The major problem with Michael Shermer's "The Soul of Science" (below -*1) rests on his use of the word 'purpose'. Any dictionary
definition clearly identifies the word with 'intent' and/or 'intention'
-fundamentally anthropocentric in that sense. His use of the word 'purpose',
therefore, effectively abandons such intent or intention to other than
human origin by which he probably means 'classical evolutionary process'. The
problem with this,
then, is that it leaves the door clearly open for some 'innocent' (and others)
to read something equivalent to 'intelligent design' into this -clearly
unintended by Shermer. He is guilty, in effect, of generating another 'ism'.
What Shermer should have
done, I believe, is more properly identify those various 'purposes' as
phenomena circumstantially consequent of human evolution -much as EO
Wilson, for example, explained in The Biological Basis
According to Greek legend, Poseidon's son Theseus sailed to Crete to slay the
monster Minotaur. After his triumphant return to Athens, his ship was preserved
as a memorial. As the vessel aged, decaying planks were replaced with new ones;
the original timber was replaced. Philosophers know the story of Theseus's ship
as a classic example of the problem of identity. What was the true identity of
the ship, the shape or the wood?
A more contemporary example may be found in the form of my first car, a 1966
Ford Mustang with a 289-cubic-inch engine and a speedometer that pegged at 140
m.p.h. As a young man high in testosterone but low in self-control, by the time
I sold the car 15
years later there was hardly an original part on it. Nevertheless, my "1966"
Mustang was now considered a classic, and I netted a tidy profit. Like
Theseus's ship, its essence—its "Mustangness"—was intact.
The analogy holds for human identity. The atoms in my brain and body today are
not the same ones I had when I was born. Nevertheless, the patterns of
information coded in my DNA and in my neural memories are still those of
Michael Shermer. The human
essence, the soul, is more than a pile of parts—it is a pattern of
As far as we know, there is no way for that pattern to last longer than several
decades, a century or so at most. So until a technology can copy a human
pattern into a more durable medium (silicon chips perhaps?), it appears that
when we die our pattern
is lost. Scientific skepticism suggests that there is no afterlife, and
religion requires a leap of faith greater than many of us wish to make.
Whether there is an afterlife or not, we must live as if this is all there is.
Our lives, our families, our friends, our communities (and how we treat others)
are more meaningful when every day, every moment, every relationship and every
Rather than meaningless forms before an eternal tomorrow, these entities have
value in the here-and-now because of the purpose we create.
In science, a fact is something confirmed to such a degree that it would be reasonable to offer our assent that it is true, provided that the assumptions on which it rests are intact. In life, purpose is provisional for the same reason—there is no Archimedean point from which we can authenticate final Truths and ultimate Purposes. In its stead, we have to validate our own facts and determine our own purposes. The self-correcting machinery of science corroborates provisional facts, and life itself provides the template for provisional purpose.
Life's most basic purpose is survival and reproduction, and for 3.5 billion
years, organisms from the pre-Cambrian to us form an unbroken continuity. This
alone ennobles us, but add the innumerable steps from bacteria to big brains
and the countless
points at which our lineage could have died and we conclude that human beings
are a glorious contingency in the history of life.
Humans have an evolved sense of purpose—a psychological desire to accomplish
goals—that developed out of behaviors that were selected for because they were
good for the individual or the group. The desire to behave in purposeful ways
is an evolved trait;
purpose is in our nature. And with brains big enough to discover and define
purpose in symbolic ways that are inconceivable to millions of preceding and
coexisting species, we humans are unique.
The Purpose Pyramid
With provisional purpose we define our goals, but there is an inherent
structure to the human condition that helps delimit our search. By combining
psychologist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs and ethicist Peter Singer's
expanding circle of
sentiments, one can depict the 1.5 million years over which such drives and
sentiments evolved among humans and our social-primate ancestors. At the bottom
of the pyramid, the individual's needs for survival and reproduction—food,
drink, safety and
sex—are met through the family, extended family and community. Moving up the
pyramid, psychosocial needs—security, bonding, socialization, affiliation,
acceptance and affection—have evolved to aid and reinforce cooperation and
altruism, traits that
benefit individuals and the group. About 35,000 years ago, social groups grew
larger and cultural selection began to take precedence over natural selection.
The natural progression of this upwards trend is to perceive societies as part
of the human
species and the human species as part of the biosphere.
The width of the pyramid at each level reflects the degree to which purposeful
sentiment is under evolutionary control. The height of each level indicates the
degree to which purposeful sentiment extends beyond us. Thus, the pyramid shows
that these two
variables are inversely related—the more a sentiment helps a complete stranger,
the less it owes to specific evolutionary mechanisms.
Selfish genes drive kin altruism, and social relations fuel reciprocal
altruism, but to achieve species- and bio-altruism, we need to learn higher-
order prosocial behavior. Achieving the upper levels of the pyramid requires
social and political action.
We evolved in a manner in which our concern for the environment was highly
restricted, and global ecology and deep time were inconceivable until recent
millennia—too short a time for evolution to expand the fundamental range of our
The Pleasure of Purpose
How can we attain deep-time awareness and global consciousness when our sense of purpose is grounded in an ancient evolutionary heritage? Thomas Jefferson suggested one answer in a letter to Thomas Law in 1814: "These good acts give pleasure, but how it happens that they give us pleasure? Because nature hath implanted in our breasts a love of others, a sense of duty to them, a moral instinct, in short, which prompts us irresistibly to feel and to succor their distresses." Scientific research supports this proposition. Experiments with the "prisoner's dilemma"—a game in which one person's cooperation or defection elicits a varying payoff depending on whether the other person cooperates or defects—reveal that subjects adopt a cooperative strategy after multiple rounds, particularly when they can interact to establish trust. Usually, the most selfish thing to do—that is, gain the most in the long run—is to begin by trusting and cooperating, and then do whatever your partner does. Trust ... with verification.
Our brains reinforce cooperative behavior. In one study by James Rilling and
colleagues at Emory University, subjects that played the prisoner's dilemma
while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) showed that
cooperation activated the
same brain areas as desserts, cocaine, beautiful faces and other pleasures.
These responsive areas, the anteroventral striatum (the so-called "pleasure
center," for which rats will endlessly press a bar to have it stimulated, even
foregoing food) and the
orbitofrontal cortex (related to impulse control and reward processing), are
rich in dopamine, a neurochemical related to addictive behaviors. Tellingly,
the cooperative subjects reported increased feelings of trust toward and
camaraderie with their game
partners. In addition to dopamine, neuroscientists believe that oxytocin—a
hormone produced during eating, breast feeding and sexual orgasm—plays a vital
role in human bonding and prosocial behaviors. Can we use this knowledge to
behavior at the personal and global levels?
Purpose is personal, and people satisfy this deep-seated need in countless ways. Among these are avenues by which we can bootstrap ourselves toward higher goals that have proven to be especially beneficial to individuals and society. These include:Deep love and family commitment—the bonding and attachment to others increases one's circle of sentiments and corresponding sense of purpose: to care about others as much as, if not more than, oneself;
Meaningful work and career—the sense of purpose derived from discovering
one's passion for work drives people to achieve goals so far beyond their own
needs that they lift all of us to a higher plane, either directly through the
benefits of the
work or indirectly through inspiration;
Social and political involvement—as a social species we have an
obligation to community and society to participate in the process of
determining how best we should live together;
Transcendence and spirituality—a capacity unique to our species that
includes aesthetic appreciation, spiritual reflection and transcendence
through art, music, dance, exercise, meditation, prayer or quiet
contemplation, thereby connecting us on
the deepest level with that which is completely outside of ourselves.
My own journey up the pyramid began with falling in love, parenting a child and
making the commitment to place family before self. The immeasurable joy
generated by the most quotidian of family functions reinforces this commitment
on a daily basis. Even
with unlimited wealth, I would continue my career no differently because I have
been fortunate enough to find a profession that offers more than just personal
gain. As such, my work takes me ever further out of selfhood and toward global
I have visited many of the grandest cathedrals in the world and sensed a
spiritual veneration of the highest order, my greatest transcendent experiences
have come through the contemplation of nature in her grandeur, such as the view
from Edwin Hubble's
chair through the 100-inch telescope atop Mt. Wilson. From that perch, one's
picture of the cosmos grows to galactic proportions, dwarfing any prior world
view and yielding a perspective transcendent beyond imagination.
The Purpose Principle
Although purpose may be found in countless activities, is there a principle by which we may generalize its particulars? In The Science of Good And Evil I suggested two principles of morality. First, the happiness principle: it is a higher moral principle to always seek happiness with someone else's happiness in mind, and never seek happiness when it leads to someone else's unhappiness. Second, the liberty principle: it is a higher moral principle to always seek liberty with someone else's liberty in mind, and never seek liberty when it leads to someone else's loss of liberty. In this context I would like to suggest a purpose principle: it is a higher moral principle to pursue purposeful thought or behavior with someone else's purposeful goals in mind, and never pursue a purpose when it leads to someone else's loss of purpose.
Although purpose is inherent, moral purposes are learned; thus, the highest
levels of the purpose pyramid require individual volition, personal effort and
social consciousness. Morality and purpose are inextricably interdigitated—you
cannot have one
without the other. Fortunately, nature grants us the capacity for both morality
and purpose, culture affords us the liberty to reach for higher moral purposes,
and history brings us to a place where we can employ both for the enrichment of
Through natural evolution and man-made culture, we have inherited the mantle of
life's caretaker on earth. Rather than crushing our spirits, the realization
that we exist together for a narrow slice of time and space elevates us to a
higher plane of
humanity and humility: a proud, albeit passing, act in the drama of the