Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

McCain on Obama on Pakistan

I'm not gonna try to analyze the entire debate. I think both candidates made some mistakes. Ultimately, Obama wasn't as strong as I was hoping he would be. I think he passed up an opportunity to define himself independently of the Democratic Party, and he didn't always provide satisfying responses to McCain's many criticisms.

But I won't get into all the details. I wanna just offer my view on one of McCain's criticisms, because Obama didn't counter it effectively enough for my tastes.

The issue has to do with Pakistan. Now, I don't claim to be an authority on American foreign policy. I don't know how best to treat Pakistan. I did read an interesting, and seemingly well-informed, article about how Obama and McCain fared in the debate over policy issues relating to Pakistan, and the author concludes that Obama came off much stronger. That may be true. But what I want to address is not the issue of Pakistan itself, but the logic of McCain's critical argument against Obama.

McCain says that Obama shouldn't have said that he would ever launch military strikes in Pakistan. He made it clear that, even if such strikes were necessary, Obama shouldn't have said it "out loud."

McCain did not suggest that Obama's strategic thinking was wrong. On the contrary, he made it clear that Obama's thinking is perfectly valid. The only problem, according to McCain, is that Obama said what he was thinking out loud.

The problem with this is, McCain voiced his criticism out loud, making it clear to Pakistan that he does not have a problem with Obama's thinking. He has thus made it clear to Pakistan that they should not trust him, because he is not willing to talk openly about how far he is willing to trust them.

McCain wants very much to make Obama look too inexperienced and dangerously naive to lead the nation in foreign affairs. While I am not sure Obama is the best possible thing that could happen to America's foreign policy, McCain hasn't made it clear that he is a better choice. And, more to the point, his particular line of attack regarding Pakistan is simply unsound. Obama never threatened Pakistan, and he hasn't admitted anything about his strategic thinking that McCain hasn't also admitted.

Unfortunately, I don't think Obama did a sufficient job of dealing with McCain's faulty reasoning. He let McCain look stronger than he should have. Maybe he'll do better next time.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Nature of Evidence

I'd like to elaborate on a point I made in my last post (the topic was consciousness), as it will help explain my views on science in general and consciousness in particular. I wrote:

"If there were any evidence that consciousness (or anything else) were so unique that it could not be explained objectively, that evidence could not be shared. For, if it could be shared, then it would be objectively determinable. Therefore, from a scientific point of view—that is, from a point of view which regards facts as sharable and repeatable through well-documented experiments—there can never be any evidence that consciousness (or anything else) is beyond the hopes of a scientific explanation."

One might ask, Why can't we have evidence that is not scientific? Can't we have evidence based on our own intuition or personal experience? Why must all evidence be sharable and repeatable?

I acknowledge the fact that we are often in the position of having to make decisions based on evidence which we cannot share with other people.
However, the point is not that we must always share our experiences, or that we must always be in a position to share them. Rather, the point is that, when we regard something as evidence, we are regarding it as something which can be shared and repeated. If it cannot be shared and repeated, it is not evidence.

Ah, you say, now you're just stacking the deck in science's favor. You're conveniently defining "evidence" to only include stuff that science can deal with, and ignoring all the other stuff that makes life so special.

No, I don't think that's the case. Rather, the point is this: If you want to put something on the table--if you want to organize our discourse and politics around some fact or idea--then you need to be able to share it or reproduce it for us, or share/reproduce some evidence for it. If you cannot do that, then you are drawing our attention to nothing. (This happens a lot, unfortunately).

Why should we organize our beliefs and policies around something we cannot observe and measure? It makes us vulnerable and inefficient. Civilization requires principles of evidence to protect it from stupidity. (Imagine a legal system without evidentiary rules. Imagine civilization without law. See my point?)

Sometimes our need to make decisions/judgments forces us to suspend our principles slightly. Thus, we may take people at their word without requiring substantial evidence. This is also necessary for civilization: we must trust each other when circumstances prevent us from collecting enough evidence to make an informed decision. But civil society also requires that we do this as little as possible, and that we have a good reason for doing it when we do. (This is, incidentally, why we have such things as reputations. Reputations help us make more intelligent risk assessments on issues of trust.)

The key point here, however, is that even when we take people on their word (or on their reputation), we are not defying science. We are not adopting some other standard of evidence. On the contrary, we are only trusting that people are going to act responsibly with respect to their own experiences. This means we expect people to treat their own experiences from as scientific a perspective as possible, as practical considerations allow. (The fact that people are not always so responsible is beside the point. We have ways of dealing with irresponsibility, some more effective and desirable than others.)

There remains a desire to think of some evidence as purely "personal." Isn't intuition (or perhaps spiritual revelation) an alternative to scientific ways of thinking?, you insist.

As I see it, the answer is no. The idea that there could be some other, non-scientific approach to evidence is just confused wishful thinking which arises when people fail to recognize what counts as "personal evidence."

There is no justification for claiming that some unrepeatable, unsharable private experience counts as evidence of some arbitrary fact. E.g., "I saw something strange in the sky, therefore aliens from Mars are attacking." Or, "I had a dream about my grandfather, therefore he is looking after me from beyond the grave." These ways of thinking occur often enough, but they are irrational. They might make people feel nice and important, but they are not based on an alternative form of evidence. Rather, they are based on a rejection of all standards of evidence.

I am not saying that people should ignore their intuitions and dreams. I think it is a good idea to acknowledge your intuitions and dreams and let them guide you in some ways. But we should not mistake them for evidence. Intuitions and dreams are perfectly capable of misguiding us. Again, this is why we have standards of evidence.

Our subjective experiences are sometimes hard to define, and we don't always count them as evidence of anything. For our experiences to count as evidence, we require them to be in some way repeatable and sharable. If we don't, then we are not being rational, and instead basing our beliefs on whim and fancy.

I expect some of you to object here, and say, Feelings like love and anger are easy to define and recognize, and yet cannot ever be shared.

Yet, we can share our feelings. Imagine a life where you couldn't share your feelings with anyone. It would be miserable.

We can perform any number of outward signs to demonstrate our feelings. Some people try to fake their feelings sometimes, but it is pretty easy to spot a bad actor. The best actors are the ones who don't fake it.

Okay, you ask, maybe we can share our feelings, but what about thoughts?
Certainly, evidence for something like abstract thought cannot be shared, right?

No amount of body language will tell you that I'm thinking about how many apples I found in the garbage can in my sister's bedroom on Halloween in 1989? What about the language I am using to type this sentence?

Evidence for abstract thought is shared all the time. You're reading evidence of it right now.

So, as it turns out, there isn't anything about our "personal evidence" that is forever beyond sharability or repeatability. No experience is so private that it cannot, at least in theory, be shared and reproduced in some way.

This view is necessary, because no evidence can be had for the contrary view. You cannot provide evidence which demonstrates that something exists for which there is no evidence. It would be a contradiction.

Our "inner lives" aren't as private as we might like to think. I think this fact will become much more obvious in the near future, as we come to better understand how the brain works. We're already developing technologies which allow us to practically read (and write to) people's minds. We may be approaching the end of the time when people could think of their own thoughts as their own, personal business.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Explanatory Gap

Nothing is more obvious or immediate to our minds than the fact of our own consciousness. And yet, consciousness seems so bizarre and mysterious, some say it is beyond any hope of an explanation. How can something be so clear and present in our minds, and at the same time be so hard to understand?

Philosophers and scientists have argued for ages about how to solve this puzzle, and sometimes about whether or not there really is a puzzle at all.

My view is that consciousness is not a philosophical puzzle, but a scientific issue which can only be worked out through a better understanding of physiology. In our case, that means understanding how our bodies and brains function.

One of the reasons consciousness is so valuable to us is that it allows us to capitalize on amazingly complex information processes without having to pay attention to many of them. If we had to focus on everything going on in our heads, we'd never get anything done.

Consciousness is not directly concerned with the underlying processes that make it possible, because that is not what consciousness is. Consciousness is that level or facet of information processing which integrates our conception of ourselves. It takes our sensations and perceptions, including the inner perception of language-formation that we think of as an ongoing monologue in our heads, and organizes around them a single, coherent narrative of who we are. We might say that consciousness is the very process of generating a sense of a self--be it a self-in-the-world, a self-reflecting-on-the-nature-of-evil, a self-eating-corn, or whatever.

Consciousness does not require us to be conscious of how we are conscious. If it did, it would be enormously inefficient. This is why we can be conscious, and be so intimately in touch with our consciousness, without having any idea of what consciousness is or how it works.

When looked at from the perspective of our own awareness, our own consciousness is the tip of the iceberg of our cognition, and the majority of the processes which support it remain underneath the surface. Conversely, when looked at in the laboratory, from the outside, all we can see is the mind-boggling complexity of the brain. We have yet to fully grasp how the idea of the self is integrated in the brain. Our deficit of scientific knowledge may one day be overcome with the right theoretical and experimental tools. Then again, it might not. We just have to keep trying and see how far we get.

I call this The Default View of consciousness, because it does not claim anything fundamentally unusual about consciousness. It does not assume that there is anything so extraordinary about consciousness that it can never be known through the process of scientific discovery.

Many scientists and philosophers are quick to say, “hey, hold on a minute. Obviously there is something extraordinary about consciousness. If there weren’t, it wouldn’t seem like such a puzzle.”

Of course consciousness is extraordinary. But we cannot claim it is so extraordinary that it will forever elude a scientific explanation. We must treat consciousness like anything else in nature—something perhaps more complex and unusual than anything else we’ve found in the universe, but still a part of the universe which we can approach like any other.

This isn’t good enough for some scientists and philosophers. They claim that there is an explanatory gap. The idea is that consciousness involves subjective experience, and subjectivity is not something you can understand objectively.

You may have a complete, objective model of the human brain and human behavior. You may understand everything science can teach us about human experience. And yet, you will always leave something out. You will leave out the “what it is like” for a conscious subject to experience their own consciousness. Right?

I know it seems that way to many, but I do not think it is so. The Default View is the only tenable position here, and the reason is simple. If there were any evidence that consciousness (or anything else) were so unique that it could not be explained objectively, that evidence could not be shared. For, if it could be shared, then it would be objectively determinable. Therefore, from a scientific point of view—that is, from a point of view which regards facts as sharable and repeatable through well-documented experiments—there can never be any evidence that consciousness (or anything else) is beyond the hopes of a scientific explanation. (I elaborate upon this argument in a more recent blog post.)

It is impossible to argue against the Default View, unless you want to argue against the very logic of scientific discovery. As it turns out, some philosophers want to do this. Fortunately for the rest of us, they cannot undermine the logic of science. All they can do is confuse the debate.

David Chalmers
is a famous case. He is well-known in the philosophy of mind, primarily for his arguments for the existence of an explanatory gap. He says there is a “hard problem” of consciousness, which is the problem of understanding how physical processes (such as those occuring in our brains) can give rise to subjective experiences.

Chalmers argues that no scientific understanding of the physical mechanisms of human behavior will ever produce an understanding of the subjective experience of consciousness. He says that, even if we were to have beings that walked and talked just like human beings, with brains that worked just like human brains work, it is conceivable that they might not be conscious. (Such hypothetical beings are called “philosophical zombies,” though as far as I know they are not stipulated to eat human brains or engage in otherwise distasteful behavior.)

Let me repeat this, just so it’s clear. Chalmers says that he can conceive of a being that is scientifically indistinguishable from a human being in every way. Such a being, he says, could conceivably lack consciousness. Thus, he concludes, consciousness is not a matter of human physiology and behavior. For, if it were, then we could not conceive of the one without also conceiving of the other. It would be like thinking of a ball without thinking about roundness. You can’t do it.

This is called the conceivability argument. The problem is, David Chalmers cannot do what he says he can. He cannot conceive of a being that is scientifically indistinguishable from a human being in every way. At least, not yet. Nobody can. This is obvious from the fact that no scientist has yet to fully understand the workings of the human brain. We can safely say, therefore, that when David Chalmers talks about philosophical zombies, he does not know what he is talking about.

The conceivability argument should not weigh down discussions of consciousness. And yet, it often does. It fascinates people, not because it is logically sound, but because it resonates with their intuitions about consciousness. There just has to be an explanatory gap, they say. Subjective experience simply cannot be explained in objective terms.

This intuition is so strong, many confused intellectuals have tried to seek refuge in quantum mechanics. They say that consciousness must arise out of the wholly bizarre and incomprehensible mechanisms of quantum physics, because classical mechanics is too simple, too predictable, to produce something as complex and mysterious as consciousness.

Of course, there is no evidence that classical mechanics is incapable of explaining consciousness. On the contrary, consciousness appears to occur at a very high level of neural activity, and not at a level that would seem to involve quantum effects.

The argument for "quantum consciousness" is just wishful thinking, and not based on reason or evidence. The wish, apparently, is that consciousness will never be explained, and that its mystery is inextricably linked with the greatest mysteries of the universe. This wishful thinking, like all wishful thinking, is based on a fear. In this case, the fear is that an explanation of consciousness would somehow diminish the importance or wonder of humanity, taking away our value and even our freedom. As though actually understanding how we work would somehow hurt us.

The lack of reason here is astounding. Yet, we still have scientists—neuroscientists, even—who claim there is an explanatory gap. Antonio Damasio refers to it in passing in one of his popular books, and V. S. Ramachandran has written and spoken about it at length.

According to Ramachandran, the explanatory gap can be overcome by directly linking one brain with another. In that way, he says, one consciousness can understand the contents of another. So, he says, there is nothing truly bizarre going on with consciousness. It’s all in the brain.

While Ramachandran’s scenario would be interesting for a number of reasons (for example, it could demonstrate that consciousness need not be a solitary experience), it ultimately misses the point.

The point is, scientific explanations need not exhibit the properties of the phenomena they describe. A scientific explanation of a bouncing ball need not be bouncy. A scientific description of a nuclear reaction need not produce nuclear radiation. Properties can be described in their absence. This does not mean that the descriptions are incomplete, or that there is something essential about the phenomena that eludes scientific understanding.

So, a blind person can, in theory, understand everything there is to know about color vision. Just like they can understand the properties of bouncing balls without having any. They don’t need to have their own, direct experiences of color vision, because they can have the means of detecting color vision indirectly. They can have prosthetic color vision. (For more on this, see my previous blog entries on Frank Jackson's knowledge argument: here, here, and here.)

Let’s say we have a scientifically complete understanding of human brains and behavior. We seem to know exactly what it means for a person to have conscious experiences. Now, critics like Chalmers would say that we haven’t actually explained “what it is like” to have a conscious experience. Even if our understanding is so great that we could actually reproduce a fully-functioning human being, with a brain that functions exactly like a human brain—Chalmers would say that we would not have reproduced consciousness.

If DNA can do it, why can't we?

The man-made human beings would talk at length about their inner subjective experiences, just like everybody else. They would talk about love and fear, and they would appear to act on these feelings just like you and me. But, Chalmers says, they wouldn’t be conscious.

How would we know? How do we know that anybody has consciousness?

How does Chalmers know that his parents and friends have consciousness?

If a being presents us with all the signs of consciousness, then it only makes sense to say it has consciousness.

Chalmers says no physical signs are good enough, which serves only to define consciousness out of existence. According to Chalmers, consciousness is a non-entity, with no discernable functions, qualities, or characteristics. We may as well say that apples have consciousness--but not genetically modified apples, of course.

From Chalmers' perspective, there is no reason to think that you are any more conscious than a cloud of smoke, and the value of attributing consciousness to either you or the cloud is non-existent.

The arguments for an explanatory gap are thus not only unscientific—they are logically unsound and philosophically absurd.

Of course, it is conceivable that we will never completely understand consciousness. However, there is no way of deciding that question before the fact.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Order, Intentionality, and The Universe

In the comments to my post, Irrationality and Religious Belief, my friend Erik has been pushing me to offer a more comprehensive statement of my views on order, intentionality, and the universe.

What I want to do here is fully explain what plans are and how they are different from order in general. I will also explain why order is never, in itself, indicative of a plan, and why DNA and evolution by means of natural selection should not be confused with intentional, planned behavior.

I'll start by responding to these two questions: Is a plan the predetermination of an event or series of events? Does your conceptualization of "plan" differ in any significant way from this?

A plan is an idea which directs behavior towards a specified end. Ideas indicate, to varying degrees, an end result, but they do not predetermine events. Rather, they organize events in a relatively flexible manner, with many undefined variables, and usually in a way that allows for their own modification. Plans can be, and often are, broken.

If I decide to go to the movies, I am not predetermining what will happen. I am, however, forming an idea which will work to regulate my behavior towards a particular end. That "end" need not be very well-defined. I need not plan to go to a particular movie, at a particular time, or at a particular place. So my plan can specify a rather vague set of conditions: some movie, at some time, somewhere. Perhaps a comedy.

A very important part of planning is that a planner can recognize and describe ahead of time what conditions are being specified in the plan, and how they might be met. I know, at the time of planning, that I am planning a particular event. I know I am planning to go to the movies, for example, because I have a model in my brain which tells me what it means to go to the movies. Because of that abstract model, I can observe that I am not, in fact, at the movies; and later, when I am at the movies, I can correctly reflect on the fact. This ability is essential to planning; it is how we recognize intentional behavior in ourselves.

I don't think I am introducing any new or bold ideas with this description of plans. These ideas are common, though they often go unanalyzed.

One thing this description suggests is that order, in itself, is not representative of a plan. Nor is causality, in itself, indicative of intention. Plans are recognized by the tell-tale sign of abstract modelling.

This leads to the next question from Erik: The formation, growth and life-cycle of the organism as predetermined by DNA (all of which may be interfered with and/or thwarted by another "plan," such as that of different organism) are not the "intention" of DNA nor of whatever ultimately caused DNA? Why not?

The implication here is that, because DNA determines how organisms develop and eventually behave, the DNA somehow intends that behavior. Or, if not the DNA, than whatever is responsible for the DNA, is looked upon as the intentional agent.

Yet, there is no evidence for any abstract modelling, and so there is no evidence for any intentions, either on the part of DNA or on that of any other agent. The observation of causal relationships is not enough to suggest a plan, nor is the development of life.

I should also mention that it is misleading to say that DNA "predetermines" anything. DNA partially determines the development of organisms. This does not mean that the organisms were predetermined. In any case, predetermination is not a defining factor here. Plans and intentions are not defined in terms of predetermination.

Ultimately, the issue is evidence. There is no evidence that DNA is aware of what it is doing, or that it is the result of any planning on the part of any conscious being(s). Without any such evidence, there is no legitimate reason to stipulate intentions. There is no justification for talking about DNA in terms of plans. When biologists and geneticists refer to DNA as a "blueprint," they are not speaking literally.

It is theoretically possible that DNA has been developed by conscious beings, and that all life on earth was planned in some way or another. The evidence does not support this view, however, so the theoretical possibility should not be confused with scientific probability. (And, even if there was evidence that life was planned, this would not be evidence that the universe in general, or any laws of nature, were planned.)

There is a long tradition of assuming that order is evidence of a plan. It is the basic premise behind the Teleological Argument (aka the argument from design) for God's existence. However, this "argument" is more wishful thinking than anything else. There is no reason to believe that order implies a designer.

At its best, the argument from design is an argument from ignorance. It says, "we don't know how such-and-such could have come about without a conscious designer. Therefore, there must have been one." This argument blatantly disregards all of the science and mathematics which demonstrate how complexity and order can and do arise without any planning.

At its worst, the argument from design defies logic, attempting to explain order in the universe by postulating a different order, a Divine Order, which is conveniently claimed to be beyond any need for explanation. If the order in the universe is such that it can only be explained by a Divine Designer, then how is the Designer to be explained?

If such magnificent order is not in need of any explanation, then neither is the order we observe in the universe.

This logical failure is enough to discount the argument from design completely. However, what should not be forgotten is that order is never, in itself, evidence of a designer. To have evidence of a designer, you need evidence of abstract modelling.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Causes, Explanations, and Goals

In a reply to my post, Irrationality and Religious Belief, a friend of mine asked the following question:

What's the difference between asking, "Why are the laws of chemistry as they are, such that atoms react to form molecules, and so forth" and, "Why are the laws of physics and everything in the Universe the way that they are? Why does matter behave as it does? Is there an ordered end or 'goal' toward which it, and ultimately the universe, is progressing?"

There are four distinct questions there, and I want to explain how I think they are unique.

First, consider how many different ways we can answer "why" questions. Aristotle famously identified four ways. First, the material cause, which tells us the materials which comprise a phenomenon. Second, the formal cause, which tells us the organizational principles which define a phenomenon. Third, the efficient cause, which tells us the entities which are historically responsible for a phenomenon's occurence. Fourth, the final cause, which tells us the purpose or goal which a phenomenon is intended to produce.

We could discuss whether or how we might improve upon Aristotle's distinctions here, but I don't think that will make a difference to what I'm about to say. I will only point out that we often don't distinguish between the first and second causes, because form and matter are often indistinguishable.

Consider the question, "why are there 24 hours in a day?"

We might answer by saying that 24 hours is approximately the time it takes for the earth to rotate around its axis as it revolves around its light source, the sun. This tells us the material causes (the earth and sun) and the formal cause (the earth's revolution and rotation). We can answer the question in more depth, looking for the efficient cause, by talking about why it is that the earth's rotation has a 24-hour period. Or, if we have reason to believe that the period of the earth's rotation was intentional, we could ask about its final cause, asking, for example, why did God create the earth so that we experience 24-hour days?

We have no reason to look for a final cause of the earth's rotation, of course. There is no evidence that the earth was created by a conscious being. So we consider a complete answer one that identifies the material, formal and efficient causes.

Now let's turn to the questions which began this post.

The first question is, "why are the laws of chemistry as they are?"

In terms of material causes, we can say that the laws of chemistry are the way they are because atoms are composed of subatomic particles which have their own regularities. We can thus explain chemistry in terms of physics. This tells us the material and formal causes. We can also look for an efficient cause by exploring the history of the universe and determining what specific factors, if any, contributed to the laws of chemistry. Since there is no evidence for any final cause, there is no reason to look for one.

The second question is, "Why are the laws of physics and everything in the Universe the way that they are?"

Scientists don't have a definite answer for this question, so far as I know. However, the question can be approached scientifically. It is possibile that some laws of nature are unchanging, and are the way they are because of some unchanging property of the universe itself. In that case, there is no efficient cause at work here. We can only study the material and formal properties in which nature's laws are manifest.

However, cosmologists have considered how changes in the universe could affect the universe's constants, like the speed of light, which we were all taught was always the same. It is quite possible that, as the universe evolves, its constants change. The speed of light might have been faster when the universe was a lot hotter. The laws of nature might not be fixed. Thus, efficient causes for the laws of nature may be scientifically identified one day.

Again, without evidence for a final cause, there is no reason to look for one.

There are also some laws which apply to any possible world in which certain conditions are met. When the universe meets those conditions, the law is inevitable. Darwin's theory of Natural Selection is one such law. The law of supply and demand could be considered another. We can analyze such laws in terms of their material, formal, and efficient causes.

The next question: "Why does matter behave as it does?"

This question can be answered by referring to the answers to the previous two questions.

Finally: "Is there an ordered end or 'goal' toward which it, and ultimately the universe, is progressing?"

This question contains two separate questions. The first, is there some final state towards which the universe is progressing? The second, is there some goal of the universe?

Scientists have theorized about possible "final states" of the universe, based on the facts that the universe is expanding and that entropy increases over time in any closed system. If the universe continues to expand without contracting, they say, there will be a "heat death," which is equivalent to maximum entropy. If the universe contracts, however, then there could be some kind of expansion/contraction cycle, which may never have a final state. These questions are all of the material/formal/efficient cause variety. They don't indicate any final cause.

As for there being a goal of the universe, however, this implies a final cause. It implies that the universe has some purpose, and that it is or was intended to achieve something in particular.

Final causes make sense when we are talking about beings who behave intentionally. The universe does not appear to behave intentionally. We have no reason to think that there is any intention behind, for example, galaxies, earthquakes, and the formation of planets. So we have no basis for talking about these phenomena in terms of final causes.

Of course, one might say, "ah, but there is no reason why we cannot talk about such things in terms of final causes!"

In general, that is true. If you want to talk about earthquakes as being the product of some conscious being, you can. I think it is irrational to put too much stock in the idea, but it is not inconceivable that such events could be caused by conscious beings. (In fact, one day we may very well have enough control over the planet to produce controlled earthquakes ourselves. Why we would want to is another question entirely.)

But when we talk about a cause of the universe as a whole, it no longer makes sense to talk about a final cause. The reason is that "the universe" is defined as everything. If the universe is intended to be for something, then whatever intended it (the conscious intender) would have to be a part of the universe itself. (That is, unless you want to limit the notion of "the universe" to refer to something less than everything; in which case, you'd have to explain how we can distinguish between the universe and whatever else is out there you would like to discuss, and why you only consider the former "the universe.")

Is it possible that some conscious being in the universe has organized the entire universe towards a particular end?

Perhaps we may one day learn to control the universe so completely that we can control its progress. We cannot conceive of how this could happen, but we cannot say it is impossible. So, it is at least not inconceivable. But there is no evidence that it has happened, or even that it could happen.

Again, this is not to say that the universe could have been created with a particular goal in mind. That, though supposed by many, would be impossible.