Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Purpose and Probability

A few recent examples have set me thinking. There is an interesting relationship between the purpose (effect) of the individual and the purpose (effect) of the system.

. The US Army in Afghanistan and Iraq use 300,000 bullets to kill each insurgent. [source: Independent on Sunday] Assuming the purpose of the ammunition is to support US military objectives, only a very tiny proportion of the bullets will actually achieve this purpose.
. Richard Dawkins criticizes Gerin Oil (by which he means religion) because of its effects on a tiny proportion of users.
And of course in biology there are many examples of similar phenomena. A large number (of seeds, sperm, mutations, whatever) is produced, of which only a tiny proportion fulfil their "purpose".

These examples show the importance of looking at the whole system. We cannot infer a strong purpose for an individual based on a very low probability effect. But the aggregate effect of the whole population may have a reasonably high probability.

We also tend to look at these examples with teleological expectations - in other words, we expect to find purpose. In the case of the US military, it is hardly controversial to suppose that there are some human intentions involved, although it's certainly possible to imagine some stakeholders having a commercial or political agenda as well as (or even instead of) a military agenda.

But these examples are all open to different interpretations. POSIWID gives us useful clues about purpose, but these clues are ambiguous and sometimes controversial.

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