Is there Purpose in Life?

Not a simple question. And the answer depends on who you ask. A Pastor will say yes, of course. Many biologists will answer no, the whole idea of purpose or, the ancient philosophical concept of teleology, has no place in science in general. Things happen in obedience to the laws of nature, not for any purpose.

But I am not so sure this is true when if comes to life as we know it.

I have just had a paper published in the journal Perspectives in Science and Christian Faith, a peer reviewed, scholarly/scientific journal of the American Scientific Affiliation. The paper is called “Teleology and the Origin of Evolution“, and can be found at the journal’s web site .

Here are some extracts from the abstract and body of the paper.

The key to biological evolution is a tight linkage between inheritable genotype and gene-directed phenotype, which allows the phenotype to be the target of selection. It is theoretically possible for some forms of life to exist without evolution; thus, the origin of life and the origin of evolution are two separate research questions. The classical problem of teleology in biology may be approached by a close examination of the mechanism behind the universal genotype-phenotype linkage: the protein synthesis or translation system. This solution to the problem of converting nucleic acid chemistry into protein chemistry may be the fundamental root of teleonomy and inherent teleology in living organisms.

The roots of biological teleology do not lie in the action of evolutionary processes. Instead, I believe they can be found in the very fabric of the evolutionary process. In other words, purpose is built into the central, deepest biochemical meaning of what evolution is.

Cells do not see the future and do not decide to change based on what is needed. And that is the point. Cells do not need to see the future, because evolution provides a way to deal with any novel circumstances or challenges in the absence of sight, thought, will, or any form of consciousness. Evolution by natural selection is the cellular biological alternative to survival by conscious struggle.

If you would like to read the whole paper, and are not yet a member of the ASA, you can get the pdf from this link. 

I expect the conclusions of this paper, namely that teleology is a real part of biology based on a scientific argument, will be controversial, to say the least. I am interested in any thoughts from readers.

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15 Responses to Is there Purpose in Life?

  1. Many thanks for the link Sy and look forward to mulling over your paper over a cuppa this afternoon with a view to re-blogging. (Currently chatting about God as mathematician re information theory on Joseph and Mehki’s ace blog Rationalising the Universe.)

  2. Noah White says:

    I have a feeling this could be a very important document. Obviously large swaths of it were over my head, but it was clear, concise and compelling. I did have one question– when you discuss the inherent purpose in evolution as a process, and then connect to our sense of purpose in our lives, is that an intentional connection? Put another way, is your idea that the purpose of evolution as process informs our sense of purpose in life? It seems almost like an inversion of the (as I understand it, scientifically and theologically misguided) TE idea that the “selfish gene” is cause for our sin. Correct me if I’m wrong, of course; but it seemed like an interesting line of thought to follow. Great article, Sy; so glad it got published, and thanks for providing it for those of us who aren’t members of the ASA!!

  3. Fascinating point, Noah. Yes, the connection was intentional. We do have a sense of purpose in our lives, which I believe comes from God. But we also all act all the time with purpose. I walk into the shower with a specific purpose – to get clean. And of course, this can be seen with many other creatures as well. Their first fundamental purpose is to survive, which is the purpose behind the lion chasing the gazelle, and the gazelle running away. Other animals may or may not be conscious of their purposes, and humans sometimes arent either, but often we are. So the question is, if even an earthworm and a bacterium “act” with purpose, where does that come from. My thesis is that the notion of purpose is inherent in all life with the capacity to evolve, (all terrestrial modern life) and this has its roots in the translation system.

    As for your idea about the selfish gene, I had not thought of that, and will need to dwell on it a bit. I am not sure I have seen the selfish gene concept used as the cause of sin by TEs, and Im not sure how that would work. Could you elaborate a bit?

    • Noah White says:

      I see what you’re saying now, that makes more sense than where I thought it was going. I’ve often wondered how people can say there’s no purpose in anything, when we have the very *idea* of purpose. It seems that if it didn’t exist, we couldn’t talk about it.

      The selfish gene causing sin is something I see batted around on BioLogos by some of the commenters (and I think I’ve seen it in a few blog posts as well, but I could be mistaken). It basically takes Dawkins’ selfish gene idea and extrapolates it out to human nature, saying that the root of all sin is selfishness–it smacks of evolutionary psychology and isn’t very Biblical (and from what people tell me, the selfish gene primarily was a metaphor, and one that has been kind of phased out in biology anyway). I’m not really sure how it would work in reality, as it seems mostly like unscientific (and untheological!) conjecture. Jon has written quite a bit about it over at The Hump, if I recall correctly.

  4. Yes, you’re right. Dawkins never meant that genes are actually selfish. What he meant was that genes (and all organisms as well) might appear to be selfish, because they appear to strive for survival. You are also right that modern evolutionary theory is no longer based only on gene survival (with the rest of the organism just along for the ride, and only helping the genes to do their thing). This has been called gene centrism, and is not in favor with most biologists except for the extreme atheists.

  5. SheilaDeeth says:

    I might use this argument with a beloved son. Thank you.

  6. resonate47 says:

    Really enjoyed your paper, Sy. I’ve printed out a copy that I’ll be sharing with friends who are interested in the nexus of our faith and nature. Purpose is a very interesting and broad idea, and obviously we see it in numerous avenues of life. When I was younger, I was obsessively fixated on figuring out God’s specific purpose for me. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize (by divine revelation of His Holy Spirit) that His purpose for me so often simply goes back to what Christ said about His yoke being easy and His burden light. Gentleness and humility, loving God and others. I imagine this is a general purpose for those of us who bear God’s image.

  7. Purposeful action is the defining characteristic of biological organisms. Each life form comes with a built-in drive to survive, thrive, and reproduce. Trees send leaves to the sky and roots into the ground to obtain the nourishment required. The amoeba extends its pseudo-pod to find food. The lioness brings down a buffalo to feed her cubs. Bees build hives, termites build mounds, and people build cities. This is not a conscious purpose, but rather instinctive, a kind of “biological will”.

    As a humanist, I view this purpose as uniquely encapsulated in every life form, and the only source of any purpose to be found in universe. The universe itself has no purpose. But life does.

    When we get to intelligent species, we gain the ability to imagine alternative ways to accomplish this purpose and the ability to deliberately choose the option we think is best. This is a “deliberate will” as opposed to a “biological will”.

    And when we decide for ourselves what we will do, free of coercion or other undue influence, we call the mental process “free will”.

    • Welcome to the Book of Works. I am glad to see a humanist here, and one that agrees with the concept of a purpose in life and free will. I only wish the leading group (leading meaning the most widely read and popular) of atheists shared this view. I am quite tired of hearing about how tiny and insignificant all of life is on this third rate planet. Even the theme of my article, that teleology is built in to all of life from its biochemical workings, has become a controversial idea, scientifically. I find the misuse of science to try to prove a philosophical worldview (New Atheism founded on scientism) very unfortunate, and I am trying to counter these nihiistic, depressing and unfounded ideas as much as I can.

      Of course, as a believing Christian I do not agree that the universe is without purpose, but was in fact purposefully created. That is a faith statement and cannot be proven. But even if one does not hold to a Creator God, to me the most important thing to acknowledge is the existence of purpose in life on Earth, and the potential inherent in human free will.

      • I’ve never regretted my Christian upbringing. My father was a Salvation Army minister who got into an extra-marital affair that went very wrong, ending in his killing her and himself. It was in questioning the justice of Hell as eternal torture that my Christian values caused me to reject theism. Such a God could not, must not exist.

        Other than that, it was a great life for me. And after my divorce a friend from the local Unitarian Universalist church invited me to come to church with him and I joined the choir. I think the American Humanist Association was actually started by a couple of UU ministers.

        I do believe in a natural world without a creator god. (I tell my Christian friends that if I die and discover otherwise, I’ll simply say to Saint Peter, “I believe the price of my admission has already been paid.” And if he doesn’t get it, I’ll send him over to Paul to explain it to him).

        In any case, I was a teenager at the time I decided God was no longer the most probable explanation, and started going to the public library and reading in the philosophy section. That’s where I learned about the determinism “versus” free will paradox.

        It bothered me to think that my life was already inevitable until I ran across this thought experiment which I’m pasting from my blog:

        Suppose I have a choice between A and B. I feel myself leaning heavily toward A. So, just to spite inevitability, I’ll choose B instead! Seems too easy. But then I realize that my desire to spite inevitability just made B the inevitable choice. So now I have to choose A to avoid the inevitable. But wait, now A is inevitable again … it’s an endless loop!

        No matter what I choose, inevitability always switches to match my choice!

        Hmm. So, who or what is controlling the choice, me or inevitability?

        It turns out that what we will inevitably do is exactly identical to us just being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose. And that is not a meaningful constraint!

        What we humans call “free will” is simply the mental process of choosing for ourselves what we “will” do, “free” from coercion or other undue influence.

        It does not mean “freedom from reliable causation”, which is an oxymoron, because without reliable cause and effect we cannot reliably cause any effect, and would thus have no freedom to do anything at all. Every freedom we have requires a deterministic universe.

  8. I completely agree with your free will argument. The concept of strict determinism has the “so what” problem. If everything is decided in advance, what consequences does that have? And as you imply, it is impossible to test the idea. And I also agree that reliable cause and effect are important, but the universe is deterministic only to a point. It is deterministic enough to allow for physical laws for large aggregates of particles, but totally stochastic for individual particles (and people as a matter of fact). Thanks to quantum dynamics.

    My own upbringing (as you will find if you check out other posts here) was a mirror image of yours. I do not have fond feelings of my militant atheistic childhood and adolescent, however, and I came to the conclusion that the existence of God is a rational choice, and later came to experience directly the grace of Christ. I think we are likely to have some interesting conversations here. Again, Welcome.

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