Friday, July 23, 2010

A thought about thinking

I suspect that Homo sapiens has evolved to attribute order to agency. If a pattern appears then it must be that some thinking entity created that order. Thinking that way seems instinctive. When we argue from ignorance, we attribute things to the intervention of others, even spirits. The language of philosophers distinguish teleological systems (which are goal directed) from teleonomic systems (in which order appears without planning). Scientists have spent a great deal of effort to develop models that explain the appearance of order without planning:
  • Statistics explains how many random samples from a distribution are likely to show properties like that of the original distribution.
  • Feedback systems can maintain homeostasis without the intervention of a planner.
  • Evolutionary processes can present order without planning.
  • Indeed, our perceptual apparatus can make us believe we perceive order when it does not exist. Think of the visual illusion of the old woman-young woman when we perceive one or the other images in the same field; the mind imposes one of two ordered patterns in the perception of something which is in fact neither.
The languages I know are quite good in providing words like "planned" and "organized" to reflect teleological explanations for order, but are less useful in providing words to reflect teleonomic explanations. Indeed, many Americans believe that "evolution" requires planning.

It is increasingly believed by scientists that Homo sapiens has evolved to perceive others to be like us, and to attribute thought to others. We can not only guess what someone else is thinking, but what that person thinks another person is thinking, and so on. Of course, many of us will as a result attribute screw ups to deliberate action by others rather than to Murphy's law (that anything that can go wrong will go wrong). I have found it useful often to buck the trend and to assume that incompetence is more often the explanation of screw ups than ill will.

I suspect that our inherent tendency to attribute thoughts to others is linked to our tendency to assume teleology rather than teleonomy, and these are also linked to our lack of facilities in language to describe order appearing by natural rather processes rather than by the organization of an agent.

I suggest that it might be useful to have individual words for the following forms of real order:

  • accidental order
  • natural order (that arises from evolutionary, feedback and similar unplanned processes)
  • planned order
and reflecting the possibility of perceiving order where none exists
  • perceptually imposed order.
Any suggestions!

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