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.


Now easily every day I thank with amazement
the flow of life in me
through my still uncertain systems—
the crowded lung, the precious sodium declining,
the (un)clotting blood, the occasionally flip-flop heart–
all prodded, drained, stimulated, worked, waited for,
toward pumping, balance, interaction, self-synchronizing,

All made possible by human good will,
by the good fortune that there is no cancerous or human malice at my door,
by the luck that there has not been too much of this or too little of that for too long,
by the seeming, mysterious gladness of parts to interconnect.

I give gratitude for how each piece of life itself is sustained
by sustaining others,
as are we by each other.

Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock. Convergence. 1952.

My New Heart Valve Has a Serial Number

My first surprise came the day before my aortic valve was to be replaced. My wife and I met with the surgeon. He explained that he would be inserting a cow valve—and by that he meant not an actual valve from a cow but a valve that was manufactured from cow tissue. I had been reading about the medical use of cow valves and pig valves and had assumed such phrases referred (as do expressions like “kidney transplant”) to the entire valve from the animal’s heart, not just a component material. Gone suddenly were boyish images of hearts plucked from sacrificial animals to bring courage and strength to young warriors.



A bigger surprise came a week after the operation. At home was a note from the hospital explaining that the new valve was an “implanted device” and as such came with a model number and a serial number that are registered with the manufacturer. The information was listed on an enclosed card that I was told to carry with me.

A serial number for my new heart valve! Why was I surprised that my “cow valve” turned out to be so utterly a technological commodity that it carried a model number and a serial number, as if it were a refrigerator?  The realms of the natural, the mechanical, and the manufactured had come together in ways that I was not prepared for. My original heart valve, human though it was, had served a function that was essentially mechanical; it was a piece of plumbing. So maybe it should not have surprised me that, conversely, a new valve did not need to be entirely “natural” any more than it needed to be a whole, transplanted body part. It could be—and is—a manufactured concoction of materials and design that does the job of opening wide and closing tight. Which it will hopefully continue to do for a long time.