Goal in life, goals in our lives

Photo credit: NOAA.

Marcelo Gleiser, Dartmouth College physicist, writing to think big, asks: “Does life on Earth have a purpose? Of course, this is more than just a scientific question. It is very personal for each of us. Given the location, Gleiser’s answer will of course be no. He notes the geologically sudden eruption of complex life during the Cambrian Explosion, 530 million years ago. Life arrived on dry land and diversified, leading to the appearance of man.

No wonder so many people believe that life as a collective has a plan, to increase its complexity. It follows that if life has a plan to become more and more complex, there must be a planner behind it all. Of course, according to this view, the apex of the process would be us – intelligent, tech-savvy humans. Theologians call this teleology.

Regarding teleology, he issues a categorical denial.

This conclusion is wrong. There are no plans to make life more complex so that it can finally generate intelligent beings. (The eminent biologist Ernst Mayr presents a powerful argument against teleology here.)

The Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction

Citing a famous biologist in a hyperlink is not an argument. Gleiser’s own case rests on the role played by chance in the history of life. For example, the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs:

If we changed one or more of the dramatic events in Earth’s history – say, the cataclysmic asteroid impact that helped wipe out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago – the story of life on Earth would also change. We probably wouldn’t be here asking questions about the purpose of life. The life lesson is simple: in Nature, creation and destruction dance together. But there is no choreographer.

His argument: The Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction cleared the field for mammals, eventually allowing the emergence of “intelligent, tech-savvy humans.” No asteroid -> no humans. The asteroid was a fortuitous, unchoreographed event. Therefore, says Dr. Gleiser, no “choreographer” willed our existence.

The role of Providence

This is a remarkably superficial conclusion. Luckily (if you want to put it that way), I thought about the role of providence, as I see it, in my own life path. Each of us can point to some pivotal event from our past – a seemingly chance encounter, a piece of advice received, an idea that came to us spontaneously – that didn’t need to happen, but did happen. And because they did, we found the path to our current place (marriage, relationships, friendships, work, everything) laid out before us.

Gleiser’s life history argument is just a distinct application of the depressing view that denies that anything in our life courses could have been meant for us. That the view is depressing does not mean that it is wrong. That it can be affirmed does not mean that it is correct.

Useful information

Deciding on providence in the rise of complex life would require looking at a much larger body of evidence than the fact that an asteroid doomed the dinosaurs. Scientific proponents of intelligent design have done so, noting extensive evidence of extraordinarily fine-tuning of physics, chemistry and biology, from the Big Bang itself to the origin of life, to by the series of biological “big bangs” through which bursts of information infused the biosphere.

More recent treatments of this theme include biologist Michael Denton The miracle of man and philosopher of science Stephen Meyer The hypothesis of the return of God. Meyer’s book points to three scientific discoveries that demand a conclusion about the purpose behind the cosmos (that the universe had a beginning, that it was honed for life from the beginning, that life is a form of processing technology some information). On the radical discontinuities in evolution that testify to purpose and creativity, see the chapter by Meyer and paleontologist Günter Bechly (“The Fossil Record and Universal Common Ancestry”) in the volume Theistic evolution.

“The wheel has turned”

From a different perspective, Denton explains this beautifully and profoundly. What Gleiser calls “intelligent, tech-savvy humans” is exactly what almost countless coincidences in nature were created to enable. As Dr. Denton wrote here about this “prerequisite aptitude” for human beings, creatures capable of manipulating fire, and thus engaging in technological invention:

Even if many mysteries remain, we can now, in these first decades of the 21st century, finally answer with confidence Thomas Huxley’s question on “man’s place in nature and his relationship with the universe of things “. As it stands, the evidence increasingly points to a natural order uniquely suited to life on Earth and to beings with a biology close to that of humans, a view that does not prove but is all fully consistent with the traditional Judeo-Christian framework….

The wheel has turned… [S]Scientific advances beginning with the flourishing of chemistry in the 19th century and continuing at an ever faster pace throughout the 20th century and now into the 21st have vindicated the old covenant and revealed that mankind was as believed. medieval scholars, reflecting in the depths of his natural being all facets of the grand macrocosm of which he is an integral part.

“Mysteries remain,” as Denton acknowledges. However, “the wheel has turned”. Modern science calls us to recognize the role of providence in the history of the cosmos, our planet and life. If this is true in cosmology and biology, that’s a hint that it might be true, too, on the much smaller scale of our individual biographies.

About Lucille Thompson

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