What is the Purpose of Life?

by Luke Muehlhauser on October 5, 2009 in Ethics,General Atheism

monty-pythons-the-meaning-of-life

I recently received an email containing a single line of text:

What is the purpose of life?

That question has been given thousands of different answers, nearly all of them banal. It is very hard to say anything new or illuminating on the subject.

The best writing on the subject I’ve read is a series of blog posts by Alonzo Fyfe.1 Roughly, the first half of this post is a summary of Fyfe’s series, and the second half is my own contribution.2

The Christian view is that God has created an epic stageplay that embodies the struggle between good and evil, and that he has given each person a particular role to play, like Frodo in The Lord of the Rings or Harry in Harry Potter. Thus, the purpose of life is assigned to you by the Director. You are an actor in his stageplay, and your purpose is to play your role according to his script.

But if God does not exist, we find ourselves alone on the stage without a director. We have to come up with our own purpose, and craft our own story. We have to figure out on our own what really matters and what to fight for.

Let us consider an important question:

Would you prefer it to be true that you were created with a divine purpose in life?

My answer is “No.” I would not like to have been created with a divine purpose in life.

What matters is the quality of a purpose, not it’s source.

To illustrate, Fyfe writes:

jesus_caricaturePerhaps I was created by a God who got bored and who was seeking some way to entertain himself. He came up with the idea of creating a planet and populating it with people who he [programmed to] have a strong disposition to accept religious teachings without question. He then went to different groups and said, “You are God’s chosen children. You have a right and a duty to rule over the world. All others are infidels who should be either converted or killed.”

When he was done, he sat back in His heavenly recliner with his heavenly beer and potato chips and watched the unfolding drama of Survivor Earth, and he saw that it was good. Or, at least, he was entertained.

Would I prefer to be a toy built to generate conflict and drama for the sake of entertaining some God?

It would be true, in such a case, that I was created for a divine purpose. However, what matters is the quality of the purpose, not its source. In this case, the purpose has a particularly low quality.

Not only would I prefer not to have such a purpose, I would go so far as to actively thwart God’s purpose if that were the case, and would count my life as having meaning in doing so. I would work to promote cooperation and well-being over conflict and suffering and, if this went against the purpose of my Creator, then so be it.3

So God need not provide purpose in life, for what matters is the quality of a purpose, not it’s source.

Also, God cannot provide the purpose of life because God does not exist.

But the usual atheistic answer to our question of purpose is not much better. Atheists often say:

We get to choose our own purpose in life. Whatever we choose to do, that is what has value.

But such invented value is a fiction. If I am talking about a person and I can choose where he was born, what happened to him at age 5, and what he looks like, this should be taken as evidence that I am talking about a fictional person. I can’t make those decisions if we are talking about a real person, about whom certain facts already exist and cannot be decided by me. And if a person can “choose” a purpose to life on a whim, this should be taken as evidence that she is talking about a fictional purpose.

Instead of adopting the purposes of a fictional God or inventing my own fictional purpose, I want to say something like this:

Let’s leave the world of make-believe 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.4

nihilism

So, is there objective purpose to be discovered in the universe, or does it happen to be the case that life is ultimately purposeless?

It depends what we mean by “purpose.”

If “purpose” means “that for which we were intentionally designed by an intelligent Creator,” then purpose does not exist. If “purpose” means “such as to bring about ends that have intrinsic value,” then purpose does not exist (because intrinsic value does not exist).5 Under these definitions, “purpose” does not exist.6

But that is not the end of the story.

To see why, consider the term “water.” For centuries, nearly everyone used the term “water” (in any language) to refer to an element. Then, in the 18th century, Lavoisier discovered that the stuff we had been calling “water” all this time was not an element. It is a compound. But this does not mean there is no water. It just means we had our concept of water mixed up. It is still worthwhile to use the term “water,” though it does not, after all, refer to an element.

The same goes for “atoms” and “malaria,” which are not, it turns out, indivisible or caused by bad air.7

What does this have to do with purpose?

We have learned that God-given purpose is fictional, that intrinsic purpose is fictional, and that personally invented purpose is fictional. But perhaps there is a sensible meaning of “purpose” which refers to something that does exist, just as there are sensible definitions for “water” and “atom” and “malaria” which refer to things that exist, despite our initial conceptual confusions about those terms.

For example, perhaps “purpose” has something to do with objective value. If objective value exists, then purpose exists. Or perhaps we might consider the various projects we take on (such as the project to raise one’s kids or feed the poor or make the world a better place) and ask whether they have objective value. If a project has objective value, then perhaps we can say that such a project provides true, meaningful purpose.

I have another proposal. I think a good synonym for “purpose” is “calling.” Are there things we are “called” to do? We are not called to do anything by gods or by intrinsic values, for these things do not exist. But are we nevertheless “called” to do some things?

Put another way, are there things we “ought” to do with our lives?

Ought, Value, and Moral Value

Ought, in this sense, is a moral term. Our question about purpose turns out to be a question about objective moral facts. Are we “called” by objective moral facts to do certain things or live a certain way? Are there any objective moral facts calling us, or is morality purely relative?

I think objective moral facts exist, and that they can provide a “purpose” or “calling” to life.8

I’ve written about this more thoroughly in other places, but let me make a quick summary here.

Value (in the general sense, not the moral sense) is a relation between states of affairs and reasons for action. So a word like “good” means “such as to fulfill the reasons for action in question.” Thus, a “good” butter knife is one that spreads butter well, because the reasons for action in question are the owner’s desires to spread butter well. And it may be “good” for a bank robber to bring a gun, if we understand that the reasons for action in question are the robber’s desires to successfully rob a bank.

That is a semantic point, about the meaning of our words. Now I want to make an empirical claim.

I claim that desires are the only reasons for action that actually exist. Many other reasons for action have been proposed – intrinsic values, divine commands, categorical imperatives, etc. – but they do not exist.

If this is correct, we can simplify our notion of “good” as “such as to fulfill the desires in question” and “bad” as “such as to thwart the desires in question.”

So that’s a brief account of value.

What, then, of moral value?

When we think of morality we usually mean some universal consideration of reasons for action. (This, again, is a semantic point.) And some reasons for action might be stronger than others, and outweigh them. So the desires of gays to marry might initially provide some reason for action to allow gays to marry, but God’s divine commands are overriding reasons for action, so the universal consideration of reasons for action ends up showing that the prohibition of gay marriage is moral.

But if desires are the only reasons for action that exist, then morality is concerned with a universal consideration of desires.

I also hold that desires – not actions – are the primary objects of moral evaluation. So a morally good desire is one that tends to fulfill other desires, and a morally bad desire is one that tends to thwart other desires.

I have grossly simplified things in this post, but the end result of this and a great deal more that has been left unsaid is that objective moral facts “call” us to encourage desires that tend to fulfill other desires and discourage desires that tend to thwart other desires.

So there you have it. Depending on your definition of “purpose,” we might say that:

The purpose of life is to encourage desires that tend to fulfill other desires and discourage desires that tend to thwart other desires.

Now this turns out to be superficially similar to some popularly proposed purposes of life to “make the world a better place” or “promote well-being,” but it is both more explicit and more rationally justified (not with what I’ve written here, but elsewhere).

Another way to put it is to say that the purpose of life is to promote a harmony of desires.

hands around earth

  1. See: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11. []
  2. Though, even the second half of this post relies entirely on Fyfe’s theory of morality, desirism. []
  3. Italics are mine. See this post. []
  4. See this post. []
  5. At least, I have never been shown any evidence that intrinsic value exists. []
  6. Clearly, some things at least have instrumental purpose. The purpose of a butter knife is to spread butter. The purpose of the “cash for clunkers” program was to get get gas-guzzling, polluting clunkers off the road, thus reducing pollution and gas consumption). These things have instrumental purpose because they were designed for a specific purpose. But a human life cannot have instrumental purpose in this way because a human life was not designed for a specific purpose. []
  7. Philosophers are currently doing something similar with the term “free will.” That term usually means “contra-causal free will” – the ability to step outside the causal chain of nature and autonomously form intentions. But it now seems likely that nothing can step outside the causal chain of nature. And yet, most philosophers call themselves “compatibilists,” meaning they think free will is compatible with the causal chain of nature. But they do so by tweaking the meaning of “free will.” They do not usually mean that contra-causal free will exists. The usually mean to say that voluntary free will exists, meaning we are free to act in accordance with our beliefs and desires (but not outside the causal chain of nature). There are also other options that do not assume the existence of contra-causal free will. []
  8. Depending on how you want to define “purpose,” of course. []

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

David Iach October 5, 2009 at 11:08 pm

“Another way to put it is to say that the purpose of life is to promote a harmony of desires.”

but in the end, it doesn’t even matter…

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Beelzebub October 5, 2009 at 11:26 pm

“Purpose” is one of those things that often suffers from the reductionist interpretation. It is a “forest” phenomenon, not a “tree” phenomenon, and those looking for the tree miss the forest. Christians often criticize atheism for having no objective firmament to base meaning against, since meaning is always in relation to something else. But if “meanings” are actually castles in the sky there need be no foundation to rest them on. And objectively speaking, Christians, when they do this, are really only passing the buck because if meaning resides with God, what “meaning” does he ascribe them? The question is never answered.

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Yair October 6, 2009 at 2:16 am

I’ve all but given up, but let’s have another go at this angle:

If this is correct, we can simplify our notion of “good” as “such as to fulfill the desires in question” and “bad” as “such as to thwart the desires in question.”

So that’s a brief account of value.

What, then, of moral value?

When we think of morality we usually mean some universal consideration of reasons for action. (This, again, is a semantic point.) And some reasons for action might be stronger than others, and outweigh them. So the desires of gays to marry might initially provide some reason for action to allow gays to marry, but God’s divine commands are overriding reasons for action, so the universal consideration of reasons for action ends up showing that the prohibition of gay marriage is moral.

If “the prohibition of gay marriage” is “good”, then it “fulfills the desires in question”, but what desires are these? The desires it fulfills are the weighted sum of desires, the sum of all desires multiplied by their strength or some-such (since you give more weight to “stronger” desires). But, this sum is no longer a reason for action! The sum of reasons for action does not constitute a reason for action, just like a sum of all the brain functions of several people does not constitute a collective brain functioning, and just like the sum of all the desires multiplied by their weakness isn’t a reason for action. It is only a person’s desires that are his own reasons for action, not some arbitrary sum of desires. By positing this sum you are considering an abstract entity with this conglomerate structure of desire, and calculating what will be good in terms of its desires. Calling people to act according to this is calling them to be subservient to your imaginary person, which we might as well call “god”. This has nothing to do with what is good in relation to your desires, it has no power to call you to action.

I still believe your belief in objective morality is an atavistic remnant of your theism. May you shed it, and grow Brighter.

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ayer October 6, 2009 at 4:35 am

“Let us consider an important question:

Would you prefer it to be true that you were created with a divine purpose in life?

My answer is “No.” I would not like to have been created with a divine purpose in life.”

This honest answer confirms what many Christians (such as C.S. Lewis) have expected, which is that, if given a choice after death, atheists would choose NOT to spend eternity with the Christian God if it meant giving up on the idea that they have been and are the authors of their own purpose. As Milton said, “better to rule in hell than serve in heaven.” Of course, as a result, shouldn’t atheists stop complaining about the “cruelty” of the doctrine of hell, since “the door will be locked from the inside” and they will have no desire to leave?

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lukeprog October 6, 2009 at 5:41 am

Yair,

I was an error theorist for most of my atheistic life so far, before tentatively adopting desirism only a few months ago.

I’ve not ignored your criticisms, I just haven’t had time to respond to them. Your criticisms are quite valid.

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Kip October 6, 2009 at 5:41 am

David Iach: “Another way to put it is to say that the purpose of life is to promote a harmony of desires.”but in the end, it doesn’t even matter…

Irrelevant. It matters to me, and to my friends and family, and to billions of other people, right here, right now, and in the foreseeable future. I act on what matters right now, and in the foreseeable future, not on what will matter “in the end” (whenever that is). And, so do you and everyone else.

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lukeprog October 6, 2009 at 5:42 am

ayer,

Did you read my post? I criticized and rejected the idea of atheists inventing their own fictional purpose.

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Kip October 6, 2009 at 5:55 am

Yair: The desires it fulfills are the weighted sum of desires, the sum of all desires multiplied by their strength or some-such (since you give more weight to “stronger” desires). But, this sum is no longer a reason for action!

It is a fact that many desires can be combined in some way to provide an agent with the motivation to act in a way contrary to another desire that alone might outweigh any other single desire.

At the core of your objection is the fact that many individual agents in a society never act as a single agent. That is somewhat valid, but not entirely. Clearly people can and do form coalitions to act as a single agent. They decide to give up some of their autonomy in order to help the group reach a desired goal.

Beyond that, however, many individual agents who have many and strong reasons to promote certain desires in others will be helping each other even without forming a coalition. (We’ve learned that often forming a coalition multiplies the effectiveness of the individuals, though.) So, once the moral project has had time to work its way through society, those individuals with many and strong reasons (desires) that were being thwarted, have changed enough of the desires of the other agents (given them new reasons for action) in such a way as to no longer have their desires be thwarted.

It is true that any individual agent will always act in order to fulfill the most and strongest of their individual desires given their beliefs. That’s why we use moral tools to change desires, and promote a desire to have true beliefs.

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ayer October 6, 2009 at 6:09 am

lukeprog: ayer,Did you read my post? I criticized and rejected the idea of atheists inventing their own fictional purpose.

Are you saying that if God turned out to be the ontological source of the virtues toward which we are obligated to strive (since I really don’t see the difference between “desire utilitarianism” and “virtue ethics”) that you would then “prefer it to be true that you were created with a divine purpose” (i.e., the purpose being to strive to conform your desires to the virtues)?

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Reginald Selkirk October 6, 2009 at 10:19 am

But such invented value is a fiction. If I am talking about a person and I can choose where he was born, what happened to him at age 5, and what he looks like, this should be taken as evidence that I am talking about a fictional person.

I do not accept this argument. Analogy:

If I am talking about where I am going to eat tonight; which restaurant, what I will order, what wine I will choose to accompany my meal, whether or not to follow it up with dessert, this should be taken as evidence that I am talking about a fictional meal.

You have made an unstated assumption about the nature of “purpose,” i.e. that purpose is something that exists independent of and prior to our choice to assume said purpose. I do not agree with your assumption.

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Reginald Selkirk October 6, 2009 at 10:23 am

But such invented value is a fiction.

More on this: in economics, is the market value of goods as “whatever the market will bear” also fiction? It is surely invented, and yet it seems the most real economic value I can imagine.

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Rich October 6, 2009 at 11:26 am

“meaning of life” deconstructively, is a category error.

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David Iach October 6, 2009 at 12:27 pm

Kip: Irrelevant.It matters to me, and to my friends and family, and to billions of other people, right here, right now, and in the foreseeable future.I act on what matters right now, and in the foreseeable future, not on what will matter “in the end” (whenever that is).And, so do you and everyone else.

So you are saying that there is no ultimate meaning to life?

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lukeprog October 6, 2009 at 6:30 pm

ayer: Are you saying that if God turned out to be the ontological source of the virtues toward which we are obligated to strive (since I really don’t see the difference between “desire utilitarianism” and “virtue ethics”) that you would then “prefer it to be true that you were created with a divine purpose” (i.e., the purpose being to strive to conform your desires to the virtues)?

No, I said I would prefer it NOT to be true that I was created for a divine purpose.

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lukeprog October 6, 2009 at 6:42 pm

Reginald,

I think in this case we are talking about two different meanings of the word “purpose”. I am referring to an objectively factual “purpose” that exists independently of one’s personal opinion about the matter.

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lukeprog October 6, 2009 at 6:43 pm

Rich,

I actually agree with you in a sense – did you see how much I had to change the meanings of our words in order for the question to be answerable?

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ayer October 6, 2009 at 8:53 pm

lukeprog: No, I said I would prefer it NOT to be true that I was created for a divine purpose.

Yes, that is why it seems you would freely choose not to go to heaven even if given a “post-mortem” chance to make that decision (a la C.S. Lewis “The Great Divorce”).

As for your statement of purpose: “The purpose of life is to encourage desires that tend to fulfill other desires and discourage desires that tend to thwart other desires” that appears to me to be substantively identical to virtue ethics, which aims at the flourishing of human nature by living out the virtues in fulfillment of the human being’s purpose–a purpose that originates outside of human nature. Desire utilitarianism appears to be an elaborate method of determining what the virtues are and what a virtuous person would do in a given circumstance (i.e., encourage “good” desires)–but that is an epistemological function, not an ontological one. The ontological grounding for the purpose within human nature must come from outside human nature–God would be a good explanation as the locus.

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Rich October 7, 2009 at 5:46 am

lukeprog: Rich,I actually agree with you in a sense – did you see how much I had to change the meanings of our words in order for the question to be answerable?

Yup. People tend to mean ‘what does my life mean to me’, ‘is there a reason that I exist?’ (why do I exist’ is question-begging?)…

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Reginald Selkirk October 7, 2009 at 6:20 am

lukeprog: I think in this case we are talking about two different meanings of the word “purpose”. I am referring to an objectively factual “purpose” that exists independently of one’s personal opinion about the matter.

OK, so we agree that no “objectively factual” purpose exists independently of one’s value choices (it’s just rude to denigrate this as an “opinion.”) I am saying that this is not the appropriate definition of “purpose,” and so your dismissal of purpose which is not “objectively factual” lacks force.

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Reginald Selkirk October 7, 2009 at 7:59 am

I intend to eat tonight in a Chinese restaurant. Is that on objective fact or not?

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anselm October 7, 2009 at 8:32 am

Reginald Selkirk: I intend to eat tonight in a Chinese restaurant. Is that on objective fact or not?

Your intention is an objective fact, but I believe lukeprog is referring to the purpose of a human life itself, similar to what Aristotle called a “final cause”:

“the final (in Greek, telos ) cause: the goal or purpose of a thing, its function or potential (holding cereal and milk is the final cause of a bowl). The final cause is the most unscientific, but is far and away the most important “cause” of a thing as far as Aristotle was concerned.”

Such a “final cause” would be considered an “objective purpose” because it would be true for all human beings regardless of their subjective beliefs about the purpose of their lives.

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lukeprog October 7, 2009 at 7:44 pm

Reginald Selkirk: OK, so we agree that no “objectively factual” purpose exists independently of one’s value choices (it’s just rude to denigrate this as an “opinion.”)

No. My post argued the opposite of that.

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Yair October 7, 2009 at 9:16 pm

lukeprog: Yair,I was an error theorist for most of my atheistic life so far, before tentatively adopting desirism only a few months ago.I’ve not ignored your criticisms, I just haven’t had time to respond to them. Your criticisms are quite valid.

I’m not an error theorist, but rather a subjectivist, with a hint of emotionist, universal prescriptivist, and many other ist’s depending on what it that you mean by that amorphous word, “moral”.

But – very well.

Kip: At the core of your objection is the fact that many individual agents in a society never act as a single agent.

Precisely so.

Clearly people can and do form coalitions to act as a single agent.

Never. People form coalitions to act in harmony, and to constraint others’ actions; they don’t and cannot act as a single agent.

If the time comes when humans will merge their consciousness to form a collective agent, composed of several brains the way the human brain is formed out of several neural structures, then it will be appropriate to treat this combined entity as a single agent. Throughout history, and at the moment, however, this is not the case.

Beyond that, however, many individual agents who have many and strong reasons to promote certain desires in others will be helping each other even without forming a coalition.(We’ve learned that often forming a coalition multiplies the effectiveness of the individuals, though.)So, once the moral project has had time to work its way through society, those individuals with many and strong reasons (desires) that were being thwarted, have changed enough of the desires of the other agents (given them new reasons for action) in such a way as to no longer have their desires be thwarted.

But this moves from a prescriptive project outlining what is moral, to a descriptive project describing how morality will play out in the real world. That is a fine project, but it’s a project in sociology, not philosophy. And I think looking at it that way reveals the flaw in your description – it’s simplistic. It might serve as an excellent first-level approximation, but surely there are many complications. It’s not like all people have equal power, or that desires of certain types are not correlated with power, or that there aren’t constraints on which desires can be promoted or thwarted. The picture is far more complex, and it is simplistic to assume the most and strongest desires will predominate. At any rate, however, this description of what IS (or will be) is irrelevant to the description of what SHOULD be.

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Ajay October 8, 2009 at 2:31 am

My response to the question of PURPOSE OF LIFE is similar to Dawkins (assuming it is asked in a cosmological sense)

Its a stupid question when asked to an atheist. Just because a question can be framed does not make it a question. It is like asking WHAT IS THE COLOR OF LOVE?

But if you have to answer, then simply the purpose of life is to pass on genes to other lives.

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Steve Maitzen February 9, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Sorry for this long post:

I’m persuaded by Thomas Nagel’s argument (or what I take to be his argument) in his article “The Absurd” (1971). One thing that theists such as William Lane Craig object to about atheism is that atheism provides no *ultimate* purpose for our lives. Even if, he says, we can invent or discover some purpose for our lives, it won’t be an ultimate purpose unless God exists. The word “ultimate” absolutely abounds in Craig’s writings about ethics and the meaning of life. Craig says that any purpose, no matter how noble, can be made to seem limited, or relative, or trivial if we step back from it far enough. If I devote my life to feeding hungry children, someone like Craig can ask, “In the cosmic scheme of things, what’s so great about postponing the deaths of particular members of a particular terrestrial species on an insignificant planet? Nothing, unless God exists.” What Craig is evidently seeking is a purpose from which it makes no sense to step back in that way, a purpose about which it makes no sense to ask “What’s so great about that?”, a purpose that satisfies any possible quest for purpose.

But Nagel (as I read him) argues that such an ultimate purpose is in principle impossible, because the concept of such an ultimate purpose is incoherent. For as soon as we understand an alleged purpose for our lives well enough to see how it could count as our ultimate purpose, we thereby become able to question it and hence make it non-ultimate. Suppose that enjoying the Beatific Vision of God is our ultimate purpose. It’s perfectly possible to imagine someone stepping back, in the midst of such an experience, and asking, “You mean *this* is it? This is what we’re ultimately here for? This is what makes the Holocaust and everything else comprehensible and worth it?” Even if no one in fact would have that thought under such circumstances, we can have that thought now; the question remains. The reason we can ask the question is that we can understand, to at least some degree, what’s being proposed as our ultimate purpose. The only way to prevent the possibility of questioning a purpose is to leave the purpose mysterious — “Our ultimate purpose in life is *&^#@!” — in which case it can’t possibly satisfy us. So the quest for an ultimate purpose is incoherent on conceptual grounds; neither theism nor anything else can provide such a purpose. If the concept of an ultimate purpose for our lives is incoherent, the debate has to look quite different.

Reactions?

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lukeprog February 9, 2010 at 1:58 pm

Maitzen,

You have now inspired me to write a post about this.

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