Friday, January 8, 2016

Teleological Illusions and the Creation of Meaning

   By Steve Rensberry

   Few phrases are as presumptive as the phrase, “everything happens for a reason.” It is, nevertheless, nearly the axiom that guides all other axioms for millions of people who believe that life is governed by some type of divine, supernatural architect. Often it is voiced in the aftermath of some particularly painful and hard-to-understand tragedy, or in moments of despair and uncertainty. As an effort to offer comfort and assurance or to ease someone's pain, it is an understanding sentiment. The problem is with the term everything. Why not say that “Some things happen for a reason,” or perhaps, “When some things happen, we can sometimes learn from it?” Because such phrases, I would argue, simply lack the absolute certainty that people seem to crave. Is free will an illusion? Is life is devoid of all uncertainty? Logically it would have to be, if everything does indeed have a purpose, would it not?
   Philosophically the view is known as a teleology, a position which seeks to describe and explain life's phenomenon by appealing to purposes rather than to their historic and natural causes. The word's origin can be traced to 1740 and German philosopher Baron Christian von Volff, who coined the term teleologia, meaning “entire, perfect, complete.” Exactly what these purposes are, and how they are known, are questions that invariably invoke issues of trust and leaps in logic and reason.
   One way to understand the teleological frame of mine is to think of life--right down to the tiniest minutiae--as being pulled rather than pushed, of flipping cause and effect on its head, or of swapping a scientific and realist-based linear view of reality--as a series of space-time transformations from past to present to future--with one that flows in exactly the opposite direction. From a teleological perspective, time and causation exist but in a magical realm, the precise mechanism of what nobody understands.
   Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, an opponent of the mind-body dualism of Descartes, writes: "What is termed a 'final cause' is nothing but human appetite . . . . I must not fail to mention here that the advocates of this doctrine, eager to display their talent in assigning purpose to things, have introduced a new style of argument to prove their doctrine, i.e. a reduction, not to the impossible, but to ignorance, thus revealing the lack of any other argument in its favor. For example, if a stone falls from the roof on somebody's head and kills him, by this method of arguing, they will prove that the stone fell in order to kill the man; for if it had not fallen for this purpose by the will of God, how could so many circumstances (and there are often many coinciding circumstances) have chanced to concur? Perhaps you will reply that the event occurred because the wind was blowing and the man was walking that way. But they will persist in asking why the wind blew...And so they will go on and on asking the causes of causes until you take refuge in the will of God -- that is, the sanctuary of ignorance.” (Wolfson, Harry Austryn, The Philosophy of Spinoza, Meridian Books, Inc., New York, 1960. Appendix, pg. 60).
   The concepts of chance, luck, and happenstance simply do not exist in a metaphysical sense, from the teleological perspective, because everything has purpose, and everything has meaning -- by definition. By what mechanism do such meaningful circumstances happen? They happen by way of a thing called reality, but it is a reality which has been personified to the extreme, where human characteristics and impulses have been projected onto a being who is assumed to be multi-dimensional, eternal, and hyper-personal. He, she, or it, is seen as synonymous with life -- omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, everywhere and nowhere, everything and nothing, a conscious, personal and infinitely intelligent entity that knows not only the immediate thoughts and desires of each human being, but those they will experience in the future. It is a being who is considered to be love, hate, light, “the word,” everything and nothing, both incomprehensible and intensely personal. Above all, this being is considered to be wholly beyond and unconstrained by distance and time.
  Authors Aiyana K. Willad and Ara Norenzayan, of the University of British Columbia, outline in a 2013 manuscript the idea that the teleological mindset, and religious belief in general, rests on a type cognitive bias. They site multiple studies to substantiate their case. “These theories converge on suggesting that belief in supernatural agents such as gods and spirits, and related phenomena, emerge from a set of interrelated cognitive biases, such as perceptions of agency and mentalizing, mind-body dualism, and teleological intuitions. Equipped with these cognitive biases, human minds gravitate toward religious and religious-like beliefs and intuitions,” the authors state. See: Cognative biases explain religious belief, paranormal belief, and belief in lie's purpose.
   Why do people believe in that which they can't prove, on matters as important as the meaning and purpose of life? The short answer is that such “belief statements” are not so much statements of truth or observation as they are simple assertions. The person who makes the statement “wants” it to be true, “feels” that it is true, and by voicing it seeks agreement and reinforcement for their belief.
   The long answer is that human beings are complex biological organisms with an abstract-creating, imagination-driven, non-linear operating organ called a brain, an organ marked by host of unusual phenomenon, chief among them being consciousness itself and the capability for self reflection. To think is to engage in the formation of hypothetical scenarios, and to mix, match and link together related images in an almost infinite variety of patterns and scenes, then, if desired, to erase the whole thing in a millisecond only to be followed by another. When we aren't simply thinking, we are striving to manifest what we conceive. We build houses. We form relationships. We play. We create. We paint. We travel. And we invent. Nature, however, always seems to get the better of us in the end. So the art and practice of hoping and believing that there's more, goes on. We want there to be more, because for some of us the idea that there isn't is just intolerable. The idea that “everything has a purpose,” like other ideas which imply a belief in higher realities, exists because we die, because of the inability for we humans to manifest all that we can can imagine.
   In the article, “Does Everything Happen for a Reason?, authors Deepak Chopra and Jordan Flesh suggest that it is life's fundamental unpredictability which drives the impulse to devise stories “to explain ourselves to ourselves,” in addition to the “cloud of causes” that exists within each of us. “Inside this cloud are memories, conditioning, habit, reason, emotion, relationship, genes, and many hidden biological factors,” they write. “How this cloud comes to a decision is completely beyond the reach of scientific explanation.”
   Chopra and Flesh furthermore point to the feelings of synchronicity which people have, a feeling which provides a counter to the randomness of life. “People’s stories contain a mixture of order and chaos, so it may be that reality is completely orderly and meaningful, the only difference being how much orderliness we choose to bring into our lives. In other words, the reason that synchronicity smooths the way for one person and not for another depends upon them,” they write. “Everything happens for a reason if that’s how you perceive life; you allow the underlying meaning to express itself. You hold back chaos by trusting in orderliness. Trust isn’t sufficient, not by any means. It’s just one ingredient. The larger picture is about setting up a partnership between yourself and larger, invisible forces. They aren’t mystical forces but aspects of your own consciousness. The invisible forces include creativity, insight, intuition, intention, and attaining a state of mind where you are centered enough to know who you really are. The partnership between you and nature lies at the core of the world’s wisdom traditions.”
   Quantum physics, which points to a fundamental both/and state of uncertainty or superposition at the sub-atomic level; and tychism, proposed by Charles Sanders Pierce, which holds that a form of absolute chance or indeterminism is a real factor in the way the universe operates, also call into question the assumption that every aspect of life is imbued with purpose and meaning.

    For Further Reading