Purpose vs. function

Q (From Quora): As a doctor, what did you learn in medical school that is forever etched in your brain?

A (Martin): In my 1st year of medical school, I read a footnote in ‘Samson Wright’ (the best book on physiology at the time and for many years) something that – to this day – continues to be a nostrum from the side of science but that I never fully accepted: (Referring to the workings of organs) ‘in science, we don’t talk of purpose, only of function’ — as if ‘function’ does not imply ‘purpose/intelligence’, an intelligence that is built into nature, of which the operation of the kidneys, liver, brain, etc. is proof.

From the perspective of Advaita Vedanta, purpose, function, are at most superimpositions on the one reality (Brahman, to give it a name) pertaining to the empirical realm. Cannot one affirm, though,  that intelligence is not just an anthropomorphic quality built into or added to existence, but something inherent in being/existence itself – sat, chit – despite admitting that the ultimate (Brahman) is attributeless? Then sat-chit-ananda is/are the least, or the most, that can be said about the ultimate reality.

6 thoughts on “Purpose vs. function

  1. [Martin says] ”Cannot one affirm, though, that intelligence is not just an anthropomorphic quality built into or added to existence, but something inherent in being/existence itself…?”

    Without necessarily devaluing the physical universe as something less than being/existence, many popular writers have affirmed just that. For example, Alan Watts often discussed the ego, the self, and how we are the universe experiencing itself in the human form: “You are an aperture through which the universe is looking at itself.”

    In his book “Myths to Live By” Joseph Campbell puts it this way: “The first condition, therefore, that any mythology must fulfill if it is to render life to modern lives is that of cleansing the doors of perception to the wonder, at once terrible and fascinating, of ourselves and of the universe of which we are the ears and eyes and the mind.”

    And Carl Sagan said: “We are a way for the universe to know itself.”

    I’m reminded of the words of Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus”: “Whatever may be the plays on words and the acrobatics of logic, to understand is, above all, to unify. The mind’s deepest desire, even in its most elaborate operations, parallels man’s unconscious feeling in the face of his universe: it is an insistence upon familiarity, an appetite for clarity. Understanding the world for a man is reducing it to the human, stamping it with his seal. The cat’s universe is not the universe of the anthill. The truism ‘All thought is anthropomorphic’ has no other meaning. Likewise, the mind that aims to understand reality can consider itself satisfied only by reducing it to terms of thought. If man realized that the universe like him can love and suffer, he would be reconciled.”

  2. As I wrote at the end of my piece, ‘Ultimate reality (Brahman) is attributeless’, concluding with the thought, ‘sat-chit-ananda [or just sat-chit] is/are the least, or the most, that can be said about the ultimate reality.`. R. Riekert gives two quotations on myth (by Joseph Campbel and Camus) with a somewhat derogatory tone. I have a favorite quotation, quite meaningfull at that: ‘Myth is the penultimate truth’ (I think by Mircea Eliade).

  3. My quotation on myth is not by Eliade, but by the mythologist C.S. Lewis. Sorry. The latter also wrote: ‘a good myth is a “story out of which ever varying meanings will grow for different readers and in different ages’.

  4. Thanks Martin for that clarification. It’s an oft-expressed sentiment. Joseph Campbell thought myth was the penultimate truth “because the ultimate cannot be put into words”. C.S. Lewis was initially an agnostic fascinated with mythology. He struggled with the belief in Christ’s death and resurrection. When Lewis accepted the idea that Christ’s death and resurrection are part of a “true myth” i.e. a sacred story that really happened in the distant past, he was able to fully embrace Christianity. Tolkien, a devout Catholic, argued that by creating stories, i.e. by assuming the position of a creator in the process of sub-creation, a person can grasp some truth about the world, which has its source in God, because God is both the source of all Truth and the ultimate Truth. Ananda Coomarasway also thought himself well enough acquainted with ultimate truth to assert that myth is merely one step down the ladder.

    “Myth is the penultimate truth, of which all experience is the temporal reflection. The mythical narrative is of timeless and placeless validity, true nowhere and everywhere… Myth embodies the nearest approach to absolute truth that can be stated in words…”
    ~ Ananda Coomaraswamy, “Hinduism and Buddhism”

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