The Meaning of Purpose by Randy Isaac

Today’s guest post is by Dr. Randy Isaac, former Executive Director of the American Scientific Affiliation, and a good friend. Randy and I share an interest in the concept of teleology in biology, and how notions of purpose and causation might fit into the science faith nexus. Randy also has an excellent article on the subject in this months issue of Perspectives in Science and Christian Faith. In this post Randy, an authority on information science, explains the various meanings of purpose. 


The word “purpose” is so common that few people take the time to define it carefully. In contrast, terms like “teleology” and “design” get a lot of attention. More attention needs to be paid to the various nuances of “purpose” as widely used. In this post I consider three distinct usages of the concept of purpose: 1. External agent, 2. Self-determined, and 3. Intrinsic.

1 External agent. The most widely used connotation of “purpose” is a conscious being that ascribes purpose to an object or another being in one of three ways: a. Construction, b. Appropriation, and c. Assignment.

Construction applies predominantly to tools or machines that are designed and built for the purpose of carrying out some task. A hammer, for example, is designed and built to drive a nail into wood. Appropriation refers to a tool or machine constructed for a different purpose but appropriated to do a different task than the one for which it was constructed. A hammer can be used for many purposes other than driving nails. Assignment generally refers to people or animals. Most commonly, an employer asks an employee to serve the purpose of fulfilling some task. Or an animal is trained to carry out a task. In theistic circles, the first thought of “purpose” often refers to God and the purpose in his mind when he created the world, appropriated the laws of nature to carry out his bidding, and his assignment to living plants and animals to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. His ultimate purpose for humans is to have dominion over the earth and to serve in his image as children of God.

2 Self-determined. Purpose can also be a goal that a person selects for themselves. One person may decide to make his purpose in life to serve other people in the ministry, others to become a famous scientist, or a successful politician. In religious communities, this role of purpose is often subjugated to the will of God and becomes the guiding principle of life.

3 Intrinsic. Far less frequently and seldom recognized, the word “purpose” can refer to an intrinsic role or function. This is most commonly used in biology. A leaf, for example, has the purpose of collecting sunlight and synthesizing food for the tree as well as exchanging CO2 and H2O. No conscious agent was involved and the purpose is intrinsic to the tree. As biochemists unravel the grand mysteries of cellular processes, the purpose of myriad biomolecules is discovered. However, this use of the word “purpose” is often misunderstood. Without clarification of its use in an intrinsic sense, many people get the impression that biologists are in fact seeing the work of an external agent in setting a purpose for that biomolecule.

A discussion of teleology is most interesting in the context of evolution. The intricate role of so many complex biomolecules is astounding. Purpose is evident everywhere and the conviction is clear that there is some kind of design going on. Is that design merely apparent or is it the action of an external agent? How can one tell the difference? I would suggest that perhaps it is neither merely apparent nor the work of an external agent but the result of intrinsic purpose.

The nature of intrinsic purpose arises in the context of emergence. Philosophers like Phil Clayton, George Ellis, Nancey Murphy, and others are exploring the importance of emergence in contrast to the reductionism which is so prevalent in the scientific community. Emergence refers to the multi-level hierarchy of explanation of the universe. Fundamental levels like atoms and molecules enable higher-level complexity. In turn, these higher-level complexities can constrain or control the action of the atoms and molecules in an exquisite recursive feedback loop. The net result is a system that has intrinsic purpose in the sense of a particular role or function which, in turn, is a component of a larger and even higher-level system.

In this way, purpose and meaning can arise intrinsically in complex systems. The notions of teleology and design need not refer to external agents or involve conscious beings. Intrinsic purpose deserves to be recognized and studied further to understand how teleology exists in biology.


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Christianity as Child Abuse?

The first time I heard of this new atheist meme, I was so shocked that I ignored it. But since then it has grown in popularity. One can now find people writing that teaching any religion to children is child abuse, since children are being made to grow up believing in a lie. Child abuse is a terrible and very real problem. Teaching any world view to your children is not child abuse, and to say that teaching religion to kids is child abuse lessens and trivializes the terrible reality of actual child abuse.

The deranged atheists who make this claim insist that by teaching young children lies, parents are affecting their whole lives and preventing them from understanding the truth about the world. Well, if teaching your kids that God created the world, and that Jesus Christ loves them no matter what they do, is child abuse, then what is this:

“Daddy, what happens when we die?”

“Nothing. Death is the end. We just stop existing. Forever.”

“But Katy said her grandpa is in Heaven.”

“There is no such thing as Heaven. It’s a fairy tale to make people feel better. Once a person dies, there is nothing at all. They can’t think. They feel nothing. They don’t exist”.

“So when you die, I will never see you again?”

“That’s right, and when you die, your children and your friends will never see you again, and you won’t exist. God and Jesus and Heaven and all that stuff is just make believe.”

How do you think that makes a kid feel? I know the answer, because that is what I was told from early childhood. The answer is I found it terrifying and depressing, and I could not grasp the enormous misery of the finality of it. Although I believed what my parents told me, I fervently wished it wasn’t true.

I was told other things too as a child. I was told about how Comrade Stalin was a great man who would help us all become free of tyranny. I was told that the Soviet Union was a paradise of happy workers, and that once the whole world was communist, there would be peace, freedom and prosperity forever. I believed this also for a while, but as with most young people, I began having doubts about the wisdom of my parental culture, and eventually rejected it. That is what human beings do. Unless very sophisticated and reinforced brain washing techniques (as in a cult) are used, most children can easily decide (based on their own experiences and free choice) what to believe and what not to believe.

Keeping children isolated in a cult, without the ability to interact with diverse points of view can be abusive, and such cases are known. But cults are clearly defined and can be identified by their characteristics. Christianity is not a cult. Atheism isn’t either. There are Christian-based cults, and atheistic cults, and those are dangerous.

But normal religious beliefs are not any more abusive than any other worldviews, and a lot less so than some. The argument that it is abusive to teach lies to children is not only false, it begs the question of what is a lie. Who is going to be the judge of which lies you tell your kids will put you in jail for child abuse (which, lets remember, is a crime)? Should it be people like Sam Harris, who  know the truth, because he says so? Should it be a commission of scientists and scholars who determine what is factually accurate and what is a lie? This solution has been tried. But Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union didn’t work out too well in matters of intellectual accomplishment, nor in avoiding levels of child (and adult) abuse way beyond our imagination.

Let’s not tolerate this dangerous and stupid idea that teaching children about Christianity is child abuse. Let’s fight back against it. Militant Atheism has gone way too far with this one, and it needs to stop.


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The Orphan of the Universe by Dean Ohlman

We are fortunate to have a guest post from my colleague and fellow member of the facebook group, Celebrating Creation by Natural Selection, Dean OhlmanDean is retired from Our Daily Bread Ministries (formerly RBC Ministries) where he was a Christian nature writer, website host, editor, and associate TV producer. This is his second guest blog on the Book of Works. 

As I understand it, the naturalistic theory of origins says that for billions of years after the unknown and unknowable beginning there was nobody. There was something, but it wasn’t somebody. As the universe was developing and organizing without order or purpose, nobody knew or observed it. Throughout time and space there was no person, no intelligence, no will, no consciousness, no sensory awareness, no knowledge, no thought, no reason, no word—nowhere! For millions of eons something was here, but no conscious mind was aware that something was here. There was no purpose or intent, yet without anybody or anything here to direct it, this something followed an orderly progression from a simplicity that’s never been observed to a complexity we can’t understand.

How do we understand ultimate cosmic origins? Naturalism gives credit to a big, unimaginable “explosion” that caused immateriality to take on materiality. Purposelessness then created a cosmos. Chaos organized itself. Unconsciousness awoke. Deadness begot life. Asexuality engendered sexuality. No one became someone. Impersonality gained personhood. Irrationality became rational. Non-entity became a self. And this material self functioned for millions of years according to the principle of self-preservation to evolve into a being who, oddly, could even purposely will to give up his life for the belief that everybody and everything have a spiritual (super-cosmic/super-natural) cause, purpose, and destiny. So godlessness created God. And because of that belief, amorality produced morality, which in turn developed into complex moral and ethical systems based on apparently irrational beliefs about deity, spirituality, goodness, love, and immortality.

To summarize: For all but the last tiny eon of existence, nothing had knowledge of anything else; yet something lifeless and unconscious cooperated with something else lifeless and unconscious to bring into existence the living, knowing, conscious, intelligent, rational creature called man who survives by deliberate cooperative relationships. This accidental—and oddly naked—ape communicating in symbols invented language and made poetry. The uncreated thing created music and art, and its evolved and embarrassingly illogical emotions cause it to weep in wonder over the stunning beauty, grandeur, and mathematical perfection of its apparent purposeless and meaningless environment. This reasoning, decision-making, sensory somebody who came into existence by the will of nobody can yet will to love or hate, kill or allow itself to be killed, and even develop the capacity to senselessly alter or destroy the natural systems that created it—threatening to send everything back into unconsciousness.
So according to naturalism, man is nothing but a cosmic orphan overwhelmed by the knowledge that he has no ultimate purpose and no ultimate hope. Shakespeare’s Macbeth articulated it well:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Man is the orphan of the universe.”

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The Objectivist Fallacy

There is a very popular atheist argument that only objective “scientific” facts count as evidence for anything. I call this the Objectivist Fallacy (OF), which is a form of scientism. Examples of the OF include the often-heard statements and questions addressed to theists  “How can you believe in something you cannot prove?” and “I am rational – I only believe what has been objectively proven with scientific evidence”. Then there are the evidentiary statements like “Your feelings are not evidence” and “Please list any evidence for the existence of God”, by which they mean experimental, objective, and repeatable evidence, as would be useful for establishing the existence of a new planet or a new species.

We can see that the objectivist arguments of atheists are fallacious when applied to many areas of human thought such as artistic criticism, creativity (even scientific creativity), politics, economics, fashion and popular culture. The idea that there exists a single factual truth, demonstrable by objective evidence, is actually a faith statement without much basis from objective evidence in the majority of cases. It is not even universally true in science – far from it.

I think most people would agree that it makes no sense to ask for objective evidence to back up the following statements of belief:

“Kandinsky is the greatest artist of the past 150 years.”

“Wagner was a terrible composer.”

“The Democratic Party platform is the only hope for national survival.”

Arguments can be marshalled in favor or against each of these, but the idea of finding objective evidence to prove any of them is absurd. I once asked an atheist objectivist if there was any way to gather objective scientific evidence for the quality of artwork. He said that such evidence is simple – the commercial value of a piece of artwork gives a quantitative “objective” measure of its quality. I think that answer illustrates, if anything, the depth of desperation that anti-theists find themselves when resorting to these arguments.

Here are some other such statements:

“The origin of life began with metabolic cycles, and replicator molecules were a later addition.”

“The origin of life began with replicators, which allowed for metabolism to occur.”

“Both replication and metabolism, each of which depend on the other, occurred simultaneously during the origin of life.”

These three scientific statements represent beliefs based on the same body of data, and the scientists who are proponents of these divergent viewpoints have for many decades fiercely debated them.

One might argue that scientific disputes happen all the time (indeed they do) but they are all eventually resolved by more evidence. And yes, that happens most of the time, but not always. There are some areas of science where different interpretations of the same facts have led to divergent viewpoints that have persisted, despite piles of evidence, for almost a century. One of these areas involves the various interpretations of quantum mechanics. Another is the origin of life.

My point is that the demand for evidence is fallacious when applied to issues of faith.  If someone says that she felt herself called by the Holy Spirit and discovered faith after some personal crisis, the objectivist might ask her for verifiable evidence, beyond her own testimony that this really happened. If she reports that she experienced a dream or a vision, she would be told that “feelings don’t count, they are simply brain chemistry.” As if this provides any sort of argument against the reality of the woman’s experience. The idea that the scientific discovery of a neurological correlate or mechanism for a subjective experience renders that experience somehow “not real” is  profoundly non-scientific.

What the people who use the OF fail to understand is that not all evidence is objective. The faith claim that it is cannot be proven to be true, and is easily falsified for so many areas of human endeavor. Most of the things we know come from subjective experience, without any possibility of being objectively proven. If I am asked what I ate for breakfast three days ago, I might remember, but I cannot back up my claim with any evidence. Courts of law tend to trust eyewitness reports from reliable people, even though it often cannot be objectively corroborated. If we were to reject the truth of all subjective experience on the grounds that they are not scientifically confirmed, we could not live or remain sane.

So, the next time you hear an atheist say “Where is your evidence for your sky daddy?” you can respond with “Sorry, that is the ‘Objectivist Fallacy’” and move on.

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March for Science

My friend and colleague Mike Beidler just posted something on facebook that I thought was worth re-posting here. Mike is the President of the Washington DC metro section of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), and a well respected writer on science and faith, including work with Biologos, and others. As the VP of the same ASA section, I have worked with Mike for a few years, and have great respect his thoughts. I am honored to be able to post his comment here on the historic March for Science, that we both participated in. 


The primary role of science in society is to expand and disseminate human knowledge about the universe God created. What society does with that knowledge is a different, albeit related, question. That’s where the discussion about ethics, which resides more in the realm of politics and shared moral values, comes into the picture as we struggle to apply scientific findings to issues regarding health, the environment, and the economy. Eventually, the conclusions that result from science’s continued exploration of God’s cosmos must find their way into public discourse where we can conduct debates about how we should apply (or should not apply) the knowledge we’ve gained as a species.

In general, scientists should continue doing what they do best: exploring the great and small of God’s universe. This is an apolitical endeavor. However, scientists as individual human beings — conferred with God’s image and responsible for the proper treatment of any domain we enter — cannot simply let knowledge be knowledge and never care about what’s done with that knowledge. Scientists must become adept at wearing two hats: the “scientist hat” in the laboratory or the field, and the “God’s image hat” in the realm of polity. For me, the March for Science is an opportunity for scientists and supporters of science — regardless of religious creed or lack thereof — to don their “God’s image hat,” celebrate the achievements of our God-given minds, call for the proper use of our scientific findings, and attempt to influence policy in a positive direction.

The March for Science was/is definitely a political movement that demands that our elected representatives, regardless of party, consider very carefully the knowledge we’ve obtained and shape policy for the betterment of not just human lives but also the world in which we live. However, this demand for principled political action shouldn’t be partisan. Both the political left (GMOs, nuclear energy) and the right (evolution, climate change) have their pet non-evidence-based policies or policy proposals, so it’s incumbent upon any future March for Science organizers to take a careful look at their programs to ensure a proper balance of issues are represented, and even reach out for support in the religious community.

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A new day

Before this Easter seasons fades into our memories, I would like to share this blog, from Tricia Frasman, since it is so harmonious with my latest post about Peter. Tricia’s blog is Random Ramblings

Random Ramblings

I’ve always loved the Sabbath. Time to stop and be with my family. Time to appreciate God’s goodness to us and remember His promises.

The Sabbath of Passover week is always especially a time of joy. We have remembered the escape from Egypt, we thank Yahweh for his deliverance and look forward to the coming of Messiah.

Yesterday was not like any other Sabbath. The day was empty of all meaning. Between the numbness I could not get the sights, the sounds, and the smells of Friday out of my head. How could my Lord be dead?

On Thursday when we heard that He had been taken by the temple guard, we went as quickly as we could to the temple courts, we watched people come and go. Peter was there as were other disciples, mostly keeping a low profile. Peter of course got noticed, how could he not? Big and burly…

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Simply, Simon; Redux

It is Holy Week, and I would like to repost something that I put up on Holy Saturday last year.

Holy Saturday is the day in-between. Very little is written about what happened on that day, but we can imagine.  We can imagine a man, much like us. A man defeated, alone, miserable and afraid. This man, who was once called a rock, today thinks of himself as simply – Simon. Imagine him sitting in a strange house in a city not his own, staring out the window, seeing nothing but his own failure, and the loss of all of his hopes and dreams. I have felt this way at times, and perhaps you have also.

He thinks of the glorious promise that he has witnessed the past months, the miraculous and wonderful things he has seen and heard. He thinks of the Man who showed so much faith in him, the Man who has now gone, died, left them all alone, without hope or will. But most of all he thinks of his own terrible failure and betrayal. A failure that his leader had predicted, and which he himself would never have imagined possible.

Yesterday, that black day, had proven to the man once called the rock, that he was made of no more than weak, mortal, human clay. Three times he had confirmed his human cowardice, his unworthiness to lead, or even to live. On this Saturday, the man who now once again thinks of himself simply as Simon, is filled with an unimaginable despair at the loss of everything he once valued, most especially his own dignity.

Have you  been there? Have you had to face the fact that you are unworthy because of your actions? No excuses, you simply failed. The time for heroism, for standing tall, for being more than you thought you could be, the time to prove yourself truly a rock of faith, of hope, of goodness, the time had come, and you…you had failed to heed the call. In your weakness or fear, you had simply turned away, waving your hand in dismissal. “No” you said “I don’t know anything about that, Leave me alone”. And not just once, but often. And then it was over, the terrible moment passed, and you were left with only the taste of the ashes of your own personal failure, as the whole glorious edifice you believed in and had worked so hard for, came crashing down in chaos and defeat.

I have been there. That is why I have long been so fascinated by this day that lies between the day of anguish and the day of triumph. On this day, Simon sits in agony and stares into space, not yet knowing that tomorrow everything will change again. Today, he is still unaware of tomorrow’s miracle that will change everything in the world forever. Today is the lowest point in his life, but tomorrow he, along with his dispersed friends, will be witness to a breathtaking renewal of hope. The resurrection of tomorrow means not only the resurrection of the living God, not only the rising of the Son of Man, but also the rising of man himself. A man like Simon, weak, afraid, defeated, failed, a man whose despicable actions on the Friday have left him hopeless and full of self-loathing, also rises on Easter Sunday, and once more becomes Peter the Rock.

Like us, he is all too human, and yet like us, he is capable of all that he later accomplished. I do not believe he ever forgot his acts of betrayal. But through grace and faith, and his human moral strength, he rose above them, and he fulfilled his destiny as a great fisher of men. So of all the miracles of tomorrow and the days and years that follow, for me the greatest is the miracle of the redemption of the man – the mortal, ordinary fisherman named simply, Simon.  Peace be with you in this holy season.

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