Aristotle’s purpose

Aristotle’s Purpose of Life

Your description of Aristotle’s position is excellent, and helps to make explicitly clear the fundamental errors of that position.

From my understanding, the idea of purpose is fundamentally flawed.
In so far as we understand the notion of purpose today, it implicitly assumes an intentional being – so in this sense simply assumes some god(s) made us with some intention in mind. That was (and still is) a common way of thinking, but not one that is supported by the evidence sets supplied by scientific enquiry.

It seems clear now, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that what gave Aristotle the illusion of purpose in existence was the selective pressure of survival operating in the multi-levelled Darwinian process of evolution by natural selection over some 4 billion years of life on earth. In the battle for survival within populations in varieties of environments, variations on strategies have led, through varying probabilities of survival of those variations over time and space, to the vast array of variations on themes of life we see today.

That conceptual set was not available to Aristotle. To him (and to many still) the idea of purpose made sense, seemed likely.
Compared to the ideas encompassed in evolutionary theory, molecular genetics, games theory, complexity theory, computational theory, probability theory, quantum mechanics, relativity, etc – with the vast array of experimental evidence collected, recorded and reviewed and available to the serious student; Aristotle’s notion of purpose seems a simplistic approximation (though an understandable mistake in the absence of the evidence sets referred to).

It seems that evolution has equipped our brains with the ability to experience a set of positive feelings, feelings that reinforce behaviours, and that we have sufficient flexibility in our neural networks to be able to recursively apply that set of systems to ever more abstract conceptual sets.

That would seem to imply an approximation to infinite freedom of choice in one’s actions.

If one is still concerned with matters of survival, then it behoves one to explore all the risks to survival and the sorts of strategies that can effectively mitigate those risks, while not unduly restricting one’s freedom to act – and there seems to be infinite room for choice in the finer points of those intersecting sets of probabilities. However, at the coarser end of the probabilities, it seems that a respect for individual life, and individual liberty (where it doesn’t pose undue risk to life) are fundamental survival constraints common to all individuals.

At deeper levels – it seems that logic and reason are tools that deliver useful approximations of reality, useful predictions of utility of action, most of the time, and not always.

It seems that reality, at its deepest levels, is stochastic, within constraints (random within probability distributions), and that summed over vast collections these elements give a useful approximation of causality in action (and all unaided human perception is of such vast collections of very small things).

It seems that we human beings have no direct access to reality. It seems that for each of us as individuals, our experiential reality is the model of reality our subconscious brains assemble for us based upon selection over vast evolutionary time at the genetic level, assisted by evolution over long evolutionary time at the cultural level, supplemented by our past experience and our distinction and abstraction sets available to us (and for most of us these sets are delivered implicitly by culture through experience).

It seems we are capable of choice, at ever more abstract levels, and as such are capable of leaving all the normal definition of pleasure (even Aristotle’s) behind.

It seems to be a very interesting thing, this thing called life.

[followed by]


The way you re-wrote what I said doesn’t significantly change anything.

The thing that so few people seem to get about Darwinian evolution is that it explains how selection delivers systems that seem to be goal oriented, but often are not. It seems clear, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that for the most part, they are just systems doing what they do, and either surviving or not, in various probability distributions, given the probability distributions of contexts that individuals within those populations encounter. For sexually reproducing organisms, the whole population of organisms can be treated as a single unit for evolutionary purposes, though the survival of the population is mediated through the survival of individuals.

So using a term like “the purpose of a plant seed is to grow into a plant” is a shorthand that many people find useful and convenient, but what it actually seems to describe, if one is being more strictly correct from a systems perspective, is something like:
“a seed is a system that, if given appropriate contexts of water, nutrient and soil conditions, atmospheric and land disturbance, light and temperature, predation and disease, may survive to become a tree and be capable of reproducing more seeds.”
No purpose in that. Just systems doing what systems do, within the constraints and boundaries present. Go outside of any of those limits, and the system goes beyond its ability to recover, and loses coherence, and is said to die. Too dry (drought) dead seedling or tree. Too wet (flood), drowns, dead thing. Too much wind, breaks off at base, dead. etc

The idea of purpose, is a human invented thing. It is not an attribute of the thing itself (the seed, or whatever).
Human beings are capable of envisaging an array of possible futures, and choosing one from amongst that, and directing activities to increase the probability of achieving that one over any of the other possibilities. That is a meaningful use of the term purpose (in a system capable of modeling reality including itself and running projections of possible futures, and possible utility functions associated with those futures, and making choices from the arrays of probabilities resulting) – whether that happens consciously or subconsciously.

The degree of rationality exhibited by human beings is a matter of some debate 😉 !

It seems very clear to me, that most human beings are no where near as rational as they think they are – which applies to even those who may appear at some levels to be most rational, like E Yudkowski as one example – only picking on him because he is a very high profile example in the “rational” world of AI.

I wrote:
“It seems that a respect for individual life, and individual liberty (where it doesn’t pose undue risk to life) are fundamental survival constraints common to all individuals.”
And you responded:
“Is this true? There are instances throughout history of cultures frequently raiding neighboring lands and enslaving the inhabitants.”

You need to read that comment within the context within which it was written, where I quite explicitly started the context with “If one is still concerned with matters of survival, then it behoves one to explore all the risks to survival and the sorts of strategies that can effectively mitigate those risks, while not unduly restricting one’s freedom to act”.

So the comment has little or nothing to do with the history of humanity pre-indefinite life extension or pre fully automated production, and everything to do with survival of individuals past those two technological tipping points.

My statement “It seems that we human beings have no direct access to reality”… has nothing directly to do with Berkeley’s assertion.
What I was pointing to with that statement is that it now seems clear, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that what we experience as reality, isn’t. It seems that what we as self aware individuals experience is a model of reality that our subconscious brain processes assemble for us. The model seems to be slightly predictive of aspects of reality most of the time – by about 200ms usually, though it seems it can vary a lot depending on context.

As such, many of the distinctions in that model have a certain utility in the world, without necessarily being accurate in an absolute sense. A table is solid to our bodies and to most things we normally have access to. A table is a close approximation to a vacuum to something like a neutrino.

It seems clear that the attributes of the model are based on our past experience, strongly influenced by present experience, and can also be influenced by a vast array of other brain processes (including recursively abstract processes).

So it seems clear that reality isn’t what it seems, and our experiential reality is usually a useful approximation to what actually seems to be “out there” in normal circumstances; but not always.
Stage magicians have many “exploits” (methods that fool the modeling systems of our subconscious into presenting us with an inaccurate model for some period of time) that they use, to convinces us that reality is other than what it is – as one example.
Reality just does it for no “reason” from time to time – we tend to call those “exceptional circumstances” – which they are – mostly.

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see
This entry was posted in Ideas, Philosophy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comment and critique welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s