20 December 2006

Reason and Purpose

A few days ago I suddenly realized something: there is a distinction between reason and purpose. Earlier in the day, I had been browsing the forums of the Richard Dawkins foundation, and in one of the threads there, people were sharing their favorite atheistic one-liners. This was a humorous thread, not intended to start any real discussion. But one user’s one-liner -- “Everything has a reason” -- did stir up some discussion. People wanted to know why he thought this was an atheistic statement, and the moment, I too was wondering. I realized the distinction, many hours later.

The distinction can be seen in the example of the Christian bestseller, The Purpose-Driven Life, and the nonbeliever’s answer to it, The Reason-Driven Life. Of course, “reason” in the latter example refers to logic, rational thinking, but the two meanings are similar. Let me use two examples to show the distinction between reason and purpose and how they can be blurred. In our first example, a young engaged couple is picnicking on a hilly area, and near them is a cliff. The cliff is a sheer drop into a dry creek bed, and it is obvious that a fall from such a height would be deadly. After the lunch is concluded, the young woman goes to the edge of the cliff to admire the view. She is standing too close to the edge, but excited by the danger, and perhaps teases her fiancĂ© when he asks her to step back. Suddenly a gust of wind arises, catches her off-guard and makes her lose her balance. So close is she to the edge of the precipice that it throws her off, and she plummets downward.

She dies. The young man, stricken, quickly rushes to where his beloved once stood. He kneels down on the ground and crawls to the edge of the cliff, and looks down to see her dead. He is overwhelmed by sorrow and a sense of loss. He sits up, collects his thoughts, and dwells on what has just happened. He comes to a decision. He stands up, goes to the edge of the cliff, closes his eyes, whispers something, and then jumps off. He dies. This is the first example. The young man fell on purpose; he intended to jump off, which he did, and he intended to die, which he did. The young woman fell by accident, with no purpose to it. There was a reason to her fall -- she was too close to the edge, was out of touch with the dangers inherent in her environment, and when the wind blew she fell victim to her own carelessness and the forces of nature. Here we see reason, but no purpose. As you can see, there is a distinctive line between the two concepts -- but it is one that can be blurred.

Second example: A middle-aged man who is severly overweight is stopped by two Christian fundamentalists passing out tracts. He isn't interested, but they won't leave him alone. They begin to argue, their voices rising. The man, as if to prove a point to the fundamentalist, starts screaming profanities at the sky, mocking God. He screams and waves his arms wildly before suffering a heart attack and dying.The two fundamentalists see it as an Act of God. There was divine Purpose to this man’s death, to punish the mortal who dared to rise up against his creator. But was there, really? Could it not be that this man’s heart, aged and dealing with an unhealthy amount of weight and emotional stress, could not bear the strain the man was forcing on it, and malfunctioned? Of course. But to the believer, there could be both Purpose and Reason in this set of events -- and that God accomplished his Purpose through a reason. This is why “There is a reason to everything” can be seen as an atheistic statement.

The person who posted that saw the world through a naturalist’s eyes, a world where everything had a reason, but not a divine purpose. A believer who says the man in the second example caused his own demise is actually right -- he did, by neglecting his health and getting overly worked up about religion being pushed on him. The believer, however, says that reason isn’t the end of the story -- the man caused God to strike him down. But the line is too blurred to convince a nonbeliever. Even being struck by lightening wouldn’t convince most people. The man would’ve had to have broken out with leprosy or vanish into a hole in the ground that suddenly appeared -- things that God has done in the past, and since God never changes he should be willing to do again -- to convince someone who thinks there is no divine purpose behind anything that there is.

This is why I have always held that religion and science are two horns on the same bull, the bull of curiosity. As the stone age humans observed their world, they wanted to know -- why? This is most easily seen in Greek and Egyptian mythology. In Ancient Greece, every aspect of nature -- the rising sun, the tumultuous seas, the ferocity of lightening -- has a god to explain it. Helios causes the sun to rise and set, Poseidon controls the seas, and Zeus uses lightening to cause the mortals to respect him and to punish them if they don’t. My personal favorite is the tale of Demeter, Persephone, and Hades, which explains the seasons. It’s a fun read. Egyptian mythology is the same -- it centers around the life-giving artery of Egypt, the Nile River. To the religious mind, things happen on earth because the gods purposed for them to do so. But as humanity grew in knowledge, and we learned that weather is caused by the Sun heating parts of the earth unequally because of the earth’s tilt, and we learned that the tide is caused by gravity, and we learned that we have seasons again because of the earth’s tilt, the gods were needed to explain less and less. Everything had a logical cause, a reason. This is why Fredrick Nietzsche declared that God was dead -- not out of arrogance, but as someone commenting on the knowledge of society at that time. But everyone has some bias, and this is why the distinction is blurred. Different people draw the line in different places. Theistic people may admit that events, actions, and so forth have a natural reason, but they say the reason is wrapped up in divine purpose. Nontheists say there is always a reason, but not always a purpose. Where a particular raindrop falls has a reason -- physics and probability determine it. But there is no God to will a raindrop to fall in a particular spot on the beach.

Another example is the idea of luck, which stems from probability. I grew up in a church where you were frowned on for saying “Good luck” or “That was lucky”. You instead were supposed to say “God bless you!” or “Wow, you are so blessed.” I was never taken with this concept, and didn’t practice it. But when anyone says “Lady Luck smiled on you!”, they don’t actually think there’s some supernatural woman out there who purposely manipulates probability so that one man walks away a winner and the other loses everything. They just mean “You benefited from probability today!”.

That simple statement -- “everything has a reason” -- also is the basis of the free will/predestination argument. When I was a fundamentalist, I had the viewpoint that we determine what we do, although God knows the end result. Some people think things are predestined -- pre-purposed - and God has decided in advance who will join him in Heaven and who will be thrown into Hell, although everyone who believes in predestination happens to believe they’re predestined for Heaven. I’m also unsure as to how they justify God sending people off to Hell arbitrarily, although I can’t justify God sending people to hell, period. Personally, the argument behind free will has never really interested me; I fail to see the relevance. But I do know now what the underlying cause of this argument is -- this blurring of the line between reason and purpose.

In the end, all of these arguments boil down to reason and purpose, even the most basic question of all, that of origins. Some people believe there is some divine purpose to life -- they want to think they were personally fashioned for a purpose. Not only do they liked to think they were made for a purpose, they like to think everything happens for them for a purpose. It makes “bad’ things more tolerable. Stopped at a red-light? God arranged things so that it would stop you, so that you wouldn’t get in a wreck a little on down the road. Family member dies in their youth? God killed them off so you could remember the hope you have in Him, the hope of resurrection.. Religious extremism threatening World War III? Armageddon. But their faith in purpose is undermined when things happen, the purpose of which escapes them, like the immutable suffering in underdeveloped parts of the world that is not eased by death, because those people happen to believe in their tribal faiths, or because Catholic missionaries got there before the Protestant ones did. They wonder “Why?” and if they ask the question long enough, their belief in a purpose-filled life may be thrown into doubt. But for those of us who do not believe in divine purpose because there is no divine being to give purpose, the world is seen only through reason. The stop-light turned red because it’s on a timer. The family member died because someone was driving too fast and not paying attention. If there was a wreck on down the road, or if you do feel you have hope, this is coincidental and/or irrelevant.

And here the purpose-believing theist will say that nontheists should all be morose and disheartened because there is no purpose we’re here, other than a particular sperm found its way to a particular egg . But I am not morose, and I am not disheartened. I have established purpose in my life, as do most people, whether they believe in a god or gods or not. Some people pin their life’s orbit around devotion to family, some to religion, some to material gain. Personally, I can conceive of no purpose greater than to devote my life toward building up humanity, working for a better tomorrow.

Here I reach this writing’s conclusion, and to end I will repeat my points. I agree with the user who said everything has a reason, and I add to it by saying “…if not a purpose.”. I believe the line between reason and purpose is blurred, and different people make the distinction differently. I believe the distinction between reason and purpose is the base of a lot of philosophical and theological arguments -- from ideas on origin to the idea of free will. And finally, I believe everyone makes their own purpose, inside or outside belief in gods.

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Brian said...

Thanks for dropping me a comment at my blog. And now I'm returning the favour. I just started blogging about a month ago and I deconverted from a Pentecostal church while I was in University too.We seem to have a lot in common. My church was not a United Pentecostal, but it was strict enough.

Keep up the blogging. You will find that it is very therapuetic. For me it is wonderful to finally get to say some of the stuff that has been bottled up inside me for years.

smellincoffee said...

This actually began out of "exit letters" that I was trying to pen. I found out that as I tried to explain why I left Christianity, and to explain why I feel the way about things that I do now, that I was becoming much more relaxed and discovering more about myself. I was having such a fine time I decided to start putting my thoughts online to get some feedback. Thanks for the comment.