February 19, 2017 | David F. Coppedge

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.

How would you respond to this article? Let’s hear some comments. Come back later for our thoughts.


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  • Tom Lewis says:

    It’s really only possible to have a true sense of purpose in this life if our life is viewed in proper perspective.
    A materialistic stance with “this is all there is” as a base, is not sound enough to build real purpose on. It just is not!
    Deep in our being we know there is more. Even a dedicated atheist tries to find meaning and it’s hard work to find.
    A foundation of God and his plans, that are knowable through Christ, gives enormous purpose to every life. A beautiful reality for every Christian. We can start to see life as God does. Ask him to show you. Take a searching look at the Gospel books in the Bible. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John.
    We are eternal, with a plan laid out to explore every day. The serious work of the Christian is joy and peace and gently leading others who want, into that. That’s our purpose and it’s cool as it gets!

  • mikeboll64 says:

    Like the design intuition highlighted by Doug Axe in Undeniable, Burrell implies that this “higher purpose intuition” is something inherent in all human beings. And sadly, like the people who think the design intuition needs to be brainwashed out of children beginning in kindergarten… http://www.evolutionnews.org/2016/04/evolution_in_ki102776.html … Burrell thinks we need to shake off this inherent purpose intuition and face the “harsh reality” that we are insignificant nothings who simply tell stories like this to make ourselves feel better.

    These secular scientists can’t seem to see the forest for the trees. When even the little children who are raised by atheists inherently conclude that dogs and cats were made by someone, it tells us something profound. When humans in general believe that our existence has significance beyond the here and now, it tells us something profound.

    And when godless scientists try to convince people of all ages that their design and purpose intuitions need to be willfully suppressed, and replaced with the “harsh reality” that everything just made itself and we’re nothing but pond scum, it tells us something even more profound.

    These people need to embrace these intuitions and ask themselves WHY they are inherent instead of tripping over themselves in their rush to tell us how we need to suppress them.

    Reminds me of the old story about how evolution worked for hundreds of millions of years to finally arrive at human beings… who immediately began attributing the world to a Creator.

  • C Gieschen says:

    Interestingly I spoke to a well respected teacher at an Indiana science conference. I asked him, “If all we are is mutated pond scum, why does anything matter?” After a few seconds he replied, “Well now you are getting into the realm of philosophy.” Convenient dodge! The problem with evolutionists is that they never take their notion of Evolution Wrong to its LOGICAL conclusion. Therefore Evolution Right (Speciation) is science and Evolution Wrong (Things mutate into completely different things) is NOT scientific.

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