Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Richard Dawkins on "Purpose"

One of the most astonishing discoveries of modern science is that the universe does not exhibit any signs of "purpose" or "goals." This single conclusion is probably more responsible for the profound conflict between science and religion than any other. The attractiveness of religion was that it seemed to answer the "why" questions that science, presumably, could not answer. Now, modern science tells us that the question was meaningless.

That evolution is a blind, purposeless process is difficult to grasp, yet it is a fundamental part of understanding biology. The concept is explicitly mentioned in college level textbooks, although some introductory biology textbooks place less emphasis on it than you will find in more advanced courses.

Here's how Douglas Futuyma describes purpose in Evolution (2005) (p. 12).
Above all, Darwin's theory of random, purposeless variation acted on by blind, purposeless natural selection provided a revolutionary new kind of answer to almost all questions that begin with "Why?" Before Darwin, both philosophers and people in general answered "Why?" questions by citing purpose. Since only an intelligent mind, with the capacity for forethought, can have purpose, questions such as "Why do plants have flowers?" or "Why are there apple trees?"—or diseases, or earthquakes—were answered by imagining the possible purpose that God could have had in creating them. This kind of explanation was made completely superfluous by Darwin's theory of natural selection. The adaptations of organisms—long cited as the most conspicuous evidence of intelligent design in the universe—could be explained by purely mechanistic causes. For evolutionary biologists, the flower of the magnolia has a function but not a purpose. It was not designed in order to propagate the species, much less to delight us with its beauty, but instead came into existence because magnolias with brightly colored flowers reproduced more prolifically than magnolias with less brightly colored flowers. The unsettling implication of this purely material explanation is that, except in the case of human behavior, we need not invoke, nor can we find any evidence for, any design, goal, or purpose anywhere in the natural world.

It must be emphasized that all of science has come to adopt the way of thought that Darwin applied to biology. Astronomers do not seek the purpose of comets or supernovas, not chemists the purpose of hydrogen bonds. The concept of purpose plays no part in scientific explanations.
Richard Dawkins made the same point in his book River Out of Eden (1995) (pp. 96-98). Here he is reading those pages.

The concept of purposeless, or accidental, evolution comes naturally to those evolutionary biologists who are used to thinking about random genetic drift. Those biologists tend to be comfortable with the idea that the tape of life will never be replayed.

But, as Richard Dawkins notes at the end of his reading, there are other biologists for whom "the illusion of purpose is so powerful that [they] use the assumption of good design as a working tool." Many of these biologists are not completely comfortable with the idea that the tape of life may not play out the same. They tend to see convergence, and other things, as evidence of some sort of inevitable purpose (design) in the history of life. This is, of course, materialistic design, not supernatural design.

This point of view crops up in terms such as "the evolution of evolvability," "facilitated variation," and even "self-organization."

In addition to this subtle form of "purpose" we see clear evidence of true purpose in animals with sophisticated brains. Those animals clearly develop goal-oriented behaviors.

Dawkins addresses these points in his current lecture tour by making a distinction between different definitions of purpose.
The Purpose of Purpose

"We humans are obsessed with purpose. The question, “What is it for?” comes naturally to a species surrounded by tools, utensils and machines. For such artifacts it is appropriate, but then we go too far. We apply the “What is it for?” question to rocks, mountains, stars or the universe, where it has no place.

How about living things? Unlike rocks and mountains, animals and plants, wings and eyes, webbed feet and leaves, all present a powerful illusion of design. Since Darwin, we have understood that this, too, is an illusion. Nevertheless, it is such a powerful illusion that the language of purpose is almost irresistible. Huge numbers of people are seriously misled by it, and biologists in practice use it as a shorthand.I shall develop two meanings of “purpose”. Archi-purpose is the ancient illusion of purpose, a pseudo-purpose fashioned by natural selection over billions of years. Neo-purpose is true, deliberate, intentional purpose, which is a product of brains. My thesis is that neo-purpose, or the capacity to set up deliberate purposes or goals, is itself a Darwinian adaptation with an archi-purpose.

Neo-purpose really comes into its own in the human brain, but brains capable of neo-purposes have been evolving for a long time. Rudiments of neo-purpose can even be seen in insects. In humans, the capacity to set up neo-purposes has evolved to such an extent that the original archi-purpose can be eclipsed and even reversed. The subversion of purpose can be a curse, but there is some reason to hope that it might become a blessing."
Wesley Elsberry was at the Dawkins lecture in Michigan on March 2nd and he has posted a lengthy summary on The Panda's Thumb: Richard Dawkins and “The Purpose of Purpose”. It's very helpful for those of us who couldn't attend one of these lectures.


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  2. Hi Larry-

    Funny that when I say that the theory of evolution posits blind, purposeless processes I get told by evos that I am erecting a strawman. And when I provide the quotes of evolutionary biologists to support my claim I get told that argument via quote is not a way to argue. Or I get told that an argument from authority is fallicious.

  3. Joe G

    Funny that when I say that the theory of evolution posits blind, purposeless processes I get told by evos that I am erecting a strawman.

    You standard whine isn't "evolution posits blind, purposeless processes". It's "evolution posits blind, undirected processes"

    The two things don't mean the same. Evolution isn't undirected. It is directed through feedback from the environment in the form of natural selection. Evolution is however purposeless.

    FAIL again for you Joe.

  4. Thorton,

    Mutations are undirected and natural selection is blind. So you FAIL yet again.

    And what direction does this alleged feedback provide? Please be specific.

  5. 38 Nobel Laureates say:

    "Logically derived from confirmable evidence, evolution is understood to be the result of an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection."

    Natural selection is said to be blind and mindless. Just what direction is a blind, mindless, unguided and unplanned process going to produce?

  6. Joe G said

    And what direction does this alleged feedback provide? Please be specific.

    Specifically, feedback from the environment tends to drive the population towards a local optimum fitness level. That can involve both morphological and behavioral changes to the popualtion.

    How many hundreds of times have you had that explained to you by now, and how many times have you stupidly not gotten it?

  7. Specifically, feedback from the environment tends to drive the population towards a local optimum fitness level.

    Citation please.

    And why does Mayr say whatever is good enough survives to reproduce? "Good enough" does not = "optimum".

    And yes you can baldly declare stuff but that does not make it so. In what way "a local optimum fitness level" a direction?

    Also what is this alleged local optimum? Let me guess- "whatever it is"

    So the alleged "direction" = "whatever it is".

    But anyway good luck supporting your tripe, especially seeing tat genetic drift is the major player.

  8. The evidence says that specifically, feedback from the environment tends to drive the population towards a wobbling stability.

    Another thorton FAIL.

  9. Yeah yeah we know your rants by heart now Joe. You're been bleating the same sad one-liners for almost a decade.

    "blind undirected processes never created anything!!"
    "nature operating freely never created anything!!"
    "Your side has no evidence!!"
    "ID disproves the blind watchmaker!!"
    "I already showed you the evidence for ID!!"

    Let us know when you IDiots finally come up with some real empirical positive evidence that can withstand critical peer review. No one will be holding their breath.

    You may now resume with your scientifically ignorant attention whoring.

  10. LoL! evoTARD thorton can't support its claims so it throws a hissy-fit.

    Let us know when you evoTARDs finally come up with some real empirical positive evidence that can withstand critical peer review.

  11. "blind undirected processes never created anything!!"

    When did I say that? Do you have a reference?

    "nature operating freely never created anything!!"

    Nope, I never said that.

    "Your side has no evidence!!"

    It doesn't. Don't blame me.

    "ID disproves the blind watchmaker!!"

    Can't disprove something that doesn't have any supporting evidence. But ID is anti-the blind watchmaker have sole dominion over the univese.

    "I already showed you the evidence for ID!!"

    I have. OTOH your position still has nothing but bald declarations.

  12. Dawkins is a perfect example of someone forcing religion to bow down to what he calls "science" which in fact is in reality a materialistic philosophy. I am not criticizing Dawkins for being an evolutionist and believing in natural selection for I am an evolutionist as well. However, to tell religious people that there is absolutely no purpose in this world and then to argue that evolution is void of purpose (even though it is simply describing the change of life - ie descent with modification) is forcing religion not to accept science but rather a pseudoscience disguised as a materialistic philosophy. I find it incredible that the only valid objection to theistic evolutionism/evolutionary creationism that I have seen from atheists like Dawkins is that it "is trying to push God back into the equation". This is wrong. All theistic evolutionism/evolutionary creationism is doing is refusing to submit itself to a materialistic philosophy and if atheists don't like that then that is something they have to get over.