The Nature of Purpose

The absolute, inherent limits of reductionist logic, both as a means of understanding and as a road to control, invite us into a new mode of relationship with nature. Rather than attempting to explain the workings of the whole according to the workings of the parts, emergent phenomena demand that we sometimes must explain the workings of the parts according to the purpose of the whole. Instead of looking for the underlying causes or reasons for things, this mode of relationship looks for the purpose of things. The word for this type of understanding is teleology, which is a kind of causality that pulls events toward a future purpose.

These two levels of explanation are complementary, not contradictory. Here is an example, courtesy of Stuart Kauffman: imagine a bacteria swimming up a glucose gradient toward a food source. A reductionistic understanding would ask, “What is really making it move in that direction?” and would answer that question by observing how the glucose receptors work, what protein messengers they trigger, how those in turn trigger deformations of the cell membrane to generate movement, and so on. A teleological approach would understand the same molecular-level phenomena from the opposite direction: they are happening in order that the bacteria can move toward food. Reductionism essentially asks, “What makes it do that?” while teleology asks, “Why does it do that?” As is obvious from this phrasing, reductionism lends itself naturally to the mentality of engineering and control (making matter behave in a certain way), while teleological questioning assumes a purpose awaiting discovery, and would therefore foster caution and respect.

Ideology aside, scientists use teleological thinking quite routinely. When we think in terms of empty niches attracting species to fill them, that is teleological reasoning, even if we adduce reductionistic mechanisms to explain how this occurs. Similar teleological reasoning informs our explanations of why birds fly south in the winter, why salmon swim upstream during spawning season, and why bears hibernate in the winter. In the history of technology, too, we can see teleology in action. Engineers develop components in order to meet a need in a larger whole. In fact, many components came into existence only after the larger whole was already there—the bicycle derailleur, for example. Why was it invented? I suppose you could answer that reductionistically, but the clearest answer is “So that bicycles could shift gears.” To say that this isn’t the “real” reason is mere dogma. Reductionism and teleology are two lenses through which to view the same reality. For many phenomena, understanding comes only through the teleological explanation—What is its purpose?—even when a reductionist explanation is possible (and in non-linear systems it often is not). Why, then, do we so emphasize the reductionistic explanation? Why do we arbitrarily declare those properties that we can reduce, abstract, and measure to be more real than those that are emergent properties of wholes?

One reason is that teleological understanding brings neither absolute certainty nor control. We often understand what something does without knowing how it works, but only knowing how it works can we eventually replace it with an artificial substitute. We might observe that garlic has antifungal properties. When we figure out a reductionist why, an “active component,” then we can isolate it and perhaps even synthesize it, no longer even needing garlic. We observe that apples taste good. When chemists isolate the flavor factors, we can reproduce the flavor of an apple without the need for apples. In this way we transcend nature and fulfill the Technological Program. We observe that soil fertility depends on bacteria. If we knew exactly why, then we could perhaps eliminate the bacteria by implementing their function through technical means. We observe that forest health depends on the presence of top predators. If we can reduce them to a precise description of their functions (deer kill distribution and so on) then we can replicate those functions and we won’t need the predators anymore. The ultimate fulfillment of this ideology would be to replicate every natural function in a wholly artificial reality, the totalization of the separate human realm.

A teleological explanation does not give us this power. When we see the logic of the whole guiding the evolution of the parts, then we must recognize that each part—of a body, an ecosystem, the biosphere—has a purpose that we may not ever fully understand, not even if we measure its every component. With awareness of a purpose to all things, no longer will we so cavalierly try to improve on nature. Lack of purpose, on the other hand, makes us the masters of the universe. There is no higher plan in which we might interfere, no natural order which we might disrupt.

Today we are discovering such hubris to be sorely misguided. The pieces of nature or the body we once thought useless or redundant actually have unsuspected functions in maintaining the health and integrity of the whole. Our “improvements” come with hidden costs, stemming from these unseen functions, that we scramble to cover with yet more improvements. From a teleological perspective, the failure of the technological fix and the program of control is inevitable.

The teleological question, “What is it for?” is inherently respectful, both toward the subject of that question and toward the universe that embeds and purposes that subject. It makes of it more than just a thing, and of the world more than just a collection of things. “What is it for?” invests the objects and processes of the world with individuality, selfhood, uniqueness, life—something beyond their descriptions as standardizable, generic building blocks. “What is it for?” changes the world from an it into a you.

The consequences of applying “What is it for?” to other people and society are equally profound. It subverts the Machine agenda of rendering human beings into standardized, replaceable parts; it resists the conversion of the social capital of unique, local relationships and traditions into generic money; it confounds the social engineer’s dream of molding human beings like so many building blocks to construct the perfect society. People are not “human resources”, nor are they “assets”. The world and everything in it is not a pile of instrumental stuff put here for my use. It has a purpose already, an organic necessity.

On a personal level, teleology fosters respect. In contrast to the world of the selfish gene, wherein each survival machine manipulates competing survival machines to maximize its own benefit, in contrast to the economic view that analyzes relationships according to transactional models of loss and gain—what’s in it for me—we see other people as, again, “you’s” and not “its”, possessing their own purpose and destiny. We see them as other selves, not resources to manipulate. We no longer try to resist and control reality, but to align ourselves with the indwelling purpose that can only be discovered through relationship. We seek to know people and not to use them.

As for others, so for oneself. It is teleology that inspires the eternal human question, “Why am I here?” The science we have inherited provides no answer and it is incapable of providing one. Any explanation couched in terms of genetics and human origins is a non-answer; in fact it is an anti-answer. You are here because your ancestors survived—and no further answer is possible because there is no purpose, only cause. Thankfully, that emptying ideology is crumbling. I just wrote, “We seek to know people and not to use them.” Applying that to oneself, we seek through self-knowledge to learn our purpose, instead of exploiting our gifts for the temporary aggrandizement of an illusory separate self. To even believe such a purpose exists or could exist, to even believe that “Why am I here?” has an answer, already empowers life. It generates an urgency to discover what that purpose is. It makes any other life intolerable, including the standardized, compressed life offered by the Machine. Self-respect demands that we live in accordance with our purpose and seek to fulfill it.

“We are not just here; we are here for a reason.” I don’t think I’ve ever penned a more banal spiritual cliché, but it is true nonetheless. Can you feel that in your bones? Young people know it most certainly; we call that knowledge idealism. They know that there is a way the world is supposed to be, and a magnificent role for themselves in that more beautiful world. Broken to the lesser lives we offer them, they react with hostility, rage, cynicism, depression, escapism, or self-destruction—all the defining qualities of modern adolescence. Then we blame them for not bringing these qualities under control, and when they finally have given up their idealism we call them mature. Having given up their idealism, they can get on with the business of survival: practicality and security, comfort and safety, which is what we are left with in the absence of purpose. So we suggest they major in something practical, stay out of trouble, don’t take risks, build a résumé. We think we are practical and wise in the ways of the world. Really we are just broken and afraid. We are afraid on their behalf, and, less nobly, we are afraid of what their idealism shows us: the plunder and betrayal of our own youthful possibilities. The recovery of purpose, the acceptance of teleology into the language of science, promises whether directly or metaphorically to undo all of that.

Unfortunately, teleology is still anathema to most scientists, to whom it is tantamount to magic and superstition. Yes, they might agree, we can provisionally say the bacteria wants to move toward food, but we actually know that what “wants” really means is a set of biochemical states. The primary reality is at the molecular level. The teleological explanation is not the real explanation, just a heuristic convenience. I have already explained in this chapter why this view is no longer tenable. Ironically though, it is perfectly consistent with the very religious views that science spurns, for both agree that purpose is not an intrinsic, real property of matter.

James Lovelock, co-originator of Gaia theory, has gone to great lengths to shake off the “teleology” epithet that critics apply to his theory. One of Lovelock’s observations in support of Gaia is that earth has maintained a roughly constant surface temperature for over three billion years, even as incoming solar energy has increased by some thirty or forty percent. Similarly, earth maintains fairly constant levels of oxygen in the atmosphere and salt in the oceans. All of life, and inorganic processes too, contribute to this homeostasis. According to the reductionist paradigm, this is something of a coincidence: after all, there is no annual committee meeting deciding what each species and ecosystem must do this year to make everything work out. There is no board of directors, no supernatural force coordinating it all. Lovelock’s response was Daisy World, a simplified computer model of temperature homeostasis in which rising temperatures cause white flowers to cover the planet and reflect more radiation to cool it, while falling temperatures support dark flowers that absorb radiation and warm the planet. See, he said, no coordinator is necessary!

But has Lovelock really escaped teleology? Yes, he has escaped the necessity of an external coordinating force, but only in our dualistic mindset does this equate to teleology. For in fact, Lovelock’s critics are right: the model of understanding that Gaia theory provides is teleological, because it invites us to understand life processes in terms of their purpose, not their cause. Why do algae emit dimethyl sulfide gas? As a circumstantial byproduct of their metabolism, or in order to seed rain clouds? Why do bacteria on legume nodules fix nitrogen? Because ammonia happens to be a waste product of their ATP conversion pathway, or in order to allow plants to grow? Why do other bacteria accelerate rock weathering? Because they need the minerals to survive, or in order to speed the removal of carbon from the atmosphere? The first answer to each of these questions is not invalid, but it provides a limited understanding.

Does random chance explain our great good fortune that all of Gaia’s essential functions have been filled? Are we just lucky that aerobic bacteria arose just in time to rescue life on earth from poisoning itself on oxygen? Do we owe our very existence to an absurdly unlikely series of chance events, one after another? If so, we are surely alone in the universe, poised always on the edge of oblivion should our run of luck end. Hence, the necessity of mastering nature.

The mentality of control draws intimately from a fundamental scientific world view that denies purpose. Until that changes, the regime of control will persist and continue to proceed toward totality. The random, indifferent universe of our ideology invites—nay demands—control. And always is our position a precarious one, and anxiety woven into the fabric of life. That is why the gathering sea-change in science is so significant. It is more than a mere shift of opinion; it portends a new relationship to the world and a new state of human beingness.

When you read the words, “Does random chance explain… are we just lucky that… an absurdly unlikely series of chance events…” did you expect I was about to trot out God as the alternative? Theologians have long cited the uncanny coordination of nature as evidence of God, noting as I have the hubris, despair, and license to plunder implicit in a mechanistic world view. “See what happens when you don’t believe in God?” they ask. Viewing the world of matter and the life of the flesh as devoid of sacredness, religious believers invoke an external God to invest life with meaning. Similarly, unaware that order and beauty can arise spontaneously, they invoke God the Creator or God the “Intelligent Designer” to infuse this universe of inert, randomly interacting matter with organization, beauty, and life.

For a long time we have seen their external, supernatural God as the only alternative to an indifferent, mechanical, purposeless universe. No longer. The spontaneous emergence of organization in mathematical, chemical, and biological systems offers a third alternative. What if the coordination, purpose, and beauty we observe are inseparable properties of matter? What if divinity is an organic property of reality?

So steeped are we in a dualistic mindset that we can hardly conceive of a purpose to nature except as externally defined by a supernatural intentional force, namely God. External to matter, such a God is by definition outside the subject area of science. Remember, though, that the whole conception of God as a force above and apart from nature is only as old as agriculture, reflecting the other dualistic separations that gained momentum at that time. Yet human intuitions of a meaning or significance to life surely predate agriculture with its supernal God, indicating that an external imposer of meaning, an external designer of purpose, is necessary only to the dualistic mind.

The Fundamentalist movement, along with most of the New Age as well as transplanted spirituality from the East, is in part a response to the loss of sacredness that science seems to imply, and in part a reaction to the moral and social fragmentation that shares a common root with science in the Age of Separation. Agreeing with science that the ordinary world of matter is devoid of sacredness, they imagine a spiritual realm apart from the world or, in the case of Eastern transplants, retreat inward to the depths of the mind, ritual, yoga, and other “spiritual practice”. Religion thereby abets the mechanistic assumption of science: the world of matter is just matter. Seen in this light, the doctrine of Intelligent Design, intended to bring God back into science, actually ends up confirming the soullessness of the physical world—the world of life and human life.

Scientists typically cringe at any mention of an intention or purpose to evolution, tenaciously defending the Darwinian dogma that evolution arises solely from random variation and selection based on survival and replication.[15] Alternative theories of biogenesis and evolution subvert deep-seated cultural assumptions of self and world, thus offending our intuitions. On a more superficial level, scientists’ antipathy toward dissenting theories stems from their common association with the antiscientific attacks of various proponents of Creationism. Therefore, before I draw out the cultural and spiritual implications of some alternatives to Darwinism, I want to make clear right now (doubtless eliciting a sigh of relief from the scientific reader) that I am not going to espouse any form of creationism or “intelligent design” (ID) in this book.

I sympathize with the motivation of the proponents of ID and Creationism, however, and my sympathy is not of the patronizing variety which imputes to them a childish refusal to accept the obvious facts of the universe. No, their ultimate motivation is a sincere protest against a world that has been shorn of sacredness and purpose. They intuit that sacredness and purpose are real properties of the universe and not human projections, not the superstitious wishful thinking of people unable to cope with a universe that, to quote Richard Dawkins again, has “precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”[16] Unfortunately, the proponents of ID are themselves subject to most of the same deeper, hidden assumptions about the nature of reality that grip the scientific mainstream. This is no wonder, for these assumptions are written into the very culture we live in, into the conceptual vocabulary we use to describe the world, into the very structure of modern thought and language.

The proponents of Intelligent Design are unwittingly replacing a greater miracle with a lesser miracle, a greater God with a lesser God, and a greater mystery with a lesser mystery. They are also, again unwittingly, contributing to the very desacralization of the universe that is so unsettling about the scientific cosmology that dominates today. Their opposition to the atheistic cosmology, genesis, and evolution that is today’s orthodoxy is actually a superficial opposition; on a deeper level, proponents of Intelligent Design exacerbate the very dualism that has robbed the modern world of sacredness and meaning.

The typical ID argument first cites some of the well-known, and very real, difficulties of the neo-Darwinian orthodoxy. Then, citing the wild improbability of sophisticated structures such as the eye or the cellular metabolism having ever developed by chance, it goes on to conclude that such structures must therefore have been planned out and guided by a suprahuman intelligence. Something as complex, as tightly coordinated, as miraculous as a living being could never have emerged spontaneously; therefore it must have been consciously designed.

But the very concept of design already smuggles in Newtonian concepts of reductionism, dualism, and mechanism. How do we go about designing something? Through a reductionistic process of assembling components, each of which themselves may also require designing. Design is hierarchical and modular—a problem is broken up into manageable pieces arranged by an outside intelligence. Spontaneous processes of growth are not considered “design”. Organisms do not design themselves, nor do parents design their children. Trapped in a dualistic mindset, we are hard pressed indeed to see how complex, highly ordered, tightly coupled systems could have come about by themselves, without external guidance. Our logic tells us that if it is purposeful, it must have been designed with a purpose. We cannot conceive of a purpose without a purposer, a design without a designer, beauty without an artist, because that has been our relationship to the world ever since agriculture supplanted the spontaneous goodness of nature with the imposed goodness of cultivation. In the mindset of agriculture, goodness comes forth only with work; else the field runs to weeds and the livestock goes feral. The logic that inspires Intelligent Design is also the logic of engineering and control. It is the logic that defines the Technological Program whose failure is increasingly evident.

To me it is a far greater miracle that reality have the property of self-organization. Why should it? Why should reality not be boringly linear instead? Intelligent Design carries a deep hidden assumption that the universe is not inherently beautiful, alive, inspirited, but that it had to be made that way by an outside deity. The universe is just dead matter until God makes something of it. Life could have only sprung from the primordial soup if God had made it happen. The cell, the organ, the organism, the ecosystem could not work so perfectly by themselves; matter has not that property. Intelligent Design posits a universe that is less spiritual and not more. The mother of all religions, animism, had no such dualism in it. Animism, often misunderstood as the belief that all things are possessed of spirit, actually holds that all things are spirit. It holds that all things are sacred in themselves, and not conditionally sacred because of something they may (and by implication, may not) possess.[17] One of the goals of this chapter is to translate animism into the language of modern science.

I reject Intelligent Design more out of a religious sentiment than a scientific sentiment, for the wonder, the magic, the ongoing miracle of a living universe pregnant with creativity, order, and beauty is far more stupendous than a conditional Creation contingent on a separate Creator God. The quasi-religious awe a biologist feels upon truly appreciating the complexity of a living cell is diminished, not enhanced, by the explanation, “It’s like that because God made it that way,” just as it is also diminished by the conventional explanation that it arose through a purposeless concatenation of improbable events. The spontaneous arising of order, beauty, and life that is written into the laws of the universe, and even more deeply, into the structure of mathematics, that is repeated in every non-linear system with certain very general characteristics, and that is like that only because it is like that and could be no other way, is far more awesome. I offer the reader not a mundane universe in which nothing is sacred because there is no God, nor a split universe in which some things are holy, of God, and others just matter, but rather a universe that is fully sacred, pregnant with meaning, immanent with divinity, in which order, organization, and beauty arise spontaneously from the ground up, neither imposed from above by a designer nor projected from within by the observer, and of which God is an inseparable property. The marvelous complexity and beauty of nature is not some consolation prize for science’s denial of the sacred, but evidence that the universe is itself sacred. The awe of the cell biologist is not quasi-religious, it is religious.

Note the obstacle of language apparent in the above discussion. By using words like sacred and spiritual, I draw on meanings that imply a divided universe containing also the non-spiritual and the profane. Dualism is built into our language and thought. What could spiritual or sacred mean in the absence of a separate realm? For me as for the animist it means that every living being, every process of nature, and every bit of matter is a unique individual that is nonetheless not separate from myself. Not even electrons are generic identical particles; each is unique and its behavior forever irreducible to causes. There are no “its” in the universe, only you’s or thou’s, each utterly unique, and yet I and thou are one. It is impossible to put this into words without generating a paradox. Impossible. Why? It is in the nature of words as labels, representations, symbols to categorize, abstract, and divide the world. So don’t rely on words to understand how each “thou” is unique and yet I and thou are one. Look into a lover’s eyes instead, or let the birds sing it to you.

Each electron, each drop of water, each pebble, each everything is therefore qualified to receive our love. We cannot love the standard and generic except in the abstract. Love is personal. It sees you as unique and fully you, and it knows a connection so profound as to blur your distinctness from me. The purpose possessed by all beings in the universe, and indeed by the universe itself, is an aspect of this uniqueness, this sacredness of all being. The experience of it suffuses our lives with love, awe, and respect.

Perhaps the import of the gathering paradigm shift is now becoming clear. It marks the end of the Age of Separation and the beginning of a new age that I call the Age of Reunion. It marks the end of civilization as we know it, and the birth of a new kind of civilization. The civilization we have known has always been built upon the escalating domestication of nature. The ascent of humanity has always been a project of imposing human purpose and human design onto the raw materials of an inert reality. That has been the grand project of civilization, to bring order to chaos. And now we are discovering that order arises naturally from chaos anyway, and chaos from order, and from that chaos new order of ever-higher degree—an ascending spiral of Yin and Yang. The age of the frontiersman conquering nature and bringing it to order is over, as we turn toward seeking the right role for human consciousness in the continued unfolding of order in the universe. The new human relationship to the world will be that of a lover to his or her beloved. For thousands of years the relationship has been one of control, based on fear. Our technology, the concrete manifestation of that relationship, is therefore mostly a technology of fear as well. Can we even imagine what a technology of love would look like? One thing is certain: the devotional relationship of which I speak does not mean the diminishment or fading of the human race, or a return to the Stone Age. In his devotion to the beloved, the lover grows himself. Love is not a sacrifice; it is a mutual fulfillment. Love itself denies the logic of the separate self.

A universe that is inherently creative or inherently purposeful has no need of intelligent design nor of unlikely chains of coincidences, and has broad implications for our individual lives as well as the collective function and destiny of the human species. This will become apparent in the second half of this chapter as we come “back to earth” to examine some elements of the neo-Lamarckian paradigms that are gradually creeping into biology. Growing evidence that mutation is not in fact random calls into question the very cogency of the “selfish gene” theory of biogenesis, evolution, and behavior. In place of this competition-based world-view, a new paradigm is emerging that emphasizes symbiosis, cooperation, and the sharing of DNA across species boundaries, calling the integrity of the discrete biological self further into doubt. In its place a new concept of self arises, defined through its relationships and constitutionally impervious to the program of reduction and control. Remember, the entire edifice of civilization arises from our sense of self as discrete and separate. Now we are building the foundation of a new sense of self, and therefore of a new kind of technology, a new kind of money, a new kind of civilization. What will a technology of love look like, in the Age of Reunion? Nature provides a clue.


[15] Actually, Darwin, who was a humble and modest man, did not himself contend that this was the sole mechanism of evolution, just that it could explain a lot. In that sense, Darwin was not himself a Darwinist.


[16] Quoted by Michael Shermer in Scientific American, February 2002, p. 35.


[17] The same non-dualistic understanding which is central to animism, the mother of all religions, has been shared by the world’s great spiritual teachers over the millennia, despite interpretations to the contrary. It can be found at the heart of all modern religions.