Purpose and Life

A post by Marcelo Gleiser “Does Life Have a Purpose?” on the NPR 13.7 Cosmos & Culture blog seems to reiterate the usual stale arguments about teleology. Let me try to show the pointlessness of both the “purpose” argument for teleology and the scientific “ no purpose” argument. Both arguments, I believe, miss the real point.

Teleology is a philosophical approach that holds that things happen over time in order to arrive at some predetermined end. For many strong proponents of this approach the end usually is closely related to human intentions and purposes. The argument from the intelligent design folks goes one step more to argue not only that things happen to reach a predetermined end but that there is a plan behind the unfolding of events. When this is applied to evolution, the development of new species and eventually the development of humans could not have occurred by random mutations but had to have been guided by a plan.

The counter argument from science is repeated by Gleiser. Science says the theory of natural selection along with random mutation can account for the diversity and complexity of life along with our own existence. As Jacques Monod writes: “Destiny is written as and while, not before, it happens… The universe was not pregnant with life nor the biosphere with man. Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game. Is it surprising that, like the person who has just made a million at the casino, we should feel strange and a little unreal?” (1)

Let us take two examples to guide this discussion.

Let’s say I (despite my ineptitude as a carpenter) decide to build a chair. I acquire or draw some plans. I buy the wood; I cut it; I assemble it; I end up with something more or less like a chair. Clearly some form of teleology was involved . I had a plan and I executed a series of steps with the intention of creating a chair.

Let say it starts to rain and water hits the roof of my house. The water flows into the gutters, down the spout, out on to the driveway, and down to the street. The water reached the street not through any plan or intention. It reached the street by action of the natural law of gravity. Clearly teleology is not involved with the water moving from the roof to the street.

The first example illustrates how intelligent design believes the diversity of life arose. The second example, if we substitute natural selection for gravity, illustrates how science believes it arose.

But there is a slight problem with the second example. Given the construction of my house and its position relative to the street, the law of gravity can predict one hundred percent that the rain water will end up at the street. Natural selection cannot predict one hundred percent how anything will evolve. In fact, it requires random, unpredictable events (mutations) in order to drive it to create anything, hence Monod’s reference to Monte Carlo. This is often a key argument of the intelligent design proponents.

So does that mean that there might be a fundamental problem for the scientific viewpoint? No. There is a problem with the comparison I made in the examples. Predicting, for example, that whales and humans would necessarily evolve as the result of evolution would be the equivalent of predicting where a particular molecule of water would end up after hitting my roof and flowing to the street. Natural law can predict the overall flow of the water and, given enough knowledge of the geometry of my house and the land it sits on, might narrow the range of the final location of a molecule to a few feet, but it could never pinpoint the exact location. There are too many random and unmeasurable interactions.

Then is Gleiser correct when he writes:

There is no “plan” to make life more complex so that it can finally generate intelligent beings. Take the dinosaurs, for example: they were here for some 150 million years and were pretty stupid. We don’t see velociraptors using radio telescopes or iPads. Life wants to preserve itself. As long as it is well adapted to its environment it will remain as is, with the possibility of the occasional beneficial mutation.

I don’t think Gleiser is correct either. Simply because the evolution of whales and humans is not guaranteed does not mean the evolution of intelligent life is a random occurrence. The problem eventually goes back to the definition of intelligence which I tried to address in another post. If we look at intelligence as a general capacity for maximizing future possibilities then we must look at intelligence as an inherent property of life itself. When Gleiser states that “life wants to preserve itself”, he is in essence making my point. The entire project of the gene is the maximization of future possibilities and what we ordinarily think of as intelligence is nothing more than the inevitable expansion of this effort to real-time interaction with the environment.

Eventually I believe that some law will be found that supplements natural selection and guarantees the eventual evolution of complexity and intelligence even if the precise forms they may take will be unpredictable. Purpose arises as intelligence looks back upon itself and sees its own reflection written into the universe.


1- https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/275446.Jacques_Monod

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