Life as Purpose


In thinking about purpose, which led to my last post, the connection between purpose and life became clearer to me. The notion of purpose implies life; only living things can have purposes. In common usage, one might consider certain man-made objects, like doorknobs or refrigerators, to have purposes. But what they have are functions, not purposes. The purposes come from the humans who make or use them.

To have purpose involves having intention. Only living things have intention. Having purpose is essentially being in a state of being inwardly motivated directionality, which only applies to living things. Purpose can be seen as a property of life.

Inanimate objects can’t have purpose. A rock can’t have a purpose. Non-living matter doesn’t act. It is acted upon. It is the subject of cause.

So, life might be thought of as matter with purpose. It acts consequentially, that is it acts in order to attain certain results. The underlying principle for the action is essentially to further its interests in the world, to enhance itself as organism.

Living things act with purpose because they embody autonomy. Down to the most rudimentary one-celled creature, life forms are expressions of self-organization. You might say that life is really the structure of self-propulsion. Matter is merely the vehicle. In this sense, life is purpose.

In his book, Wetware: A Computer in Every Living Cell, Dennis Bray talks about the processes involved in the functioning of one-celled organisms. The book has various examples of how they act to move towards beneficial outcomes like food, heat and light or away from that which might be either harmful to them. These include behaviors like the way the bacteria E. Coli tumble in order  to move in the direction of greater concentrations of nutrients, or the way the protozoa Stentor is able to ingest food and repel harmful substances from the same pathway.

He explains the mechanisms by which these creatures accomplish these activities as based on networks of biochemical reactions built upon the responses of various protein receptors. He presents these networks as being biochemical circuits enabling the cell to perform a form of molecular computation.

The book shows how this process empowers the functioning of the organism: “These circuits contain, implicitly, the probability of.certain life-changing events. They prepare the organism for fluctuations in food and other resources by expressing appropriate actions and mounting protective responses to extreme perturbations.” (pg. 235)

Bray details how this process of molecular computation provides a decision-making capability for the cell. Assessing input from the environment and including a memory function (in terms of the current states of the receptors) it enables the organism to “choose” actions which will further its existence.

You might, then, consider organisms as having their purposes encoded within the fabric of their being, woven into their biochemistry. Interestingly, purpose’s existence coincides with the mechanisms for its attempted acheivment.

Thinking of a single cell as having purpose isn’t meant to imply anything like the conscious purpose of a human. In parts of Wetware, Bray explores the idea of molecular circuitry of the cell as a form of consciousness. But he makes it clear that a cell isn’t truly conscious, not sentient in the way of a human. Rather, he offers that the cell’s sensitivity to the environment might represent a kind of “seed corn of consciousness”. (pg. 143)

The purposes of a cell, then, aren’t decided purposes, they are embedded purposes. But unlike an inert collections of atoms, a cell is an autonomous entity, it is a self-organization structured to further its own existence by optimizing its engagement with its environment.

Once upon a time, long ago in the early environment of the earth, some stirred-up molecules in the broth of chemicals began the chain of reactions that led to the process we think of as life.Once ignited, this life assumed an impetus within itself. Life became an impulsive force eager to expand its own existence. Through its embrace of sunlight and other energy, it reaches out to the molecules around it, inviting them to join its dance, spinning it out to ever more extensive, more intricate, more wonderous patterns.

4 thoughts on “Life as Purpose

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