Tuesday, June 04, 2013

On Having a Purpose

Another question from the studio audience.

Given the premise that determinism is correct, how can you say that the universe has no purpose? The universe is exactly as it had to be given it's deterministic evolution and consequentially the purpose was to give rise to living entities like you and me. . . . So in other words the purpose of the universe is to give rise to meaning creating entities which then gives rise to emergent REAL meaning and morality.

It does not follow from the fact that something has a particular effect that it has a purpose.

One of the effects of oxygen in the atmosphere is to cause iron to rust. But that is not the purpose of oxygen.

Some people get cancer. However, it is not their purpose to get cancer. It is just something that happens to them.

Consequently, the universe may have been determined to give rise to living entities. However, this does not imply that it was the
purpose of the universe to do so. It is just something that happened.

To have a purpose is to have an intended use. To have an intended use requires postulating an intender - a being with ends (desires) for the obtainment of which the object is useful.

Hammers have a purpose - to drive in nails. Cars have a purpose - to provide for the transportation of people and things.

Of course, having a purpose does not imply that something cannot have other uses. A car can be used as a shield to hide behind when a protest turns violent. A hammer can be used as a paperweight.

In all cases, to speak of something having a purpose is to speak of it being a useful tool. One must postulate a creature with desires that can put the tool to use.

If the universe has "a purpose" at all it is to give us light and materials with which to sustain life and fulfill our other desires. Our desires - and perhaps the desires of extraterrestrial aliens - provide for the only purpose that exists.

In light of this fact, the complaint that one's life lacks purpose is odd at best. It is a complaint that one is not being used as a mere tool by some other being.

Of all people, slaves are in the best position to claim that their life has a purpose. Their purpose it to pick cotton, or to fulfill the sexual desires of their owner, or to bring money to the owner when they are raised and sold - like cattle. Yet, a state of slavery hardly seems to be a state to yearn for. Even enslavement to a god.

An ironic fact about enthralling oneself to a being that does not exist is that one does not actually become God's property. One becomes the property of those who claim to be relaying God's desires. Because, in fact, they are not reporting God's desires - they are reporting their own desires. It should be no surprise that those desires include blind and unquestioned obedience - servitude - thus finding "purpose" to life in the sense used here. "You can find meaning and purpose to your life in being my servent . . . um . . . I mean . . . God's servant."

Alternatively, somebody can market a "purpose" to life, not in service to a god, but in service to the state or the government. "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." Totalitarian states such as Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia also "sell" purpose and meaning to others through servitude. Yet, the individual accepting servitude to "the state" is - more than anything - merely a servant of those who claim to represent "the state".

One can argue that it is not slavery to voluntarily accept a status of servitude. However, that misses the point. The slave is still the person whose life has the greatest purpose because the slave is the person most like a tool to be used towards the fulfillment of desires not his or her own. The slave has a purpose, in the same way that the hammer or blow-up doll has a purpose.

In summary, the universe has no purpose except in the fact that we find pieces of it useful. A life can have purpose when that life is enslaved - voluntarily or voluntarily - by another. But a state of slavery is hardly a state to be yearned for. For those who have been taught to yearn for a state of servitude, it is relevant to note that nobody has ever served God - because there is no God to serve. Those lives tend to be spent in service to people who claim to speak for God. They may well value being surrounded by people seeking meaning and purpose through servitude, but those are not serving who they think they are serving.

My life has no purpose. My life is one of the things that exist that assigns purpose to other things - hammers, governments, laws, information, art, friendship, love, the universe. But not other people. I do not wish to be made a mere tool for the service of others, and seek that they not regard me as a mere tool for their own use. In return, I offer the same thing of them. They are not mere tools. They are beings with ends - ends that also assign purpose and meaning to things.


Sean Sherman said...

A good post. I wish more people understood this.

Anonymous said...

I have two questions/comments about this post.

First, you make having a purpose sound very negative when you say it entails enslaving yourself to someone else; however, when I hear people talk about finding purpose in life, it is often a very positive thing. For example, when people who help the poor or do groundbreaking research or some other very beneficial undertaking, they might well say that their work has given their life a purpose. Do you think the fact that they are enslaving themselves to the people they help or the discoveries they make makes their "purpose" a negative thing? Or are they simply mistaken to think that their work is giving their life purpose to begin with?

Second, if life has no predetermined purpose as you say (and as I agree), then how do you think we ought to decide what to do with our lives? I am in college, so this is a very relevant question for me at the moment.


DavidS89 said...

Alonzo Fyfe, I think you misunderstood what I meant.
But first let me correct an error of yours:

You say that oxygen cannot have the purpose of giving people the ability to breath because it also rust iron. So what. Like you say yourself a thing has several functions. And that is my point.

We have to accept complete determinism. And so we know that oxygen could not suddenly stop giving us the ability to breath. It is a intrinsic proprety of oxygen. It's the one of the purposes of oxygen.

I may assemble a birdhouse with the purpose of attracting birds. That is my personal "purpose". But I do not have any way of controlling the almost infinite variables of nature which might lead a squirrel to occupy the birdhouse instead.
So if you accept determinism then this *had to happen* which is the only way the word "purpose" has any coherent meaning at all.

If it was simply random which thing would happen then obviously it would be senseless to talk of "purpose".

The inevitability of life due to determinism means that it is indeed purposeful in that very very reductionist perspective. That's all I am saying :)

As for your conclusion regarding your life having no purpose. Well again if we accept determinism then you, Alonzo Fyfe, do indeed have desires. This is inevitable and then your life do have purpose.
I don't see how you can claim that "desires" is something that exist *out there* independent of the world.

So in conclusion: you do have a purpose, meaning and morals had to arise in reality (determinism) *and* you're not a slave to anyone. You are a part of the world unfolding.

This reminds me of those who get all confused when we talk about determinism and free will.
Just because your will isn't free doesn't mean that *you* aren't responsible for what you do. It's still *you* who are doing the deciding eventhough the results are already decided by the clockwork inside your head