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Brian Boyd at The American Scholar fawns over Darwinian natural selection and its ability to create purpose in the universe:

Does evolution by natural selection rob life of purpose, as so many have feared? The answer is no. On the contrary, Charles Darwin has made it possible to understand how purpose, like life, builds from small beginnings, from the ground up. In a very real sense, evolution creates purpose.

The problem, of course, is that science (evolution) can’t, by its very definition, create purpose or meaning. Science restricts itself to describing how things happen, not why . Science, in other words, is purpose neutral, and as soon as you extrapolate metaphysical meaning from scientific phenomena, you’re no longer doing science—precisely because you can’t apply the scientific method to metaphysical meanings and purposes. But Boyd finds a work around:

When science offered a detailed explanation of natural design without the need for a designer—the theory of evolution by natural selection—that, more than any other single idea, stripped us of a world made comfortable by a sense of purpose, apparently guaranteed by beings greater than ourselves.

Nevertheless, if we develop Darwin’s insight, we can see the emergence of purpose, as of life itself, by small degrees, not from above, but by small increments, from below. The first purpose was the organization of matter in ways complex enough to sustain and replicate itself—the establishment, in other words, of life, or in still other terms, of problems and solutions. With life emerged the first purpose, the first problem, to preserve at least the improbable complexity already reached, and to find new ways of resisting damage and loss.

So purpose comes from below, not from above. Basically, the how is the why. The first “purpose” was self-sustaining life, and evolution has been creating “purposes” ever since:

As life proliferated, variety offered new hedges against loss in the face of unpredictable circumstances, and even new ways of evolving variety, like sex. Still richer purposes emerged with emotions, intelligence, and cooperation, and most recently with creativity itself, pursued naturally, and unnaturally, through human invention, in art, and pursued unnaturally, through challenging what we have inherited, in science.

So how exactly are emotions, intelligence, cooperation, and creativity “purposes”? To tell you the truth, I have no idea. All of these things seem to me to be more means than ends. As I said, science can’t extrapolate the meaning or purpose of natural phenomenon but only explain how they occur in the first place. But because Boyd is so wedded to the idea that scientific knowledge is the only kind of knowledge, he has to squeeze a big fat why into a box only large enough for a how . In the end, the box breaks, and what you’re left with neither scientific nor meaningful.

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