Question: "Does Life Have Purpose?"
“I took a test in Existentialism. I left all the answers blank and got 100.” (Woody Allen)
1. What are we talking about here?
One of the great divides between religious and nonreligious people is how they would answer the great question of "meaning" or "purpose". Of course, it should be said at the outset that all lives are full of purposes, noble and otherwise. Every day we "mean" or purpose to get up and accomplish something. We have a purpose to win at work, or on a ball field. Maybe we hope to impress a guy or girl. Or perhaps (having already impressed said mate) we are giving everything we've got to get our kids through school or college. Some are aiming to dominate and control others, or even to destroy others. Some are aiming to destroy themselves, through drugs or other destructive activities. Some seem to be more or less driftless and purposeless, floating around like a feather on the breeze, and trying not to think too hard about such things--but even the most aimless of "slackers" has some goals and purposes that animate all activities. Obviously the question "does life have purpose?" is a binary one; it calls for a "yes" or a "no". So there you go, it's clearly "yes" and so...end of essay, right?
But, wait! Not so fast, there. Behind the question lurks a deeper question. What is really being asked isn't just "is there a purpose in what I do" but also, "does that purpose come from within me or outside of me?" Now I can similarly shirk my philosophical duty, and say that of course the answer here is obviously also a "yes"--not all purposes are self generated. If you are in an army, you follow the orders of a commander. Unless you are fortunate enough to be self employed, then someone else--a boss or manager--is organizing and directing your activities for much of your waking hours. Even if you are self employed, you must guide your activities based on markets and laws. Outside of career, there are social and legal constraints to alter or guide your day to day purposes. Even if you happen to be an "übermensch"--one of those rare Nietzschean "super men" (or women--not a thought that would have resonated much in Nietzche's day)--you would not likely be totally free of social obligations to family or friends, unless you were an "übermensch" who also resided on a desolate planet. And even then, nature itself might dictate certain behaviors--you are not likely going to wander around your lonely environment completely naked if the temperature is -25 F. The need for food and shelter might override your stubborn desire to be free of any external constraints.
Still, something more--something bigger--is implied within the question at hand. Even acknowledging that much of our guidance and purposes come from without ourselves, from other people and from nature, this still doesn't quite satisfy the person asking such a question. The questioner really wants to know about "purpose" with a capital "P". What he or she might say next is something like, "okay, beyond merely recognizing that we already lead lives filled with all kinds of purposes, and noting that much of our guidance in life comes from outside of our own minds, the question still remains--does my life have any "higher" or "ultimate" purpose / meaning?"
Now, I know that answering this question "yes" would immediately lead to the question, "ok, so what is that meaning?" For purposes of this discussion, I will put this out of bounds and off limits; but I understand that this will also be a bit unsatisfactory. As a Christian, I could be tempted to shortcut to an answer, perhaps a discussion of the Bible or an exposition of the Gospel, but that would be an answer to a different question.
Acknowledging that a "higher" purpose might exist is only the start of a still very long intellectual journey to discover that purpose. Is our ultimate purpose to be found in career, such as in building something grand, or in a life devoted to science or medicine, or in feeding hungry people and building wells for third world villages? Is our ultimate purpose in life to be saved by the blood of Christ? or to reach enlightenment in a Buddhist temple? or to please Allah by traveling to Mecca or joining up with a caliphate? Is the "meaning of life" even knowable?
On that last point, it may be the case that such a meaning may be completely inaccessible to us. A higher purpose might forever remain shrouded in mystery. Certainly, since the 17th century and the influence of Immanuel Kant, the dominant thought in Western Philosophy is that metaphysical things, whether real or not, are ultimately unknowable.
Even Christianity acknowledges mystery: for example, Paul in I Corinthians 13 speaks of knowing only in part, and seeing only dimly as through a smudged mirror. As a Christian, a good part of the faith is "celebrating holy mysteries".
To reiterate, then, the question here really is about whether life has an "ultimate" purpose. The idea of an "ultimate" purpose is closely tied to the question of the existence of an "ultimate" purpose-giver. That's also a whole topic worthy of exploration. You may be surprised to learn that I do not at present feel that one can thoroughly prove (or disprove) God. For thousands of years philosophers and theologians have batted the God puck around the intellectual ice rink, and left us with some very good arguments for and against God. But no "proof". Until God blows the final trumpet and pulls aside the veil that separates our senses from His realm, we are left with uncertainties. Somehow we have to choose an answer for ourselves based on something other than "proof"; we must step out in faith--either way. We must choose either to believe in God or not--Not choosing is still a kind of choosing: It is choosing "no".
This question of purpose then boils down to whose purpose we serve--our own or that of an Ultimate Purpose-giver (which/who from here on I will refer to as "God" in order to make this more readable). At the end of the day, who is in the driver's seat--me or God?
Choosing the former is perfectly logical and rational. But it has its flaws. I tend to take the "Life of Pi" approach to this question, and I will refer to this again later. The presence or absence of higher purpose might not be able to be settled by logic or science or rational argumentation. But we must grapple with it anyway--a choice is necessary, and we cannot avoid it. We may have to settle on choosing based on "the Good" rather than upon "the True". Here are a couple of reasons why an affirmative answer may be the better story.
2. Choosing the path of believing in a higher Purpose may have positive implications for our relations with each other.
"Love your neighbor as yourself" (Jesus)
"It better to be feared than loved" (Machiavelli)
If we are living for a higher purpose, then our behavior is ordered by ethical precepts located outside of our own lusts, and beyond our own whims. I'm not yet declaring whether we ought to follow Christian, Hindu, Muslim, or pagan values, though I clearly have an opinion on that. Across religions and belief systems, the principle virtues and vices are remarkably similar, though not identical. For now, I suggest that simply acknowledging a higher purpose will tend to put the brakes on some of our basest impulses--and give us some base from which to advocate for rights of oppressed, and to moderate the oppression of others.
On a personal level, we might find that we can't hurt or destroy other people merely to satisfy our cravings, or to "get ahead" in work, wealth, or politics. Maybe we can't fornicate with anyone we want--or if we do, then maybe aborting or abandoning unwanted babies that emerge from our lustful activities isn't an option. If religion teaches that the body is a temple of God, then we may find we can't pollute it with drugs. If religion teaches us to love our neighbor, then our relations with others will be characterized more by love and cooperation the better we live in accord with those precepts. (Without a higher purpose, it can be argued that the only real basis for relating to one another is via power, as reflected in the old sayings "might makes right" and "to the victors go the spoils").
3. Choosing the path of a higher purpose answers the existential crisis of death and oblivion.
“Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.” (Sartre)
"I am the resurrection and the life" (Jesus)
The flip side of the existential freedom to make your own purpose, celebrated by those who have "liberated" themselves from the idea of God, is the "existential crisis." This can lead to a creeping anxiety and dread that people tend to feel when they contemplate the perfectly rational conclusion that we will all face oblivion. We are destined to disappear into "the dark night". We will be remembered by no one. Everything we build will crumble to nothing and be gone. Everyone we care about will pass away. The trite sayings with which we console ourselves, such as "she isn't truly dead because she continues to live on in the hearts of others" ring hollow, since those other hearts will stop beating also. Any hope that our lives might be significant, or that we will leave any kind of a lasting mark, rests in embracing that there is a higher purpose.
4. The Life of Pi
So, I will now return to Yann Martel's The Life of Pi. The author rightly states: To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation. He introduces us to a charming and tragic situation of a boy adrift at sea, who is ultimately rescued. (Note I am laboring to be as sparse as I can with details, in case you later want to read this interesting book). In explaining to authorities what happened, the protagonist lays out a long beautiful tale, which is contrasted with a short uglier one, and he offers his listeners a choice:
"So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can't prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?"
Mr. Okamoto: "That's an interesting question..."
Mr. Chiba: "The story with animals."
Mr. Okamoto: "Yes. The story with animals is the better story."
Pi Patel: "Thank you. And so it goes with God."
Or, in the context of this discussion: So it goes with higher meaning. So it goes with Purpose.