Does humanity exist to serve some ultimate, transcendent purpose? Conventional scientific wisdom says no. As physicist Lawrence Krauss puts it in his latest book, our evolution on this planet is just a “cosmic accident”. If you believe otherwise, many would accuse you of suffering from some kind of religious delusion.
I don’t think this view of life is necessarily correct. Despite this, my worldview is entirely naturalistic – it doesn’t rely on invoking any supernatural powers. And I usually do agree with conventional scientific wisdom. However, I know of one possible mechanism by which life could, in fact, be endowed with a natural purpose. The idea, just published in the journal Complexity, is highly speculative but worth considering.
In biological natural selection, genes’ ability to replicate themselves depends on how well they can encode traits that permit organisms to out-reproduce other members of their own species. Such traits – for example camouflage to avoid predators or eyes to enable vision – are adaptations to the environment, as opposed to traits that are just byproducts of adaptations or random genetic noise. Clearly, the purpose of these adaptations is to solve difficult problems (like seeing, digesting or thinking).
Because organisms are bundles of complex adaptations, they are the most improbably complex things in the universe. And improbable complexity is, in fact, the hallmark of natural selection – the fundamental way in which we recognise that a trait actually is an adaptation. This makes them improbably low in “entropy”, which is the degree of disorder in a physical system. A basic law of physics is that entropy tends to always be increasing so that systems become more disordered (known as the “second law of thermodynamics”). It’s because of this law that you can crack an egg and mix it all together to make an omelette (making it more disordered), but you can’t turn the omelette neatly back into an egg with shell, white and yolk (making it more ordered).
Because natural selection is the process that “designs” organisms – incrementally organising random, disordered matter into complex, functional organs – it is the most powerful anti-entropic process that we know of. Without the incremental changes that natural selection allows, the only way a complex adaptation like a mammalian eye could come into existence would be as the result of random chance. And the likelihood of that is extremely low.
Biological natural selection explains how adaptations have purpose (to facilitate survival and reproduction), and why organisms behave purposefully. It does not explain, however, how life in general could have any transcendent purpose. To figure out the point of our existence we require a higher-order explanation, like the one I describe.