Teleology / Ethics Redux Originally Posted by Calilasseia

On: Thursday, July 11, 2013

"I'd like to cover the matter of teleology. Which is defined as 'the doctrine of final purpose'. Basically, teleology erects the assertion (hand in hand with supernaturalism) that the universe and its contents are subject to an externally applied overarching 'purpose'. This is merely another example of the pervasiveness of the human tendency to project our own intentionality upon our surroundings, a process that our species applied from prehistoric times onwards. The operation thereof is very simple. Humans are beings who think about their actions (well, at least some of us are), and who frequently engage in activities with a specific end goal in mind. As a consequence, when our prehistoric ancestors saw natural forces at work, and saw that those natural forces shaped the landscape (and their own populations), they considered it entirely natural to conclude that this was the work of some entity similar to themselves, namely an entity with internally generated thoughts and goals, acting to achieve those goals. Basically, our prehistoric ancestors fabricated invisible magic men of various species because they didn't know any better, and in the absence of substantive scientific knowledge, doing so was the only way that they could make sense of a complex, dynamic world. It would take our species a good 200,000 years to reach the point where we could make sense of the world in a proper, rigorous, quantitative manner without erecting such fabrications, and thus, said mythological fabrications have enjoyed far more persistence and persuasiveness than their complete absence of genuine explanatory power warrants.

Teleology is merely an extension of this. Because we have end goals and act to achieve those end goals in the real world, our ancestors assumed that the events around them arising from natural forces had a like origin, and that some sentient intent and planning lay behind them. However, this is merely another of those presuppositions that, in the fullness of time, was found severely wanting when subject to proper, intense critical scientific test. NO evidence has EVER arisen supporting the idea of an externally applied teleology governing the universe and its contents, indeed, with several physical systems, the idea that this is even possible looks decidedly nonsensical, in the light of the fact that those systems are best represented by systems of equations that are highly non-linear, exhibit extreme sensitivity to initial conditions, and wildly bifurcating behavior. There is an entire branch of mathematics devoted to the study of such systems, namely the mathematics of chaotic dynamical systems, and even relatively simple, supposedly deterministic systems of equations have been demonstrated to exhibit wide variance in behaviour with only tiny changes in initial conditions. The Verhulst Equation that is used to model population dynamics is a prime example - even small changes in the fecundity parameter in this equation will lead, once the equation enters the bifurcating régime, in wildly different outcomes even if one starts with the same initial conditions. Indeed, once that equation enters the chaotic régime, our ability to predict future behaviour of the system is severely truncated.

Now, if a simple ordinary differential equation can manifest this diversity of behaviour, it doesn't take much imagining, at least amongst those who paid attention in the requisite classes, to realise that a physical system such as the weather, which is best modelled using the Navier-Stokes Equations among others, is not going to be in any sense 'directable', no matter what delusions of grandeur any sentient entity has with respect to this. The Navier-Stokes Equations are not only highly non-linear interlinked partial differential equations (and in the most general case, tensor differential equations to boot, involving at least one second order tensor quantity), but have proven to be so intractable to attack by mathematicians, that the very existence of a general analytical solution to them remains unknown, despite a century or more of intense labour by the world's best mathematicians to answer this question. Indeed, anyone who succeeds in this endeavour will win themselves a $1 million prize courtesy of the Clay Mathematical Institute, and immediately find themselves receiving lucrative job offers from aerospace companies such as Boeing to come and help them streamline their supercomputer models of fluid flow. At the moment, Navier-Stokes turbulent flow modelling requires expensive teams of top-class mathematicians, computer scientists, and a $50 million supercomputer as baseline pre-requisites, and those operating in this field will readily tell you that there are limits to how far in future time one can push the models, particularly those using these tools for weather modelling. The idea that the behaviour of a physical system, governed by equations of this sort, is 'directable' by any sentience will result in considerable mirth amongst those who know. So if you think your magic man is capable of imposing an overarching teleology upon the universe and its contents, and micro-managing the entire show, those two gentlemen called Navier and Stokes flushed that presupposition down the toilet over 100 years ago.

As a corollary, if there is hard evidence from 300 years of continued scientific endeavour, that an externally applied overarching teleology is not only conspicuous by its absence, but wholly absurd in the light of the divergent behaviour of key physical systems (and that's before we enter the world of quantum indeterminacy), then likewise, the idea that there exists one, single, overarching set of ethical precepts applied externally to the universe from the same source, a set of precepts that remains unconditionally valid for all time, is similarly ludicrous. Nietzsche castigated philosophers who erected grand, assertion-laden metaphysical systems for the purpose of imposing their pet ethics upon the universe even without the benefit of the latest scientific knowledge, and recognised the basic fallacy underlying this exercise. Modern physics simply propels the fallacy into the realms of Pythonesque absurdity. Apart from the cosmic level of anthropocentric conceit required to erect the notion, that the affairs of one small collection of primates on one small planet, orbiting an average star situated in a nondescript galaxy, are the central reason for the universe being here, there is the central absurdity involved in imposing an overarching set of ethical precepts upon a universe in which the supposedly central characters don't put in an appearance for over 13 billion years. The monumental metaphysical profligacy this assumes would make William of Ockham barf"

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