Where Purpose Comes From

This is an excerpt from a Christian radio show called Unbelievable hosted by Justin Brierley. The full 80-minute-plus discussion is also available. These snippets tend to be edited so as to give the Christian more speaking time.

Daniel Dennett’s interlocutor, Keith Ward, is an idealist. Idealism is the backwards idea that consciousness creates reality, rather than what most of the world believes; that consciousness is something that emerges in reality. Idealism requires you to constantly duck and dodge the questions, both of what brains are for if consciousness exists separately from them? And how did the universe exist (and seem to have a coherent history) for 10 billion years prior to the emergence of things that were conscious? It’s a position that survives only through aggressively ignoring all of the evidence against it.

After Dan rather briefly explains where purpose comes from, you can see Keith’s true position come out. It’s an in-advance commitment not to accept any solutions to difficult questions that don’t feel like magic. Intuitively the argument is extremely compelling. Some questions just feel so insurmountable on their face that it feels as though the only way out could be something magical or divine.

The problem is that we all have ready counterexamples in our lives: Magic Tricks! We know from a ten year old showing us a magic trick we can’t explain that things which feel magical are in no way required to have magical explanations. You can’t wage these arguments on the basis of intuition.

In particular, his intuition that in order to form an image of some possible future state requires some form of transcendent-consciousness-magic just shows that he hasn’t ready a physics textbook. Since the universe follows certain regularities, we have a very powerful (albeit not unlimited) ability to predict the future. Simply, there is enough information bandwidth in the present to include models of possible futures. Just like a picture of a ball which is partway through rolling down the hill contains information about where the ball will be later on (at the bottom of the hill). No magic required!

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