Why do we ask questions about purpose?

Purpose - why me - rainAsking questions about purpose appears to be part of a natural tendency of the brain. This is useful in a number of ways, as it helps us understand and plan and make tools. But it can also incline us to suspect there may be more of a “reason” for things than happens to be.

Studies show that young children often ask what an object is “for” and think that things exist to serve some purpose. This continues in adults and is present even among trained scientists. It is also common in atheists who, when reflecting on life events, often say that things were “meant to be” or happened to them “because they needed to learn a lesson”, despite also saying that they don’t believe in a God that could have a plan or direct events.

Purpose - why me - no rainPsychologists have suggested that thinking that things occur for a reason may be an “explanatory default” – an intuitive first inclination – as we try to understand what we observe. We can and do learn to distinguish when purpose may actually be present (as in a cat positioning itself to catch a mouse) from things that are not done with intent (like it raining so that plants may grow). But, while education can reduce the frequency of intuitive assumptions of purpose, it doesn’t eliminate the tendency.

As Matthew Hutson put it, “even the most skeptical and well-educated of us can feel we were put here on Earth for a reason, or that stepping in dog poo on the way to an interview is just so typical – of course that had to happen to you. We see the world through a lens of purpose. Why is this happening? Why are we here? Who let the dogs out? It’s comforting – except when it leads to paranoia or fatalism. But one cold fact is unavoidable, particularly in science: sometimes shit just happens. So watch your step.”

Deborah Keleman. The scope of teleological thinking in preschool children.
Deborah Kelemen and Evelyn Rosset. Teleological explanation in adults.Matthew Hutson.
Even top scientists believe everything was created by magic.
Jesse Bering. Do atheists reason implicitly in theistic terms?
Telelological notions in biology (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)