Lecture 12: The Restoration of Meaning

 Foundations of Liberty
The Intellectual Crisis of the Modern World

A Lecture Series with Prof. Thomas Patrick Burke

In the last lecture we examined what is in the eyes of many working scientists the principal objection to the viewpoint we have been developing in these lectures:  that it is nothing more than “vitalism,” which is obsolete. Vitalism, we saw, is just the view that living things contain a principle of life which is not mechanistic or mechanical.  From the viewpoint of common sense or our ordinary daily experience of living beings this belief is obviously true. As Plato pointed out, we can see that living things originate movement from within themselves. But this view is considered  obsolete, not because it has been disproved, but because it is not compatible with two axioms or assumptions on which the physical sciences are based. One of these is Ockham’s Razor, the principle that the simplest explanation is always to be preferred. The other is the fact that only mechanistic causes can be proven by experiment, since only they allow prediction and empirical verification. Teleological explanations cannot be proven by the methods of science for both of these reasons. Which, however, does not necessarily mean at all that they are not true. Historically, modern science began with physics, which requires these assumptions, and biology developed two centuries later, not out of physics but out of the practice of medicine, which requires different assumptions. Our argument was that vitalism is true, since it is merely the assertion that there are natural purposes, but it should not be considered a part of science, which in principle, for the reasons just given, is incapable of seeing purposes.

To repeat an argument of central importance that I presented in a previous lecture: it is logically impossible to explain a purpose by a mechanistic cause, because their modes of action are not only different but contradictory. Mechanistic causes exercise causality in a descending line: A causes B which causes C and so on. But teleological causes can be reciprocal: the roots of the plant cause the leaves, and at the same time the leaves cause the roots. A mechanistic cause is distinct from its effect and must exist before its effect, but a teleological cause is identical with the effect: the effect is the realization of the cause. With mechanistic causation each part can exist independently of the other parts, but with a teleological cause each part becomes possible only in virtue of its relationship to the whole. Each part is both cause and effect of the whole. In addition, as we saw, mechanistic causation provides no basis for values.

We turn now to consider the outcome, the principal implications of the theses we have been developing in these lectures regarding the two closely related subjects, on the one hand, the nature of science, and on the other, the nature of life. This implication or outcome can be summarized as the restoration of meaning. The physical sciences have added immensely to our knowledge, but they have banished meaning, that is, purpose and value, from the world, since neither of these is compatible with mechanicism. A just understanding of the nature of science, combined with a just understanding of life and living beings, namely the reality of natural purposes, restores the reality of meaning to the world. We will explore this under the headings just mentioned of purpose and value.

  1. Purpose in the World

We are accustomed to look at life and its evolution into new species through the eye of science as a completely mechanistic process. That view has been in some respects very beneficial. But it is at most only half the picture. I would like to invite you to look at evolution in addition through the eye of purpose. There are two kinds of purpose in the world: conscious purposes and natural purposes. Conscious purposes are the aims, goals or intentions of human or rational minds. Natural purposes are the teleologies we find implanted by nature in living beings. These purposes are to be found both in the actions and the forms of living things. In their actions, as when for example an animal hunts for food. In their forms, as in the fact that the animal has limbs and organs which to all appearances exist for the purpose of carrying out certain functions. In these lectures we have been concerned especially to establish the reality of natural purposes, because they are not so generally recognized, since science denies their existence, or, what is equivalent, explains them as purposeless mechanisms. The term “functions” (εργα, erga) that I have just used is the term used by Aristotle. But science also denies the existence of conscious purposes, in the sense that it assumes they also will ultimately be explainable in purely mechanistic terms.

We cannot ask science to admit natural purposes, for that is excluded by its basic principles, which have otherwise made it so successful. Nonetheless, it is the admission of natural purposes that is the key to the restoration of meaning in the world.

In order to admit the reality of natural purposes it is not necessary to be able to explain them. These are two separate steps, the recognition that natural purposes exist, and the attempt to explain their existence.  It has not been our aim in these lectures so far to explain them. But of course the question of how to explain them cannot be far away. I will shortly make a comment on this question and again in the next lecture.

It must be admitted that the concept of a natural purpose is not simple. To say that something belongs to nature is to say that it is in some sense necessary and subject to the laws of nature, while to say that it is a purpose would normally mean that it is the deliberate product of a free mind. The purposes we find in natureappear to be the product of a mind. But we are not in a position to say straightout or simpliciter, without qualificationthat they are the product of a mind, because there is no mind in evidence. What we are in a position to state is that there is no other possible way of explaining them, that we know of,  and that preserves their purposive character, than as the product of a mind. While this can be taken as a comment on the limitations of the human mind, it can also be taken as at least the suggestion of a transcendent reality capable of creating living things.

It follows from what we have been saying that the course of evolution is driven by purpose, in the sense of natural purposes. For it is driven most fundamentally by the aim or desire of living beings to survive. Although Darwin did not recognize it, this teleological insight was at the heart of his argument, as we have seen. Evolution is also driven by the other natural aims of living beings, to grow in accordance with a certain plan, to fulfill their nature, to reproduce, to achieve health and healing, and so on. The course of evolution is shaped by the natural purposes of life. By the same token, although we are not in a position to say without further qualification that the course of evolution is governed by a mind, since, again,  there is no mind in evidence as controlling it, we are entitled to say that the only way available to us human beings to explain the course of evolution is as if it were governed by a mind.

There is a hierarchy, or a difference in the level, of natural purposes. It is not only animals and plants that manifest natural purposes, but also, and above all, human beings. The human body consists of organs which each serve special purposes: heart, lungs, brain, liver, kidneys, etc., It possesses limbs which serve especially the purpose of movement.  In addition to these material organs and limbs human beings also centrally possess other abilities, mind and will, which are their most distinctive features. The highest form of natural purpose is the free human will. The free human will is the power that creates conscious purposes, it is, as it were, the location where they exist and are exercised. What we normally call a purpose is the aim or intention of a human will. More than that, the freedom of the human will is the origin of moral value. A will that is not free is not capable of moral or immoral action. As soon as it becomes free its actions are immediately subject to moral judgement.

On a level below the human level is what I am going to call the will of animals. This is not a genuine will in the normal sense of the word, since it is not rational or free, but it is something analogous to a will. When a dog wants to get out of the house he can let us know that in no uncertain manner. For the animal, its will is the power that creates its active purposes. On a level below that again, in plants, there is something equivalent, again obviously not a will, but nonetheless a power to seek a useful goal, such as sunlight or food in the soil. If the theory of evolution is true, then it is probable that the free human will has evolved out of the corresponding “will” or power of animals, which in turn has evolved out of the corresponding power in plants. This evolution, as we have just seen, is not blind; it is the work of some power that we can only think of as a mind.

Why this emphasis on plants and animals? I have been asked. The emphasis on plants and animals is of great importance in restoring meaning to the human world for we must accept the theory that we have evolved out of them, and consequently plants and animals have an impact on our understanding of ourselves. Consider, for example, the case of the freedom of the human will. One of the more persuasive objections to that freedom is that the entire rest of the universe is mechanistic, and if the human will were free, that would be almost miraculously unique.  If everything else in the universe is mechanistic, how could the freedom of the human will come about? What would be its origin or foundation? Descartes argued, for reasons we have already seen,  that animals are machines. The consequence he drew from this was that the human body was also a machine. Although he did not maintain that human beings were machines, for he wished to save the mind as a distinct entity in its own right, the scientific community did not perceive the same necessity in that regard and soon drew the conclusion that human beings were entirely mechanistic.  Similarly, Darwin developed his explanation of evolution in the Origin entirely by reference to plants and animals, making little reference in that book to human beings, but the conclusion was immediately drawn by the public that his theory must apply to human beings also.  Our fate as human beings is intimately linked to that of plants and animals.

All forms of life manifest purpose. They do this in two distinct ways. One is in their actions, the other in their form or structure. All forms of life are organized and self-organizing.  They consist of organs that clearly exist to carry out certain purposive actions. All forms of life act teleologically: to achieve certain goals.  If this is the case, it must inevitably raise two further questions. One concerns the inanimate world. We have not been concerned with that in these lectures. But if we find the universal presence of purpose in the living world, then, considering the vast extent of the living world on our planet, it must lead us at least to ask whether something analogous may not be true of the inanimate world. I will not pursue this question at this time, but simply note it for the moment as a question.  The second question that suggests itself concerns the presence of purpose in the universe as a whole.  Does the universe itself have a purpose?  This will be the subject of the next and last lecture.

  1. Value in the World

For much of the history of Western civilization it was considered necessary that the civil law should rest on a moral foundation. That foundation was provided by the doctrine of the natural moral law. Adumbrated by Plato and Aristotle, this doctrine was formulated explicitly by the Stoics. Its best expositor in the ancient world was Cicero. “If justice does not exist in nature,” he wrote, “it does not exist anywhere.” He meant that justice is not something merely subjective or relative, only a matter of opinion, but it has objective existence in reason. We do not invent the just solution of a dispute, we discover it, by the use of our reason.

With the development of modern science, however, around the year 1600, this view fell a prey to skepticism. In the mechanistic world as understood by science there was, properly speaking, no room for any value whatever, let alone for moral values. Science accepts the reality only of what is empirical, and moral values are not empirical. The later Logical Positivists of the 20th century were at least consistent in accepting this and declaring all values to be mere expressions of emotion. In the meantime the nearest thing Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century could find to a moral value was survival. Using that as a foundation, he ingeniously built up something that bears at least a faint resemblance to a system of morality. But even that was undermined by David Hume a century later.


Hume achieved this feat by arguing that an unbridgeable gulf separates statements of fact from statements of value, because facts are objective realities that can be discovered by science, but statements of value are nothing more than expressions of emotion. In the following well-known passage he asks why we think incest practised by human beings is immoral but not when practised by animals, since the fact, namely the action, which is the only thing science can detect, is the same is both cases. The difference between fact and value can only lie in our emotional reactions to the two cases. It is these emotional reactions that constitute what we call moral value.

I would fain ask any one, why incest in the human species is criminal, and why the very same action, and the same relations in animals have not the smallest moral turpitude and deformity? If it be answered, that this action is innocent in animals, because they have not reason sufficient to discover its turpitude; but that man, being endowed with that faculty which ought to restrain him to his duty, the same action instantly becomes criminal to him; should this be said, I would reply, that this is evidently arguing in a circle. For before reason can perceive this turpitude, the turpitude must exist; and consequently is independent of the decisions of our reason, and is their object more properly than their effect. According to this system, then, every animal, that has sense, and appetite, and will; that is, every animal must be susceptible of all the same virtues and vices, for which we ascribe praise and blame to human creatures. All the difference is, that our superior reason may serve to discover the vice or virtue, and by that means may augment the blame or praise: But still this discovery supposes a separate being in these moral distinctions, and a being, which depends only on the will and appetite, and which, both in thought and reality, may be distinguished from the reason. Animals are susceptible of the same relations, with respect to each other, as the human species, and therefore would also be susceptible of the same morality, if the essence of morality consisted in these relations. Their want of a sufficient degree of reason may hinder them from perceiving the duties and obligations of morality, but can never hinder these duties from existing; since they must antecedently exist, in order to their being perceived. Reason must find them, and can never produce them. This argument deserves to be weighed, as being, in my opinion, entirely decisive.

Similarly, he argues that there is nothing about the fact of a murder that makes it wrong. For all that science can see is an external, physical action, and moral wrongness is not a physical quality. It is only out of our emotional reactions to the physical action that wrongness arises.

Nor does this reasoning only prove, that morality consists not in any relations, that are the objects of science; but if examined, will prove with equal certainty, that it consists not in any matter of fact, which can be discovered by the understanding. This is the second part of our argument; and if it can be made evident, we may conclude, that morality is not an object of reason. But can there be any difficulty in proving, that vice and virtue are not matters of fact, whose existence we can infer by reason? Take any action allowed to be vicious: Wilful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In which-ever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You never can find it, till you turn your reflection into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action. Here is a matter of fact; but it is the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object. So that when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it. Vice and virtue, therefore, may be compared to sounds, colours, heat and cold, which, according to modern philosophy, are not qualities in objects, but perceptions in the mind: And this discovery in morals, like that other in physics, is to be regarded as a considerable advancement of the speculative sciences; though, like that too, it has little or no influence on practice. Nothing can be more real, or concern us more, than our own sentiments of pleasure and uneasiness; and if these be favourable to virtue, and unfavourable to vice, no more can be requisite to the regulation of our conduct and behaviour.

The truth of the matter is that the action done by the human being is the product of a free will, and it is that fact that makes the action subject to moral judgement. But the freedom of the will is not the kind of thing that science can ever discover, for it is not empirical. Freedom is therefore not “a quality in the object” but only “a perception in the mind.”  For Hume, then, to repeat, the “fact” is only the external and empirical action that scientific investigation can detect.

This is the much discussed dichotomy between “is” and “ought.” In the Humean view, “is” refers to what scientific investigation can discover. “Ought” refers to our emotional reactions. The distinction between virtue and vice cannot be objective, says Hume, for if it were, science would be able to discover it.

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprized to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.


Hume’s skepticism about the natural moral law was greeted with skepticism by much of the public in its turn when it was published in the 18th century. But a century later  things had changed. In 1874, after Darwin’s Origin of Species was published (1859), John Stuart Mill published an essay On Nature[1]  in which he mounted a direct assault against the idea of a natural moral law—an assault that has been eventually entirely successful, sweeping the idea of natural law from the public field. Still today this essay is considered by many to be the last word on the subject.  Mill argues that

…we must recognise at least two principal meanings in the word “nature”. In one sense, it means all the powers existing in either the outer or the inner world and everything which takes place by means of those powers. In another sense, it means, not everything which happens, but only what takes place without the agency, or without the voluntary and intentional agency, of man…

But in both senses, he argues, it is foolish to maintain that people ought to follow nature. For taking the word in its first sense, nature embraces everything that happens, including the laws of physics, and nobody can do anything else but follow the laws of physics. All our actions are only possible because they are in accordance with the laws of nature. If we try to act against the law of gravity, for example, that is quite likely to be fatal for us.

When it is asserted, or implied, that Nature, or the laws of Nature, should be conformed to, is the Nature which is meant Nature in the first sense of the term, meaning all which is – the powers and properties of all things? But in this signification there is no need of a recommendation to act according to nature, since it is what nobody can possibly help doing, and equally whether he acts well or ill. There is no mode of acting which is not conformable to Nature in this sense of the term, and all modes of acting are so in exactly the same degree. Every action is the exertion of some natural power, and its effects of all sorts are so many phenomena of nature, produced by the powers and properties of some of the objects of nature, in exact obedience to some law or laws of nature. When I voluntarily use my organs to take in food, the act, and its consequences, take place according to laws of nature: if instead of food I swallow poison, the case is exactly the same. To bid people conform to the laws of nature when they have no power but what the laws of nature give them – when it is a physical impossibility for them to do the smallest thing otherwise than through some law of nature, is an absurdity.

But also if we take “nature” in the second sense, of what happens or exists apart from human action, it is equally foolish–and even worse, it is criminal–to encourage people to follow nature, because nature in this sense pays no attention and exercises no care of human beings, but on the contrary inflicts suffering and death on all of us.

In sober truth, nearly all the things which men are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another are nature’s every-day performances. Killing, the most criminal act recognised by human laws, Nature does once to every being that lives; and, in a large proportion of cases, after protracted tortures such as only the greatest monsters whom we read of ever purposely inflicted on their living fellow creatures. If, by an arbitrary reservation, we refuse to account anything murder but what abridges a certain term supposed to be allotted to human life, nature also does this to all but a small percentage of lives, and does it in all the modes, violent or insidious, in which the worst human beings take the lives of one another. Nature impales men, breaks them as if on the wheel, casts them to be devoured by wild beasts, burns them to death, crushes them with stones like the quick or slow venom of her exhalations, and has hundreds of other hideous deaths in reserve, such as the ingenious cruelty of a Nabis or a Domitian never surpassed. All this Nature does with the most supercilious disregard both of mercy and of justice, emptying her shafts upon the best and noblest indifferently with the meanest and worst; upon those who are engaged in the highest and worthiest enterprises, and often as the direct consequence of the noblest acts; and it might almost be imagined as a punishment for them. She mows down those on whose existence hangs the well-being of a whole people, perhaps the prospect of the human race for generations to come, with as little compunction as those whose death is a relief to themselves, or a blessing to those under their noxious influence. Such are Nature’s dealings with life. Even when she does not intend to kill she inflicts the same tortures in apparent wantonness. In the clumsy provision which she has made for that perpetual renewal of animal life, rendered necessary by the prompt termination she puts to it in every individual instance, no human being ever comes into the world but another human being is literally stretched on the rack for hours or days, not unfrequently issuing in death. Next to taking life (equal to it according to a high authority) is taking the means by which we live; and Nature does this too on the largest scale and with the most callous indifference. A single hurricane destroys the hopes of a season; a flight of locusts, or an inundation, desolates a district; a trifling chemical change in an edible root starves a million of people. The waves of the sea, like banditti, seize and appropriate the wealth of the rich and the little all of the poor with the same accompaniments of stripping, wounding, and killing as their human antitypes. Everything, in short, which the worst men commit either against life or property is perpetrated on a larger scale by natural agents.

While this is a deeply felt and moving statement of the problem of evil, you see here that Mill has completely misunderstood the meaning of “nature” as it is understood in natural law theory. To repeat, it means the realm of what is objective rather than subjective, or what holds true absolutely rather than merely relative to some society or individual, or what can be discovered by impartial reason rather than what is accepted because we like it and it appeals to us emotionally. Mill evidently did not think it worth his while to research what people had actually believed when they believed in the natural moral law, but contented himself with creating a straw man and knocking it down. Not only the large public, however, but also the general academic world was successfully taken in by the man often regarded as the outstanding intellectual of the 19th century.

For contrast, here is Cicero on what is meant by the law of nature:

There is a true law, a right reason, conformable to nature, universal, unchangeable, eternal, whose commands urge us to duty, and whose prohibitions restrain us from evil. Whether it enjoins or forbids, the good respect its injunctions, and the wicked treat them with indifference. This law cannot be contradicted by any other law, and is not liable either to derogation or abrogation. Neither the Senate nor the People can give us any dispensation for not obeying this universal law of justice. It needs no other expositor and interpreter than our own conscience. It is not one thing at Rome and another at Athens, one thing today and another tomorrow; but in all times and nations this universal law must for ever reign, eternal and imperishable. It is the sovereign master and emperor of all beings. God himself is its author, its promulgator, its enforcer. He who obeys it not, flies from himself, and does violence to the very nature of man. For his crime he must endure the severest penalties hereafter, even if he avoid the usual misfortunes of the present life.    (Laelius, in Cicero, De Republica, Bk 3.)

It will be evident to the reader that what Cicero meant by “nature” in regard to “natural law” is altogether different from the interpretation Mill placed on it.

Our Conclusion

Purpose and value are inherent in the world, through the presence of living beings. We did not create them. They are part of the constitution of the world. Although the inanimate world viewed by itself is mechanistic, the living world is not. Living beings are essentially purpose-driven. While they incorporate many machine-like qualities, which can be the object of successful scientific investigation, they are not machines. The world as a whole, therefore, embodies purpose and must be considered to be a manifestation of purpose. That is, it itself  must be viewed as a purpose. Likewise, although the inanimate world knows nothing of value, life is essentially a bearer of value. Wherever there is life there is good, and with it inevitably the possibility of the bad. At its highest level this is moral goodness. This suggests that moral goodness may be the purpose of the world. We will explore this idea in the next lecture.

[1] The first of three essays in the volume Nature, The Utility of Religion and Theism.