As observers we observe events around us. All events have causes, either deterministic causes or non-deterministic ones. As observers however we can additionally attribute purpose (or meaning as in religious meaning) to events. We can declare one event happen for a given reason, or a purpose.

If an event was caused by the actions of another person, we can ask that person if their motivation matches our attributed meaning.

But sometimes events happen without us observing any person causing the outcome.

In such cases, can any purpose be attributed to such events without also assuming some agent?

Some examples:

  • We win a (fair) lottery
  • A tornado hits our house
  • We give birth to twins
  • An uncle gets cancer

Some people will attribute purposes like that this is deserved (as treat or punishment), that it restores balance, that it should teach us something, as a test...

But it seems to me that all of those purposes require:

  • Some agent having a goal to achieve
  • The agent to be able to influence the result

I can imagine a universe in which some additional laws of nature exist that cause good actions to set of events that lead to something like benefits, or bad actions that lead to something like punishment, without any agent being involved. But in such a universe the events would still not have meaning, it would just be additional laws of nature.

Maybe somebody can rephrase my thought more concisely?

EDIT: I used the word "meaning" in the first version of the question, in the sense of semantic interpretation. I switched to "purpose" to disambiguate, though I think meaning still often fits better. As an example, an event might be interpreted as a mere effect of a hidden event with meaning, such as thunder not serving a purpose in itself, but being the sound of gods arguing. That would be a "meaning" or "interpretation" rather than a "goal, aim, purpose".

  • Meaning is usually considered the "content of a (linguistic) expression". I think you are speking of aim, goal, purpose; see Teleology. Apr 3, 2018 at 14:54
  • I am curious how you think the "meaning" gets attributed with assuming some agent. Your examples are statements of fact that would presumably stand even if no agents were around. Serving some goal, being deserved, etc., is something on top of what is usually meant by descriptive "meaning". If by "meaning" you mean purpose or value then there is a much stronger case to make that those require an agent, fact-like values have been argued to be a "queer" concept, see Mackie's argument.
    – Conifold
    Apr 3, 2018 at 21:08
  • @Mauro Maybe I should say "purpose" instead.
    – tkruse
    Apr 6, 2018 at 0:44
  • Possible duplicate of Can there be intention without an intender?
    – tkruse
    Apr 6, 2018 at 4:56

4 Answers 4


To answer the title question:

Can purpose be attributed to events without grounding in agency?

Yes. There are several examples:

Daniel Dennett in several of his lectures explains how nature frequently exhibits purpose without agency, which he calls "free floating rationales". Trees and plants grow in certain directions with purpose (to avoid obstacles, to get closer to the sun, etc...), but without having agency.

Similarly, economists frequently speak of purpose without agency. Adam Smith and other proponents of a free market system, argue that free markets lead to greater good more so then centrally planned economies and intentional redistribution of wealth, because they are guided by an invisible hand.

On the opposite side of the economic spectrum, Marxists that different social classes act with purpose, but without agency. When they speak of the capitalist class oppressing the working class, they don't believe that a group of capitalists got together in a dark basement and conspired to oppress workers. Instead, the concept of class is an emergent phenomenon that acts with purpose, but without any agency.

See the related concepts of emergence and self-organization.

  • I agree that the word "purpose" can be useful in describing such observations of emergent behavior. Though in this usage it always comes with a necessary disclaimer of non-agency, it seems, making those seem like separate concepts of purpose. Still, good answer.
    – tkruse
    Apr 6, 2018 at 3:49
  • @tkruse also this question I asked a few months back is strikingly similar to yours (no definitive answers though) philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/40280/… Apr 6, 2018 at 4:15
  • @tkruse notice however that Jobermark's comments to my question seem to be addressing your main question. Apr 6, 2018 at 4:17
  • I flagged myself as possible duplicate. They are very similar.
    – tkruse
    Apr 6, 2018 at 5:13

Humans have the ability to fantasise and/or rationalise meanings quite well

Humans are pattern-seeking animals. We seek to understand what goes on around us. Seeing a pattern — of the sort: "if this, then that" — makes us calmer and makes us feel more at ease, because patterns make the world predictable. We seem to prefer to live in an imperfect but familiar and predictable world, than living in a perfect but unfamiliar and unpredictable world. You can even find this sentiment in pretentious blockbuster action movies...

So when something unexpected and/or unique happens — good or bad — it tends to ruffle our feathers a bit, because if the event is unexpected/unique there is no pattern to be found.

So the human mind starts to seek an answer to the question "Why? What is the pattern here?". And — pattern-seeking as we are, sometimes to the point of absurdity — we will find a pattern sooner or later, no matter how grounded in reality that pattern is.

This even makes its way into the sciences. So to answer you question, I will give you the following truism:

"Enough research will tend to support your conclusions"

So yes, humans are exceedingly good at assigning meaning to events, even when they do not believe that an agent was the cause of those events.

So the question requires a bit of clarification: can humans justifiably assign meaning to all events, even those that do not have an agent behind them?

The answer to that is: no, sometimes, sh... things just happen, without meaning and/or intent.

  • I assume we have a choice of assigning meaning or not. My question is: If we choose to do so, can we do that at all without always also introducing an agent for the meaning? Or can we philosophically assign a meaning without always implying some agent?
    – tkruse
    Apr 4, 2018 at 0:47
  • +1 I agree that humans do have an "innate" ability to detect agency. It is prior to socialization or rationalization. Sometimes that agent detection is accurate such as when a lion is attacking them or another human makes a choice. One can see the intention or meaningfulness of the lion or other human. Sometimes it is mistaken both in assigning agency and is claiming no agent was involved. Apr 5, 2018 at 12:29
  • @tkruse We can most definitely do that, yes... it is best proven by an example: as soon as someone says "karma" to explain a turn of events, they have assigned meaning without referring to an agent. Karma is not an agent; it is considered more of a (super)natural law of nature, kind of like a spiritual version of gravity that exerts a force on everything to "balance" it. But there is no persona, no will, no plan behind karma.
    – MichaelK
    Apr 6, 2018 at 6:16
  • @MichaelK good example. But forces of nature might need to be indiscriminate and simple. A force that is "smart" in judging actions and triggering specific events accordingly but not part of an agent seems unplausible, but I see no strict inconsistency.
    – tkruse
    Apr 6, 2018 at 6:50
  • @tkruse Of course, and this is why I see karma as a wishful concept, because this "balance" that karma supposedly enforces relies on the subjective determination of what is "good" and "bad"... that requires intelligence or at least subjectivity. But if you make the hasty assumption that "good" and "bad" are not subjective but objective universals, then karma works without intelligence or agency.
    – MichaelK
    Apr 6, 2018 at 6:56

Having agent causation allows what we are trying to explain to have a final cause or purpose or intention. It conflicts with causal determinism, but this would allow something to have meaning. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agent_causation

The final cause is one of Aristotle’s four causes in his theory of explanation. It attempts to answer what something is for rather that what something is made out of (material cause), what kind of thing something is (formal cause) or how did it get here (efficient cause).

Science generally restricts its theory of explanation to avoid agency. If one ignores agent causation this simplification allows one to focus on the objective. For a quick view of how Aristotle fits into modern philosophy of science and agent causation, see Jack Sander’s Philosophy of Science Lecture #8 Scientific Explanation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-be4lH1_PI&t=575s

Let’s consider the question: In such cases, can any meaning be attributed to such events without also assuming some agent?

If one sees meaning or purpose as the final cause of something, one way to view a final cause is through agent causation, however, that is not the only way. One can also view meaning, or what something is for, as something’s “function in a larger system”. This does not involve agent causation. See the Sanders video starting around 16:25 for a presentation of this.

  • I don't see agent causation in strict conflict with physical determinism. We can imagine a deterministic agent whose thought, goals, choices and so on are all deterministic, yet still it can be valid and useful to describe all processes in terms of higher level meaning. Choices being deterministic does not prevent them from also being rational. Computers are build to be deterministic and to make very rational decisions. For a chess computer, you can reason about why it made a move in terms of chess rules even though every move is deterministic in terms of computer science. thanks for the video
    – tkruse
    Apr 4, 2018 at 0:46
  • Not sure if that is what you are thinking of, but an example of what you say could be that Hurricane Kathrina is a function of global warming (for the sake of the argument only). But to me that still seems more like causation than meaning, as in: The hurricane is cause by global warming. I still have to watch the video, though.
    – tkruse
    Apr 5, 2018 at 4:45
  • @tkruse Global warming would be event causation. No choice is being made that starts a chain of causation. Agent causation implies a choice. The intentionality of the choice gives a final cause or meaning or purpose. However, as Sanders points out one does not need this to be more than "function in a larger system". This avoids agency but still provides an answer to what something is for. If something is deterministic it is just one event causing the next. I see no agency there. Computers are more artificial logic machines. Apr 5, 2018 at 12:20

"A" means "B".

  1. "A" involves agency but "B" doesnt.

The way he looks at the tree means the tree is going to be broken

  1. "A" doesnt involve agency but B does.

feeling pain in my leg means that I should stop running.

  1. "A" and "B" involve both agency

That Adam is getting horny means that i am about to have sex.

So if the fact that means something doesnt necessarily need to involve agency and we are using "mean" in not a purely causal way; and neither does the fact that it means, Why can't we imagine cases in wich neither involve agency?

Is strange uh. I think that from here you can create an argument that says it is.

  • I don't follow how this answers the question. Apr 3, 2018 at 21:43

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