Essay I on Function: Does Reality Have a Purpose?


Leaving aside ceremonial dinners and mathematical expressions, “function” is a synonym for purpose, or is the role something plays, whether by itself or as part of a larger assembly. So if we substitute “role or purpose” for “function” we will not be far off. My ultimate goal is to explore the concept of function in the context of architecture, but in this first essay, I want to explore function in the context of nature.

Does the sun or a rock or the atmosphere play a role or have a purpose? Well, if you believe that this land was made for you and me, then the sun functions to light and heat us, rock provides us with building material, and the atmosphere delivers oxygen to breathe and protects us from ultraviolet radiation. If you adopt the Enlightenment notion of a clockwork universe, then each has a function as part of God’s grand clock that he wound up and let run according to the Newton’s laws. Einstein had such a view of God; he was certain God made orderly, logical laws, and didn’t at all like the uncertainty that is fundamental to the theory of quantum mechanics he helped formulate.

A modern scientific point of view rejects such ideas. Stars and rocks and gases are things that emerge naturally, given the laws of physics. You can trace cause and effect step by step back to the big bang, beyond which for the moment we are blind. If you want to interject a deity, you can be a Deist and have God set off the Big Bang or design the laws of physics, but I don’t think this kind of deity would satisfy many people’s spiritual needs, although it seemed to satisfy Einstein. For today’s science, there is no one behind the scenes deciding what comes next. Arguments on the subject continue unabated; I stake my claim on the side of materialism.

A role or purpose needs context. To define the role or purpose of a rock, you need to have some kind of goal, for example, making a rock wall. When you set a goal, everything in the universe suddenly has a role or purpose relative to the goal. Rocks, yourself, tools, a plan, and a location all have essential functions, while the Andromeda galaxy takes no part, and the sun functions to keep you warm while you work and to provide light. Invent a goal, and function follows; if there is no goal, nothing has a function.

But does this line of thinking apply to life? It seems natural to think of one’s heart as having an essential function, doing its part to keep you alive so you can reproduce. Richard Dawkins argued in “The Selfish Gene” that it is your genes that have the goal, and you are just the vehicle they use to make more of themselves (as a chicken is an egg’s way to make another egg, or a scholar is a library’s way to make another library).

I maintain that we have invented the goal. Genes don’t have goals, they are just doing their thing, even if it seems to us that they “want” to persist into the next generation. It is a compelling metaphor, but it is just that: a gene is the pathway through time taken by the atoms that make up the gene, a part of the unfolding evolution of our universe.

The injection of purpose, intention, role, agency, goals and the like into our thinking about things is probably essential for understanding. We seem compelled to personify things, to think of them as if they were people, applying our hyper-developed social skills as a tool for understanding. In this way, we endow objects and events with an essence, a thingness that helps us makes sense of the world.

This is a highly useful tendency (which is no doubt why it evolved), since on our planet, nature clumps into identifiable objects and events. But our planet is highly unusual: very little of nature clumps into identifiable objects and events, important as these are to us. Most of nature consists of undifferentiated aggregations of dust, gas, plasmas, particles and fields. Only a few percent of the mass of the universe is in the form of what we call matter. But we didn’t know that when our mental equipment evolved. It was tuned to a pre-scientific world.

Nature doesn’t have a purpose, and being a part of nature, neither do you. This idea creates cognitive dissonance, so we seek meaning and purpose in our lives: it’s the only way we can avoid existential despair. But when we try to find out how nature actually works, we need temporarily to abandon our search for meaning and purpose and accept reality as it presents itself.

Shedding My Homunculus

I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this. -Emo Phillips

My religious career must be typical for many of my generation. My parents were unreflective about their Presbyterian/Methodist religious ideas, and shared the prejudice against Catholics, Episcopalians (closet Catholics), and Jews common in the Midwest before the Second World War (and after). My father, from a farm background with no pretensions to gentility, preferred Baptists. Mother, deeply disappointed by her failure to rise higher in the middle class, detested the noisy Baptists, and was probably drawn toward the Episcopalians, although put off by the Catholic overtones. They compromised in the gentile Presbyterian middle ground, along with all their close friends (some were Methodists). I don’t know where the Lutherans stood in their Pantheon.

I went to Sunday School, of which I remember only identifying a gorgeous Brown Thrasher and a Cardinal in the Omaha alley on the way to church, poring over the stuffed bird collection in the Parish Hall, and doing neat craft things like making Easter baskets out of kraft paper and library paste. After the war, my family migrated to the LA area, along with millions of other Midwesterners, including every one of my parents’ close friends. We lived first in beautiful Santa Monica, where I was happy for several years.

Responding to a periodic wanderlust, and to get my father closer to his work, we moved to a dingy garden apartment in a decaying part of Hollywood, near which was the dumpy West Hollywood Presbyterian Church, with an evangelistic pastor named Antisdale who plagued my dreams for many years. A teenager, I was drawn into the youth program, trying to build a social life. It got more and more evangelistic, and I, being too naïve to adopt a saving hypocrisy, was drawn deeper and deeper toward a Commitment. I hated the idea, but there was no way out: Jesus’ existence implied my service. I was doomed to a life of embarrassing prayer sessions.

I took piano with a Miss Mikova, who lived and taught in a wonderful Modernist home in Hollywood, bathed in light through a bank of glazed terrace doors. Driving me to my lesson one day during my 14th year, my jazz musician brother, by this time a card-carrying atheist, continued an ongoing family argument about religion by noting that Jesus may have been an invention, an amalgam of any number of charismatic figures. I grabbed the lifeline and pulled myself to shore without a second thought. Jesus’ existence implied my service, so if Jesus was a myth, I was free. That night I refused to say blessing at dinner. I am sure my mother’s ghastly silence was occupied by the thought that my brother had done the devil’s work yet again, polluting the mind of her precious youngest child, her last hope for social legitimacy. She had after all shrewdly named me after a virtuous school-mate of my brother’s who went on to become a minister.

Atheists are fully preoccupied with conventional religion, often being more devout as an atheist than the average Sunday Christian or Saturday Jew. After all, an atheist accepts the definition of not being something everyone else is assumed to be — a theist or a deist or some other -ist.  I remained an outspoken atheist, refusing once even to play Christmas carols for the office party when I worked for Percy Goodman in New York. He and his more well-known brother Paul Goodman were archetypal Jewish intellectuals for whom Christmas carols were proud symbols of moral independence – he was not amused.

I was intensely uncomfortable on the few occasions in which I found myself in church, and remained so until I met my wife. Her family was and remains solid southern Episcopalian, and if I wanted to marry this wonderful and beautiful woman, religion would have to be part of  the bargain. I survived my re-immersion in church, and grew to like the rector who married us and many of his successors at the lovely 18th Century Virginia country parish church.

Children appeared, my wife took them to Sunday School at Christ Church Cambridge, Episcopal, (Massachusetts, not England) and from time to time I stopped working long enough to join her.  We had many friends who went there, but I remained true to my disdain for the words of the liturgy, adamantly refusing to mouth the Creed or go to the rail at communion, although I certainly sang lustily enough, paying little attention to the words.

The time finally came when the kids learned to do what their father and mother did and not what they said, and it became apparent that if I did not attend church regularly the kids would revolt and stay home with me. Sunday School held no particular joys for them, as they had made few friends there, but they would go if we did. I struggled with myself, finally arguing that, should a dictator try to shut the churches, I would man the barricades; and therefore, it was inconsistent of me to turn my back on an institution for which I, at least in theory, was ready to lay down my life, or at least throw a few rocks. I joined the choir.

This great event was possible for me only because the interim rector, a wonderfully warm woman, assured me that many worse hypocrites than I went to the altar, and that I was unlikely to be struck down by a thunderbolt if I pretended a piety I lacked. I indeed was not struck down, and realized with no little shame that I was disappointed.

Those ten years of involvement at Christ Church were wonderful years in which I made many good friends, headed a committee, learned to sing better, and gradually cleared my mind of the confusion between belief and experience. I could have a religious experience, as good a one as any contemporary Christian ritual allows, and not have to subscribe to an outdated mythology. I ceased being an atheist, and simply became religious. If someone wished to call me an atheist because, in their view, I didn’t believe in what everyone else in church believed in, that was their business. They would be surprised to find out what their co-religionists really believed.

I found I had many companions in my adventure into the experience of religion, and ceased my intolerance for others who found the church important in their lives. The church was filled with people in various stages of confusion about life and its meaning, each searching for something, each dependent to one degree or another upon the lovely rituals, the music, the symbolism, the Bible’s poetry, and each other; and all were grateful for the time to think about ethical matters for an entire morning once a week.

I paint this history as a background for a moment of epiphany. As I read and thought about the paradoxical need almost everyone has for religious beliefs that make no sense to a modern Westerner, I gradually extricated myself from the untenable if almost universal belief that there was a little man – my Homunculus – that must reside in my brain in order for me to be me. Whatever one called it — consciousness, a soul, a mind — I became convinced it can’t exist outside the context of neuronal and hormonal activity.

I was thoroughly convinced rationally, yet I had not taken the crucial next step and internalized this reasoning. I had to face up to my real beliefs, that I and everyone else was made of the same stuff as stars and rocks, the same bosons and hadrons, the same molecules. Stuff is what everything is, and that is all there is — stuff and how it is organized and transformed. The dualistic alternative was simply untenable. That alternative had formed the foundation for my thinking, breathing, living, feeling, for 50 years, and I had to shed it, like a molting crustacean. What kind of vulnerable creature would be exposed if this protective carapace were discarded?

Christ Church is a fine, simple, wooden structure built in the mid-1700’s, with a vaulted nave, two side aisles, generous arched windows, and a semi-circular apse.  On this occasion, like many others, I entered through the door to the right of the Apse to take my place in the Chancel for choir rehearsal. It was a lovely day. As I walked into the sunlit church, I took the final step into a fully materialistic view of the world. I “realized” — made real to myself — my conviction that everything I thought, that my notion of myself, that everything I imagined and said and saw, was a construction of a network of neurons in my brain. That was all I was, there wasn’t anything else. My precious “me” was an electro-chemical artifact, the byproduct of the metabolism of my brain. Only stuff. It was a devastating moment, and I felt emptied and depressed. My skills, my loves, my enthusiasms, my despairs — all were chemical artifacts. How could anything take on any deep meaning, now that it had been reduced to the automatic operation of some chemical machinery? How was I anything but a meaningless computation?

It isn’t possible to reproduce all the confused emotions I felt, but only to note that I felt them, and was in a mild state of despair. Yet it WAS mild, and it lasted a remarkably short time. I never needed to retrace my steps, and never have. I want to recount one of the lines of thought that helped me through this door in my life. The flaw in my despairing argument was the “only” — that I was “only” an artifact of my chemistry.
There are at least 10 billion neurons — nerve cells — in my brain. Each of these cells has an average of 10,000 connections with other cells, called synapses, making a total of 100 trillion connections. Most of these cells have within them the entire book of instructions about how to make me, my entire genome. Each of these 10 billion neurons is comparable to a city in its complexity.

Much of this machinery is dedicated to moving electrical impulses down the axon of the cell, its main trunk line, by pumping chemicals in and out of pores in the cell’s wall. When these impulses reach a terminus, a great cascade of chemical changes occurs, with pores opening and closing, chemicals being carried in and out in little vesicles, until at the other side of the terminus, the signal continues in another nerve cell. Or maybe elsewhere in the same cell. These cascades of activity move down the cell and across the synapses at an average rate of about 45 MPH, but since they usually haven’t far to go, many such cascades can occur in the 10th of a second it takes someone to react to a new stimulus. Chemical processes in cells take place in billionths of a second.

So this “only” turns out to refer to perhaps the most complex assembly of stuff in the universe. Within my brain stuff, I might remember the essence of perhaps 1,000 pieces of music, 500 people, 20,000 English words and who knows how many plants and animals. I can design buildings of indefinite size, write an essay, throw and catch a ball, draw a convincing image of almost anything (given enough time), swim, sing. There are 7,000,000,000 of me, each one unique, each convinced that he or she is in some way special, identifiable, worth saving, worth feeding, worth contributing to the next generation, each with a story, a fascinating story, many fascinating stories.

There is miracle enough in a piece of my brain the size of a rice grain to satisfy the most insatiable craving for the impossible. There is no need to add something ineffable to turn myself into a person or to infuse nature with magic. But this was a long and complicated journey for me, and I have great respect for the different journeys made by others.

And very little patience with proselytizing atheists.