Tuesday, February 26, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Resurgence of Purpose

Resurgence of Purpose
John B. Cobb Jr.

PHOTO: Charlie Nguyen

Originally Published in the August 2012 Issue of Empirical


Voting is a nuisance. It is no fun. We are not paid.

Why bother?

You might answer that it is our civic duty, that democracy won’t work if people don’t exercise their right to vote, or that there are important issues at stake. But what if I don’t care about civic duty or democracy and the issues at stake don’t affect me personally? Will you tell me that I should care? Isn’t that just your bias or arbitrary value? Is there any reason to think your values are any better than mine? If I aim to maximize my personal convenience, pleasure, and comfort, are you in a position to tell me that there are “higher” purposes? Why regard some goals, aims, or purposes as better than others?

Today the more highly educated we are, the less likely we are to believe that some purposes are higher or better than others in any neutral or objective sense. This is not an accident. Whereas for many centuries a major function of education, both in the East and in the West, was to clarify our place in a meaningful world, we are now taught that the world in itself has no purpose or meaning. Our teachers emphasize that values differ from culture to culture. They tell us we are free to attribute any value we want to nature, but only if we recognize that this attribution is arbitrary. In itself, the world is without value.

According to this now intellectually dominant understanding, we can have any purposes we choose. We are, in this way, wonderfully free. If we choose to sacrifice our lives for our nation, that’s fine. But if we choose to seek wealth at the expense of our nation, that is fine, too, as long as we get away with it. There is no “higher” point of view from which to say that one goal is better than another.

In this view, educators should not try to impose any particular values or purposes, and research should not be influenced by the values of the researcher. All this should be value-free. Those who are socialized by value-free education are not likely to take values seriously. Only facts are important.

Of course, all agree that the occurrence of purposes is one of the facts to be considered. When we are hungry we are likely to form a purpose to get food. No one denies that people have purposes of this sort. And, indeed, when education avoids favoring some values over others, it is values of this sort that become primary. Value-free education encourages us to give priority to the values that are treated most seriously by economists. Insofar as life has a purpose, it seems, this is to satisfy one’s desires, whatever they may be.

Meanwhile, what research is done is determined by what someone will pay for. The university as such takes no position on what should be studied. Individuals may have other purposes in mind, but the default reason to study is that a college degree is likely to improve one’s income. When no “higher” values are taught, money reigns.

The earlier liberal arts model functioned differently, and it still plays a role. The liberal arts were designed to raise consciousness about one’s purposes and to enrich one’s values. Often colleges promoted service to the community, along with cultivated tastes.

However, today, even in those institutions that call themselves “liberal arts colleges,” confidence that some goals and purposes are really better than others has declined. The ethos generated by the research universities has affected them. They tend to present themselves as offering excellent pre-professional education. Students select them because their graduates are well paid.

There are other institutions that have not backed away from instilling purposes they regard as higher than private economic gain. These other values are central in the instruction of religious communities. At one time these communities adapted the purposes they taught to those that seemed grounded in universal experience and insight, but now they are told that there is no objective basis for evaluation. They are thrown back entirely upon their own authorities. As a consequence society is increasingly polarized between ethical nihilism and sectarian authoritarianism. The appeal to reason has lost out both in secular universities and in sectarian communities.

How did this come about? Why has “progress” led, on the one hand, to meaninglessness and ethical nihilism and, on the other hand, to arbitrary confessionalism?

Are the reasons for this change such that honest people must accept the consequences? Or have we made wrong turns that need now to be corrected?
PHOTO: Richard Smith


We can begin the story of the role of purpose in our intellectual and cultural history with Aristotle. He showed that there are four kinds of questions that we can ask about anything. He called them the four “causes.” Since today “cause” almost always means what Aristotle called the “efficient cause,” we will do better to speak of four types of explanation, of which only one has to do with what makes something be what it is, that is, with its efficient cause.

In addition to asking what makes something happen or have the character it has, we commonly also ask: of what does something consist? For example, in addition to asking how a particular lamp stand was manufactured, we may want to know whether it is made of pottery or metal or wood. Aristotle called this the “material cause.”

One can further ask about pottery, metal, or wood, of what are they composed? When we push the question far enough we come to what later Aristotelians called “prime matter,” which has no form. Thomas Aquinas taught us to think in terms of “Being Itself ” or “Being as Such.” Today, many people think “energy” is the best answer to the question of what do pottery, metal, and wood, and everything else, ultimately consist. Scientists do not press the question that far, but they are certainly interested in the analysis into molecules, atoms, and subatomic entities. Aristotle’s “material cause” remains important.

The matter or energy, of course, always comes in some “form.” Otherwise it is simply potential. Only formed “matter” is actual. The lamp stand may be made of wood, but it is not a lamp stand until the wood is given a form. An electron and a proton are both units of energy, but neither can exist until the energy has the form that distinguishes it as an electron or proton. Modern science devotes much of its attention to the mathematical formulae which are actualized in the form and behavior of scientific objects. Aristotle’s “formal cause” is central to the scientific enterprise.

Aristotle’s fourth “cause” is the “final cause.” Why, to what end, does something occur? This is the quest for a reason in the sense of a purpose, something that makes sense of the entity or occurrence. One goes to the grocery store in order to buy food. A house is built in order to provide a home. For Aristotle it was evident that purpose plays a large role in explaining what happens and what has come into being.

For him, this is not the case just with human actions and artifacts. It is true also of natural objects. A heart exists in order to pump blood through the body. If we ask again–“why?”–the answer is that this keeps us alive. The function of a bodily organ satisfactorily explains it.

At a popular level we continue to ask all four types of questions. Three of them remain important for science and the intellectual elite. But the “final cause,” the “why” question, is no longer part of science or scholarly thought generally. How did this change come about?

PHOTO: Hermes


Aristotle’s work shaped the science of the medieval period. This employed all four of Aristotle’s “causes.” However, it often focused on final causes, seeking the reason of things in terms of their function in the complex workings of nature and history. This focus on the purpose of things inhibited sustained and systematic attention to the other three “causes,” especially efficient causes.

Even today this overuse of final cause occurs in popular culture. When there is a calamity, a victim often asks, “Why did this happen to me?” The answer may be in terms of karma or of punishment for past misdeeds. For example, if a middle-aged man is diagnosed with cancer, he often asks “Why?” Of course, if he has persisted in smoking after frequent warnings, the answer that he is suffering the consequences of his actions is not pointless. But scientists rightly note that the quest for an answer of this kind is often irrelevant and distracts from serious investigation of efficient causes.

Modern science arose in reaction to this excessive interest in final causes. It held that the study of nature must leave out altogether any explanation in terms of purpose. Ordinary thinking usually considers three sorts of “reasons” for occurrences: necessity, chance, and purpose. Modern science allowed only two reasons: necessity and chance. Excluding purpose contributed to its rapid advance.

The world studied by science in the early modern period was the world of nature. The exclusion of purpose from that world did not extend to human beings and their artifacts. Scientists did not question that they were acting purposefully when they studied nature more deeply. They talked about their purposes. Some of them made great personal sacrifices to pursue the truth to which science led them.

Rene Descartes systematized the emerging understanding of reality. There were two worlds: the world of nature and the profoundly different world of the human mind. The world of nature was best understood as matter in motion. Even the motions of animals were obedient to the laws of mechanics. On the other hand, the human mind was guided, at least ideally, by the very different laws of logic. Human purposes played a large role there. That there were no values inherent in nature in no way implied that right and wrong, better and worse, were arbitrary judgments with respect to human actions.

This worldview freed the nature studied by science from political and religious concerns. It liberated scientists to pursue the evidence and develop revolutionary theories. Nevertheless, from the beginning, it was conceptually unsatisfactory.

If the world consists of two radically different kinds of things, matter and mind, how do they relate? Physicists assumed that the material objects of which nature is composed are pushed and pulled by other material objects. This mechanical model worked well for many purposes. But the human body, which was understood to be part of this nature, appears to be responsive to human purposes. I decide to type a sentence, and my fingers respond to that decision. How can this be? Can I really believe that my purposes have no effect on my body?

PHOTO: John Abella

There is another puzzle. The natural world is said to consist entirely of matter in motion and we gain knowledge about it only by sense experience. But when philosophers examined rigorously the information we receive in this way, they found that we do not see stars and stones, only lights and colors. David Hume pointed out also that, we do not see efficient causes, only successive patches of color. The world of objects, supposedly studied by science, is not known through the only means that the worldview associated with science allows.

What is truly astonishing is that, despite these quite serious problems, this worldview has survived so long and still has so deep a hold on our universities and cultural leaders generally. We owe this survival and continuing advance of the worldview, first and foremost, to the even more astonishing success of the science associated it. We owe it, secondarily, to the work of the most important philosopher of the modern world–Immanuel Kant.

Kant saw that Hume was correct that our senses do not lead us to an objective world in which efficient causes reign. Since the truth of science could not be doubted, and this truth could not be supported by experience, Kant’s task was to find another foundation. He did this by one of the most astonishing moves in intellectual history. He attributed the creation of the world we know as “nature” to the human mind.

Kant posited that the human mind by its very nature inescapably organizes the sense data in just the way that the worldview associated with it understood them. This worldview is, then, not one among others, but the one inescapable worldview. For example, the efficient causation that Hume could not find in sense experience exists inescapably in the world the mind constructs.

Strange as Kant’s proposals were, they were widely accepted. They allowed science to proceed without changing its worldview. For all practical purposes, the natural world remained matter in motion.

Kant’s dualism was somewhat different from that of Descartes. There is now the creative human mind, on one side, and the world of nature that it constructs, on the other. But it continues the exclusion of value and purpose from nature.

Kant thus reinforced the dualism of Descartes that had cleared the way for modern science. But he intensified also the importance of the moral sphere in which motivation and purpose played a central role. Whereas Hume, in principle, left no place for purpose anywhere, Kant defanged that threat. In the new philosophy that built on his work, nature remained wholly purposeless, but ethical issues brought purpose to the fore in human affairs.

Darwin administered to purpose the coup de grace. He did not intend this or know that he had taken this step. But, in principle, his demonstration that human beings are part of nature undercut both the Cartesian and the Kantian dualisms. Now human beings were seen as part of the natural world that is devoid of value or purpose.

There were occasional efforts by evolutionists to avoid the total exclusion of purpose by arguing that, when human beings are absorbed into nature, it should be acknowledged that nature has properties that had previously been denied it. Typically this move led to the teaching that purpose plays a role not only among humans but also among the other higher animals. However, there was little disposition among scientists in general to make changes in their basic principles. These continued to exclude purpose from nature. Science implicitly, and often explicitly, took on the project of showing that human purpose like everything else is explained by the motions of matter.


My broad claim is that this modern worldview is crumbling. Its exclusion of human purpose from any role in what happens in the world is, strictly speaking, unbelievable. When a scientist or philosopher denies any role to purpose, hearers will pay no attention unless they think the speaker is speaking purposefully. But the purposeful denial that purposes have any role to play is unconvincing. More broadly, human beings cannot live as if their purposes had no effect on their thoughts and actions.

This common sense objection is supported by developments within science. Despite their reluctance to acknowledge a fundamental break with the past, leading biologists are increasingly using language that is far removed from matter in motion. The most prominent instance is “information.” This term retains connotations of mental activity open to purpose. It is very difficult to think of information as just another expression of matter in motion.

A major battleground, both for advocating the modern worldview and for critiquing it, is evolutionary theory. Darwin’s great contribution is “natural selection,” and this cut decisively in favor of the modern purposeless world. His insight has become a permanent contribution that is not in question.

The members of a species are not all identical. Some succeed better than others in coping with the environment: in getting food, keeping safe from predators, securing mates, and so forth. These have more offspring; so their distinctive characteristics become more common in the population. Darwin showed that it is this “natural selection,” rather than any overarching purpose, that determines the direction of evolution.

Darwin left open the causes of the variability from which the selection is made. He thought sexual selection played a role, and he was open to the Larmarckian idea that physical changes brought about by animal behavior can be passed on to the next generation.

But this openness to a role for animal behavior was problematic for hardnosed scientists. Animal behavior appears to be purposeful. Evolutionists committed to a purposeless nature have favored explanations that do not attribute any distinct role to the actions of animals. The discovery of the determination of animal forms and behavior by genes gave them a great opportunity, and for some years they advanced the cause of removing purpose from the world.

The dominant “scientific” theory is based on random mutation of genes. “Random” does not mean that in the wider scheme of things efficient causes cannot be found. For example, cosmic radiation may cause genetic change. The point is that the genetic changes do not occur for the sake of changing the organism. No purpose is involved.

Most random changes work against the flourishing of the organism. Accordingly, those genes are not widely reproduced. But occasionally the change improves the ability of the organism to survive and reproduce. In that case, the new genetic pattern becomes established. Generally this is a change within a species. Occasionally changes of this kind lead to the emergence of a new species.


This theory of natural selection from random mutations undoubtedly describes a way in which evolutionary change can take place. But it has not been demonstrated that in fact all changes have taken place in this way. Indeed, biologists know that they have not. No step in evolution is more important than the emergence of the nucleated cell. This kind of cell, which is the basis of all the more complex forms of life, did not arise by genetic mutation.

Lynn Margulis showed that the ancestors of the nuclei and other elements in the nucleated cell were free-standing bacteria. The nucleated cell is the result of one bacterium absorbing others but not digesting them. This process is an example of what Margulis calls symbiogenesis. Although initially her idea was rejected by a community of scientists, who found it troubling, it is now part of mainstream biology.

Margulis’ research was primarily on bacteria, and she provided evidence for other evolutionary developments taking place as a result of symbiotic relations of bacteria with other organisms. There are indications of symbiogenesis among more complex organisms as well. Despite this evidence, the dominant community resists any further compromise of its theory. To allow the activities of organisms to play a role in evolution opens the door to a role for purpose–a door orthodox evolutionists want to keep shut.

The role of animal behavior in evolutionary change is evident in other ways as well. For example, if the supply of the food on which a species has subsisted in some locale gives out, some member of the species may discover another way of obtaining food. Other members, observing this success, imitate. The change of eating habits is likely to favor some mutations for which the environment would not otherwise select. That genetic change takes place in this sequence is hard to deny.

The exclusion of purposeful action from a role in evolution becomes even harder to justify once human action is regarded as fully part of the nature that is studied. For thousands of years humans have been part of the environment that selects which organisms will reproduce. The development of new species of domestic plants and animals cannot be explained apart from purposeful human activity.


That animal purposes play a role in evolution does not mean that animals other than humans change behavior for the purpose of influencing the evolutionary process. An animal’s purpose is typically to find food or escape a predator. Living things aim to preserve their lives and their offspring. To live and to live well may not be conscious as an overall aim, but it pervades the biosphere.

The scientific program of explaining everything in terms of chance and necessity requires that what we ordinarily regard as purposeful action be fully explained by chance and necessity. The apparently purposeful action of animals must be treated as entirely “instinctive,” with the assumption that the instincts are determined by the genes.

Success in reducing all animal behavior to genetically determined instinct is far from complete, but its difficulty pales by comparison with the project of showing that all human behavior can be explained by chance and necessity. Yet this goal shapes much of the study of the human brain and its relation to subjective experience. The older physiological psychology was directed to this end, and it influences contemporary neuroscience as well.

An important sign that, in principle, this program is collapsing is that neuroscientists are less inhibited than the earlier physiological psychologists about recognizing an interaction between subjective states and brain states. There is no doubt that brain states affect subjective experience including purposes. Scientific investigation has demonstrated this again and again. But there is also a great deal of evidence that subjective experience including purposes affect brain states. For example, careful and extensive studies have shown how disciplined meditation, certainly a purposive process, affects brain states. Reluctance to acknowledge the equal value of this evidence reflects the continuing power of the modern worldview to which science allied itself. The increasing openness to study this evidence open-mindedly is a sign that, despite its enormous continuing influence, in principle, the materialist worldview has collapsed.

Meanwhile the global ecological crisis has brought forth intensified feeling for the nonhuman world. Tens of millions of sensitive people are convinced that human beings are part of a nature that existed long before human beings appeared on the scene. Their purpose to protect and serve it is not experienced as arbitrary. It is felt to be conformal to reality.

A corner has been turned. Those who would retain the exclusion of purpose and value from the world are increasingly on the defensive. The role of final causes throughout the world of living things can again be recognized as good science. The sensibility of an important, creative avant garde of society strongly affirms this kind of thinking. It demands a hearing even in the hallowed halls of the value-free university.

Perhaps the resurgence of purpose will open universities to reflection on their purpose. Perhaps it can restore concern for right purposes to the center of education. A civilization heading toward collapse cannot afford either confessional authoritarianism or ethical nihilism. We need to learn again to align our purposes with the wider purposes of both the human community and the natural world.

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