The notion of purpose is crucial to our civilization. It is central to how we understand people and things.
I buy a clock because a clock has a purpose of telling time. I buy a phone because a phone has a purpose of communication. I work for the purpose of making money. My employer hires me to fill a purpose stated in the job description. You read this essay for the purpose of improving your mind.
Money exists for the purpose of enabling commerce. Government has the purpose of allowing millions of people to live together. Police have the purpose of keeping us safe.
Our system of criminal justice assesses purpose all the time. To be convicted of some serious crime, like murder, a jury has to decide that you had the required mens rea, or criminal purpose.
Informal judgments of another’s character often hinge on purpose. If someone has a good purpose, then he usually gets a free pass on whatever harm he causes.
Science used to explain things in terms of purpose. Aristotle described the natural world in terms of causes and purpose. He might say that the purpose of a rock is to go in a straight line or fall to the Earth, or the purpose of a celestial object is to travel in circles. A tree’s purpose is to get more light and water.
Aristotle’s view took a beating in the Newtonian era, but Darwin revived the use of purpose for natural explanation. He would say that a bird has wings for the purpose of flying, and has eyes for seeing. A woman’s purpose was to bear children, and to obey her man. Natural slaves also served a purpose. He did not know the specifics of how wings or eyes grow or evolve, but clearly saw the bigger picture where the vast majority of observable traits of plants and animals have a recognizable purpose.
Today evolutionary biology professors like Jerry Coyne commonly “teach that natural selection, and evolution in general, are material processes, blind, mindless, and purposeless.” The late Stephen Jay Gould said similar things.
Purpose has been whittled away by reductionism. It is no longer fashionable to say that the purpose of wings is to fly, because that leaves atheistic scientists with the queasy suggestion that God has a purpose for birds.
To many, this is progress. Science is all about eliminating supernatural causes, and replacing them with down-to-earth mechanisms that can be analyzed step by step.
The notion of purpose is still useful informally. Neuroscientists ask, “what is the purpose of sleep?” This question is clearly understood, even if purposes are denied.
Analyzing purpose scientifically is notoriously difficult. For example, dog behavior is very well understood, but researchers hotly debate whether dogs have a theory of mind. A dog will do tricks to get food, and apparently to please its master, but does it really form a mental image of what its master is thinking, and behavior accordingly? Some researchers say dogs, chimps, monkeys, and ravens do, but others doubt it.
There are lots of clever animal experiments, but there are usually rich and lean explanations for the animal behavior. Sometimes researchers will give some rich explanation as the animal having its own theory of mind and sense of moral justice, and others will give a lean explanation in terms of the animal just doing what seems likely to get a treat. Humans seem to have evolved to have a preference for rich explanations. Leftists are especially prone to concocting fanciful theories for the motives of others.
There used to be a popular branch of psychology called behaviorism, which minimized considerations of consciousness and purpose. Humans were just like a rat in a maze, only a little smarter. While this view has fallen out of favor, it was taken seriously by Harvard professors and other intellectuals. If it was so difficult to convince professors that humans are free and conscious beings, then it is more difficult to convince them about dogs and monkeys.
Even in humans, such judgments are tricky. There is a world-famous moral philosophy professor who has done ground-breaking global justice work on inventing new arguments for blaming white people for various perceived ills. He is a white European himself, so what is his purpose in this work? Is he a self-hating white? Is he a profound and honest moral thinker? Is he just doing what he is paid to do? Is this his way of satisfying his craving for professional status and respect? He is also well-known for seducing his non-white female philosophy grad students, so is it all just a ploy to fuel his extramarital affairs? It is impossible to say.
Bill Gates has put most of his vast fortune into a foundation whose motto is “Guided by the belief that every life has equal value.” Does he really believe that, or is that just a way of buying respect from leftists? He recently got the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but the award did not even mention his accomplishments at Microsoft.