Positivist evolutionary biologists claim that living beings are nothing but byproduct of purposeless random evolution. (For example, say, a flower is just a DNA propagating machine.)

I am especially interested in assigning meaning to the existence of, in this example, the flower. Unless there is a designer and unless the designer reveals his intentions (for example I make a video game, and I know the purpose of a particular object within the game), or, unless one possesses the totality of knowledge (impossible), aren't such claims just I-know-it-all attitude?

Are there scholarly discussions of "purpose" and related topics along somewhat above-mentioned lines?

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    General comment: is the conversation not being heavily coloured by adding value-charged tints such as "...nothing but..."? I would like to retort to that: "What do you mean "nothing but"?! Humans and flowers are indeed DNA propagating machines and — oh my word — are we not some pretty awesome machines!!". What kind of expectations does one have on existence if one can look at a splendid garden without going "Meh.... it does not have fairies in the back... what a disappointment... I wanted some magic in my reality".
    – MichaelK
    Apr 9, 2018 at 9:48
  • My favorite place to go for this is panpsychists. Probably not what you are after, but maybe a fun place to start: Terrence McKenna's theory of the convergent Eschaton (search YouTube) captures how pointless it is to insist things not have a purpose, when the human mind seems to be constituted as a meaning-producing machine. If life is meaningless, then apophenia is deep in the basis of our nature, why work against it instead of leveraging it?
    – user9166
    Apr 9, 2018 at 17:37
  • @blackened Note that by the very same rational you present, nobody can ever be certain of anything at all. The sun may rise tomorrow, but we are not certain. Given absolutely no baseline for rational certainty, what sort of discussion are you expecting?
    – Onyz
    May 9, 2018 at 18:38
  • Don't expect a good response when your very first sentence is just completely false. Evolution is not a "random" process, no biologist claims that, and anyone who thinks that doesn't understand evolution. Random mutation might play a role in evolution, but that doesn't make evolution a random process any more than the fact that occasional weather events affect crops makes farming a random process. Jun 8, 2018 at 23:25
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    @Lee Richard Dawkins and whole bunch of others thinks so. So talk to them first.
    – blackened
    Jun 9, 2018 at 7:32

3 Answers 3


If you want to deny the existence of the category 'meaning', you have to do that in the realm of.. meaning..! To be a mind grappling with the world, you must create some kind of account of minds, personhood, meaning. That precedes the discussion. So to use that following discussion to dismiss minds and meaning is tautological!

We can do a great deal to explain the natural world through heuristic reductionism, looking at causes and effects. But at some point, as feedback grows between adaptive fitness to niche, and reforming of the niche, you have to observe, this is no longer chemistry, and becomes about choices based on mental states. We as a species, can no longer be accounted for in our modern choices, by regard to material causes and conditions. Describe a single mental state, by modelling every neuron in a human brain, is beyond the computational power of every computer on Earth - or it was a few years ago anyway. So we develop a heurustic explanatory layer, and that simplifies things a lot, computationally. We imagine we are going from the ground up, but really we have proceeded from the top down. We begin with ourselves, and our experiences.

The flower emerges as a result of dynamics across a fitness landscape. But heuristically, as a matter of simplification only, we ascribe meaning and purpose to outcomes.

DNA is a kind of record of evolutiinary adaptions to niche. A kind of simulation in a certain subjective localised sense, of the niche. A kind of informational model, with implicit virtual reality simulation of the world, with a suite of responses ready for it. Brain science supports the view our consciousness is like that too, with a right brain mainly helping manifest an apparently objective but highly processed world 'out there', and a left brain mainly occupied with being a thing in that experienced world. So this model unites a picture of chemistry, biology, and psychology. And pictures meaning as in principle reducible to atoms and the void, but in practice existing as a heuristic explanatory layer supervening on the world, for reasons of computatiinal simplicity. We share 'meaning' and 'design' by invitation of one another into particular abstractions and their dynamics.

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    Yes, this is definitely the wise path imo. Why? Because we are finite beings. On the other hand, the epistemological line, which has essentially taken over philosophy today, is an "infinite", contingent process Nevertheless, man in his lived life is mortal. This heuristic layer, as you call it, harkens back to the true metaphysics. If you have a limited time on earth, this simplification is needed. Now, of course, man as a continuing species can continue to pursue the "infinite" project of epistemology.
    – Gordon
    Jun 9, 2018 at 15:05
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    With a little imagination, one can see how these books may connect to what you are saying. I. Title: The myth of the eternal return; Author: Eliade, Mircea, 1907-1986. Personal Author: Eliade, Mircea, 1907-1986. Uniform Title: Mythe de l'éternel retour. English Publication Information: [New York] Pantheon Books [c1954] Physical Description: 195 p. 25 cm. Series: Bollingen series, 46. (Don't be misled by its title).
    – Gordon
    Jun 9, 2018 at 15:16
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    II. "Philosophy of Nature" by Jacques Maritain, Philosophical Library, New York (1951). These books use a different vocabulary than you use, but when we boil it all down, the goal is the same.
    – Gordon
    Jun 9, 2018 at 15:19
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    @Gordon My views are more of multiple levels of heuristics, each supervening on more general less abstract ones; founded in an emergentist interpretation of Aristotle's biopsycology en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soul#Aristotle
    – CriglCragl
    Jan 13, 2019 at 18:46

If you were designed with a purpose, by a designer, for example to have a special blood type or be super-intelligent to solve a critical planetary problem, would this control your consciousness so that you could not be anything else? The designer can have his intended purpose for you, and you may fulfill it, but if you can gain an introspective self-consciousness (apperception) you are not bound by another's purpose for you, and you can create your own meaning and purpose in life.

Conjuring up a book quote for you, regarding deterministic existence, implied by exterior purpose.

Jacques Derrida, A Taste for the Secret, page 20

The future is not present, but there is an opening onto it; and because there is a future, a context is always open. What we call opening of the context is another name for what is still to come.
Justice - or justice as it promises to be, beyond what it actually is - always has an eschatological dimension. I link up this value of eschatology with a certain value of messianism, in an attempt to free both dimensions from the religious and philosophical contents and manifestations usually attached to them: philosophical, for eschatology, the thought of the extreme, the eschaton; or religious, the messianism in the religions 'of the book'. Why do I claim that justice is eschatological and messianic, and that this is so a priori, even for the non-believer, even for someone who does not live according to a faith determined by Judeo-Christian-Islamic revelation? Perhaps because the appeal of the future that we spoke of a moment ago - which overflows any sort of ontological determination, which overflows everything that is and that is present, the entire field of being and beings, and the entire field of history - is committed to a promise or an appeal that goes beyond being and history. This is an extremity that is beyond any determinable end of being or of history, and this eschatology - as extreme beyond the extreme, as last beyond the last - has necessarily to be the only absolute opening towards the non-determinability of the future.
It is perhaps necessary to free the value of the future from the value of the 'horizon' that traditionally has been attached to it - a horizon being, as the Greek word indicates, a limit from which I pre-comprehend the future. I wait for it, I predetermine it, and thus I annul it. Teleology is, at bottom, the negation of the future, a way of knowing beforehand the form that will have to be taken by what is still to come.

  • That idea of justice as implicitly eschatological is very interesting. I am put in mind of how 'fitness' is not general judged moment by moment, but at punctuations in the equilibrium. In peacetime we may wish away inclinations to violence, and psycopathies. But they may be essential at other times, for genes to cross tougher times. I feel there is a lot in Old Testement religion that grapples with this kind of perspective. Am also put in mind of 'Why Honor Matters' by Tamler Sommers.. Honor cultures, vs those with a 'leviathan'..
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 9, 2018 at 12:14

Positivist evolutionary biologists claim that living beings are nothing but byproduct of purposeless random evolution. Yet they also claim that, say, a flower is nothing but a DNA propagating machine.

Living beings came into existence as a result of evolution by natural selection. Variants of genes came about as a result of random mutation. Some of those variants managed to copy themselves and others didn't. The variants that managed to copy themselves instantiate information about how to make copies of information in the environment in which they evolved.

I am especially interested in assigning meaning to the existence of, say, the flower. Unless there is designer and unless the designer reveals his intentions (for example I make a video game, and I know the purpose of a particular object within the game), or, unless one possesses the totality of knowledge (impossible), such claims are nothing but I-know-it attitude. For example, "DNA propagating machine" is nothing but an opinion. Nobody can ever be certain of that, or any other similar claim.

You have bad ideas about epistemology - the theory of knowledge. If Jack claims he designed a video game, how do you know he did it? He might tell you details about how the video game works, show you the source code and explain how he came up with the ideas in it, show you a copyright notice in the code that gives him the copyright and so on. You could guess that the explanation for all those facts is that Jack wrote the game, but you could be wrong. Jack might have somehow persuaded the author of the game to put his name in the copyright notice, and he might understand the game well by reading the source code. So your knowledge that Jack wrote the game consists of a guess that might be refuted.

Our knowledge of natural selection, and all other knowledge, has the same character, it consists of unrefuted guesses. The idea that all life evolved by natural selection is an unrefuted guess. The idea that life was created by a designer is a refuted guess. The reason for making such a guess is that biological structures are complex and embody information about how to manipulate the environment to solve a particular problem, e.g. - bird's wings are det up in such a way that they solve the problem of helping the bird to fly. If there was a designer he would have to understand the laws of physics to design the bird's wings and that knowledge would be information that needs an explanation just as the bird's wings require such an explanation. So the existence of the designer wouldn't do much to explain the existence of bird wings, it would be the start of looking for a real explanation. To understand this issue better see Chapter 4 of "The Beginning of Infinity" by David Deutsch.

One other issue to note is that biological evolution is not necessarily the only relevant explanation for why flowers look the way they do. Flowers are attractive both to insects and to human beings, which is unusual and difficult to explain. David Deutsch has suggested that flowers may have evolved to be objectively beautiful because they couldn't take advantage of having a lot of shared genes with the species they use for pollination, see Chapter 14 of "The Beginning of Infinity" by Deutsch.

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