Can Materialism Provide a Sense of Purpose?
Studies show that having a sense of purpose enhances mental and physical health. The problem for materialists is how to conjure it up out of matter in motion.
New Scientist, the staunchly atheist rag in the UK, is no friend of creation, conservatism, or the Bible. Once in awhile, though, they do have to face reality. Reporter Teal Burrell recently contributed a piece to New Scientist about “A meaning to life: How a sense of purpose can keep you healthy.” Can she get from atoms to purpose?
As human beings, it is hard for us to shake the idea that our existence must have significance beyond the here and now. Life begins and ends, yes, but surely there is a greater meaning. The trouble is, these stories we tell ourselves do nothing to soften the harsh reality: as far as the universe is concerned, we are nothing but fleeting and randomly assembled collections of energy and matter. One day, we will all be dust.
Spoken as a consistent materialist. And yet— we aren’t dust yet.
One day, but not yet. Just because life is ultimately meaningless doesn’t stop us searching for meaning while we are alive. Some seek it in religion, others in a career, money, family or pure escapism. But all who find it seem to stumble across the same thing – a thing psychologists call “purpose”.
We each have a few days left (she says in effect) before turning to dust to find this elusive thing called ‘purpose.’
The notion of purpose in life may seem ill-defined and even unscientific. But a growing heap of research is pinning down what it is, and how it affects our lives. People with a greater sense of purpose live longer, sleep better and have better sex. Purpose cuts the risk of stroke and depression. It helps people recover from addiction or manage their glucose levels if they are diabetic. If a pharmaceutical company could bottle such a treatment, it would make billions. But you can find your own, and it’s free.
She defines purpose by its effects, not by its essence. We still don’t know what it is. This ‘vague’ and ‘ephemeral’ purpose — is it just a comfortable fantasy? Can it be conjured like a genie out of the materialist bottle to do its master’s will? Distinguishing hedonic (pleasurable) from eudaimonic (goal-directed) purpose doesn’t seem to help much, although the latter seem to provide most of the health benefits. Burrell slights religion, arguing that while religious people tend to score higher than others in purpose-driven health benefits, not all of them do, and some non-religious people experience purpose. (By this she fallaciously reasons that all religions are equivalent. I Corinthians 13 is vastly different from a belief that by killing as many infidels as you can with a suicide bomb you will have endless sexual bliss in the afterlife. Both involve ‘purpose’ of a sort, but can they really be compared? Would Burrell congratulate the latter if his purpose made him feel good? Word has it that ISIS is recruiting brainwashed captive Yazidi children as suicide bombers. Some purpose.)
When all is said and done, for a materialist like Burrell, a sense of purpose must boil down to particles in motion. “If people with purpose live longer, there must be some biology underpinning that,” her favorite authority figure opines. Ratcheting up his perhapsimaybecouldness index, he speculates:
That something could be a brain region called the ventral striatum, an area activated when people are told to focus on things of value. Cole has found in as-yet-unpublished research that people with more activity in this area show similar patterns of gene expression to those with high levels of eudaemonic well-being. Focusing on something positive and bigger than yourself may activate the ventral striatum, which can inhibit areas like the amygdala, which usually promotes the stress response. Another indication of this comes from research showing that higher scores on a scale of purpose correlated with less amygdala activation.
And one study indicates that people with higher eudaemonic well-being have both increased activity in the ventral striatum and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. “Things that you value can override things that you fear,” says Cole.
An alternative theory for how purpose could affect biology is by preserving telomeres, caps on the ends of chromosomes that protect DNA from damage, but that shorten with age and stress.
If materialism is true, however, it would make no sense for Burrell to advise people on how to improve their sense of purpose. “Who” makes that decision? If your brain determines your feelings, you could just take a ‘purpose pill’ and cure a brain imbalance like you would cure any other illness. But even then, “who” would decide to take the pill?
In the view of Burrell and New Scientist, it all ends in death. Some purpose.
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