Believing in a purposeful universe

Many if not most people believe that in order for life to be truly purposeful, the universe itself must be purposeful. This is an age-old assumption.

Belief is a powerful modulator of motivation. Beliefs can be inspiring but they can also be demoralizing, and sometimes they can be dangerous. A major part of the work of a psychiatrist is to persuade people to be skeptical about their own beliefs, critically examining the evidence for their assumptions, and not automatically believing their own thoughts and perceptions. We are all prone to cognitive distortions as we try to make sense of our world. Beliefs about purpose, intention and meaning are particularly prone to mistaken assumptions.

It seems to be an intuitive human tendency to assume that life and the universe are inherently purposeful, intentional and designed, that “things are meant to be”. This is a belief with powerful potential to affect motivation -- positively or negatively.The belief that everything happens for a reason and that our lives are overseen by a higher power is a double-edged sword: It can be reassuring and comforting, but can also lead to bitter anguish and feelings of abandonment when suffering cruel adversity (“Why me?!”).

To most people throughout history, it has seemed self-evident that our world is purposefully designed and controlled by intentional higher power/s. It would have seemed foolish to suggest that such finely tuned immense complexity as characterizes our world, and such powerful forces of nature, could all have arisen spontaneously.

However, current scientific theories (which, bear in mind, are by definition hypotheses subject to improvement as new evidence comes to light), have already by now provided highly elegant, compelling and entirely plausible models for how the universe, life and consciousness could have emerged and evolved 100% naturalistically and spontaneously. The universe and everything in it looks exactly as it would be expected to, if it had evolved without any planning or guidance (this point can be persuasively made before even needing to invoke the “Problem of Evil: Why do bad things happen to good people?”). There are now extremely cogent reasons to be highly skeptical of assumptions about a purposeful, designed universe.

Seeing purpose and intention in just about everything

Moreover, we now understand much more clearly than ever before, that assumptions about inherent purpose are natural human psychological projections. (We also understand that supernatural belief is powerfully reinforced by additional factors such as solace, death denial, certainty, order, control, group cohesion and respect for authority). An understanding of the evolutionary psychology of belief (belief in general, not just the supernatural variety) suggests that humans are strongly predisposed to see meaning, purpose and intention in events. To paraphrase Michael Shermer: These human traits most likely evolved to detect predators and prey and to cooperate as social animals, by readily identifying patterns and by inferring other beings’ intentions from those patterns.

Revealingly, psychiatric disorders such as psychosis and mania amplify to more extreme degrees the normal human habit of over-identifying purpose and intention in events. Delusions of reference are the most common type of delusions. These delusions involve the false belief that unrelated, coincidental or innocuous events, actions or objects have a particular personal significance. My patients regularly tell me “Everything is happening for a reason”, “It’s all about me”, they detect “hidden messages”, “signs”. They tell me that “It couldn’t possibly just be coincidence”. They present all kinds of evidence that they consider irrefutable. These types of delusion are a central characteristic of paranoia and of grandiosity.

The naturalistic enigma: the emergence of caring in an indifferent universe

Once we have dispensed with supernaturalism as a plausible explanation for the universe, life and consciousness, we must consider an apparent paradox:

How have we humans evolved to be purpose-driven, caring about our lives (being goal-directed, motivated) and to care about other people's lives (being moral, compassionate, even if only some of the time)… in an unplanned, mmechanistic, indifferent universe lacking any purpose or “caring”?

Why do we care about our lives?

Fundamentally, purpose-driven human behaviors are merely elaborations of the evolved drive to survive, attract mates and procreate, as vehicles for self-propagating genes. All biological organisms, even the simplest, are by definition goal-directed – with or without any form of conscious intentionality as an outgrowth of this basic drive.

Even a bacterium or a plant is goal-directed.

Complex, purpose-driven human behaviors can be understood at a basic level as extravagantly, wondrously embellished means towards basic reproductive ends. This is in a sense analogous to the evolution of peacock feathers. Complex goal-directed human behaviors have produced the magnificent spectacle of human civilization.

We are simply wired to be goal-directed, driven by our brain’s highly evolved motivation and reward circuits. Pursuing and achieving goals is neurochemically reinforced and imbued with feelings of reward. This rewarding feeling is most clearly and dramatically experienced for food and sex. For more complex, creative, goal-directed behaviors, we experience feelings of reward in subtle ways, such as by feelings of “accomplishment” or “self-actualization”. These are complexly evolved elaborations of the same basic behavioral reinforcement system. Motivation is the normal, natural state of animals, varying in intensity as a trait across individuals, and partially modifiable by behavioural conditioning involving experiences of rewards and consequences.

Apathy and diminished capacity to experience feelings of reward is the abnormal, exceptional state. Many specific psychiatric or brain disorders cause loss of “appetite for life” or deficits in goal-directedness. Specific psychological and social factors can do this too, triggering depression due to feeling devalued or rejected by others. Depression, once it sets in, has neural correlates.

When mentally healthy, our natural purposefulness and appetite for life gives us a powerful inclination to make meaning for ourselves in our lives. Our ability to do so is not dependent on the universe itself having a pre-defined purpose. Abstract existential questions about life and the universe are, for most people, merely intellectually interesting to ponder and debate.

Why do we (most often) care about others’ lives?

Okay, so we care about our own lives. But what about caring about the lives of others, if the universe really is indifferent and amoral? Group dynamics in social animals are the basis of competition and cooperation. Humans have competitive and cooperative instincts, aggressive and empathic tendencies. Motivations to cooperate include reciprocal altruism (“I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine”). As social primates, group dynamics make social status an additional crucial motivator, serving the more basic drives of survival and reproduction. Status in primates is dependent on social reputation. Reputation, in turn, is established in primates by aggressive dominance and intimidation…. as well as by being helpful, a “team player” and demonstrating useful skills.

In humans, as in other primates, status is acquired not only by dominance, but importantly, by achieving admirable skills and making useful contributions to the group. This leads to feelings of self-worth and accomplishment, and is typically a primary motivator for purposeful living.

We are also prone to feelings of failure. Disappointment with oneself for failing to accomplish all one’s goals and not being the ideal person we would like to be is a quintessentially human experience ("My goal in life is to be the person my dog thinks I am“!). Feelingsof failure can lead to resentment, but also have the potential to increase our empathy towards other fallible human beings.

As social animals, we are highly attuned to the feelings of fellow group members and adept at inferring their mental states.This is empathy. We also have highly developed mammalian bonding instincts (derived in part from mammals’ need to nurture their young). People generally care empathically about each other, are disturbed by their distress, and seek to console another in distress. This is not unique to humans; it may be related to the evolved response to mammalian infant cries. It is more developed in humans.

Compassion versus cruelty: which will prevail?

Of course, people don’t always care. Sometimes we are callously indifferent, or just oblivious to the suffering of others. And there are many biological, psychological and social factors that can over-ride caring and lead to aggression or cruelty. A certain amount of normal aggression is also adaptive.

However, there is a fair chance that people will care. Most people are capable of caring once they are able to comprehend and relate to the other person’s predicament and perspective…and they are even more likely to do so in reasonably conducive social circumstances. Getting people to achieve such comprehension and compassion, and creating those socially conducive circumstances, is the challenge. Yet, there is a fair chance of success if dealing with people with intact “empathy circuits”.

The human capacity for sophisticated reasoning plays a very important augmenting role too, contributing to the development of social contracts and of increasingly rational systems of law.

As Steven Pinker and others have pointed out, the tendency over the course of human history has generally been towards greater caring. This has been a far from smooth trend, but an unmistakable trend nonetheless, taking the long view of history. Working towards establishing reasonably peaceful, cooperative, caring, critically-minded, skeptical societies is a realistic, potentially achievable goal.

Indeed, this goal has already been partially achieved in developed, democratic countries (which, not coincidentally, are the most secular too). Those countries are also cooperatively inter-dependent with each other, reflecting an ever-widening definition of “within-group”.

In conclusion:

Humans are innately purpose-driven – we care about our lives and are strongly motivated to work towards purposeful, meaningful goals. The realization that meaning is something that we make, rather than made for us, is both anxiety-provoking and empowering, liberating. There is a fairly good chance of getting people to cooperate and to care about the lives of others. Developing more caring societies is a realistic, non-naïve collective human project.

…but expecting the universe to care? Best of luck to those who do…

I don’t know about you, but I’m more concerned with knowing that people care about me than that the universe does.



Dr. Ralph Lewis is a staff psychiatrist and assistant professor in Toronto, Canada.