Our church, along with many churches in the Chicago area, is doing a sermon series entitled “Explore God.” The series is based around seven questions relevant to the Christian faith, and to people exploring the Christian faith.

  1. Does Life Have a Purpose?
  2. Is There a God?
  3. Why Does God Allow Pain and Suffering?
  4. Is Christianity Too Narrow?
  5. Is Jesus Really God?
  6. Is the Bible Reliable?
  7. Can I Know God Personally?

As I was sitting in church last week, I began to think about how I would have answered the week’s question. Then I thought, “Well I have a blog, after all; who’s stopping me?” So my plan is to write my own answers to these questions. I welcome engagement from people of all backgrounds in the comments or by email. I look forward to revisions and corrections that arise from that dialogue.

Does life have a purpose? To answer this question, we need to be clear about what purpose is, and what sort of things have purposes.

To say that something has a purpose is to say that it is “for” something. A wrench is “for” turning bolts. A Saturn V rocket is “for” sending astronauts to the moon. More abstractly, a computer is “for” carrying out instructions.

Purposes can be changed. A wrench can be used to whack someone. An unused Saturn V rocket can be repurposed to create an impressive museum exhibit. A computer can be used as desk space.

Purposes carry some sort of an “ought” to them. Even if you can turn a Phillips head screw with a flathead, you shouldn’t. Every novice tradesman has to learn the rules of his/her trade, or face the wrath of more senior people in the field. Purpose is also recognized in our legal code; manufacturers will not be held liable for damages if their products are used in a way other than how they are supposed to be used.

Establishing a purpose for something, or repurposing it, is a creative act. For something to have a purpose, a person has to be involved.

Things like sticks, rocks, and trees, therefore, do not have a purpose. They can be given purposes by people (for example, if they are used to build a house), but they do not have inherent purpose: they simply exist as matter.

It’s possible to make the inference that something has a purpose, even though we don’t know what it is. When I look through the tool section or the kitchenware section of a thrift store, I come across many objects I do not recognize, but for which I am sure there is a purpose.

There are difficult cases in nature. No one would be tempted to say that the purpose of a star is to hold the planets in their orbits, or that the purpose of the moon is to produce tides. But teeth certainly look like they’re there for chewing. The vocal cords certainly look like they’re there to protect the lungs from food and liquid. DNA polymerase certainly looks like it’s there to replicate DNA.

Different people will be tempted to assign purposes to different objects. I have never considered snails or fat-legged frogs to have a purpose, but perhaps a French person would think about them as being “for” food.

From a strictly materialistic perspective—from the perspective that all there is to life is matter and the laws of physics—there is no purpose to anything. The various parts of the body do not have purposes. It simply happens that that collection of atoms can replicate itself under the right conditions—and because it replicates itself, its successor exists, and its successor, and so on, and that’s the reason it’s there for us to look at. Nothing special is going on in an ice crystal on your window, to make it a pretty picture. It’s just atoms following the laws of physics. In the same way, if there are flies this year, it’s because there were flies last year that reproduced. A fly has more moving parts than a snowflake, but it’s still just atoms following the laws of physics.

The materialistic position is perfectly adequate at a descriptive level. I have no empirical objection to it.

All of this is prologue to the question: Does Life Have a Purpose? I will rephrase this to “Does my life have a purpose?” And the answer is: it depends. Am I more like a rock or a wrench? Has something created me—or repurposed me—or am I just something that happens to exist? The real question, of course, is how I would ever know in the first place.

To address the epistemological question (the “how would we ever know in the first place” question), I would begin with the following observation. Humans are almost incapable of thinking without using the concept of “purpose” to understand things.

I remember once hearing a lecture about the human eye. The professor could explain it no other way than by drawing analogies between the eye and a camera: the lens as the lens, the retina as the film, the pupil as the aperture, and so forth. He explained the eye not as a naturally occurring structure (rock) but as a created object (wrench). I did not question him closely, but I believe that the professor was a materialist. Technically speaking, the analogy between what occurred in nature and what was created by humans was a false one. Nevertheless, the only way to understand the eye is to understand what it is for. Even if we don’t formally believe that something has a purpose, we almost always think about it as if it does.

This cognitive bias can certainly lead us astray. But it’s also how we understand just about everything. If someone can’t attribute motives to other people’s behaviors, that’s generally a sign of pathology. Love it or hate it, the idea of purpose is fundamental to how we think.

If you accept the truth of that last sentence, you still might draw two very different conclusions from it. You might think, “Purpose is fundamental to humanity; it’s (perhaps literally) unthinkable that life would not have a purpose.” Or you might think, “Humans have a cognitive bias to perceive purpose, so obviously the fact that humans want to perceive a purpose in life tells us nothing about reality.”

Let me be clear: both conclusions are intellectually defensible. I cannot falsify either of them. But the second conclusion has stronger implications than simply, “Life has no purpose.” It also implies that thought itself is meaningless. As a computer programmer, it’s easiest for me to show this with a few lines of code.

First, let me (Adam Baker), make the following claim: my life has a purpose.

Next, here is some BASIC code that prints the statement, “I have a higher purpose in life!”

10 PRINT "My life has a purpose."

Is there a difference between my statement and the computer’s? If the idea of “purpose” is simply the result of human cognitive bias, then there is no difference. Both are simply the output of a machine. As lofty as my personal ideals might be, they are no different from anything that a machine might produce:

10 PRINT "My life has a purpose."
20 PRINT "I have a family who loves me, and I am responsible to love and protect them."
30 PRINT "Those I encounter day by day are worthy of love and respect."

Here is some more machine output:

10 PRINT "My life has no purpose."
20 PRINT "My family doesn't love me, and I have no responsibility toward them."
30 PRINT "I should exploit those I encounter day by day."

If we don’t want to recognize that life has purpose, then we are forced to admit that the way we think is fundamentally meaningless. Our attributions of purpose are meaningless. If we made opposite statements of purpose from those we believe, then they too would be meaningless. (Note well: not just false, but meaningless.)

The argument I’ve just made is a reductio ad absurdum, a reduction to the absurd. The point of such an argument is to show that a claim has more important implications than are apparent at first. But whether the conclusion is in fact absurd must be left to the eye of the beholder. There are many people who would agree with the conclusion that all our our ideas about purpose (and from there, morality, truth, etc.) are epiphenomena of human cognition, with no inherent reality or purpose. There are many people who accept that argument, at least at the intellectual level. (There are very few people who live lives consistently with that conclusion, however.)

I, on the other hand, reject the absurd scenario. I cannot believe that human cognition rests on non-existent foundations. I believe that I am capable, even if imperfectly, at perceiving purpose.

Although I have now written a great deal, I have not quite answered the question. Who, after all, would be in a position to give a human life a purpose? As I wrote above, purposes (if such things exist) can only be assigned by people. The options are not many: humans, or a different kind of person.

Humans certainly do attempt to give other humans purposes. They make them employees, or slaves, or use them to satisfy their own emotional needs. I suppose, in the limit, the premier example of this would be the case of the child conceived in an attempt to save a marriage: a human existence subordinated to a human end.

The question, however, is not whether humans can be put to ill usage, but whether there is an original purpose. Is there Anyone who is in a position to say, “No, that’s not what he is for” or “No, that’s not why I made her.” That is the question for the next post.

Postscript: Was there any chance that someone wouldn’t have created an online BASIC programming environment? Looks like JavaScript; that tells you something about how computing power has changed…