Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback
Background Image

A Purposeful Kind of World

Matt Nelson

Is there a God? No.
What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.
What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.
What is the meaning of life? Ditto.
Why am I here? Just dumb luck.

These are the responses provided by atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg to some of what he calls “life’s persistent questions.”

“Given what we know about the sciences,” he continues, “the answers are all pretty obvious.” In Rosenberg’s view, reality consists of nothing beyond what science identifies: space, time, matter, and energy. He is a materialist, and with sober consistency he goes on to deny aspects of ordinary experience such as free will and moral truth.

Theists will have little difficulty agreeing with Rosenberg’s conclusions based on his premises. If material reality is all that exists, and if man is really only the “outcome of accidental collocations of atoms,” then most of human experience—including the sense of existential meaning and purpose—is an illusion. God, angels, minds, and souls are mere human constructs. Man is just a bag of biochemicals.

No Purpose in a Godless World

Famous atheist Bertrand Russell put it eloquently in his somber 1903 reflection, “A Free Man’s Worship”:

That Man is the product of causes that had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve individual life beyond the grave. . . . Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

The materialist’s universe philosophically precludes human purpose. Without a transcendent Purpose-Giver, “unyielding despair” is all we have to build our lives on.

Purpose is not something that arises from blind, indifferent forces. It must be given by an intentional agent—a person—and it implies an end that has been prescribed. A $100 bill, for example, is not for the exchange of goods and services unless that purpose has been intentionally prescribed. Otherwise, one can just as easily say that the bill is for starting fires. But of course, we know that in regular circumstances starting fires is not what $100 bills are for. This is not a random fact of nature; rather, paper money has been intelligently and intentionally given a purpose.

Meaning: Discovered or Invented?

Perhaps no modern theist has argued more persuasively for the pointlessness of life without God than Christian philosopher William Lane Craig. In his essay “The Absurdity of Life Without God,” he writes:

If there is no God, then man and the universe are doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death, we await our unavoidable execution. There is no God, and there is no immortality. And what is the consequence of this? It means that life itself is absurd . . . without ultimate significance, value, or purpose.

Some atheists respond by suggesting that we ourselves can give our lives significance. Whether he believes in God or not, doesn’t the life of a medical researcher, working to find a cure for a deadly disease, have real meaning?

Of course, anybody can experience “meaning” of a subjective kind; that is, at the level of opinion or sentiment. But the argument is that objective meaning or purpose cannot exist without God—and it is this kind of purpose that humans intuitively seek.

As the distinguished atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel recognized, “We want to matter to ourselves ‘from the outside.’ If our lives as a whole seem pointless, then a part of us is dissatisfied.” This is why we seem more inclined to ask “What’s the meaning of life?” rather than “What’s my meaning of life?” We intuit that there is a grand reason for our existence that is meant to be discovered, not merely invented.

Purpose Is All Around Us

But the real world seems to be anything but an un-purposed system. The great pagan philosophers of ancient Greece saw that goal-directedness or teleology was inherent in nature. Aristotle observed that purpose seemed to be metaphysically “built into” the natural world.

We can verify his metaphysical notion of purpose or “final causation” in nature for ourselves, here and now. Acorns grow into oak trees, and predictably so. Electrons repel other negatively charged particles, and predictably so. Apples do not grow feathers and fly south for the winter, and predictably so; because apples do not have the built-in potential to grow feathers by virtue of the fact that they are, by nature, apples.

Luckily for us, things in nature have a solid preference for being themselves. And for this reason, we live in an orderly, predictable, purposeful kind of world—the kind of world without which science would be impossible.

Arguing for a Supreme Intelligence

Moving beyond Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas argued that such goal-directness in the material world necessitates the existence of God. He showed that the Unmoved Mover, whom both he and Aristotle affirmed, was the same Supreme Intelligence that explained the causal regularity in the natural world.

Unfortunately, Aquinas’s teleological argument for God’s existence has often been wrongly equated with William Paley’s watchmaker argument and with the more modern Intelligent Design arguments. But whereas the Paley-style approaches argue for an Architect who imposes design “from the outside,” the Thomistic approach argues for a Supreme Intelligence that guides unconscious things toward their “final causes” or prescribed ends “from the inside.” To put it simply, Paley-style arguments focus on mechanism imposed on nature, while Thomistic arguments focus on metaphysics inherent in nature.

This is why the Aristotelean-Thomistic approach is not at all threatened by the theory of evolution. Indeed, a person can study the secondary (or physical) causes in the universe wholly apart from the First Cause of the universe. As philosopher Ed Feser writes, “The Supreme Intelligence directs things to their ends, but the system thereby created has a kind of independence insofar as it can be studied without reference to the Supreme Intelligence itself.”

If anything, the scientific theory of evolution compliments the Aristotelean-Thomistic approach, since evolution itself presupposes a certain goal-directedness (or final causation) in nature. Feser notes:

Even if it should turn out that animal species are the accidental byproducts of various convergent impersonal causal processes, the existence of those evolutionary processes themselves would require explanation in terms of final causes.

Our Final Good

If the material universe is endowed with immanent purpose, as Aristotle and Thomas have argued, then we can reasonably expect intelligent life to be as well. And if life has immanent purpose, it follows that it is also meaningful, since every action we take is meaningful inasmuch as it moves us toward or away from our final goal—or final good, as Aristotle calls it.

What is our final purpose as human persons? By and large, humanity has always come up with the same basic answer: we exist to be happy. But arriving at a more concrete answer has always been harder. In what—or whom—does our final happiness lie? Where must we arrive and what must we possess before we can finally and forever be at rest?

Christians, of course, have an answer to this timeless question. It is the Unmoved Mover, the Supreme Intelligence, from whom all things come and in whom all things hold together. It is in Jesus Christ who is, as Dante put it, the same “Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!