Finding True North

[Note: this post builds on 3 previous posts, Jesus Christ: Error Theorist, Men, Mores and Mimbos: The Strange Case of Moral Fact, and Chaos Theory]

People talk a lot about meaning and purpose. Most consider those two things quite important. But for concepts held so dear, most people have an ill-formed notion of meaning and purpose. That most hold the two ideas to be roughly equivalent is testament to the squishiness of the concepts. Meaning and purpose are quite different things overall, but they do have one thing in common, and their one commonality may account for much of the confusion between the two and otherwise.
The feature which they share is that each idea can be held as a tautology. Actually, that’s about it for purpose, because purpose is the action of an intent. Talk of purpose assumes intent. So, reasonable talk of purpose is local. It can’t fly far from the source of intention without losing its power. For example, if I give you a morphine tablet for your pain from a broken leg, the purpose of the morphine tablet leaves my hand with the pill. As the pill drops into your palm, your intention is imported and so is your purpose. It is entirely possible that you will save the tablet to get high when you’re feeling better. This importation of purpose is the source of much of our sense of agency. It is also a thready link to meaning.
Meaning can be taken as what can be represented – a tautology. That’s a little cheap. Meaning is locality. There, that’s better; it no longer begs the question. ‘The red book’ means paper, ink spots shaped by interlocking sets of purpose (the writer’s, the publisher’s, the printer’s), the space it occupies among colored books, books I know about, other red things, etc. on and on.
Here’s the meaning-purpose link. Meaning shapes our intention. Our location gives us the things to be about. Our location is what we are all about and is all about us.
So, the meanings are relative, but not free-floating. They are not unmoored from space, time or history. We can map them – represent them – like the North pole. In fact, true North is a perfect example of the relations in question.
True North is kind of a convention. We don’t need it, we have satellites and radio receivers. There’s no logical necessity to true North. True North has a meaning behind it though. It is located, and not just on the earth. Because it has location, it also has a vicinity – surroundings which create its boundary conditions. Considered in terms of the point where the axis of the earth’s rotation meets the planet’s surface, declination means something, as does Polaris – and vice versa. The specificity of meaning constrains the intention it shapes and the scope of action available to that intention. It’s subsequently tempting to see the representation of that meaning as independent and efficacious Form. But true North is finally a relative location, not a mark on a map. It is made of stuff as far down as we can dig, and in every direction. So are all our representations, down to our self-representation.
There is a final question which people like to ask of this state of affairs: Is the lattice-work self-supporting, or is there some truer North? Is all this in some way necessary? That’s something buried too deep for the tools with which we are equipped. The only answers we can give are a priori assumptions (not presuppositions) whose relevance is questionable to us dwellers in the world of representations. But believers in a truer North don’t want or need an answer, I think. The assumption serves well enough, and I have to agree with Dostoyevsky about what would happen should someone show up one day with an answer to put an end to all projection. The question for the believer is: do you think this is an indictment of your faith, or a good reason to hold it?

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9 thoughts on “Finding True North

  1. Hi Keith,
    I’m interested to hear more about “reasonable talk of purpose is local”. Your illustration of the morphine pill seems to miss few layers. The intent of the pill manufacturer is that it is (we’d expect?) to be used for medicinal purposes – that’s probably what the packaging says. In my original post, I can intend for a car to be used as a paperweight and in that immediate sense it will be, but surely we’re not saying that is the purpose of a car. We can intend to misuse something, and therefore purposefully use it for a purpose that it was never intended.

    Or do we simply say that nothing (including our fellow humans) is here for any purpose other than what we make of it. That would include people? And should we then use them for cannon fodder if the fancy takes us?

    Perhaps I’ve missed the point, but are you not just saying that we can sue anything for any purpose?


    • keithnoback says:

      I mean to use intention and intent as “aboutness” or “psychological direction” as it is used in the philosophy of mind (that clears things right up, I’m sure). I don’t mean to say that we can use anything for any purpose. It is limited by the intentions backing it. Your analogy would support that viewpoint.

      • I suspected as much after reading your chaos theory. Very interesting – am just starting to read Ayn Rand (I’m a bit late to the game) – perhaps you can give me a short cut lesson on where these objective morals come from.

      • keithnoback says:

        I’m afraid you may have taken that post the wrong way. My bad. I don’t like to take on labels, but Moral Anti-Realist is one I’ll happily wear.

      • Did I completely misunderstand your chaos post? It sounded like you favoured an objective approach?

      • keithnoback says:

        Can bacteria behave immorally? Can their hosts be complicit? Is there such a thing as a Car, which is simply realized by all the Fords, Fiats and Jeeps in the world? Most believers are dualists and essentialists, and have an understanding of purpose and meaning which derives from those viewpoints. But that understanding doesn’t hold up very well under scrutiny. The essences are reducible. Things like cars, morphine tablets, and living things are not essentially defined. They have some existential necessity – our worlds would be different without them – but they have no logical necessity.
        At the beginning of Real Essentialism, Oderberg makes the statement, “Socrates is not a number.”. But Socrates is a number. He is one Greek philosopher. He is human # 20.125 million to be born, given human #1. He is any number of numbers, each representing Socrates precisely. We can say that none of those numbers immediately gives a complete account of Socrates, but it does not follow that we know that because we have some more complete account of Socrates in mind as a benchmark. Such an assumption is merely hubris. We know that our representations are not immediately complete because we experience a shifting point of view. Acknowledging this incompleteness doesn’t eliminate the possibility of an essential Socratesness in the world either, but it does throw into doubt our ability to tease out something like an essence should it exist. We are stuck with some kind of view point and its attendant representations, so global understanding is not part of our repertoire. Furthermore, the acknowledgement that our accounts of Socrates are not immediately complete doesn’t mean that calling him human # 20.125 million given human #1 is some arbitrary description yanked out of the air. That representation has a meaning, despite the fact that the representation is relative and incomplete, and the meaning does not require an essential fact as far down as we can see. The meaning has an aspect which depends on our position in space, time, history, culture – in theory, back down the line and out to every side until the representation is indeed complete and the aspect has been eliminated (in theory). Despite its being derivative of a point of view, the representation is functional (it has meaning) and so forms a basis for relevant action (it is amenable to purpose), but in the case at hand, the functions and purposes are Socrates-related by their circumstance. There is some existential necessity behind them. They are relative, but not arbitrary or inconsistent, and they don’t require essential facts to avoid arbitrariness and inconsistency.

  2. Sabio Lantz says:

    You wrote:
    “ because purpose is the action of an intent. “

    I think you meant:
    “ because purpose is the intent of an action.

    To be technical:
    “True North” is not a location. It is the DIRECTION to a location (being the the geographic North Pole).

    Further, we must differentiate between Geodetic True North, Astronomical True North and such too.

    I must say, as for the philosophical import of your post, I got kind of lost, though I wish I hadn’t. A bit too abstract with convoluted sentences for me. I need it put a bit simpler and more plainly. Though I did graduate school in philosophy, I was never good at reading that sort of writing. I wager you could write like that, but you prefer this sort of writing.

    • keithnoback says:

      Thank you for noticing the relative variability about true North. That’s what I think it illustrates so well. It is something purely relational, not a solid object or place or some platonic form. It is a representation of all those relationships that make it up. But it is still a direction which we can find consistently. For the traveler, it is there.
      I’m writing all this as I catch the time to do so. I’m sorry about the clarity; I’m trying to squeeze as much as I can into the minimum number of words.
      I did mean to say purpose is the action of an intent. I’m trying to keep the reference to intention in the philosophy of mind, rather than flipping back to the colloquial meaning. If I want to go across the room, I’ve formed an intention about my position in the room. My wanting to cross is then the realization of my thought about my position in the room, as is my walking across the room, or building a car to drive across the room. I know this is a gross oversimplification of the issues at work – there are multiple intentions involved, wanting is arguably prior to intentionality, just to name a couple – but I don’t think it alters the basic point: purpose is totally dependent on intention, and if purpose looks limited it is because the associated intention is limited.

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