Purposefulness in a Materialist Age
Materialism and Teleology
We can look at the things around us and the events in our own lives in several ways, but two of them stand out.
1. We can look back at the causes.
2. We can look ahead to the purpose.
For example we may compare a tree that a storm knocks over to a baseball that a centerfielder throws to home-plate.
In the first case, air moves from an area of higher pressure to one of lower pressure in ways that meteorologists can explain. A tree or house that happens to be in the path of the wind might be destroyed, but the destruction does not serve any known purpose.
By contrast, the trajectory of the baseball results from the fielder’s intention to get the ball to home-plate before the base-runner. Explainable factors such as the skill and strength of the player, wind resistance, and gravity all play a role in the outcome of when and where the throw ends. But, unlike the storm, the throw occurs only because of the intention of the player.
Apart from human intention, do you believe everything has a purpose? Nothing has a purpose? some things have a purpose?
Some people believe everything happens for a purpose. “It was (or wasn’t) meant to be.” Others hold that apart from human intentions, such as throwing, the universe lacks any purposeful action. We might also believe that there is purpose in the universe but that not everything serves a purpose.
Examining the meaning and of purpose, we may ask the question, “Why are we here?”
This question might refer to an immediate presence such as why are we here in this meeting, classroom, or social get-together; or it may address a more cosmic concern: “Why are we here on this planet? Why do we exist?” Looking backwards in the case of the specific “here”, we may say that we are here because we were called in by our boss, it was on our class schedule, or we were invited. If we are extremely literal minded we may say that we are here because we drove or walked.
Those answers look backwards at how we got here. But we may also look ahead to the purpose of our presence: to discuss how to improve our company’s safety record, to gain insight into an academic field, or to be introduced to a method of enhancing our income by selling home products. Our individual purpose might be different from that of the boss, professor, or host. But whether the purpose is that of the person who called us to be there, or our purpose for showing up, the purpose refers to looking ahead to what we expect from our action of attending.
In asking the larger question of why we are here in the sense of our very existence, we may again look backwards. Depending on our knowledge and interest we may begin with the “big bang” and trace the history of star and planet generations up to and including the evolution of life on earth. Or we may be more interested in demographics, genealogy, or how our parents met. All of these questions look backwards and involve research in physical or social science, or family history.
But the question that emerges as most important to each of us asks, “Now that we are here, what should we do with our lives, what is our purpose for living?” We might try to answer this question by believing that we are part of a larger purpose and that we need to find our individual role. Or we might believe that our purpose consists only in what we ourselves create in an otherwise purposeless universe.
The belief that all events can be explained completely and solely by what has happened previously is called a materialist or mechanistic view. These terms reflect an older worldview that portrayed nature as composed of material particles moving according to the laws of mechanical science. But contemporary materialists think in terms of every kind of physical energy and even allow for some randomness. Purpose plays no role.
The view that things happen for a purpose we call a teleological view. This word is based on the Greek word telos, which refers to an end or purpose. Of course, a person may believe that physical causes – pushing from behind, and teleological causes – pulling from ahead, may both be factors. The belief that there is some purpose in nature, however little, marks a decisive contrast to the materialist world-view. The distinction between materialism and purpose goes back at least to the time of Plato. The following two posts will contrast the traditional teleological view with the prevailing contemporary materialist view.