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Something Is Missing from the Materialist Framework

Photo: Check cells, by Spencer Diamond ©2007, via Wikimedia Commons.

In sketching here what I have called the science of purpose, I have argued that the best way to topple the materialist paradigm is to reverse the fundamental concepts of structure and function. (See, most recently, “Replacing Chemistry with Purpose.”) The framework of materialism is based on randomness, from which, combined with natural selection, any structure theoretically can arise. In this way of thinking, over billions of years, randomly generated structures accidentally began to perform functions, resulting in life on Earth as we know it. That is, all the seemingly designed function in the biosphere is simply a result of randomly generated structures. The appearance of design is an illusion.

What is not an illusion, not even to materialists, is the nearly unfathomable complexity of function carried out, nanosecond by nanosecond, in every living creature since life first arose. From the time you started reading this article, perhaps 60 seconds ago, trillions upon trillions of discrete exquisitely tuned chemical reactions took place in your body. And that has been going on since the time that your father’s sperm met your mother’s egg.

And so of course no one argues the fact that function is real. 

But Is It Designed?

The funny thing about function is that it is utterly dependent on context. You could have cells with insulin receptors so that glucose is allowed into the cytoplasm from the extracellular compartment. That chemical reaction, even by itself, is enormously complex. But then what? Without all the necessary enzymes to convert glucose and oxygen into ATP, which is another 20 or so extraordinarily exquisite metabolic steps, the entry of glucose into the cell by itself is meaningless. Purpose is only served when the entire series of molecular events achieves the end, the telos, that it was designed to accomplish: benefit the host.

This straightforward analysis creates a conundrum for the materialist who wants to maintain that function emerges out of randomly generated structures. Let’s say the primordial soup randomly generated lipid-encasing vesicles that let glucose in and out. You might call this a mechanical operation, but it is not a function. Function only has meaning when it serves a purpose, and purpose only materializes when it serves a self.

It Is Really That Simple

Function and purpose are meaningless terms absent a self that benefits from their realization. You can pound a board with a hammer all you want. But until you put a nail between the hammer and the board, so that the board attaches to some other object that creates a structure that achieves the end that the carpenter intended, you have accomplished nothing. No function has been carried out. No purpose served.

Professor Terrence Deacon, a distinguished biological anthropologist as well as a widely published author and materialist, has described this confusing state of affairs, even coining a word, “ententional,” to help to characterize it. In his book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter, he asks how “teleological appearances of living processes [can] be accounted for…Investigators could neither accept ententional properties as foundational nor deny their reality, despite this apparent incompatibility.” (p. 147)

Scientists have learned over the centuries that when a fundamental theoretical impasse is encountered, we do not blame nature. We must blame the theory that fails to account for the observed natural phenomenon.

Something is missing from the theoretical framework of natural science if it cannot explain the function and purpose that are ubiquitous in life. And yes, the answer is there in plain sight in Professor Deacon’s own words. The truth is that “ententional” properties are foundational. They are the genesis of all purpose in life.