Thoughts on the Purpose of Life
is a purpose to life, an obscure or secret meaning, an
overarching direction. "Really, I don't know what the
meaning or purpose of life is," wrote psychologist
Carl Gustave Jung. "But it looks exactly as if
something were meant by it." Rabbi Harold S. Kushner
in his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People,
compared the unfolding events of one's life to the
turning pages of a story, with the implication that
there was a divine plan, and all would make sense in
the (hopefully happy) end. Well, yes and no. If our
lives were that story-like and meaningful, the film
and novel industry--which attempt to satisfy our
craving for the story apparently missing in our
ordinary life--might not be such big business. In his
poem, "The Butterfly," Poet Laureate Joseph Brodsky
this bleak surmise:
the world was made to hold
no end or telos
and if--as some would tell us--
there is a goal,
it's not ourselves.
And so science strongly suggests it is not ourselves. Copernicus's view that Earth is not the center of the universe (belatedly embraced by fellow Pole the Pope before his recent death); the chemical observation that life is made of no special elements but carbon, hydrogen, oxygen in combination; the astrophysists' realization that the elements of life are among the most common in the universe; and Darwin's linking of all living beings to common ancestors changing slightly over the generations--all these things show humanity to be part of natural processes. But we still feel special. The reason may be because we are the ones doing the feeling--a kind of selection bias. If we are really so special, why do we have imperfections and foibles? As physicist David Bohm put it, science is about facing the truth, whether we like it or not. Or, as Jack Nicholson put it, "You can't handle the truth."
The truth is that we, and other animals, and indeed even plants and microbes, exhibit purposeful behavior: finding food, avoiding predators, and looking for mates if not always tax planning or protecting the environment for future generations. What is strange, however, is that even inanimate systems exhibit a form of purposeful behavior: they come to equilibrium, using up energy as they settle into a quiescent state. Such behavior is famously described by the second law of thermodynamics and seems, at first glance, to be the antithesis of living behavior. Indeed, the second law of thermodynamics has been a favorite trumpet of creationists and intelligent design theorists who want to claim that, even if life has evolved, it must have originated by a divine act. But, as Benedict de Spinoza pointed out several centuries ago, a God who needs to intervene in His creation is less miraculous than one who does not. But if everything is heading toward the atomic chaos of entropy, how can complexity--let alone the high-fidelity complexity of life--accrue? In fact the second law states that entropy will increase in sealed off systems: the organization shown by life, an open system, does not violate the second law because become more complex by feeding off energy and order from the outside. Scientists have long known this. But what is new is that the relationship between evolution and entropy is not just compatible--it is intimate.
And related to purpose. For natural complex systems act with purpose to bring organized systems to equilibrium. Take a very simple example, a tornado. Feeding off an energetic difference in air pressure, a tornado forms. Spinning into existence, it would never be predicted on the basis of random particle movements. Tornados are like life in this respect, that they cycle matter and feed on energy. Fascinatingly, tornados also show a very mundane but obvious function or purpose: to get rid of the barometric pressure difference. When this difference, or gradient, is eliminated, the tornado itself vanishes. One may say that the natural purpose of the tornado is to reduce the previous organization and energetic potential represented by the pressure gradient. In the same way life reduces the electromagnetic gradient between the hot sun and cold space. This is not just theory, but measurable and measured by thermal sensing satellites and thermometer-like devices on low-flying planes. Indeed, the biggest gradient reducers are the most complex ecosystems--areas like the Amazon and the Borneo rain forest. It would seem that not only humans, but life itself, is not so special in its relationship to purpose as we like to think. This is important for several reasons. One is that science has long attempted to deny that life is deeply purposeful because of the association of purpose or teleology with religion. A further irony is that Aristotle's teaching on the subject, which was explicitly not religious, was absorbed into Church learning so that Aristotle himself is often considered to be a religious thinker on this subject. In fact, Aristotle said, in The Physics, that it was folly to think that, just because life exhibited purpose, it required a "conscious deliberator."
Take another example, this one from thermodynamic thinker Rod Swenson. Imagine a heated but slightly leaky cabin on a snowy mountain top: wherever there is a leak in the cabin, the hot air will try to escape. No one would say that the hot air is conscious and yet it seems in many ways to exhibit purpose--a sort of will to get out of the hotter house. Hot air can even be seen to be "calculating" its escape route: insulators who add fine powder to see leaks have reported cases of streamers of colored (hotter) air moving through an electric outlet, up a wall, halfway across a ceiling, and then turning around to go through the same outlet whence they came. Again, the streamer of air does not change its mind, but it sure looks like it is doing something purposeful. The question arises, If simple inanimate systems can exhibit such mindlike behavior on the way to equilibrium, is our own purposeful behavior based on this process? Considering the building evidence that life is another naturally complex energy system that rectifies imbalances in the environment, the chances are increasing that our mindful, purposeful activity is part of a larger tendency for systems to temporarily grow and become more complex as they bring their environments to equilibrium. While this may not be the basis of a new religion, it is exciting in that it explains the natural purpose of life.