The New York Times’s philosophy column can be counted upon for answers to the deepest questions about matters of the greatest importance. Recently, it argued that there is no purpose or meaning in the activities of the natural world, and, following a well-trodden argumentative path, the accomplishments of modern science were called upon in support of this claim. Isn’t this extremely implausible? It is entirely contradicted by our earliest and most foundational understanding of nature.
Any child knows that a hungry dog running to his bowl is doing so for a purpose. And this is why we know of the purpose: It is the kind of activity that can fail, that might not fulfill its purpose. Purposeful acting is acting that can be thwarted, that is acting towards an end that may or may not be accomplished. Imagine that I trick the dog and put an empty bowl on the floor after pretending to open a bag of dog food. The dog still runs for the food, whether it is there or not. Clearly, there is more going on in the dog’s behavior than than in a machine that malfunctions because the wrong switch has been triggered. What I do with a machine means nothing to the machine, but a dog’s acting has meaning within the dog’s being. Even when no harm is being done, no pain is being felt, there is still a negative element and an absence in an action that has a purpose that was thwarted. This possibility of failure shows that the purpose in the dog’s action is as real as the action. Therefore, the dog’s behavior has a purpose of its own, beyond the purpose that I might might have had as I pretend to fill the dog’s bowl. After all, maybe I did not like the dog, and I wanted to fool him. Then the purpose of my action was fulfilled, but not the purpose of the dog’s action.
The New York Times’s philosopher happened to affirm purpose and meaning in our lives as being real and important, in spite of its ostensible absence in the world without us. His main point was that it important to us, in our relationships, and that this meaning is now expressed in our story telling about life, in myths that inspire us. I agree, of course, except that I also find purpose and meaning in the rest of nature, independent of us. We must avoid a separation between us and nature that limits purpose and meaning to human beings. If our search for meaning would correspond to nothing in nature, then how do we fit into the natural world at all? If I expressed this line of thinking in religious categories, then it is like replacing God with human will. It argues that a meaningless universe was given to us by a creator who knows no meaning, but our acting in this universe bestows meaning on it anyhow. Thus, we have overcome God. Nietzsche would be proud. I’m not, though. I think that the dog really meant to get the dog food.
Francis of Assisi’s most famous prayer is the the Canticle of Creatures, the song about Brother Sun and Sister Moon. Compare it to the modern understanding of nature that has severed our relationship with other creatures by denying meaning in their actions. Francis understands other creatures as being creatures, like us, children of the same God, even if very different in the way they exist and are creatures. Nevertheless, by understanding them, we understand creation and find our place in it. We can be at home in a world to which we truly belong. It is a world of creatures in which there are persons, and other living being, and non-living creatures, each with purpose and meaning proper to their being. We understand them an their meaning in analogy to us, in analogy to our own self-understanding and pursuit of meaning in our lives.
We are not strangers in a strange land; we are not a people searching for meaning in a world that does not reveal its meaning. Neither is the meaning we see in all creation and all its creatures conjured up by our wishful thinking. Not at all. Instead, it is the most basic understanding of nature, and both the understanding of life and the pursuit of the meaningful life better begins there.