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A Few Words


An Analysis of
The Futile-Making Features
Of Human Actions

Many a noble topic has been adroitly addressed by many a capable thinker in the history of philosophy. Yet perhaps the boldest tragedy of them all is the absence of arguments either for or against the most obvious topic to bear relevance on the discipline: futility. The concept of futility, properly addressed and analyzed, might be that concept which holds the key to a wide range of philosophical puzzles. Futility, as such, deserves our full attention.

As a noun, a common dictionary describes futility: “uselessness as a consequence of having no practical result”. A common antonym might be “useful” or “beneficial”. The normal, run-of-the-mill definition leads us to a clear starting point in our discussion of the concept: use.

If one could show that there is nothing that has absolutely no use, then one could show that futility is an empty concept — on a hard rendering of futility. If one were to constrain the concept to “practical use”, then one would have an easier time giving examples of things that are futile. The purpose of this argument is to examine whether we are best to understand the uselessness contained in the property of futile actions to be absolute uselessness or practical uselessness.

It is firstly important to accentuate the fact that futility is a property of actions, properly speaking, not of things. We do not speak of the futility of telephones, for example. Rather, we talk about the futility of calling some given person on the telephone.

Let us then state as our first principle that:

Futility is a property that attaches to actions, not to things.

All of our investigations and conclusions should be compatible with this simple principle. And when in doubt, we should be able to look to this principle for guidance. From the principle, we can derive the general proposition:

Action A is futile if A does not serve a general purpose P.

Thus our principle of purpose is:

A serves P if object O is or can be altered by or in the presence of A because of the intention of P.

Conversely, our principle of futility is:

A is futile if A cannot alter or affect O as intended by P.

The ramifications of the POP and the POF are many, as are the further clarifications. For one, we need to get clear on what an affectation of O consists of. At the same time, we will need to posit a mechanism by which we can evaluate whether it is A, and not some other action, that truly affects O. And finally, we need to determine a means of showing A’s intended outcome, which is P.

Clarity of “affectation” takes the form of a further definition, in two parts:

1. O is affected by A if the properties of O change in time and space coincident with A.
2. A would affect O isolated from external causes E.

Let us bookmark the discussion of E for later, and for now approximate our definition of intention:

A serves P if in the absence of P, A would not have affected O.

Given these criteria, we can start evaluating actions and further clarify our definitions. Let’s say that Jane wants to start her car in the real world, R. The action of turning the key in the ignition is not futile because, following POP, “turning the key in the ignition serves the purpose of starting the car, which was Jane’s purpose”. The car acquires the property of being started, temporally and spatially coincident with Jane turning the key in the ignition. And even if there were an external cause, it is established that the mere act of turning the key is sufficient to start the car. Furthermore, turning the key in the ignition serves Jane’s purpose because in the absence of Jane wanting to start the car, there would be no turning of the key, hence no change in the properties of the car.

But let us imagine a world, W, in which turning the key in the ignition only serves to illuminate the headlamps. In W, Jane’s action — turning the key — would be futile because, following POF: “turning the key in the ignition is futile because turning the key is not the action required to start the car.” Hence, the action does not serve Jane’s purposes, hence the action is futile. If that level of superficial analysis would suffice, then we would have already demonstrated that futile actions are possible, and hence brought ourselves one step closer to our goal.

This example shows that the definitions adduced are at least approximately correct. Our task, though, is to determine whether the concept of futility is best understood in terms of absolute or practical uselessness. That is to say, our task is to determine whether the sense of “cannot” in POF is logical or practical. If we can show that there is always some purpose in P, then we show that futility is an empty concept.

In R, it is clear that A serves purpose P, in that O is affected as a result of A. In W, this is not so clear. O is not affected by A in a way consistent with P, though O is still affected by A in some way — viz., the headlamps come on. But is it the case that A serves no purpose at all? Is it the case that Jane’s action in W is futile?

Jane’s action in W is futile only if P is not accompanied by an underlying purpose, call this Q. An underlying purpose is a purpose that is not conscious or superficial, rather it is a purpose that pervades other purposes. For example, an underlying purpose of “getting to class” (P) is “to learn” (Q). In this case, even if Jane goes to the wrong classroom, though the purpose P is thwarted, the underlying purpose Q is fulfilled if it is the case that she strengthens her awareness of the location of the classroom, i.e., she learns something. Then, though A appears futile in that P is not served, A might not be futile in that Q is served.

In W, when Jane performs A, she learns that A does not affect the desired change in O. If we can evaluate whether Jane possesses Q, then we can say that her action was not futile. Let us define a criterion for Q:

Person J possesses Q if, when A fails, J does not continue trying A (with the same P).

If Jane performs A in W and O is not affected as expected, she might try again. However, the second attempt has a different P, namely, to be sure that A was performed correctly. This might happen a few times. When it is obvious that A fails to affect change in O (given P), if J stops, then we can say that J possesses Q. We have not yet established a means of determining the content of Q, but suffice to say, Q is something that we can investigate.

The question arises whether absolute uselessness or practical uselessness is something that we evaluate of P or of Q or, in some way, of both. If we are right about Q, that Q accompanies every P, then it appears that either one or both of P and Q need to have some use for an action to resist futility. Let us call the “hard reading” of futility that:

A is futile if either P or Q is practically useless.

Contrast this with the “soft reading”:

A is futile if P and Q are absolutely useless.

The hard reading is so called because it is easier for an action to fulfill the criterion for uselessness. The soft reading is so called because far fewer actions will fall under its authority. There are, however, alternative criteria:

A is futile if both P and Q are practically useless.
A is futile either P or Q is absolutely useless.

These are varying (descending) degrees of futility, from hard to soft. Let us assign numbers to the levels so to distinguish them easily. Call the hard reading Level 1 Futility and the soft reading Level 4 Futility. Those on the list above are assigned Levels 2 and 3.

A complete analysis of futility would include examples and counterfactuals of each of the possible levels of futility. Our task here has now been slightly modified, given the closer analysis: At what level can we dismiss an action (or activity) as futile? Given the example above of Jane trying to start her car in W, it appears that Level 4 is required before we dismiss an action as futile.

When J performs A in W, A has no effect, which implies that P is practically useless. That is, it is practically useless for J to intend to start the car by performing A. If Level 1 were sufficient for futility, then we could dismiss A as futile. However, this seems intuitively wrong. Given J’s mental state — namely that she believes that A will accomplish P, it is not the case that P is practically useless. Even though P contains a false belief, there is a use to P in that it is something that stands in need of verification.

If J did not possess Q, then we would conclude that P does not contain a false belief. Without the underlying purpose of wanting to verify beliefs, or to gain education — which is an altogether human purpose — P would simply be a bad purpose, hence practically useless. This shows that in the presence of Q, neither P nor Q could be practically useless, which shows that, in the presence of Q, the hard reading of futility engenders a contradiction. Thus the Level 1 futility falls.

With this, Level 2 looks extremely difficult as well. In the case of a normal rational agent, Q will always have practical content, and therefore be practically useful. It would take an act of mental dysfunction to show that either P or Q was practically useless, and mentally dysfunctional agents are disqualified from analysis, as their actions are, by definition, futile.

Whether P or Q is absolutely useless is a different question. A purpose is absolutely useless when it generates a contradiction, or contains a contradiction. For example, if J’s purpose were to find a square circle, then we could say of J’s P that her P is absolutely useless. If Level 3 futility stands, then this is enough to cause an action to evaluate as futile. In the case in question, let us modify J’s P: let’s say that P is “to turn the car into a magic carpet”. Since this is logically impossible, J’s P is now absolutely useless, and now A does not pass the Level 3 futility test.

What remains is the question of J’s Q. If J’s Q remains intact, then it is disingenuous to say that A is futile, for even if P is misguided, in the presence of Q, J might learn something that would alter her P. If her P might be altered, then it is only responsible to resist labeling A as futile. However, if we alter J’s Q, we might come up with an actual case of a futile action. Let’s say that J’s Q is: “to develop a capacity to breathe underwater.” As a human agent, J cannot ever develop this capacity, thus rendering Q absolutely useless. Now, both P and Q are absolutely useless, and we have achieved Level 4. Now we can say with certainty that A is futile.

To summarize: A is futile when both P and Q evaluate as absolutely useless. Those cases are rare, and require that both P and Q contain what Kant might have called a “contradiction in conception”. For normal, mentally functional human agents, it is likely that Q will never contain such a contradiction. Given this, it is likely that for normal, mentally functional human agents, futility is indeed an empty concept.

© 2005 Sorrell