purpose

In a book published last fall called Mind and Cosmos, philosopher Thomas Nagel challenges the prevailing view against teleology.  For hundreds of years science has chipped away at the idea we’re all directed toward some purpose, finding better arguments for our origins than our ends.  So we get good theories about how the universe hangs together, laws of physics and rules of heredity, or molecular bonding, or plate tectonics, or – for me the epitome of counter-teleology – Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection.  And we relegate to religion the idea that it might all be directed toward anything.

Putting it another way, we think the world gets its marching orders from the past, not the future.

Except, as Nagel points out, our consciousness doesn’t work that way:  we plan, we hope and dread.  And not just humans; others are in the anticipation racket too, as Pavlov noticed with the dinner bell.  So what gives?  These minds are part of the natural universe that we’re claiming is indifferent to the future.

Penny and Benji

One strand of thinking – associated with Rene Descartes and religious conviction – says that this is the difference between the brain and the mind.  The former is merely the physical vessel of the latter, and attention is evidence of the supernatural, and divine.  But that’s a risky argument, unless you want to say our dogs’ drool is proof of their souls.

Nagel is careful not to defend intelligent design; he’s not saying we’re here for a reason, and can all rest easy cause daddy’s watching over us.  He just thinks all this backward-looking may be due for a revisit.

 I think he’s right, partly because in his thinking I hear echoes of a couple of physicists I like.  One is Freeman Dyson, who made a related point decades earlier in a book called Infinite in All Directions.  Dyson buys it that our rules of nature run us on autopilot, but finds it fishy that the rules all line up in our favor.  So he sets aside a separate realm of science for teleology.  Here’s how he puts it:

Science does not accept Aristotelian styles of explanation, that stone falls because its nature is earthy and so it likes to be on Earth, or that man’s brain evolves because man’s nature is to be intelligent.  Within science, all causes must be local and instrumental.  Purpose is not acceptable as an explanation of scientific phenomena.  Action at a distance, either in space or time, is forbidden.  Especially, teleological influences of final goals upon phenomena are forbidden.

How do we reconcile this prohibition with our human experience of purpose and with our faith in a universal purpose?  I make the reconciliation possible by restricting the scope of science.

The choice of the laws of nature, and the choice of initial conditions for the universe, are questions belonging to meta-science and not to science.  Science is restricted to the explanation of phenomena within the universe.  Teleology is not forbidden when explanations go beyond science into meta science.

The other physicist I’m reminded of with such arguments – although this one’s less direct, and maybe I’m just seeing things – is Stephen Hawking.  There’s a part of A Brief History of Time that recaps Roger Penrose’s work on a concept called the Arrow of Time.  Penrose points out that most of the behavior in the universe looks the same if you run it backward or forward, with just a handful of intriguing exceptions.

Hawking believes two of those exceptions are related:

Entropy:  which says that over time disorder tends to increase, as ordered energy dissipates into heat; and

Memory:  which shapes our consciousness and attention by making us know the past but not the future.

Penrose points out that these are unusual phenomena because they proceed in only one direction in time, and Hawking theorizes that it’s because the second one hitches a ride on the energy produced by the first.

That idea stuck with me, that our brains may string together events in chronological order not because the events happened that way, but because that’s what happens when you fuel attention by metabolizing food into body heat.

One way I’ve seen this illustrated:  picture time as vertical, with the past reaching downward and the future going up.  Along that axis is the rotation of the Earth, which in this layout would look like a corkscrew.  Our attention, confined to experiencing that dimension only one moment at a time, and only from the bottom toward the top, gets little bits of the corkscrew in sequence, and experiences rotation:

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(This illustration is from a 1904 book called The Fourth Dimension, by Charles Hinton.)

So, our perceptions tell us we’re on an object that moves inexorably through time, and that summer has to follow spring.  But really it’s all always there, and what’s bounded by sequence isn’t the movement, but our experience of it.

Bringing it back to Thomas Nagel:  maybe all this hand-wringing about whether the universe is oriented toward the past or the future, about Aristotle vs. Darwin, turns on a false distinction.  The past and the future are both always there anyway, and so both are calling the shots.

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Something I found striking when I left campus life a to work in a system office:  the meetings here are longer.  (Contain your envy.)  This is because it doesn’t make sense to convene people from our campuses for just an hour or two, so we do phone calls when we can, saving up the thorny problems for a marathon in a conference room.

There are few settings where the struggle against entropy is so vivid.

Last week I hunkered down with half a dozen leaders of a grant-funded project whose principal investigator no longer works at the CSU.  At the macro level the goal is clear:  “improve CSU educational practice in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math” – the so-called STEM disciplines that we all want more of our students to take on successfully.

But the movement from here to there has felt rudderless.  This can be frustrating at first, but in the long run this is an opportunity, amounting to resources (mostly time, attention, and money) in search of an agenda.

STEM education is a knotty problem, one the whole country wrestles with every generation or so.  (Sputnik was in orbit for less than a year, yet it seems to keep swinging by.)  These disciplines are characterized by long chains of prerequisites, entailing inflexibly sequential coursework, and by a heavy reliance on quantitative reasoning, keeping them out of reach of many of our students at entry.  Yet, the world needs STEM graduates, and the large publics need to make them.

So this day-long meeting hinged on a very hard problem, tackled with little direction.  It required adept leadership, which we fortunately had in Kathleen Rice.  If you’ve been to facilitated meetings, then you would have recognized the toolkit:  butcher paper on the walls, use of labels and colors and spacing to organize vague thinking, and the formidable social skills it takes to corral impatient brainiacs on lockdown.

IMG00116-20130213-1449By the end of the day we had agreed we’ll need to get systematic and pervasive with best practices already in CSU STEM education:  undergraduate research, internships, learning communities, and community-embedded research.  We talked about designating long-term systemwide leadership, and robust faculty development.  We sweated the K-12 pipeline, math remediation, and articulation with community colleges.  Our collective attention swam upstream against the tides of entropy, chaos and inertia.  We agreed to write it up.

It was a mildly out-of-body experience for me.  Six hours into any meeting a mind will wander, and mine was watching all of us from a distance, with Nagel and Hawking, wondering if time is really concurrent instead of consecutive.  It felt like we were participating in an ancient effort, the struggle for purpose that started before we left Africa.  Are we ever going to find it?  Do we really have to settle for unsatisfying clichés that it’s only about the journey?

At the end of the meeting we were each asked to comment on our hopes for next steps in CSU STEM education, using props on the table.

Jim Till, our Assistant Vice Chancellor for Research Initiatives and Partnerships, has spent a career in scientific research, trying hard to distinguish reality from our subjective impression of it.  He picked up a rubber eyeball, and said that what he really wanted was for our STEM students to appreciate the difference between what they see (or want to see), and the underlying reality that those disciplines seek to understand.

I hope we can swing it.

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