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….
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:
- If naturalism is true, then real purpose could not possibly exist
- Real purpose exists
- 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.