Does the Universe Care About Purpose?
In 2017, a NY Times opinion piece declared, “The universe doesn’t care about your purpose.” The author relegated purpose to the same realm as an illusion:
The purposes and goals we create are phantom bodies—vestiges of and memorials to the people, places and things we stand to lose and strive to keep.
—Joseph Carter, NY Times Opinion, July 31, 2017
The conclusions in the article are overstated. First, the “universe” is not a person and so does not “care” or even “think” about anything! Or does it?
Secondly, psychologists have been studying purpose and meaning for decades.
How to Study Human Purpose and Why it Matters
Science can measure human purpose in a variety of ways and because of this, research in this area reveals multiple benefits to living life with purpose, as we shall see.
The Adolescent Moral Development Lab at Claremont Graduate University provides a working definition of purpose in a project funded by the Templeton Foundation:
[A] purpose in life represents a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once personally meaningful and at the same time leads to productive engagement with some aspect of the world beyond the self.
(cited in The Psychology of Purpose)
Here, we can see that purpose is viewed as a concrete and stable entity, albeit one that is found within the human person. The group elucidates how purpose is frequently studied–through interviews, case studies, document reviews, and most often, through surveys. Their research indicates that psychological, physical, and even academic benefits are associated with living a life of purpose. These correlations exist in spite of the stressful nature of certain life experiences, such as being a parent or a care-giver for a loved one.
Purposeful Behavior in Living Systems
In spite of the evidence that purpose is beneficial to human thriving, why are physicists and especially biologists bothered by references to purpose in the universe? Quite simply, many believe that any reference to “purpose” wrongly invokes “Intelligence" (with a capital “I”) and somehow denies the more immediate physical or chemical causes of such activity. In other words, any reference to intelligence is seen as invoking “God.” It seems odd, however, to be satisfied with an explanation that merely describes the chemical interactions or motor pathways at work.
According to Jacques Monod, a biochemist and 1965 Nobel Prize winner in Physiology and Medicine, “a purpose or project is essential to the very definition of living beings.”
One does not have to be a scientist to understand the action of your dog when he drops a stick at your feet! But purposeful activity goes deeper than that. Other examples from the animal kingdom abound.
Chaffinches will change their foraging habits when the environment changes and rebuild nests with whatever material is currently available. Blackbirds, when trying to feed their young, do not swallow worms as they would if foraging for themselves, but hold them in their beaks to bring back to the nest. Flatworms have a reflexive behavior to turn themselves back over if they are turned upside down. They do this even if they have been cut into pieces. In such a circumstance, the normal method of righting itself cannot be used, so it performs the maneuver in a hitherto unused way. Lest one wants to reduce this behavior to a mere reflex consider the observation of E. S. Russell (The Behaviour of Animals):
There is no such thing as pure reflex action in normal behaviour; all so-called reflexes are parts of co-ordinated and generally ‘purposive’ or directive actions, and they cannot be understood until their relation to the objective aim of the whole action is known. (emphasis added)
(quoted in Stephen L. Talbott, “Evolution and the Purposes of Life,” The New Atlantis, Number 51, Winter 2017, pp. 63–91.)
Russell makes the additional observation that this type of “end” or purpose “requires an active intelligence capable of improvising responses within an infinite variety of unforeseeable circumstances in order for the end to be achieved.”
What is Intelligence?
Developmental biologist Michael Levin was involved in the creation of Xenobots, living robots made from the skin cells of frogs that can sense their environments. He observes matter of factly in an interview that “life is cognition all the way down.” Levin believes that cognition is a spectrum, and that all along the spectrum is evidence of goal-directed activity according to an organism’s or object’s capacity. At one end of the spectrum is a ball that follows the laws of gravity and rolls downhill, while humans are at the other end. This recognition has helped Levin and fellow researchers in their work on cellular communication in regeneration and the suppression of cancer cells. They found it most beneficial to harness the cognitive power already at work in cells and tissues.
What we have seen as workers in regenerative medicine and bioengineers and just watching natural evolution, is that the most efficient way to control something as complex as a collection of competent subunits like cells is not to try to micromanage. It is actually to take advantage of the large-scale cognitive capacities that these things have.
Does Purpose Matter to the Universe?
So if intelligence or some form of cognition is an integral part of material reality, a denial of end-directed activity governed by an intelligent agent–whether an animal, a plant or even a cell–makes little sense. The observation of end-directed activity still leaves open the broader discussion and even debate of the source of the intelligibility of the universe. Even Einstein, who did not believe in a personal God, could still admit to being caught up in “wonder at the harmony of the laws of nature,” in which he found evidence of an intelligence far superior to man. (The World As I See It)
Perhaps we should try to be as open-minded as Einstein.