DRMacIver's Notebook

Teleology is fake

Teleology is fake

Tobi has written about origin stories and the importance of asking "What is this for?" instead of "Where does this come from?". He doesn't use the word teleology (the study of the purpose of things) but in the Adlerian psychology the post is based on that is what he's talking about.

I've previously talked about the usefulness of teleology in understanding our emotional reactions and how understanding the purpose of an emotional reaction (its teleology) is important to adjusting it.

Both Tobi and my posts have the same aetiology (origin story), which is that we read The Courage to be Disliked (a useful yet punchable book), which is in large part about using an understanding of teleology to change your social behaviours.

I do not want to minimize the importance of this approach, which is very powerful and important, but it does have a critical problem with it: Teleology is fake. Things don't happen for reasons.

Questions to ponder:

The answer to all of these questions is: There isn't a good reason, but they're still important. Teleology is fake.

Chesterton's fence is the idea that if there is a fence in a field, you should not take it down unless you know the reason why it is there:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, 'I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away.' To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: 'If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.'

But "Why is this fence here?" is a slippery question. Do we mean it as a question of aetiology or teleology? "What is the use of this fence?" is a very different question from "Who put this fence here and why?". You might answer the latter, find out that it is for reasons that no longer apply, and tear the fence down, and discover that the local ecology collapses because now grazing sheep can get somewhere they previously couldn't.

There's a quote that is apparently from a sci-fi novel I've never read, by Donald Kingsbury:

“Tradition is a set of solutions for which we have forgotten the problems. Throw away the solution and you get the problem back. Sometimes the problem has mutated or disappeared. Often it is still there as strong as it ever was.”

This, like Chesterton's fence, is an extremely conservative principle against reform that is also wildly optimistic about how easy reform is.

The problem is that tradition is not just a solution to problems we've forgotten, it's also a foundational layer on which we have built subsequent things. In the fence example, maybe the sheep came long after the fence, and were just never a problem before now. Changing the tradition invalidates foundational assumptions for many other things you were doing, possibly without even knowing they were there.

Now lets talk about giraffes. Animals are a good model for social behaviour after all. Why do giraffes have long necks?

Well there are a couple possible reasons:

All of these seem to be good hypotheses. Which one is the true reason?

Well... probably all of them. Evolution doesn't actually do things for reasons. Evolution just tries random nonsense, and sometimes the random nonsense proves useful in ways that gives a net advantage. If something is useful for multiple weak reasons, that's just as good as it being useful for a single strong reason (potentially even better! More robust, more directions to develop in). So the "reason" giraffes have long necks might just be "All of the above, plus some things we didn't think of, plus these add up to being worth the cost".

Evolution doesn't design things how a human designer sits down and design things (although in practice things created by humans are also designed in an evolutionary way, but the "mutation" process is a bit more directed) - it doesn't need simple legible reasons for what it does, it just tries stuff and sees how it pans out.

(Even this is of course too much of an anthropomorphisation of evolution, but it's a useful one)

Moving away from complex messy evolved systems that make no sense to instead discussing the human mind and its decision making, which obviously makes complete sense, I'm going to be taking singing lessons once the pandemic has lifted and I can find a teacher.

Why? Well...

Those are the big ones, but there are more. But no single one of these is remotely close to enough to convince me to learn to sing. Any two or three wouldn't be. What's convinced me to learn to sing is that an accumulation of enough good, individually insufficient, reasons, has tipped it over to the point where the cost-benefit analysis is a clear net win.

This is how everything works. Teleology is a useful lens to look at problems through, and should not be discarded, but ultimately if we think things are happening for a simple, clear, and comprehensible purpose, and that if we change them then nothing will change except insofar as it is related to that purpose, we're going to be in for an unpleasant surprise.