Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Purpose to Life: Choosing a Purpose

On the question having a purpose to or meaning for life, I have been criticizing the desire to have been created for a divine purpose.

Though I have denied that the idea of being created for a divine purpose implies a lack of freedom of will, I have argued that being created for a purpose does not make the purpose good. Also, the pursuit of a divine purpose in a universe where no such purpose exists means deifying one's own interests and desires – while kind or malevolent. Also, it makes a person an easy victim for anybody who claims that he knows what God wants. Such a person would not actually be directing you in the pursuit of God's interests. He will be making you the unwitting slave to his own interests which he has then assigned to God.

However, the common atheist response to the question of meaning and purpose in life is almost as absurd.

This is the idea that each of us gets to choose our own meaning or purpose in life, and whatever we choose has real value.

If we are talking about a person, and I have the ability to choose where that person was born, who its parents were, what it likes and dislikes, and what happened to him five years ago, this should be taken as a reliable sign that I am dealing with a fictional character. I do not have the liberty to make those types of decisions if we are talking about a real person. Instead, there is a fact of the matter.

The same is true of assigning a purpose or meaning to life. If a person has the liberty to simply 'choose' a purpose or a meaning, then this should be taken as proof that he is creating a fictitious entity. This 'purpose' or 'meaning' is no more real than the character she invented for som story or book.

To live one’s life as if this fictional purpose or meaning is real is to live a lie.

One might as well choose to serve a God. There is actually little difference between choosing to serve a (fictitious) God to which one has assigned one's own desires than there is in choosing a fictitious 'meaning' or 'purpose' which was also created from the desires of the creator.

I have been using as a foil for my series here an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Purpose of Life, in which the author states:

[W]ould you rather believe . . . . that you are a product of natural selection capable of choosing your own plan and purpose in life as an intelligent being in your own right?

If I am capable of choosing my own plan and purpose, then it is not real. It is a work of fiction – an act of make-believe that I then devote my life to pretending that it is real. If it is real, then I have no capacity to choose. I only have the capacity to discover.

Furthermore, one of the criticisms that I have given to the idea of a divine purpose is that, since there is no God, then people ultimately assign their own desires and interests to God and then assert that those interests have divine sanction. Vicious and vindictive people will create a vicious and vindictive God, and then will look upon it and say that it is good.

The same problem applies to atheists who invent a fictitious meaning or purpose and then pretends that it has real-world significance. They are going to invent a meaning and purpose that suits their own desires. A vicious and vindictive atheist is going to adopt a vicious and vindictive purpose, and he is going to look upon it and say that it is good.

The only difference between the atheist who invents a meaning and purpose, and the theist who assigns a meaning and purpose to God, is that the former, at some level, admits that he is living in a world of make-believe and ‘let’s pretend’, while the latter does not.

Yet, neither are suitable for the person who says, "Let's leave the world of make-believe and 'let's pretend' behind. Let us look instead to discover what the real world has to offer us. If there is meaning and purpose to life it is there to be discovered. And if there is no meaning or purpose to be discovered, let us not pretend that there is. Let us admit this fact and move on with our lives."

An important corollary to the idea that there is a meaning or purpose to be discovered is that we do not have a choice in the matter. The proposition that there is a particular meaning or purpose is to be discovered, and we cannot choose what it is we are going to discover.

And the popular atheist claim that it is wonderful to be an atheist because one then has the freedom to choose a purpose to life . . . that idea deserves to be tossed away. Choosing a purpose to life is as lame as choosing a religion. Such a person is simply choosing to play a game of "let's pretend", and refusing to live in the real world.


Eneasz said...

I'm failing to understand something. Why isn't it possible for someone to make it their purpose to fight poverty, or bring joy to sick children, or even to erradicate from the world all the "lesser races"?

Sabio Lantz said...

Agreed. So an atheist get's one idea right, the illusion of self, of control and many other still permeate may hypnotize her greater that the simple idea of a controlling diety.

Ulrich said...

I'm not sure I agree,

First of all, what does "meaning of life" mean in the first place? This question is far from trivial, and I expect quite a bandwidth of varying answers from adherents of different philosophies, including, e.g., "something for us to strive for" and "fulfilment found through dedication to a cause." In any case, however, I would suggest that the notion of a "meaning of life" is closely related to the concept of "value."

Now, if there is a meaning of life, it can come either from within ourselves, or from outside sources. However, how could the latter be the case if there is no god, and no intrinsic value? If I have not misunderstood you, it is your opinion that value is something we assign to things/ideas/etc. But if that is the case, and the meaning of our life is dependent on what has value to us, then arguably we do make our own life's meaning.

There is one third option that comes to my mind just as I am writing this - that the meaning of our life is determined by the value it has for other people. This would be consistent with both the nonexistence of intrinsic value and your proposition that we cannot choose our own meaning.

Anyway, whatever they are, I assume you are going to publish your own thoughts about the meaning of life here soon enough - I'm certainly looking forward to read them.

Anonymous said...

and who is your source that God is a tyrant to make you an "unwitting slave to his own interests?"-if so, what difference is God to the devil?
i doubt you even know God's purpose and interest hence, merely a sweeping statement.

If one could be ever so grateful to the parents who feed them why not one could be more grateful to God who created them ?

Anonymous said...

Are you then , creating another "fictitious" purpose to life according to YOUR own belief and likes ? If so, it should be then "a purpose to YOUR life" not "a purpose to life". Also, are you then, upon your belief, creating a "fictitious" religion of your own?

Jess Johnson said...

This seems to be a purely semantic argument, and delivered, it seems, with a bit of umbrage. The semantic point is in the lack of differentiation between the implied poles of universal purpose and personal purpose. It is clearly possible, in the process of discovering what the world has to offer, to react by defining your own personal purpose, ie., as mentioned, fighting poverty, etc. To recast this in terms of a fiction on par with the great sky-god makes no sense whatsoever, except as a bit of a bitter diatribe.

Andy said...

The point is, you can't praise people for choosing their life purpose as fighting poverty and then turn around and say there is no reason why a person should choose that as their life's purpose.

If people are "creating" meaning by choosing to value the elimination of poverty, then we are creating a fiction. Surely, the elimination of poverty is valuable to the people in poverty already before it is valued by those who want to eradicate it.

So, it must be discovered what purposes are worthwhile to people as a whole. I can't just randomly decide a worthwhile cause is to increase poverty. I can believe it is the case, sure but that doesn't make it the case.

So, in deciding what purposes are worth our efforts, we can't just decide willy-nilly but instead look at the desires that exist in the world around us.

MIke said...

Alonzo, your preamble to this website smacks of self-derived purpose. You decided that you wanted to make the world a better place than you left it. That is as much of a purpose as, "Praising and following the words of Jesus Christ." The difference is instead of reading a book to find purpose, you're writing one.

This all goes back to the neurological fact that, as humans, we can not make a majority of our choices with out an appeal to our emotions. The modern world simply presents too many possibilities for reason to work on its own. The emotional need for purpose (a 'reason' to be) serves an important role by using narrowing down our choices to ones we can manage.

Atheists are just just as needy for this emotional satisfaction as anyone else- even when that satisfaction comes from their exercise of reason.

Jamie said...

A lot of equivocation goes on in these discussions, regarding the use of the words "meaning" and "purpose." I think this post is true for one use of the word "purpose," but not for others.

What one focuses one's life on (if one does such a thing), is real. The value that one places on one's own life and its impact on the larger world is real. These are both things that can be chosen. These are both things that some call "meaning" or "purpose."