Lecture 13: The Purpose of the World

 Foundations of Liberty
The Intellectual Crisis of the Modern World

A Lecture Series with Prof. Thomas Patrick Burke

In the last lecture we saw that purpose and value are present in the world, through the existence of living beings. We did not create them. They are part of the constitution of the world. Although the inanimate world viewed by itself may be mechanistic, the living world is not. Living beings are essentially purpose-driven. While they often incorporate many machine-like qualities, which can be the object of successful scientific investigation, they are not machines. They manifest purpose–natural purpose—both in their actions and in their organic structure. They originate natural value: some things are good for them and other things bad. If we view at least that corner of the world which is our planet, it is pregnant with purpose.

This does not mean they they themselves have intentions, which would mean they have conscious minds and wills, but that they suggest by their actions and forms that they are the products of a being with intentions.

We saw also that there is in the world a natural, self-creating hierarchy of living beings. The lower, simpler, more restricted forms of life have changed themselves, under the purposeful impulsion of their will to live, into higher, more complex and more powerful forms of life. Bacteria have changed themselves into plants, which are more productive and fruitful, and plants have changed themselves into animals, which are still more fertile and prolific, more capable and competent, and animals have changed themselves into us. Once begun, life has been creative: it has manifested the energy to create purposefully for itself ever greater and higher forms of energy. The process of evolution has been driven by purpose.

We have no idea how this is possible.

The Purpose of the World as a Whole

Now we wish to ask whether, over and above the presence in the world of purposeful life and purposeful evolution, we have reason to believe that the world itself and as such, the system as a whole, exists for a purpose. For several centuries since the rise of modern science, Western civilization has been influenced by the philosophy of the absurd. The view has prevailed among those who consider themselves “enlightened” that the universe is ultimately absurd because science tells us it is nothing more than a gigantic mechanism, which possesses in itself  no meaning, purpose or ultimate value; and which there is no rational reason to believe is the work of a supreme mind. In particular, it views human existence as absurd because, although we have life, minds and purposes, and are capable of giving and receiving meaning for one another’s lives through our relationships, we are cast into a mindless universe, which places no value on our existence or our happiness, but purely by the whim of chance both brings us into existence and robs us of that existence.

But the argument of these lectures has been, to repeat, first, that the purposelessness of the empirical world is not a doctrine of science, not a truth it has discovered through investigation, but is nothing more than a methodological assumption of science, developed historically for practical reasons and helpful for its practical purposes but having no necessary significance for the deeper understanding of the cosmos.  Second, we have argued that if we look at all closely at the living world around us, we see a very different picture from that painted by science: a world governed by teleological causation whose very possibility we are absolutely incapable of understanding, except on the supposition that it has been created by an intelligence. If we set the mechanistic methodological assumptions of science to one side, every living being in the world speaks to us of the existence of a supreme mind, for there is no other way we can make the teleologies we observe in living beings intelligible.

In asking therefore whether the universe has a purpose, we are asking what motive could justify a supreme mind in creating this world.


One candidate for this motive has historically been the happiness of creatures. Our great aim in life as individual persons is to find happiness, and so we easily believe that if the world existed to provide us with happiness it would be sufficiently justified.  But if the purpose for which the world exists is to make the living creatures it contains, and especially its human inhabitants, happy, it can only be considered a dismal failure. That is all too obvious.

On the other hand there are reasons to doubt that happiness could possibly play such a decisive role in the universe. For happiness is not something objective, but subjective. It is relative to the individual. There are two main theories about happiness. In the ancient world it was believed that happiness consisted in the fulfillment of our nature, which was interpreted to mean above all leading a life in accordance with reason. The modern theory is that happiness comes from the fulfillment of our desires. But both of these theories can be doubted.  It seems doubtful whether the rational conduct of life is sufficient to create happiness, given the reality of suffering, evil and death. Already for the ancient Stoics this was a grave problem. And secondly it is possible to ask whether the satisfaction of our desires will actually succeed in making us happy, or is even capable of doing so. The ancients thought that was far too self-centered a goal to achieve that effect.


Led by these considerations, I would like to invite you the reader to think in a different direction from the traditional focus on happiness. I would like to suggest that we focus instead on the idea of goodness. Goodness is a teleological concept. To be good is to be worth having as a goal or purpose, and every purpose is regarded by the agent striving for it as good. We have observed several times that goodness occurs only in relation to living beings. For an inanimate being nothing can be either good or bad. But as soon as a living being arrives on the scene, the idea of goodness arises, because some things will be good for it and other things bad. The very idea of goodness, properly understood, gives the lie to mechanicism and the philosophy of the absurd.  Our question about the purpose of the world is therefore necessarily a question about goodness, since only a perceived good can be a purpose. The purpose of the world must be something that is sufficiently good in the eyes of a supreme mind that it makes the existence of the universe worthwhile.

There are very different kinds of goodness. Much of what we call good is so only instrumentally. It is good as a means to something else. This cannot be the kind of goodness we are looking for. We are looking for something that is good in itself, inherently, by its own nature. Furthermore, we are looking for a kind of goodness that makes other beings good. For we are seeking a kind of goodness that will justify the universe. Some believe love is this goodness: either loving or being loved. Yet love by itself  is not necessarily good, for it can be evil.

Moral Goodness

The highest kind of goodness is moral goodness. This is recognized almost universally. Moral goodness means doing the right thing for the right reason. The right reason is:  because it is the right thing to do. It is not enough to perform the right exterior action. It is even more necessary to have the right motive. If the only reason why we help the elderly lady across the busy street is because we hope she will remember us in her will, we have not performed a morally worthwhile action.

Some have considered that aesthetic goodness– beauty– is ultimately higher or better than moral goodness. But while moral goodness is undoubtedly an objective quality of the person who is morally good, beauty is not, properly speaking, an objective quality of the objects we call beautiful, but rather a reflection of the quality of our own feeling, as Kant has shown.

The source or foundation of moral goodness is the interior freedom of the adult human will. This freedom is something unique in the universe. It is the highest and most powerful of the teleological causes that occur in nature. Some think our highest power is intelligence, and there is a large industry devoted to attempting to create what is called artificial intelligence.  No doubt intelligence is a great power, the power of insight. But intelligence alone — if we can imagine it disconnected from freedom of the will, with which in reality it forms an integral whole — has no special claim to nobility, honor or dignity. A criminal mind is still a mind. The mere fact that something is observed or understood does not make it valuable. What confers dignity and value on a human being in our experience are two things, on two different levels.  First  is the fact of our nature that as adults we are in charge of ourselves and our actions. Because our will is free, not bound to any force or factor preceding our decision, we have the power to initiate actions, and our actions therefore belong to us. They are ours, in a unique way. They are imputable to us, and to no one else.  We are responsible for them and their effects in the world. And we are therefore accountable for them to others. This is the source of our dignity as human beings. The second source of our dignity is the quality of our actions. We rightly respect people who achieve something worthwhile.  If their actions are morally good  — that is, if they respect the freedom and the human dignity of others  — then they possess moral dignity or worth, which demands in its turn to be respected and honored by others.

The interior freedom of the adult human will is the foundation of moral value.  A will that is not free — for example when it is thoroughly under the dominion of drugs or alcohol — is not subject to moral judgement (although the action by which we allowed ourselves to come under that dominion is certainly so subject).  A will that is not free cannot be either moral or immoral.  But as soon as it gains its freedom it immediately becomes subject to moral evaluation. If we are looking for a purpose that would justify the creation of our world, it will surely have something to do with the freedom of the human will.

There are different levels of moral goodness. There is, first, the simple goodness of not being morally bad. This is not nothing, because it means that the action is in accordance with the moral law. But the highest kind of moral goodness comes into existence only in the encounter with suffering and evil. It is realized in the effort of the free adult will not to be overcome by suffering and evil, but to resist and to overcome them.

If this thesis should be correct, it would entail that suffering and evil, I will not say are necessary, but that in this created world they are of such a nature that good can come out of them, and a kind of good, a supreme goodness, that cannot come into existence in any other way.  We see here why happiness cannot be what justifies and redeems the world. It can be formulated in the question:  would we want a life that was nothing but happy?  For the highest qualities of human beings are moral qualities, and the highest moral virtues only come into play when they are faced with difficulty and hardship, in the confrontation with suffering  and evil. A life without hardship would also be one without heroism.

Moral goodness is a higher and a greater value than happiness. We are not made to be happy; we are made to be good.

A world whose existence is justified in this way, by the creation of moral goodness, can only be considered the product of a supreme mind, and a supremely good and moral mind.

The next time you do a kind act, you may wish to remember that you are justifying the existence of the universe.