The Purpose Problem

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. But I realized then that I had uncertainties that had snuck up on me about my life’s purpose . Now, years later, I’m thinking that life is indeed purpose-driven but not at all in Rick Warren’s terms.

But let me back up and summarize some basic ideas about purpose.

A traditional view has been that things happen in order to achieve a final goal, a goal often involving God. Today we often think about goals on the more modest scale of strategic plans and personal targets. And yet the idea that everything is part of a grand plan remains very comforting. People seem calmer about bad news after saying that “everything happens for a reason.”

Over the last century, 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. A woman who is looking for a job might say that her purpose for doing so is to earn money so her young children will be able to go to college some day. The traditional analysis of her actions would be that she is “pulled along” through her job search by the final goal of college for her kids. But her friends today might tell you that while that distant goal may boost her spirits from time to time, her actions are more the result of her history, her personality, and her current debts.

god and purpose statement

People take comfort from viewing the world, including themselves, as full of purpose. (

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—your stomach, your heart, your sleeping, your socializing—is purposeful in that it accomplishes some basic biological function or meets a biological need.

In other words, human organs and behaviors did not come into existence for a purpose but came into existence because they served a purpose. There is very little in us that is not purposeful in terms of functioning to keep us alive. 

Evolution of the heart

The heart evolved not for a purpose but because it served a purpose. (

So back to the big question about the purpose-driven life. Are the purpose-serving activities of the organs that keep us alive related to that Purpose with a capital P that we look for in 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. We may each frame our Purpose in a different future-oriented way—to live happily, to be creative, to find peace, to achieve success. But each vision of a direction seems to me to be the work of our brain as it extends and embellishes the biological functionality that keeps us alive. 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 Bourne draws on the work of Larry Wright, especially his book Teleological Explanations: An Etiological Analysis of Goals and Functions, UCal Press, 1976.

11 thoughts on “The Purpose Problem

  1. From a strictly biological/evolutionary perspective, life’s purpose is to survive and reproduce. My bias is that our concept of purpose in life grew out of the development of our sense if finitude. When humans realized that ‘hey, this isn’t going to last forever’, they recognized that this life wasn’t so great and thus getting on to the next perfect life became a major purpose. Here are 10 similar but distinctly different concepts of ‘heaven’: Of course there is hell to pay if you don’t make it!! 🙂 Today, many still hold that the ultimate purpose is making it to heaven/paradise, but a growing number of folks have decided that the important purposes in life are related to the here-and-now. Personally I prefer the ‘love your neighbor’ bit and not the ‘blow up yourself and the infidels’ gambit.

    • Thanks. I like your idea that purpose emerged from our sense of a finite life. That, in combination with the tricks our mind can play about imagining a future and a language in which nouns and names–and thus the entities they label–seem to go on forever. Joe is dead, but we can still talk vividly of “Joe.”

  2. I like the idea of the finite sense of life, being related to the emergence of purpose too. When we play the two year old’s “but why?” game with purpose we can dig down to the small or reach up for the big or go around in circles in the middle. But the circular answers quickly lose their appeal so generally we end up going up or down. The down answer fragments and becomes an Avogadro-large population of tiny causes and thus uninteresting and unknowable. So we get stuck with up.

    “Why do I go to work every day?”; “To maintain a comfortable existence.”; “Why do I maintain a comfortable existence?”; “So that I help my children make it in life.”; “Why do I help my children make it in life?”; “So that they can become productive members of society.”; “Why do I want to create productive members of society.”; “So that people everywhere can live more comfortable lives.”; “Why do I want people everywhere to live more comfortable lives?”; “So that humanity can prosper and survive.”; “Why do I want humanity to prosper and survive?”; “So that humanity can serve a larger purpose.”; “What purpose should humanity as a whole serve?”

    Maybe, that particular train of “but why?” game doesn’t speak to you. It is meant only as an example. I was trying not to use the exact one that speaks to me but to give a flavour of the kind of train that I have experienced. You can see how each question begs for a larger answer to justify it. Eventually you can’t help but exceed yourself. The only way to avoid exceeding yourself is to imagine yourself larger than life, perhaps immortal. Only if you believe you are heading for heaven can you become infinite and therefore large enough to provide an infinite series of answers to a train of “But why?”‘s. We atheists must instead look to something real but larger than ourselves to provide the answer.

    But it is hard to see anything much larger than humanity as serving a purpose. If the universe is not a personal god, then how can an inanimate universe have purpose? And if the inanimate universe has no purpose to give us then how can we create one so large. So we tend to look to the biggest thing we can find that seems to have purpose. Humanity seems to be a common answer. Three point eight billion years of Life is another.

    Recently, I started thinking about the creativity of the universe. From a dense ball of plasma, the universe created stars and galaxies and planets and oak trees and opera singers. Did it have a sense of purpose? No says the naturalist, it was just an inanimate mess of space-time and matter-energy running down from high entropy to low and creating pockets of order along the way by accident.

    But doesn’t that also describe Life and Evolution: a collection of matter-energy, absorbing more energy from an ever more entropic Sun, and accidentally creating pockets of order along the way by accident.

    But it doesn’t describe us. We know we have purpose. We think we have purpose therefore we are … purposeful? But really at some basic level, we are just a collection of matter-energy, absorbing energy from other organisms and accidentally creating (and almost as often, destroying) pockets of order along the way. We may feel like there is an “I”, a consciousness, doing stuff but, in fact, if we are naturalists, we must accept that we are collections of atoms doing what atoms do.

    We can describe those atoms differently. We can call one group of atoms, “Joe”, and talk about how “Joe” saved up to build an orphanage. But, in fact, the orphanage, the orphans, Joe and his money are all just atoms interacting.

    Yet, we can’t function without thinking in terms of macroscopically coherent beings acting with purpose, especially when it comes to thinking about ourselves. I understand why I am different from the universe as a whole. Douglas Hofstadter provides a hint at the answer. We each contain a model of ourselves, which we build and maintain throughout our lives. That model is the source of our consciousness and any model of purpose always makes reference to the model of “I”.

    So the universe has no model of itself that it maintains in order to reference its grand purpose against. So the universe has no purpose?

    We are parts of the universe. And we maintain a model of the universe inside our heads. So we are the parts of the universe which maintain a model of the universe as a whole. If the universe has a sense of “I”, it is through us that it does. We are as much our own consciousnesses as the consciousness of the universe. I am not some new age weirdo saying that there is a single universal consciousness that we can tap into. The consciousness of the universe is a fragmented thing, with every conscious being having a piece of it and it being no single whole.

    But even so, it leads me to start asking the question, “If through the deep future, there grow large unified consciousnesses and those consciousnesses begin to see themselves as large parts of the universe, perhaps even entire galaxies or groups of galaxies, what kind of self-transcending purposes will they imagine?”

    • Thanks, Eric. You have a lot of ideas here. I love the But why game and its intrinsic expansion. After that, to me, you characterize your active forces in the universe a little inconsistently. The matter and energy atoms at the root of things aren’t totally random but follow certain patterns and create compounds. At the other end, the consciousness that we have and the universe doesn’t is also those atoms and their patterns at work but in a feed-back loop of some kind in the brain that provides us with a reflection of ourselves; I’m not sure it’s much of a big deal in the context of the universe as a whole.
      But much to think about here. Great possibilities and angles for looking at things.

      • Some of what I was trying to describe was the inconsistencies in the thinking that I have read and internalized about the active forces at play. So in a way, I am not surprised that you see the comment as full of inconsistencies. 🙂


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