I had a friend who was an award-winning sculptor with a number of notable commissions. Also notably, he often made the earnest declaration: “I sense purpose!” For him this purpose was existential and was not of his own making though he never could say of whose making it was. This sensing of purpose was defining for him. And yet he never described the purpose as being related to his talent or to anything else in particular. Much more so it was about purpose itself. His sensed purpose. And it drove him forward in his life.
A hammer, lying untouched on the floor can be thought of as serving no purpose (unless you might be hoping to trip someone).
Once picked up and used to drive nails into a piece of wood in order to join it to another piece of wood in the construction of a table, the hammer serves the purpose of driving nails into wood. Likewise, a bunch of boards nailed together serve no purpose in and of themselves. But once the boards are nailed together in such a way that there are four legs and a flat surface on top of those four legs, items can be placed upon the flat top and together the boards serve the purpose of being a table for dining, writing, or working on in any number of ways. In both instances, it’s the user that conveys purpose on to the thing under consideration.
So is the purpose of a human being like that of a hammer or other object? Is it a functional purpose or an existential one? And who conveys that purpose? Is it the “user” or something of a higher order?
From a faith-based perspective, the purpose of humankind is to glorify god. For many following a religious dictum, it’s in creating and giving from whatever natural abilities and talents we’ve been blessed with that we glorify god. In this case then, it’s god who conveys purpose onto a human being. Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist perspective diverges radically from this as he maintained that the purpose of an individual’s life originates from, and thus is only conveyed by, that individual. In subjugating ourselves to an external authority, we’ve set aside the most fundamental aspect of our existence — our freedom of choice and our inherent responsibility for the choices we make.
It may be that because the odds of being born into a life in this material world are so unfathomably high, we’re left with an ephemeral feeling that there must be some reason, some purpose, that we made it here at all. The seemingly cosmic event of being born is the result of one infinitely unlikely event after another occurring all the way back to the beginning of time. So of course we feel like we’re special, like there’s some purpose to our being here. But while it may be a perfectly understandable feeling, it’s still just that — a feeling, a feeling about a story that there is an existential purpose for our being here.
Friedrich Nietzsche saw that the person who could fully embrace “becoming”, as opposed to an emphasis on external values, would face life fully and without resentment. This person would place front and center their own “will to power”, bowing to no one and no institution outside of their own personhood. Nietzsche understood the idea of god to be a human-made construct and that in recognizing this, the idea of an omnipotent being loses all the power we may have invested it with. Through the will to power, one commits oneself to personal growth for growth’s sake rather than as an homage to god, or to anyone or anything else.
Then does growth for growth’s sake stand in direct contrast to the idea of evolutionary growth? Evolution as Darwin conceived of it was neither progressive nor directed toward improvement. Rather, evolution has no purpose, no plan, no cosmic intention. Evolution happens real-time as those that are evolving interact with each other within the specific environmental circumstances at that particular moment. Thus, it is only hubris that leads human beings to see themselves at the apex, lording above all others from the mountain top. Within that hubris, hindsight facilitates our ability to see ourselves as having arrived at this privileged vantage point via a predetermined or purposeful evolutionary path. As Henry Gee, senior editor of Nature, explains it, “This style of reasoning, in which evolution is assumed to have a purpose or a goal, is naturally accompanied by an assumption of progress, very much in the pre-Darwinian style. The assumption of progression is not only a misrepresentation of evolution, but ignores most of what is actually going on.”
For any one of us seeking a purpose for our own lives — a functional purpose we will convey upon ourselves — it’s the realization of self-expression in one’s chosen purpose that enacts Nietzsche’s will to power. It’s a choice, not an obligation or a necessity. Far from nihilistic for it neither denies nor negates life, it wills the substance of existence and the value of being human. Our ability to create and to understand ourselves provides us with the functional meaning and purpose we seek in life, should we choose to exercise them. Again, it’s a choice, not an obligation or a necessity.
For some people, acting upon this choice gives them a hedge against the inherent tension of the fundamental meaninglessness of life. But we must always remain clear that the lack of purpose or meaning in life underpins our lives and whatever we have superimposed is a self-selected story. The fact that we’re here “just because” and without existential purpose can be understood as a magnificent gift from the universe and we can choose to “become” something within our own lives. Albert Camus saw great opportunity for joy in the acceptance of life as meaningless and absurd. As we imagine a way to be content or even happy with life, we have met the challenge of Sisyphus, knowing we’ve done it for ourselves and not for anyone or anything else.
For Camus and Nietzsche, the question of what is meaningful in life is itself meaningless as we ourselves can never be in a position to judge whether our lives matter or have a purpose beyond what we have chosen for ourselves. Life matters simply because we live. In the founding Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching (300-250 BCE), the Chinese sage Lao-tzu explained that everything living is part of a persisting chain of existence and in that way, we are just like the trees and the stars and everything else. Like everything else, all there is for us to do at a purely existential level is to simply be. Anything beyond that is a purpose conveyed by the individual alone.
In a more secularly attached narrative, the purpose of humankind often seems to be to glorify humankind. Here purpose is conflated with uniqueness or an inherent specialness. (This leads to the myth of human exceptionalism; see more on this here.) William James advocated instead for an applied pragmatic approach. He maintained that the purpose in life that will give your life meaning is the purpose that will lead you to value your life. And this purpose will only be discovered by you through your own experiences. Central to James’ philosophy is the conviction that we each determine the significance, the purpose, of our lives and also of life itself. We choose how to enact our will and what to value. Most of all, James implores us, “Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”
The friend I mentioned above struggled with his mental health. “Sensing purpose” helped my friend see value in his own life and in life itself. He didn’t need to define the purpose. He lived it out in his art but also in staying alive. He didn’t need to recognize its source — his belief in the purpose he sensed helped create it as fact for him.
Thank you for reading Principles of Being. Please feel free to share this post if you found it interesting. Subscribe below to automatically receive notifications of future posts.
One thought on “Second Principle- There Is No Existential Purpose”
div dir=”ltr”>Interesting post. Can’t argue with you, it’s pretty much my own philosophy, “it is wh