Meaning and Purpose: Pre-Determined or Self-Created

Finished at Los Gatos Starbucks with EDM (Bassnector) on Pandora and a coffee I killed with lots of cream and sugar. This essay was inspired after reading Terry Eagleton’s book on Meaning and Purpose and Julian Baggini book called ‘What It’s All About’.

For millions this life is a sad vale of tears sitting round with really nothing to say while scientists say we’re just simply spiraling coils of self-replicating DNA.’  – Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

The worry many people have is that if the naturalist account is true, then life can only be a meaningless accident of nature. If there is any meaning at all, then it only concerns the grander unfolding of the universe’s destiny and human beings are irrelevant. As Bertrand Russell put it, ‘The universe may have a purpose, but nothing we know suggests that, if so, this purpose has any similarity to ours.’ Uncharitable readers interpret his words as: life is therefore meaningless and without purpose. This was not his intention, for there is a surmountable difference between purpose of life and a purpose filled-life. We need not confuse the two.

Although there is no purpose of life – and it is wonderful that there is isn’t – you can still have a purpose-filled life. To say there is no purpose of life does not mean there is no purpose in life. Your life has purpose not because it is bestowed by an entity outside yourself but because you bestow it by your own mind. One is bondage, the other is liberty. Purpose is not something you search for. It is not something you find. It is not endowed by a creator or handed to you by your parents or government.

Several questions I will briefly address include:

What crises ensued from the cultural shift from Pre-Enlightenment to Modernity?

Were we created with a predetermined purpose or with no pre-determinant purpose?

Why should we think that assigned purposes are inferior to predetermined purposes?

And we think that only predetermined purposes can make life meaningful?

Is it a logical fallacy to assume that if we have origins in a Creator, it necessitates a pre-determined (current) nature?

The Crisis: From Pre-Modern to Modern

Historians agree en masse that the Enlightenment brought about a kind of crisis for humanity. The ‘discovery’ that there was no God created a sort of existential crises. All of the impenetrable structures previously known were now resting on soggy marsh. We can see this if we compare the twelfth-century philosopher with the twentieth-century philosopher. If you look closely enough, the talk of dread, anxiety and absurdity and the like are characteristic of the human condition a lot more for the twentieth-century philosopher. For the most part, the pre-modern period held God as properly assumed, self-evident, and anathema to question his very existence. With the cultural shift during the Enlightenment, science and reason began to distance itself from God and chart its own course. A telling reference point is when Napoleon read the hypothesis of French scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace and asked him, ‘you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator?’ To which Leplace replied, ‘I had no need of that hypothesis.’

Scholar Terry Eagleton expounds on the modernist shift when he says, “What marks the modernist thought from one end to another is the belief that human existence is contingent – that it has no ground, goal, direction, or necessary, and that our species might quite easily have never emerged on the planet. This possibility then hollows out our actual presence, casting across it the perpetual shadow of loss and death.” Even in our most ecstatic moments, we are dimly aware that the ground has a marshy underfoot – that there is no unimpeachable foundation to what we are and what we do. This may make our finest moments even more precarious or it may serve to drastically devalue them.

Jean-Paul Sartre:  Paper Knife vs Flint

The paradigm shift to modernity climaxed with the European existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche. For sake of brevity, I will focus solely on several ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre that highlights our discussion.

A key question was thrown to the forefront during modernity: were we created with a predetermined purpose or with no pre-determinant purpose? Sartre explains his response to this question with an analogy of a paper-knife. A paper-knife has a determinate ‘essence’ by virtue of the fact that it was created by someone to fulfill a certain function. In contrast, a sharp object like a flint has no essence, even though it too could be used to cut paper. It just so happens that humans have found a use for it.  Sartre’s point is that we have assumed ourselves to be like paper-knives, not like pieces of flint. We believed that we had some kind of essential nature because God created us with a particular purpose in mind. But if God does not exist and the naturalist story is true, this picture is false. We are like the pieces of flint that just are.

There are two ways of responding to this bleak picture. One is to simply accept that life is therefore meaningless. The other is to question the assumption underpinning the pessimistic conclusion: that we need to be like paper-knives for life to have meaning. What the existentialists did was expose the false assumption that purpose for human beings came from God. For the existentialist, far from leaving life meaningless, this may simply lead us to conclude that the source of life’s meaning is not where we thought.

Uncharitable readers usually label the existentialists such as Sartre as nihilistic or propose that they think life as absolutely devoid of meaning altogether. To the contrary, Sartre (along with Camus, Nietzsche, Heidegger) showed that despite a lack of inherent purpose or inherent meaning to the universe, we can nevertheless create our own purpose and meaning. Far from bleak, the existentialist thought is built on liberating the individual from a totalitarian figure head (i.e. God) and using one’s freedom to maximize one’s potential for the greater whole.

For Sartre, the crucial truth we ought to recognize is that because purpose and meaning is not built into human life, we ourselves are responsible for fashioning our own purposes. It is not that life has no meaning, but that it has no predetermined meaning. This requires us to confront our own responsibility for creating meaning for ourselves, something which Sartre believes we would much rather not do. We would prefer to live our lives in ‘bad faith’, pretending that how we live and ought to live are not down to our choice but a product of fate, outside forces or supernatural design.

The views of Sartre sound very liberating and empowering to many, but to others, his views ring hollow. There are two important questions that come to mind at this juncture:

  • Why should we think that assigned purposes are inferior to predetermined purposes?
  • Why think that only predetermined purposes can make life meaningful?

Let us begin with the first question. To answer the question most simply: there is no general principle that purposes are more ‘real’ or important if they are introduced at the design stage. Eagleton points to an appropriate illustration if we consider the Post-it note. The repositionable adhesive that the notes use was discovered by a scientist working for 3M in 1968. However, neither he or anyone else in the company had any idea what possible use such an adhesive could be put to. Six years later, another 3M scientist, tired of losing his place in the hymnal while singing in his church choir, thought how useful a lightly adhesive bookmark would be. He then realized that the apparently useless glue was useful after all. Now Post-it notes are ubiquitous.

The Post-it note might seem like a trivial example, but it illustrates neatly the point that, when it comes to purpose, what matters is not necessarily what the inventor had in mind, but the uses or purposes the innovation actually has. The same logic applies to human beings, given that, what matters is that life has a purpose for us, here and now. Whether our purpose was dreamt up by a Creator or not is irrelevant. Given that we can make decisions that give our life meaning and purpose, in the here and now, shows that there is no obvious reason why this should be considered an inferior kind of meaning.

Moving now to the second question proposed, we ought to consider that predetermined purposes could in fact make life less meaningful. Imagine if you created your own creature, as in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Now let’s say the sole purpose of your creature was to clean your house every day. Surely this life would have less dignity and meaning than the life of a person born into a naturalistic universe? I’d go even further and say that even if the sole purpose of your creature was to worship you (because you decreed it as his creator), this would still result in a less dignified life. Any purpose, when imposed on a sentient being, eliminates any ability for creativity with one’s life. It would be better for this creature to determine his own purposes than simply to fulfill your desires.

There is simply no justified reason for thinking that assigned purposes are inferior to predetermined purposes. To the contrary, the freedom and responsibility is with every human to carve out a life in which you are genuinely engaged in worthwhile activities that reflect your autonomous rational choice as an autonomous agent. To state that a predetermined purpose imposed on human beings is justified is to validate an authority (i.e. God) to rule over you as if you were as a slave.

There is, however, a fallacy that insidiously lies beneath the theistic notion that if are origin is found in God, then God is the [M]eaning of meaning and the [P]urpose of purpose. Theists commit the genetic fallacy by confusing the origin of a belief with its justification. The genetic fallacy describes any kind of confusion between an account of origins and an account of something’s current or future nature. Thus, it is logically invalid to assume that because our origin is with God, the nature of our current relationship is one with a predetermined purpose.

Julian Baggini points out that an obvious example of this fallacy is to think that the etymology of a word always provides vital insight into how it is now used. For instance, consider the origin of the word ‘digit’. It derives from the Latin dicere, which means to tell, say or point out. This gave rise to the meaning of a finger or thumb; and because these were used for counting, it also came to mean a numerical figure. This is all very interesting, but if you want to know what is meant when someone talks about a ‘three-digit figure’ your understanding is not best helped by considering the origins of the word ‘digit’. Indeed, if you think too much about origins you might be misled. With this in mind, here is my point: we cannot justify our current state of nature by harkening back to the beginning of time with a belief in a Creator.

Let’s use an analogy to make this point clear. Consider again the case of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Unlike us, Frankenstein’s monster was able to discover why he was made and for what purpose. He chanced upon the journal Frankenstein kept in the four months leading to his creation. His initial reaction to reading it was rage and despair. ‘Accursed creator!’ he screamed. ‘Why did you form me as a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust?’

But these revelations did not have any lasting effect. In many ways, he was in the same position after he discovered the truth about his origins as he was before: he was still an outcast, feared by humans yet longing for their company and affection. Nothing in his revelations about his creation helped or hindered him in his struggle to cope with these facts. Shelly was right to show that knowledge of the creature’s origins did not reveal his life’s meaning, for there is no reason why looking to the past will inform us about our present state and future prospects. When we think about the origins and purpose of life, a similar kind of genetic fallacy can be committed. The mistake is to think that understanding tells us its end goal or present purpose. But the one does not necessarily follow from the other.

Concluding Thought

We tend to look at the ‘meaning-of-life’ dilemma like the ‘fountain-of-youth’ quest. It’s out there, and once we find it, we will be satisfied. But there is no end-point or final answer to the meaning-of-life question. Meaning is not a destination, rather, it is something people do and engage in; but they do it in dialogue with a determinate world whose laws they did not invent, and they must respect this world’s grain and texture. To recognize this is to cultivate a certain humility. I like John Cottingham’s words mentioned earlier in which he says a meaningful life as ‘one in which the individual is engaged … in genuinely worthwhile activities that reflect his or her autonomous rational choice as an autonomous agent.’

We need to accept that it’s alright that we are flint rather than paper knives. Sartre gave us the word ‘facticity’ which means an acceptance of the way the world is whether we like it or not. We need to recognize the fragility of good fortune and the impermanence of things. But do we have the courage and honesty to take life for what it is and make the most of it? Or do we fear that if we do so it will prove to be a disappointment?

-Wes Fornes

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