Intention as opposed to blind action

Intention is opposed to blind action in one sense and not in another, and so to call nature blind, or to notice some way in which it is blind, is to oppose it to purposeful intention in one way and not in another.

Sheerly and utterly blind actions can be used intentionally all the time. As far as the football players or refs are concerned, the coin flip that starts the game is utterly blind, and it would be of no value to them if it were not blind (since it would not be fair); so far as the guy mixing cement is concerned, that a piece of gravel end up at this part of the sidewalk or another part is completely random. Note that in both cases the blind is sought so far as it makes equal and equitable: there is a justice in starting football games with a coin-flip (though it is not the only way to assure justice) and the random distributions of the cement mixer are the best way to ensure the equitable distribution of the gravel. It’s hard not to see nature doing something analogous to this: it’s precisely the random motions of, say, water molecules that assure that the water will make a nice, flat, evenly distributed liquid; and it’s precisely because the winners of X and Y chromosome sperm cell races are random that we have roughly the same number of men and women conceived. Now in nature as we actually find it, it’s hard to deny that it’s a good thing that we have roughly the same number of men and women born, and that the quantum motions of water aren’t coordinated enough to make a lake form visibly odd shapes at random.

It’s no easy task to see how one could get from seeing that some natural action was blind to seeing that it is not the instrument of some intention for a good. It is frequently taken as an axiom that chance can explain the appearance of purpose; but even if this is true, how could we rule out chance itself being in the service of intention?

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18 Comments

  1. thenyssan said,

    July 7, 2010 at 11:38 am

    This comes up a lot when my smart-alecks bring up Quantum Theory (which none of us in the room is -really- qualified to discuss, but hey, it’s a school for boys, so why not?) during our discussions of theistic proofs or sin’s effect on the order of the universe. I like your analogy of the coin toss for “purpose harnessing chance.” Quantum indeterminacy as God’s mechanism for natural justice?

  2. July 7, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    I don’t know, but that would make sense. All I know is that discovering an intention would allow you to rule out chance in a way that discovering chance does not allow you to rule out intention. We have concrete experiences of chance being an instrument, and it is impossible not to see analogies to this in nature.

  3. Crude said,

    July 7, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    “It is frequently taken as an axiom that chance can explain the appearance of purpose; but even if this is true, how could we rule out chance itself being in the service of intention?”

    Hopefully I get your greater point here, which is that these supposedly (and I’d stress that – supposed, assumed) blind actions we’re talking about are able to be employed in service of the sighted, for lack of a better word.

    For my own part, I’m finding it harder and harder to take chance seriously as anything other than a statement of ignorance on the part of individuals, rather than as a meaningful (much less scientific) statement about what those individuals see. Anything credited to chance and blindness, intention and sight can accomplish, as near as I can tell. And attention/sight I know with certainty exists at least in some cases. This (ultimate) chance and blindness? I’ve not seen it, of course, and by definition I never will.

    • July 7, 2010 at 2:00 pm

      I don’t think we have to be suspicious of blind action, or treat it as though it only supposedly happens: there are clear examples of blind actions, and even many times when we seek them out for various reasons. If we could tell which straw was the shortest, there’d be no point to drawing straws: the whole point is that everyone draws blindly. That’s the only way the process could be fair. Likewise with coin flips: as far as the flipper is concerned, they are really sheerly random. If there were some man that could know exactly how the coin would fall every time one was flipped, then he would still have to look around for a way to start a football game, decide which of his two buddies would get the last beer, etc. Again, if you’re adding chocolate chips to cookie dough, you want them to be combined at random: that’s the best way to ensure that they divide more or less evenly.

      (nb. I’ve wrote a lot in the past about how “blind” might not be the best word for it, but I’m taking for granted that it is an acceptable word here).

      • Crude said,

        July 7, 2010 at 2:22 pm

        I agree that when we draw straws, we (well, in the typical example) don’t know which is shortest, just as we don’t know which side will come up when we flip a coin, and so on. But that’s compatible with God (for example) ultimately knowing which is the shortest straw, which way the coin will come up, and so on. That’s all I meant here by questioning the reality of ‘blind’ and ‘undirected’, since that’s sort of ultimate knowledge or result is what I always see these words used in opposition of.

        And I of course don’t deny that ‘our’ blindness has utility. Randomness and the ability for a player to not know what’s coming next has tremendous application in games.

  4. July 7, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    Just saying thanks for an especially clear and helpful post!

    • July 7, 2010 at 2:13 pm

      Thanks Dale.

      And by “football” I mean the one that isn’t soccer.

      (Does soccer start with a coin flip? I can’t image why it would…)

  5. Ian said,

    July 7, 2010 at 3:07 pm

    Hey – Just following the link from Dale’s blog and figured I’d pitch in. I haven’t read anything else on the blog other than the about page so I may be missing you point somewhat 🙂

    Sheerly and utterly blind actions can be used intentionally all the time.

    Blind/random actions are useful when the outcome is statistically stable such as concrete or a coin flip and when you don’t really care about specific components in the outcome. In concrete you remain blind to the location of specific stones but know in advance you’ll get concrete in pretty much any configuration (so it is only partially blind in that sense).

    With something like evolution which is a chaotic system however things are a bit different. It seems highly likely that if you start with some replicators you’ll end up with complex life of some description eventually. However it would be vastly improbable that you’d end up with humans ever again taking initial replicators and evolving them. So if the goal was complex life then the blind action would get you the result you wanted. If the goal was Humans (blindly) designed to love god then this is not a good way to approach it.

    Now in nature as we actually find it, it’s hard to deny that it’s a good thing that we have roughly the same number of men and women born, and that the quantum motions of water aren’t coordinated enough to make a lake form visibly odd shapes at random.

    Only “good” from the perspective of our species right now. Many species have quite different sex-ratios and if water could rearrange itself to weird shapes I suspect humans wouldn’t exist at all – a plethora of different animals probably would.

    • July 7, 2010 at 4:22 pm

      Okay, so you make two points. I presume they are meant as refutations. Your second point isn’t a disagreement: I say something is good, you say it is “‘good’ from the perspective of our species right now“. Who in the world would think that true goods would have to be opposed to the good from the perspective of a species? Are you saying that a good from the perspective of species is really an evil? Or does your only “refutation” consist in putting the word good in quotation marks?

      Your first point says some interesting things that are good to know, but it would only count as a refutation if my only example of a chance event was a coin flip. It wasn’t. Cement mixers were another example, which are an entirely different sort of system. What is the goal of this argument anyway? Are you just trying to convince me of the truth of some blasphemy?

      • Ian said,

        July 7, 2010 at 5:10 pm

        Re “good” I was making the point that water they way it is would probably be quite bad for animals that evolved to live with unstable water such as your example. So if it was to suddenly change right now it would be a problem but if it had always been that way then it wouldn’t be.

        Re the concrete, I covered that and barely mentioned the coins…

        The point of the argument? You said that

        It’s no easy task to see how one could get from seeing that some natural action was blind to seeing that it is not the instrument of some intention for a good.

        and I was responding with a clarification of that point.

        As for blasphemy, I don’t think that term has any meaning to me.

      • July 8, 2010 at 5:31 am

        Again, no disagreement about whether it is good. Point settled.

        Hey, you did mention the concrete! good point. I’ll mull over your response a bit more, but on the face of it I see you just showing a way in which certain ends might be ruled out from certain blind processes: If some blind process was unlikely to produce X, we can judge that it cannot be intended to produce X. In your example, if evolutionary chaos was unlikely to produce the love of God, then we cannot say that the love of God arose from evolutionary chaos. But this would not show that evolutionary chaos is divorced from any intention, which, in the context of the post, was exactly the question raised. Evolutionary chaos clearly gives rise to the diversity of species (where diversity is understood as including all species over time: if six go extinct in giving rise to one, that counts as seven total, and as a net increase in diversity). But I see diversity or multiplicity in this sense as a good, and as an intended and divine thing. So far as divine things might have an order to making one love God, there could be a remote intention to the love of God in evolutionary chaos, but I wouldn’t press the point. The diversity of species would be enough of a divine good, worthy to be intended.

        Bringing up a possible role that God might (or might not) play in the process brings in new considerations here, since I would argue that God is a per se cause of being as such, and that what arises from blind causation is certainly a being (here is a good first glance at the argument See the response to the first objection.)

        “As for blasphemy, I don’t think that term has any meaning to me.

        Taken in the first sense in which terms have meaning, this is a silly thing to say. You are not the one who sets the meanings or significations of our English. You may be irritated that the language you are using contains various terms (I am too, so is everybody) and you might even think that certain terms more pervert thought than direct it (again, so does any reflective person) but them’s the breaks.

        Feel free to take the last word if you want it. It takes me a terribly long time to write comments, so I try to limit myself to two or three responses per person.

  6. Mike said,

    July 7, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    However it would be vastly improbable that you’d end up with humans ever again taking initial replicators and evolving them.

    Maybe so; maybe no. Not all protein folds are possible physically-chemically, so genetic mutations may be no more than flipping a coin with a thousand faces. Environmental stresses tend toward similar forms. “Rodents” have evolved three times: once from reptiles, twice from mammals, with our present-day “true” rodents being only the most recent.

    Humans are essentially rational animals. Their actual size, shape, color, etc. are accidents. So… why not humans? Even if not H. sap. humans.

    Besides, in chaotic systems, order repeatedly emerges from chaos. Michael Barnsley developed a chaotic system in a computer that always ended up drawing a fern leap regardless what random data it was fed.

    • Crude said,

      July 7, 2010 at 3:59 pm

      Mike,

      I’d echo these thoughts. Simon Conway Morris would be one of those on the other side of the debate (across from Gould), arguing that certain forms – including the human and human-like – were inevitable. I notice Stephen Hawking, though far outside of his field, wasn’t shy about sharing his strong hunches about the existence of other alien life and how they would behave and think.

      My own problem* with this is that the question of blind v directed isn’t a purely scientific one besides. Were the results of any process intended? Unintended? Directed towards one goal, or none? I’ve not heard of Michael Barnsley, but the example of the fern leaf in a fractal pattern is interesting – could someone look at the pattern and say ‘Ah, this was clearly developed by someone on purpose.’ if all they had to go on was the output? How about “No, this wasn’t clearly developed by someone on purpose”?

      (* The problem isn’t the question, but only when the question is passed off as scientific, rather than the philosophical/metaphysical question it is.)

  7. AT said,

    July 8, 2010 at 12:38 am

    Is there a difference between contingent and random?

  8. July 8, 2010 at 5:58 am

    There seems to be many very great differences. Contingent does seem more to describe a being and random more a process or action; many contingencies are not random, random tends to mean equal probability of outcomes, etc.

    There is one likeness between them: the contingent means “able to be or not be”, and, taken precisely in this way, we might say that being and non-being are equally “probable” outcomes (using “probable” in a very general way, quite apart from putting any numbers on anything)

  9. Mike said,

    July 8, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    “Random” to a statistician does not mean that all outcomes are equally likely. Consider throwing a pair of dice. The outcome “2” will occur on the average one time in 36, while the outcome “7” will occur six times in 36. It is well known that while an individual outcome may not be predictable, the overall pattern of outcomes – the distribution – may be very precisely predictable. That’s how casinos and insurance companies make money. The latter seem good examples of the intentional use of blind chance.

  10. July 11, 2010 at 7:16 pm

    Good casino example, Mike. These “intentional use of blind chance” examples seem to crop up everywhere – it almost reminds me of the fundamental relationship to divine sovereignty and natural ‘free will’.

  11. July 12, 2010 at 6:07 am

    The casino is another example of intentional use of blind chance (the roulette ball doesn’t fall where it does because of where I put my chips) but I am reticent to use it as an example of nature since it comes with so much baggage.


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