Friday, March 02, 2007

Discovering Purpose in the World

This is a revision of a talk I gave last night to a general audience.

Have you ever bought or received a gadget that didn’t come with instructions? Depending on how complicated the thing is, trying to figure out how to make it work can be pretty frustrating. Tonight we’re going to look at the “instructions” for the most complicated thing in the world: the human being. We’re going to examine how discerning the purposes built into our human nature can help us find fulfillment both as individuals and as a society.

Aristotle’s Physics and his entire philosophy recognize the purpose and order already present in the world independent of us; to achieve happiness we need to work with these existing purposes. It is important to note that what Aristotle means by purpose is not something consciously chosen, but simply regularity. That particular things happen “always or for the most part” indicates an ordering toward those ends. Scientific laws like the law of gravity actually testify to the order of the world. We choose to ignore this ordering at our peril. Modern science actually assumes that purpose and order exist in the world—it takes them for granted. Why else would scientists bother investigating, if there weren’t an order to be investigated? But because science doesn’t deal directly with purpose and order [i.e., with purpose as purpose and order as order], many people assume science has disproven their existence in nature. So, they reason, purpose and order must be unnatural: arbitrary human creations. This erroneous thinking has grown into an ideology. Happiness according to this ideology has nothing to do with our normal, natural maturation as human persons, but is entirely up to us: something that we have to find apart from our nature and to a large extent in opposition to it. Nature is a great chaos on which we must impose order and meaning. This ideology sees nature as a slave to be dominated, whereas Aristotle sees nature as a spouse to be engaged in dance.

All things, but especially all living things have purposes for which they strive. It’s pretty clear that all living things must at least strive to grow and reproduce, or else they wouldn’t be around for long. Think about an apple tree. The tree grows leaves in order to collect the energy of the sun, and it collects this energy to sustain its life processes… and grow apples! The maturation of the apple—its turning red—is the culmination and purpose of the apple tree. The tree finds its fulfillment in bearing fruit that will yield the next generation of apple trees.

As we ascend the scale of being, purposes not only persist, but they actually increase. Though we often forget, we humans have natures with purposes too, and it is in fulfilling the purposes inscribed in our natures that we find fulfillment. We neglect this truth to our harm. In our very wealthy country, we have a massive problem (quite literally) with overeating and its consequent diseases, and I think the root of this problem is our confusion over the purpose of eating. We see enjoyment as the purpose, with nourishment as a byproduct. In actuality, the pleasure we take from eating is merely one of the incentives that nature provides to encourage us to eat and sustain our lives. Food and its enjoyment are for the sake of sustaining life. The problem runs deeper than lack of awareness and is rooted in our assumptions about satisfaction in general. The constant bombardment of advertisements constantly vies for our money by telling us to pamper ourselves. Whether or not we buy a particular product, we all end up buying the idea that pleasure is the ultimate goal of our activities, when actually pleasure fills the supporting role of drawing us to what is good.

Keeping the natural purpose uppermost in mind illuminates other areas of life as well, like forming future members of society. Human children aren’t born with spines or fangs or fast legs. Unlike other animals who know what to do by instinct, human behaviors are largely learned. The child is born into the world tiny and defenseless, but nature has provided the community it needs to sustain its life in the persons of its parents. The presence of both parents is the optimal setting for the child’s maturation. (Please note that I’m not saying that it’s impossible to raise good children without these, or that people without them are inadequte; I'm just talking merely about what is optimal: goals toward we need to strive.) Studies show, for example, that children from two-parent families have higher educational achievement and lower dropout rates. Studies also show that the presence of both a mother and a father is important, that they fulfill complementary roles in child development. A child’s emotional bond with its mother builds its capacity for intimacy and empathy, and its sense of self-worth. Children whose fathers are involved in their upbringing have better emotional health, academic achievement, and, on growing up, higher job status. Daughters especially benefit from their fathers by learning that they are loveable and how to appreciate their own femininity. The presence of both parents models for the children interactions between the sexes. Marriage is the way that human culture provides for the upbringing of children, and this is the reason that societies with even the most exotic moral beliefs and practices have treasured marriage.


As we have seen, the world is teeming with purposes. Sun and moon rise and set at regular intervals. Crops begin growing in the spring and bear fruit in the fall. Children are born utterly dependent on their parents and only after a couple decades (often longer!) do they reach maturity. It’s so obvious that we often miss it. If we wish for a good harvest, we plant in the spring in a place with ample sun and water. If we wish for good adults, we nurture our children with love and protect them from influences that will keep them from growing straight and tall.

Whereas Aristotle’s philosophy deals with purposes directly, science merely assumes their reality. Science is a very powerful way to see the world, but it is very limited. We need to see science as part of a larger philosophy of nature. Aristotle provides a comprehensive way of thinking about the world, and limits science to its proper bounds. If we can look beyond modern science’s constrained view and learn to appreciate the broad panorama of nature, we can learn to work with the purposes alive in the world and in ourselves and find true happiness.

Marriage and Child Wellbeing: A Publication of The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and The Brookings Institution. This is a collection of essays on the subject. The sponsoring institutions had to satisfy their liberal obligations by including a piece that glosses over the problems with homosexuals raising children, but the fact that even liberals recognize the indispensible role the marriage and family play in society is significant.

Kay S. Hymowitz, “Marriage and Caste,” City Journal (Winter 2006).

Brudget E, Maher, “The Benefits of Marriage,” Family Research Council Website. The following are the relevant references from this document:

Brenda Hunter, Ph.D., The Power of Mother Love (Waterbrook Press: Colorado Springs, 1997) 104.

Mohammadreza Hojat, "Satisfaction with Early Relationships with Parents and Psychosocial Attributes in Adulthood: Which Parent Contributes More?" The Journal of Genetic Psychology 159 (1998): 203-220, as cited in The Family in America New Research, The Howard Center (October 1998).

Jay Teachman, et al., "Sibling Resemblance in Behavioral Cognitive Outcomes: The Role of Father Presence," Journal of Marriage and the Family 60 (November 1998): 835-848.

Timothy J. Biblarz and Greg Gottainer, "Family Structure and Children's Success: A Comparison of Widowed and Divorced Single-Mother Families," Journal of Marriage and the Family 62 (May 2000:) 533-548.

David Popenoe, Life Without Father: Compelling New Evidence That Fatherhood and Marriage Are Indispensable for the Good of Children and Society (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996) 143-149.

Also of interest: Dwight Duncan's 1997 Amicus Curiae Brief on Homosexual Marriage

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