While self-purposing sounds fantastic (who wouldn't want to just follow their own desires?), there's one problem for materialists. Self-purposing is incoherent on their system. It can't be done. It's absolutely unintelligible. To discover why materialism cannot provide purpose - and especially self-purpose - I'll explore deeper the concept of purpose.
What is the purpose of an Axe? Well, I suppose that depends on who you ask. The maker of an axe may describe one purpose to you, and a lumberjack may agree. Lizzie Borden, however, may take exception with the lumberjack. For Lizzie, the purpose of an axe was to take human life.
The first observation we can make about purpose is that purpose is something which is imported to an object. An axe is merely an axe and has no purpose on its own. It only obtains purpose when an outside object (its maker, a lumberjack, or Lizzie) imports purpose to it. However, that concept may be hard to see since axes are born with purpose as they are fashioned by makers (like William Paley's watch necessitated a watchmaker). So let's talk about rocks.
Most of us would agree that a rock we find in the middle of the desert is, for all intents and purposes, purposeless. It's just a hard object which formed over a long period of time and, through natural and impersonal processes, ended up residing in the desert. Rocks have no purpose in and of themselves. But the snake who lives under this rock may believe (if snakes can do such things) that the rock has great purpose. To the snake, this rock may serve the purpose of preserving its life. To a wayward or adventurous explorer, the rock may be purposed as a seat upon which she can rest. So while the rock in and of itself has no purpose, it can obtain purpose from the outside when others import purpose to it.
Objects must be wielded (used, implemented, etc) to have purpose.
Purpose Requires Three Entities or Parts
Let's think a little deeper about the rock in the desert and identify the components of purpose present. First, we have a rock sitting in the desert. It is simply a neutral, un-purposed object. It merely exists. However, when a traveler comes across the rock, she is able to import purpose into the rock. At the point the traveler imports purpose into the rock, the rock is no longer a mere object, but an instrument. The traveler is able to transform the rock into an instrument because she is a "purposer." Finally, we have a "goal," which in this case is rest. Notice that our goals are generally (maybe always, I don't know) intangible concepts. So while the traveler physically sits down on a rock, her goal is not to touch the rock with her posterior, but to rest. One who uses the rock for a home may find physical shelter, but they do so for a more intangible concept of safety or comfort. Though goals may often be represented in objects which are physical, the ultimate goals are usually more intangible concepts which are physically embodied.
To make things a little simpler, here's a picture of the components required for purpose, and the direction purposing flows:
Purposer --(purpose)--> Instrument --(action)--> Goal
Notice how we have three separate components here. This is extremely important to understand to make sense of our future discussion.
Let's expound on this concept a little more. Let's imagine that we just had a rock, with no othersentient creatures around. Would it be possible for the rock to have purpose? Of course not! The rock would just sit in the desert until it eroded away into nothing. Admittedly, that example seems stupid. Rocks can't think. For the sake of argument, then, let's extend the example by giving the rock a mind and volition. But before we do that, let's take a brief detour to lay a foundation for our understanding of materialism.
What is Materialism?
Materialism says all that exists is physical. There is no supernatural and no immaterial. While certain aspects of this seem apparent and inconsequential, the deeper implications of materialism are significant as it pertains to purpose. If materialism is true, not only are rocks, trees, and rivers material, but feelings and thoughts are material as well, manifesting as physical synapses firing in a physical brain. Love, volition, desire, everything - absolutely everything - is simply material. Without a "ghost in the machine," a soul to act upon the material, this means that every action, thought, and feeling we have is simply an inevitability which results from prior conditions created by a cause and effect sequence initiated like dominos all the way back at the Big Bang, until the moment your synapses fired to produce action and caused you to inaccurately perceive intent.
Purpose Requires Immaterialism
With an understanding of basic materialist implications, return to our rock in the desert and give it a mind and some will - but no legs. Note that on materialism, the thoughts this rock has are really just physical processes occurring in cause and effect succession. The rock couldn't think other than what it thinks. Please note that this is not very controversial for most intellectual materialists. This is the largely understood belief they hold about cognition and self. Taking the mainstream materialist view on cognition, this rock scenario provides us with two types of thoughts nature could impart to the rock - thoughts which correspond to reality or thoughts which don't.
The first path for the rock would be for nature to impart true thoughts to the rock. The rock may think, "I desire to sit here, a bastion in this barren landscape, to impart beauty and rest for any weary traveler who may pass by, before I weather and erode, becoming one with the earth again." And so, the rock does just that. It sits there in the desert, adding to the desert's landscape, and eventually dissolves back into earth. The rock's desires corresponded with reality. The desires are aimed towards that which will likely happen given the nature of what a rock is. The rock desires only those things of which it is capable, and the rock desires things which nature will inevitably make happen. Perhaps nature rewarded the rock with good feelings for the correspondence of its beliefs with reality. In the end, however, the rock's true thoughts weren't prescriptive, though the rock may have perceived them as such. As the rock neared its demise, it may have reflected back upon its life and thought about how accomplished it was for pursuing the purposes it identified as those worthy of pursuit. But ultimately, we observers who understand geology know that the rock simply underwent inevitable processes we could have explicitly described and predicted with our knowledge of how our mechanistic world works. The rock's perception that it was purposing or prescribing for self, then, was actually simple descriptions of what actually occurred and what could not have occurred in any other way. Nature was just kind enough to let the rock in on its ultimate fate ahead of time. Nature gave the rock desires which corresponded with the reality to which nature would lead the rock.
The second mental path for the rock on materialism is to have thoughts and volitions which don't correspond with future reality. Perhaps the rock believes that one day he will be a star. He will traverse the rugged terrain, cross vast distances, and join some band of like minded rocks. With this rock band, our rock star would change the world. While this immovable rock may have had lofty aspirations, those aspirations never had the possibility of being achieved. But nature has no concern for truth, and so this rock could have spent a lifetime pursuing the impossible while achieving only the inevitable. To our rock, he may look back on his life and identify his failed purpose as misfortune or missed opportunities, or he may thank the rock gods for unanswered prayers because he loved his life and realized his dreams would have really made his life a nightmare. But all of that is really irrelevant. Nature did what it did and it couldn't have been any other way. The feelings and beliefs of the rock are irrelevant.
Regardless of the rock's thoughts and their correspondence to reality, notice that in both examples, the rock accomplished nothing. In a materialistic universe, both the rock's ultimate fate and the rock's course of actions (including mental actions, like the rock's own thoughts) were determined. No matter what the rock thought (or rather, whatever thoughts nature dictated to the rock), his destiny was to sit in the desert and be eroded into dust. The laws of physics couldn't have it any other way. While such a thing is easy to understand with an immovable rock, the same is true of we humans on materialism. Though we are more complex than rocks, we are mere matter in motion, set on an unavoidable course - a determined course which includes even our thoughts.
This is exactly where materialists start to go very wrong in their assumption that we can purpose ourselves. As I explained above, purpose requires three things - a purposer, an instrument, and a goal or end. To get those three components, materialists unwittingly smuggle immaterialist notions in their assumption that we can purpose ourselves. Materialists import an immaterial "self" or a soul into their equation. Materialists act as though I (purposer) - purpose my physical body (instrument) - to accomplish some goal. There's a huge problem with that. There is no distinct "I" on materialism! They are borrowing a concept that only dualism can give them - something only possible if humanity is composed of a body and a soul - some immaterial third party distinct from the body. However, on materialism, there is no "self" separate from the body and physical processes. We may perceive that we are distinct entities from our corporeal bodies or that we have a "self," but this concept is really just a chemical fiction told in our brains. Like our rock star friend, the failure of our beliefs to comport with reality has no bearing on our ultimate end. It only serves to placate and delude us into a life which tends towards survival, until we, like the rock, return to dust.
What happens when we remove a third entity, the "purposer," from our equation (Purposer --> Instrument --> Goal)? Without prescription, without intentionality, and without this third party, we're left with a far different equation.
Cause ---> Effect
Action --> Reaction
Causes are impersonal, and so are effects. A cause only becomes an instrument when it is purposed. An axe is an object, and an axe was the cause of Lizzie's parents' deaths. But the axe, purposed as a weapon in the hands of a third party purposer, became more than a mere cause. It actually transformed into an instrument in the hands of Lizzie. The same could not be true without a purposer. An axe could not have transformed into an instrument in the "hands" of something impersonal, like the wind. The wind has no intentionality, and were it to blow an axe onto the heads of Lizzie's parents, only an unblameable natural disaster would have occurred, not a murder. Likewise, Lizzie's parent's dropping dead from something impersonal, like cancer, would simply be an effect. But when they dropped dead at their daughter's hands, their deaths were more than a mere effect of some impersonal process. Their deaths were a realized goal (at least from Lizzie's perspective). On materialism, the deaths of Lizzie's parents are no real tragedy, but rather were an unavoidable outcome of materialistic, cause and effect processes. A coherent world of materialism removes the possibility of purposers. Without purposers, despite what your mechanistic brain may tell you, you are purposeless. And without a distinct "I" or "self," there's nothing you can do to add purpose to your own life. You're just part of the universe. You are simply an object formed by causes and heading towards unavoidable effects. While you may hope the effects of your life are not similar to those of Lizzie's parents, only time will tell and there's nothing you can do about it.
Rebuttals and Counter-Rebuttals
At this juncture, some materialists may argue that while we may not purpose ourselves without an immaterial soul, we could certainly be purposed by another being - a third-party. Just as the Axe was infused with purpose by Lizzie, so, perhaps, I could be infused with purpose by another (lover, friend, etc). But there are two major problems with this.
The first problem is that on materialism, there are no third parties. We're in a closed-system. All that exists is matter and the laws of this universe/multiverse. While we humans may create words and terms to differentiate unique formations of matter throughout the universe, there is nothing in the universe which demands that these things be distinguished. Let me provide an example to help illustrate.
There is a popular kid's song on the internet now entitled "Finger Family." If you don't think it's popular, it's because you don't have toddlers. Trust me. In the song, all of the five digits of the hand are named (mother finger, daddy finger, etc). Now, I can go around and name all of the parts of my body, big and small, from every quark in my body to every large structure. However, we all understand that it would be ludicrous of me to believe that when you're talking to me, my finger, head, or any other part of me is distinct from ME. My self is composed of all of me and you don't have to address every part of me. Yu simply address me. Everything that you are composed of is a part of you, and while we can distinguish different formations and compositions at different parts in your body, and while we can assign different vocabulary for different features, all parts of your body are still you. I fail to see how a materialistic universe would be any different. Sure, there may be a lump of flesh over there which I identify as Tom, and one over there I identify as Sally. But each human, like me, is just going through the mechanistic, cause and effect processes I'm going through. We're all part of this one universe - we compose the universe's "body," with no distinguishing otherness that demands I identify one person or object as one thing, and another as a separate entity. Distinguishing different parts of the universe is a useful speech fabrication, not an observation of genuine otherness. While we can acknowledge distinct features, features are very different than distinct identities, volitions, etc. If the universe dictates everything and we are all part of this one universe, then we have no reason to think there is any legitimate "party," any party beyond this one universe, or any party beyond this one universe which is an intentional being.
While this first response undermines the logical coherence of believing a third party can purpose us in a materialistic universe (since there are no clearly distinct third-parties in a materialistic world), the second problem lies with the intuitively moral incoherence of such a system. If a materialist wants to argue that the only way they can maintain purpose is by saying that we receive our purpose from others, then we have some major disconnects here. What could the materialist say about the rights of African slaves in the Americas? Even if the materialist pretends such things weren't inevitabilities in a mechanistic world, and even if the pretended like there are legitimate identity differences which could allow distinct human beings to purpose others, they would still have no grounds to say that such a travesty as slavery was wrong. If we receive our purpose from others, then surely others can ascribe whatever purpose they desire to us. So long as one group is stronger and more domineering than another, they can pursue whatever purposes they desire and win. Now try telling that to the sex-trafficked girls or the victims of barbaric despots. For as angry as Dawkins and Hitchens get at a God who dictates our purpose and value, how could they not be more put off by other ignorant mortals being the determiners of their value? Certainly we may be living in such a hopeless world where the powerful can purpose as they wish without transgressing any objective morality, but if we do live in such a world, our speech about human rights needs to shift from one which implements absolute truth language to one which uses preferential language. "I don't like slavery, but if someone wants to do it and can, that's their prerogative." If you don't like that option, the alternative is to just keep living inconsistently in self-delusion about the incoherence of such a system and the nonexistence of objective morality and purpose.
The only possibility for materialists to escape their purposelessness is to fabricate some unexplainable "self." Assuming this unfounded and non-explanatory explanation, surely if I purpose myself and you purpose yourself, then it would be wrong of you to use your will to encroach on my goals. While this view would carry a number of huge issues like moral intuition and oughtness/obligation, our inconsistency in stopping suicidal people, etc - perhaps the worst part of it for materialists is that it invokes a "gaps" argument. "We don't know, it just is" isn't the type of explanation seemingly scientific materialists like to invoke, and one they often critique. Yet it's all I can see they are left with when discussing purpose formation in a materialistic universe, other than simply admitting that life is meaningless and we have no purpose.
Purpose on Immaterialism
The big question for me, then, is, does Christian immaterialism get us something better? It most certainly does.
On Christianity, God, an immaterial being, creates ensouled humanity. Humanity has one choice before them - the choice to submit to the purposes of their purposer, God, or the choice to attempt to create their own purposes. Notice how Adam and Eve have a soul, and in theory can purpose themselves because they are dualistic creatures. Their souls - their selves - are able to use their bodies as instruments for the purposes they fashion unto certain ends. Unfortunately, Adam and Eve attempted to create their own purposes rather than submit to being instruments of their creator God. While it was possible for them to form their own desired purpose, God's warning that such an action would be devastating came true. You can use a hammer to hit nails, as the maker intended, but you can also use it to smash tight lids off glass jars. But hammers were made for one thing by their maker, and to use them otherwise will often lead to damage and ineffectiveness. Adam and Eve, in pursuit of their own fashioned purposes, threw off their maker's design and purpose, and as Lizzie in her misuse of the axe, have wreaked havoc on the human family.
My big question, however, is whether ensouled creatures are truly able to create their own purpose. When Adam and Eve rebelled, did they at least lead a successful rebellion? Did they at least create some momentary pleasure and self-purposing as they raised their fists to God? In the end, it seems that to me that they failed. Their self-purposing failed not only because it threw off the maker's intent, but also because it ended up reorganizing our equation. Take a look at God's equation versus Adam and Eve's self-purposing equation below.
God's Equation: Purposer (God) ----> Instrument (Humanity) ---> Goal (Glorifying God in Loving Community)
Self-Purposing Equation: Purposer (Humanity) ---> Instrument (Whatever We Choose) ---> Goal (Self-fulfillment and Pleasure)
Here's what's intriguing about our fallenness and self-purposing - only instruments have purpose. As humble instruments in the hands of God, we could recognize our purpose, submit, and end up living in love, fellowship, peace, and fulfillment. But when we self-purpose, we deceive ourselves into thinking that we are infusing purpose into ourselves, when we're really infusing purpose into objects. We call this idolatry. Take, for example, farming. If I toss God to the side and say that I feel called to be a farmer, I will be fulfilled by living off the land and producing crops to provide for my loved ones and community - notice that I'm actually infusing purpose into farming rather than myself. (Me--->Farming--->Fulfillment). When we attempt to create purpose rather than recognize our purpose, we end up infusing purpose into objects we use for ourselves. On such a system where we attempt to create our own purpose, we still end up being purposeless ourselves not because we don't have a purpose, but because we fail to recognize our purpose as instrumented by God. Self-purposing not only fails on materialism, it falls short on Christianity as well.
God has created a beautiful world. In this world, fulfillment comes through our submission to God's design, being instruments for service and love. How ironic is it that true fulfillment calls us to be willing instruments who serve others? But when you think about it, how awesome would a world be where you never had to question someone else's motives (or your own for that matter)? What would it be like to live in a world where you never had to question whether every other human being had your best interest in mind? Everyone would be at your service and would be looking out for your best interest, knowing that you were likewise not seeking to manipulate or objectify them. I think such a world would be a lot like Eden. We worshipers of individualism may think that being an instrument sounds terrible and condescending, but such is not the case when your maker is love. By foregoing this intended submission to God and neighbor and world, we not only sin by creating idols and worshipping self, but we lose any chance at having true, lasting, purpose and fulfillment.