The Atelic Universe Putting purpose in its proper place

It can be an uncom­fort­able feeling to acknowl­edge that certain things are simply a matter of random chance. We’re perfectly happy to say that a roll of the dice in Yahtzee was “just unlucky”. But when a child is born with a serious birth defect whose cause is unknown, we’re compelled to ask: why? It could even be seen as callous and insen­si­tive to tell the parents their baby was just unlucky—even though that may well be the truth.

The idea that things “happen for a reason” is a double-edged sword. In the example above, someone who believes that every­thing has a purpose might say that such a child was being given by the gods/­cos­mos/life-mind to these parents because they’re uniquely qual­i­fied to care for such a deli­cate crea­ture; in this scenario, the baby’s condi­tion is inter­preted as a blessing. But another person, with an equally purpose-based mindset, might see the child as a punish­ment, saying that the parents were denied a healthy baby because, appar­ently, they don’t deserve one; in this case, the child’s disorder is under­stood as a curse.

In both lines of reasoning, the under­lying assump­tion is that there has to be some­thing more to this.


What we’re talking about is what philoso­phers call telos—the idea that some­thing has an external, attrib­uted purpose or objec­tive. (Telos is the Greek word for “purpose”, “end”, or “goal”.) This is a powerful idea indeed.

And a dangerous one.

Let’s consider a car crash. An auto­mo­bile with four people on board skids off the road. Two of the passen­gers die in the crash; the other two survive. A tele­o­log­ical reading of this event would imply that the survivors were “meant to” live. Or, conversely, that there was a “purpose” to the death of the other two. I find this profoundly discon­certing.

Or consider two young boys, twins who are both crazy about tennis. They are talented and spend every spare moment prac­ticing their sport. But one of them develops a leg injury and gives up tennis, while the other goes on to become a pro and win Wimbledon. Was this latter boy “destined” to become a super­star; or did he just work hard and hone his skills (in philo­soph­ical terms: techne) and catch a few lucky breaks along the way?

Tennis game by the sea (Max Liebermann, 1901, source)

Not Everything Is Random

To be sure, people who don’t like to attribute events to chance are not entirely wrong. Not every­thing is random.

  • If you let your iPhone slip from your fingers, it will fall to the ground.
  • If enough pres­sure builds up in the core of a star, hydrogen atoms will be fused into helium atoms.
  • If you turn over all the cards in a deck but one, you can know which card that last one is, even without looking at it.

This is not a matter of random chance. Some things are governed by the laws of nature, logic and math­e­matics. And that’s a good thing, because it lets us do things like design and build bridges that we know are strong enough before we let people cross them.

Another cate­gory that is not random is the prod­ucts of the human conscious mind, our will. (I must note here that I’m side­step­ping two big ques­tions that lie beyond the scope of this article: the degree to which other species have a human-like will, and the ques­tion whether people have free will at all.) In the phenom­e­nology of everyday life, when someone walks into a restau­rant and orders a pizza, that’s not a random act, nor a law of nature. We attribute that conscious choice to her will.

But then there is that final cate­gory, where the universe rolls its dice and stuff happens. It could have gone this way, it could have gone that way. Laws of nature need not apply, no one is present to make a choice. Things are as they are and that’s all there’s to it. I am inclined to think that much, much more than we would like falls under this rubric.

An Agent in the Grass

Humans are story-makers and story-consumers at heart. We love to under­stand things through a narrative—and narra­tives are driven by will, by the char­ac­ters’ choices and actions. A book in which every­thing happens by random chance is a pretty boring read.

The under­lying concept at the heart of every story is agency: the capacity for an autonomous “agent” to interact with his surround­ings, make judg­ments about it and act upon them. The idea of agency is so central to our under­standing of ourselves and our world that we apply it even where there is no agency to be found.

It’s not a coin­ci­dence that we evolved this way.

Imagine one of your pre-Stone Age ances­tors rummaging about in the tall grass on the plains of Africa as a young girl. She hears a sound, a soft rustling. “It’s the wind blowing through the grass,” she thinks—just before she is killed by a hyena. I played a trick on you: this isn’t your ancestor, of course, because she didn’t live to matu­rity.

Now imagine another young girl on those Pliocene plains. When she hears the same sound, she starts and runs for the nearest tree, climbing to safety. Except in her case, it really was just the wind in the grass. This, you will have surmised, is your ancestor—because she lived to tell the tale.

Note that in both cases, our hero­ines were mistaken. One erred on the side of negli­gence, and the other on the side of caution. Or, more precisely, one didn’t attribute agency to that rustling sound, and one did. The first girl’s mistake was a case of a false nega­tive: she failed to iden­tify a real threat that had agency. The second girl’s mistake was a false posi­tive: she misiden­ti­fied a harm­less sound as if it were a threat with agency.

Lesson learned—you’re better off seeing agency where it isn’t than the other way around.

That’s why my dog barks at plastic bags, and that’s why our heroine’s progeny went on to create spear­heads and hand-axes by the time the Stone Age came around. Better safe than sorry.

Boxing In the Telos

No wonder, then, that our minds narrate the world as a place where agency, and there­fore telos, is every­where. By default, we tend to see the world as a telic place: a universe with a purpose.

As we’ve seen, that works pretty well as long as you’re talking about the prod­ucts of the human mind, our choices and actions. If someone gives you a kiss, it’s safe to assume that they’re doing that for a reason. If painter renders a human figure in a strangely contorted way, you can assume that they had an artistic purpose in mind when they did so.

A reclining female nude (Pablo Picasso, 1936, source)

Things start to get metaphor­ical in the realm of laws of nature. People custom­arily apply the language of agency and telos to phenomena that are devoid of it. We say the Earth’s gravity “pulls” the falling iPhone down; it doesn’t. We say a cancer medica­tion “avoids” affecting healthy tissue; it doesn’t. But we are so comfort­able expressing ideas in this way that we have no trouble applying it in a non-literal manner to describe phenomena and processes that are governed by cause and effect.

It gets prob­lem­atic when you talk and think about the “agency” or “purpose” in events that are (largely or entirely) driven by chance. The baby’s birth defect. The boy’s leg injury. The rustling of the grass. And we get into really deep water when we do discover the cause (atmos­pheric condi­tions) for some expe­ri­ence (lighting) to which we used to attribute a telos (the anger of the gods)—and then fail to abandon the old narra­tive, because it has become too comfort­able.

Our marvelous brains have given us the capacity to craft magnif­i­cent narra­tives about how the world works. This is what art does, and it is deeply mean­ingful. But those brains have also given us the rational ability to box in the telos, seeing through the semblance of agency to dig deeper, look further and peer into the essence of reality. And whether we like it or not, some of the work­ings of that reality are governed, in the words of the Bard, by chance or nature’s changing course, untrimmed.

Beyond Why

Perhaps the best way forward is to only assign ques­tions of why and purpose and reason to the realm of human activity. Beyond its borders, in the larger purpose­less or atelic universe, there are other ques­tions we need to ask. This is the job of philos­ophy and science.

As a humanist, I find great comfort in the idea that much of what we expe­ri­ence is the product of happen­stance or inevitability. That simply means that it is up to us to make sense of our lives, to create meaning where there was none, to chart a course with wisdom, dignity and compas­sion. And if we do let our actions, our agency be guided by a telos, then we’ll always know that that purpose is our own—and that what choices we make in these fleeting years truly, inher­ently matter.

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Image credit: Les Idées Claires by René Magritte, 1955 (source)



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