Historically and still today many people feel that humankind was created by a supernatural entity called God, that God had an intelligent purpose in creating humankind, and that this intelligent purpose is the ‘meaning of life’.
Here is not the place to go through the various arguments for and against the existence of God. Suffice to say that many people who believe in God would admit that they do not really know what God’s purpose might be, nor that it would necessarily be particularly meaningful. For example, the second Law of Thermodynamics states that entropy increases up to the point at which equilibrium is reached, and God’s purpose in creating us and, indeed, all of nature, might simply have been to catalyse this process. If our God-given purpose is to act as super-efficient heat dissipaters, then this purpose is almost as bad as no purpose at all.
In fact, one might argue that having no God-given or pre-determined purpose is better than having any sort of pre-determined purpose at all (even a more traditional and uplifting one such as serving the will of God or improving our karma) because it frees us to be the authors of our own purpose or purposes, and so to lead truly dignified and meaningful lives. In other words, even if God exists, and even if God had an intelligent purpose in creating humankind, we do not know what this purpose is and, whatever it is, we would much rather be free to determine our own purpose or purposes.
Some might object that not to have a pre-determined purpose is, really, not to have any purpose at all. However, this is to believe (1) that for something to have a purpose, it must have been created with that purpose in mind, and (2) that something that was created with a purpose in mind must necessarily have that very purpose for which it was created. Last summer, I visited Château-Neuf-du-Pape in the Southern Rhone where I picked up a beautiful rounded stone called a galet from one of the vineyards, took it back to England, and put it to excellent use as a book-end. The purpose of these stones in the vineyard is to absorb the heat from the sun during the daytime and then to release it during the night time. However, galets were not created with this or any other purpose in mind. Even if galets were created with a purpose in mind, then this purpose was almost certainly not (1) to make great wine, (2) to serve as book-ends, or (3) to be beautiful. That same evening over some supper, I had my wine-loving friends to blind-taste a bottle of claret that I had brought along from England. Unfortunately, I did not have a decanter to hand, so I masked the identity of the wine by slipping the bottle into one of my (clean) dark blue socks. Unlike the galet, the sock had been created with a purpose in mind, even if this purpose was a very different one from the one that it eventually found.
Some might also or otherwise object that talk about the purpose of life is neither here nor there because life is merely a prelude to some form of eternal afterlife and this is, if you like, its purpose. But (1) it is not at all clear that there is or even can be some form of eternal afterlife that involves the survival of the personal ego. (2) Even if there is an eternal afterlife, living for ever is not a meaning in itself and so the question arises, what is the meaning of the eternal afterlife? If the eternal afterlife has a predetermined purpose, again, we do not know what this purpose is and, whatever it is, we would much rather be free to determine our own purpose or purposes, which we can just as well do in this life. (3) It is not just that reliance on an eternal afterlife merely postpones the question of life’s purpose, but also that it prevents us from determining a purpose or purposes for what may well be the only life that we do have. (4) If one believes that it is the brevity or finiteness of human life that lends it shape or meaning, then an eternal afterlife cannot, by definition, have any purpose. I do not personally believe that the brevity or finiteness of human life lends it shape or meaning, and rather suspect that this is just another ego defense against death. However, that is quite another debate and I shall put it to one side.
The real point here is that whether or not God exists, whether or not God has a purpose for us, and whether or not there is an afterlife, we should strive to give meaning to our lives. For unless we can be free to determine our own purpose or purposes, our life may, at worse, have no purpose at all, and, at best, only some unfathomable pre-determined purpose that is not of our choosing. The great philosopher Plato once defined a human being as an animal, biped, featherless, and with broad nails, but a much better definition that he gave was simply this, ‘A being in search of meaning.’
Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of Madness, The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide, Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception, and other books.
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