Financial Mathematics Text

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Myth of Purpose

It is often supposed that, at least some, human activity is a product of "reflection" and that actions are motivated by having purpose or seeing some end involved. I would like to suggest (as an exploratory hypothesis) that this is not the case and give a rough sketch on how it could have arisen that we think in these terms.

Growing up we are trained into a linguistic practice and part of the practice that we have come to possess includes the question "why". I recall from my days of learning Spanish that the question "why" translates literally "for what". We might think of it as "for what reason" did you do such and such an action. We are seeking an explanation of an event in terms of what ends one pursued which in some way caused the actions in question.

Part of being trained in a linguistic practice is learning to give appropriate responses. It's not just that I am asked "why" but I'm required and expected to give an appropriate answer, even if there was no reason. This last part is important. It can very easily be the case that there was no "conscious reflection" on my part when I was acting. I may have had no reasons in mind at all when I acted. But since I have been trained in linguistic practice and since "no reason" is often not accepted as an appropriate response, I create a reason. I give an interpretation, after the fact, of what my reasons for acting were even if there was no actual reasons there to begin with.

This possibility seems to raise the question whether or not there are such things as "reasons" at all, that are not mere ad hoc creations after the fact. Part of this may be to observe the etymological roots of such words relating to this issue ("why", "reason", "purpose", etc) but also to explore societies who do not possess "purpose language".

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