The Purpose Problem

Today’s article is written by guest-writer, Brock Haussamen…

I See What You Mean
(cc) Wally Gobetz

Sooner or later you ask yourself about the purpose of being alive. Years ago I overheard someone mention a book about the purpose-driven life and I rushed to a bookstore, only to find that it was mostly about God. But I realized that I was more concerned about purpose than I had thought and I had some pondering to do. Here are two frequently discussed sides to the purpose issue as I understand them in connection with biology, evolution, and religion, along with my own perspective. The first side has been the tendency over the last century or so to be skeptical or downright dismissive of teleology. The term “teleology” refers simply to the perspective that things happen as they do in order to achieve a final goal. Thinking in terms of goals comes easily to us these days because of all the practice we get in setting them: general goals, specific objectives, five-year strategic plans, personal targets. A woman who is looking for a job might say that her purpose for doing so is to earn money in order to help her family. The teleological view of her actions is that she is “pulled along” through her job search and desire for income by the final goal of helping the family. But the many critics of teleological thinking would say that what is actually motivating her is not her final goal at all but the combination of her personal history and her current problems.

People take comfort from viewing the world, including themselves, as purposeful. (

It’s true that in broad areas such as evolution and religion, both specialists and generalists may be too readily inclined to think teleologically. When one reads about how animals have changed over millions of years, how they’ve become smarter, how they’ve led to the arrival of human beings, it’s tempting to think, wow, what progress! evolution moves forward, always something better! We think this way both because we are hard-wired to look for patterns and because we live in a culture that emphasizes progress, which in turn has roots in the forward-looking, get-to-heaven orientation of Christiantiy. (Rick Warren’s book about the purpose-driven life includes such chapters as “You were created to become like Christ” and “You were shaped for serving God.”) For secular skeptics, though, teleological thinking is at its weakest when it is used to argue that a single end-point in the future is sufficient to explain a wide variety of developments. That brings us to the second issue: despite the inadequacies of teleological thinking, certain ordinary actions are indeed clearly purposeful. If you’re reading this in the afternoon, you might be getting hungry and planning on dinner. Your planning is purposeful. Maybe you need to drive to Subway to buy that sandwich; the drive is purposeful. Your stomach, your nerves and muscles will all get busy and you’ll be a living piece of stomach-oriented teleology for a couple of hours. It turns out that most of what you and your body parts do–what most of what any living thing does–is purposeful in that it accomplishes some basic biological function or meets a biological need. For several decades philosophers have been working on exactly in what sense biological processes can be viewed as teleological when so many other applications of teleological thinking are flawed. You’re less likely to come across these pro-teleological arguments than you are the rejections, but they are out there. The gist is that living things, in order to survive and reproduce, consist of body parts and systems that function to get something done either regularly (as the heart pumps blood) or occasionally if the effort is successful often enough (as in the search for food). Our beats of the heart and our searches for food are purposeful. But we have to be careful in thinking teleologically about them. The human heart did not come into being because it was a goal or end-point of evolution, or even because hearts in earlier animals needed improvement in some way. It evolved over millions of years because some random variations in the muscles that boosted circulation gave bodies slightly better odds for survival. Organs and behaviors did not come into existence for a purpose but came into existence because they served a purpose a little more successfully than their predecessors.

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

So each of us is a mass of mini-purposes that work (when we’re healthy) in harmony. The same goes for dandelions, spiders, and trout. Purpose may not be part of the grand scheme of the cosmos, but it’s the little engine that makes life go. There is very little in us that is not purposeful in some way. In fact, it may be true to say that purpose at the biological level defines what life is. Inanimate things—stones, wind, water—move and change but their kind of change is not a matter of sustaining themselves or reproducing. Organic molecules, cells, organ and beings, on the other hand, serve their various purposes in order to keep living things alive long enough to make new living things. But a question is—my third point—are the purpose-serving activities that keep us alive related to the purpose that we try to articulate about our life as a whole? Do these biological functions and behaviors with their specific purposes add up to what we can think of as “the purpose of life”? Empiricists say no, that purpose at a biological level is a material insight and nothing more. Those more religiously inclined might say that yes, science has demonstrated that purpose is at the core of the body as well as the spirit. My view is that the organic processes that keep our bodies going are so intertwined and constant, it would be surprising if their purposefulness did not play some role in how we see ourselves and our lives. There is a continuum, from the purposeful functions of our molecules and cells, to the functions of our organs, to our instinct to maintain our survival, to our forward-looking desires and plans, to our brains that seek patterns and ask about the purpose of life. The continuum becomes a loop: we ask about the purpose of life only to discover that the purpose resides in our effort to stay alive and to thrive, a condition that prompts us to ask about the purpose of life. The teleological purpose of our lives, the end-point we live towards, turns out to be the place where we began, the purposeful functions that make up our organic life.

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Note: A useful source has been a paper by Nathan Bourne, “Teleology as Evolutionary Etiology: An analysis of teleological explanations of biological phenomena.” Bourne draws on the work of Larry Wright, especially his book Teleological Explanations: An Etiological Analysis of Goals and Functions, UCal Press, 1976.


Originally published at 3.8 Billion Years.


Brock Haussamen has been exploring the big questions of life: What is our purpose? How will we face death? In his blog, 3.8 Billion Years, Haussamen explores how the history of life stands inside and throughout our being. Haussamen lives in New Jersey and has taught English at a community college for nearly four decades. He retired from teaching in 2006, in part, to try to help reduce poverty locally and through global advocacy. He is married with one daughter, a grandson, and step-children.

7 thoughts on “The Purpose Problem”

  1. Interesting article. I agree with the final conclusion, namely that what our biology gives us is a “purpose” to survive and thrive (that word “purpose” rubs me the wrong way, but I’ll go along with it).

    To add more flesh to the bone, evolutionary psychology could be of great help. That field has been working out how the “purposes” for which we evolved may affect how we think, feel, and act today – including the impulse to look for purpose!

  2. I see a flaw here in not recognizing the legitimacy of “culture” as a determinate of our behavior. Culture is a very real thing, but because it doesn’t fit nicely into the materialist position, it is somewhat ignored by hare-core physicalists.

    Biology provides the hardware of our behavior, but culture provides the software, and the software is a very pervasive, complex determinate. Culture is a great body of information. It has evolved over time, but its evolution has little to do with biological evolution and is certainly not Darwinian.

    While our fundamental motivations are probably purely biological at base, those motivations always put on “cultural clothing.” So while gaining nourishment is a fundamental motivation for all humans, the forms that people in a given culture exhibit in their gaining nourishment are culturally determined. As a trivial example, some cultures accept eating insects, others do not. The same situation exists for other fundamental motivations like reproduction and status.

    What gives us a sense of purpose and meaning is largely a mixture of cultural and biological aspects. The idea of purpose itself, like all ideas, is a cultural construct. Different cultures have different ideas about what gives life purpose. In the West, we have a particular body of philosophy that delves into the question of purpose. Our culture has a strong bias toward achievement as the giver of purpose.

    I could go on here, but I will sum up my main point as being that on the question of teleology, we should pay at least as much attention to social scientists as to physical and biological ones, for it is a cultural construct; biology gives us the neural tools for setting goals and intentions, but culture gives us the software for these, and without the software, the hardware will be rather useless.

  3. Thomas, I agree that cultural issues are relevant to discussions of purpose and that even that word is weighed down with connotations of social advancement and achievement. (Maybe that’s part of why it makes B.T. uncomfortable.) But I think that looking at the biological aspects of the term gives us at least a chance of universalizing it a little and taking a broader perspective than the societal versions. It occurs to me, though, that maybe what the biological version brings us to finally is Dawkins’ selfish gene and the rather deflating purpose for our bodies of serving as nothing more than replicators that house the genes temporarily.

  4. I had my crisis of purpose while a college student, and it was resolved nicely for me by Alan Watts, who had written something like: “We are not egos in bags of skin who come into the world. Rather we grow out of the world. As trees leaf, cows calve, and the ocean waves, the universe ‘peoples’. We are the universe become conscious of itself.” This worked so well for me that I ditched engineering to become a scientist. To some degree, I still regard all of human activity as not merely survival, but as thriving sufficiently that we can afford to look outward and become conscious of ourselves as parts of the universe. Talk about becoming part of something bigger than oneself!

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