Finding Purpose Mental health

Our sense of purpose is not dependent on the universe having a purpose

Uncaring universe
Written by Dr. Ralph Lewis

Lawrence was a university student who came to see me for a psychiatric consultation for depression that had been affecting his academic and social functioning for a couple of years[i]. He was finding it hard to motivate himself. He was a highly intelligent, introverted young man who had always been very motivated and conscientious. He was raised in an intellectual, worldly family and schooled in a gifted class.

Since starting university, Lawrence had begun to think deeply about existential questions – the ‘purpose’ of the universe, of life, of his own life. He had rejected the (fairly liberal) religious worldview of his parents and had concluded that the universe and human existence are pointless. He couldn’t see the point of his own life. Why bother even studying toward a career? He had also reached dismal conclusions about human nature. He had not made any close friends at university.

It seemed clear to me that Lawrence’s depression was caused by an existential crisis. I tried to help him out of his depression by engaging in psychotherapy addressing his philosophical questions about the meaning of human existence, countering his negative assumptions. Unfortunately, although he found our discussions very interesting, and with my help was able to construct a secular humanist worldview that he said he found coherent, life-affirming and even inspiring, his depression and motivation did not improve[ii].

After several months, we decided to try antidepressant medication. I had initially been reluctant to choose this option because I believed that his moderate depression was mainly caused by his existential crisis and that it would improve as he reformulated his worldview. Within weeks of starting the antidepressant, Lawrence’s mood brightened and his motivation ramped up. He even became more social and found some friends he really liked. His view of the world and of humankind became more balanced. He remained interested in existential questions but this became more of a secondary intellectual interest rather than a subject defining his will to live and his motivation to engage in life.

I have since had a great many patients like Lawrence – patients whose depression, disengagement, and nihilistic feelings about life’s pointlessness seemed on the face of it to be the result of an existential crisis – their ‘realization’ that the universe has no inherent purpose. Lawrence had seen me early in my psychiatric career, so I was still too easily persuaded back then by people’s own intellectual attributions for their negative psychological and philosophical outlook. I hadn’t yet appreciated the full extent to which the biological state of our brain completely colours this outlook. Sense of purpose, like all other human behaviour, is fundamentally a physical, biological function. Motivational and reward circuitry in the brain is dependent on chemical transmitters. When people are clinically depressed, they lose the feeling of reward that normally reinforces motivation.

Human purpose, and the motivation that drives it, is an evolved function. Fundamentally, purpose-driven human behaviours are merely elaborations of the evolved drive to survive, attract mates and procreate, as vehicles for self-propagating genes. All biological organisms, even the simplest, are by definition goal-directed – with or without any form of conscious intentionality as an outgrowth of this basic drive. Even a bacterium or a plant is goal-directed.

Compared with simpler animals, human purposive behaviour has evolved to become extravagantly and wondrously embellished, elaborated by conscious intention, but it is fundamentally driven by the same basic instinctive goals of all living things: survival and reproduction. This simple biological fact needn’t diminish the meaning of our spectacular purpose-driven accomplishments any more than does the realization that the beauty of peacock tails is blindly driven by sexually selected peacock genes getting themselves copied into the next generation. Complex goal-directed human behaviours have produced the magnificent spectacle of human civilization.

We are purpose-driven simply because we are wired to be goal-directed, driven by our brain’s highly evolved motivation and reward circuits. Pursuing and achieving goals is neurochemically reinforced and infused with feelings of reward. This rewarding feeling is most obviously and dramatically experienced for food and sex. For more complex, creative, goal-directed behaviours, we experience feelings of reward in subtle ways, such as by feelings of ‘accomplishment’ or ‘self-actualization’. These are complexly evolved embellishments of the same basic behavioural reinforcement system. Lawrence had temporarily lost the feeling of reward that normally drives motivation.

Motivation is the normal, natural state of animals (varying in intensity as a trait across individuals and modifiable by external rewards and consequences). Complete indifference, and diminished capacity to experience feelings of reward, is the abnormal, exceptional state. Many psychiatric or brain disorders cause loss of our normal ‘appetite’ for life. Lawrence’s depression was one such case. Depression is often triggered by psychological or social factors in biologically predisposed individuals.

Lawrence remained very interested in the big questions of human existence, but they no longer affected his mood and motivation once his depression was treated. They became the subject of late night dorm room philosophical conversations – merely intellectually interesting to ponder and debate.

The universe may not be purposeful, but humans are. Our sense of purpose is neither derived from nor dependent on the universe having inherent purpose. Rather, it is the other way round: we perceive purpose in the universe because we ourselves are intentional agents and because we are exquisitely adept at perceiving intention in others. We infer intention so readily that we have a habit of over-attributing agency or purpose to inanimate objects and random natural occurrences. Our innate purpose-driven nature leads us to believe that the universe itself has a purpose – perceiving it as the product of a deliberate, creative designing agent – an agent just like us, only immensely more powerful. Just as we struggle to intuitively feel that the sun’s rising and setting is caused by the earth spinning rapidly with us on it, it’s hard for us to intuit that the universe came first and purpose came later.

Science tells us that purpose is an emergent, evolved property in a random purposeless universe. If we want to reach a different conclusion, we must be prepared to reject a sizeable proportion of the entire body of scientific knowledge and evidence, and start over (this is the same knowledge and evidence-base that makes your cell phone work). Impressively and counter-intuitively, twenty-first century science is able to show us how the universe and all the complexity that has arisen within it, including the eventual development of purpose-driven self-aware creatures like us, could plausibly have emerged and evolved spontaneously through entirely unguided processes.

A random world, which according to all the scientific evidence and despite our intuitions is the actual world we live in, is too often misconstrued as nihilistic, demotivating, or devoid of morality and meaning. It needn’t be so. The scientific worldview of an unguided, spontaneous universe can be awe-inspiring and foundational to building a more compassionate society.

Once Lawrence’s depression had resolved biologically, he grasped the difference between skepticism and cynicism[iii].

[i] The patient’s details have been altered to protect his anonymity. Some of the details are a composite of many patients of mine who have had similar issues.

[ii] I only attempt to help patients formulate a worldview if they ask me, and if it is appropriate for me to do so in their situation. Otherwise I have no interest at all in changing my patients’ worldviews – my therapeutic objective is only to help them feel more positively and function better. In fact I often encourage my religious patients to strengthen their connections to their religious community and faith, in the service of that therapeutic objective.

[iii] Skepticism, when rigorously applied, is instructive and enlightening, whereas cynicism is jaded, pessimistic and nihilistic. We are talking here about scientific skepticism, i.e. critical thinking applying the scientific method (beware of pseudoscience posing as skepticism, and conspiracy-mongers calling themselves skeptics).

About the author

Dr. Ralph Lewis

Dr. Lewis is a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, Canada, and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. His clinical work focuses particularly on two areas: youth psychiatry and psycho-oncology.

» Read his blog series, Finding Purpose

Dr. Lewis is the author of Finding Purpose in a Godless World: Why We Care Even If the Universe Doesn't.