Purpose In Life: Nothing But Illusion?
by Tom Gilson
There’s a running Internet debate between theists and atheists over the question of purpose. Atheists typically insist they can find purpose without God; theists typically answer that this is something less than real purpose, because it’s so ephemeral and temporary. I see a deeper problem with purpose than that, however, if naturalism is true.
Naturalism and the Illusions of Life
Naturalistic thinkers commonly tell us that human consciousness and free will are illusions. Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne deny free will completely; Daniel Dennett denies agent freedom. Susan Blackmore calls consciousness an illusion. Alex Rosenberg denies consciousness, identity, and even thought.
They have good reason to conclude these things, if naturalism is true.* The laws of nature do not permit humans to make free will decisions. The stuff of which reality is made — matter and energy, interacting according to law (or law-like regularity) and chance — doesn’t have what it takes to be conscious of itself.** Therefore no matter how persistently our brains tell us we are conscious and making decisions, we aren’t. It’s an illusion. It’s a strong illusion, apparently inserted into the human experience for evolutionary adaptive reasons. We can’t shake it. But it’s false.
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But I can’t help wondering, why don’t naturalists say the same about humans’ sense of purpose in life?
The Natural Impossibility of Purpose
It seems to me there are multiple reasons that they should. The first one flows from the illusoriness of consciousness and decision-making. To be conscious of one’s sense of purpose is to take part in an illusion, and to choose one’s purpose is, too. It must be so: for consciousness and choice are both illusory, on naturalism.
Then there is the question of where our sense of purpose could have come from. On one level of analysis, humans are the product of physical reactions of particles doing what particles must do as they interact. There’s no purpose in the laws of nature. There’s no purpose in chance, either, which quantum physics (on at least one interpretation) tells us is part of the causal flow that brought us where we are. There’s no place for purpose to have come from…
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