With a naturalist view, it’s hard to see how there could be purpose in the cosmos. Particles, atoms, and molecules act in accordance with natural laws, assembling in varied ways with no intent or goal.
But, on Earth, purpose may have been introduced as something that accompanies life. As Loyal Rue described this:
Might it be that telos [a purpose or goal] is an emergent property of matter?
Maybe the universe was, as Steven Weinberg thinks, completely void of any point or purpose for most of its aimless and completely meaningless history. Maybe matter behaved exclusively, as Richard Dawkins thinks, according to a blind because-of logic [where things act in certain ways, simply because that is their nature] for billions of years. But then, quite unexpectedly, the odds favoring a new kind of causality came within reach. Could it be that a pointless because-of logic created the conditions for the pointful so-that logic of biological function?
Imagine that: a universe with no telos, no purpose, no agenda—a universe that just inadvertently made possible the spontaneous emergence of purpose. What is that? Irony? Paradox? Whatever it is, it’s weird, because it implies that if there is any genuinely purposeful behavior in the universe, it serves absolutely no purpose. An emergent theory of meaning implies that the existence of meaning is itself totally void of meaning.
Think about that!
Living things do have purpose. Based on drives that are shaped by DNA (and that have persisted due to natural selection), living things receive internal signals that inform them of needs, and they respond with purposeful actions – to obtain nutrients or to move away from harm – so-that they can continue to live and reproduce. This is present in all forms of life – from plants stretching toward the sun and sending out roots to reach water, to the actions of fish, reptiles, mammals, and humans as they seek food and acceptable temperatures, and as they mate.
Unlike the actions of atoms and molecules, these are actions that have purpose – with cells and organs, as well as organisms and groups, acting in coordinated ways to achieve this purpose. And, going beyond basic survival, they also act in ways that enable the beings (and/or their groups) to stay healthy and thrive.
This biological mandate gives purpose that guides the actions of living things. For most creatures, this is all there is. But many find it unsatisfying to think of ourselves, in the words of a Monty Python song, as “simply spiraling coils of self-replicating DNA” (or, in the words of Richard Dawkins, elaborate shells for a “selfish gene”). We want to feel that what we do matters in some way, and that our struggles and actions have some meaning.
[Click to continue . . .]