Purpose (5) – nature and purpose

by Neil Rickert

It seems obvious enough that purpose, as I have been describing it in this series of posts, is entirely natural.  However, some ID (intelligent design) proponents probably disagree.  In this post, I shall explain why I believe it to be natural.  I have already provided much of the basis for seeing that purpose is natural, in that I have connected it with measurement.  However, the examples that I have used, such as the thermostat, are man made.  In particular, the measurement aspect of the thermostat is the result of human design.  Thus we might expect some ID proponents to claim that they show the need for an intelligent designer.

In order to complete the picture, I need to provide examples of natural measurement.  For that, I want to turn attention to homeostatic processes.  To say that a process is homeostatic is to say that keeps itself in some sort of equilibrium.  Such homeostasis works on the basis of feedback, where the process is reacting to its own current state and modifying its behavior in ways that tend to keep it in a reasonably stable range.  That feedback is a form of self-measurement.  Thus a naturally occurring homeostatic process already exhibits natural measurement.

Perhaps the best examples of homeostatic processes are those that we we find in living organisms.  And this is surely why even simple organisms exhibit apparently purposeful behavior.  However, homeostasis is not limited to biology.  The weather system is a non-biological example of a complex homeostatic process, and therefore an example of natural self-measurement.

In the previous post in this series, I illustrated that we seem to need not just an analog feedback system, but some kind of discretizing form of measurement.  And we see that in the natural measurement of the weather system, which makes discrete state changes such as between raining and not raining.

While the weather system may demonstrate natural discretizing measurement, it does not seem particularly impressive as an example of purpose.  And that’s because, to the extent that it can be said to behave purposefully, that purpose is entirely internal (maintaining the equilibrium of the homeostatic process).  If we look at the thermostat system (thermostat plus heat source) as a homeostatic system, we see something similar.  As a homeostatic system, it can be said to be regulating its own temperature (the temperature of the thermostat).  In order for it to also regulate the temperature of a house, the temperature of the thermostat needs to also reflect the temperature of the house (as it does in normal use).  With biological systems, we see something similar.  Some of the internal homeostasis is dependent on external features of the world, so the state of such homeostatic systems amounts to a measurement of features of the world.  And this is why biological organisms behave in apparently purposeful ways.  With the thermostat, we arrange that its internal measurement is also an external measurement of the house temperature.  In the case of biology, organisms manage to do that themselves, for they need that to provide them with the energy that they require to function (food, photo-synthesis, etc).

It is not currently clear how life originated.  However, simple Darwinian principles imply that in a world with active processes, the homeostatic processes will better survive than unstable processes.  It seems likely to me that life would have developed out of such homeostasis, and that early proto-life forms could have persisted on account of their homeostasis, possibly without DNA or RNA.  The genetic code could have evolved later.

3 Responses to “Purpose (5) – nature and purpose”

  1. From the OP:

    ” It seems likely to me that life would have developed out of such homeostasis, and that early proto-life forms could have persisted on account of their homeostasis, possibly without DNA or RNA. The genetic code could have evolved later.”

    Yes, yet this is the foot the ID side cannot allow in the door. They need their RNA/DNA argument so that they can argue information and then design.


    • It’s a good thing that I wasn’t expecting approval from the theistic crowd.

      I call it as I see it. My ideas on “purpose” come from my study of human cognition and human learning. Theists want to claim that purpose has a divine source, so they won’t appreciate my attempt to explain that it is natural.



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