If we define purpose as the reason for which something exists.

Can there be an objective purpose for something?



This answer has an objective purpose.

It exists to answer the question you asked.

The same can be said of a large number of artifacts (here meaning things that people make). Some objects will have compound objective purposes.

E.g., the chair exist so that someone can sit in it. (that's a type of reason). But it also exists because the chair maker made it to make money (a different type of reason).

Arguably this answer fulfills multiple and complex purposes as well. I answer it because I enjoy answering questions. I answer them on SE because SE has a good system where the answers are free to see. I enjoy answering questions about philosophy, because I have 4 degrees in it. I enjoy answering this question because I think a good deal about related issues in Hegel and Aristotle.

A harder variant on your question would be, can something exist which has only one purpose for its existence? Here, many artifacts will have trouble qualifying since they fulfill multiple purposes. And to get a definitive answer to this question is going to be difficult and somewhat opinion-based, because (a) atheists are going to reject that anything exists for a reason God gave it, (b) we can debate whether someone gave something a singular purpose or always has multiple purposes (see for instance the debate about whether one can have a pure maxim of the will -- Marcia Baron, Kantian Ethics Almost without Apology and Hegel's various critiques of Kant), (c) whether we accept teleology or natural kinds, and (d) whether we grant evolutionary purposes as objective purposes (why does the flying squirrel have membranes? because they enable it to glide from tree to tree and thus survive while getting food).

  • What if someone were to suggest an answer was written with another purpose? (A social purpose, for example, or a social experiment, or a trollish purpose.) If there can be an argument about someone's purpose in writing an answer, then what it's purpose is might not be objectively clear, no? Or am I misreading the meaning of objective? – Dronz Dec 30 '16 at 6:11
  • I believe I addressed that in my answer specifically in the last paragraph. As worded, yes, there can be an objective purpose for doing something. There can arguably be many objective purposes for which something is done. If you're asking, can a human act for a single objective purpose, then the answer depends on what philosophical views you want to refer to. Kant believes the answer is yes (several text, for instance Groundwork). Hegel believes the answer is no. Aristotle believes the answer is yes (Nicomachean Ethics BK I). – virmaior Dec 30 '16 at 6:33
  • Your comment suggests that you believe the answer to can humans act for a **single** objectively *verifiable* objective? is no, but this is not the question actually asked above and largely seems to be a question we could not resolve on the SE. – virmaior Dec 30 '16 at 6:34
  • My impression was that the word "objective" is where the main question is, but I think maybe it is simply that I am not clear what that term means outside conventional meaning in non-academic philosophy. You're right that often people argue (unknowingly at cross purposes) as if there can be only a single answer, but that seems different from whether an assertion is objective or not. But I get the feeling you have a specific meaning of objective or objective purpose in mind that I don't know. – Dronz Dec 30 '16 at 6:43
  • Objective is a term with multiple definitions within philosophy (the word has actually reversed meanings with subjective between the medieval period and the modern period). But I take the most common use of "objective" in contemporary usage to be the opposite of "subjective" where subjective is taken to mean contingent on the individual and their perspective and "objective" to mean (all else equal) knowable to all. – virmaior Dec 30 '16 at 6:46

From an older Alchemical view recaptured by one common theory of modality and reiterated in pyschological terms by Lacan, the answer has to be no.

A purpose is 'cardinal' or 'symbolic' information that relies upon either empathy or authority for its content. It is tied intrinsically to the person (or other entity like a tradition that we treat as a person) that the purpose serves, so it cannot be objective to some degree. It can have meaning only 'deontically' or 'cardinally', with reference to a goal, and therefore to the desire of a personality.

For Lacan, the mind lives in three worlds, which he labels Real, Ideal and Symbolic which correspond to the Astrological aspects of the Fixed, the Mutable and the Cardinal.

Real or Fixed statements are about physical objects that we experience as outside our minds. They are objective in the normal sense and take an indicative mood or an alethic modality.

At the other extreme, Ideal or Mutable statements are ideas, inside our minds. Since we can describe things to one another, and once we describe them they become independent of their source, Ideal things are also objective, in a different way. Their extreme and complete subjectivity lends them a form of objectivity. They transfer between subjects and everyone has their own view of them so no one controls them. Some of them are personal wishes, but my wish exists for you only as my wish, and not as a fact about other things. So it retains objectivity by being necessarily relativized. These take a subjunctive or optative mood or an optative modality.

But a Symbolic or Cardinal statement is a link between these two, and we are confronted right off with the fact that individuals and cultures generally map the two apparently shared realms back and forth idiosyncratically. Its contents are not objective and cannot be rendered objective unless they are explicitly relativized. They take a jussive or imperative mood or a deontic modality. (Purpose is morality for the inanimate.)

A hammer has a purpose only in a context of human usage. Without someone around who wants to beat on something with a certain level of precision, a hammer does not have a purpose. When we humans are all dead, the purpose will vanish. So it is not an objective fact, only a contexual one. A hammer may be intended for a given purpose by its creation, or its identification, but a given real hammer does not have an objective destiny to fulfill. It might hang on a hook in a store until it becomes too rusty to use, and then go to a landfill. Then in what way was there ever an objective purpose?

So it may be objective that virmiaor has a purpose for his statement, but the idea that it really has that purpose is entirely dependent upon him as a subject. This purpose can only be understood through his or someone else's eyes, by projection of oneself into someone's mind: i.e. subjectively and not objectively.


What does "objective" mean?

But, before we deal with that, it is necessary to remark that this sentence,

If we define purpose as the reason for which something exists.

is ambiguous, and one of its meanings is false.

It is raining. Why? because water has condensated in the cooler upper atmosphere in the form of clouds. That's the reason why it is raining. It is not, however, the purpose of rain.

So let's assume that you mean "purpose as the reason for which something exists" as the intent why something exists. It is raining. Why? Because God has planned it so that the plants won't die. That would be the "purpose" of rain.

Now, back to "objective".

What is an "objective purpose"?

Again, this is ambiguous.

John intends to study Astronomy. This is a purpose. It is "objective" in the sense that it exists as an artifact of the real world; it makes John plan for taking courses, reading books, buying a telescope, etc. It is "subjective" (ie, non-objective) in the sense that it resides exclusively in John's volition; should he change his mind and decide to study pharmacology instead, the purpose ceases to exist.

If you intend it like "it is objective because it exists in the material world", then virmaior's answer applies. If you intend it like "it is objective because it is not subjective", then no; there is no purpose, no intention, without somebody's volition, and so, there is no such thing as an "objective purpose".

In other words, there is no such thing as a "final cause" outside of subjectivity. If we say that "the purpose of rain is to avoid the death of plants", we are either attributing a mind to natural phenomena (clouds, water, air, wind) or, perhaps inadvertently, creating a fictitious mind ex-nihilo (gods, devils, angels).


TLDR: No, because "purpose" is necessarily subjective.

If we are to preserve the distinction between purposeful and purposeless, we must be able to differentiate between them. The causality evident in both cases is insufficient for this - the same chain of events could be triggered by happenstance (purposeless) or intention (purposeful).

The intentionality criterion must therefore be our differentiating factor. All inentionality is subjective, because any specific set of intentions is unique to a subject.

The word "objective" is a minor fly in the ointment here and in order to address it, I propose to look at the definition of "purpose" more closely.

Specifically, I wish to decouple it somewhat from "reason", because different considerations may apply.

When speaking of "purpose" we usually invoke an agent, or actor, that makes a choice of action. This is exemplified by Aristotle's fourth or "final" cause:

Further, the end (telos) is spoken of as a cause. This is that for the sake of which (hou heneka) a thing is done, e.g. health is the cause of walking about. ‘Why is he walking about?’ We say: ‘To be healthy’—and, having said that, we think we have indicated the cause.

-- Physics, after the SEP

Purpose - telos - is presented as a cause, because it determines what means are undertaken, in order to reach that end. Ends may be objective - as one's health is - but what makes them ends is subjective choice. We can easily conceive someone who wishes to be unhealthy (for example, a child who does not want to go to school).

The reasoning followed here may be captured by the following syllogism:

Pma: There exists a possible future state S, that I find desirable,

Pmi: Action A will bring state S into realization,

C: I will perform action A.

The purpose of action A is to bring state S from potentiality to actuality. State S is known (and judged) a priori and action A is predicted to result in the realization of state S. This is how the end may be seen as a cause of the means leading to that end.

Therefore, we can define "purpose" as meaning "in order to" - an exercise in prediction.

What about the word "reason"? We can look at reasons a posteriori, namely:

Interaction I has brought about effect E. The combination of n interactions In leading to the combination of effects En has resulted in state S. The past existence of interactions In is the reason for the present existence of state S.

Following the practice set out above, we can define "reason" as meaning "because of".

In practical terms, the difference may be demonstrated thusly: the reason I have a busted knee is that I fell when ice-skating. However, I did not fall down while ice-skating for the purpose of having a busted knee.

Having laid out the difference, we can see how it applies to "objective".

Reasons can be objective, provided we are prepared to accept causality. Continuing the above example: I lost balance, which caused me to fall, this placed a strain on my knee joint, which resulted in an injury and now my knee is swollen and hurts. None of the above effects were chosen by some actor (as far as we know). Instead the entire causal chain consists of interactions between non-volitional elements (including natural forces, such as gravity and physical constructs, such as the human body) that lead to effects determined by the properties of these elements. We can look at past interactions leading to the present state and identify why they brought about the present state.

The difference between the aforementioned and what we consider purpose, I would argue, is in that purposeful action involves present decisions, based on predictions of future states and judgements of possible future states. In other words, "purpose" must necessarily be subjective. It must be someone's purpose.

To further highlight the difference we could see the purposeful actor as identifying a desired future state and then "backtracing" the reasons for the existence of such a future state (note that this is still a predictive exercise, because the reasons for the future state have not yet come to pass) and finally acting to bring the identified reasons to existence, in order to bring about the desired future state - the purpose of the actor's actions.

Let us, lastly, consider a purposeful model of everything there is - namely: Divine creation. Under such a model, everything that exists has a purpose - a reason for existing that was identified a priori, by God. Even under such a model, the purpose of everything is subjective - it is God's purpose. Following the standard theistic approach of assuming that God was free in His creative decisions (omnipotent), and able to predict their outcomes with perfect accuracy (omniscient), we must necessarily assume that whatever effects those creative decisions have were seen by God to be most desirable - through His subjective choice.

Any other tack (as through the second prong of the Euthyphro dilemma) requires us to abandon the omnipotence postulate - by saying, for example, that God is incapable of doing the impious.

Very strong notions of determinism may, indeed, not only remove the notion of our own free will, but even God's (He created the only universe it was possible to create). If we assume such strong determinism the very notion of purpose becomes meaningless. There is but one possible outcome and everyone is simply going through the motions.

Addendum: the "is-ought" problem

Addressing doubts raised in the comments, I thought it useful to add a short examination how the foregoing ties in with the "is-ought" problem.

We might say "the purpose of physical laws is to hold things together", but then we must be really careful as to what it is we are actually mean by it.

We might mean "the laws of physics hold things together", which is an "is" observation. If we lived in a different universe (leaving aside the question of whether this would be possible) they might very well not do so. We can consider the laws of physics as just a feature of our universe devoid of any special meaning. If we want to invoke the weak anthropic principle, we can say that they are the reason it is our universe (that is: one we can exist in), but no more. There may well be other possible universes that do not have the laws of physics working as we know them to.

However, we might also mean "the laws of physics ought to hold things together" (purpose), but that is equivalent to saying "there ought not be a universe where the laws of physics do not hold things together". We are postulating a choice between two kinds of universe and saying only one of them is correct. When we do this, we must (even if unconsciously) postulate someone making that choice prior to the existence of the universe. That choice is a subjective decision made by that someone.

If we say that universes where the laws of physics don't hold things together are simply not possible, we're back to an "is" observation: that's just the way universes are. In that case, "purpose" becomes meaningless because there is no other possibility - as in the case of strong determinism, mentioned above.

  • Thank you! After your explanation, I agree there can be an objective reason something exists, but purpose is always subjective. So my definition above is a bit flawed. I think this answer is pretty good, if anyone doesn't agree please comment or leave another answer. – macco Dec 31 '16 at 16:11
  • @macco Thank you. If I may - please remember to accept whichever answer you feel answers your question best. If none of the answers satisfies you, you may wish to edit your question to better reflect what manner of answer you are seeking. – Faza Dec 31 '16 at 16:43
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    I'll quibble as to whether purpose must necessarily be subjective. It could be in the nature of things for something to serve a purpose. Don't the laws of physics serve a purpose? i.e. holding thing together, so to speak. – user20153 Dec 31 '16 at 21:35
  • @mobileink Whose purpose is it, though? Who decided that things need to be held together? The meaning of purpose is deeply intertwined with forethought, the consideration of alternatives and picking one. Any choice must necessarily be subjective, because it is made by a subject. Without positing such a subject, we are compelled to ask in what way a situation where the laws of physics didn't hold things together is worse than one where they do. – Faza Jan 1 '17 at 12:04
  • @mobileink See addendum. – Faza Jan 1 '17 at 12:22

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