him to the sort of *objective* purpose that he started by directly denying – the idea that we’re *supposed* to know the truth whether we personally wish to or not. It implies that our rationality is intrinsically made for the purpose of knowing truth, and that we are intrinsically obligated to follow it. His actions betray that he doesn’t really believe what he claims to, because they are premised in teleological ideas about purpose that his claims contradict.

  7. TFBW says:

    I’d still like Ignostic Atheist or some other volunteer to respond to my question, above.

    Meanwhile, I note that Douthat has written a response in the NYT Opinion Pages which poses exactly the same question, and succinctly notes that, “the human will cannot be simultaneously triumphant and imaginary.”

    It’s true that even if the conscious self is an illusion, human beings would still have purposes in the sense that any organism has purposes, and our movements — all that travel and reading and dining, in Coyne’s case — wouldn’t just be random or indeterminate. But just as nobody would describe a tree growing toward the sun or a bee returning to the hive as “forging their own purposes” in life, so too Coyne’s promethean language about human agency implies a much higher conception of what a human being IS — both in terms of the reality of consciousness and the freedom afforded to it — than his world-picture will allow.

    This is fair criticism: bear in mind that Coyne wants to distinguish his “real” purpose from the “illusory” ones offered by fantastic alternatives based on free will and the reality of the self. But the only “purpose” which seems to be possible in his material world is, “that outcome which was inevitable, given the prior state of the universe.” He can describe his future plans as “purposes” only in the sense that a rock in a wasteland has “purpose” — namely, to act in accordance with the laws of thermodynamics, mechanics, and chemistry, as it interacts with the sun, wind, and rain. Is this the view of “purpose” that he’s promoting as “real”, and which is meant to be not at all bleak and nihilistic?

    As Douthat points out, Coyne’s obliviousness to these conspicuous difficulties brings him perilously close to self-parody.

  8. Crude says:

    If anything, I think Douthat went too easy on Coyne.

  9. Ignostic Atheist says:

    Likewise, when theists use the word purpose, it is defined as having been dictated by a higher being. All things have a reason for being as defined by your god. All inanimate material exists because of your god. You are incapable of thinking about human purpose in the absence of a divine being.

    So while you complain that I leave a god out of the definition of purpose, I object to its inclusion. It is impossible to have a discussion using the same word with two different definitions.

    You are correct in saying that DNA and RNA have behavior, not purpose. Well, not in my world view, at any rate. In yours they do, because everything has purpose, as it was created by your god.

    I would have to ask though: what is your purpose? You’re certain that you have purpose, but what is it? You’ll go up to heaven and what, feed your god’s self-esteem for eternity? I was under the impression that he was a bit more self sufficient than that.

  10. Kevin says:

    Jerry Coyne and Christians are using two entirely different definitions of purpose. When Coyne and company use it, they are using it synonymously with their personal goals and desires. When Christians use it, we use it as why something exists, its reason for being. If atheists define human purpose by that definition using their own worldview, it is summarized as “zilch”.

    The problem then is that under atheism, two opposing purposes are equally valid. Your desire to buy a big screen tv and my desire to steal it from you are equally valid purposes, because morality itself is merely popular opinion and biological urges under atheism, and has nothing to do with Sam Harris’ “ought”. Christians can lay claim to “ought”, atheists cannot.

    I’m amazed that atheists want people to believe there is no purpose to existence. How cruel and ideologically selfish is that?

  11. Crude says:

    Kevin,

    Jerry Coyne and Christians are using two entirely different definitions of purpose. When Coyne and company use it, they are using it synonymously with their personal goals and desires. When Christians use it, we use it as why something exists, its reason for being. If atheists define human purpose by that definition using their own worldview, it is summarized as “zilch”.

    Actually, this isn’t really the case. The problem is deeper than that.

    Coyne is embracing a materialism that even goes so far as to say that there is no ‘me’, no ‘self’. Douthat’s question seems to be, if we deny that there is a self, then how can ‘we’ give ‘our’ lives meaning to begin with? If the self is illusory, then it seems all that meaning and those purposes are illusory too. Alex Rosenberg, not exactly a theist – in fact, he’s an eliminative materialist – echoes that view.

    Note that this isn’t about theism. You can consider theism to be false, and Douthat’s criticisms still go through, at least considering that alone. Even those ‘personal goals and desires’ are illusions if the ‘person’ in ‘personal’ is an illusion. And arguing ‘we just think the self is the brain or brain processes’ only intensifies the problem.

  12. TFBW says:

    Ignostic, thanks for responding.

    Likewise, when theists use the word purpose, it is defined as having been dictated by a higher being.

    Possibly true when speaking of God’s purposes for people, specifically, but the more general case only requires a being capable of “intent”. I have a glass on my desk. Its purpose is to hold drinkable liquids, but I could put it to use as a paperweight if I had cause to do so. The former is the general purpose of drinking glasses, the latter is an unorthodox one, but neither purpose bears any relationship to the existence of God.

    My point is that this is not a simple case of a theist’s definition of “purpose” being reliant on theism. It’s reliant on the mental construct of “intent”.

    You are incapable of thinking about human purpose in the absence of a divine being.

    No, I’m unable to imagine how any kind of purpose can exist in the absence of a mind. Purpose is most clear when the mind is somehow responsible for the production of the object, since we ask about the mind’s intentions in so producing. I can, however, grasp the concept that human beings might be the product of unguided, unintentional processes, and thus without intrinsic purpose, yet still confer purposes on themselves through an act of will — applying themselves to a purpose.

    What I can’t understand, however, is how that self-declared purpose can be meaningfully classified as “real” (rather than an illusion) when the mind and the free will it seems to exercise are both classified as illusions. If there are no real minds, but only illusions of minds brought about by configurations of matter, then there can be no real purposes. How can an illusory self with delusions of free will have a real purpose? And yet this is the situation that Coyne describes.

    Is my understanding of “purpose” not yet sophisticated enough for Coyne’s explanation, or have I missed something else? I take it from the tone of your answer that you consider my understanding, not Coyne’s pronouncements, to be the deficient element here. Please explain.

  13. Ignostic Atheist says:

    I can, however, grasp the concept that human beings might be the product of unguided, unintentional processes, and thus without intrinsic purpose, yet still confer purposes on themselves through an act of will — applying themselves to a purpose.

    Then I don’t have to explain myself, aside from intrinsic purpose. However, it is notable that you haven’t bothered to tell me what your own purpose is, even though I directly asked.

    If you look at things on the large scale, then no, no purpose. However, localized, a conscious mind may make purpose within a sphere of influence. This is not terribly different from entropy in the universe, and is, in fact, due to it. We have localized order defying entropy, thanks to energy input from the sun, but overall, the march towards the heat death of the universe goes on. People give themselves purpose by setting out to accomplish goals. Businesses give workers purpose as cogs in a machine. But intrinsic purpose? No. The best I can come up with is staying alive, and that comes not from a higher being, but from our biological ancestry. In order for intrinsic purpose to be true, the entire universe would require it, and that is not something I see.

    Here’s a mental exercise though: does your god have a purpose? Please note, this question is in addition to the one you avoided last time, regarded what your own purpose is.

  14. Michael says:

    IA,

    The question that was put to you was, “If “purpose” is merely “behaviour” (as per basic chemicals), then what kind of distinction is Coyne making between “real purposes” and “illusory purposes”?

    I’m not seeing your answer.

  15. Ignostic Atheist says:

    If you look at things on the large scale, then no, no purpose. However, localized, a conscious mind may make purpose within a sphere of influence. This is not terribly different from entropy in the universe, and is, in fact, due to it. We have localized order defying entropy, thanks to energy input from the sun, but overall, the march towards the heat death of the universe goes on.

    Much like fundamentalist Christians believe that life couldn’t possibly have been produced by any process other than divine intervention, you think that purpose couldn’t possibly have come about as a byproduct of mental processes. My position is that purposes, although illusory like free will, are nonetheless real locally, because quite frankly, we’re all together in the illusion. It’s like the analogy of being a brain in a vat: it doesn’t matter that that is what you truly are, what is real are the impulses your brain receives. It doesn’t matter that I’m a collection of atoms, what is real is that I’m processing information that the atoms as a whole are experiencing, and I can interact with other similar collections. I certainly don’t see the complexity that is myself, I see the whole, and others’. It is through that abstraction that we get the concepts of free will and purpose. We don’t see it as an abstraction because we can’t physically see even our cells at a glance.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts on how we are. I can’t very well defend them, but they strike me as reasonable, and it’s not as though you can defend believing that you put a hold on physics in order to have free will.

    By the way, I’m not answering for Coyne. I don’t know what he was thinking, and I haven’t even been given a link to the article in question. Pretending to know what was going through his head doesn’t interest me.

    Also, the next time I ask a question and someone doesn’t answer, I expect you to jump on that like a police man chasing a radio controlled donut.

  16. Crude says:

    My position is that purposes, although illusory like free will,

    Is there really a point in going further once we get to that? Douthat, and others in this thread, have been pointing out that Coyne is arguing that ‘free will’ and even ‘selves’ are illusory, and asking how you can actually have meaning and purpose granting that. If the response is ‘well those are illusory too’, we’re done.

    we’re all together in the illusion.

    Who’s this ‘we’? If the ‘me’ / ‘I’ is an illusion, then the group’s an illusion too.

    It doesn’t matter that I’m a collection of atoms, what is real is that I’m processing information that the atoms as a whole are experiencing

    “Experiencing”? “Processing information”? You’re going to have trouble with these things too with a wholly material universe. And you can really see what I mean with this comment:

    We don’t see it as an abstraction because we can’t physically see even our cells at a glance.

    Seeing someone’s cells, even under a microscope, doesn’t show the abstraction. Or the experience. Or the purpose, or the free will.

    I can’t very well defend them, but they strike me as reasonable, and it’s not as though you can defend believing that you put a hold on physics in order to have free will.

    Who’s putting a hold on physics? Maybe ‘physics’ isn’t the right area to be looking for for an answer to these questions to begin with.

  17. Billy Squibs says:

    Ignostic Atheist, I suppose our purpose in life is ultimately to come into relationship with God and to be healed in the process. And rather than eternally feeding God’s self-esteem, which is not something one would have to do for a maximally great being, I look forward being involved in the project of new creation. It’s this new creation that compels me (or ought to compel me) to make this world a better place now.

    Incidentally, are you aware that the name “God” as used in a Christian context is a proper noun and is therefore capitalized? It makes little sense to drop the capital G and refer to God as “your god”. But I suspect you realise this.

  18. TFBW says:

    Ignostic Atheist,

    However, it is notable that you haven’t bothered to tell me what your own purpose is, even though I directly asked.

    I really don’t intend to respond to the parts of your message which aren’t relevant to the question I’ve asked, regardless of how directly you put it — at least, not until after I’ve received an actual answer. If you can give me a hint as to why the question is relevant to the explanation, I’ll be happy to answer. On the other hand, if you’re just looking for a position of mine to counter-attack, then I’m not interested, since that will simply distract further from the task of obtaining an answer to the question that has been asked.

    If you aren’t happy with those terms, then feel free to say so and withdraw your services as an advocate.

    Much like fundamentalist Christians believe that life couldn’t possibly have been produced by any process other than divine intervention, you think that purpose couldn’t possibly have come about as a byproduct of mental processes.

    On the contrary, I said, “I’m unable to imagine how any kind of purpose can exist in the absence of a mind.” It will help the conversation if you take care to address what I have actually said, rather than what you think I believe. To be clear, I think that only a mind can have or imbue something else with a purpose. All purpose must necessarily be traced back to a mind. The question is one of how the purpose can be real when the mind is an illusion, particularly if we are to make a distinction between “real” and “illusory” purposes.

    On that note, I still find it hard to understand what you meant about DNA and RNA having a purpose. If they do not have minds of their own (illusory or otherwise), and their existence has not been brought about by a mind, then what do you mean when you say that they have a purpose? If I say that DNA and RNA have chemical properties which result in certain behaviour, have I said anything less? What is “purpose” in the absence of a mind, and what distinguishes it from mere facts of mechanical behaviour?

    My position is that purposes, although illusory like free will, are nonetheless real locally, because quite frankly, we’re all together in the illusion.

    So, if we accept a particular class of illusion as real for the sake of discussion, then the purposes are just as real as the minds? That’s fine, but it differs from Coyne’s position, since he is adamant that our mental experience is an illusion, yet there can be real purposes (as well as illusory ones). Maybe if you can explain how purpose can exist in the absence of a mind (as per DNA and RNA), then that might open up some possibilities.

    By the way, I’m not answering for Coyne. I don’t know what he was thinking, and I haven’t even been given a link to the article in question.

    The link to Coyne’s article can be found in the first sentence of the original post on which we are commenting. That’s why I asked this question here rather than somewhere else.

  19. Ignostic Atheist says:

    On the other hand, if you’re just looking for a position of mine to counter-attack, then I’m not interested, since that will simply distract further from the task of obtaining an answer to the question that has been asked.

    I am asking you to clarify your position on the topic of “real” purpose. That on its own makes it relevant. I am not interested in laying out all possible responses to all your possible answers ahead of time, nor am I interested in assuming your answer.

    I still find it hard to understand what you meant about DNA and RNA having a purpose.

    I already said that was wrong, rather early on.

    That’s fine, but it differs from Coyne’s position, since he is adamant that our mental experience is an illusion, yet there can be real purposes (as well as illusory ones).

    So let’s line this up. You can’t imagine purpose without a mind, and you can’t imagine a mind without free will. Such a mind would be illusory, and such purposes as well. I’ve suggested, however, that these deterministic minds, interacting with other such minds locally, is a shared illusion, and is real to them, even if ultimately inconsequential to the universe. It strikes me as a suitable model for Coyne’s thinking, but I can’t pretend to know his reasoning since he didn’t very well write it down.

    Think you can show to me that “real” purpose even exists?

  20. TFBW says:

    I am asking you to clarify your position on the topic of “real” purpose.

    It’s not my position on purpose we’re discussing here: I’m trying to understand Coyne’s position on the subject. Since you don’t seem to be of a mind to go and read the relevant source material, I’ll copy/paste the relevant paragraph for you.

    Yes, secularism does propose a physical and purposeless universe, and many (but not all) of us accept the notion that our sense of self is a neuronal illusion. But although the universe is purposeless, our lives aren’t. This conflation of a purposeless universe (i.e., one not created for a specific reason) with purposeless human lives is a trick that the faithful use to make atheism seem nihilistic and dark. But we make our own purposes, and they’re real. Right now my purpose is to write this piece, and then I’ll work on a book, and later I’ll have dinner with a friend. Soon I’ll go to Poland to visit more friends. Maybe later I’ll read a nice book and learn something. Those are real purposes, not illusory purposes to which Douthat wants us to devote our only life.

    As you can see, Coyne thinks that his self-proclaimed “neuronal illusions” of future plans can form the grounds of real purposes, whereas whatever it is that Douthat suggests is an illusory purpose. There are two problems with this: first, the idea that a purpose can be “real” given an illusory mind; second, the question of how some purposes might be real and others illusory, given the lack of anything “real” behind any of them.

    Bear in mind, you are free to say that you can’t make any sense of Coyne’s remarks either. I’m only asking because you seemed to make some similar points in another discussion, and so I thought you might have some insight.

    I still find it hard to understand what you meant about DNA and RNA having a purpose.

    I already said that was wrong, rather early on.

    Ah — so you did. On 2014-01-07, you said, “You are correct in saying that DNA and RNA have behavior, not purpose. Well, not in my world view, at any rate.” But prior to that, on 2013-12-27, you said the exact opposite: “DNA and RNA have a purpose, and that is to survive and replicate. Everything from there on has purpose.” That remark was one of the reasons why I targeted my question at you, having failed to get a response on Coyne’s blog.

    So, am I to understand that you have changed your mind, and repudiate your earlier position? What brought about that change?

    I’ve suggested, however, that these deterministic minds, interacting with other such minds locally, is a shared illusion, and is real to them, even if ultimately inconsequential to the universe. It strikes me as a suitable model for Coyne’s thinking…

    If you’re right, then Coyne has expressed himself very badly. My straightforward reading of the paragraph that I quoted is that we can have genuinely purposeful lives, despite the fact that our sense of self is an illusion and the universe itself is without purpose. I don’t see any concession that our sense of self is real to us, and so the purposes we give ourselves are real in the same way. On the contrary: I see a flat denial of the reality of the self, and an assertion which commits to a distinction between real and illusory purposes. Indeed, he emphasises the “real” in “real purposes”.

    Any idea what the necessary ingredients of a “real purpose” are? It seems clear that a “real mind” is not one of them, but if I were to assert that my “real purpose” is to do something or other related to religion, on the grounds that my illusory mind had plans to do so, I strongly suspect that Coyne would deny it classification as “real”.

  21. Ignostic Atheist says:

    It’s not my position on purpose we’re discussing here: I’m trying to understand Coyne’s position on the subject.

    That’s funny. I don’t see Coyne comparing real and illusory purposes within his own definition of purpose. He is pointing out that he considers the purpose he derives within his own life as real, whereas the divine-inspired purpose Douthat endorses is not (because there is no god). You, on the other hand, are the one stating that his purposes are illusory (but they do exist as a concept), and that you know what real purpose is. So, I would say your views on the subject are quite important, and ought not be ignored, as the disagreement is between you and him, not him and himself.

    Now, I’m sure we can debate the proper way to define what kind of purpose Coyne is talking about, be it illusory or functionally real, but it is clear that he is referring to it as real because it is the highest order purpose there is. In an article where the issues of free will and determinism are not brought up, I don’t see why failing to go in to depth on this regard is an issue.

    What brought about that change?

    Because, while some might consider behavior derived from physics as a low order purpose, I think that it is a different concept from that which is derived from consciousness. While I still believe that consciousness and purpose are emergent from biology from chemistry from physics, I would not say there is inherent purpose in the absence of consciousness.

    Any idea what the necessary ingredients of a “real purpose” are? It seems clear that a “real mind” is not one of them, but if I were to assert that my “real purpose” is to do something or other related to religion, on the grounds that my illusory mind had plans to do so, I strongly suspect that Coyne would deny it classification as “real”.

    I’ve already explained my thoughts on purpose. Seeing as it seems to fall perfectly within his assumed definition, I strongly suspect that Coyne would consider it to be “real”. He would also consider it to be dumb. What I suspect he objects to is your ascribing the wishes of your illusory mind to the purposes of a nonexistent god. You have avoided addressing your own preconception because you say that it is all about Coyne, but your beliefs are the basis for asking the question in the first place. So it’s time you answered mine. Do you know your own purpose, and does your god have a purpose?

  22. TFBW says:

    He is pointing out that he considers the purpose he derives within his own life as real, whereas the divine-inspired purpose Douthat endorses is not (because there is no god).

    I was trying to avoid that conclusion, because I consider it an uncharitable interpretation. However, if you endorse it, I have no reason to think that you are saying it out of disrespect for Coyne. Thank you for confirming my suspicions — I won’t drag the questioning out any further.

    Do you know your own purpose, and does your god have a purpose?

    Evidently my main purpose, for now, is to argue philosophy on blogs. Also to write computer programs in Perl (day job). Whether that is also my current divinely-appointed purpose, it’s much harder to say, but I constantly badger God to direct me according to his plans and purposes, so I hope it is. Does God have a purpose? As a matter of basic Christian doctrine, he has a will, desires, intentions, and plans, so it’s fairly safe to say that his actions are rich with purpose.

    There’s the target you wanted. Fire away.

  23. Crude says:

    He is pointing out that he considers the purpose he derives within his own life as real, whereas the divine-inspired purpose Douthat endorses is not (because there is no god). You, on the other hand, are the one stating that his purposes are illusory (but they do exist as a concept), and that you know what real purpose is.

    Except Coyne argues there is no ‘he’ to do any considering, nor is there a Douthat to do any endorsing. As for illusory purposes, the basis for calling those purposes illusory is not because they’re rejected by anyone here, but because Coyne rejects a self that could have purposes to begin with. You even say, ‘They do exist as a concept’ – but what does THAT mean? Where are blind mechanical wholly material forces getting ‘concepts’?

    Again, keep in mind this isn’t some kind of Christian or even theist criticism. Alex Rosenberg echoes a lot of this: There is no self in, around, or as part of anyone’s body. There can’t be. So there really isn’t any enduring self that ever could wake up morning after morning worrying about why it should bother getting out of bed. The self is just another illusion, like the illusion that thought is about stuff or that we carry around plans and purposes that give meaning to what our body does.

    There’s eliminative materialism on display. The self is an illusion, as are purposes and meaning – and that’s going to snap up concepts and a whole lot more in the process. And that seems to be precisely what Coyne is endorsing.

    Let me highlight something else you’ve said, to point out the problems that still come with it:

    While I still believe that consciousness and purpose are emergent from biology from chemistry from physics, I would not say there is inherent purpose in the absence of consciousness.

    Okay. You believe they are emergent – why? Remember, it’s not going to answer this to say ‘Because so much has been explained by reference to mechanistic materialism’ since the straightforward conclusion there is that ‘consciousness and purpose’ therefore do not exist – there is no route to ’emergence’ of these things in the wholly material. (If you believe there is, explain how. “Complexity” will not do the trick.)

    This actually ties into a question Mike asked elsewhere, but with a twist. If metaphysical naturalism or materialism tells you that you’re not conscious, that you have no purpose, that your thoughts are not ‘about’ anything – do you therefore reject that you are conscious, that you have thoughts ‘about’ things? Because it’s going to be hard to on the one hand say ‘No, I know I have thoughts about things, I know I have a subjective first-person experience that doesn’t just reduce to third person mechanics’ and on the other talk about how non-materialists are so obviously mistaken, on this front.

  24. The Deuce says:

    Crude:

    There’s eliminative materialism on display. The self is an illusion, as are purposes and meaning – and that’s going to snap up concepts and a whole lot more in the process. And that seems to be precisely what Coyne is endorsing.

    Besides that, he’s endorsed Rosenburg’s eliminativist views before. Also, he’s explicitly denied that free will exists, despite having 1st person experience of it, on the grounds that there is no self and materialism doesn’t allow room for it. Consistency demands that he must hold the same thing about “his” purposes, no matter how strongly “he” experiences having them. If that seems incoherent to him (and it is) then he should drop his eliminativism.

    Okay. You believe they are emergent – why? Remember, it’s not going to answer this to say ‘Because so much has been explained by reference to mechanistic materialism’ since the straightforward conclusion there is that ‘consciousness and purpose’ therefore do not exist – there is no route to ‘emergence’ of these things in the wholly material.

    Which segues into the question, if scientific knowledge is the only knowledge there is, and if science can only consider the material an empirically observable, then why do we need to explain purposes in the first place? Nobody has ever seen, touched, or measured such entities as “purposes.” They don’t show upon brain scans. There’s no *scientific* evidence that purposes (or beliefs, or consciousness, or reason, or the laws of logic, or truth, etc) exist in the first place.

    So why do we need to explain them using emergence, or memes, or whatever, when there’s no evidence that there is anything there that even needs to be explained? That’s like trying to explain the non-existent teapot orbiting Mars!

    The reality is that even attempting to explain any of the things we know by 1st-person subjective experience, even if you’re only trying to explain them away or reduce them to “scientific” categories, is an implicit admission that scientific knowledge is not the only sort of knowledge there is. Even the eliminativists give away the store here, by saying that we need “replacement concepts” for beliefs, purposes, goals, truth, etc. There’s no need to replace something if it doesn’t exist and there’s no evidence for it that counts.

  25. cl says:

    The Deuce,

    Which segues into the question, if scientific knowledge is the only knowledge there is, and if science can only consider the material an empirically observable, then why do we need to explain purposes in the first place? Nobody has ever seen, touched, or measured such entities as “purposes.” They don’t show upon brain scans. There’s no *scientific* evidence that purposes (or beliefs, or consciousness, or reason, or the laws of logic, or truth, etc) exist in the first place.

    Nicely played. Glad I stumbled on this thread. Eliminative materialists sure seem to ACT like there’s something REAL to explain, don’t they?

  26. Just Passing By says:

    While I normally refrain from commenting, I am eager to stir this discussion further.

    There are a number of difficulties with terms that have emerged – especially concerning the word, “purpose.” I’m reminded of a debate including Dawkins and Penn, in which Dawkins remarked, “Science has already explained why we are here,” to which Penn replied, “No, it can’t.” In this case, the question of ‘why’ to Dawkins is one of functional significance; science, through observation, has obtained reasonable evidence to suggest ‘how’ we have come to be. Penn, on the other hand, feels that that there is a kind of ultimate purpose to existence – that is, that our existence is inherently significant because we are a conscious ‘creation,’ and it is assumed that any created thing has intended purpose.

    The problem here, obviously, is that the worldview is connected to the interpretation of the language involved. Neither is incorrect, in their hypothetical contexts. However, much more fruitful debate for them would be to discuss the problem of ‘why.’ Is there more to ‘why’ then process and function? Are there moral and social implications if such a ‘why’ exists, or if it does not? Some might feel that this is as useful as touching to fingers together, and asking which one is touching the other — but, then again, is it not still effective as an exercise in understanding perspective?

    A similar problem occurs when discussing purpose. There was some mention of what constitutes a ‘real purpose.’ The same argument ensues: is there more to purpose than functional integrity?

    It seems that there is little to be gained from the discussion unless some common ground is found. A foundation is needed on which to theorize and produce new and meaningful ideas. Even if one is firmly planted in their worldview, it is still effective to shift ones perspective and consider new information. In fact, this is the very essence of science – a process that, ideally, makes efforts to continually change and evolve our worldview. This demands that our worldview never be deemed complete and correct.

    Unfortunately, human affairs impede the ability to maintain a scientific, adaptive worldview. There is little room for an open mind: if you think there might be a sentient creator, you are deemed an unscientific quack; if you think there might not be a sentient creator, you are deemed unfaithful and heretical.

    In a discussion like this one, however, we have an opportunity. Despite varying perspectives, we are all lucky to be examining the same mysteries concerning consciousness, existence, and our proposed purposes. While our opinions on the natures of these things differ, we are unified in our experience (at least, according to mainstream thought). Unfortunately, the paradoxical attributes of our existence make it difficult to reach consensus on how exactly to define our experience. We struggle daily to understand how much of existence displays relative and absolute properties simultaneously, and how those same properties are paralleled in our language and in our being.

    An easy way to consider this problem is with the concept of a triangle. We understand it as a 3-sided shape: we say that a triangle is a triangle because it is a three sided polygon. However, implicit in the definition is that the sides must have a relationship with the other sides, such that the concept of a triangle can emerge. The triangle, then, exists as a result of relative properties – and yet, in its entirety, it seems to have a singular identity. This phenomenon seems to exist everywhere in scientific study.

    So, back to purpose. Perhaps in the absence of complete evidence, it is better to suspend our definition of purpose- in the meantime, it may be better to reach a pragmatic agreement on what it ‘should’ be, while we work together as a species to fully define the idea of purpose. What do you all think? Is it important that a consensus on purpose be reached before sufficient information is available? Is it even philosophically possible for a person to ‘suspend’ their definition of purpose? For now, is there an ideal definition – and, if so, what decides whether or not the definition is ideal?

    I am interested in everyone’s opinion.

  27. Kevin says:

    Like so many aspects of the theist/atheist debate, the problem is likely a result of the weakness of language (in this case, a single word having multiple meanings depending on usage). Atheists use “purpose” as a synonym of conscious intent: “I intend to be a good father” is identical to “My purpose is to be a good father.” For the atheist, purpose is whatever he or she decides to do or become, and is no more or less valid than any other purpose. One person can have the purpose of buying a new TV, another can have the purpose of stealing that same TV, and both are equally valid purposes.

    For theists, this form of purpose is also relevant, but then there is another form of purpose applicable to humanity in the same sense as we can say that the purpose of a toaster is to make toast. Theists believe mankind, and the universe, are created, and creations have purposes for being created. Atheists obviously would reject this form of purpose for humanity and the universe. The closest they could come is a loose description of functionality – the purpose of an ear is to hear. So yeah, the two sides often talk past each other, and I doubt a consensus could be reached on a particular definition when certain usages are central to one’s viewpoint.

    Another word with a similar problem is “evidence”. Over and over you hear atheists say “there is no evidence for God”. Well, what do you mean by evidence? If you do what atheists do, and require evidence for God to be synonymous with “irrefutable proof” or “something that cannot possibly be anything other than evidence for God”, then yeah there is technically no evidence for God. But, if you use the equally valid definition “that which leads one to a conclusion”, or “that which supports a premise”, then there is probably limitless evidence for God. But of course, such a definition of evidence cannot be tolerated by people who think emotionally instead of with reason, so you won’t get any concessions from atheists to use any definition of evidence except the one that best serves their…purpose. *ba-dum chhh*

  28. Just Passing By says:

    It is actually interesting to note the ‘weakness’ in language that you have described. It appears that we use words as containers, for significance or meaning, and attempt to express the meaning as closely as possible. There seems to be an emergent concept – the ‘meaning,’ – and we attempt to ‘relate’ to this concept by means of language.

    I’ve called attention to this phenomena because something interesting is occuring: much like in the instance of the triangle, the ‘idea’ only comes to exist if the relationship between its attributes confers identity. The triangle as a self-existing concept is incomplete; we are not seeing ‘a triangle,’ but we are actually seeing three sides arranged with reference to each other, such that the concept of a triangle appears by extension. In the same way, the inherent ‘meaning’ of a word is not in itself defined, measurable, or tangible – but, with language, one can indicate the existence of such an idea through reference and relation.

    A great example of this would be the word ‘love.’ It is used in many contexts, to describe all sorts of meaningful relationship – some sexual, some platonic, some familial, and so on. However, the idea of ‘love’ as a kind of definable substance, while popular, is a bit strange: how do you measure love? For that matter, where is love ‘located,’ and does it ‘exist?’ Well, we know from the fruits of our meaningful relationships that there appears to be some substance to the idea of love – there is an expectation that if one describes love to another, that the other can recognize the phenomena and agree that such a ‘feeling’ exists, despite the concept itself being impossible to locally define.

    This is also true of our natural laws. Many of them are not directly observable – and yet, we are able to deduce that they might exist due to their influence. The old adage is that though we cannot see the wind directly, we can observe its movement through the trees; it is only in this new perspective where we can even begin to measure the wind. This strategy has been immeasurably effective in our scientific journey toward a complete worldview.

    It is therefore disappointing to hear the idea of God dismissed so readily by scientists and scholars. When considering a being like the hypothetical creator of all that exists, there needs to be some suspension of perspective. Many believers ‘believe’ as a result of seeing God as a revealed concept, but the problem here is that if there is a God, he is not simply a triangle. The triangle is fortunate to be measurable, in the realm of geometry and shapes – but the concept of God, if existing, resides in a greater scope: much of what it means to be God is explained through concepts of mind. As explained above, mind – and all resultant social and existential concepts – aren’t so possible to explicitly observe, but one can implicitly deduce their existence and function.

    While useful to consider, there still appears another problem: how much does one now attribute to “God,” in an attempt to discern if God is there or not? Some prefer panentheistic ideas, citing God as within all of creation as well as without – while others prefer a division, where God is present in ‘good’ things, but is absent where there is evil. Further varied opinion on the matter makes the task of ‘finding God’ very difficult, because to put it frankly, we haven’t unanimously agreed where God might be found.

    Luckily, we are fortunate to be part of a system where truth appears to be a real, recognizable phenomena. We have an implicit understanding that true and false, as concepts, exist! We live within natural laws that we can rely on to be consistent, and there is form and pattern in information that appears significant. From this, we can ‘have faith’ that there is structure to our reality, or that there is sense to our existence and that things can be ‘figured out.’ Faith should not describe blind adhesion to a dogma for its own sake; it should describe trust in the continuation of the natural forces that allow us to continue existing in a logical framework. While it would impossible in theory to ‘measure’ God, or to see God in totality, it is still logical to assume that if God exists we can recognize attributes of this God in creation. Therefore, if one wants to find out if God exists, one should look and see if patterns repeat themselves in different areas of study for seemingly significant reasons. If God is a mind, or includes a mind, then evidence of the influence of mind will be present in all of God’s proposed creation. Would it not actually limit the concept of God if one attempts to define God as limited by language and physical space? It would appear more profitable to search for ‘fingerprints,’ and if they could belong to God – rather than to hope for a ‘declaration of divinity’ that would only fully reveal an incomplete God. In other words, if God appeared as a great dragon in Seattle, and warded off disaster and healed the sick, he could not fully satisfy the concept of God in that frame of reference: he has been defined and limited. We may argue that he displays “God-like” attributes in doing good things in this hypothetical circumstance, but it should be easy to agree that if this were done, it would not prove Godhood – it would only prove that he is a dragon, in Seattle, who can ward of disaster and heal the sick. If one looks for a signature in what one believes to be created, however, one might be able to discern some qualities of the manufacturer. If such a pattern of mind exists across creation, it will be observed by scientific study and interpreted. It seems less important for the moment to have answers, than to have questions – and the right questions, at that.

  29. cl says:

    Great last comments, passing by, and Kevin. Good stuff. Along the lines of the whole “evidence” thing I can currently offer:

    http://www.thewarfareismental.net/b/2010/02/02/proof-of-godes-existence-7/

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