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The Soul of Science

Michael Shermer

Provisional Purpose

In science, a fact is something confirmed to such a degree that it would be reasonable to offer our assent that it is true, provided that the assumptions on which it rests are intact. In life, purpose is provisional for the same reason—there is no Archimedean point from which we can authenticate final Truths and ultimate Purposes. In its stead, we have to validate our own facts and determine our own purposes. The self-correcting machinery of science corroborates provisional facts, and life itself provides the template for provisional purpose.

Life's most basic purpose is survival and reproduction, and for 3.5 billion years, organisms from the pre-Cambrian to us form an unbroken continuity. This alone ennobles us, but add the innumerable steps from bacteria to big brains and the countless points at which our lineage could have died and we conclude that human beings are a glorious contingency in the history of life.

Humans have an evolved sense of purpose—a psychological desire to accomplish goals—that developed out of behaviors that were selected for because they were good for the individual or the group. The desire to behave in purposeful ways is an evolved trait; purpose is in our nature. And with brains big enough to discover and define purpose in symbolic ways that are inconceivable to millions of preceding and coexisting species, we humans are unique.

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