Do You Act With A Purpose, Or Not?

Modern atheist evolutionists tell us that nature is completely purposeless, yet works toward an end, namely survival. For the most part this end is assumed and never questioned. Few people seem to see a conflict in the idea that nature is mindless and random, yet driven toward an end. Thomas Aquinas thought of this position 750 years ago and called it absurd. In On Truth (De Veritate), Q5.A2, Thomas says:

Whatever does not have a determinate cause happens by accident. [If the contrary] were true, all the harmony and usefulness found in things would be the result of chance. . . . This explanation, of course, is absurd, for those things that happen by chance, happen only rarely; we know from experience, however, that harmony and usefulness are found in nature either at all times or at least for the most part. This cannot be the result of mere chance; it must be because an end is intended. What lacks intellect or knowledge, however, cannot tend directly toward an end. It can do this only if someone else’s knowledge has established an end for it, and directs it to that end. Consequently, since natural things have no knowledge, there must be some previously existing intelligence directing them to an end, like an archer who gives a definite motion to an arrow so that it will wing its way to a determined end.

If we assume that the basic natural phenomenon per se (such as gravity, friction, heat, momentum, etc.) are not directed toward an end, then we are reduced to this question: Can we explain movement and action in the universe through basic natural phenomenon, in which case nothing is ever truly directed toward an end,  or is there causal agents that direct things toward and end?

Naturalists, at least the ones that have thought about the question, hold to the former, saying that the universe is “causally closed,” there are no active agents in the world creating any causes toward an end, no movement toward a goal. They say that everything we see is the result of complex series of pure, mindless, unguided forces. Theists, in our case Christians, would hold that there are causal agents, we can create action on our own, and that there is more in the world than natural forces.

It would seem an awfully big pill to swallow to hold that natrual forces explain all movement, there are no causal agents, and nothing we observe truly works toward an end.  I maintain we do observe beings in the world working toward and end, therefore more exists than pure matter. We have always called this a soul.

I had an atheist once ask me “what sort of instrument can I use to measure the soul?” which is a logical question if you are a pure materialist. I did not ask him whether he thought his question was the result of pure natural forces, and whether he realized his desire for an answer really did not exist, for according to his worldview, nothing works toward an end. I also did not ask him how he held that natural selection could work when nothing works toward an end.

It would therefore be much more logical to hold to theism, which says things do indeed work toward an end, we have souls, and we are causal agents, which was the rest of Aquinas’ explanation.


About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
This entry was posted in Apologetics, Aquinas, Atheism, Evolution, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Do You Act With A Purpose, Or Not?

  1. chikeson2013 says:

    Reblogged this on chikesonblog and commented:
    I consider myself as an observer of nature. My theory is that life and the universe operates on the cycle of existence. And as such there was never a beginning and there will never be an end. Man is only a tiny wheel in that cycle of existence.

  2. rautakyy says:

    Thomas of Aquinas had a limited view on information gained by materialistic sciences since his times. To him this was just a philosophical question in a situation where his world view was not very strongly challenged by anyone, like it is for the Theist today.

    We all observe the reality around us from our own perspectives. To the whale the sea may seem like the natual habitat explicitly and with purpose made solely for it, but is it not more likely, that it is the otherwise around, that the whale has actually been molded by the sea to be a whale? It requires no design for a whale to be better suited for the watery environment, but by living there generation after generation it is quite natural for the future whales to be even better suited for the sea, than their ancestors. A whale is far better suited to the ocean, than the otter, but if otters live by the ocean for generations they could become more suited to live in it. And all this by the mere accident, that a bunch of otters once moved to live by the sea instead of a stream. Correct?

    Most things in the world do happen by accidents. Do they not? Most events do not manifest any great plan, do they? But frequent accidents form patterns and patterns form more complicated patterns together. In a very long period of time complicated patterns may dissolve, or become even more complicated, but we who come after the dissolving of some patterns only observe the ones that survived and by their complexity we may assume they were intentionally designed, since we have this ability intentionally design things, but it does not mean these complex patterns are in any way designed. And if we are interrested in finding out about the truth we should not jump to conclusions about such things just because some traditional guesses about these issues make us feel safe. Should we?

    Natural processes, such as evolution, have been described and explained thoroughly by naturalistic science. Science does not reveal all that stuff, that used to be defined as supernatural to be actually just natural phenomenons in this very material universe, because scientists have a conspiracy, or even bias against any notions of the supernatural. It is not like they had no explanations as to how and why nature works the way it does, but science does not presume absolute answers where none have been found. That is how religions work.

    Scientific study of the natural material universe is clearly the best way of studying the truth by observation and testability. Supernatural does not submit to either, so why would we presuppose supernatural exists? It is obvious to any Christian (that I know of), that all the other religions in the world are just productions of the imagination of people. A very materialistic conclusion, would you not say? A psychological, sociological, logical and scientific explanation as to why people hold other religious beliefs. What makes any religion different from the others? Is it not more prudent to say simply, that people have this ability to imagine gods and supernatural reasons as we have observed and recognized and that is why it is the most likeliest explanation to any claims about the divine, or supernatural?

    • humblesmith says:

      You underestimate those who challenged Aquinas.

      You appear to be saying that all actions by animals are complex accidents, without any purpose. As I said in the post, this is a hard pill to swallow and be consistent. It would hold that no animal really acts with purpose, including survival. As Dawkins would say, “random purposeless indifference.”

      You also assume that only material things are observable and testable. Nothing in a non-material event would preclude it from either.

      It is more likely that people do not want to answer for their actions, therefore they deny the Divine.

      • rautakyy says:

        Excuse me for obviously not being clear about my position. It is hard to put so much issue in short blog commentary, especially since I do not write with my first language. But I fear I have a tendency to make too long comments.

        Anyway, not at all, did I mean to say, that the actions of animals are accidents. I merely said that the events in this universe are mostly accidents some more and some less complex. Therefore it goes to reason, that very complex chains of events may occur by mere simple chance putting them in motion. Yes? There follows logically, that alltough a divine prime mover might be possible, it is by no means necessary. But the complexity of the surviving mechanisms in nature may lead us to the false conclusion, that there is some sort of a plan. It is a reassuring thought, and that propably makes it so popular, but that does not make it true.

        The hunger a predator feels, gives it purpose to hunt, like the intellectual need I feel, gives me the purpose to write these words. However, the prey of the predator, that happens to come by as its prey is a mere accident. Unfortunate accident for the prey, I fear. Likewise, it is not a part of any particular plan, that I make my comment on your blog. It is by mere chance that I stumbled upon it and I hope our interaction will be beneficial to both of us. There were reasons, that directed these events, but the meetings were by any measure random. Coincidential at best. I have never read any of Dawkins books, so it is very hard for me to know what he meant by that particular sentence you quoted, when it was in context. Have you read a lot of his works?

        When the telephone was first invented by A. G. Bell, he did not plan it to eventually be a cellphone, did he? The telephone has evolved as our technology and culture has evolved. Our technological achievements are the result of intelligent human design and a number of human purposes, but it still does not mean there was a master plan at work when human communication took these steps. And obsolete models of telephones have been removed from the circulation. There is nothing to suggest it all happens because of a purpose to achieve a particular goal, but as multiple chains of technological and cultural evolution. Chance played a very big role in how it all happened and what it will all look like later, but even so, looking back, if we did not know where the telephones came from we might make the wrong conclusion, that cellphones are exactly what Bell intended the telphone to be eventually. If we had first made that assumption, would it not be a “hard pill to swallow”, if we discovered that Bell did not have this intention? Especially so, if we for cultural reasons, had emotionally invested to have a feeling of safety, because Bell is directing the developement of the telephone into a purposefull end, where we will be calling each other for free for an eternity?

        What supernatural, or even immaterial has ever been reliably tested, or observed? You propably accept, that there are a lot of people who sincerely believe to have some sort of connection to supernatural, but who have never proven those and that you yourself, as a Christian, would propably outright deny most of such claims about the supernatural. Such as palm reading, oujaboards, tarot, and other religious ritual experts who claim to have connection to this, or that divinity or other supernatural entity. Would you not? But there is somehting about your own cultural heritage, that makes your religion special to you, even among all the other religions. Just like the believers in other religions feel, that their religions are special in comparrison to yours and others, because they have their own cultural indoctrination, that simply makes their own faith not only feel superior, but also more reasonable to them. Or have I got it wrong?

        I feel I am very much answerable for my actions to myself, that is my consceince, my fellow human beings and even to the generations to come, but not to anything unsubstantial like the supernatural. And what is answerability, if you have the option to ask for forgiveness at any moment from a source, that is awailable everywhere and is bound to forgive us, for having allready had paid for any evil act we may commit? It seems to me, that in Christianity the greatest “sin” one might commit is disbelief, a kind of thought crime, that I am guilty of, just because I am totally unable to bring myself to lie to myself. Absurd, really.

  3. hausdorff says:

    “Modern atheist evolutionists tell us that nature is completely purposeless, yet works toward an end, namely survival.”

    You are talking about ideas working on two different levels here. Evolution on the whole is purposeless, there is no goal in mind, there is no creature that is being strived for. It is not the case that evolution was working toward creating humans, for example. In this way, you are correct, nature is purposeless. But on the individual level, creatures generally work toward survival. This makes sense, if a creature isn’t motivated to survive, it won’t pass on its genes.

    There is no contradiction between the system as a whole having no purpose and individual members of the system working toward surviving.

    • humblesmith says:

      I understand the distinction. The problem is that the pure materialists, at least all the ones I’ve seen that have thought through the issue, claim that all of our actions are caused by natural forces. The phrase they use is that the universe is causally closed, meaning that all our actions are ultimately caused by purely physics and chemistry, and that we do not have free will….all our actions are caused.

      In your explanation, you claim that we are “motivated to survive” which requires working toward an end, the very thing that they claim we cannot do.

      Ultimately, the atheist materialist wants it both ways…saying there are no purposes in the universe, no free will, all our actions are caused, not chosen, yet also claiming that we have motivations and choices.

      Still further, the post here goes even further, saying that the only way anything can work toward an end is for there to be a causal agent that directs it toward an end.

      I understand the distinction you are holding. I just don’t see how anyone can reconcile motivation to survive and a no being having agency, free will, nor working toward any end.

      • hausdorff says:

        Interesting. I’ve thought about the idea that we don’t have free will a little bit in the past, I’m not exactly sure how I feel about it. As I understand it, the idea is that our actions are ultimately caused by how our brains are wired and the inputs that we get from our environment. Theoretically, if you knew all of the variables about my brain, and you knew all of the sensory input I would receive you could predict my actions perfectly. Furthermore, all of my sensory input is determined by things that came before, and the way my brain is wired is determined by my genes and development environment. If you knew all of these variables, you should be able to predict what I am going to do. In this way, I don’t have free will as everything is determined by things that came before. I’ve never heard the term “causally closed”, but my guess is that this is what they are getting at.

        Let’s suppose for the moment that this is the way it really is. There is no free will, everything is determined by things that came before. If someone knew everything there was to know about the universe they could predict anything they want as far into the future as they want. But I don’t have any of that information. With my limited perspective, it feels like I have free will, and my brain has a program in it that is driven toward survival. The fact that my drive to survive could have been predicted a million years ago seems immaterial here, to me, at this moment, I feel like I am working toward survival.

        So we have the 2 ideas: A. I don’t have free will and B. I am working toward and end. A and B don’t seem contradictory to me.

        Sorry for the somewhat long and rambling comment. I’m having a bit of fun working through the ideas, what do you think? Am I missing something here?

  4. Aaron T. Lockhart says:

    I’m sorry to post in this thread off-topic, but I cannot find any contact information anywhere. I have a question regarding another post, but I posted on the most recent in hopes you would see it in the next 12 hours. I have a pressing question that needs answered and it appears you claim to have answered it at some point. On a thread, you said, “as I’ve shown, we have reasonable evidence to conclude that God did indeed send prophets to Canaan to tell them to stop sacrificing their children, but they refused…” I have been searching for any evidence that God sent prophets to Canaan during the 440 years of Israel’s absence from the land, but cannot find any. Can you shed some light on this for me, please?

    That, and delete this comment from this current thread. 🙂

    Thank you!

    • humblesmith says:

      We admit up front that we do not have a direct, extensive explanation of God sending a prophet to Canaan in advance of Joshua. However, to say “we do not have a record of God sending a prophet to Canaan, therefore He did not” is a faulty logic, based on an argument from silence, which is a logical fallacy.

      We do have a reasonable indication that God would have sent notice, though. Many times in the Bible we have evidence of God speaking to the nations in the region, such as the following, all of which are outside Israel:

      –Rahab the harlot, from Jericho in Canaan, tells the spies in Joshua 2:10-11 that the city had heard of the things God did. Rather than make peace and appeal to God as Rahab did, the city continued to reject God. Rahab appealed to God and was saved, while the others persecuted God’s messengers and died.
      –Daniel was a prophet who sent a message to the kings of Babylon.
      –Jonah was a prophet who God sent to Nineveh, who repented and God saved them.
      –Moses was a prophet who God sent to Egypt, who could have repented but did not.
      –Isaiah, in a large section in the first half of the book, gives a series of prophecies about surrounding nations. For example, Isaiah 17 God sends a message about Damascus.
      –Solomon was a witness to the queen of Sheba.
      –Amos Ch. 1 gives a series of prohecies, some of which were to nations outside of Israel, such as Damascus.
      –In Acts, the Ethiopian eunuch had a copy of Isaiah and was reading it. This tells us that the prophecies had gone out into surrounding nations.
      –Joseph was a witness to Egypt in Genesis.

      These are just the ones I can recall off the top of my head….I’m guessing there are more. Based on these things, plus what we know about God’s character presented in the Bible, we can safely conclude that 1) God is always fair and just, and would not unjustly kill people, 2) God often sent messengers to lands outside of Israel, 3) God relents every time someone repents and appeals for forgiveness, 4) Romans 1:20 tells us that pagan lands have enough revelation from nature to realize the true God exists, so that they are without excuse.

      Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that God would have sent sufficient word to the Canaanites so that they could have repented, as Rahab did, who was from that land.
      For more, see here:

      Hope this helps.

  5. Roger Causwell says:

    Enough revelation through nature? How about actual revelation? What kind of a cruel, sadistic diety would plant hidden hints akin to an Easter egg hunt, then condemn you to an eternity of suffering if you weren’t sharp enough to pick up on them? What – a tree confirms this existence? A river? This is revelation?

    • humblesmith says:

      No, the creation confirms it did not happen by itself, so there must be an active agent that created it. Revealing the details are up to God to do, which He has done.

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