On the Purpose of Life
What is the purpose of life? This is a very basic and straightforward question, and it has a fairly basic and straightforward answer. But it often fails to be recognized for just the sort of question it is, and when you ask it you tend to get all sorts of responses that variously miss the mark.
It’s particularly common for people to reply with something that’s much more of a response to a question of how best to live one’s life, than to one about life’s purpose. You then get some sort of a statement that may vary from the altruistic—something along the lines of the purpose of life being to be good to others—to the hedonistic—something along the lines of the purpose of life being to do what makes you happy, to live comfortably, or whatever. Or you may get an answer that captures elements of both—that gets into some sort of an assesment on how and why to live a balanced, socially active and societally-responsible life, or something to that effect.
Now, it’s certainly true that the question of life’s purpose is one that’s going to have a significant bearing on the question of how best to live one’s life. But this doesn’t mean that it makes sense to just sort of conflate the two, nor that it isn’t important to be prepared to examine the former for just what it is in itself.
To give an answer along the lines mentioned is a lot like answering a question about what the purpose of a car is with something to the effect that a car should be fuel efficient, function reliably, drive smoothly, or things of that sort. All of this may be relevant to assessing the value of a given car, but it misses the point of the actual question. The answer, of course, is that the purpose of a car is to provide transportation. Now, this answer can be expanded and fine-tuned in various ways, and so you may come to the conclusion that the purpose of a car is to provide transportation to people and their goods, over land as opposed to water, over a certain scale of distances that sets it apart from other modes of transportation, and so forth. Or you may conclude that it’s integral to the purpose of a car to provide transportation in such a way as to provide relative comfort to its occupants in the process, to shield them from the elements, to be economical to operate, and the like. But however you fine tune it—and whatever the extent to which the question of a car’s purpose is shown to connect closely to that of what makes for a good car—it should nevertheless be clear that without your answer hinging upon the very basic point of a car being intended to provide transportation, you haven’t really answered the question at all.
Another broad range of responses to the question that don’t really get to the point are those which lose the why in the how. You may get various sorts of scientific speculations about how life has come to be, or you may get various sorts of psychological or philosophical musings about the naturalness, the inevitability, or the intrinsic whatever-ness of life. Now, it’s probably true that the question of life’s purpose is one that’s going to connect in very significant ways with considerations regarding the causal factors that have led up to life as we know it, as well as with considerations regarding the nature of life as we experience it. But to conflate the two questions is effectively to conclude that life strictly speaking doesn’t actually have a purpose at all, as well as that explicit questions about its purpose are ultimately neither meaningfull nor well-founded.
To believe that life doesn’t in fact have a purpose per se may be a fairly coherent position to hold. But many people who effectively believe as much tend not to acknowledge that they do. And this leads us to a third broad type of response to the question of what life’s purpose is, namely that whole range of answers which effectively pivot on how one might go about endeavouring to give or impart meaning to one’s life. Now, it’s very reasonable to suspect that the question of life’s purpose is going to have a major bearing on the question of how to find life becoming as personally fulfilling, satisfying and engaging a thing as it can and should become. But there’s a major conceptual difference between setting out to embrace life’s purpose and finding life as one experiences it to become more deeply meaningful as a result, and setting out in one way or another to inject greater meaning and personal satisfaction into your life and then to draw some sort of a teleological moral from doing as much. To conflate the two sides of this effectively reveals an underlying rejection of the premise that life has a purpose strictly speaking. When you conclude that something which exists needs to come up with or create purpose or meaning for its existence, that’s in the end a convoluted way of saying its existence is teleological inert.
So what, then, is the purpose of life? Well, the answer to this question pivots on a very fundamental, yet at the same time very remarkable, principle. Namely, the principle that—even in an ultimate sense—although something cannot come from nothing, yet more can come from less. Now, if this principle comes across as either obviously true or as plausible enough, albeit fairly pedantic and unremarkable, then you probably haven’t really grasped it. It’s not really a logical or common sense sort of principle, and it’s not really one that jives with any of our outer experiences or our general ways of understanding how things function in the world.
If you have some sort of a physical system, something can either be added to that system from outside of it or changes can occur within it that give more of one thing at the expense of another. Energy can flow into a system if it’s an open system, for example, or the energy of either a closed or an open system can be increased as matter is converted into energy. Now, it may also be a potentially coherent thing to believe that even in ultimate terms something can come from nothing: to believe, for example, that the universe has a definite beginning, and yet that it was not caused by anything or predated by anything, and that it just sort of came to be. And many people explicitly or implicitly believe that new and original ideas can come from nowhere, that consciousness as something more than the sum of the molecular and biological interactions that attend it can arise out of thin air, so to speak, and that certain intangible yet personally meaningful inner states such as feelings of love, fear, bliss or unease can to at least a certain significant extent appear on the scene independently of causal factors.
But to simultaneously believe on the one hand that something could never come from nothing even as effects always imply causes, and then on the other hand that more can and does come from less, is something fairly unique and on its face at least somewhat peculiar. It’s not really a principle we can ever fully grasp the logic of, and yet we can have very good grounds not only for believing it to be true, but even for knowing it to be so. And this is because it’s a principle that’s very deeply intuitive; in fact, it can come to be experienced as so deeply intuitive, that it cannot then but also come to function as one of the defining premises underlying one’s whole conceptual framework, even as one continues to understand and relate to things in the outer world much as one otherwise would. And to understand the how and the why of this is to get to the heart of the issue of the purpose of life, even as it also of necessity throws things into an explicitly theological light.
The Matter-Spirit cosmos and the life evolving within it were created for a reason, and this reason is expansion—the only sort of reason that can ultimately make sense qua ultimate reason, even while it may also imply a very deep mystery. Were the self-conscious All that is—and that in being is All—to remain in a state of purely self-inhering formlessness, it would not experience an expansion of its essence and an extension of its self-awareness. By introducing a polarity into a primordial singularity, endowing an aspect of his being with form, creating man in his image, and vesting him with self-consciousness and free will, God sets the stage for such expansion and extension to occur. The creation has a purpose because it was created for a purpose, and this purpose is a very non-contingent one. It’s not so much that God created the universe and the soul as a way to subsequently accomplish something he desired to accomplish, but more that such creation is what God setting out to accomplish that which in the broadest terms it makes sense for him to set out to accomplish looks like.
And so, the soul is not a teleologically inert entity, it’s a teleologically-charged entity. And this teleological charge is something it can feel and experience for what it is. The soul can and naturally does have a strong inner sense of existing for a purpose, and of in effect embodying an open-ended potential which it can either fulfill or thwart through the choices it makes. And if you don’t experience things in these sorts of terms, this should be seen as fairly analogous to a situation where you don’t feel physical sensations because you’re under some sort of anesthetics, or where you lose a connection to many of the concrete realities of life because you’re under the influence of some sort of substance. It’s possible to find the keenly felt impression of a teleological charge drowned out by self-absorption and a surfeiting in outer sense cosciousness, but this doesn’t change the basic outline of the situation.
In effect, the soul can evolve—it can rise in consciousness, gain in attainment and self-mastery, refine and develop its virtues and positive character traits, express greater love, draw nearer to its source, and do all sorts of things of a similar nature—and in the doing of all of that it adds something to the whole, which potential addition would be permanently lost if it weren’t to eventually get to the point of doing as much. The soul matters: it’s individual existence matters to the whole and to all parts of the whole which identify with that whole; and what it does or makes of its existence thus has real normative weight. And it matters in a non-contingent manner. The situation’s not just something to the effect that God has decided that he likes people to behave in certain ways rather than others, and hence it’s important to behave in that manner. Rather, it’s more useful to think of things in terms of the soul representing or embodying an investment on God’s part. And the return on that investment cannot but matter to God (and to all who are of God) in virtue of its being a genuine investment, even as it’s something over which he has in a very real sense relinquished control, inasmuch as free will is a genuinely real and consequential thing.
And so the principle that more can come from less, even while something can never come from nothing and effects always imply causes in a very rigorous sense of the word, is something you ought to recognize as being very intricately wrapped up in your sense of self. And when you do adequately acknowledge this, then even inasmuch as the mystery of life and creation may remain a genuine mystery, yet your basic sense of your place in the grand scheme of it all puts you in a reasonable position to tackle life with all of its attendent challenges and opportunites on something resembling the sort of terms on which it needs to be tackled.