Finding Purpose in a Godless World
A psychiatrist presents a compelling argument for how human purpose and caring emerged in a spontaneous and unguided universe.
Can there be purpose without God? This book is about how human purpose and caring, like consciousness and absolutely everything else in existence, could plausibly have emerged and evolved unguided, bottom-up, in a spontaneous universe.
A random world—which according to all the scientific evidence and despite our intuitions is the actual world we live in—is too often misconstrued as nihilistic, demotivating, or devoid of morality and meaning. Drawing on years of wide-ranging, intensive clinical experience as a psychiatrist, and his own family experience with cancer, Dr. Lewis helps readers understand how people cope with random adversity without relying on supernatural belief. In fact, as he explains, although coming to terms with randomness is often frightening, it can be liberating and empowering too.
Written for those who desire a scientifically sound yet humanistic view of the world, Lewis’s book examines science’s inroads into the big questions that occupy religion and philosophy. He shows how our sense of purpose and meaning is entangled with mistaken intuitions that events in our lives happen for some intended cosmic reason and that the universe itself has inherent purpose. Dispelling this illusion, and integrating the findings of numerous scientific fields, he shows how not only the universe, life, and consciousness but also purpose, morality, and meaning could, in fact, have emerged and evolved spontaneously and unguided. There is persuasive evidence that these qualities evolved naturally and without mystery, biologically and culturally, in humans as conscious, goal-directed social animals.
While acknowledging the social and psychological value of progressive forms of religion, the author respectfully critiques even the most sophisticated theistic arguments for a purposeful universe. Instead, he offers an evidence-based, realistic yet optimistic and empathetic perspective. Finding Purpose in a Godless World will help people to see the scientific worldview of an unguided, spontaneous universe as awe-inspiring and foundational to building a more compassionate society.
Chapter list (click to view)
FINDING PURPOSE IN A GODLESS WORLD
Why we care even if the universe doesn’t
Ralph Lewis, M.D., Prometheus Books, 2018
FOREWORD BY MICHAEL SHERMER 7
PART I: THE HUMAN VIEW OF PURPOSE
- PURPOSE-DRIVEN LIFE
—Why we think that everything happens for a reason (and it’s all about us) 23
- DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU THINK
—The unreliability of subjective perception in discerning pattern and purpose 47
- UNREALISTIC OPTIMISM AND EXPECTING THE UNIVERSE TO CARE
— The universe has no purpose, but we do 69
- PERSISTENCE OF BELIEF IN A PURPOSEFUL UNIVERSE
—despite a decline of religious faith 89
PART II: THE SPONTANEOUS, UNGUIDED UNIVERSE
- SCIENCE’S ASTOUNDING INROADS INTO ADDRESSING THE ‘BIG QUESTIONS’
— How everything came to be, and the scientific approach to uncertainty 105
- THE UNIVERSE’S SPONTANEOUS, UNGUIDED CREATIVITY
— Complexity, self-organization and the phenomenon of emergence 125
- MIND FROM BRAIN
—How matter came to perceive, think, and know itself 141
PART III: THE SPONTANEOUS, UNGUIDED EMERGENCE OF PURPOSE AND MORALITY
- THE EMERGENCE OF PURPOSE
—The evolution of goal-directedness and will 159
- THE EMERGENCE OF MORALITY
—The evolution of cooperation and compassion 181
PART IV: MEANING-MAKING WITHIN AND WITHOUT RELIGION
- WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE RELIGION AND SPIRITUALITY?
—Differing definitions of God, and a continuing role for religion. 211
- MAKING LIFE MEANINGFUL IN THE FACE OF ANXIETY AND ADVERSITY
—in a universe that is not itself purposeful or caring 233
- DERIVING INSPIRATION FROM A COMPLEX, NATURALISTIC VIEW
—of the universe, life, and the course of human civilization 257
Like other grand synthesizers and interdisciplinary thinkers—Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker, and Yuval Noah Harari come to mind—Lewis employs evolutionary theory, complexity theory, cognitive science, neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, and other fields to review the best evidence we have for why consciousness evolved out of primitive brains; where goal-directedness and will come from and how they drive us to strive for more meaning than other animals; and where our moral sense comes from and why we care about others, even those not related to us.
About Dr. Lewis
Ralph Lewis, MD, is a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, Canada; an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto; and a psycho-oncology consultant at the Odette Cancer Centre in Toronto. He works primarily as a full-time clinician in a time-pressured hospital-based practice, focusing particularly on youth and young adult psychiatry, and (separately) on psycho-oncology in adults and the elderly.
Since 2018 Dr. Lewis has been blogging for Psychology Today (he initially started out blogging for Sunnybrook in 2017). Prior to the publication of his 2018 book Finding Purpose in a Godless World he had published articles on a psychiatric understanding of belief and purpose in Skeptic magazine and The Human Prospect, and delivered presentations on these topics at the James Randi Educational Foundation’s TAM conference, the Kurtz Institute for Science and Human Values and Canadian Association for Spiritual Care. Since 2018 he has published, presented and interviewed in a wide range of forums, while continuing his time-intensive full-time clinical practice. Many of those articles, presentations and interviews are available on this website under the Articles menu tab, Interviews tab, and Videos tab.
Dr. Lewis helps people seeking meaning in the face of severe and tragic adversity, in addition to having extensive clinical experience with complex and subtle psychiatric and psychological conditions. His writing reflects his diverse interests, which include human rationality / irrationality, the formation of belief systems, the unreliability of intuition and subjective perception in shaping explanations and beliefs, the tendency to see patterns and intention in randomness, the neural basis of motivation and purposiveness, the physical and evolutionary basis of consciousness, and many other diverse topics pertaining to the human condition.
Dr. Lewis obtained his MD (MBBCh) in 1990 at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, where he grew up. He completed residency training in Psychiatry at the University of Toronto in 1996 and went on to do a two year clinical research fellowship jointly at Sunnybrook and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (formerly the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry), with a concurrent Master of Science in Neuroscience at the University of Toronto. He has held his present staff physician appointment at Sunnybrook and his faculty appointment at the University of Toronto since 1998.
Ralph, his wife Karin and their three children try to live purposeful, inspired lives in a godless world—appreciating the random, precarious, and precious nature of life and knowing that while the universe doesn’t care, people can and do care.
Read Dr. Lewis’s Blog
We talk about dysfunctional people as “sick,” including the extreme case of mass murderers, and assume that what they need is psychiatric treatment. Let’s be more realistic.
Psychiatrists are being overwhelmed by people perceiving themselves to have a mental disorder and believing psychiatric treatment / therapy to be the answer to their problems.
Our older, simpler, worldviews no longer work for us. They require updating to a more complex, realistic, coherent understanding of the world and the “problem of evil.”
The sense of self may be a product of the brain’s predictive modeling of the body's internal physiological state and of its interactions with the world.
Human brains can be understood as having evolved to form predictive models. This helps explain consciousness and many of the mind’s most successful features and problematic bugs.
We call ourselves Homo sapiens—wise human. We discovered the laws of nature, lengthened and enriched our lives. Yet we can be so boneheaded. What really is rationality?
Media and speaking engagement inquiries
Rowman & Littlefield
(in June 2019 Prometheus Books was acquired by and became an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield, one of the largest independent book publishers in North America. R&L’s sister company National Book Network took over the sales and distribution from Penguin Random House)
Clinical referrals and mental health assistance:
Dr. Lewis is not able to accept clinical referrals and is regrettably unable to respond to requests for personal assistance or advice. His clinical psychiatric practice is restricted to a hospital-based group practice. Referrals to these clinics are made by doctors through a centralised intake process.