Earlier this year I posted several pieces about purposeful behaviour in the animal world (‘Animal Architecture’, 24th January, ‘Animal Architecture 2’, 25th January, ‘Animal Architecture 3’, 10th February, ‘Animal Architecture 4’, 27th February).
Nest building in the behaviour of birds is a most persuasive instance of an animal activity which pursues a goal. In this category a very striking instance is the very complex behaviour of the weaver bird (‘Animal Architecture 2’). Furthermore, perhaps even more convincing is the activity of the piping plover which appears to involve a ‘deliberate’ intention to deceive another animal (‘Animal Architecture 4’).
I raise these cases in a spirit of enquiry. How does it come about in a cause-and-effect universe in which, according to our best understanding, every physical event that occurs has a physical cause, how in the midst of this closed system does there arise a set of events that we cannot escape from regarding as goal-seeking or purposeful?
Human beings, like nest building and cunning birds, are engaged in goal-seeking and purposeful behaviour. Human beings, as much as animals, are structures whose every cell and atom is derived from the physical stuff of the universe. Their bodies, their behaviour and activities, like those of their animal counterparts, operate under the power of natural forces and laws.
A distinctive property of humans (and, perhaps, some animals) is that there is in them an awareness of the purpose that is being sought in their behaviour. A bird builds a nest, I am assuming, without a conscious plan, a mental image of the intended result. A human builds a house fully aware of what he or she is about and why.
At some point in the history of the universe a new type of experience started to occur, consciousness of purpose.
On the mountain
streams and rainfall fill the tarn
and after swirls and ripples,
water settles, finds its level.
But it has no understanding why.
Pine trees flex within the bark,
Sap fed twigs and branches
spread, stretch, thicken
reaching for light.
But they have no understanding why.
A heron high on lollop wings
with sticks and grasses
for treetop nest
greets his mate with ritual nods.
But he has no understanding why.
A man, like them an outcrop of the planet,
rakes soil, draws a drill,
holds seeds in the hollow of his hand,
sows them one by one.
At last understanding.