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Philosophical Grind: why assume that your actions matter

Epistemic status: It should go without saying that I don't have any certainty about the fundamental nature of the universe. This is just a bit of conjecture that gets me through my day.

What causes us to choose one action as opposed to another? There are, of course, instantaneous needs that must be met, but how do we decide the bigger questions in life?

Over the past several months I have formulated a resolution to this question that I believe makes the fewest necessary assumptions about the structure of the universe. It is mostly centered around an abstracted form of Pascal's wager, but without the necessity of assuming extrinsic rewards or a particular belief system. It can be summarized with the following statement that I am terming the Philosophical Grind.

Assuming that a purpose to the universe is not impossible, and that one wishes to help fulfill the purpose of the universe, then one should attempt to hold the belief that their actions can be conducive to fulfilling that purpose and choose their actions accordingly.

I have previously worked through a personally limited justification of the above statement. Below I will try to prove this statement more generally and show what it implies.

The Philosophical Grind

Premises

The statement has two necessary premises that must first be addressed. These can be restated as answers to the following questions.

  • Is it possible that the universe has a purpose?
  • If the universe has a purpose, would you prioritize trying to fulfill it?

The first question only asks whether it is possible; it need not even be likely. This leads to the first premise of this philosophy, that a purpose to the universe is not impossible. This premise seems easy to satisfy, and to negate it would require some sort of proof that I have not seen. The second question is truly up to the individual, but I can safely answer it "yes," and to me, it feels reasonable to assume the same for most people who would concern themselves with these questions. This leads to the second premise, that one wishes to help fulfill the purpose of the universe.

Should we act as though the universe has a purpose?

Given the first premise we can posit that the universe we live in must fall into one of three mutually exclusive classes.

  • Universe has no purpose
  • Universe has some purpose but our actions cannot influence its fulfillment
  • Universe has some purpose and our actions may influence its fulfillment

Using the second premise, we can state whether we should modify our actions dependent on which of the above three types of universes we live in.

In the first two types of universe (no purpose or non-influenceable purpose), there is no reason to modify the course of my action. If either of the first two options are true, then no matter how hard I try, I can never arrive at a particular action I should take to improve the likelihood of fulfilling its purpose. In one case, I can't because there is no purpose to fulfill, and in the other it is because nothing I can do will have an impact.

In contrast, if the universe's purpose can be influenced, under the second premise, I would wish to modify my course of action to try to fulfill that purpose.

If I then assume I can be in any of the universes, I can decide which action to take based on some combination of all possible actions, dependent on the universe I occupy. But of course, the only universe with an actual prescribed action was the one where the universe has a purpose. In the other universes, the modification of action is ignorable because, under those conditions, the outcome is the same regardless of whether I do or do not modify my actions. Therefore, regardless of which universe I actually occupy, I should behave as if I occupy the universe where my actions influence the outcome of the universe because that is the only one where my outcomes matter anyway.

Notes on an influenceable purpose

Given the above, it becomes necessary to ask, how can I discover the purpose of the universe in order that I may act to fulfill it? What we are trying to determine, specifically, is how one should make decisions in order to fulfill the purpose of the universe. This unfortunately is not an easily solved problem. To show why, I try to break down the universe with an influenceable purpose into its three mutually exclusive subcategories.

  • Universe's purpose is knowable and actions toward its purpose are inherently determinable
  • Universe's purpose is unknowable and actions toward its purpose are not determinable
  • Universe's purpose is unknowable but actions toward its purpose are determinable

For the first, I would argue that we have no reason to believe that the universe's purpose is completely knowable. While it isn't possible to negate this on purely logical grounds, I will fall back to an empirical argument that the reader may accept or deny based on their own views.

For the universe's purpose to be known, we would need a direct exposition of the purpose. However, any proposed direct exposition would need to be evaluated in the context of all other possible expositions. Since there are infinitely many possible purposes, it would seem to be impossible to negate them all in favor of a single finite collection of views on a certainly knowable universe. Without making further assumptions, any favorite flavor of purpose must be regarded as possible, but not certain, equivalent to any of the uncountable infinity of other possible explanations that no one has ever even fathomed.

Next we take on the second possibility, of a universe with an unknowable purpose where how actions act toward the goal of the universe is also fundamentally not determinable. In this set of universes, while our actions have an impact, there is no mechanism we can use to detect which will be beneficial, and therefore, we have no way of deciding which actions to take. That is to say, our thinking about our actions will have no influence on whether our actions aid in the fulfillment of the purpose. From the point of view of making decisions, this possible situation is equivalent to a universe where our actions have no influence and can be ignored for the same reason as that argued above.

Based on these arguments, I hold that the only possible set of universes that we need to worry about living in are those where actions conducive to the resolution of the purpose of the universe are ascertainable even though the direct explanation of the purpose is not.

While this aids us by limiting further argument to a defined set of options, it unfortunately does not depict in detail how one is able to detect appropriate actions. To further pursue this line of reasoning, I have written a separate post which aims to describe how intuition could be interpreted as the means by which appropriate actions become determinable.

Conclusion

In this thought-experiment I believe I have shown that given our premises, it is correct to assume that

  • there is a purpose to the universe,
  • our actions can influence the fulfillment of that purpose,
  • it is not knowable what the purpose is, and
  • that there must be some way to discern the necessary actions for fulfillment of this purpose despite not knowing the purpose itself.

This is, of course, a highly debatable topic, and I don't pretend that I have all the answers. However, I think that this offers a valid rebuttal to materialistic nihilism, and I encourage you to utilize the argument if you find yourself dealing with an individual who advocates such a position.

If you have any feedback on this philosophy I would greatly appreciate it.

Note: Differences with Pascal's wager

There is some similarity between this argument and Pascal's wager. Pascal's wager posits that a person should choose to believe in God because the reward is infinite while the sacrifice is at most finite. However, there are several flaws with argument. To me the crucial flaw is that it starts with a multitude of assumptions that corner it into a very small corner of the entire space of universe possibilities.

To begin, it assumes a binary choice between a single God to worship or not to worship. In reality, there are multiple established gods that are worshipped on Earth, each of whom provides a distinct course of correct action. As such, the wager fails to account for multiple possible vengeful gods who will damn you if you choose your actions poorly.

Furthermore, it requires one to desire everlasting reward. It seems that this in itself is not necessarily something that a reasonable person needs to desire. For other shortcomings with the wager see the rationalwiki page on the topic.


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