Why are we here?
Does life have a purpose – and if life has no purpose, can it have meaning? The question applies to all life as we know it and not just to human life. (Who decides what our purpose is? Is it only by having a religion that meaning is given to life?)
Let’s begin by clarifying what’s being asked. The question isn’t whether people can lead purposeful lives. Of course they can, if they are sufficiently fortunate. Anyone who has enough to eat, who lives in a society that tolerates a modicum of personal freedom, who has educational and employment opportunities, who is not condemned to a life of soul-destroying labor, and so on, is in a position to lead a purposeful life.
The question is much deeper than this. It is about whether life itself has a purpose. To answer it, we need to consider the conditions under which anything at all has a purpose, and then determine whether life can satisfy these conditions.
Philosopher David Livingstone Smith Ph.D. asserts that there are only two kinds of purpose in existence. The first purpose is biological. When we say that the purpose of the eye is to see, we are stating its biological purpose. Philosophers have theorized about the nature of biological purposes since the beginning of time, but it was Charles Darwin who asserted that biological purposes are products of evolution. Put simply, the biological purpose of a thing is whatever things of that kind were naturally selected to do: for example eyes have the biological purpose of seeing because seeing enhanced the reproductive success of animals with eyes, which caused eyes to proliferate down the generations.
Because biological purposes are products of evolution. So, for life to have a biological purpose, it would have to be a product of evolution. But life isn’t a product of evolution. For evolution to occur, life has to be on the scene already. Evolution presupposes life, and that’s why it can’t be the case that life has a biological purpose.
Livingstone Smith’s second kind of purpose is instrumental. When we say that hammers have the purpose of driving in nails, we are talking about their instrumental purpose. This sort of purpose comes from the intentions of a thing’s creator. The purpose of a hammer is to drive in nails because that’s what the hammer’s creator had in mind when he or she designed it.
Could it then be said that the purpose of life is thus instrumental? More explicitly, could it be that life had a creator, and the purpose of life is what the creator had in mind when the creator created it?
This position has obvious attractions for the religiously-minded. However, it’s easy for atheists to become impatient with this approach, and to claim that God doesn’t exist and thus life is devoid of purpose. However, this would invite the retort that God in actual fact does exist, and result in a well-worn sequence of assertions and counter-assertions concerning God’s existence. So, let’s start from a different position—a position that theists can wholeheartedly accept. Let us suppose, for the sake of the argument, that God does in fact exist, and that he imbued his creations with purpose. Now, if this is the case, does it make sense to claim that the purpose of life is whatever God had in mind when he created it?
So if life does not have a biological purpose, and if it does not have an instrumental purpose, and if these are the only two options considered, is there another purpose that we are missing here, or is life purposeless?
So the purpose of life is? – survival of the species – even if it means wiping out every other living organism (as we are doing now) to guarantee it. Mother Nature probably knows the answer.
What do you think?