An Interview With Dr. Ralph Lewis On His Excellent Book, "Finding Purpose in a Godless World."

Earlier I had written a blurb for Ralph Lewis's excellent book, LINK: Finding Purpose in a Godless World: Why We Care Even If the Universe Doesn't. I wrote:
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 which I hope gains a substantial audience.
Below is an interview and an excerpt from his book. Enjoy. Then. Get. His. Book. Now!

An interview with Ralph Lewis, M.D.

Q: Ralph, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

A: I am a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, Canada and on faculty at the University of Toronto. I’ve been in practice for 22 years. I am primarily a clinician and clinical teacher, in a very busy hospital setting. My practice focuses mainly on youth and young adult psychiatry and, separately, on cancer care issues in patients spanning the adult and geriatric age range.

I was born and raised in South Africa and have spent most of my adult life in Canada. I’m an atheist Jew who retains some sentimentality for religious traditions, and I respect progressive, intellectually sophisticated forms of religion. I used to consider myself agnostic until less than a decade ago. The research for this book compelled me to change my mind about that.

Q: What is your book about?

A: It’s about purpose without God. It’s 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, random universe. And it's about how people cope and thrive without recourse to supernatural beliefs once they overcome the persistent illusion that life and the universe have inherent purpose.

Q: This is a book about the biggest questions of human existence, about the origins of the universe, life, consciousness and values. Why is this book being written by a psychiatrist?

A: I’ve counseled many people whose experiences with illness or calamitous life events have shattered their belief in a benevolently purposeful universe and left them struggling to come to terms with the randomness of life. And then there are the depressed patients: Albert Camus wrote, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

Psychiatry has taught me a great deal about how people form beliefs. Normal human cognitive biases are amplified in mental disorders, often magnified ad absurdum, rendering our thought processes much clearer to understand and analyze. And I’ve come to understand much about human motivation and purposeful behavior. Indeed, much about the question of free will. And of course consciousness itself.

Q: You identify as a skeptic, and the foreword to your book is written by Michael Shermer, who might be the best known professional skeptic in the world. Tell us how you define skepticism. Is there some connection between being a skeptic and being a psychiatrist?

A: We are talking here about scientific skepticism, that is: critical thinking applying the scientific method. Michael is a long-time Scientific American columnist in addition to being the founding editor of Skeptic Magazine. You could say that one major role of a psychiatrist is to persuade people to be skeptical about their own beliefs—that is, to critically examine the evidence for their assumptions and not to automatically believe their own thoughts and perceptions.

Q: You start your book describing your wife Karin’s life-threatening cancer and its impact on you. How did that experience shape your worldview?

A: In September 2005, when our three children were still very young, Karin was diagnosed with an aggressive, life-threatening form of breast cancer. I had long been ambivalent about religion, but as we tried to stay optimistic about Karin’s chances of survival, I had the powerful feeling that serendipitous events were guiding us toward a favorable outcome. Was it all at some level intended to happen this way, for some deep reason? I didn’t think I believed in personal cosmic guidance, but the feeling of some form of providence was quite forceful. Such impressions are always illusory, but at the time I could not clearly articulate why. As I struggled to come to terms with the utter arbitrariness of the factors determining Karin’s survival from her cancer, I recognized that I had failed to completely accept the randomness of life. I started to think more critically about the persistent human illusion to which I, like most other people, had fallen prey – thinking that life events are somehow meant to be, and the underlying assumption that life and the universe have inherent purpose.

Q: Why do people believe that the universe has inherent purpose and things happen for a reason?

A: Our human brains are pattern-seeking and agency-detecting. We evolved these tendencies as social animals, to be very adept at recognizing purposeful, intentional action on the part of other people, as well as on the part of predators or prey. These traits were likely favored by natural selection because of their survival value. We’re so adept at identifying patterns and deliberate intention that we overshoot, seeing meaningful patterns in meaningless “noise” and attributing agency to inanimate objects and random natural events. This can lead people to believe that invisible agents control the world.

Q: You talk about the unreliability of human subjectivity and intuition. Tell us about that:

A: I expose and explain our mistaken intuitions about purpose – how and why we over-identify pattern and over-ascribe intention to random events, believing them to be ‘happening for a reason.’ I recount how for a while I felt as though I was cosmically guided during the fortuitous chain of events that ultimately saved Karin’s life from cancer. I give examples of highly intelligent critically-minded people succumbing to the same kind of illusion of eerie coincidences, or of a mystical ‘something’ pervading the universe.

I show how the normal cognitive biases and inferential errors that lead us to over-identify pattern and purpose are magnified in mental disorders, rendering these biases and errors all the more obvious – human nature is writ large in mental disorders, in very illuminating ways.

I reveal how intelligence and rationality are easily undermined by motivated reasoning, flawed intuitions, self-referential thinking, and many other kinds of cognitive biases. The unreliability of human subjectivity and intuition are the reason why we need the scientific method to probe reality more objectively.

Q: You talk about the biological basis of the human sense of purpose. Can you tell us about that?

A: Motivation underlies goal-directedness or purposefulness. It is fueled by powerful, fundamental, and innate animal drives toward survival and reproduction. All living organisms can be considered goal-directed, consciously or not, in the sense that their existence is directed toward the goal of propagating their genes. Motivational and reward circuitry in the brain is dependent on chemical transmitters. This circuitry is susceptible to disruption by physical damage, drugs and disease. Sense of purpose, like all other human behavior, is fundamentally a physical, biological function. Even the simplest non-sentient life-forms may be regarded as having a basic form of purposefulness—even a bacterium or a plant is purpose-driven.

Purposefulness has become vastly elaborated and embellished by advanced human cognition and culture. This has taken wondrously convoluted, creative forms that are generally very gratifying and even “self-actualizing.” Higher forms of motivation can be understood as indirectly and unconsciously serving the primary biological drives. The realization that the human sense of purpose is just an elaboration of more basic biological functions shouldn’t demoralize us. The beauty of the peacock tail is not diminished by the fact that its function is to propagate peacock genes.

Q: What really matters to people?

A: What really matters to people is that they matter to other people. Religious people also want to matter to the universe.

Q: Why is it that so many people still believe in a higher power and higher purpose despite a loss of religious faith?

A: Although modern Western societies have become increasingly skeptical and secularized in our scientific era, most people still at least vaguely believe in a higher power and higher plan. In addition to being swayed by cognitive biases, an important factor reinforcing this is the fear that a completely random universe would be nihilistic – negating morality, purpose and meaning. This may partly explain why even many intellectuals rationalize belief in a purposeful universe.

Most educated people are also perplexed as to how spontaneous, self-organizing processes could explain our highly complex world, and they consider this exceedingly improbable. Even a significant minority of high-level scientists are religious, tending to emphasize what they consider enigmas or cosmic coincidences unexplainable by science, such as why the laws of physics appear fine-tuned for the purpose of enabling life to evolve. More enigmatic still is the question of how random unguided processes could have produced our conscious, seemingly non-material, caring selves out of the material ‘stuff’ of the universe.

Q: How much progress has science made in addressing these questions?

A: In a single generation, multiple paradigm-shifting insights have emerged in disparate scientific fields that, taken together, could represent a tipping point in the intellectual history of humankind. All of the enigmas that previously seemed so persuasive in favor of a purposeful universe can now, at the very least, be skeptically reconsidered in the light of fully plausible, cogent scientific hypotheses that are consistent with a completely unguided, spontaneous universe. In Finding Purpose, I synthesize this twenty-first century scientific worldview and present it from the humanistic angle of a psychiatrist.

Q: What are the main contrasts between that scientific worldview and most people’s traditional intuitive view of the world?

A: Before the advances of modern science, it made intuitive sense to think that the universe must have been the top-down product of an intelligent designer.It made sense to believe that purposeful design was required to bring the universe and all its complexity into existence, and that there was conscious purpose at “the beginning of time”. So: conscious purpose first, spacetime filled with energy and matter second. The remarkable insight modern science has given us is that the exact reverse is true: the universe came into existence first, spontaneously and unguided, without a smidgeon of conscious purpose. Increasingly complex conglomerations of matter followed, through self-organizing processes, and entirely in compliance with the second law of thermodynamics¾which says that the universe as a whole is steadily proceeding toward a greater state of disorder. Then came the first living organisms, and with them evolved purpose—initially without consciousness or even nervous systems. Much later came higher animals and humans, and with them came increasing self-awareness and caring.

You might have thought that there could be no coherent morality or meaning evolving in such a random way, but you would be entirely mistaken. Astonishingly and counter-intuitively, every part of this process absolutely could have emerged and evolved entirely spontaneously and unguided, yielding the coherent world we live in. Finding Purpose in a Godless World accessibly synthesizes and explains the elegant, coherent scientific worldview of a spontaneous, unguided universe. The reader is shown how, despite the universe being random and purposeless, human consciousness, purpose and caring have emerged and evolved without the need for a guiding hand.

Q: What are the ultimate goals and take-home messages of this book?

A: A major goal of this book is to reassure non-believers and doubters of religion, as well as religious believers, that the trend that Western society is experiencing towards increasing loss of religious faith will not result in a loss of morality in society or a loss of purpose and meaning in individuals’ lives. In other words it’s not just about explaining why and how science views the universe as random, it’s about explaining why the scientific worldview of a random universe is far from nihilistic.

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. It needn’t be so. I show how coming to terms with randomness, while initially frightening, is liberating and empowering, and how people cope with random adversity without recourse to supernatural belief.

The scientific worldview of an unguided, spontaneous universe can be awe-inspiring and foundational to building a more compassionate society.

Readers will be gently invited to move beyond the simple, soothing stories we have been telling ourselves about a purposeful universe. Instead they will be presented with a solidly science-based, yet deeply humanistic worldview, freed by rationalityfrom neurotic torment.

This uncompromisingly rational yet empathetic book goes beyond the New Atheist attacks on religion to provide a compassionate, optimistic but still realistic worldview. Ultimately, readers will grasp how we have evolved to care even if the universe doesn’t.

Those who have embraced science, not only as a profession but also as a worldview, tend to be among the most inspired and purpose-driven members of society. This book’s clear insights might motivate the reader to become just such a person.




When Karin and I were living through our time of greatest uncertainty in the face of her cancer, we would have liked to believe that everything happens fora reason. But we simply couldn’t. We were not yet aware of all the research discussed in this chapter regarding the human propensity to over identify purpose in events, but both of us had experience in dealing with other people’s denial and defense mechanisms. I knew enough to distrust my eerie feelings of cosmic guidance as we found ourselves so serendipitously accessing the best available diagnostic and treatment resources at just the right time. We couldn’t ignore the fact that even if we ended up being “granted” a positive outcome, there were without a doubt many others for whom the outcome would be different. We couldn’t accept that we were cosmically determined to be spared such a fate, or that somehow we were different and more deserving than others of a positive outcome.

We expected the worst after the initial diagnosis. We learned that this type of cancer grows very fast and that the tumor was already massive. I asked the oncologist whether we should fly Karin’s parents in right away from South Africa. But after the initial bad news, we had some punctuated reprieves. These came one test result at a time, spanning an excruciating week. Liver: clear. Lungs:clear. Bones: clear. Brain: clear (exhale). Heart: sufficiently healthy to proceed with cardiotoxic chemotherapy.

Our world-leading treatment team recommended chemo first and surgery later. This aggressive and counter intuitive treatment approach was a riskier strategy but perhaps the only chance of preventing metastatic spread. The initial response to chemo was encouraging: the tumor was shrinking. But after Karin’s mastectomy, the pathology report was more sobering: while the cancer was greatly reduced, it was not completely eradicated, and it had infiltrated many lymph nodes, on its way to distant spread. More sleepless nights. We were told that a new experimental drug, Herceptin, might give Karin a better than 50percent chance. This drug had only very recently been approved; if she had been diagnosed even a few months earlier, it would not have been available. Some of our optimistic and spiritually minded relatives and friends saw this good fortune as meant to be, evidence of a cosmic guiding hand. But what about all the women who died before the drug was available? And what about the 50percent of patients who don’t respond to the drug? We knew Karin could very well still end up in that group.

During her struggle, Karin’s confrontation with mortality cultivated in her a kind of impatient directness toward life and people. She acquired an irreverent forthrightness—an intolerance of “BS.” She felt she had no time in her life for irrational nonsense, wishful or magical thinking, naïveté, or credulous beliefs.She was irritated with all the unsolicited advice she kept getting from casual acquaintances and strangers about various forms of unproven alternative therapies and lifestyle changes, as well as all the religious advice and pressure. Vague equivocation also annoyed her.

Inspired by Karin, and seeing all this through her eyes, I started to recognize my own inconsistencies. I started to recognize the cognitive dissonance resulting from the contradictions in my own beliefs.

I grew up in a sizable and close-knit Jewish community in South Africa and was educated in a fairly liberal but traditional private Jewish school until the end of high school. I was a longtime skeptic about institutional religions, particularly biblical belief systems, but was sentimental about religious traditions. I felt, and still feel, that these traditions are valuable for their cultural richness,heritage, and historical rootedness.43 I also feel that many religious teachings contain philosophical and psychological wisdom (mixed in with their more problematic content, which ought to be discarded or at least radically reinterpreted). I have long regarded religious teachings to be the products of human minds, not the word of any god. Nonetheless, I think that ancient scripture and organized religion can still have value even as human inventions.

But like many agnostics, I used to hedge on the big philosophical questions.To me, it seemed a virtue to maintain an element of open-mindedness about the possibility of a transcendent “something.” I liked to imagine that what we call God was really the laws of nature, but perhaps encompassing a kind of intentionality, or something along those lines. Not an original idea, I know, and poorly defined. In any case, I assumed that in principle it was impossible to ever either validate or invalidate this abstract notion of God.

Through my professional career, my clinical work brought philosophical questions into sharper focus. Existential issues of life’s purpose and meaning repeatedly arose in evocative ways with patients who were struggling with major adversity. I saw how people’s philosophical worldviews heavily influenced how they coped with their struggles, and how their worldviews were shaped by those struggles. I started thinking more deeply about the cognitive processes and lines of reasoning through which people arrive at their beliefs—religious and other—especially when those beliefs are strongly held in the face of contradictory evidence.

But it was the crisis of Karin’s cancer, and the years of uncertainty about her prognosis, that really brought these philosophical questions home. For her part, in her newfound impatience with prevarication and sentimentality, and always shaving been a nonconformist and a little impulsive, Karin simply started defining herself as an atheist. She felt she had in many ways always been. I was uncertain and conflicted, still preferring the term agnostic. Atheism seemed to imply a certainty I didn’t think possible: I require rigorous, methodical substantiation of an argument before I am persuaded. But as I became more absorbed by these questions,and the more carefully and systematically I examined them, the more I began to feel like Martin Gardner, a renowned skeptic who apologetically explained that he believed in some form of indefinable higher power. While Gardner maintained this belief throughout his life, he conceded (quoting the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno) that “the atheists have the better arguments!”44

I was concerned that losing all religious belief would leave a void in terms of tradition, cultural rootedness, and values. I also knew many highly intelligent devout believers, even some from more or less secular backgrounds, who had turned as adults to Orthodox Jewish belief. Had they discovered some profound understanding that could only be grasped by extensive religious study? A common conversation-ender in debates with religious family and friends, especially Orthodox Jews, went something like this: “You need to study the teachings for years to appreciate their wisdom before you can presume to criticize them.” Had I failed to understand some crucial subtleties that would render the seeming absurdity of the traditional religious belief system coherent and rational after all? And what about the devout believers I knew of among top-level scientists? Could such intelligent people be so mistaken?

In pursuing these questions, I gradually came to understand the many mechanisms by which intelligence and rationality are undermined by intuitive reasoning and by emotional factors—a few of which we have considered in this chapter. Other distorting biases will be discussed in subsequent chapters, along with the major rational arguments for and against belief in a designed,purposeful universe. It will become clearer why, until quite recent times, some of the fundamental mysteries about the universe stumped many thoughtful,educated people and seemed to support supernatural beliefs, defying rational explanations.

It turned out that my own shift from agnosticism to atheism was part of a larger shift taking place in intellectual and scientific circles in Western society.This was the decade after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the decade of the outspoken New Atheists—Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Stenger, and others, riding a wave of antipathy in reaction to religious fundamentalism.45 The New Atheist movement was also a push back against increasing evangelical intrusions into politics and the education system in America. It was a response to science denial and attempts by religious lobbies to “balance” the teaching of evolution in schools with the teaching of creation science and its pseudoscience successor, intelligent design. I didn’t agree with everything these strident atheists were saying. Like many readers, I felt that they were painting all religion and theology with the broad brush of fundamentalism.46 I felt that they did not adequately address the more subtle and progressive theologies, and I wondered if they even fully understood these. Nevertheless, these impressive thinkers lucidly articulated many of my still-crystallizing thoughts. In this millennium,there seems to have been a seismic shift toward definitive, convinced atheism among large numbers of previously agnostic individuals, including a great many notable public intellectuals.

This book is a synthesis of the scientifically informed, secular humanist worldview that I find to be the most coherent and life-affirming. I didn’t develop it from scratch—I have integrated and reformulated ideas developed by much greater minds. I have tried to do so in ways that I think will make sense to the average educated reader—which is how I regard myself. Wherever relevant and helpful throughout this account, I have incorporated my own perspective as a psychiatrist struggling to understand the human condition, sensitized by my own life experiences.

As things turned out, Karin and I have been extremely lucky with her cancer,so far. Aside from a few major scares, including in recent years, and some significant complications from treatment, Karin remains well and in remission at the time of writing, more than a decade after her initial diagnosis and treatment.


43. This is something that Jews in particular, including secular Jews, tend to value, because of their history.
44. Michael Shermer, “Martin Gardner 1914–2010, Founder of the Modern Skeptical Movement,” eSkeptic, May 26, 2010,
45. Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York:W. W. Norton, 2004); Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Knopf, 2006); Dawkins,God Delusion; Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (NewYork: Viking, 2006); Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything(New York: Twelve, 2007); Victor J. Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science ShowsThat God Does Not Exist (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007).
46. They would disagree—they would say that their argument is that moderate religion enables fundamentalism by lending an aura of respectability to irrational supernatural beliefs.I concede that this is a strong argument. They would also argue that the majority of religious believers in the world are literal believers rather than the types of people who subscribe to abstract, sophisticated theologies of the type we will explore later in this book (chapter 10).