September 2, 2018 | David F. Coppedge

Purpose Does Not Emerge from Neurons

A neuroscientist just doesn’t get it.

Sunday Editorial by David Coppedge

Guillaume Thierry, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at Bangor University, should do some homework before entering The Conversation about purpose in life. He proposes a simplistic answer: “Life’s purpose rests in our mind’s spectacular drive to extract meaning from the world.” Anyone see a problem here? Let him have his head for a moment:

What is the purpose of life? Whatever you may think is the answer, you might, from time to time at least, find your own definition unsatisfactory. After all, how can one say why any living creature is on Earth in just one simple phrase?

For me, looking back on 18 years of research into how the human brain handles language, there seems to be only one, solid, resilient thread that prevails over all others. Humanity’s purpose rests in the spectacular drive of our minds to extract meaning from the world around us.

For many scientists, this drive to find sense guides every step they take, it defines everything that they do or say. Understanding nature and constantly striving to explain its underpinning principles, rules and mechanisms is the essence of the scientist’s existence. And this can be considered the most simplified version of their life’s purpose.

If Thierry thinks he has identified the source of purpose in life, his answer is about as satisfying as a liberal preacher’s sermonette, “The meaning of life is to live a life of meaning.” It’s a tautology: a pretended explanans that contains nothing beyond the explanandum. Yes, humans have a spectacular drive to extract meaning from the world around us. How did that evolve?

To say that ‘our purpose is to extract meaning’ is no different than to say that ‘our meaning is to derive purpose.’ Now what?

Recently, we have been able to show that even an abstract picture – one that cannot easily be taken as a depiction of a particular concept – connects to words in the mind in a way that can be predicted. It does not seem to matter how seemingly void of meaning an image, a sound, or a smell may be, the human brain will project meaning onto it. And it will do so automatically in a subconscious (albeit predictable) way, presumably because the bulk of us extract meaning in a somewhat comparable fashion, since we have many experiences of the world in common.

Thierry’s job is to explain how this purpose arose, not just to describe it.

The drive of humans to understand is not limited to just language, however. Our species appears to be guided by this profound and inexorable impulse to understand the world in every aspect of our lives. In other words, the goal of our existence ultimately seems to be achieving a full understanding of this same existence, a kind of kaleidoscopic infinity loop in which our mind is trapped, from the emergence of proto-consciousness in the womb, all the way to our deathbed.

None of this contradicts the view of the theologian who argues we show these traits because we are created with imago Dei, the image of God. And yet Thierry appears to describe “our species” as a matter of animal behavior which, for Darwinians, demands an explanation.

Thierry’s views on theology or evolution are not clear from his brief autobiographical statement. But if materialists or atheists think they have something to latch onto in order to explain this exceptional human trait, they will be grasping the wind.

He briefly endorses the view that information is fundamental to the universe, referring to John Archibald Wheeler’s famous quip, “It from bit.” But is information equivalent to matter, or something different?

Information – that is atoms, molecules, cells, organisms, societies – is self-obsessed, constantly looking for meaning in the mirror, like Narcissus looking at the reflection of the self, like the molecular biologist’s DNA playing with itself under the microscope, like AI scientists trying to give robots all the features that would make them indistinguishable from themselves.

This, again, is tautologous and unsatisfying. Who is the real being, Narcissus looking at his reflection, or the reflection looking at Narcissus? Unless one is really autonomous with free will and choice, no one could say. They would both be manifestations of the behavior of atoms.

Perhaps it does not matter if you find this proposal satisfying, because getting the answer to what the purpose of life is would equate to making your life purposeless. And who would want that?

An escape from reason should be beneath the dignity of a university professor. Thierry needs to escape from his infinite loop and and escape to reality. He needs to find a worldview that can account for all this. Who is the “it” that”wants” purpose in life? It’s not language. It’s not molecules. It is a being with a conscience, knowing that he has been endowed by his Creator with a desire for purpose.

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  • tjguy says:

    Thierry says: “Perhaps it does not matter if you find this proposal satisfying, because getting the answer to what the purpose of life is would equate to making your life purposeless. And who would want that?”

    OK well, we could also look at it like this: “because never getting the purpose of life would mean a life doomed to searching for something which we can never find the answer to. Who would want that?”

    I don’t know. Wouldn’t it be more fulfilling to find the purpose of life before it is too late so that you can live your life in accord with that purpose?

    Maybe I’m simple minded.

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