Sunday, August 02, 2009

A Purpose to Life: Purpose and Meaning vs. Projects

In writing this series about a purpose to life, some had objections to my claim that choosing a purpose means that the purpose is work of fiction, and no different than choosing a religion.

Some of them take the form of an accusation of inconsistency, such as this remark from a member of the stuido audience:

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.

To answer this charge, I would like to introduce into the discussion a distinction between giving a live a purpose or meaning and choosing a project. In this distinction, the activities that I have engaged in will follow the form of choosing a project, rather than choosing a purpose.

The difference between an assigned purpose (or meaning) to life and a project is in the way that value gets attached to that particular entity.

If I were to say that X gives my live meaning and purpose, then this would appear to indicate that X has value. We can argue whether the value of X is assigned to it by me, or whether it has been given intrinsic value by nature or by God that I have the ability to perceive. However, if it gives my life meaning or gives me a sense of purpose, then its value (in some sense) is assured.

This is the type of value that I, in a previous post, said is a work of fiction. We can say that the value that this state has is subjective - but it is subjective in the same way that Tom Sawyer's hair color or Frodo Baggins' relationship to Bilbo is subjective. The inventor simply made it up.

A "project", on the other hand, does not contain any value-laden assumptions. If I say that I have adopted a project of doing X, it is still open to question whether that project has any value. In fact, a project might be truly evil. My project might be world domination, or to make myself as wealthy as possible regardless of who gets hurt, or to commit an act of rape or murder.

Or it could be to leave the world a better place than it would have otherwise been, by helping people to get a better idea what 'better' is and why there are reasons-for-action-that-exist to pursue that which is 'better'.

Consistent with what I have written in this blog to date, we have the capacity to evaluate projects. We can determine the relationships that exist between the propositions that would be made or kept true in working on that project and various desires. Specifically, we can ask whether a person with desires that people generally have reason to promote, and lacking desires that people generally have reason to inhibit, would ever adopt such a project.

This would tell is if people generally have reason to praise somebody who adopts such a project, or to condemn them.

A person whose project has come under criticism might be tempted to argue, "But this is what gives my life meaning and purpose. Because of this, criticizing the project is 'out of bounds' - something you may not do."

We often hear this argument with respect to religious meaning and purpose - where the fact that a person finds meaning and purpose in religion is taken to imply that others are morally prohibited from criticizing a person's religious projects. However, the religious component is not necessary. The atheist who has choosen to invest a particular end with meaning and purpose might also be tempted to argue, "Since the whole meaning of my life is tied up in that end, you may not criticize it."

However, that meaning or purpose is pure fiction. The reality is that the agent has adopted a particular project. We may well assume that the project is something that fulfills the most and strongest of the agent's desires, given their beliefs. However, we are still free to ask and answer the question of whether those beliefs are true, and whether those desires are desires that people generally have reason to promote or to inhibit.

On this model, it makes sense to praise those who adopt projects that a person with desires we have reason to promote would adopt, and condemn those who adopt projects that a person with desires we have reason to promote would not adopt.

It does not make sense to declare that a certain set of projects are beyond the bounds of criticism because somebody has decided to invest them with fictitious meaning and purpose.


anton said...

I feel fortunate that over the last 200 million years (give or take a few more 100 million years) I evolved. Introduction of god and "divine" concepts have only plagued us for about 2,500 years. Our ability to communicate tends to get us obsessed with this "condition", especially with all the cult leaders making a living by conducting their "worship" and their promise of an "after life!. In the history of our world, religion and "divinity" are but short bouts of an influenza virus and hopefully, we will eventually administer the necessary antibiotic -- reality -- and get rid of the "witch doctors".

Eneasz said...

Purpose vs Projects... I feel this is a distinction without meaning. What you've described as a Project is what almost everyone refers to as a Purpose. Why invent a new word when a commonly-accepted one already exists?

I recall you've previously said that you often adopt existing words for DU for this reason. That the word "good" is used to describe "that which people generally have many strong reasons to promote" because when you examine how people commonly use the word "good", this is the way they use it, even if they don't use that exact definition.

Why break from this principle when it comes to Purpose? Introducing a new term like Project seems unnessecarily confusing.

Mike said...

I understand and agree with what you are getting at. Sure, 'purpose,' is just another ideology, having no special poperties or intrinsic value.

But I agree with Eneasz. Fixing a toilet is a project. Creating a new moral theory is a purpose.

Let me offer a definition:

Purpose is what a person would define as their life objectives based on emotional responses to their personal experiences.

Alonzo, you have a unique life experience, and have, on occasion, experienced intense emotions- like when you were viciously attacked for being an Atheist, and subsequently saved by a devout Christian. The emotional content of those experiences would be just ones of many that drove you to produce this website, to find 'reasons that exist' for your own moral sense.

For if it was only reason, than why take on this particular project? If you merely take on projects, why are your choices and goals so attached to the chance events of your unique life experience?

To merely call your work here a project seems a bit disingenuous to me.

Emu Sam said...

This post seems likely to start up the definition of definitions argument again. Many people will continue to use (project-as-criticizable-)purpose, and a person who is not caught up on your blog will not automatically assume (entire-and-unalterable-meaning-of-my-life-)purpose.

I can see how the religious argument could be rephrased in desire utilitarian terms. "Criticizing my religion causes a great deal of emotional pain to me and this group of people who share some portion of my beliefs. The pain is more than the benefit you would get from criticizing it. Therefore, you must not criticize it."

Counterargument: "If you had no desire to avoid criticism..." No, if a person had no desire to avoid criticism, this would negate much of the use of criticism. A person who does not care about criticism will not change to avoid it. Criticism is such a useful tool in societal change that we should have no desire to promote a lack of desire to avoid criticism. (convoluted sentence)

"If anything is free from criticism, then the use of criticism becomes hobbled as a means of societal change. I think your religion (sports team/personal belief/political party/you) is wrong in ways A, B, and C, and that a good person would not do/believe/promote A, B, and C. I have reason to criticize you, and so does this group of people. Please consider that we have reason to criticize and instead of trying to stop the criticism, address our concerns. We may be wrong about A, but right about B and C. However, C might have sufficient benefit that you can convince me and others not to criticize it any more."

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I disagree with your thesis about how people use the term Purpose.

Mike's statement, "Creating a new moral theory is a purpose" is a (type of) phrase that I do not recall ever encountering in common English.

'Purpose' and 'meaning', in the sense being discussed here, tend to be used in a way that is almost synonamous with 'value'. They are considered properties of things. You can 'find' or 'discover' meaning and purpose in things, but you cannot find 'projects' in things.

It is in this sense of having a property to be found or discovered that I object to the use of the term 'meaning' or 'purpose' even in the writing of this blog. The reason the term 'project' is more fitting is precisely because 'project' does not include this assumption of a property to be found or discovered.

I did not 'find meaning' in the construction of this Blog. I have a set of desires and interests (yes, drawn from my life experience) that motivated me eventually to adopt this project.

Whether it has those qualities that would actually make or keep true the propositions that are the objects of my desires, and whether those desires are desires that people generally have reason to promote or to inhibit, are open to question.

These are questions that it makes sense for us to ask about projects.

Mike said...

You certainly do find "meaning" in this project. I'll use "meaning" in it's most ephemeral sense, in common English, as an implication something of hidden or of special significance.

The "object" of hidden significance is the neuro-chemical reaction of emotions you "find" when you engage in writing this blog. Examples are ego satisfaction, intellectual pride, critical contempt, and so on. These feelings appear automatically, based on your previous experiences and interpretations. These personal emotional memories influence your perceptions, drive your desires, and ultimately create your sense of self. Some of them you not aware of, while others are kept close and private.

You are engaging this particular project because you "find" and enjoy these sensations as you engage it, and you feel, quite automatically, that tingle of pride that this is a worthy use of your limited life.

So if it is not meaning or purpose, what would you call this sort of desire?

Unknown said...

Purpose is 'what for' and meaning is 'by which'. These definitions reflect the non-linear aspect of existence.

Purpose is the outward, whole, aspect and meaning is the inward, parts, aspect.

A whole, of which you are a part, is your purpose. You serve it as one of its means of existence. You are one part of its definintion, its meaning. Without you it would be a different thing and would not be your purpose.

Parts, which form you, are the means by which you exist, your meaning. They serve you as the sole means of your existence. You are their purpose, you are their reason, their 'what for'.

These dual aspects of existence, dualities, are called many things: whole/part, wave/particle, God/Spirit, destiny/origin, mass/energy, space/time, future/past, and so on.

It all makes sense to me, now.

Emu Sam said...

Examples of purpose and meaning in the English language: "What is your purpose here?" "What is the meaning of this (intrusion, impertinence)?" Think person who feels threatened trying to find out why something has happened before acting hastily. The person they are talking to may already know the answers and have nothing to find. The person who speaks is trying to discover the other's reasons for action. Acceptable answers might be "I thought it was the door to the bathroom" or "I have an army and I'm going to conquer you."

A religious person, talking about meaning and purpose to life, would likely accept neither of these answers as acceptable. However, if they only answer a person might accept is "I live to serve god," does this argue that Alonzo is using meaning and purpose correctly, for the purposes of these posts? Or that the person in question's definitions are far narrower than commonly used?

Anonymous said...

Very thoughtfull post on life purpose.It should be very much helpfull

Karim - Creating Power

MhM said...


I also tried to answer the question, I had adiffrent take(probably not as specialized as yours) and had to use the name of God for the purpose of explaining. Thought you might be intrested, so below is my link to my take:

and why letter 'X' has to be always used for unknown. I mean m,n,o or for that matter any other letter can surve the purpose