(The start of this essay is in the previous post. That post is situated temporarily below this one in The Menu under the category, The Connection, varied topics. Please start there for a more complete understanding.)
In the previous post, “All the World in the Flip of a Coin,” philosopher Dan Dennett explored the curious truth that a Coin Toss has two apparently contradictory characteristics. One, it is “Open” to diverse results—heads or tails. Two, it is obviously totally determined by causal forces near and far; the result (“Heads!”) had no “Elbow Room,” it had to be what it was determined to be and therefore never “Open.”
Dennett concludes that a coin toss exists on two different levels for us. Our Limited Knowledge and Powers make it seem flexible, a head or tail were possible; yet if we knew much more no mystery as to its outcome would exist. A more powerful intelligence (“Laplace’s Demon”) would have understood each of the many factors that compose its “sufficient cause,” but to us more limited knowers, we need and search for “a necessary cause,” one or two or three factors that play a more prominent role in the event. Among a world full of contributors to it (the event’s sufficient cause), sometimes a more prominent cause is apparent.
How is this possible, this co-existence on these two levels at once? It is here that Dennett applies “a promised” Third Form of Causation: Final Causes or Purposes. We are limited in our Powers of Knowing and Doing so therefore we are merely theoretically aware of the world as a massive interconnection of sufficient causes, and most often are satisfied only by the discovery of a smaller set of necessary causes that some events possess. This introduction of Purposes as a form of causation is his (and some other philosophers as well) attempt to “Resolve”—as in the title—this tangled idea of “causation”: sufficient, necessary, final.
In “All the World in the Flip of a Coin,” a coin toss was Dennett’s brilliant example of an event (“a thing”) that was both caused and not caused at the same time. Its outcome is “sufficiently” caused by a great variety of factors but “necessarily” caused by no one or two of them, that is why we have so much trouble controlling it. Will it be Heads or Tails? We don’t know, and in this case we don’t want to control all the diverse input. The open outcome of the coin toss is useful to us, its Purpose.
Consider coin-tossing in comparison to pool. Pool is designed to maximize the role of skill, not luck. In pool, the field of play is isolated and constructed to allow the player almost total control of the outcome. The vast number of contributing factors (its sufficient cause)—or potentially contributing factors—are manipulated and utilized to allow the necessary cause for the outcome of each shot to be clear and almost singular. For example, pool is never played outside in a howling storm. Quite in contrast to coin-tossing, it’s a situation with a very different design and purpose.
Other examples given of events without Necessary Causes are many of the movements of the Stock Market. Even World War One, that war was going to happen and any number of events without the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand could have, would have, set it off. But this way of saying it, “event without necessary causes,” is not the best way—only a first attempt—to describe a curious character within our tangled sense of “causation.”
Dennett focuses on Designed Events, Designed Objects that Function, as the most important examples of occurrences in this tangle. They all exhibit the importance of Purposes and Goals, and the “openness” they create.
Returning to the Original Theme
Coin-Tossing is a human convention. It would not still be around if it did not serve some useful (and important) purpose to us. It is a good way to make a decision, when a decision is needed and there are no reasonable or necessary deciding considerations. Coin-tossing is a great tie-breaker, that is its purpose or goal.
To call “purposes and goals” causes, is an old way of talking. To call them “Final Causes” is even more suspect. Aristotle ‘coined’ (pun intended) that term, “final.” We moderns tend to not want to understand a goal as a cause, except when we are talking about subjective motivations. Otherwise, we like to keep our “causes” more public and observable, like pool balls bumping for all to see.
But to the ancients, all the things here on earth were striving (like a person)to attain the Harmony of The Spheres, an eternal perfection and an unrelenting constancy that lays outside and beyond each individual earthly thing. The Spheres were self-enclosed, circular; all that was to them was within them, we might say. And this is the character of goal-driven, purpose-guided objects. The ancients thought The Universe was goal driven, but we still recognize that organisms, artifacts, and persons “can” be.
How Purposeful Things Behave
“Generally” is how things constructed for a purpose work, in our world. Especially by contrast to the Harmonious Spheres which lay in the background, objects with purposes are not forever, not consistent every time, but only generally they do what they are designed to do. Purposes are always limited and from a particular point of view. A coin-toss results in heads or tails at generally an equal rate; a dog generally barks in certain situations; a bridge generally stands; I generally pick the shirt that I rather simply “want” each morning; at least from our point of view.
To do so, each designed situation or “thing” must simplify its situation. It cannot function in the world of total causal interaction like Laplace’s Demon or the world as displayed in physics. Designed things are limited things and as such, Dennett says, they are “an information processor” in the sense that each must ‘make decisions’ about what is important to it, and keep track of that information or that stimuli, only. All the other massive and multiple factors must be somehow relegated to “The Background” for it. “The Background” is a kind of holding pen for significant things (sufficient causes) but things not of primary importance (the necessary causes) to the purpose.
Dennett explains how this is possible. The Coin-Toss is designed to “amplify’ all the sufficient causes, he says, and then ‘interpret’ them (“push the digitizer”) into one of two modes—heads or tails. A dog barks when all the causes around it are interpreted, and this means many of them ignored, and undoubtedly to the dog many causes simply cancel each other out,—but in the end “the digitizer” (The Dog) is pushed by “its stimuli,” “its information,” into “Bark” or “No Bark” mode.
The game of pool is an excellent example of that kind of highly controlled and manipulated environment. When Willie Marconi lined up a shot, he did not think about gravity, though it was one of the most vital components of the game. Even less did he think of atomic decay or fields of electrical attraction—though present and operative they were relegated to the deep background for this purpose. Much more to Marconi’s concern where the very the levelness of the table and the smoothness of its surface, the lack of debris and the chalk on his stick’s tip. Pool is a highly designed situation, and it gave Marconi the “Elbow Room” to focus on true lines, appropriate momentums, and effective angles and contact. The game of pool—like much in Our World—is a limitation that allowed him the freedom to attain his goal.
This may not seem like much, but it is! At particular points, “all the world” comes to either a head or a tail for a coin toss, or a bark for a dog, or a particular shirt for me this morning, or a bank shot for Marconi.
Back to My Old Dog
In “All the World in a Flip of a Coin,” I started this essay joking about a congregation of atoms that I keep as a pet and how confusing it is to also talk of them as a dog that I have bonded to electrically, neurally, emotionally? I don’t know, but that’s the point.
So, this is how it is possible for a thing to be more than just one thing, by it having having wide-ranging “significance.” In other words, it is a “sign” of things beyond. This outcome—a bark, or the head of a coin—is a summation of the forces around it, expressed through the situation of—the design of—” a dog,” or “a coin toss,” contends Dennett.
In all purposive objects and events, its structured design sums up and counter-balances most causal forces around it and they are relegated to the background of sufficient causes. By doing so, its purpose has ‘the space,’ “the Elbow Room,” to operate through a few necessary causes.
An automobile, for example, stands against gravity and bares an additional load, it corners and it propels itself. When we speak of autos, we generally do not mention the expansion of the universe or the drifting of the continents; we speak of “the brakes,” “the starter,” “the chassis,” “the traction of the tires…” But this a new way of talking is not arbitrary; it is, and has been, tested against the physical background. It has proved itself. We have found some Necessary Causes in the massive background of Sufficient Causes that surround us, and made them work for us. They have a Purpose To Us.
It is a way of talking of a situation that from some points of view is a bit contrived, in the case of The Auto we call it “transportation.” Relative to the physical background that is apparent to “The Demon” (and that is the focus of the physicist), nothing is “really” being ‘carried through’ (“transported”) from one sub-atomic moment to the next. Each massive background is a total connection of (sufficient) causes shifted in its relation to the next total background of causes.
It is us, in our limited capacities, that focus on some specific set of particles and “see” some continuity from moment to moment, from background to background, and understand some purpose for that specific focus. Why, to “the demon,” Time is not even an essential element of “reality”! To it, past and present and future are all one!
Each automobile is a summation and balance of the forces and conditions around it; just as is each coin toss, and so for every other designed thing or situation. They are an abbreviated representation of the environment around it, for the sake of carrying out a purpose embedded in their physical structure. Whether an organism or other designed object or situation, each is a system with a purpose, even if as minimally as the tossing of a coin for a method of human choice.
“There is a familiar way of alluding to this tight relationship that can exist between the organization of a system and its environment: you say that the organism continuously mirrors the environment, or that there is a representation of the environment in—or implicit in—the organization of the system. ”
Dan Dennett, The Intentional Stance, 1987
One of Dennett’s main objectives is to understand how many of our ordinary and basic concepts are very useful, even ingenious. Ideas like “person,” “reasons,” “can,” and “rationality” are not just subjectively real but objectively grounded against their background. The same can be said for “dog,” “skyscraper,” and “Mississippi River.” It just goes to show that in our world—the world as it seems to us—Whole Things and Situations “can” be as Real as the Parts that Compose Them. Physics does not always have the last word. My dog came to a lot more than just atom-talk!
And we are lucky that our world has come to so many interesting, even if often tragic, outcomes.
My pet dog was a loveable animal. For over ten years, she showed great enthusiasm for life. Always an avid eater, very day she chased squirrels—a related kind of creature—and never caught a one. She even loved snow; it seemed to fascinate her that beneath it lay smells—signs of other things she “savored.” But she got old, and both she and I have limits. She declined faster than I. At about the age of thirteen, we “put her down.”
I sat next to her as her atoms lost the orientation we call life. Soon, she (they) stopped functioning completely. We cremated her remains and still have those ashes, somewhere. Her specific structure and purposes are gone. My pet dog is now clearly just atoms. No more squirrel-chasing for them! I think I will find those remaining carbon compounds, and release them from that plastic bag and from that tin canister, and return them to the Earth where someday soon they will be free to mingle with my own. Like they say, “From dust to dust.”