You've probably asked yourself the question, "What is my
purpose?" Most people do, and then they die without ever hearing a satisfying answer. Others
latch on to some arbitrary answer and feel like their curiosity has been
sated, even though it hasn't really been fed.
It's easy to see that the question can be asked more precisely.
You probably want an answer that was determined before you were born,
right? By an entity that can be said to have "created" you in some
sense? OK, we can work with that.
If you're in the habit of asking such "deep mysterious questions", you'll notice that it usually doesn't make sense to try to answer them as
they are posed. Instead, the way to make the mystery go away is to
explain what happens in your brain that makes you feel such a question
is meaningful to pose.
Your brain generates questions to fill in gaps in your mental model of
the world. But sometimes you start with an inaccurate mental model. So
when you ask a question that makes sense to you, it doesn't necessarily
constitute a meaningful question about the world.
In this case, the inaccurate mental model at fault is the concept of
"purpose". Human thoughts are constructed out of building blocks that
are hardwired into our brain. Our intuitive ontology includes concepts
like "object", "momentum", "mood", and in particular, "purpose".
Our intuitive notion of purpose isn't perfect, as I will explain, but it
is tied to meaningful observations. For example, we correctly intuit
that a sundial is a lot more "purposeful" than a pile of rocks. That's
because, in order to judge "purposefulness", we subconsciously make a
distinction about why each thing exists:
- Pile of rocks: Because of a passive physical process.
- Sundial: Because of an optimization process.
If you'd never seen a sundial, and one day you saw one standing next to a
pile of rocks, right away you'd subconsciously put it in the second
category, because it's too improbable to be in the first. The best
hypothesis to explain your observation, the one that most accurately
predicts the existence and properties of sundials, posits the existence
of a process that tries to "optimize toward a time-telling objective".
Even if you'd never heard of a sundial, and you didn't know about the
time-telling objective, you would subconsciously assume that there's
some criterion the sundial satisfies, and that some "optimization
process" out there only creates things that satisfy that criterion. We're programmed, correctly, to conclude there's an optimization process at
work when we see something that looks a lot more improbable than a pile
When we detect an optimization process at work, we intuitively model it as if it's like a person who is consciously trying to
achieve a goal. This works perfectly when the optimization process at
work is, in fact, a person, like in the case of the sundial. But our
intuition is completely unprepared to reason about an optimization process that isn't human-like.
A prestigious group of philosophers famously fell victim to their flawed
intuition about optimization processes, and all their publications
became contaminated with the assumption that optimization can only be
performed by a purposeful human-like entity. I am talking about everyone
Before Darwin, people's intuitive purpose-o-meter was well-calibrated
when it came to sundials and rocks. But the level of optimization
evident in life forms registered off the charts, and people intuited
that whatever created them must have had one hell of a purpose. The
famous "argument from design", believed by everyone from Socrates to
modern creationists, goes like this:
- Boy, life forms sure are optimized to satisfy certain criteria
- They couldn't have been made by any old process; it had to be an
[Sound intuitive inference.]
- Life was created by a process involving a purposeful designer.
[Unsound intuitive inference.]
Before Darwin, everyone knew about the biological processes of
variation, reproduction and death. But all those things were filed under
the mental category of "passive physical process". Darwin realized that
a combination of those passive physical processes leads to Natural
Selection. And Natural Selection is a process that only creates things
that satisfy the criterion of reproductive fitness. And that means it
belongs in the other mental category: "optimization processes".
But human intuition isn't having any of this. Intuitively, "passive
physical process" and "optimization process" are two fundamental mental
categories, and it's inconceivable that you could build an optimization
processes out of a combination of processes that are not themselves
This is one of the most common patterns in the history of scientific
progress. Someone will say "Hey, what if Y is made out of this other
thing X, even though X by itself is nothing like Y?" And your intuition
will say, "Nope, trust me, Y is ontologically fundamental, so no
insights here." For example:
- Your intuition thinks sound is a fundamental thing, and wind is
another fundamental thing, but really they are both properties of the
movement of air particles.
- Your intuition thinks motion and rest are two fundamentally
different things, but really the only difference is your choice of
- Your intuition thinks your hand is made out of special organic
matter whose mysterious life force makes it obey your mental commands,
while a lump of clay is made out of boring regular matter. But really
the only difference is that your brain controls muscles in your hand
through a big wire.
A related pattern is that when you don't understand some phenomenon, it
often feels like a grand irreducible mystery. Most of your ancestors
were completely ignorant about science, so your intuition is only
expecting to hear stories that "explain" a phenomenon while keeping the
mystery intact, and without actually increasing your ability to make
predictions about it. The last thing you expect is for the mystery to be
explained in terms of non-mysterious concepts. But that's what Darwin
did for the origin of life, and the explanation for your
"purpose in life" curiosity will follow as a corollary to
Remember that any time you observe optimization, like with the sundial,
you immediately make a mental model of an optimizer that possesses
human-like purpose. You subconsciously observe lots of optimization in
yourself and others, so you conclude you were created by a process with a
human-like purpose. You want to complete the analogy: "Sundial is to
time-telling as I am to ______".
If you fill in the blank with "perpetuating the relative frequency of certain alleles in the gene pool", then the analogy is a logical one. But even with our
post-Darwinian understanding, which enables us to complete the analogy,
it still doesn't feel like the mysterious question has been adequately
Why doesn't anyone actually try that hard to perpetuate their genes?
People have a lot of sex, but they use birth control. People have kids,
but not that many. And why do sperm banks have to pay men, instead of
the other way around?
It's because perpetuating your genes isn't your purpose. It's your
creator's optimization criterion, but it's not your purpose. You have
your own purposes.
If you were creating an entity, and your purpose was to perpetuate its
set of genes, and you were going to make that entity conscious, then
wouldn't you make your creation consciously want to perpetuate its
genes? That's the smart thing to do.
But the process that created you is pretty stupid. It pushes toward
genetic fitness, but it doesn't do it perfectly. In fact, there are all
kinds of obvious ways to make its creations more fit, but they're only
"obvious" to a smart process like your brain. The only changes that are
obvious to natural selection are the ones caused by minor mutations to
the alleles in the current gene pool.
You are the product of a creator that did an impressive, yet also
pathetically bad, job of optimizing you to perpetuate your genes. If Natural Selection were
smart, it would have created you with one single, unshakable purpose: to
perpetuate your genes. But it didn't. What purposes did it give you
Well, it was trying its best to program a gene perpetuation purpose into
the human brain, but it could only do a little bit in each generation.
What we ended up with is a variety of impulses, some contradictory, and
none of them explicitly representing the desire to perpetuate genes
(although the desire to have kids comes close) -- but all of them
unknowingly cooperating to get the job done in our ancestors'
Would you trade the many fragments of your purpose -- curiosity, love,
empathy, aesthetic taste, sex drive, ambition -- for a single-minded
drive to maximize the number of copies of your genes? You wouldn't,
because the fragmented purposes are already hardwired into you as precious values.
Your real purposes are represented in the physical structure of your
brain, in its haphazardly optimized design. If Natural Selection had
been a more effective optimizer, then we would all agree that donating
food to charity is even more foolish than throwing it in the trash,
because the recipients would perpetuate their genes in competition with
yours, without reciprocating the favor of free food. But instead, that
action is universally acknowledged as a noble one, and we wouldn't have it any other way.
It's ironic that, not only do we fail to consciously represent our creator's purpose, we
also fail to consciously represent a coherent picture of our own
fragmented purposes. We typically act like confused servants to a crowd of waxing
and waning drives. If you understand this state of affairs, then you can
use the full power of conscious thought and achieve your true purposes
better than you otherwise would have. You can strive to be a knowledgeable and
effective servant to a crowd of waxing and waning drives.