Purpose In Life: Nothing But Illusion?

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Update 5 pm May 16: Several commenters here and on Twitter are making the mistake of reading this as the usual meaning-and-purpose discussion. The apologists’ usual approach has to do with the adequacy of meaning and purpose for atheists. I’m not talking about that at all. Read on, and as you do, be careful not to confuse this discussion with that other one….

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There’s a running Internet debate between theists and atheists over the question of purpose. Atheists typically insist they can find purpose without God; theists typically answer that this is something less than real purpose, because it’s so ephemeral and temporary. I see a deeper problem with purpose than that, however, if naturalism is true.

Naturalism and the Illusions of Life

Naturalistic thinkers commonly tell us that human consciousness and free will are illusions. Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne deny free will completely; Daniel Dennett denies agent freedom. Susan Blackmore calls consciousness an illusion. Alex Rosenberg denies consciousness, identity, and even thought.

They have good reason to conclude these things, if naturalism is true.* The laws of nature do not permit humans to make free will decisions. The stuff of which reality is made — matter and energy, interacting according to law (or law-like regularity) and chance — doesn’t have what it takes to be conscious of itself.** Therefore no matter how persistently our brains tell us we are conscious and making decisions, we aren’t. It’s an illusion. It’s a strong illusion, apparently inserted into the human experience for evolutionary adaptive reasons. We can’t shake it. But it’s false.

But I can’t help wondering, why don’t naturalists say the same about humans’ sense of purpose in life?

The Natural Impossibility of Purpose

It seems to me there are multiple reasons that they should. The first one flows from the illusoriness of consciousness and decision-making. To be conscious of one’s sense of purpose is to take part in an illusion, and to choose one’s purpose is, too. It must be so: for consciousness and choice are both illusory, on naturalism.

Then there is the question of where our sense of purpose could have come from. On one level of analysis, humans are the product of physical reactions of particles doing what particles must do as they interact. There’s no purpose in the laws of nature. There’s no purpose in chance, either, which quantum physics (on at least one interpretation) tells us is part of the causal flow that brought us where we are. There’s no place for purpose to have come from.

On another level of analysis, humans are the product of evolutionary effects; and again, evolution has no purpose within it. Evolution is a matter of chance (thus purposeless) variation in genes, interacting with environmental variations (purposeless, of course), to produce variations in organisms’ survival and reproduction rates. Natural selection (NS) takes it from there to produce new species, but NS isn’t the kind of thing that could introduce purpose into human existence. It is utterly and completely uncreative. It is the survival of that which survives, and the death of that which dies. It is the reproduction of that which reproduces and the end of the line for that which does not. It is nothing but that.

So NS cannot make anything new, except for statistical distributions of phenotypes. Everything else new that comes into biological existence comes by way of chance variation at the genetic level. Even if NS were really creative, however, it would still be purposeless. It doesn’t care what it produces. It can’t.

Could Humanness Lift Us Out of Natural Impossibilities?

But perhaps things change when humans develop language and culture, for this provides a new route to innovation in the world. Maybe we really could be the creators and developers of purpose. But this would be quite an amazing innovation, a completely new feature of reality: suddenly one bit of matter and energy in the world is for something. Maybe it’s for some other bit of matter. Maybe it’s for some abstraction, like love or beauty or honor or discovery.

The question remains, how? How did early humans escape purposelessness? Recall our two levels of causal analysis: the minute physical level, and the much larger evolutionary level. On the micro level, causation is closed: there is nothing that can bring about any effect in all of reality except for what the laws of physics require, and/or chance produces. These are purposeless and they cannot cause purpose to come about. There is no room for any other causal force or activity alongside these purposeless causes. So if purpose came about, it came from absolutely nowhere; it came about impossibly; or in other words, it just didn’t come about at all, if naturalism is true.

Again, on the macro level of evolutionary biology, causation is also closed. There is purposeless genetic variation and there is purposeless natural selection. If you want, you could also throw in genetic drift: also purposeless. And there is no other causal force or activity that can bring about any physical or behavioral feature in any organism. So on this level, too, we see that if there came to be any human purpose, it came from nowhere; it came about impossibly; or in fact it never came about at all

The Illusion of Purpose In Life

Therefore I conclude that (on naturalism), humans’ sense of purpose is just as illusory as our sense of free will and consciousness. We think we have purpose: we feel it, we sense it, we choose it, we direct our activities toward it in all its multiple forms and manifestations — indeed, it’s an incorrigible feature of being human. But so is our false sense of free will. So is our false (illusory) sense of consciousness. The parallel with free will and consciousness is clear and decisive in this case: Just because you sense purpose to your life doesn’t mean you have it. In a naturalistic universe you couldn’t.

The Error of Naturalism

Now, I take this as one more reason to conclude that naturalism is false, for I know, and you do too, that there is purpose to life. When an atheist says to me, “I can find purpose in loving my family, in creating or enjoying art, in the beauty of nature, in my work … ,” I can only agree with him or her. I don’t doubt that for a moment. I wonder at times how those purposes could be fully adequate, since they are indeed passing away with the wind, but I do not deny that they are real. And since they are real, then there is purpose in the universe. Purpose really exists for humans — all humans, whether they believe in God or not.

I could summarize what I’ve written here in this way:

  1. If naturalism is true, then real purpose could not possibly exist
  2. Real purpose exists
  3. Therefore naturalism is not true

*To have reasons to conclude what they do would of course be impossible if naturalism were true, for rational conclusions are ruled if when free will, consciousness, and especially thinking itself are impossible. But that’s a topic for another day.

** Something similar is quite arguably true for identity and for rationality, but fewer atheistic thinkers stand on that opinion, so I will set those aside for now.

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208 Responses to “ Purpose In Life: Nothing But Illusion? ”

  1. Daniel Dennett denies agent freedom.

    Only acausal agent freedom. And, you’ll note, he does not deny agency itself. (From Wikipedia: “…agency is subtly distinct from the concept of free will, the philosophical doctrine that our choices are not the product of causal chains, but are significantly free or undetermined. Human agency entails the claim that humans do in fact make decisions and enact them on the world. How humans come to make decisions, by free choice or other processes, is another issue.”) Nor does he deny that consciousness exists, though he does think it’s composed differently than, say, most Christians do.

    Now, I agree that calling consciousness an ‘illusion’ is inherently self-defeating, if not quite self-contradictory. But that’s not a necessary concomitant of naturalism. How consciousness works isn’t currently understood – but as I’m laboriously arguing with TFBW, theism doesn’t offer any deep explanation of it either.

    Maybe we really could be the creators and developers of purpose. But this would be quite an amazing innovation, a completely new feature of reality: suddenly one bit of matter and energy in the world is for something.

    Phase changes do happen, though – a case where a literal difference in degree makes a difference in kind. Take solid ice, heat it one single degree past a critical threshold, and suddenly you’ve got a liquid. Keep heating it, and it’ll suddenly transition to a gas. Keep going, and you’ll get a plasma.

  2. Ray,

    Let’s not get bogged down in Dennett. I read Freedom Evolves and I think he holds the position I ascribed to him. Even your Wikipedia scholarly source says, “although [per Dennett] in the strict physical sense our actions might be pre-determined…”. But if I’m wrong, the point of the post still stands.

    What’s the point of your paragraph on phase changes? That’s about different arrangements of physical matter on the basis of chance and necessity. It’s not anything at all like the innovation it would take for some bit of matter A to become for some bit of matter B.

    Obviously I don’t mean for in the sense of, say, “Oxygen is necessary for fire.” That’s only a statement of the specifics of physical necessity.

    I mean for in the sense of having a related intent and purpose.

  3. Here is a quote from Moby Dick that I recently came across.

    “There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.”

    It’s very true if naturalism is true.

  4. I think believers and atheists are talking about different things when they speak of meaning or purpose. Those atheists who say they find meaning in their family or in natural beauty are talking about their own subjective sense of purpose, whereas god-believers are talking about ultimate cosmic purpose.

    If we nailed down the definitions, I think the atheists would agree that their personal sense of purpose isn’t cosmically objective or eternal. They’d say such objective purpose doesn’t exist.

    The difference, therefore, is that atheists are OK with the lack of cosmic purpose, whereas believers insist on having cosmic purpose. Why do you postulate #2 that “Real purpose exists”? This is where the discussion should focus, I think.

  5. The point of my post, John, is that if naturalism were true then every person’s sense of purpose, whether cosmic or local, eternal or temporal, grand or minuscule, would be completely an illusion.

    This is not about atheists’ psychological willingness to accept a certain form of purpose, or theists telling them that’s inadequate. Others have argued this topic in those terms, I know, but this is not that argument. It’s a different one. It’s not about acceptance, psychology, or any other state of mind except for this one: if naturalism is true, then the belief, “I find purpose in x” — regardless of what x might be — is based on nothing but illusion. And ontologically it is impossible for that belief to be true.

  6. The reason I postulate that “real purpose exists,” John, is because we all agree that it does. When an atheist says she finds purpose for life in the beauty of music or in her family, that’s real. I’m not one to claim that purpose must be “cosmic” to be real. I’m saying that purpose is real if it’s really purpose, and that this is part of the ordinary stuff of every person’s life.

  7. I should add that if I’ve ever said in the past that it’s not real purpose unless it’s eternal purpose, I am wiser than that now.

    I would still say it’s not adequate purpose if it’s not eternal, but that’s a side trail I don’t want to go down. It’s not what this post is about at all. This post is about the total impossibility of purpose if naturalism is true. That would entail a total absence of purpose for all persons — theists, atheists, pantheists, panentheists, agnostics, … — if naturalism is true. It’s not about who believes what, it’s about what the universe is actually like.

  8. As a naturalist, I think of purpose in terms of flow. For example, we could say a river’s purpose is to get to the sea.

    Of course it’s random and meaningless from the grand cosmic point of view, but a river has its own subjective purpose, according to this naturalistic definition.

    When you talk about “the total impossibility of purpose if naturalism is true,” you must be using a different definition of purpose.

    Thanks for your thoughtful blog posts and responses to comments!

  9. John, do you really see yourself as having no purpose but to follow the channel downhill?

    What is a river? It is an abstraction. It takes a human mind to recognize it as one thing with a common identity from source to mouth, day after day the same thing.

    In itself it is just a jostling collection of water molecules, fish, debris, and soil, in which every water molecule moves downward over time in compliance with gravity, pushed around by other molecules, sometimes backing upwards by their force but always tending over time to reach its lowest possible point — because it has to.

    You as a human being are somewhat more complex, but where it matters you are the same, per naturalism: a jostling collection of molecules which do as they must do according to physical necessity and quantum chance.

    Is it your purpose to be a jostling collection of molecules which do as they must do according to physical necessity and quantum chance?

    I don’t think so.

  10. Remember, too, John, that I defined purpose in terms of being for something. This is a standard usage of the term.

    A river is not for reaching the sea.

  11. Naturalists do say the same thing about purpose.

    Alex Rosenberg, in The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, is pretty clear:

    What is the purpose of the universe?
    There is none.
    Does history have any meaning or purpose?
    It’s full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.

    And there’s the title of Chapter 9: “Farewell to the Purpose Driven Life”, in which he says “Scientism is already committed to a purpose-free mind.”

    You imply naturalists don’t say this and I’m surprised by that: can you list some examples of naturalists who believe purpose is other than an illusion?

  12. More naturalists do say this:

    The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.
    — Richard Dawkins, “The Blind Watchmaker”

  13. Naturalists do say the same thing about purpose.

    They do. But none of them seem to act like they believe it.

  14. “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

    Dawkins seems to be only talking about objective purpose here, whereas the OP was talking about both objective and subjective purposes.

  15. And Rosenberg is unique. You know that if you’ve read The Atheist’s Guide.

    Dawkins believes in purpose. You can see it in everything he does — in spite of what he thinks about the universe at bottom.

  16. “Scientism is already committed to a purpose-free mind.”

    Thanks, Keith. That’s the best laugh-out-loud moment I’ve had all day.

  17. @Keith, #13:

    That Dawkins quote is from River out of Eden, chapter four, not The Blind Watchmaker. It’s a severely problematic claim for Dawkins to make, though. After all, he says the universe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is no good and evil, but he spends most of The God Delusion (and plenty of other places besides) harping about how religion is a force for evil in the world, and how we don’t need religion in order to be good.

    What are we to make of this? It’s pretty clear that he takes the reality of “good” and “evil” for granted, so either he’s wallowing indulgently in the illusion (or should I say “delusion”?) of good and evil, or he’s wrong about the properties of the universe, or the universe does, in fact, have precisely the properties we should expect if there is no good and evil, but good and evil exist anyhow. And if good and evil exist despite his supposedly well-justified expectations to the contrary, then maybe he’s just as wrong about the existence of “design” and “purpose”. Or maybe we’re better off dismissing the whole quotation as a bunch of self-refuting twaddle.

    Personally, I think that anyone who takes Dawkins seriously hasn’t paid enough attention to what he says.

  18. From the OP:

    for I know, and you do too, that there is purpose to life. When an atheist says to me, “I can find purpose in loving my family, in creating or enjoying art, in the beauty of nature, in my work … ,” I can only agree with him or her. I don’t doubt that for a moment. I wonder at times how those purposes could be fully adequate, since they are indeed passing away with the wind, but I do not deny that they are real. And since they are real, then there is purpose in the universe. Purpose really exists for humans — all humans, whether they believe in God or not.

    I understand that you know purpose is real. But how do you know?

    In summary form, what is the evidence for asserting its reality (def. existence independent of individual human existence)?

  19. And why does “real purpose” have to be defined as purpose having existence independent of individual human existence? I certainly wasn’t limiting it to that meaning when I wrote the post!

    I think maybe you’re confusing this with some other argument, having to do with objective morality or something. This is not that, nor is it the usual meaning-and-purpose discussion.

  20. Whichever purpose you meant in your statements of the OP. You said “purpose to life,” so perhaps start there.

    Also, I gave a definition to test if we were thinking of the same things. Maybe you mean something different by “real,” and if so, I’d love to know what you mean. After all, your assertion is that one or more purposes have some sort of reality.

    It’s hard to make heads or tails of your essay if the meaning of both ‘purpose’ and ‘real’ are fluid and vague.

  21. No, Larry, I didn’t mean to be asking, for what “purpose” you need evidence. I meant to be asking, for what purpose (i.e., why) do you need evidence?

  22. Tom,

    Is there evidence or not? If there is, are you able to articulate it?

    Again, I’m responding to your words and trying to understand them. You claim to have some knowledge. If you don’t wish to share it, just say so.

    So, I don’t need evidence, but I do desire to understand what the sources are of your claimed knowledge.

  23. So I take it, then, that the purpose for your request for evidence is your desire to understand my words, and/or the sources of my claimed knowledge.

    If that is your purpose, then purpose exists. If purpose did not exist, then you could have no purpose for your question.

    That’s all it takes to demonstrate purpose exists. And even if that was the only level on which purpose was real, it would be within the scope of what I was addressing in my OP. (See comment #21.)

  24. @Tom #27
    But Tom, your answer seems to skirt the essential argument you are making in the blog post. Of course we can have our own subjective, human purposes, of the sort that Larry put forth, as in the purpose of his question: to know what you mean. But are you arguing for purposes that stand outside of ourselves? Isn’t that the arguement? Purposes that would still be there if all humans were extinguished?

  25. “But are you arguing for purposes that stand outside of ourselves? Isn’t that the arguement? Purposes that would still be there if all humans were extinguished?”

    No, the OP’s quite clearly arguing that even subjective purpose is impossible under naturalism.

  26. What I am saying in the post, Stephen, is much more sweeping than that: if naturalism is true, then there are no purposes. None. Period. Not subjective, not objective, not personal, none of any sort except as illusions, just as (naturalists say) free will is completely illusory.

    Per naturalism (on many accounts of it, and correctly in my view), there is no free will whatsoever, there is only the illusion thereof. Likewise, I say, per naturalism there is no purpose whatsoever, only the illusion thereof.

  27. Again, I caution readers not to read this as the usual meaning-and-purpose discussion. That’s not what this is.

    (Thanks, Mr. X, for beating me to the answer just now.)

  28. @tom #32. I have to doubt that any of those people you sight in your post, who deny free will, for example, would say that that means saying something like “my purpose in asking you this question” is a contradiction. The topic I would like to discuss, if you are interested, is “Is there Purpose (with a capital ‘P’)? Is there “Purpose” in the sense that we can be “wrong” about just how we go about making meaning in life? Or ask: Is “Purpose” something we “find” (as you said in your post), or is it something we make?

  29. Most skeptics want to see scientific evidence, but in the case of purpose, consciousness and free will there isn’t any. How does Mr. Skeptic know that purposeless nature, through the mechanism of purposeless evolution, created someone like him that has purposes and a free will? They *just know*.

    I agree with this partially. They do *just know* that they have purposes and a free will. What Mr. Skeptic *doesn’t know* is if purposeless nature created such a thing. Is that blind faith in naturalism? You be the judge.

  30. Stephen, the people who deny free will may not deny purpose, but they should, on naturalism.

    The reason I brought up free will was not to argue, “if there is no free will there is no purpose;” and especially not to say, “Naturalists who say they deny free will also say they deny purpose.” Rather it was to help the reader recognize that the conclusion, “there is no purpose, if naturalism is true,” is no more strange than, “there is no free will, since naturalism is true;” which is a common thing to hear naturalists say. In other words, I was trying to head off the objection, “That’s preposterous!” by showing that it’s hardly the first preposterous thing naturalism has been connected to.

    You say you want to discuss, “Is there Purpose?” I say of course there is. But that’s not what I really want to discuss, as that would be a tangent off this post. Except for this: I say that anyone who believes naturalism is true must, on pain of self-contradiction, deny that there is purpose. And if there is no purpose, then of course there is no Purpose.

  31. Tom @16:

    Rosenberg isn’t unique — I repeat my question, what naturalists say they believe in purpose? I agree with you, a naturalist cannot believe in purpose without contradiction, and I’d like to understand the arguments such naturalists might use to make that work.

    When you say Dawkins believes in purpose, you’re saying he has goals like everybody else, and so he must believe in purpose.

    No: I don’t have to believe free-will is a physical possibility in order to act like I have choices, nor do I have to believe purpose is a physical possibility in order to get up in the morning with a goal in mind.

    Simply knowing the fact the moon is the same size as always, when it’s near the horizon, doesn’t suddenly make it look normal size.

    Simply knowing the fact that pain is actually a low-voltage electrical signal to the brain, and not “painful” at all, does not mean I can touch hot stoves at will.

    There are lots of things our brains lie about, why is it so shocking to find a couple more?

  32. bigbird @14:

    When you view the moon at the horizon, it looks bigger because your visual cortex is lying to you.

    We can prove this fact (hold up a ruler), so I believe it.

    What I’m hearing you say is I should “act like I believe it”.

    How exactly do you suggest I do that?

    Reprogram my visual cortex so it no longer lies to me? (Maybe some day.)

    If your brain is wired for “free-will”, “purpose”, or “Harvest Moons”, knowing they aren’t physically possible doesn’t change the wiring.

  33. What naturalists believe in purpose?

    Keith, I think you’re still viewing this blog topic as being about big-P Purpose.

    Dawkins believes in purpose. He believes it would be helpful to eliminate religion for the purpose of decreasing human ignorance and prejudice.

    Sam Harris believes in purpose. He believes that morality is for increasing human well-being.

    Grayling believes in purpose. He thinks humanism would be good for the betterment of humanity.

    The word “for” in each statement there is a purpose word, in the sense that I am speaking of purpose in this post.

    You say there are lots of things our brains lie about, why should we be shocked to discover more? Well, I don’t know. I can’t imagine what the purpose of that might be. Unless it were to shock you into realizing that this particular “lie,” the “lie” that says purpose is real, isn’t actually false after all, and that naturalism must be false after all (per the syllogism with which I closed the OP).

  34. Keith in what way do you act as if the moon really does change size when it is closer to the horizon. My guess would be you don’t. Your actions are entirely consistent with your belief that the moon doesn’t change size.

    In this example you have real evidence that your are mistaken about the moon’s size, you know why you are mistaken and it is not a case that results in global skepticism. None of those things are true when you deny free will or purpose.

  35. Tom @ 32: this is basically the Nigel Tufnel “these go to 11” argument. An illusory purpose, still taken to be a purpose, amounts to the same as real purpose. In other words, if you think your (illusory) purpose is to worship Lord Jesus, then it might as well be.

  36. And Tom, have I missed it or were you going to present some evidence for whatever reality to purpose you mentioned in the OP? All I can tell is that you understand purpose to depend on consciousness, which doesn’t seem to be inconsistent with naturalism unless you also believe that consciousness is inconsistent with naturalism.

  37. Larry, if you think that purpose is illusory, then what is the purpose for which you keep asking me for evidence?

    Every time you ask for something you are relying on reality of purpose, in the sense I have been intending to discuss the term.

    An illusory purpose, still taken to be a purpose, amounts to the same as a real purpose.

    Sure — if illusion “amounts to” reality.

  38. Does no one know how many times atheists have insisted to Christians in debate, “I do have purpose that’s adequate for me, and I resent your saying otherwise!”?

    Why then are you insisting that it’s okay to give up on purpose, to let it go as illusion?

  39. Keith @ 37:

    “There are lots of things our brains lie about, why is it so shocking to find a couple more?”

    Good grief. And people complain that theists make their beliefs immune to falsification.

  40. Tom @ 43

    Every time you ask for something you are relying on reality of purpose, in the sense I have been intending to discuss the term.

    I have no idea what this statement is supposed to mean.

    You argue that if naturalism is true then there are no purposes, even subjective ones. OK, but it’s still not clear to me what this might actually mean.

    If purpose means “underlying intention” or “motivation” then I can’t fathom what you are getting on about. Intentions and motivations are part of the human experience. They are real insofar as they are recognized as being factors in our actions, reasoning, and decision making. How purposes in this sense might be inconsistent with naturalism is beyond me, since on naturalism such purposes would be signals from the body as translated by the mind.

    So, every time I ask for something, I am relying on the reality of my mind’s monitoring/translating of what’s happening in my brain and body.

  41. Why then are you insisting that it’s okay to give up on purpose, to let it go as illusion?

    Not giving up on purpose at all, but taking it seriously and trying to understand what it is.

    I think it makes the concept of purpose more poignant and meaningful, actually. More human.

  42. An illusory purpose, still taken to be a purpose, amounts to the same as real purpose.

    It does if you strip the word of all meaning connected to the word ‘purpose’.

  43. I’m still trying to figure out what Tom Gilson means by “purpose.” What definition is he using?

    I guess purpose is something an agent has. If atheists deny free will, then they might as well also deny agents. I think this is why Mr. Gilson says atheists must deny purpose. Am I right?

    Well, according to my definition of purpose, you can still have purpose without agency.

  44. Mr. X @ 45:

    What did I say that wouldn’t be testable or falsifiable?

    One of my favorite quotes, from an ethics professor: “Your brain evolved to chase slow-to-medium fast animals on the savannah, which makes it obvious why the ethics of slavery or a global civilization might not be intuitive.”

  45. Larry,
    You are left only with the sensation of purpose, but no actual purpose. There’s no intent to act, just the sensation of you intending to act. Which one is *actually* at work can tell us a lot about truth, knowledge and ultimately naturalism.

    If there’s only the sensation of intent, but no intent, then you cannot be intent on discovering truth through reason. You cannot be intent on being rational. You cannot be intent on knowing what rationality is. You cannot be intent on knowing anything.

    Everything related to truth and knowledge boils down to the sensation of truth and knowledge coming to you as a passive receptor. Science works because we have the sensation that it works, not because we know it actually works. Knowledge takes an intent to think rationally or recall our memories and we don’t have intent.

    Absurd? Yes. That’s why we are justified in saying that intent is real, not an illusion. And because of this, we are further justified in saying naturalism must be false (for the reasons Tom outlined).

  46. What definition of purpose am I using?

    On one level I’m addressing the atheists’ answer to other apologists: “But of course I can find purpose in life.” This is a high level of purpose.

    But I’m approaching it from a different angle than usual. To have purpose is to be for. The person who says, “I can find purpose in my environmental efforts,” for example, is saying that’s part of what she conceives her life to be for.

    In the OP I asked where purpose might have come from. It wasn’t in the original “stuff” of the universe; no one could say that one atom was “for” another; and it would even be a misunderstanding to say that natural necessity (the “laws of nature”) were for anything; they just were.

    And then in the OP I asked what could have happened in the course of natural history to make anything be for anything else. I looked at it on both the micro (particle physics) and the macro (evolutionary biology) level. No one here has questioned that analysis, so I’m not going to bother repeating it. I’m going to take it from that point and say that I think I’ve given a strong argument to the effect that on naturalism, nothing could possibly be for anything else, which is synonymous to saying that nothing could have purpose.

    So now Larry gets to the heart of it:

    If purpose means “underlying intention” or “motivation” then I can’t fathom what you are getting on about. Intentions and motivations are part of the human experience. They are real insofar as they are recognized as being factors in our actions, reasoning, and decision making. How purposes in this sense might be inconsistent with naturalism is beyond me, since on naturalism such purposes would be signals from the body as translated by the mind.

    I think this would indeed to be hard to fathom, especially if you have no background in the philosophical discussions on “aboutness” or (synonymous in this case) “intentionality:” the idea of one thing being about another. My discussion of purpose is closely related: the idea of one thing being for another.

    Intentions and motivations are part of the human experience: that is 100% true. They are real. The problem is with, “on naturalism such purposes would be signals from the body as translated by the mind.” First, what is the mind? If you believe in some brain-mind dualism, then you are probably not a thorough-going naturalist. But if you do not, then all you are saying is that “such purposes would be signals from the body as translated by the body.”

    And then you have to place that in context of what I wrote in the OP. If such a thing as purpose did not exist at the inception of the universe, but it exists now, then some cause must have brought it into being: nothing new comes into being without being caused to do so. On naturalism, though, there is no cause that had it in its power to do so. Physics can’t do it (interactions on the particle level). Evolution can’t do it, either, as I explained above.

    So I think that means that purpose must be inconsistent with naturalism, for in order to exist (on naturalism) it would have had to appear among us uncaused, by magic, as it were.

    Still we know, as Larry said, that purpose is part of the human experience. Hence the syllogism with which I closed the OP: if it is impossible for purpose to exist if naturalism is true, yet purpose does exist, then naturalism cannot be true.

  47. The problem is with, “on naturalism such purposes would be signals from the body as translated by the mind.”

    Funny how our mind can reliably differentiate between the “true” signals coming from the body and the “false” signals. Oops…I mean, the signals from our body tell our mind it can do that reliably. Nobody really knows. 😉

  48. Melissa @40:

    We have real evidence we’re collectively mistaken about purpose and free-will, or, at least, we have the fact there’s simply no physical mechanism to even discuss that would allow purpose or free-will to exist.

    We know why we’re mistaken: there are reasonable explanations as to why we would have evolved these collective illusions, it’s not a mystery.

    As for “global skepticism”… there are so many illusions we collectively share that are demonstrably wrong. What’s one or two more?

  49. I think I see what Tom is getting at.

    Claim: if naturalism is true, then purpose is just illusion. Even people have no true goal, they are just collections of biological components reacting to stimuli.

    Possible example: we say a plant is “trying” to reach the light, applying intent to the plant’s slow actions. A purely naturalist view would instead observe a bunch of plant molecules reacting individually to light stimulus to turn the plant as a whole towards the light. The individual reactions are result in the plant receiving more light, but there is no will or goal guiding the plant as a whole.

    Counter: and yet those stimuli do have a “goal”. Over time, the plant cells “prefer” actions that cause “pleasurable” (using that word loosely) stimuli than displeasurable stimuli. Thus, one could argue that these small actions contribute to the greater “purpose” of the plant, which is to receive good stimuli.

    There’s no moral value attached to this purpose; I have deliberately avoided words like good or bad or benefit. Yet it is “purpose”.

  50. Keith,

    We have real evidence we’re collectively mistaken about purpose and free-will, or, at least, we have the fact there’s simply no physical mechanism to even discuss that would allow purpose or free-will to exist.

    How is lack of a physical mechanism to discuss evidence against our experience of free will or purpose.

    We know why we’re mistaken: there are reasonable explanations as to why we would have evolved these collective illusions, it’s not a mystery.

    Just so stories are not reasonable explanations, especially when you don’t have good evidence that they are in fact illusions.

    As for “global skepticism”… there are so many illusions we collectively share that are demonstrably wrong. What’s one or two more?

    The moon illusion does not undermine your ability to provide an argument or explanation in general. The denial of free will and purpose do.

  51. “I can find purpose in my environmental efforts,” for example, is saying that’s part of what she conceives her life to be for.

    probably, more often it is what my actions are for.

  52. Keith,

    You’re begging the question badly when you say that the lack of evidence for a physical free-will mechanism means we “know.” It only means we don’t know. It is a blatant argument from ignorance, and it also ignores the fact that if there is a supernatural reality, then there’s no reason to expect it to operate according to physical mechanisms. So if this was intended as support for naturalism, it falls way short.

    It falls short, too, in “we know why we’re mistaken.” How can we know the one thing when we’re so desperately mistaken about these others? How can you trust anything you think you know, when you acknowledge how thoroughly and deeply wrong you are about something as fundamental as, “I am here today for my children,” or even, “this pot is for boiling water for tea.”

    You seem to accept that naturalism contradicts purpose on every level, but you won’t face up to what it means to claim some knowledge — any knowledge at all — in the face of such overwhelming illusion and false thinking.

    Yet I think I know your purpose in standing there: to shore up naturalism in the face of a strong challenge. And you say it’s no mystery, but it is: you’re willing to accept the total and complete annihilation of humanness: free will and purpose, along with who-knows-what-else, for the sake of salvaging your naturalism. That, my friend, is incredibly mysterious.

    You don’t have to go that route. There is an intellectually defensible, rationally supportable, evidentially supported route back to humanness again. Why not follow it?

  53. “intentionality:” the idea of one thing being about another. My discussion of purpose is closely related: the idea of one thing being for another.

    This seems to be some creative bridging between the idea of “intentionality” (aboutness) and your idea of “purpose”. “Intentionality” has little to do with “intention”, more to do with “intension”. It has more to do with forming beliefs “about”. See http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/intentionality/

  54. Stephen, your actions cannot be for anything. Not if my analysis in the OP is correct.

    And I notice that no one yet has challenged that analysis. You’re only contesting its implications. But if purpose or being-for were not in the original make-up of reality, and if they only causal sources that exist are inadequate to bring it into being, then it doesn’t exist.

  55. Stephen @61: You’re right. I’ll accept that it was “creative bridging.” I did not say it was the same. I said it’s related, and that someone who is familiar with the aboutness discussion would likely have an easier time grasping this one.

  56. if it is impossible for purpose to exist if naturalism is true, yet purpose does exist, then naturalism cannot be true.

    Or we just proved that your syllogism is false, or so it seemed to me, because the premise (if it is impossble for purpose to exist if naturalism is true) is false. I think the confusion is a matter of abstraction. That we use the word “purpose” in sentences is a few levels of abstraction above what we think of when we talk about naturalism, in the same way we think of consciousness as being above and beyond what we have to say about neuronal activity. “purpose” is a product of the human mind (with is a natural thing).

  57. Me:

    in the same way we think of consciousness as being above and beyond what we have to say about neuronal activity.

    What I mean is that we can’t explain (yet) consciousness by neuronal activity, but that doesn’t mean we can logically conclude that consciousness doesn’t exist. I think the same confusion is at work in your syllogism.

  58. How could you prove premise 1 is false when you haven’t begun to address the reasons I gave for it? And how could levels of abstraction be your way out of it when I have explained how my argument applies at every level of purpose or being-for?

    This is just hand-waving! How strange to pronounce someone wrong without paying the slightest attention to the meat of what he said!

    I’ll say it again: if there is any purpose in a naturalistic universe, it sprang into being uncaused. By magic. As demonstrated above, in the OP, in the section no one seems to have had the courage to face.

    (Are you going to tell me that an uncaused effect is a rational conclusion of a scientific viewpoint?)

  59. But if purpose or being-for were not in the original make-up of reality

    If “purpose” is just a product of the human mind, evaluation, the product of reasoning our way to actions, then how could it be “in the original make-up of reality (is this a metaphysical thing or something like gravity?)

    Stephen, your actions cannot be for anything. Not if my analysis in the OP is correct.

    And since I’m contesting your analysis (see above), then this serves as part of my argument. My actions are evidence for what my purposes are. Of course our purposes guide our actions, even for naturalistsm, not metaphysical “Purpose”, that is all a naturalist would disagree with.

  60. Tom,

    “Andrew, you’re anthropomorphizing and reifying”

    And you’re being opaquely glib.

    Currently, the conversation looks to me like this:

    A: “Let me try to restate Tom’s argument, and a possible objection to it. … Have I understood correctly?”
    T: “No. You’ve made some invalid assumptions, but let me just toss out some big words rather than explain.”

  61. Keith: What I’m hearing you say is I should “act like I believe it”.

    How exactly do you suggest I do that?

    I’m not suggesting you should act like you believe there is no purpose.

    I’m expressing surprise that you do the opposite – you act like you do believe there is purpose – despite knowing that there isn’t. Why?

    Under your world view free will is an illusion. Purpose is an illusion. Good and evil don’t exist. I suppose love is an illusion as well, and even our minds.

    Eventually, it might be worth considering that your world-view is completely inconsistent with how the world appears to be. After all, if you have to explain everything we regard important in life as illusions, the more parsimonious conclusion might be that you’re wrong.

  62. Stephen,
    Tom’s saying that the ability to create purpose must be found in the abilities of the original makeup. Tom went over what those known abilities are and purpose was nowhere to be found. Processes that lack purpose cannot result in processes with purpose. You can choose to believe without any evidence that naturalism can explain purpose, but that would be blind faith. The better option would be to conclude that naturalism is false and think about what must be necessary for purpose to exist.

  63. @Andrew#56

    I think I see what Tom is getting at.

    Claim: if naturalism is true, then purpose is just illusion. Even people have no true goal, they are just collections of biological components reacting to stimuli.

    Possible example: we say a plant is “trying” to reach the light, applying intent to the plant’s slow actions. A purely naturalist view would instead observe a bunch of plant molecules reacting individually to light stimulus to turn the plant as a whole towards the light. The individual reactions are result in the plant receiving more light, but there is no will or goal guiding the plant as a whole.

    Except humans have a nervous system, a brain and neocortex which makes all the difference.

    I think where there needs to be a good deal of questioning is over the idea of a “true goal”. Is a “true goal” something other than a goal you would make for yourself? Can your goals miss the mark because they aren’t “true goals”? The idea is that goals are something “out there” to be discovered, rather than things we make for ourselves. Are they the kind of thing that is “out there”? The sense in Tom’s argument depends on the world consisting in objects like that. But to those that have given up ideas like that, because centuries of efforts by theologians and metaphysicians have shown it to be futile to try to give sense to them, the arguments have lost their allure.

  64. Andrew W,

    yet those stimuli do have a “goal”. Over time, the plant cells “prefer” actions that cause “pleasurable” (using that word loosely) stimuli than displeasurable stimuli. Thus, one could argue that these small actions contribute to the greater “purpose” of the plant, which is to receive good stimuli.

    There’s no moral value attached to this purpose; I have deliberately avoided words like good or bad or benefit. Yet it is “purpose”.

    So you agree with us that there is purpose in nature?

  65. Stephen,

    I think where there needs to be a good deal of questioning is over the idea of a “true goal”.

    Forget about “true goal”. Tom’s position doesn’t require anything of the sort. How do purposeless interactions become directed toward particular outcomes simply by virtue of being in a very complex human organ? We are talking about effects that are different in kind not just degree.

  66. Stephen @#68,

    I never said purpose was just a product of the human mind. It is a product of mind, but not originally of human mind.

    You have not disputed my analysis (see above). You haven’t addressed my causal closure case against purpose, on naturalism. You’ve contested some things that other people might have said somewhere, for instance when you said, the idea that just because we can’t explain it yet doesn’t mean we won’t someday. But that’s someone else’s argument. You haven’t even mentioned mine, much less answered it, unless I missed it somewhere.

  67. Andrew, I’m sorry it seems like I’m not trying to explain.

    You gave what you consider to be a summary of the argument so far. Here’s mine:

    OP: Purpose is impossible on naturalism for reason A (causal closure).
    Commenter: No, reason B does not prove purpose is impossible.
    Me: I didn’t mention reason B. See the OP
    Commenter. Reason C is an ineffective argument against purpose, on naturalism.
    Me: I didn’t mention reason C. See the OP …
    Commenter: What you’re saying about purpose might apply to the level of purpose you were talking about but not to the one most of us are interested in.
    Me: My argument applies to every sense of purpose, where purpose is a matter of being-for.
    Commenter: You haven’t defined purpose.
    Me: I have defined it as being-for.
    Commenter: Reason D is an ineffective argument against purpose, on naturalism.
    Me: I didn’t base my case on D. See the OP…

    For the sake of focusing on a point, I left out all the discussion on whether purpose exists. That point is, no one has addressed the argument in the original post!

    I have tried half a dozen times to focus the debate on the causal closure argument against purpose, on naturalism. I wrote it in the original post. In comment 33 I cautioned readers not to see this as the usual reason-and-purpose debate. In 36 I corrected the false belief that my argument was based on the free will problem. In 52 I reiterated the causal closure argument briefly. I alluded to it again in 62. Again in 66 and 67.

    Now, is this because I have to have my way and get people to talk about my topic? No. It’s because you keep saying you’ve refuted me when you haven’t even brought up my argument. And I’d like you to see that no matter what argument B, C , D, or E might be, and no matter how you might think you can rebut them, you haven’t contended with the implications of argument A, which is where this discussion started.

    And I’d like for you to understand that if A is correct, then naturalism is false.

  68. Now, let me let you in on something I realized overnight. There is a significant weakness in my causal closure argument, and I’m not so certain today that it stands. It still might. The problem I’ve recognized is a difficult one to analyze, and it will probably end up being the kind of thing that thinkers would disagree on. Or it could end up that I was just wrong from the start, and that this has been a learning experience and nothing more than that for me.

    But I’m not going to say anything further until someone else here shows that they have paid it enough studied attention to realize what it’s about.

  69. Andrew, I apologize for being so short with you in #58. What I meant in longer form is that plants really don’t “try,” they don’t have “goals,” they don’t “prefer,” and they don’t consider anything “pleasurable.” Those are terms we put on them, applying human characteristics to them in a manner we all recognize as figures of speech; and that figure of speech is called anthropomorphizing. “Reifying” is treating something abstract or figurative as if it were real, which is another way of describing what you wrote about plants.

    Figures of speech and reification cannot make plants have purpose in themselves, in the sense of being-for. A human can certainly give purpose to a plant. It takes a mind to do that.

    Again, I’m sorry I was so glib, as you say.

  70. But I’m not going to say anything further until someone else here shows that they have paid it enough studied attention to realize what it’s about.

    Why don’t you just outline what you think the problem is? It is not difficult to interpret such a statement as very patronizing.

  71. Tom,

    There is a significant weakness in my causal closure argument, and I’m not so certain today that it stands. It still might.

    I’ll give it a shot, Tom. You said this:

    But perhaps things change when humans develop language and culture, for this provides a new route to innovation in the world.

    Like the development of purpose, the development of language and culture must also result of the same causal closure process. The problem for your argument is that language has a purpose (culture might too but let’s ignore that). You cannot say language is an illusion, because then you would have no real ability to create an argument against purpose – but you ARE really doing that – so the argument doesn’t succeed.

  72. Dang. One day taking care of a sick kid and the conversation blows up.

    Tom: Regarding free will, there’s a little passage from the movie “Lawrence of Arabia” that I think is pertinent:

    Ali: A man can do whatever he wants, you said.
    Lawrence: He can, but he can’t want what[ever] he wants. This is the stuff that decides what he wants.

    Can you freely choose what you want?

  73. I wrote a tangential argument earlier addressing the wrong argument (which I deleted) so apologies if I confused anyone with that!

    I have a few thoughts, I don’t think I’ve clarified everything in my mind but I’ll see what people think of them.

    Under (most forms of) naturalism causal closure is that physical effects have only physical causes. Naturalists who are property dualists/pluralists could hold that purpose exists (even though it would be physically constituted). Causal closure of physical effects then doesn’t entail causal closure of properties. So in particular purpose can emerge as a property of a physical state from a state without purpose.

  74. bigbird @#79,

    I wrote a causal closure argument.

    Nobody in any response has indicated that they noticed that I wrote a causal closure argument.

    Everybody has instead written problems they see with arguments I have not made.

    If you think what I’ve said here is patronizing, why don’t you think for a moment what it’s like to have a series of 70+ comments, all of which entirely miss the point?

    And here’s the thing: when I get to the point of writing what I think might be the problem with my argument, I’d like to write it to people who are (a) demonstrably aware that the argument exists, (b) demonstrably aware of what it says, and (c) therefore demonstrably ready to discuss any new angles I place upon it.

    If that’s patronizing, then you can choose to be offended by it. Your choice.

  75. Alex, that’s one of the issues with my argument: it only applies to strict naturalism.

    Many of the more popular atheistic writers are strict materialists/naturalists, though, so based on what I’ve written, if it were sound, it ought to at least shake those writers out of that dogmatic position. Unless they want to admit to the total absence of any purpose whatsoever in the universe.

  76. Tom – definitely inclined to agree.

    I’m not sure I’ve completely got my head around the distinctions, but if I do understand these ideas correctly, I would say:

    I would completely agree with your argument with respect to a physical property monist (ie that there are only physical properties).

    But then I think the very act of holding to physical property monism as a position is incoherent – as to such a person ideas, thoughts, etc would not exist. It becomes meaningless to even refer to a person as identity does not exist.

    Almost any immediate experiencial observation (and a bit more rigour) seems like it should be sufficient to banish PPM into a self-contradicting mess.

    As such, I think the OP highlights the problems with PPM but not really with naturalism – especially as I don’t think most naturalists hold to PPM and those that claim to probably don’t really know what they’re talking about.

  77. Tom Gilson – But will is related to purpose. What do you will, what do you want?

    Per Andrew, a plant doesn’t really “want” to grow towards light. It has tendencies to grow toward light. But humans are conscious; they are subjects, not objects. Thus, they can want things. They can have purposes.

    Now, I’ve said that we don’t understand consciousness yet (in any deep sense of understanding). Nobody knows how it works yet. Some think it must be supernatural, some think it must be natural. (I’ve pointed to similar controversies before.) But it doesn’t automatically contradict naturalism if it exists. (And the reason I c.f. Dennett is simply to point out I’m not the only one who says that. As an analogy, if I have a devastating rejoinder to Islam it doesn’t mean I have a ‘defeater’ for all of monotheism.)

    Now, our purposes and wants might well arise out of our nature – but that’s the case whether our ‘nature’ is purely natural, or partially supernatural. (We’ve got to be careful about our terminology – if I understand what, say, G. Rodrigues would propose, only God is truly supernatural, ‘above the system of natures’.)

    So we can’t choose what we want if we’re naturalistic. Is that really different from the case if we’re partially supernatural? As I asked before: Can you freely choose what you want?

  78. “If such a thing as purpose did not exist at the inception of the universe, but it exists now, then some cause must have brought it into being: nothing new comes into being without being caused to do so”

    What if the purpose that existed at the inception of the universe was simply survival–continued life–and all other purposes are in service to this? We have the illusion of there being meaning because it increases our likelihood of survival.

  79. Ray,
    “But it [consciousness] doesn’t automatically contradict naturalism if it exists.”

    The conclusion of the causal closure argument is either that it does contradict, or that consciousness is an illusion. Unaware processes are unable to produce aware processes. Being aware that it’s an illusion is self-refuting so I cannot even be aware of that if indeed it is true. The most reasonable conclusion is that it’s real.

  80. Ray, I agree that will is related to purpose, but I’ve been trying to keep them distinct, since they are conceptually not the same thing.

    I agree also that humans want things and have purposes. I have emphatically agreed with that throughout this discussion, in fact.

    I do not think that consciousness automatically contradicts naturalism. We agree on that.

    I agree that our purposes and wants arise out of our nature (you said “might,” so I recognize that what I’m agreeing with here is something you are suggesting tentatively).

    I agree that we can’t choose what we want if we’re naturalistic.

    What I can’t help wondering, though, is why you’re bringing all this up in a post on a causal closure argument against purpose. It’s a tangent, a rabbit trail. I’m not going there.

  81. Ordinaryseeker, if you think the Big Bang naturalistically produced a will to survival or a purpose to survive, then you are a man (or woman? I’ve never seen you indicate it) of greater faith in greater magic than any shaman in any tribe in any jungle.

  82. I think we need to recognize that you cannot disentangle purpose from causation. Purpose implies intention. IOW if we do something intentionally we do it purposefully.

    Consider the the following scenario. One foggy morning the police are called to the scene of an “accident” (whether it is or not will depend on the outcome of the police’s investigation). A motorist on his way to work has struck and killed a jogger with his car. A police investigation reveals that the two men, who were neighbors, knew each other but had a strong dislike for each other. So is it an accident or murder? It all depends on whether the driver hit the jogger intentionally (on purpose) or not.

    Can we apply this concept of acting intentionally cosmically? I think we can. Contingent things that are part of the natural world cannot act intentionally. Only self conscious beings with minds can act with intention. Where does this ability to act with intention come from? Is the best explanation that it is the unintentional result of a mindless process? Or is there another better explanation?

    Consider the following:

    If a necessary or self existing being is to be used as an explanation for the cause of the universe it must somehow be causally connected to the contingent things that make up the universe. However, the causal connection cannot the be same as it is between contingent things where the antecedent cause, at least in the natural world, is unintentional. Rather, the causal connection between a necessary being and contingent things must be intentional, otherwise something else is causing necessary being to act causally, and that would logically contradict what it means to be necessary or self existing. A self existing being requires nothing outside of itself so it cannot act unintentionally. To act intentionally is to act volitionally, intelligently, consciously, freely and purposively.

  83. Keith @ 50:

    “What did I say that wouldn’t be testable or falsifiable?”

    You essentially dismiss anything that doesn’t fit in with your eliminative materialist worldview as an illusion, thus removing any possibility of disproving said view. It’s like creationists who argue that God made fossil dinosaur bones to trick us, or conspiracy theorists who say that ever bit of evidence that the world isn’t being run by a giant conspiracy was just planted there by conspirators trying to cover their tracks.

  84. Tom,
    I did not say the WILL to survive, I said simply survival. The purpose of life is life. Perhaps it did not originate at the inception of the universe, but the conditions for life originated there.

    In future, Tom, I would appreciate respectful responses to my comments. I would like to be treated, you know, as a human, as you have often called us all to do.

  85. os, are you complaining that I wrote,

    Ordinaryseeker, if you think the Big Bang naturalistically produced a will to survival or a purpose to survive

    then I apologize for making “a will to survival” one of the options. I do think I covered what you said accurately in the second option.

    But here’s the thing I hope you’ll understand about the faith and magic part. We Christians often get accused of having unsupported faith in a magic being. It’s a false claim on both counts, but I get it all the time. The word “magic” has been used in 357 comments here (per my back-end search function) since I transitioned to WordPress a little over five years ago, which means that conservatively speaking I’ve had that accusation thrown at me at least a hundred times.

    And then you come along and says something like the Big Bang could have produced a survival purpose, which I hope you will see is a completely outlandish suggestion. I mean, it really is. I won’t back down from that for a moment.

    But I will own up to reacting when I should have responded. I reacted to three things: the outlandish nature of the suggestion, coupled with the total magic it would take for the Big Bang to have accomplished what you suggested, and my memory of all those accusations of “magic” that I’ve been subjected to, and I didn’t bother to check whether you were one of those who had delivered that accusation my way.

    Now I have checked that, and I see that you have never said that.

    I think my response may have been overblown whether you said it or not. It certainly was in view of the fact that you never did, and I apologize.

  86. @Ordinaryseeker, #94:

    The purpose of life is life.

    You aren’t making a distinction between the purpose of a thing and what the thing actually does. On naturalism, life has no purpose, but it does exhibit activity (i.e. metabolism, self-reproduction, etc.). To say that “the purpose of life is life” is to create a second target, distinct from the actual behaviour exhibited by the living thing, but which happens to coincide with that behaviour.

    Let me see if I can offer an illustration. I own a Sony PS3, but it’s broken, and has been gathering dust on a shelf for some time. The purpose of the PS3 is to entertain its owner by means of games and other recreational facilities. Its purpose is also to make a profit for Sony through the sales of software for the unit, and such like. My PS3, being broken, is currently failing to fulfil its purpose. I could get it repaired, but I doubt that it would be worth my while, economically speaking.

    There’s a big difference between what a PS3 is supposed to do (its purpose) and what mine is actually doing. That difference is possible because the “purpose” and the “behaviour” are two entirely different things. One is completely abstract, like mathematics, and the other is an empirically discernible activity.

    Now, in the case of the PS3, I know what its purpose is, despite the divergence between that purpose and the singularly unentertaining behaviour that mine exhibits. Its purpose is clear because the creators of the product have clearly communicated it. Even my broken device was not broken at one time, and frequently managed to fulfil its purpose. Indeed, I call it “broken” now precisely because it is no longer capable of fulfilling its purpose without “repair”. Even a brand new one would be considered “faulty” if it failed to operate as intended.

    With that background out of the way, let’s revisit what you said in #88.

    What if the purpose that existed at the inception of the universe was simply survival–continued life–and all other purposes are in service to this?

    The problem that is under discussion here is whether such a state of affairs is possible, given materialism. The key question to be addressed in determining such a possibility is whether a “purpose” can exist, materially. As we’ve already seen, the behaviour of a thing can be entirely distinct from its purpose. Nothing about the behaviour of my PS3 is indicative of its purpose. If you actually make a distinction between “purpose” and “behaviour” in this manner, then the “behaviour” side is the concrete, material side, and the “purpose” side is entirely abstract. On strict materialism, then, “purpose” does not exist, since the doctrine of strict materialism is that only material things exist.

    Now, there might be some sort of extended argument about how, given a mind, we might say that it is capable of representing an abstraction such as a purpose, and thus purpose can exist in that sense. (This usually leads to a dispute about whether a mind can be entirely material.) The kind of “purpose” that you are suggesting in your statement, however, is (or seems to be) independent of any mind. A mindless and purely material universe offers no quarter in which purpose may exist: one must subscribe to a supernatural (or at least extra-natural) realm of purposes in order for purpose to exist at all.

    So, in answer to your what-if question, the answer is, “if purpose existed at the inception of the universe, then materialism is false, because purpose is not material.”

  87. An interesting discussion. There’s nothing alarming or surprising about the illisoriness of purpose. What remains in this thread is some semblance of an argument that purpose is real. It cannot simply be asserted.

  88. I wrote a causal closure argument.

    Nobody in any response has indicated that they noticed that I wrote a causal closure argument.

    Most likely this is because they consider the causal closure part of your argument to be relatively uncontroversial. It doesn’t mean they didn’t notice it. People focus on what they perceive to be flaws, not on what they accept.

    The most obvious point of attack in your argument is premise 2, that “real purpose exists”.

    Since most naturalists I know of deny that real purpose exists, the argument is not persuasive for them.

  89. Being aware that it’s an illusion is self-refuting so I cannot even be aware of that if indeed it is true. The most reasonable conclusion is that it’s real.

    The illusion could include “being aware that it is an illusion”, so it isn’t self-refuting.

    I agree however that the most reasonable conclusion is that it’s real. It takes a lot of denial of what seems to be obvious to be a naturalist.

  90. Hoo boy.

    bigbird, you say “most naturalists I know of deny that real purpose exists.” Really?

    Recall what I have said here, starting from early on, concerning what kind of purpose this was about:

    1. @OP: “Atheists typically insist they can find purpose without God…. Therefore I conclude that (on naturalism), humans’ sense of purpose is just as illusory as our sense of free will and consciousness. We think we have purpose: we feel it, we sense it, we choose it, we direct our activities toward it in all its multiple forms and manifestations — indeed, it’s an incorrigible feature of being human.”

    That’s the kind of purpose of which I was speaking in the OP: the subjective sense. I restated that later:

    2. @#6: “The point of my post, John, is that if naturalism were true then every person’s sense of purpose, whether cosmic or local, eternal or temporal, grand or minuscule, would be completely an illusion…. if naturalism is true, then the belief, “I find purpose in x” — regardless of what x might be — is based on nothing but illusion.”

    3. @#7: “The reason I postulate that ‘real purpose exists,’ John, is because we all agree that it does. When an atheist says she finds purpose for life in the beauty of music or in her family, that’s real. I’m not one to claim that purpose must be ‘cosmic’ to be real. I’m saying that purpose is real if it’s really purpose, and that this is part of the ordinary stuff of every person’s life.”

    4. @#8: “I should add that if I’ve ever said in the past that it’s not real purpose unless it’s eternal purpose, I am wiser than that now.”

    5. @#21: “And why does ‘real purpose’ have to be defined as purpose having existence independent of individual human existence? I certainly wasn’t limiting it to that meaning when I wrote the post!

    “I think maybe you’re confusing this with some other argument, having to do with objective morality or something. This is not that, nor is it the usual meaning-and-purpose discussion.”

    6. @#32: “What I am saying in the post, Stephen, is much more sweeping than that: if naturalism is true, then there are no purposes. None. Period. Not subjective, not objective, not personal, none of any sort except as illusions, just as (naturalists say) free will is completely illusory.”

    7. @#39: “What naturalists believe in purpose?

    “Keith, I think you’re still viewing this blog topic as being about big-P Purpose.

    “Dawkins believes in purpose. He believes it would be helpful to eliminate religion for the purpose of decreasing human ignorance and prejudice.

    “Sam Harris believes in purpose. He believes that morality is for increasing human well-being.

    “Grayling believes in purpose. He thinks humanism would be good for the betterment of humanity.”

    8. @#44: “Does no one know how many times atheists have insisted to Christians in debate, ‘ I do have purpose that’s adequate for me, and I resent your saying otherwise!’?”

    Now, bigbird, do most of the naturalists you know of deny that purpose exists on the levels I have described here not just once, but eight times — levels that include, “I can find purpose in my life as an atheist”?

    And do you still think the naturalists in this discussion have failed to notice the causal closure argument just because they don’t believe in any purpose of any kind on any level whatsoever, including subjective and/or personal; or because they missed the eight times I told them that comprehensive view of purpose was what this was about?

  91. bigbird, you say “most naturalists I know of deny that real purpose exists.” Really?

    Yes, really. When you push hard enough, most naturalists ultimately seem to be nihilists – all the purposes you list are regarded as illusory. They may use language like “purpose” as a convenient construct, but they don’t believe it is real. How can it be?

  92. And do you still think the naturalists in this discussion have failed to notice the causal closure argument just because they don’t believe in any purpose of any kind on any level whatsoever

    I don’t think they failed to notice it. They just didn’t disagree with it.

  93. BTW I think an analogous argument is love. How can what we think of as love exist if naturalism is true? It’s not that different to purpose.

    Things like purpose and love are mental constructs – perhaps mind-body dualism is the underlying issue here.

  94. PS this isn’t a criticism of your argument – it is rather than given the choice, naturalists have no choice but to embrace the “all purpose is illusory” point of view.

  95. I don’t know about you, bigbird, but I don’t think it’s at all true that all naturalists think purpose is illusory.

    Look at #39 above.

    Look at:

    http://atheistexperience.blogspot.com/2010/09/purpose-and-meaning-without-god.html

    http://atheism.about.com/od/atheismmyths/a/MeaningLife.htm

    http://asktheatheist.com/?p=817

    http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=1708

    http://boards.weddingbee.com/topic/vent-apparently-because-im-atheist-my-life-has-no-purpose#axzz2Tn9EjZEl

    http://www.amazon.com/Good-Atheist-Living-Purpose-Filled-Without/dp/1569758468

    http://philosophy.acadiau.ca/tl_files/sites/philosophy/resources/documents/Maitzen_OGUP.pdf

    http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=3970

    http://mrozatheist.blogspot.com/2012/09/atheists-have-nothing-to-live-for.html

    I could go on, and on, and on…

    These are all atheists, many of them naturalists, who disagree with the thesis that there is no real purpose to be found or experienced in the universe.

    And I can absolutely guarantee that if I put up a post here tomorrow saying “to believe in naturalistic atheism means that you must deny all purpose in life,” I would get a chorus of howls of outrage in disagreement.

    Would you like me to try it and see?

  96. And why are you naturalists letting bigbird speak for you, anyway? Why don’t you answer for yourselves? Why don’t you engage in argument that says,

    no matter how strongly you feel you have purpose in your life, if your naturalism is true, nobody has any kind of purpose whatsoever, and the sensation of purpose you feel is no more than an illusion.

    And why don’t you answer an argument that says so on your terms, taking your view of reality seriously?

    Why don’t you answer an argument that (if it succeeds) proves you are 100% completely wrong if you think you have purpose?

    I’m baffled as to why you have found so many other things here so much more important than that.

  97. And why are you naturalists letting bigbird speak for you, anyway?

    That is a good question, as I can’t speak for them, obviously. I can only make a guess.

    How about a frank statement that says “all purpose is illusory”?

  98. I don’t know about you, bigbird, but I don’t think it’s at all true that all naturalists think purpose is illusory.

    I think it’s a bit like “free will” – Sam Harris claims there is no such thing as free will in his writings, but of course that means he had no free will in writing the book or even in his atheism.

    So on one level free will and purpose are completely illusory, but on another, we have to live as though they are not, because life is more pleasant (whatever that means) if we do.

    I suppose on evolutionary terms purpose and free will are illusions that help ensure our survival and even though we know better we have to go along with them. Which seems delusionary, not illusionary.

    But anyway, I can’t speak for these people, so I look forward to what they say as to whether I’ve interpreted them correctly.

    And I can absolutely guarantee that if I put up a post here tomorrow saying “to believe in naturalistic atheism means that you must deny all purpose in life,” I would get a chorus of howls of outrage in disagreement.

    Would you like me to try it and see?

    Yes.

  99. OK, trying again: is the distinction between the goal of certain actions (like a plant growing towards light) and the reason for existence? A plant can be “trying” (anthropomorphising, but bear with me) to do something, but it’s purpose is given by the gardener who planted it there.

    If no-one planted it, then it has no absolute “purpose”, it just “is”.

    Now assume the plant can think (if I’m going to anthropomorphise, I might as well go the whole way 🙂 ). Any justification it creates for its own existence is going to be purely fictitious. It might make the plant happy, but it can’t be true, because we (outside) know that the plant is where it is purely by the chance fall of seed and rain. No one wanted it; it just happens to be, until it dies.

    Tom: Is this more along the lines of your argument? Or am I still missing something critical?

  100. Update: one might hypothesise that a child comes through the forest, sees the plant, and is happy. Has the plant thereby accidentally fulfilled a purpose? Specifically, maybe. Philosophically, the question just moves up one step to whether there is purpose to the child, and whether its happiness matters. Moreover, this scenario required the introduction of something greater than the plant to observe it.

    Corollary: one could avoid Tom’s confusion by denying premise #2: “There is no such thing as real purpose – it really is illusion”. But if this is true, it would behoove naturalist apologists to be somewhat less enthusiastic about their passion for naturalism. After all, their only coherent justification for what they are doing is that it pleases them to do so, and any greater emotion or sense of justice is actually irrationalism (not that there’s anything wrong with being irrational in a purposeless universe!).

  101. Bigbird, you called my bluff. I’m not going to put up that post because I won’t tell a lie just for the sake of an experiment. You could look here for more on this, though.

  102. Andrew, that’s a good analogy in #109. Your update in #110 is intriguing, and I wonder what others will make of it.

    There is indeed nothing wrong with being irrational in a purposeless universe. There’s also nothing right with being rational!

  103. You could look here for more on this, though.

    The Meaning of Life (1997) (Off Site) by Adrian Barnett

    gives

    “Page not Found”.

    Appropriate 🙂

  104. Corollary: one could avoid Tom’s confusion by denying premise #2: “There is no such thing as real purpose – it really is illusion”. But if this is true, it would behoove naturalist apologists to be somewhat less enthusiastic about their passion for naturalism.

    I don’t see any mystery about all this. If everything is truly a cosmic accident, and we evolved without any divine intervention, then there cannot be any purpose or meaning in anything. Everything just is.

    Any purpose and meaning we find is just invented by our brains, and we do this because evolution selected for it.

  105. SteveK –

    Unaware processes are unable to produce aware processes.

    And some naturalists deny that ‘naturalistic consciousness’ is an “illusion”. (For an example see Dennett on intentionality.) If unaware processes can produce aware ones – which per naturalism, must be possible – then we can sensibly talk about the difference between ‘tendency or tropism’ and ‘desire or intent’.

    (Now, how free we are to choose our desires and intents is a different question.)

  106. [email protected]:

    If everything is truly a cosmic accident, and we evolved without any divine intervention, then there cannot be any purpose or meaning in anything. Everything just is.

    Any purpose and meaning we find is just invented by our brains, and we do this because evolution selected for it.

    Excepting the ironic use of the word “accident,” I agree with this point entirely. The mystery is that it has taken 114 comments to get to this.

    When as a naturalist I assert that being a good husband and father is my life’s purpose, I assert it in the self-actualizing sense and without any recourse at all to a spooky, transcendental (and also man-made) sense of purpose being ‘hard-wired’ into the universe.

  107. Ray,
    I know that some naturalists believe that unaware processes can produce awareness. What evidence is there to support that belief?

  108. The mystery is that it has taken 114 comments to get to this.

    Doesn’t the blog post cover what bigbird said?

  109. I don’t think the causal closure of physics and evolution could permit humans to have that kind of purpose, Larry. It isn’t an effect they could produce, and there are no other causes, so if that effect came about it came about uncaused — which is impossible.

  110. By analogy, if the effect includes straight lines intersecting at 90 degree angles there must be a pathway that can get you that effect. If you start out with only circles and arcs as the “basic building blocks”, which is analogous to a complete lack of purpose, it’s impossible to produce the effect of straight lines intersecting at 90 degrees.

  111. Tom,

    I don’t think the causal closure of physics and evolution could permit humans to have that kind of purpose, Larry.

    That kind of purpose? There isn’t a kind of purpose; it’s an assertion. I’ve invented an imaginary category, ‘purpose,’ to classify a personal attitude toward my own life.

    Are you really trying to say that consciousness is impossible under naturalism?

  112. I’ve invented an imaginary category, ‘purpose,’ to classify a personal attitude toward my own life.

    I don’t think you are removed from the naturalistic process, Larry. If naturalism cannot produce purpose, neither can you. That’s what the causal closure argument entails.

  113. SteveK

    I don’t think you are removed from the naturalistic process, Larry. If naturalism cannot produce purpose, neither can you. That’s what the causal closure argument entails.

    But I haven’t produced purpose, and I haven’t claimed to produced it. The invention is rhetorical.

  114. So then, Larry, would you tell us more about this imaginary category? What is real and what is not-real about it? Knowing that it’s imaginary, do you still believe (not feel or sense but consider it true) that there is purpose to anything that you do?

    I’m just wondering.

    Do I think consciousness is impossible under naturalism? It is in the ordinary sense of the term. Various philosophers have tried to work around that by defining it in other ways. I don’t need to comment on whether they’ve been successful or not, or at least not now; I might change my mind based on how you answer the questions I’ve just asked.

  115. @123
    I could be wrong, but it seems that you are in conflict. You are appealing to some truth when you talk about the concept of purpose, otherwise how could you use it in a meaningful sentence about yourself? On the other hand, if the concept of purpose has no connection to any true proposition then your sentence has no meaning. Which is it?

  116. Steve,

    You are appealing to some truth when you talk about the concept of purpose

    Please identify the exact words in #123 that make this appeal, and what specific truth is being appealed to.

  117. Wow.

    At least you didn’t sneak a period in there: it gives at least a hint of the truth, that you yanked that half-sentence out of context.

    Here’s the rest of it, in case you don’t want to scroll back up the page: “otherwise how could you use it in a meaningful sentence about yourself?”

    There is undoubtedly some kind of appeal to some kind of truth when a person makes a purportedly meaningful sentence about himself.

  118. I understand the rest of Steve’s statement, but I’m not ready to deal with that. I quoted only the part that needs to be addressed. Let Steve answer, please.

    As for you, you say:

    So then, Larry, would you tell us more about this imaginary category? What is real and what is not-real about it? Knowing that it’s imaginary, do you still believe (not feel or sense but consider it true) that there is purpose to anything that you do?

    I think you know the answer to this question. Are you just trying to suss out whether I mean what I have said? Or are you trying to see whether I get the ‘implications’ of naturalism?

    And when are you going to answer my comment in #19, where I wondered what the specific evidence was for your knowledge claim regarding real purpose?

  119. Pushy.

    “Let Steve answer, please.” Yes, sir, whatever you say, sir!

    “I quoted only the part that needs to be addressed.” Sure. You quoted enough so you could demand he explain himself in the manner you insist that he explain himself — even though he had already explained it in a perfectly rational and legitimate manner of another kind.

    I guess you’re pretty much in charge here. I’ll email you your admin password forthwith.

  120. Maybe next time you’ll think before falsely telling me I’m taking something out of context.

    You still have not answered my question from #19, have you? I don’t want to be pushy, but maybe if you are not too busy you could back up your earlier knowledge claim. After all if you claim to know (not feel, not sense) there should some evidence easily accessible to anyone. I’m eager to learn what this evidence of real purpose is, or is your evidence simply that sometimes people use the preposition for?

  121. Oy vey, eh? (The Canadian twist on the expression there.)

    You responded in #28, I answered you immediately.

    So you asked and I answered. You asked again and I answered again.

    Are you saying my answer is (“oy vey”) inadequate? Then it would be more appropriate for you to say, “I thought your answer was inadequate,” than, “When are you going to answer?”

    Please bear in mind, by the way, that to the extent that you are asking about my “knowledge claim about real purpose,” you are either:

    (a) asking about a claim I haven’t made, or
    (b) asking something I have already answered.

    The choice between (a) and (b) depends on what you mean by “real.” See #27 again, one of the several places in this post where I explained that the scope of my argument includes any attribution of purpose that persons make. See also the multiple and repeated places where I have illustrated that from atheists’ own writing.

    Now if you think I haven’t covered the ground with that, there are probably some more discursively more useful ways to explain your concerns, in English, than your recent 2-word attempt in (I think) Yiddish. It’s a language I don’t know well at all, though I am of course familiar with that expression, and I don’t think it has any alternate meaning that would accomplish what you need to explain what I’ve missed here.

  122. Larry @ 131:

    “After all if you claim to know (not feel, not sense) there should some evidence easily accessible to anyone. I’m eager to learn what this evidence of real purpose is, or is your evidence simply that sometimes people use the preposition for?”

    You yourself made an implicit appeal to the reality of purpose when you said that “being a good husband and father is my life’s purpose”. If that statement is to be intelligible, there must be this thing called “purpose” which is attached to your life.

    And please note that when the OP refers to “real purpose”, it doesn’t mean “purpose with a transcendental, extra-human origin”. “Arbitrarily deciding that I want to be a good father and acting accordingly” would be just as “real”, in the sense relevant to this discussion.

    Accordingly, if you want to deny that “real purpose” exists, you would have to assert that you never act in order to achieve any sort of goal, but that all your actions are completely random. So, for example, when you ask Tom to clarify his position, that’s not because you want to find out what he thinks or anything like that, it’s just random firings of neurons over which you have no control whatsoever (since controlling something implies directing it towards a certain end, which in turn implies purpose…). This seems like a somewhat odd conclusion to accept, although I suppose it would hardly be the first silly idea which naturalists have talked themselves into holding.

  123. “I’m eager to learn what this evidence of real purpose is,”

    …So you wrote a comment with the, ah, purpose of discovering the evidence.

  124. @126

    Please identify the exact words in #123 that make this appeal, and what specific truth is being appealed to.

    You used the word ‘purpose’ in a sentence that was intended[ 🙂 ] to convey some truth about you. Mr. X explained the problem in #134 when he said this:

    You yourself made an implicit appeal to the reality of purpose when you said that “being a good husband and father is my life’s purpose”. If that statement is to be intelligible, there must be this thing called “purpose” which is attached to your life.

  125. Mr. X,

    If a spark starts to burn your finger and you move your hand away, have you acted purposefully? I don’t think so, but neither have you acted randomly.

    We’re getting lost between two parts of the brain: the part that deals with sensory input and the part that observes the body processing that input. It’s the second part that allows us to reason and to rationalize. It’s the second part where we come up with ideas such as “purpose.” It’s the second part that thinks it’s making decisions about the body, and not the other way around. Usually, however, the first part of the brain is ahead of the second.

    If one is not acting purposefully, that does not mean s/he acts randomly. One acts according to genetics, environment, and stochastic factors.

  126. No,

    You yourself made an implicit appeal to the reality of purpose when you said that “being a good husband and father is my life’s purpose”. If that statement is to be intelligible, there must be this thing called “purpose” which is attached to your life.

    That was not at all an appeal (implicit or explicit) to the reality of purpose. It was an appeal to the reality of the idea of purpose.

    Statements in language are only intelligible if referents exist in the mind of speakers and hearers.

  127. Hopefully this will make it more clear…

    I’ve invented an imaginary category, ‘purpose,’ to classify a personal attitude toward my own life.

    How can an imaginary category tell us something true about you? If I said to you, “my attitude toward cheese is zimeock” , and if that term was imaginary and only used for rhetoric value, have I said anything true about me? No.

  128. It was an appeal to the reality of the idea of purpose.

    Okay. In #139, suppose I’m appealing to the reality of the idea of zimeock. Does that change the outcome?

  129. And so, Larry, if I read you correctly you are giving up every purpose of every kind in every way.

    There are rational difficulties with that, because in order to come to that conclusion rationally you must have more factors entering the causal stream than genetics, environment, and chance. You must have reasons.

    I think if I had time I could generate an argument showing that there cannot be reasons without purposes, and thus your position is rationally self-defeating.

    But rather than go there, I ask you to consider where your naturalism has taken you: to utter and total purposelessness. It’s false, on my view. It’s also unnecessary, for you don’t have to adopt a worldview that does that to you. It’s also un-human: it contradicts what we know to be true about being human beings. It stomps down your most directly accessible evidence, your knowledge of yourself; and instead it accepts a position based on questionable inferences from incomplete evidence.

    I don’t know why you would want to do that to yourself, either rationally or existentially.

  130. You say,

    Statements in language are only intelligible if referents exist in the mind of speakers and hearers.

    Statements in language are only true if they correspond with their referents. If they refer to that which is non-existent, but treat it as if it did exist, then they are false.

  131. zimeock? indeed. My attitude toward cheese is molferin.

    “And I resent theists who say that atheists have no molferin, and that it requires belief in God to have true molferin. I can have just as much molferin as they do; I find molferin in my cheese!”

  132. Some imaginary terms are more accurate than others. Clearly molferin isn’t quite as accurate when it comes to my personal attitude toward cheese.

  133. This is insanity, Larry. You cannot attribute the reality of an idea to your life if that idea has no reality. Either you are speaking incoherent, meaningless nonsense when you use the term ‘purpose’ in a sentence to communicate something that is true about Larry, or you are wrong about it being an imaginary idea. Take your pick.

  134. Oy vey, again:

    But rather than go there, I ask you to consider where your naturalism has taken you: to utter and total purposelessness. It’s false, on my view. It’s also unnecessary, for you don’t have to adopt a worldview that does that to you. It’s also un-human: it contradicts what we know to be true about being human beings. It stomps down your most directly accessible evidence, your knowledge of yourself; and instead it accepts a position based on questionable inferences from incomplete evidence.

    I don’t know why you would want to do that to yourself, either rationally or existentially.

    If purpose is rhetorical, then so is purposelessness.

    I took some time off from work last week. I walked my middle child to school, and the next day I took her younger brother to a swim lesson. The next day, we planted trees, bought a new bed, and went to a festival in the woods. Thus, your appeals to the negative impact of my worldview (which, after all, is an attempt to accept reality) and to the ‘un-human’-ness of it, seem frankly ridiculous.

    On the other hand, my oldest daughter was very concerned years ago at the thought that her daddy wouldn’t go to heaven. She didn’t want to be without me. Can you imagine the wickedness of an evidence-free belief that tells children they’ll never see their parents again? Everything you charge against naturalism seems to go double for Christianity and Islam.

  135. Steve,

    Either you are speaking incoherent, meaningless nonsense when you use the term ‘purpose’ in a sentence to communicate something that is true about Larry, or you are wrong about it being an imaginary idea. Take your pick.

    Black-and-white thinking doesn’t help here.

    Your first choice given–“Either you are speaking incoherent, meaningless nonsense when you use the term ‘purpose’ in a sentence to communicate something that is true about Larry”–is based on a flawed and narrow model of language.

    We cannot dialogue effectively if we don’t have the same models in mind to refer to. I understand your model, but you don’t understand mine, and I am evidently unable to describe it for you in a way that sticks.

  136. I understand your model, but you don’t understand mine, and I am evidently unable to describe it for you in a way that sticks.

    Fair enough. I’m simply trying to understand the relationship between the term ‘purpose’ and your life. I don’t need you to make that connection for me, which will save us some time. All I need to know is that if you can succeed, then the term is not imaginary. Agreed?

  137. All I need to know is that if you can succeed, then the term is not imaginary. Agreed?

    Let’s say I determine a goal to run 12-15 miles this week.

    Is that purpose ‘real’? Well, it’s an idea in my head. How did it get there? Via the feedback loop of my body being in the world; as a particular biological/neurological response to my body in its environment.

    Can I succeed in the goal? Sure enough. I can track my running progress and determine whether or not I have met the goal.

    Does being able to succeed or fail make the goal real (i.e., not imaginary)? No, it means that the goal exists in my mind along with criteria for failure/success. Where do these criteria come from? From my memory or my brain’s rational processing power.

    So, I can set a goal (in my mind) and I can succeed (in my mind).

  138. Larry @ 137:

    “If one is not acting purposefully, that does not mean s/he acts randomly.”

    Well then, we can add “automatically” as a third way of acting. It doesn’t make much difference to the argument, though, since (a) we quite clearly do things which are neither random nor automatic, and (b) the problem of how we are to make sense of “my life’s purpose is X” without believing in the existence of purpose is just as difficult as it was before.

  139. Mr. X, when you tell your child the tooth fairy came and took her little bicuspid in the night, do you believe in the existence of the tooth fairy?

  140. Larry, let’s try this. Suppose someone asked your teenage daughter on a date with intent to do her harm. Suppose someone else asked her on a date with intent to treat her well. Suppose she said no to both of them because she was in a school play that evening.

    What’s the difference between the two who asked her out? Is there any?

  141. Tom,

    The difference between the two is the intent that each has formed in his mind.

    How would you answer the same question?

  142. If there is a difference between the two people, then “the intent” of each — that is, their purpose in asking your daughter out — must exist, since non-existent things can’t make a difference. But given that naturalism is incompatible with the existence of purpose, then either there is in fact no difference between them (which is absurd), or naturalism is in fact false.

  143. Larry, in your answer you did not indicate whether you thought there was any significance to the difference between the two. I do. Do you?

  144. Just browsing, can’t help but pick out:

    (Mr. X, #134)

    “Arbitrarily deciding that I want to be a good father and acting accordingly” would be just as “real”, in the sense relevant to this discussion.

    Maybe I’ve read into it wrong, but it seems like you’re implying that acting according to a desire is sufficient for something to be described as purpose. Which seems fathomable under naturalism, or would you deny the reality of desires (under naturalism)? (or something else?)

  145. So far Larry is explaining himself quite reasonably and as I’d expect. My dad was a humanist and a research scientist (as is my mother) and they would respond in a similar manner.

    The interesting part of the argument seems to be whether naturalism can allow for intentionality. Larry seems to be coming from the point of view of something like non-reductive physicalism, which views mental states as being caused by physical states, but not being reducible to physical properties. Maybe you can tell us a bit more the view of the mind that you are coming from Larry.

    If I understand Tom correctly, he might be coming from a view similar to Jaegwon Kim’s argument against non-reductive physicalism based on casual closure.

  146. What is desire? Does it include intent, purpose, motivation-for?

    If so, then the above analysis would apply to it.

    If on the other hand (as seems fathomable to me under naturalism) it is simply the phenomena accompanying physically-founded drives, sans intention and purpose, then one must be careful to define what one means by “real” — for “real desire,” in most hearers’ minds, would imply motivation-for, and intent, and purpose.

  147. Mr. X at 156: The difference in intents comes from the fact of the two separate entities forming each intent. Each person has different genes, lives in a different environment and will experience events differently. Given these facts, it should not be surprising if their bodies and minds form different intents with respect to an otherwise similar scenario.

  148. bigbird:

    Having a quick flick through some of Jaegwon Kim’s work I’m inclined to agree and think along similar lines with regards to non-reductive physicalism, although in my present state of understanding I wouldn’t say I’ve completely resolved the issue.

    I guess the point I’m highlighting is that there requires work to be done to demonstrate that “the phenomena accompanying physically-founded drives” (as Tom put it) is not in fact identical to real intention and purpose, in a non-question-begging way.

  149. You need not ask the question, Larry. I’m asking whether there is any signicance to the difference. You can answer that question without my specifying to whom.

    You might say, for example, that the difference has no significance; in which case it would be significant to no one.

    Or you might say it has significance to one person, whether you, your daughter, or one of the suitors, or some unnamed person not so far appearing in the story. Or more than one person. In that case the difference would have some significance to some person. That would lead in turn to an interesting progression of questions: is it significant (to someone or something) that it is significant to the person(s) you named?

    Or you might say it has significance to some entity other than any person — but I doubt you would say that.

    So in the first case you an answer without my specifying to whom at all.

    If the second case obtained, my specifying to whom would be a silly game, in which you had some person in mind and I would have to guess which one, not knowing if you even had any person in mind. It would be so much simpler for you just to say it.

    If the third, unlikely, case obtained, the to whom question would be irrelevant.

    So which is it? I think you can answer.

  150. Alex,

    What is real intention and purpose? I am not trying to be fresh; I genuinely don’t get what specifically is supposed to be meant when that ‘real’ is attached.

  151. I guess the point I’m highlighting is that there requires work to be done to demonstrate that “the phenomena accompanying physically-founded drives” (as Tom put it) is not in fact identical to real intention and purpose, in a non-question-begging way.

    Yes, I agree. With the caveat that we haven’t carefully defined “real intention and purpose” as Larry points out.

    I’m not very familiar with Jaegwon Kim’s work either, but I’m intending to look into it as it looks very interesting.

  152. Alex, you’re on a productive track here, and thank you.

    It seems to me that if desires were strictly the phenomena accompanying physical drives, these things would follow:

    1. The desire would not be the cause of any action. Actions’ causes would be fully explained by physical causes, whereas desires are defined as something else, the phenomena accompanying such causes.

    2. Desires such as those of the two suitors in #154 would be fully determined by amoral physical effects, so it would be difficult to articulate any reason to identify one desire as morally better than another — even in a subjective or relativistic sense. That is, it would be difficult to justify applying any moral language or category to desires at all.

    3. Most relevant to the current discussion, it would be hard to explain how a desire is a desire-for. That is, it would be hard to describe any relationship connecting the desire with the object desired. If a desire is merely a phenomenon supervening on a physical state, and if the object desired is another physical object or state, where is the for-ness about the desire?

    Granted that every person feels that desire has for-ness; desire is desire for. But this seems contradictory and problematical if desire is mere phenomenon, mere sensation in association with some physical state. Other sensations are not sensations-for. When I feel pain it is not pain-for, unless I attach some additional mental content to it. When I see the table in front of me I do not see it as table-for, except as I attach some mental content there, too. The being-for is not in the sensation of reddish-brown that appears before me. It is in my decision to use the table (which I have recognized as such through a mental process that integrates my perceptions thereof into an identifiable object) to hold my coffee cup and my computer gear.

    Can we attach mental content to desire in this way, if desire is strictly a phenomenon, a sensation accompanying some physical event? This seems like a strange question, for isn’t desire a mental event of its own? I think it is, since I don’t accept the premise with which we began. But we must stick with that premise to assess it.

    The question to me is this. Purely physical events cannot (as far as I can see) possess the property of being-for; they are what they are without intention, purpose, or any other kind of relation with other physical events except the necessary relations we describe through the so-called laws of nature. There is no for-ness, no being-for, in purely physical objects and events.

    If closure is closed upon the physical, then even if such a thing as a desire could supervene upon physical events, from where would it acquire its for-ness, its being-for? From where would that new relation arise or derive? It seems to me that if this relation is a real thing, then it must have a real cause of its arising, and it further seems that the physical world would not have the capacity to be that cause.

    The only solution to this I can imagine (which is the weakness I mentioned in comment #77), would be that the for-ness or being-for relation is the kind of thing that requires a cause for its existence. If so, then my causal closure argument fails; and now that someone is actually engaging that argument at last, I feel the freedom to acknowledge this as potentially a fatal weakness in it. Whether it actually is or not, is beyond my philosophical skill to assess.

    But at any rate, that weakness only applies to point three in this comment; points one and two are unaffected by it.

  153. [email protected]

    Speaking here and now, I could say the difference is significant, which is to say in my mind the intents formed by the two individuals would lead to very different outcomes if their intentions came to be acted upon.

    We’re going around in circles. Significance is in the mind of a conscious entity, like purpose. At no point do we escape that, nor have you suggested otherwise. Which is why I wonder what we’re really arguing about.

    It must have something to do with what you keep calling real intention or real purpose. As I said, however, whatever you might mean by this escapes me.

  154. We’re not going in circles, Larry. We’ve clarified our positions. We’ve also discovered that you think I haven’t defined what I mean by real purpose, in spite of comments 7, 8, 21, 100, and 105, where I defined it as including that which many, many atheists speak of as “purpose.”

    We’ve learned that you think that significance and purpose are in the mind of a conscious entity (and apparently nowhere else), but then you haven’t defined what you mean by mind, have you? Does entirely “in the mind” mean, “not real”? That is, does it mean that in your mind?

    Your turn.

    Also with respect to the two suitors: I intentionally (;)) set up the problem so that their purposes would not be carried out. Your idea of the significance of the difference between them is based in the counterfactual where both of their intentions would be carried out. Could you explain whether you think there’s significance in the difference between them in view of their purposes not being carried out? Does the difference between them have any significance in the circumstances described there?

  155. @tom #8

    I would still say it’s not adequate purpose if it’s not eternal,

    “adaquate” to what? Doesn’t this need a context?

  156. @#105
    From the link: http://atheism.about.com/od/atheismmyths/a/MeaningLife.htm

    Atheists, on the other hand, do not all regard an objective meaning or purpose as necessary — or even as positive…If, however, the need for an objective purpose or meaning is dispensed with, the need for a god is also eliminated. Do we need such a purpose or meaning? To be quite honest, I don’t think so. It seems perfectly adequate for us to create our own meanings and purposes.

    This link discusses the need for an “objective” purpose, not the sort of purpose being argued in the OP. Is it? Interesting isn’t it – The suggestion that we can just decide to “dispense with it”?

  157. Larry,

    Let’s say I determine a goal to run 12-15 miles this week.

    Is that purpose ‘real’? Well, it’s an idea in my head. How did it get there? Via the feedback loop of my body being in the world; as a particular biological/neurological response to my body in its environment.

    In that case, the statement, “My purpose (or intention) is to run 12-15 miles this week” is a true statement about you. The term “purpose” does not have rhetorical value.

  158. Larry,

    Back to #149, You didn’t answer my question directly in #148. Here’s what I said:

    I’m simply trying to understand the relationship between the term ‘purpose’ and your life. I don’t need you to make that connection for me, which will save us some time. All I need to know is that if you can succeed, then the term is not imaginary. Agreed?

    Can you answer?

    Forget what anyone else thinks about the term ‘purpose’. I’ll let you define it any way you want to define it. Just tell me whether or not the term, when used in a propositional statement involving Larry, can possibly result in a true statement about Larry.

    If the answer is yes, it’s possible, then the term is not imaginary. If you disagree, then please explain how a true statement about Larry can contain an imaginary term. That’s what you seem to be saying and that’s the part that is baffling me.

  159. Steve at 174,

    The term is imaginary, regardless of whether the intended purpose is met.

  160. Just tell me whether or not the term, when used in a propositional statement involving Larry, can possibly result in a true statement about Larry. If the answer is yes, it’s possible, then the term is not imaginary.

    “Larry says purpose is imaginary”.

    True?

  161. I find no reason and no evidence to suggest that purpose is anything other than imaginary.

  162. The term is imaginary, regardless of whether the intended purpose is met.

    Why then do you, Larry, say with all seriousness “being a good husband and father is my life’s purpose”? You say this to YOURSELF convincingly as if it were a true statement about Larry. I really am trying to understand this.

  163. Tom,

    I am going to answer your comment at 170, and then I will likely be offline for the remainder of the day.

    You say:

    We’re not going in circles, Larry. We’ve clarified our positions. We’ve also discovered that you think I haven’t defined what I mean by real purpose, in spite of comments 7, 8, 21, 100, and 105, where I defined it as including that which many, many atheists speak of as “purpose.”

    I am looking for your evidence, more so than a definition. In any case, comment 7 merely asserts the existence of purpose. Comment 8 again is an assertion and neither a definition nor a description of any evidence for your claim to know that real purpose exists. Comment 21 also offers no clear definition, only a statement that my definition is too restrictive for you. Comment 100 offers no definition, either from the naturalists you quote nor from yourself. Comment 105: again no definition at all of what you mean by real purpose.

    Tom, all you have to do is write two sentences. The first one starts, “Real purpose is defined as….” The second begins, “The evidence behind my claim to knowing what real purpose is consists of….”

    Please indulge me by completing these two sentences.

    You then say:

    We’ve learned that you think that significance and purpose are in the mind of a conscious entity (and apparently nowhere else), but then you haven’t defined what you mean by mind, have you? Does entirely “in the mind” mean, “not real”? That is, does it mean that in your mind?

    Your turn.

    My comments at 46 and then 137 explain this, I think. I like the model of mind given, for example, by Anthony Cashmore in PNAS: http://www.pnas.org/content/107/10/4499.long.

    Finally, you write:

    Also with respect to the two suitors: I intentionally (;)) set up the problem so that their purposes would not be carried out. Your idea of the significance of the difference between them is based in the counterfactual where both of their intentions would be carried out. Could you explain whether you think there’s significance in the difference between them in view of their purposes not being carried out? Does the difference between them have any significance in the circumstances described there?

    Any significance attached to the difference between the two hypothetical, unrealized intentions is purely a product of the conscious being that invents the significance, i.e., me in this case.

    Whether an intention is carried out or not has no bearing on purpose. Consider this: you see a person running, and the person suddenly slows down at a certain point. From the outside, you have no knowledge of the goal behind that person’s action. Maybe the runner completed the route. Maybe the runner was slowing down to see if a car was coming. Maybe the runner reached a pre-existing time or mileage goal.

    You have no idea. Whatever the goal, it exists entirely and only in the thinking of that individual. What’s more, if that runner achieves a goal, it does not make the goal real because the goal is a heuristic.

    If you want to claim the goal is real, that purpose is real, you need to make an argument and you need to present evidence. If those comments you cite (and that I mention above) are your offering, then you have not come close to saying anything compelling on the subject, in my opinion.

    Obviously, we disagree on the naturalistic perspective regarding purpose. It seems clear, however, that your criticisms cannot withstand scrutiny because naturalism provides a sensible and reasonably empirical explanation of what purpose is and how it works. Going from purpose to significance doesn’t get you anywhere: you stay within the confines of the mind (as defined above).

    Perhaps the question at this point is whether it matters if purpose is illusory. In other words, what’s the issue? You sketch out this case in comment 141, and as I responded, I think yours is a deeply misguided and tortured view. There are three responses I can think of in response to the illusoriness of purpose: (1) deny it, (2) lament it, and (3) embrace it. The sanest, wisest course is #3.

  164. Larry, you say you’re looking for evidence, more than a definition. I’m frankly getting tired of the question, because I’ve answered it so often. Here’s the answer again, one last time.

    It does start with the definition that’s in use in this context. That’s important because it determines what it is we are seeking to find evidence for. If by purpose I meant “ultimate, eternal purpose,” in the context of this discussion, that would require one set of evidences. If I meant something less sweeping than that, it would require a different set of evidences.

    So the definition is crucial. Let me re-state it for you once more, again (the redundancy there is intentional). I began with not much of a specific definition in the OP, so there were requests for clarification, appropriately enough, and I responded to them, beginning with this #7:

    The reason I postulate that “real purpose exists,” John, is because we all agree that it does. When an atheist says she finds purpose for life in the beauty of music or in her family, that’s real. I’m not one to claim that purpose must be “cosmic” to be real. I’m saying that purpose is real if it’s really purpose, and that this is part of the ordinary stuff of every person’s life.

    So here you see that I’m not speaking of ultimate, eternal purpose in the context of this post. Purpose, in this context, includes whatever an atheist means when she says she finds it in the beauty of music or her family.

    More specifically, I have said often that what I mean by purpose is for-ness or being-for. You can find that in #11, #52, #62, #66, #76, #105 and #168.

    Here I need to insert another reminder on context. The OP began,

    There’s a running Internet debate between theists and atheists over the question of purpose. Atheists typically insist they can find purpose without God; theists typically answer that this is something less than real purpose, because it’s so ephemeral and temporary.

    So from the beginning, this was about whether purpose, as atheists describe purpose is a justifiable concept. Much later, after assessing whether that kind of purpose was rationally coherent on naturalism, I provided this further explanation of what I was talking about:

    When an atheist says to me, “I can find purpose in loving my family, in creating or enjoying art, in the beauty of nature, in my work … ,” I can only agree with him or her. I don’t doubt that for a moment. I wonder at times how those purposes could be fully adequate, since they are indeed passing away with the wind, but I do not deny that they are real. And since they are real, then there is purpose in the universe. Purpose really exists for humans — all humans, whether they believe in God or not.

    So again, by now (and especially after comment #7), it should have been clear that I was not claiming anything more for purpose in this context but what atheists typically mean by it.

    But is there any such thing as what atheists typically mean by it? I offered evidence that there is, in #105 and #111. You could find dozens more related references if you googled “atheists have no purpose:” you’ll find many, many people saying “yes, we do!” And I agree. When a person says to me, for example, I find purpose in taking care of the environment,” I believe them, and I think it’s fair to describe this as being-for or for-ness. It probably also includes other aspects, such as personal satisfaction; but this personal satisfaction, I would argue, comes from the sense of fulfilling some purpose, such as providing care for the environment.

    Now there is considerable research supporting the idea that purpose exists in people’s minds, and that the effect is real. There is this news report and this video presentation (see esp. after about 5:15, and again 8:00, but I think you’ll like the whole thing). You can find much more of this by googling “purpose at work.” This is a staple finding of research in work psychology.

    And this is the kind of purpose that I had in mind in the OP, and have continued to discuss throughout the comment thread: a sense of being-for. The examples are legion, and I have already provided enough of them without repeating them again one more time (again).

    So now we should be in agreement on what kind of purpose I’m bringing to the table for discussion.

    What about evidence? Well, from the links I just provided we should be in agreement that humans experience purpose, and want to experience it. Prior to that, we should have been in agreement that atheists insist they have it. This is evidence that purpose exists.

    Further, we should be in agreement that there is something different between asking to date someone so I can harm her (a harm purpose) and asking the same thing so I can be very good to her (a doing-good purpose) — even if I never have the opportunity to carry out my purpose. The only difference there (whether it’s “significant” or not, a discussion that remains unresolved) is in the purpose. If there is a difference between those two persons, and if the only difference is in their purpose, then purpose exists: otherwise there would be nothing to differentiate the two persons. This too is evidence that purpose exists.

    This by the way is a more localized and temporary being-for than the global being-for expressed in something like “I find purpose in caring for the environment.” This is a being-for that might be expressed as, “this date is for [the verb is is a form of to be] doing harm or doing good.” Not all being-for must be at the life-purpose level, it could be as simple as what one plans an evening to be for.

    So there is some of your requested evidence that purpose as I have been discussing it here really exists.

    I have now completed your two sentences, at length, and not for the first time. I trust you will not need to ask for it again, again.

    P.S. I thought of including something early in here about the silliness of your suggestion that I have offered no evidence. I decided to save it for a postscript instead.

    Any reasonable person reading this would have seen many of my prior comments as evidence. Evidence is distinct from proof: it is information adduced in support of a conclusion, not necessarily information that forces a conclusion. If evidence only included that which forced a conclusion, then DNA, fingerprints, and ballistics would never be evidence in law, because there would always be a possible (if far-fetched) alternate interpretation of anything, and because typically it takes the cumulative force of multiple lines of evidence to give sufficient force to a conclusion.

    So next time you are tempted to tell someone they haven’t provided evidence, stop and ask whether you really meant, “you haven’t provided evidence-that-compels-me against-my-will-to-agree.” Because I suspect that’s what you’ve been after here all along.

  165. In comment #46 you explain something you say the mind does, but not what it is. One thing you say it does is monitor the brain. In #137 you speak of the brain but not the mind.

    What is the mind?

    Still your turn.

  166. The point of my OP, of course, is to argue that naturalism’s supposedly “sensible and reasonably empirical explanation of what purpose is,” is rationally incoherent and impossible.

    Your “sanest, wisest course,” the course that denies the reality of purpose even on the usual atheists’ understanding of purpose, is actually (and empirically!!!) a direct path to insanity. People who do not see purpose in their existence get depressed. Many of them commit suicide. The best defense against insanity and death under pressure — see Victor Frankl on this! — is a sense that “there is still some purpose to this.”

    That is to say, your recommendation of #3 is empirically wrong.

    Please take that to heart before you say something like that again. And please consider the implications of your worldview: it leads to depression in many people. It leads to suicide in many people. There’s a reason for that. And there’s a reason I think that purpose really matters, and if it matters, then there must something real to it.

    Deny it if you want. If you do, then, well, I’ve shot my wad; I’ve expended all the time I’m going to spend on demonstrating what so many people, atheists and theists alike, recognize as perfectly obvious: we can find real purpose in life.

    I think you know that’s true, too.

  167. Larry Tanner said in #179:

    Tom, all you have to do is write two sentences. The first one starts, “Real purpose is defined as….” The second begins, “The evidence behind my claim to knowing what real purpose is consists of….”

    I don’t understand how you can ask both of these questions, as they seem to contain conflicting assumptions. Either a term can be defined, or its meaning must be determined empirically. It seems that you are actually insisting on the latter alternative, and the two questions would be better phrased as a single challenge: “provide an empirically defensible definition of ‘real purpose’.” I’m a little confused as to how this challenge can be met other than by resort to a dictionary, but I find it unlikely that this is your way of demanding a quotation from a dictionary.

    On reflection, then, it seems that what you are demanding in the second question is not evidence that a definition is correct, but rather evidence that purpose itself is not an illusion, contra the claims embodied in your closing paragraph of #179. But if you’ve claimed that purpose is necessarily illusory, then you’ve actually succeeded in refuting Tom in an interesting way. In his original post, he said the following.

    …no matter how persistently our brains tell us we are conscious and making decisions, we aren’t. It’s an illusion. … But I can’t help wondering, why don’t naturalists say the same about humans’ sense of purpose in life?

    If I understand correctly, however, that is exactly what you are saying. So, apparently, Tom is just plain wrong, to the extent that his comments were intended to apply to you.

    I will leave it to others to critique the idea that embracing an illusion qualifies as a “sane” approach, since it’s bedtime here.

  168. I have some moments to spare before my next meeting, so let me thank you, Tom, for your explanation at 180.

    If I understand, you are saying this:

    (1) You define ‘real purpose’ as for-ness or being-for. Real purpose, then, is essentially a belief that one ought to do something.

    (2) The evidence behind your claim to knowing what real purpose is consists of:
    (a) “considerable research supporting the idea that purpose exists in people’s minds, and that the effect is real.”
    (b) “atheists insist they have it.”
    (c) Different purposes imply that purposes exist. (Not sure I express this correctly. I take it from what you say in the paragraph beginning “Further, we should be in agreement….”)

    On (2)(a), I have been making the exact argument that purpose exists in people’s minds. I also agree the effect is real. I guess I understand what you mean by (b), that atheists insist they have purpose. You must consider (a), (b), and (c) to be strong evidence in favor of your knowledge claim for real purpose. I disagree on their strength (and relevance), but what else is new?

    Now, I agree with your definition in (1). I wonder if you agree with my interpretation that real purpose (your term) is essentially an obligating belief. I am unfamiliar with the terms for-ness and being-for, but they do not provide the kind of definitional clarity I seek, so I felt the need to spell out what they might mean. I hope that if I have gotten the definition wrong, you can simply re-state what I say in the correct phrasing.

    If you agree with (1), then I am delighted: I have been arguing the very same thing, that purpose is a belief—a by-product of human consciousness. Purpose is all in the mind, and by mind I mean the working of the human brain. When the human brain works, the result is the human mind. You ask in comment #181 for my definition of mind, so this was it.

    I find this part of your comment in 180 curious:

    we should be in agreement that there is something different between asking to date someone so I can harm her (a harm purpose) and asking the same thing so I can be very good to her (a doing-good purpose) — even if I never have the opportunity to carry out my purpose. The only difference there (whether it’s “significant” or not, a discussion that remains unresolved) is in the purpose. If there is a difference between those two persons, and if the only difference is in their purpose, then purpose exists: otherwise there would be nothing to differentiate the two persons.

    First, we are in agreement that there is something different between the two purposes. That difference, however, is located in the mind of the person comparing the two. Somehow—you don’t explain—you take the fact that a person conceives of two ideas as evidence for the ideas having existence in some sense.

    What’s more, you’re not clear on what kind of existence you mean. If, for example, you say ‘X exists,’ then I think you mean that X is physically determinable apart from me. So if you tell me that cats exist, you should be able to point me to two animals that we can agree are both cats.

    You have asserted that real purpose exists. If you mean by this that people believe they have certain moral, social, personal, professional obligations then sure. I’m with you. But if you mean that people actually do have certain moral, social, personal, professional obligations then you need to say so explicitly and then make the case.

    And if you mean that atheists believe that people actually do have certain moral, social, personal, professional obligations, then I respond some atheists probably do hold such a belief. Many do not hold so, including me.

    So, I have answered your comment #180. I have also answered your comment #181 by explaining my view of what the mind is.

    Finally, I note your remarks in 182. They are misguided. Just because purpose is in fact illusory doesn’t mean people should stop having hopes, dreams, desires, and goals. If you think I advocate the elimination of these things then you are quite mistaken. After all, when we read or watch Shakespeare’s Hamlet we enjoy it even though it’s not true. Human imagination is wonderful and powerful, as is human reasoning. My ultimate point is that humanity is not caught between reality and despair, as you seem to think.

  169. Larry, we need to do some more work on this.

    (1) You define ‘real purpose’ as for-ness or being-for. Real purpose, then, is essentially a belief that one ought to do something.

    It could be that, or it could be a sense that one is here for something, or that one’s plans are for something, or that one’s evening ahead is for something …

    So…

    Now, I agree with your definition in (1). I wonder if you agree with my interpretation that real purpose (your term) is essentially an obligating belief.

    No. It could be a motivating (though not obligating) belief. And if one takes “belief” to mean S’s cognitive stance or attitude toward some proposition X such that S considers X to be true, then I think this is not quite right; it’s a little too loose and too restricted at the same time. Suppose I feel that I am here for the care of the environment, for example. What beliefs X1, X2, … go with that purpose? “That I am here for the care of the environment” is the only X that is entailed in that sense of purpose, but there’s so much more that could be involved.

    Or to take the example from the video I linked to, where men and women apparently help build Linux and Wikipedia just because of the sense of purpose it connects them to, I really doubt they feel obligated. in fact they would likely be less motivated, and feel less purpose, if they were obligated: that’s the way these motivations tend to work.

    So I think it’s best not to over-interpret the definition I gave: purpose is a sense of for-ness or being-for. What you have offered here, at any rate, fails to fit the description. They may not offer the definitional clarity you need, but your suggestion offers definitional error in their place.

    Purpose is a very broad concept, so its definition is necessarily broad.

    You say,

    First, we are in agreement that there is something different between the two purposes. That difference, however, is located in the mind of the person comparing the two.

    It’s not located in the two persons?? Strange. If we just took away the person comparing the two, would the persons become identical?

    You have asserted that real purpose exists. If you mean by this that people believe they have certain moral, social, personal, professional obligations then sure. I’m with you. But if you mean that people actually do have certain moral, social, personal, professional obligations then you need to say so explicitly and then make the case.

    My case is that the millions and millions and millions and millions … of people who think they have real purpose (not obligations, that was an incorrect definition) are wrong, if naturalism is true.

    If you’re not one of those … billions, actually … then this argument may have little purchase on you.

    But the next time you tell yourself you don’t have any purpose whatsoever, see if your daughter agrees. Then see if you can disagree with her on that.

    Your response to what I said in #182 is noted. I don’t know how it displays any connection to what I wrote there, however. Maybe you could clarify for me.

  170. And maybe you could explain (re: #182 and your answer) just why it is reality has required us to lie to ourselves to remain sane; that we must accept your option #3 at the end of #179 as the only sane option, but the only way we can remain sane is by denying it in practice.

    Of course I don’t think you advocate putting aside everything that makes for meaning in our lives! I never suggested that. I just thought that was the natural implication of what you said in #3, and that as you live your life as if #3 was false (as I’m sure you do), and yet you claim it’s true, you are living out a roaring contradiction.

    I hope you’ll pardon me for having trouble understanding that.

  171. @Larry Tanner:

    Just because purpose is in fact illusory doesn’t mean people should stop having hopes, dreams, desires, and goals. If you think I advocate the elimination of these things then you are quite mistaken.

    You do realize that what you are advocating is living in wishful thinking phantasy? Deliberately so. Oh wait, that cannot be, because deliberation implies purpose (living *for*) and you have just said that purpose does not exist, is illusory. Your illusion of living in illusion is itself an illusion. In other words, you are not making sense.

    After all, when we read or watch Shakespeare’s Hamlet we enjoy it even though it’s not true.

    Of course, Hamlet is true. If it were not, it would have long been consigned to the dustbin of literary irrelevance. What you probably mean is that it is not *factually true*, that is, the events as told in the play never happened. But it is true in the sense that it is true to life, that is, faithful to “the going hence as the going hither”, as all great works of Art are.

  172. Tom at 185:

    It could be that [i.e., a belief], or it could be a sense that one is here for something, or that one’s plans are for something, or that one’s evening ahead is for something …

    Is there a significant difference between belief and sense? We’re talking about an internal process in both cases.

    Next,

    It could be a motivating (though not obligating) belief.

    That’s fine. Nice put. As a belief/sense, it’s still internal.

    Next,

    purpose is a sense of for-ness or being-for. What you have offered here, at any rate, fails to fit the description. They may not offer the definitional clarity you need, but your suggestion offers definitional error in their place.

    Purpose is a very broad concept, so its definition is necessarily broad.

    You have clarified on the ideas of ‘sense’ and ‘motivating.’ I’m good with that. If there’s something else to add, now would be the time. Otherwise, we remain at purpose as a kind of conscious perception involving motivation to some extent.

    Naturalism is perfectly compatible with purpose so defined. As I said, however, if you have something new that must be added, it would be wise to identify it.

    On to re-visit your two hypothetical people, one with a good intent and one with a bad intent:

    It’s [i.e., the difference between the two intents] not located in the two persons??

    No, because each person only has one intent, and each knows only his own intent. That’s why I asked you in comment 162 “significance to whom?” You pooh-poohed the question and said it didn’t matter. Now it matters. If I am the only one who holds in mind the two different intents, I am the only one with the ability to rationalize significance in their differences. Then you ask:

    If we just took away the person comparing the two, would the persons become identical?

    Well that depends on what you mean by identical. There are volumes of philosophical ink devoted to identity conditions, but we could probably assert confidently that the two have different brain states and different attitudes/commitments toward their date. In this regard, they would not be identical.

    Next,

    My case is that the millions and millions and millions and millions … of people who think they have real purpose (not obligations, that was an incorrect definition) are wrong, if naturalism is true.

    That’s not a case. That’s a vague argumentum ad populum and an expression of your personal dislike of the consequences. Millions of people believe David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty literally disappear. They were wrong. Oh well.

    Next,

    But the next time you tell yourself you don’t have any purpose whatsoever, see if your daughter agrees. Then see if you can disagree with her on that.

    I don’t tell myself that I don’t have any purpose whatsoever. I do observe that I have a wonderful daughter whom I love and who loves me. I also observe that the things my daughter thinks are factual are often not so. She’s many things, but an authority on purpose she ain’t.

    Your question in comment 186 eludes me:

    Of course I don’t think you advocate putting aside everything that makes for meaning in our lives! I never suggested that. I just thought that was the natural implication of what you said in #3, and that as you live your life as if #3 was false (as I’m sure you do), and yet you claim it’s true, you are living out a roaring contradiction.

    I do not life my life as if #3 is false. Because purpose is an interpretation of the mind, it still has an effect on thinking and perception, and these effects need to be dealt with. Think of it this way: if you see a fish in a river and you want to catch it, you need to adjust where in the river you will lower your net. If you place the net where you think the fish is, you’ll miss it. So purpose isn’t what you thought it was. OK, just adjust. What you think is your purpose isn’t an obligation and isn’t mandatory.

    Given this, G. Rodrigues in 187 badly misinterprets my statement in 184. G. Rodrigues says:

    You do realize that what you are advocating is living in wishful thinking phantasy? Deliberately so. Oh wait, that cannot be, because deliberation implies purpose (living *for*) and you have just said that purpose does not exist, is illusory. Your illusion of living in illusion is itself an illusion. In other words, you are not making sense.

    No, you’re working yourself up in a lather. The fantasy would be to imagine that an invisible super-dude or super-gal was my obligating savior. Why do you call it “wishful thinking” to recognize that the experience of human consciousness includes hopes, dreams, desires, and goals?

    Finally, this:

    Of course, Hamlet is true. If it were not, it would have long been consigned to the dustbin of literary irrelevance. What you probably mean is that it is not *factually true*, that is, the events as told in the play never happened. But it is true in the sense that it is true to life, that is, faithful to “the going hence as the going hither”, as all great works of Art are.

    Ugh. True to life but not factually true, eh? Expressions such as ‘true to life’ are BS. Talk about fantasy! I taught Hamlet to undergrads for 17 years. I know what’s true and not true in Hamlet. There are many reasons Hamlet remains relevant, including the cultural disposition of the Romantics, who idolized Shakespeare. In another universe, Thomas Middleton could have been what we think Shakespeare is.

  173. Naturalism is perfectly compatible with purpose so defined.

    Oh.

    I keep forgetting how simple it is.

    Here’s my rejoinder. I didn’t need to bother with all that argument, or with all that clarification, or re-definition, or re-re-clarification or re-re-definition. Here you go:

    Naturalism is completely incompatible with purpose so defined.

    I was going to answer more of your comment, but when we can make our case with so few words, and when we can pretend that the case the other person has made can be so neatly set aside, why should I?

    (I think maybe the rest of your comment was related to the argument I made, but after you made that definitive statement, the rest had the flavor of window dressing. I don’t see anything in there like … “Tom, I understand the case you made in your OP, and in response to that we’ve had such-and-such discussion, and in view of that, I present the following lines of argument which I think lead to the conclusion that naturalism is perfectly compatible with purpose so defined.” I didn’t see any of that. I don’t have any reason to believe you were thinking it, because I can only imagine that if you had been, you would have written it.

    So please, feel free to write again when you can explain where your definitive statement came from. Until then, you’ve seen my definitive statement. Which I argued for, above, with a set of evidences and inferences that led toward it, the way definitive statements should be presented.)

  174. Oh, and I guess I ought to add this: my pancreas is internal. Producing bile is an internal process. Which of those is then identical to belief and/or sense?

    You look outdoors. You sense light. Do you believe light? I don’t mean, believe x about light, I mean, believe light?

    Belief and sensing are not identical.

  175. One further response:

    I’m starting to lose interest in this discussion. When you say you believe purpose is an illusion, but you don’t tell yourself purpose is an illusion, then I conclude I’m talking with someone who will never make sense.

    When you respond to, “But the next time you tell yourself you don’t have any purpose whatsoever, see if your daughter agrees. Then see if you can disagree with her on that,” by saying your daughter is no authority on purpose, ignoring the part where I asked you to consider what you would think of her opinion, I conclude that this is a man who argues selectively rather than legitimately.

    When you can miss the locus of the distinction between persons the way you did, on grounds that “each person has only one intent, and each knows only his intent,” I conclude that you have difficulty connecting one proposition to the next; for there is no logical connection from your reasoning to your conclusion.

    When you can bloviate about “identical” the way you did, completely evading the question about whether there is something about their purposes that distinguishes them, I conclude that this is a man who will twist a question around to suit his conclusions rather than pay it attention to challenge his thinking.

    When you can take the uniform experience of billions of people and misinterpret it as an argumentum ad populum (which it isn’t), then I conclude that I’m dealing with someone who thinks he knows rational argument but needs to be disabused of that false notion.

  176. Larry, I saw your 4:15 post after I wrote my most recent one. I didn’t refresh the page or see it on email while I was composing that message.

    You didn’t hurt my feelings. I appreciate the apology, but it wasn’t necessary.

    No, what you did was write something that was really illegitimate as rational argumentation. That will hurt you a lot more than it will me. I’m okay.

  177. Tom,

    I’ve tired of the discussion, this site, and you.

    The truth is you are a terrible reader and an even worse thinker. You routinely misconstrue what people actually write, and substitute glib replies for any sort of rigor.

    If I had any power to counsel you, I would tell you to stick with “Jesus is Lord” posts and leave both apologetics and philosophical critiques to the better thinkers and writers–i.e., most everyone else.

  178. If atheists like Larry and Stephen believe that even purpose with a little p is not real, why do they bother showing up at a Christian blog?
    I mean, what’s the purpose?

  179. I’m still trying to figure out how an imaginary concept can be used in a sentence that is true. Like this sentence: “This concept that has no connection to anything outside my mind, describes my life very accurately”.

    I guess I’ll never know how that works.

  180. @Larry Tanner:

    Why do you call it “wishful thinking” to recognize that the experience of human consciousness includes hopes, dreams, desires, and goals?

    I did not deny that the experience of human consciousness “experience of human consciousness includes hopes, dreams, desires, and goals”. I simply drawn out the logical conclusions of your statement:

    Just because purpose is in fact illusory doesn’t mean people should stop having hopes, dreams, desires, and goals. If you think I advocate the elimination of these things then you are quite mistaken.

    But clearly, logic and reasoning is not your forte and, quite understandably, you cannot follow the simplest reductio. Oh well.

    In another universe, Thomas Middleton could have been what we think Shakespeare is.

    I pity your students. I take it from your words that you are not teaching anymore? At least I hope so.

  181. In spite of, in the end, acting like a petulant child Larry did spend a great deal of time and effort trying to explain his point of view. Might it be possible to summarize it so we can understand it more clearly.
    My take is something like this.

    Purpose of any kind is an illusion and not real in any sense. It can’t be real because it takes place in our minds and everything(?) that takes place in our minds is an illusion(?). This illusion and the imaginary concept used to describe it can be used in a statement and that statement can still be true. We should act like purpose is real in order to give our lives a (false) sense of meaning which is also an illusion. The experience of human consciousness includes hopes, dreams, desires, and goals which it would seem must also be illusions and not real. The above is a more realistic, sensible and rational way to view our existence than believing that purpose is real.

    I’m sure I missed and probably misstated a great deal. Anyone else give it a try?

  182. @BillT:

    My take is something like this.

    My guess is that your take is correct, at least in its general outline. But the *exact same* objections continue to hold: already the first sentence is simply incoherent.

  183. BillT is correct – Larry spent a great deal of time trying to explain his point of view (a view which is widely held and not difficult to understand), and commenters like G. Rodrigues have simply tried to provoke him with absurd statements like “Of course, Hamlet is true”, as well as being extremely rude. Not very helpful.

  184. @bigbird:

    G. Rodrigues have simply tried to provoke him with absurd statements like “Of course, Hamlet is true”, as well as being extremely rude. Not very helpful.

    I will tell you what is rude and unhelpful: to deliberately misrepresent someone. I did not simply say “Of course, Hamlet is true”, I explained myself. To quote what I wrote:

    Of course, Hamlet is true. If it were not, it would have long been consigned to the dustbin of literary irrelevance. What you probably mean is that it is not *factually true*, that is, the events as told in the play never happened. But it is true in the sense that it is true to life, that is, faithful to “the going hence as the going hither”, as all great works of Art are.

    Do you want me to expand on that? Or would that be rude and unhelpful? Do you want me to explain what is wrong with Larry’s response?

    True to life but not factually true, eh? Expressions such as ‘true to life’ are BS. Talk about fantasy! I taught Hamlet to undergrads for 17 years. I know what’s true and not true in Hamlet. There are many reasons Hamlet remains relevant, including the cultural disposition of the Romantics, who idolized Shakespeare. In another universe, Thomas Middleton could have been what we think Shakespeare is.

    Or would that be too absurd?

  185. I will tell you what is rude and unhelpful: to deliberately misrepresent someone. I did not simply say “Of course, Hamlet is true”, I explained myself.

    Yes, but you posted it simply to contradict Larry’s statement that “we enjoy it [Hamlet] even though it’s not true” – something no reasonable person would deny. Nothing to do with the topic, just posted to provoke. Yes, you had some feeble reason why you held that view.

    You followed that up with “I pity your students. I take it from your words that you are not teaching anymore? At least I hope so”. You don’t think that’s rude and unhelpful?

    Anyway, you succeeded in your aim of upsetting Larry it seems.

    Do you want me to explain what is wrong with Larry’s response?

    No, I’m not interested, and it’s irrelevant to the thread.

  186. @bigbird:

    Yes, but you posted it simply to contradict Larry’s statement

    Nothing to do with the topic, just posted to provoke.

    Anyway, you succeeded in your aim of upsetting Larry it seems.

    Upset Larry?

    Thanks for the instructive lesson on what my real motives were. What can I say in response? Maybe when I grow up, God will grace me with the forbearance and kindness you show to your interlocutors.

  187. BillT,
    Your summary is reasonably accurate. The problem for me wasn’t that i failed to understand the words Larry used. The problem was they didn’t make sense. To repeat, how can an imaginary concept describe you or your life?

  188. Larry @184 “Just because purpose is in fact illusory doesn’t mean people should stop having hopes, dreams, desires, and goals.”

    But if you KNOW that purpose is only an illusion in your mind why do you give that purpose the time of day. That’s like being lost in the desert. On your left you see seagulls circling something you cannot see. On your right you see the mirage of a lake. So you turn right and hope you will reach a real lake………………

  189. Most everyone has a similar question for Larry, Robert. I don’t mind that people play make-believe and pretend. Children do that from time to time, because it’s fun – but they know it’s all for fun. The ones who take their make-believe games so seriously that their life is consumed by them – those are the ones you have to keep a close eye on.

  190. But if you KNOW that purpose is only an illusion in your mind why do you give that purpose the time of day.

    If you don’t believe free will exists (as many don’t) you have no option to go on and live life as though it does. Why should it be any different for purpose?

  191.