December 04, 2012

Teleology forever

Young children are inclined to see purpose in the natural world. Ask them why we have rivers, and they'll likely tell you that we have rivers so that boats can travel on them (an example of a "teleological explanation").
Thus a starts a recent post in one of my favorite blogs. And thus I started, back in September, the course I am currently teaching. Our drive to find purpose in others' actions to better predict them is so powerful that we can't help extend theories of mind to objects. This is not exclusive of children or uneducated people. The post I have just quoted reports that a lab study (Professional physical scientists display tenacious teleological tendencies: purpose-based reasoning as a cognitive default) has found that teleological thinking "forever lingers in the minds of physics professors" and other science professionals, and it surfaces especially when they have little time to think.

People and other organisms have objectives and usually act in ways that help them to achieve those objectives. Only organisms have objectives. Groups of organisms are not organisms and don't have objectives. Planned obsolescence, worker exploitation, Marxism, consumer manipulation, created needs, technology suppression, Gaia theory, and many other crackpot theories all rely on attributing purposes to groups of people or non-living objects like capitalism, industry, the financial sector, countries or the Earth.

When we attribute intentions to inanimate objects we fail to correctly predict their "behavior," and make bad decisions along the way.

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