Gotta be a reason, right?
August 10, 2012 9:47 AM   Subscribe

It's easy for people to assume that the usefulness of something to them is the same as its wider purpose for existing. What's the quotation, literary situation, fable, or famous saying that sums up this phenomenon in far pithier or funnier terms than the ones I'm using?

The other day I was trying (and failing miserably) to discuss with a friend a particular type of cognitive bias or common mistake in thinking. The closest I could come at the time was "the assumption that convenience implies causality"-- but basically, it's the phenomenon whereby we tend to assume that a present use or function for something must also have been its original purpose.

For instance, it's the kind of thought-pattern that gets used in evolutionary theory when people assume that because wings are now useful for flying, that must be why they evolved. Or when you're almost out of gas, see a station at the last minute, and someone says jokingly, "See, God must have put that there just for you." Or when you scold your child for using your scissors to cut all the flowers off the centrepiece and he says, "Well, why did you put them right by there if you didn't want me to use them?" Or in the line from "Rocky Raccoon":
Rocky Raccoon checked into his room, only to find Gideon's Bible.
The Gideon checked out, and he left it, no doubt, to help with good Rocky's revival.

As you can see, I'm still not doing a great job of describing it; but what's killing me is that I'm 90% sure I've read a very elegant, possibly funny summary of this precise thing, somewhere, at some point in my life. It could have been in a random essay or philosophical piece; but it could also just as easily have been something from the Pickwick Papers or Tom Sawyer or Tom Jones or any of a zillion other fictional works in that same archly sententious line. After days of frustrating brainstorming, I'm not overly invested in finding the exact passage I originally read; but for my own peace of mind I think I need to find some sort of phrase, anecdote or quote to tag this idea with, so I can file it and move on. Any ideas for places you've seen this idea (or something similar) particularly well expressed? Thanks so much!
posted by Bardolph to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you're at least partly describing a just-so story.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:58 AM on August 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Maybe "We all perceive the world from ourselves outwards."...?
posted by wolfdreams01 at 10:03 AM on August 10, 2012

Teleology might be a handy keyword.
posted by XMLicious at 10:05 AM on August 10, 2012

Response by poster: Teleology is indeed what I'm talking about, XMLicious, but I'm looking for something that's specifically about inferring telos from present (or past) function. If that makes any sense. OK, stopping threadsitting now.
posted by Bardolph at 10:21 AM on August 10, 2012

This sounds like Pangloss in Candide:
Pangloss gave instruction in metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there cannot possibly be an effect without a cause and that in this best of all possible worlds the baron’s castle was the most beautiful of all castles and his wife the best of all possible baronesses. —It is clear, said he, that things cannot be otherwise than they are, for since everything is made to serve an end, everything necessarily serves the best end. Observe: noses were made to support spectacles, hence we have spectacles. Legs, as anyone can plainly see, were made to be breeched, and so we have breeches. . . . Consequently, those who say everything is well are uttering mere stupidities; they should say everything is for the best.
Though I prefer this Overcompensating comic about Kirk Cameron and the banana.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:56 AM on August 10, 2012

Seems to be the inverse of the genetic fallacy.

Less Wrong calls it Backwards Causality.

Here's a somewhat pithy line that might serve, from Wikipedia's entry on Aristotle's four causes: "[It] is a posteriori result rather than an a priori goal-seeking." (Referring to evolutionary adaptedness, but more generally applicable I think.)
posted by solotoro at 10:59 AM on August 10, 2012

There is a related bias/fallacy in attribution of motive whereby one wrongly assumes that the actual effect of someone's action must have been the result that that person intended to achieve. (E.g., you criticize some action I took, the rebuke makes me feel like I've lost status, so I interpret your criticism was a social attack.)

I don't have time to seek out the proper term for this bias/fallacy right this instant, alas, but maybe this will knock something loose.
posted by stebulus at 12:45 PM on August 10, 2012

(Oh, there's a very striking statement related to what I described in a recent post about fact-checking, something like, "To Americans, increasingly there are no mistakes, only covert ideologies." I guess this isn't likely to be what you were trying to remember.)
posted by stebulus at 12:47 PM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Christopher Hitchens wrote this about his schoolteacher in the book God Is Not Great:
It was Mrs. Watts’s task, when I was a boy of about nine and attending a school on the edge of Dartmoor, in southwestern England, to instruct me in lessons about nature, and also about scripture. She would take me and my fellows on walks, in an especially lovely part of my beautiful country of birth, and teach us to tell the different birds, trees, and plants from one another. . . .

Seeking ambitiously to fuse her two roles as nature instructor and Bible teacher, she said, “So you see, children, how powerful and generous God is. He has made all the trees and grass to be green, which is exactly the color that is most restful to our eyes. Imagine if instead, the vegetation was all purple, or orange, how awful that would be.”

And now behold what this pious old trout hath wrought. I liked Mrs. Watts: she was an affectionate and childless widow who had a friendly old sheepdog who really was named Rover, and she would invite us for sweets and treats after hours to her slightly ramshackle old house near the railway line. If Satan chose her to tempt me into error he was much more inventive than the subtle serpent in the Garden of Eden. She never raised her voice or offered violence–which couldn’t be said for all my teachers–and in general was one of those people, of the sort whose memorial is in Middlemarch, of whom it may be said that if “things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been,” this is “half-owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

However, I was frankly appalled by what she said. My little ankle-strap sandals curled with embarrassment for her. At the age of nine I had not even a conception of the argument from design, or of Darwinian evolution as its rival, or of the relationship between photosynthesis and chlorophyll. The secrets of the genome were as hidden from me as they were, at that time, to everyone else. I had not then visited scenes of nature where almost everything was hideously indifferent or hostile to human life, if not life itself. I simply knew, almost as if I had privileged access to a higher authority, that my teacher had managed to get everything wrong in just two sentences. The eyes were adjusted to nature, and not the other way about.
posted by John Cohen at 1:24 PM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't have a fable for you, though I feel as if I ought to, but I will point out that flipping your description gives you a much pithier adage "an object's purpose does not determine the uses to which it may be put."

More abstractly, one might say something like "it's the hand and not the tool which wields the power."
posted by Diablevert at 1:43 PM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Diablevert made me think of this one: "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." It evidently has more history that I knew of according to that link. The funniest formulation, by Abraham Kaplan:
I call it the law of the instrument, and it may be formulated as follows: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.
posted by XMLicious at 1:52 PM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Almost sounds like "correlation does not equal causation" which is usually used to critique studies in the social sciences.
posted by mneekadon at 3:52 PM on August 10, 2012

Candide has already been mentioned, but are you thinking of (semi-classic) "The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm?"
posted by pullayup at 4:20 PM on August 10, 2012

From Douglas Adams:

"This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, "this is an interesting world I find myself in- an interesting hole I find myself in- fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me rather staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!" This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be all right, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise."

I also thought about the idea of form defining function, or function defining form, but I don't know if that's quite what you're looking for.
posted by windykites at 5:14 PM on August 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'd call it the "but it goes to eleven" defense, from This is Spinal Tap.
posted by vitabellosi at 9:26 PM on August 10, 2012

Diablevert: flipping your description gives you a much pithier adage "an object's purpose does not determine the uses to which it may be put."

Being unable to notice alternative uses of a familiar object is called "functional fixedness".
posted by stebulus at 5:22 PM on August 11, 2012

Just now came across a striking example of this thought pattern. A woman who was injured in the recent Colorado theatre shooting apparently survived because the bullet that entered her brain travelled through a channel that had existed in her brain since birth (like a vein in marble), reaching the back of her head without tearing brain tissue apart. Her pastor attributed this to god's "prevenient" grace -- god put that anomalous channel in her brain when she was born, knowing that it would spare her life when, 22 years later, she would cross paths with a nut with a gun in a movie theatre. So, "prevenient" is a useful word to describe this sort of assumption -- convenience in advance.
posted by Corvid at 6:09 PM on August 11, 2012

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