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 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:
Perhaps 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
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
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.
- See: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11. [↩]
- Though, even the second half of this post relies entirely on Fyfe’s theory of morality, desirism. [↩]
- Italics are mine. See this post. [↩]
- See this post. [↩]
- At least, I have never been shown any evidence that intrinsic value exists. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- Depending on how you want to define “purpose,” of course. [↩]