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
From the Foreword:
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.
Ralph Lewis asks and then answers some very big questions in this fine book. How are we to understand the world as it is, and how have we arrived at these insights in our long journey from the primordial swamp? Drawing from disparate disciplines, he skillfully weighs up competing scientific and religious theories. The result is an informative, highly readable tour de force, the modern person’s guide for the perplexed.
In Finding Purpose in a Godless World, psychiatrist Ralph Lewis presents an interdisciplinary view of how our purpose, morality and meaning evolved. With recent ethno-sectarian conflicts seemingly on the rise throughout the world, whether for religious or other ideological reasons, a more global, humanistic vision is sorely needed. This is where the richness of his book shines through, since Dr. Lewis exemplifies an abiding respect for humans in their individual, complicated journeys through life, but is never patronizing. On behalf of reason—and purpose—secular humanists, too, would do well to become emissaries for compassion and understanding.”
This book is a brilliant refutation of transcendence. Ralph Lewis convincingly shows that since we are biological organisms in a natural environment, purpose simply cannot fall from ‘on high.’ Purpose is bottom-up, not top-down; evolved, not bestowed.
Lewis’s personal life experiences, combined with his professional career as a psychiatrist, have given us a unique insight into the wonder, beauty, and splendor that comes from an indifferent but truly magnificent universe. Drawing heavily upon evolutionary science and psychiatry, Dr. Lewis provides a pragmatically sound argument demonstrating how, precisely, humans have evolved to develop values, care, and purpose in a universe that does not
The question of life’s purpose is probably the main reason believers cannot bring themselves to reevaluate and reject the antiquated religions they’ve been indoctrinated to believe. Prompted by a personal crisis, Dr. Lewis has written a definitive answer to this question, one that I hope gains a substantial audience.
All my life, I’ve been torn between the burning pull of great purpose and the gnawing angst of demythologizing doubt. Finding Purpose in a Godless World is for all so troubled. I’ve hoped for transcendence, my PhD is in anatomy/brain research, and still I find in this book a sweeping journey of ultimate discovery and a hidden mirror for intimate self-reflection. I remain passionately agnostic.
In an age where medicine, neuroscience and psychiatry have become increasingly more narrow and reductionistic, Dr. Lewis is one of those few “renaissance psychiatrists” who engages the reader by integrating his rich clinical experience, neurobiology and philosophy in order to take on the really big question: How do we as humans create meaning in a time when religion is no longer the dominant force that it once was?
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 clinician in a time-intensive hospital-based practice.
Dr. Lewis blogs for Psychology Today and for Sunnybrook. Prior to the 2018 publication of his 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, Institute for Science and Human Values, and Canadian Association for Spiritual Care (available under the Videos menu tab and Articles tab of this website, together with a number of additional presentations and publications since the book’s publication).
Dr. Lewis helps people seeking meaning in the face of severe and tragic adversity, in addition to extensive experience with complex and subtle psychiatric and psychological conditions. He is interested in the unreliability of intuition and subjective perception in shaping our explanations and beliefs, and the neural basis of motivation and purposiveness.
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 (previously 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
How is it that people still believe in paranormal phenomena when these have been so thoroughly debunked? Could they be looking for meaning and purpose in all the wrong places?
Irrational beliefs and delusions are on a continuum. You would be the last to know which of your beliefs are false. Science is the antidote (religion, a little less so).
Death has never been popular. The intuition that the mind is more than the product of the brain and will survive its death feels correct, but is flatly contradicted by science.
Conscientiousness might be determined by attention span, and can be shaped by nature, nurture, cultural norms and habit. Too much conscientiousness is as maladaptive as too little.
Do you assume that without God and religion, life would have no purpose, meaning, or morality?
Why we insist it does, and why it really is okay that it most probably doesn't.
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.