Intention, Intelligence and Teleology

On the left is a photograph of a real snowflake.  Most people would agree that it was not created intentionally, except possibly in the rather esoteric sense of being the foreseen result of the properties of water atoms in an intentionally designed universe in which water atoms were designed to have those properties.  But I think most people here, ID proponents and ID critics alike, would consider that the “design” (in the sense of “pattern”) of this snowflake is neither random nor teleological.  Nor, however, is it predictable in detail.  Famously “no two snowflakes are alike”, yet all snowflakes have six-fold rotational symmetry.  They are, to put it another way, the products of both “law” (the natural law that governs the crystalisation of water molecules) and “chance” (stochastic variation in humidity and temperature that affect the rate of growth of each arm of the crystal as it grows). We need not, to continue in Dembski’s “Explanatory Filter” framework, infer “Design”.

The patterns below, also have six-fold rotational symmetry, and the process that created them is also one in which no two are alike.  However, despite this, they were, in fact, designed.  By me.  I wrote the program that generated them, and I can generate as many as I like.  The chances that two will be identical is pretty low (though possibly not as low as that of two snowflakes).  I did this by first of all “designing” a law (one that ensures six-fold rotational symmetry), and then by “designing” a stochastic algorithm that randomly generates “ice” by drawing from a built-in probability distribution.

FourSnowFlakesClearly, applying the Explanatory Filter does not easily allow us to infer design in the second case, but that is not a problem – Dembski does not claim that the ID detecting methods he proposes will not produce false negatives, he only claims a good record for true positives. And in any case, that isn’t what I want to discuss in this post.  I’m not asking people to infer which were designed and which were not.  I know that the second set were designed and the first was not.

What I’d like to discuss is how the processes differ.  Both involve a law (natural in the first, designed by me in the second), and both involve stochastic processes (natural in the first, designed by me in the second).  But we would probably agree that the first was the result of a non-teleological process, regardless of the fact that when the conditions are right for snow, snowflakes of a reliable general pattern form, while the second are the result of a teleological process, namely my intention to make snowflake-like patterns for Christmas cards (yes, I know I’m late) and for this post.

(Have a merry Christmas all, by the way!)

At the moment, I’m reading Dembski’s book, Being As Communion. I was interested to see that he uses “teleology” more or less interchangeably with “intelligence”, which is a change from the definition he used to use (“by intelligence I mean the power and facility to choose between options”), and which unambiguously entails the concept of “intention”, something he back then explicitly claimed was outwith the domain of science (I profoundly disagree), only coming “back on the table” after “intelligence” (old definition) has been established.  He also, in Being As Communion, uses “design” in the sense of “pattern” rather than as in “by accident or design”.  So under his current usage, “Intelligent Design” means “Patterns produced by teleological processes”, which I think is actually clearer.

So I am curious now about his view of the difference between what he characterises as “materialism” and his own view (and interestingly, he places Nagel on the same side of this perceived divide).

I think that Dembski would say that, as a materialist, I could avoid the conclusion that my ersatz snowflakes are the result of a teleological process by claiming that they are, nonetheless, the outcome of interactions between matter in my body and brain, and that thus they are not essentially different from the non-teleological snowflake because I am not really an intentional being – my sense of intention is illusory.

Whereas a non-materialist, or at least someone not a priori committed to materialism would say (as I understand Dembski’s thinking here), would regard the second as a special case of a process (teleology) operating within the world in a way that may also be apparent in such phenomena as the Origin of Life, possibly the evolution of the bacterial flagellum, and possibly in the “fine-tuning” of our universe to be life-friendly.

There are a number of things that could be said about this, but the point I want to make in this post, is that I do NOT think that the intentional processes by which I generated the second lot of snowflakes are illusory.  I think there is a real and major distinction between the processes that created the real snowflake and the processes that created the artificial ones (although I will note in passing that often the way we infer artifice, i.e. intelligent design, is that the results are not as complex as the real thing!)

So what is that distinction?  What is the property of teleological processes that makes them different from non-teleological ones?

I suggest that the answer is fairly straightforward:  a teleological process, whether stochastic or under strict control), entails some kind of prior representation (of something to something, possibly itself) of what the end result of the process will be like.  The only advance “representation” of a snowflake is that inherent in the laws and probability distributions that govern its emergence from non-snowflakeness.  Whereas had you stopped me before I’d finished writing my MatLab code and asked me what I was doing (in the middle of the night, when I couldn’t sleep) I’d have told you quite clearly: “I’m trying to write some code that will generate snowflake patterns, and I’m fiddling about with possible distributions my code will randomly draw from trying to find one that tends to the most snowflake like patterns”.

I am, in other words, selecting my actions so as to execute those with the greatest probability of producing an outcome that matches some prior template.

In yet other words, I start by imagining a snowflake, then I set about experimenting, trying things out, rejecting those that don’t work very well, dreaming up different way sof doing it, until I end up with a reliable series of snowflakes.

And even as a so-called “materialist”, that process is very different from the one that produces a real snowflake.  The “intentional” component is not illusory – it can be objectively detected as being present in my actions, and not present in the processes that I hope will give us a White Christmas this year.

Intention, in other word, is perfectly real, and “real teleology”, as Dembski calls it, is perfectly compatible with the view he likes to call  “materialism”.

 

[edited to fix grammar!]

223 thoughts on “Intention, Intelligence and Teleology

  1. Allan Miller: I don’t see what applying the term ‘teleology’ so broadly gives – Aristotle didn’t, AFAIK, use it.

    I just found out — and I didn’t know this — that the word “teleology” was coined in 1728 by the German philosopher Christian von Wolff. Wolff almost certainly got the concept from Leibniz, since Wolff was a Leibnizian rationalist, and almost no one would deny that there’s a teleological metaphysics in Leibniz’s conception of forces. And Leibniz credits Aristotle for being right about this, though arguably Leibniz comes to Aristotle through medieval Scholastics like Suarez rather than directly. So it is a terminological anachronism to speak of Aristotle’s concept of teleology, but I think it is a forgivable one.

    However, it is also true that Aristotle would not have understood the distinctly modern idea of a contrast between teleological causation and mechanistic causation. I don’t think anyone drew that contrast before Leibniz, and he draws it precisely to rescue free will from Spinozistic determinism.

  2. phoodoo,

    You have already explained what the definition of bias is Allan. In doing so, the question and the answer are the same Allan.
    You don’t get to claim, well the bias was already there, when the definition you give for bias is the differential in reproduction rates.

    What makes you think the bias isn’t already there? If you have two types A and B, and mix them 50/50, it has to be the case that, in terms of net reproductive rate

    1) A = B
    2) A gt B
    3) A lt B

    That’s before anything has produced a single offspring. What other options are there? In 2 and 3 there is bias. In 1 there isn’t. But it’s still one of the 3, and in all 3 scenarios evolution will occur. You can’t be saying that 2 and 3 never occur. That would be bizarre. You see it as a ‘problem’ because we cannot easily measure it in some circumstances. But that does not strip it of causal power. If there is a differential, it will have an effect. It does not have its effect after all the results are in, in some weird kind of backward causation.

    If pollsters preferred to interview women, that would be a bias (if the intention was equal representation). It would be nonsense to state “You don’t get to claim, well the bias was already there, when the definition you give for bias is an asymmetry in selecting among the genders”. It is entirely reasonable that such a bias could exist before a single selection were made.

    So why do you make this bizarre exception to the concept of bias in the evolutionary case – that it can only be an after-the-fact fact? Particularly when it doesn’t matter either way on the general question of whether a population evolves – 1, 2 and 3 all give evolution.

    As Lizzie showed, I can show you why you are wrong, but I can’t force you to understand. I guess others will have to explain it to you.

    Ha! So it’s evolutionary theorists from the last 160 years vs Phoodoo Of The Internet. Hmmm. Now where should I put my money?

  3. Alan Fox: Am I right in understanding that Aristotle writes as if “cause” and “explanation” are synonyms?

    He discusses “aition” (singular; plural aitiai), and in some contexts it seems as if he’s talking about causes and in other context as if he’s talking about explanations. I found these lecture notes helpful and consistent with what I already understood.

  4. phoodoo: You would think if the owner says please ask a question about something in moderation and not here, said owner would then actually go to that thread and answer the question that you would told to ask elsewhere. You would think…

    I thought so. But I was wrong.

  5. Kantian Naturalist: Mung’s point was that, on Aristotelian grounds, teleological processes can be non-intentional. The exercise of a causal power — the structuring of stuff, as I’ve called it here — doesn’t require (according to Aristotle) any mental representation, imagination, or choice.

    Correct. We had much the same conversation in a prior thread on teleology in which I kept trying to get Elizabeth to separate teleology from intent.

  6. Elizabeth: I think it would be possible to model the snowflakes so well that they would be indistinguishable from a photograph of the real thing.

    Cool
    remember that train of thought when we discuss my game/tool

    peace

  7. Elizabeth: OK, in that case Darwinian evolution has a goal! Welcome to the Dark Side

    I have no problem with that at all.

    It only moves the question back one step.
    We now need to ask is ..was the goal seeking tendency imported into the system at it’s origin or did it arise spontaneously ex nihilo.

    peace

  8. Mung: Correct. We had much the same conversation in a prior thread on teleology in which I kept trying to get Elizabeth to separate teleology from intent.

    Well, ID does not make it easy to make that separation! In fact the whole ID project requires a steadfast refusal to separate teleology from intent!

  9. Elizabeth: I also picked out the most snowflake ones! And did a bit of post processing as well, to smooth them a bit.

    This bit of incite will also be important when the time comes

    peace

  10. Allan Miller: But if you throw a pair of dice (in an environnment that has gravity and a surface) you will get a result. Given a set of alternative possible results, that can be viewed as a system ‘choice’, whatever number actually comes up on that throw. Aggregated throws will converge on a distribution, dependent on the fairness of the dice.

    The difference between a distribution and a choice is what makes us intelligent agents and the dice “system” not.

    peace

  11. BruceS: I would say the output would differ, because you are not attempting to model the scientific theory of how snow forms, and so it is likely there there will be situations which produce snowflakes which your model cannot produce, or conversely.

    sounds like the beginnings of a testable ID hypothesis

    😉

    peace

  12. fifthmonarchyman: I have no problem with that at all.

    It only moves the question back one step.
    We now need to askis ..was the goal seeking tendency imported into the system at it’s origin or did it arise spontaneously ex nihilo.

    peace

    I think you would need to know what the goal was, any thoughts?

  13. newton: I think you would need to know what the goal was, any thoughts?

    In this case EL has already told us that the goal is to conform to the environment

    peace

  14. Kantian Naturalist: Yes, that’s correct. I think that the intentionality of mental representations needs to be explained in terms of the intentionality of the organism. Here I’ve been deeply influenced by Okrent’s argument, contra Millikan, that organismal goals are explanatorily prior to biological functions; we can’t explain what the proper function of a heart is without a prior understanding of the goals of the organism that a heart’s proper functioning enables.

    Millikan does say that she assumes that problem is to explain now mental representations can be wrong; so this assumes that representations themiselves exist. I suspect she would accept something like your homorphic approach to explain how they do so.

    I don’t think Millikan would include misfunctioning of the heart as a representation that could be false or wrong. There is a subtle distinction she makes, as I understand it, between misfunctioning and wrongness.

    That’s a really interesting connection! But in Clark, there’s merely a very coupling between directives (predictions) and descriptives (prediction errors), and not the very same representation carrying out both functions — right?

    I had in mind his section 4.7 Beyond Efferent Copy which I read as trying to tie the two closely together, at some level of the hierarchy. But I must admit to not have a deep understanding of how the “corollary discharge” terminology which he prefers in that section differs from “efferent copy”.

    In any event, as far as I know Millikan has no brain architectural model for her concepts, so the idea of tiing PP to her concepts would be to try to map the architecture of the hierarchy of PP involved in purposeful movement to the conceptual picture she gives.

    One aspect of Clark’s book I found deeply dissatisfying is that he builds a model of what brains generally do, but all his data are based on studies of human brains. But therefore he cannot explain what makes human brains different from other kinds of brains.

    Of course the real differences between human beings and other animals are not going to be found at the neurological level, but those differences do have neurological correlates and we want to understand those as well.

    Well, at least on of the key references (the 1999 study from Rao) is based on simulated neurons. So maybe that works for both animals and people? Or maybe neither .

    I think there is still a paucity of evidence linking the model to real brain architecture and activity for both humans and animals.

  15. Neil Rickert: To me, that seems pretty close to connecting teleology with homeostasis — except that homeostasis is not limited to organisms.

    FWIW, a long time ago in a thread far, far away KN posted a link to this paper which attempts to make a distinction between life and non-life while preserving the basic idea related to homeostatis: Mossio et al: Emergence, closure and inter-level causation in biological systems.

    From the abstract

    In this paper, we advocate the idea that an adequate explanation of biological systems requires appealing to organisational closure as an emergent causal regime. […] we claim that biological systems crucially differ from other natural systems in that they realise a closure of constraints, i.e. a higher-level emergent regime of causation such that the constituents, each of them acting as a constraint, realise a mutual dependence among them, and are collectively able to self-maintain.

    If you think that sounds philosophically vague, I agree. But I life is a vague concept, not suitable for precise definition by if and only if conditions.

  16. fifthmonarchyman,

    The difference between a distribution and a choice is what makes us intelligent agents and the dice “system” not.

    I’m not sure of the relevance of this to any argument I have made. Nor do I agree that the difference between distributions and choices is the essence of separating us from dice. What makes us intelligent agents is the fact that we are intelligent agents – we evaluate, we are involved in the decision-making process, and are aware of it.

    On a single throw, a die must ‘choose’ which face to land on. A distribution is the summed result of many throws. That is the difference between a distribution and a choice, and it’s hardly the thing that makes us intelligent agents and dice not!

  17. First, we wouldn’t just use photos to try to infer design or not. Second, as Mayr so clearly states, teleology is not allowed in evolution.

    What is the property of teleological processes that makes them different from non-teleological ones?

    Teleological processes exhibit work and/ or counterflow. Non-teleological processes do not. For example only teleological processes can produce Stonehenge

  18. johnnyb:

    EL – that is a great post!

    Hey, happy new year!

    Nice to see you brother!

    Yes, I liked Elizabeth’s discussion. I’m sort of waiting for her to return to offer some comments.

  19. “What I’d like to discuss is how the processes differ. Both involve a law (natural in the first, designed by me in the second), and both involve stochastic processes (natural in the first, designed by me in the second). But we would probably agree that the first was the result of a non-teleological process,…”

    Why should we agree that the first was the result of a non-teleological process? How are laws of nature non-teleological? Do they have no aim? No purpose? No coherence (i.e. causes cannot be related to effects)? How do you determine the answers to these questions? Doesn’t the term “law of nature” clearly imply a regularity and thus a known link between cause and effect?

    “At the moment, I’m reading Dembski’s book, Being As Communion. I was interested to see that he uses “teleology” more or less interchangeably with “intelligence”, which is a change from the definition he used to use…”

    This gives a good reason to discard everything Dembski says about these things. He should be on your ignore list, not on your reading list.

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