Saturday, August 01, 2009

A Purpose to Life: The Nature of Purpose's Value

I am looking at the issue of a purpose to life, and using as my foil an article by Staks Rosch that appeared in the Philadelphia Examiner:

(See: Atheistm 101: The Purpose of Life)

And in particular this statement - a modification of Rosch's presentation of the problem:

Christians ask this of atheists all the time, "What would you rather it were true that you were created with a divine purpose in life or that you are just a product of a random chance?"

So far, I have claimed that:

(1) I do not wish it were true that I were created with a divine purpose - because I can think of a number of potential divine purposes that would have no or negative value. (A Purpose to Life)

(2) Because there is no God, the 'divine purposes' people take themselves to have been created for are not God's but their own. People assign their own purposes to a god that they invent. (Wishing for a Divine Purpose)

(3) The desire to have been created for a divine purpose makes one vulnerable to people who pretend to know what that divine purpose is. People who think they are serving a god's purpose are, in fact, serving the purpose of the religious leaders who claim to speak for God. (Whose Purpose Is It)

(4) It is not the case that a divine purpose is incompatible with free will (as Staks Rosch had claimed). For example, if a god created us to create conflict and drama for his entertainment can still leave us free to choose to do so and, for those who choose to serve such a god, free to choose the conflict and drama they create. (Divine Plans and Free Will)

(5) Atheists who hold that purpose or meaning can be freely choosen offer nothing better. If an author can freely choose or alter a purpose this is proof that the purpose is a work of fiction. It is not real. (Choosing a Purpose)

The Nature of Purpose's Value

So, what can we say about purpose or meaning?

The modified version of Rosch's statement contains a telling phrase.

Would you rather it were true . . .

It is important to note that the desire for meaning and purpose is a desire - like any other desire.

A "desire that P" is an attitude that a person adopts - a motivational 'reason for action' to create or preserve a state of affairs in which P is true.

A person with a desire that he was created for a divine purpose prefers a state of affairs in which, "I was created for a divine purpose" were true.

However, it is a desire that no agent has the capacity to make or keep true. In this, it is like a desire to have super powers to be stronger than a locomotive or to clear tall buildings in a single bound.

In some cases, for some people, it is like a desire to have a child of one's own, or a desire to be loved by somebody that one has fallen in love with.

One of the implications of this is that the value of having a live of meaning and purpose is of the same type as the value of having a child of one's own and a desire to be loved by somebody that one loves. It is not a different kind of thing.

Where one person can find value in having been created for a divine purpose, another person can find exactly the same kind of value in treating a sick child or in educating a child so as to give it a better future.

It is the same type of value that one might find in studying theories of value and in trying to help others to realize that which has real and positive value, to avoid that which has negative value, and to not waste time on that which has no real value.

The person who finds value in something like treating a sick child, or educating children for a better future, or in always being at the ready to rescue those in need (first responders), or inventing or building or discovering that which is useful, has one significant advantage over those who desire to have been created for a divine purpose.

The former can actually realize their desire. The desire to treat sick children or to educate children can actually be made or kept true. The desire to feed the hungry, to provide shelter or clean drinking water for those who do not have them, to push back the frontiers of medicine, to protect people from natural disasters and to rescue those caught in them, all of these desires can be fulfilled.

The desire to have been created for a divine purpose can never be fulfilled. The best that one can do is pretend that this is true. It can never be true.

The person who desires to have been created for a divine purpose, in this sense, is like the person who longs for a child of her own, but cannot have one.

She has a choice. She could accept that this desire will never be fulfilled, and to work on those other desires that can be fulfilled, perhaps with a hint of sadness.

Or, she might choose to live in a world of make-believe, where she convinces herself that she has a child that does not exist. She acts as if the child were real - coming up with all sorts of explanations and rationalizations as to why others cannot see her and why she can provide no proof that the child exists.

Some with a desire to serve a divine purpose might come to convince themselves that they have a divine purpose, even though it does not exist. He would act as if there were a God assigning a purpose to his existence, and invent excuses as to why others cannot see or hear this God and why he cannot provide any solid evidence that it exists.

Given the option, it is better to choose not to desire that which cannot be made or kept true. A person with such a desire is trapped between the disappointment of living in the real world with the knowledge that the desire is thwarted, or living in a world of make-believe where she thinks the desire is fulfilled, but it is fulfilled only within her imagination.

Do I wish it were true that I were created with a divine purpose?

No.

I wish it were true that I understood something about the nature of value and can help others to realize that which has real value, avoid that which has negative value, and not waste time on that which is valueless or values that do not exist - like the value some people seek in having been created for a divine purpose.

With a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work, I might . . . might . . . actually get what I wish for.

1 comment:

Passacaglia said...

Since ultra right-wing conservative Republicans are holding up a desperately needed health care bill for one reason, the question of abortion, this is the most opportune time to start a discussion about the rightness or wrongness of abortion.