Why? What is the Reason? What is the Purpose?

“Why” is the question word that asks for the “reason” behind things. However, “reason” can mean both the cause that leads to a specific outcome (Why do objects fall? Because gravity pulls them towards the earth) and the purpose behind a specific outcome that will be fulfilled after its realization (Why did you turn on the oven? Because I want to bake something).

Living organisms seem (to humans) to cause certain outcomes for a “purpose”: They move in order to find food or escape a hunter. They use special signals in order to attract the opposite sex. As they grow, they learn how certain actions lead to certain outcomes and then they do these actions with the purpose of bringing this outcome.

Bacteria phagocytosed by an amoeba 
Humans seem (to humans) to do everything with a “purpose”. They have taught themselves how to manipulate all sorts of forces around them. They put seeds in the ground and take care of the plants that grow and then harvest them, instead of looking for plants planted by “chance”, therefore that need to be stumbled upon by “chance”. They build complex structures that can explore the deep oceans, or the deep space.

But there is no “purpose” in the lightning bolt that hits the tallest tree of an area. That’s how lightning bolts are, how they work. The physics behind it dictate that the lightning bolt is created between certain regions of a cloud and of the ground that are oppositely charged. Most often, the tallest mass of the area of the ground is the one that gets hit. Clearly, there’s nothing “personal”. The lightning bolt doesn’t “choose” which tree to hit and doesn’t hit a certain tree “for a reason”.

So, the “lifeless” part of the universe doesn’t exhibit any form of “purpose”. Years and years of science show that the better we understand the world around us the better our predictions about its interactions become. And whenever something “unexplainable” by the current standards comes along, it’s just explained by a few new ideas that we hadn’t come up with until that point.

Our everyday lives haven’t really involved rain chasing a specific person or any lifeless object, defying the rules of physics for some “purpose”. We’ve dropped countless objects and yet not one has hovered to our surprise (magic tricks are only tricks on perception). The driver and the mechanics lead a car. If one “loses” control of a car, the car isn’t acting “for a purpose”.

There is “purpose” in that car accident only if someone involved acted specifically in that way with the intention to bring it about. There is something to be said about the conscious and the subconscious, but that still doesn’t bring in some higher, deeper purpose in the equation.

However, purpose, even when it comes to living creatures, is simply the rationalization our brain has created to fill in the blanks of causality. Observing a human reach for a glass of water, we might argue that the “reason”, with the meaning of “purpose”, of this action is “to drink water”. However, this simply skips the true reason, with the meaning of “cause” this time, for the action: which is, most probably, that the human is thirsty. Therefore, we have very good reasons to think “purpose”, and “reason” when it is implying “purpose”, is simply a biocentristic idea, that has evolved in the brains of a type of conscious creature, floating on a rock in the deep, cold space, otherwise devoid of any teleological “purpose”.

The pale blue dot.


The Apple Tree

Three friends are walking in the countryside. As they are approaching a big, beautiful apple tree, an apple suddenly falls from a branch to the grassy ground. They stop to look at it and one of them sighs:

“How I would like to know why the apple fell!”
The second friend picks up the apple, takes a bite, and shakes her head in appreciation:
“I’m more impressed by its taste. I want to know why it tastes like that!”
But the third one is already eyeing the tree with interest and adds thoughtfully:
“I am wondering how the apple came from the tree.”

Out of nowhere, a bunch of kids appears and, laughing and running, they cry out: “We want to know how many apples are on this apple tree!” and with lots of pushing and tagging they scramble up its bark, scatter on the branches, and start counting loudly. The friends laugh and then fall in silent contemplation. Each one observes, gropes the ground, the tree, the apple. Every now and then they exchange opinions, ask each other for new ideas, seek validation for their conclusions. Indeed, they all have useful things to say about everything, though, of course, each is more dedicated to their own quest. Occasionally, they look up and ask the kids, which keep on their merry and noisy counting, to confirm their theories.

After some time, they’ve all satisfied their curiosity. The one friend knows why the apple fell. The other has found why it tastes the way it tastes. The last one understands how the apple came to be. And the kids have counted the apples. And after a few more apple-bites under the shadow of the patient apple tree, they all continue their walk. And it’s time I introduced them to you:

The first friend is Physics.

The second is Chemistry.

The third is Biology.

And the kids… are Mathematics!