Monday, July 27, 2009

A Purpose to Life: Whose Purpose Is It?

I am writing a series of posts on meaning and purpose in life, specifically addressing the question:

Would you rather it were true that you were created with a divine purpose in life or that you are just a product of random chance?

I the first post I answered “no” to this question on the grounds that it depends on what the purpose is. For example, I would prefer that it were not the case that I was created as a toy to crate conflict and drama for a God who was otherwise bored.

In the second post, I argued that this desire to have been created for a purpose by a God is a dangerous desire to have. People invent Gods. The purposes they like to think of themselves of having been created for are not God’s but their own. Hateful and vindictive people invent hateful and vindictive gods. They then pretend that thir own hateful and vindictive interests have divine approval, which maks them more dangerous.

Another problem with this question is an assumption that it carries with it. It is asking me whether I would prefer to have been created for a divine purpose. This is as if to say that if I prefer something, then not only fails to prove that it is true. It also fails to prove that the thing is something that a good person would prefer.

For example, you can ask people, “Would you prefer to be a dictator with a loyal army willing and eager to impose your will on others and to force them to fulfill whatever wish or desire that might strike you at a particular momnt?”

Some would answer, “Sure!”, and mean it.

However, this not only fails to prove that he is such a dictator in fact, it dos not prove that being such a dictator has merit.

It is a mistake to argue that, just because a person prefers something that it has moral value. We also have to look at the nature of that preference and determine whether it is a preference that there is reason to want people to have. Is there good reason to praise those who prefer to have been created to serve some purpose over those who have no such purpose?

There is a way to measure the quality of a desire to determine whether it is a desire that has merit. This is by determining whether people generally have reason to promote such a desire, or to inhibit it.

There is good reason for a subsection of the community to praise the desire to have a divine purpose. Thos people are the people who get to pretend to be God – the church leaders who pretend that they have a personal pipeline to God. If they can convince you that it is good to serve a divine purpose, and that they have the ability to determine what that divine purpose is, they have everything they need to turn you into a willing sacrifice for their own interests.

They have no capacity to determine what God’s purpose is because there is no God with a purpose for them to determine. They can, however, determine what their own purposes are. When they tell you that you are serving some divine purpose this is not true at all. You are serving the purpose of the church and its leaders.

However, this is a far cry from saying that people generally have reason to promote such a desire – a reason for action whereby they spend their lives being unwitting servants and sacrifices to the interests of others.

A desire is an interest in making or keeping a particular proposition true. A desire that one’s child is healthy and happy is an interest in making or keeping the proposition, “My child is healthy or happy” true. There is no way to make or keep the proposition, “I am serving a divine purpose” true, so this is a desire or an interest that can never be fulfilled.

What ends up being made or kept true is the proposition, “I am serving the purpose of another person who is falsely claiming that I am serving a divine purpose instead of his own.”

People, for example, have an unfounded hatred of homosexuals may have reason to try to convince us that joining them in pursuing this interest is serving a “divine purpose”. However, it is not. It is joining them in helping them to successfully act out on their own hatred and prejudice.

A person who would like to have a secure job as a church leader spending the followers’ money has reason to convince us that our donations serve a divine purpose. Yet, again, that money instead goes to serving the purposes of the people the money is given to, and not actually (truthfully) serving the interests of those who are doing the giving. Again, this is true because the proposition, “I am serving a divine interest” can never be made or kept true.

So, the desire to serve a divine purpose does those who acquire this desire little good. It causes them to sacrifice their own interests to the interests of those who falsely claim to know what this divine purpose is. The purposes they speak of are not those of a divine entity. They are the purposes of those who falsely claim to speak for that divine entity.

And many of those purposes do not have much merit.

So, while it may be the case that many people might actually prefer to have been created to serve a divine purpose, and would answer “yes” to this question, it is wrong to assume that this is a good thing. The person who is truly better off is the person who answers “no” to this question. Such a person is less likely to waste his life serving the interests of those who pretend to know what this divine interest is, and less likely to be fooled into serving human purposes (purposes of those falsely claiming to speak for God) that no good person would serve.


Doug S. said...

Off topic:

I think I've found a loophole in "right acts are those which an agent with good desires would do."

Take any desire that is "in general" desire-fulfilling. For example, the desire to be truthful to others. Now, add in a weird, specific exception that almost never comes up. Thus, "be truthful to others" becomes "be truthful to others, except at midnight on 9/12/2013 to guys named Steve with red hair who live in Detroit." Now, because the exception is extremely rare, this desire is still generally desire fulfilling, because most of the time, you're not talking to a guy named Steve with red hair who lives in Detroit at midnight on 9/12/2013. That means that an agent with this desire is still an agent with good desires. So lying to Steve at midnight on 9/12/2013 is a right act.

If we make our exceptions narrow enough, given almost any act, we can construct an agent whose desires are good in general, yet would still perform that act in that specific situation. (Even if desires with extremely narrow exceptions are not psychologically realistic for humans, we can still imagine building a robot with those desires.) Therefore, almost all acts are right acts.

What's wrong with this picture?

Eneasz said...

Hello Doug. I believe this has already been addressed. The short version is that no one has only one desire, and that sometimes different desires will come into conflict. When a desire to be truthful comes into conflict with a desire to prevent death (ie: don't tell Nazi Steve about the Jews in your attic), the desire to prevent death should be stronger and win out. In less clear-cut cases (say, you must kill a child to prevent the detonation of a nuclear bomb) the desire to save lives should outweigh the desire to not kill a child, but in a good person this conflict of two such strong desires will produce emotional trauma that can haunt them for the rest of their life. This more accurately explains real-life situations than narrowing down desires into exception-laden codexs that say things like "I should have an aversion to killing a child, except for when it will prevent a nuke from detonating, or that child will grow up to be hitler, or etc etc etc"

The long version can be found here and here

Mike said...

Interestingly, The Muslim religion sees this attribution of ones actions and desires to God as their one unforgivable sin, "shirk". That is why devout Muslims qualify even mundane statements of desires with "God willing" and "God be praised" when their desires are fortunate enough be fulfilled. A devout Muslim can only hope that God supports their desires, but should never assume that what they are doing is God's will and desire, lest they blaspheme in the highest order.

I am surprised that Christianity does not have a similar policy- too often I have observed Christians taking credit for their good fortune- that somehow something they have done has curried favor with God. But this is wrong and should be taken as an offense to other Christians. Because, for example, I am sure numerous good Christians died on September 11th, despite their prayers. Also, plenty of devout Christian mothers have prayed nonstop at the bed of their critically ill child to no avail. In my own community, a good preacher, citizen, and father of eight, was murdered in a chance encounter by a wayward teen on a nightly walk. According to the report, he was told to kneel down and pray before he was shot in the head.

I am aghast that so many of them do not see how wicked it is, even amongst other Christians, to assume that they have earned their good fortune or that it is a sign that God favors them.

Eneasz said...

Hello Doug. Re-reading your question today, I think I mis-interpreted what you meant to say.

Let me try again.

You said that a good desire, and a good desire with a rare exception, are nearly equally good. So a person could have the desire-with-exception and still be a good person, and so by the metric of "right acts are those that an agent with good desires would do" that exception can be called good, since our hypothetical agent with good desires would do it. Even if the exception is something like a murder.

I believe the problem here is in forgetting how one determines if a desire is good. "That which people generally have many and strong reasons to promote." People generally do not have many and strong reasons to promote desires with odd and/or arbitrary exceptions thrown in. Therefore desires like that aren't actually good, and a hypothetical good agent would not have them.

In my understanding, of course. :)

steinbeck said...

There is much food for thought and sound logic in your post. I particularly keyed in to your remarks about hatred of homosexuals. Indeed there is no divine purpose here, or any rational purpose whatsoever. It is a sad fact that a large segment of society, particularly the religious right and those influenced by them, still regards gay men and women as second-class citizens - or worse. That is one of the salient points of my recently released biographical novel, Broken Saint. It is based on my forty-year friendship with a gay man, and chronicles his internal and external struggles as he battles for acceptance (of himself and by others, including fellow Mormons). More information on the book is available at

Mark Zamen, author