Civilizational Functionalism

For much of history, the grand narrative of civilization, such as it is, has been viewed in terms of capital-P Purpose. Life on earth supposedly has a Purpose. Until modernity, that Purpose was generally understood in religious terms, which meant it was understood in incomplete-by-design ways, with the most important bits of the Grand Design driving the universe to strive towards that Purpose being hidden from view beyond the veil of death. We could only guess at it through mythologies of afterlives, karmic cycling, Judgment Days, and so on. Your part of the Divine Design was to serve the Purpose by living out a small-p purpose driven life, with the two being connected by a shared positive-valence quality called Good/good. You served the Greater Good of the Grand Design by striving towards your small-p purposes doing small-g good, which fed the larger Purpose. Doing so generated Meaning and meaning.

This is all conveniently unfalsifiable, self-serving, and self-soothing. Which is one reason that when humanity discovered Science! it took care to retain that unfalsifiability in new Purpose narratives that rejoiced under a new label: Progress.

I find this whole scheme rather an insult to the intelligence. Is there a better way to understand whatever larger-scale coherence civilization has, and how it aligns with any small-scale coherence we may experience in our lives and actions? I think there is, and the key to it is the word function.

The words function and purpose are very close indeed. The only real difference is that function lacks a connotation of a default positive valence. The typical function of a knife is to cut. Whether in serving that function it serves a good or evil purpose depends on whether you’re using it to chop vegetables or stab someone (and further, the Purpose depends on whether plants can feel pain and what the stabbee possibly did to deserve it I suppose).

You could say the purpose of a knife is to cut, but that rings odd to me, like it’s a sentient thing that has chosen a life of cutting for obscure but righteous reasons. It’s a non-sentient object, whose uses are limited only by your imagination. You could use the side to crush garlic instead of cutting. To say that the purpose of a knife is to cut is to view it in a functionally fixed way by projecting your own purposes onto it. The possible functions of a non-sentient object are by default unfixed. A knife can function as a cutting instrument, but that function is not the identity of the knife. If you can see that, you’re not being blinded by purpose or Purpose. This is not a trivial matter by the way. The ancients did give names to their swords and try to ritually imbue them with divine purposes and Purposes. It would not do to use the divine sword Excalibur, destined to restore the True King to the throne, for non-noble purposes. Excalibur had purpose. My knife merely has a range of possible functions depending on context and my imagination.

You could actually extend this discussion to sentient agents. Perhaps sentience should be defined as agency that is trapped by a functionally fixed view of itself. Agency that escapes such a view of itself would have Buddha-nature, like a rock.

To keep the discussion clean, let’s reserve the word purpose for action/motivation schemes that seek (or suffer) the virtuous mantle of a positive valence, and use function for action/motivation schemes that project no particular valence. Agents have purposes, instruments have functions. Builders have purposes, tools have functions. You and I have purposes, the Buddha and a rock have functions. Functions are context-sensitive understandings of non-sentient objects by agents, who may or may not imbue the entire context with projected purpose or Purpose, obscuring the intrinsic identity of tools.

Or here’s another angle on it. Functions are reality. Purpose is a reality-distortion field (created by attachment to desires I suppose Buddhists would say).

How do you use the word function in the context of civilizational grand narratives? Well, you use it within a bald engineering metaphor for an emergent planet-scale machine that avoids talking about Purpose. One functionalist understanding of civilization is Buckminster Fuller’s notion of Spaceship Earth. Earth as a spaceship. What’s your function on the spaceship? You can ask most of the interesting questions that the Purpose frame asks, especially all the ones that have actual answers, using the Spaceship Earth functionalist metaphor. You can also think more generally of Boat Stories, stories whose entire premise is not about good winning over evil but everybody being together on a boat. Spaceship Earth is a boat story. You can also worry about setting up a planetary dev environment, which is an even more general container metaphor.

Function and functionalism gets us moving mindfully where Purpose either traps us in the inaction of moral analysis paralysis, or lulls us into a false sense of functionally fixed blindness and moral self-certainty. They allow design and architecture to emerge and evolve purely through the logic of means, without consideration of ends being necessary. You can still talk about ends and morals and purpose and Purpose of course, but you don’t have to if you find that the conversations are inconclusive, unhelpful, counterproductive, blinding, or futile.

Functional frames don’t blind you to the need to have such conversations anyway, or give you a free pass by way of a default-good scheme to work within. Purpose has a way of presuming goodness that lets you off the hook from thinking about it at all, even as you put on a grand theater of thinking about it a lot. This is particularly true of religiosity. Every villain believes he is the hero of his own story, and religion is often what helps sustain that belief very cheaply. You could literally pay with money for indulgences to do it if you were rich, back in the day.

Technological progress is a Purpose frame that presumes itself to be good and avoids poking too much at it. That there are many flavors of it — Silicon Valley edition, socialist edition, Chinese edition — should tip you off that it’s a Purpose frame.

Spaceship Earth on the other hand, is a functionalist frame that leaves the question of good/evil unanswered but not invisible. That allows you to do everything Progress™ does, but without requiring a lot of dubious moral presumption.

Purpose tries to say simple things about complicated matters by claiming goodness and Goodness, meaning and Meaning, in both means and ends. It claims to be about distant Good Stuff™ like getting more people into heaven, or out of the karmic cycle. Or dissolving (or uploading) their consciousness. Or the eventual emergence of luxury gay space communist utopia. Or multiplanetary ancap Ayn Rand Real Men™ and Real Women™ utopia. Or Good AI.

Function is a word with less baggage and less moral ambition. That doesn’t mean it lacks engineering ambition. Function is a tech-for-tech’s-sake word that tends to horrify the morally sensitive as being nihilistic and amoral, but in fact it is quite the opposite. By abdicating responsibility for the moral dimension altogether, it forces you to consider the matter independently. By refusing to offer you clear, simple, and wrong answers to complicated questions, it forces you to look for the muddy, complex, and ambiguous answers yourself. And it does so without conditioning action on clear/simple/wrong answers existing.

We can talk about designs in the engineering sense, both small and grand, in terms of functions, and thereby finesse the whole fraught business of deciding whether the narrative of history is Good or Evil. We can just get on with the business of keeping it going without waiting for answers. Which of course begs the question to some extent, since keeping it going implicitly assumes, without explicit theologizing, that that’s a better thing to be doing than shutting the whole thing down as a bad business. Which is a non-trivial idea Werner Herzog would probably endorse. There’s a case to be made that life as a whole creates more pain than is worthwhile, and it would be better if the universe had no life at all capable of experiencing pain. There’s also a case to be made — the Carsean infinite game case — that good and Good are about keeping the game going, making a leap of faith that life is better than non-life.

But functionalism is about subordinating such moral and philosophical doubt to the principle of action. To think in functional terms is to say, I don’t know for sure if what I’m doing is good or evil under any calculus of Purpose, but I’m going to choose action over inaction and live with the consequences. I’m going to add more features to this machine we are all part of.

In a way, functionalism is the active version of the Taoist fable about the farmer who kept saying maybe, maybe not, we’ll see, to people congratulating him or commiserating with him over various turns of fortune. There’s no reason to restrict that logic to things that happen to you as a passive victim/beneficiary of circumstances. You can apply it to your own actions.

Am I doing good? Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see. The real question is: What are the various things I could with this knife?

Get Ribbonfarm in your inbox

Get new post updates by email

New post updates are sent out once a week

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. The real question is: What about death?

  2. Putting it in terms of a binary between “continuing doing” and “doing nothing” seems to beg the question; both “Spaceship Earth” and “Launchpad Earth” are functional descriptions with very different activities implied despite having clear functionalist descriptions.

    Or to put it another way: “function” is also a loaded word. To say “X is the function of Y” is to select one of many possible causal impacts Y can have on the world as intrinsic to it, and there’s already a cultural/psychological/social/political decision there. Taking it as a given at the beginning of the analysis is to grant too much power to the assumptions (and too much power to those who made them default).

    I’m reminded of your observation about qualitative jumps in economic systems that take advantage of local conditions and technology but for noncontinuous jumps. To look at a machine or an infrastructure built with a function in mind and then say “you know what, this is also doing this other thing, and that’s probably more useful for my [emphasis on my] purpose”.

  3. I love that you’re raising the question!

    I’m not sure whether you are answering or dodging it.

    Maybe the answer really is in non-duality. I honestly am not sure whether it is better to use my finite skill set to perpetuate, overthrow, or reform civilization as we know it. And that macro decision carries into many micro-decisions.

    Maybe the only way out is to find a Buddha nature that allows me to do all three at once…

  4. Function is micro and Purpose is macro

    Analogous to micro and macro-economics. Macro is quasi-religious, micro is practical

  5. AdlesonCheckerboard says

    Maybe another word besides (lower case) meaning (in life, not of life) is needed for what humans describe when they find themselves useful for preserving or expanding the function of larger-than-themselves entities up to Spaceship Earth. The expanding/preserving function sounds a lot like how a control systems / information theory researcher like Polani would describe Empowerment. His talk, Information and its Flow, at the 2023 NeurIPS Intrinsically Motivated Open-ended Learning Workshop is worth connecting to this.

Leave a Comment


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.