Years ago I heard about a book on the purpose-driven life. I rushed to a bookstore (ah, bookstores), only to find that it was mostly about God. Evidently the question of purpose had snuck up on me unawares. These days, I’m thinking that life is indeed purpose-driven but not at all in Rick Warren’s terms.
Before I get to that, I’ll summarize some basic ideas about purpose.
A traditional view has been that things happen in order to achieve a final goal, often taken to be God himself. Today we certainly think in terms of goals on the more modest scale of strategic plans and personal targets. And yet the idea that everything is part of a grand cosmic plan remains very comforting. People seem calmer about bad news after saying that “everything happens for a reason.”
For the last century or more, this traditional view has been largely dismantled. Things in nature and life happen for reasons—physical, social, psychological—that are rooted in the past and present more than in the future. For example, a woman who is looking for a job might say that her purpose for doing so is to earn money in order to help her family. The traditional analysis of her actions would be that she is “pulled along” through her job search by the final goal of helping the family. But her friends today would probably tell you that while her goal of helping the family may boost her spirits from time to time, her actions are more the result of her personal history, her individual personality, and her current problems.
Now the pendulum is swinging again and a different perspective about purpose is getting attention. This is the observation that certain ordinary actions are indeed clearly purposeful. If you’re getting hungry and planning your dinner, your planning is purposeful. Maybe you need to drive to Subway to buy that sandwich; the drive is purposeful. Once you’ve eaten the sandwich, your digestive system will take up its own purposeful process. It turns out that most of what you and your body parts do, from our cells on up, is purposeful in that it accomplishes some basic biological function or meets a biological need.
Notice that we’re not talking about the purpose of the heart, for example, in terms of its final goal or evolution. That’s the traditional perspective and it is easy to slip into. The human heart did not come into being because it was a goal of the evolution of early animal hearts. It’s not even true that hearts in earlier animals needed improvement in particular ways. Our hearts evolved over millions of years because certain variations in the muscles boosted circulation slightly and gave the bodies they were in slightly better odds for more offspring.
In other words, organs and behaviors did not come into existence for a purpose but came into existence because they served a purpose a little differently than their predecessors. There is very little in us that is not purposeful in terms of function.
So, the big question is this: are the purpose-serving activities that keep us alive related to that Purpose with a capital P that we seek to articulate about our life as a whole? Do these biological functions and behaviors with their specific purposes make up part of what we can think of as “the purpose of life”?
I think so. I think it would be surprising if they didn’t. I think that while we each may answer questions about human purpose in different ways, what drives that question in the first place is that we are packed tight with purposeful parts, from our bones to our brains, and we know it. We are indeed purpose-driven.
Note: A useful source has been a paper by Nathan Bourne, “Teleology as Evolutionary Etiology: An analysis of teleological explanations of biological phenomena,” at http://www.sewanee.edu/philosophy/Capstone/2011/bourne.pdf. Bourne draws on the work of Larry Wright, especially his book Teleological Explanations: An Etiological Analysis of Goals and Functions, UCal Press, 1976.