What's Left for Religion When Science Explains Purpose?

There will still be a place for religion and a safer, saner one at that.

Posted Nov 08, 2019

Religion and spirituality, which bring great comfort to billions of people, are now under threat from people like me, people who are committed to the scientific campaign to find natural explanations for all natural phenomena.

For 23 years, I’ve been a core researcher with an origin of life research project founded by UC Berkeley neuroscientist, evolutionary biologist, and biological anthropologist Terrence Deacon. Our project does not set out to debunk supernatural beliefs. We recognize their personal and social value and yet still feel free to pursue a scientific answer to big religious and spiritual questions.

We’re researching natural teleology, telos being the Greek word for purpose, goal-directedness, means-to-ends behavior. Aristotle identified telos or “final cause” as one of the fundamental causes in the universe, “that for which something occurs”; for example, you doing things for your own ends, for your own benefit. When we talk about organisms as distinct from chemistry, effort as distinct from work, functional benefit as distinct from stuff just happening, and adaptive fitness as distinct from physical conformity (for example molecules fitting together), we’re talking telos.

We can’t help talk telos in the life and social sciences, and we never talk telos in the physical sciences: You’re not going to find physical scientists saying that the moon pulls on the tides in order to achieve some benefit. In the physical sciences, no telos. In the life/social sciences, telos. What explains that difference?

Teleology was a religious topic first, under the assumption that all phenomena were caused by a supernatural God’s purposes. Then, during the Enlightenment, scientists became skeptical about not just God as the source of all-purpose, but purpose altogether.

With Newton’s laws of motion and all that followed in the scientific revolution, scientists began to talk as though telos or purpose wasn’t real. The final cause became a lost cause in the sciences, where researchers increasingly assumed that everything is just cause-and-effect—nothing is really means-to-ends purposeful. Purpose is just a figment of our imaginations. As Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA put it:

"'You,' your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules."

Hence, the current culture wars between those who insist that we must live up to God-given religious purposes and atheists who suggest that the universe is purposeless, nothing but physical chemistry.

What gets lost in the culture war tussle is natural teleology, the pursuit of a natural science explanation for the nature and origin of purposeful behavior. Natural teleology is the focus of our 23-year research project with heartening discoveries along the way. We have a scientifically plausible and testable model for how life’s means-to-ends effort emerges from physiochemistry’s cause-and-effect phenomena, an explanation for how mattering emerges from within matter. How proactive organisms emerge from passive chemical dynamics. We have a plausible explanation for what the religious and spiritual call the soul or spirit, or what the scientists, despite their reluctance, call agency or selfhood.

Again, science is a campaign to find natural explanations for all natural phenomena. One doesn’t have to participate in that campaign, but if you do, you can’t resort to supernatural explanations, nor can you assume away real natural phenomena. You can neither say that a supernatural something (God, a higher power) explains purposeful behavior, nor can you say that purposeful behavior isn’t real.

That leaves something unexplained in both the religious/spiritual camp and the current scientific camp. Even if you believe that a higher power pours life into the matter to create living beings, you still have to explain why some things are alive, and others aren’t. And if you believe, with scientists like Crick, that we are nothing but cause-and-effect chemistry, you still have to explain why some chemistry is alive, and other chemistry isn’t.

Imagine if someday, perhaps soon, researchers in natural teleology like us did come up with a plausible, tested explanation for how purpose emerged in a purposeless universe, an explanation say as simple as our explanation for lightning, an explanation that any fifth-grader could recount.

What would happen to the comforts and social benefits afforded to us by religion and spirituality? Would people have to abandon them? Not for the universal purposelessness of Crick’s chemical world, but for a scientific, natural teleology that explained the emergence of purpose in a purposeless world. Such a discovery would still be a threat to the credibility of religion and spirituality upon which so many people depend.

I am an atheist. I think God or a higher power is highly unlikely, not impossible, but unlikely and unnecessary. The universe is 14 billion years old, and we only see purposeful behavior starting with the origins of life, roughly 4 billion years ago, organisms trying to regenerate, soft, vulnerable creatures nonetheless persisting in a continuous lineage for billions of years by dint of their purposeful effort to survive and reproduce.

We find no evidence of purposeful behavior in the first 10 billion years of the universe’s history. That leads me to believe that matter came first. Mattering or purpose emerged from it.

Through our research, I have a plausible, testable guess for how purpose emerged. I no longer depend upon a supernatural explanation for purpose nor on the denial of purpose. I believe that purpose is real and has no universal purpose. My goals and purposes matter to me, but I don’t believe that they matter to the universe. And I’m OK with that.

I also study history and find plenty of evidence of religion and spirituality bringing out not the best in people, but the worst: for example, people claiming all the high-horse privileges due to the righteous, without any real effort to behave righteously; people embracing superhuman standards, failing to live up to them, and rationalizing it through self-righteous projection.

I have mixed feelings about religion, on the one hand appreciating and honoring its use, on the other hand, finding it dangerous to our earthly priorities.

I’ve started a new podcast series in which I play out my ambivalences through self-debate. Here’s a 15-minute episode on religion, concluding with an unusual perspective on how to get the best out of it and not the worst. 


Sherman, Jeremy (2017) Neither Ghost Nor Machine: The emergence and nature of selves. NYC Columbia University Press