Sometimes late at night over a pint of some domestic beer or a bottomless mug of highly caffeinated coffee, my good friend Seth Centner and myself discuss and debate issues of political, philosophical or religious interest. While I’m sure “the meaning of life” must have come up at some point, Seth has asked me to share with him my views on this matter; a matter that is possibly the the very core of importance for philosophy.
This is not in any way intended to be a technical document, but rather more of a conversational response. So if you’re looking for a few dozen cited sources or a voice that speaks in grad school terminology, keep looking. But if you are just interested in one schmuck’s educated opinion on life, perhaps you’ll find a kernel here to plant in your mind.
The bold questions are Seth’s words taken verbatim.
What do you believe is the purpose of one’s existence?
I never like answering questions like this that address a human being’s purpose or the more common “meaning of life”. And the reason is not because I am afraid to share my opinion on this, but rather because the implications are often difficult. Say, for example, we are inclined to answer “there is no meaning or purpose”, as many people believe. That opens the door for any action to be acceptable, as things would cease to “moral” or “amoral” or “immoral” in the grand sense (even if we agree that things such as murder are bad, if nothing has a purpose then the end outcome of right or wrong does not matter).
I use this example because my gut instinct is to say “there is no meaning” or “there is no purpose”, at least in the grand sense where the meaning or purpose is something external or transcendent. I do not think that a god cares about ascribing a meaning to anyone’s life, and as I think meaning can only come from an intelligent being, that leaves external meaning of human life ruled out (assuming humans and gods are the only intelligent creatures).
But I do not really believe there is no meaning or purpose to life. And while I think that each individual plays a prominent role in deciding their life’s meaning or purpose, I think they are not the sole creator of this meaning and therefore we cannot say meaning is subjective or purely internal. (At this point I should also note we are not going to discuss anything about freedom versus determinism — whether a person’s choices are really theirs or mere illusion does not change the fact that the meanings originate in these humans and not from gods in my argument).
I think the purpose or meaning of existence is something like a social construct — abstract, flexible and yet very real. Compare this to something like justice. As a society, we agree that justice exists and all have a general idea of what justice is. We may have slight variations in our personal ideas, but as a culture we get a sense of what is or isn’t acceptable and how such things should be dealt with. Just as people in past generations had different ideas of what was acceptable and how such unacceptable things ought to be dealt with. Physical abuse of a spouse is today against the norm and commands some form of punishment, though such behavior a century ago would not be considered unusual or unjust.
The purpose of existence is much the same thing. There are goals that we “know” as a society we need to achieve or should be striving for. Even beliefs and goals that are deviant from the mainstream still play into what the culture expects from us. People who stray into goals that are beyond the acceptable level of deviance know they are going against what is natural to the purpose of humanity. What keeps people on track is difficult to say, but we internally are aware when we’re going against the best intentions for ourselves or society — against our meaning or purpose in life.
And yet, we can’t say all people in all times have the same purpose or meaning. That is the standard idea, that all humans must have one clearly identifiable goal or purpose (such as a tomato plant’s goal, purpose, or “final cause” in Aristotelian terminology would be to produce tomatoes), but this is certainly false. Because humans have such large variations between cultures and time periods. Do we have the same purpose as people in another country? Do we have the same purpose as someone from the Middle Ages or from the prehistoric periods? Unless we reduce humanity’s purpose to such basic biological purposes as being born, having children and dying, there is no way that all humans could claim to have the same purpose. A solid argument could even be made that having children is not even a shared goal — many people would find this to be a very dubious goal.
Man’s purpose is to react to society and nature in such a way as to express their humanity. This varies from person to person, culture to culture, and from time to time. But together, all working individually, we create change and a sense of progress. As the only known sentient beings, this is our blessing and our curse — knowing we have the power to create change while also being fully aware that as finite individuals in an infinite universe, our contributions, no matter how important, are less than grains of sand on a beach. Only when combined with millions of others do the contributions produce anything.
Which stance do you take, that essence precedes existence, or vice versa?
For non-philosophy students, I should explain this very briefly — what Seth is asking is the difference between Plato and Jean-Paul Sartre. Plato believed there was another dimension where all ideas and beings existed as generic “cookie cutter” patterns. A human being was stamped out from the cookie cutter of a human being, being possessed of their shape and their essences. Thus, essence preceded existence because even before our births there was a general concept of what a human was supposed to be. (Platonists might not like the way I phrase his theory, but it’s basically correct.)
Sartre, on the other hand, felt that first we existed (were born) and then become what we are going to be. He wouldn’t argue against the idea humans will grow up to look like humans (no sensible empiricist is going to argue against genetics). He would, however, say we were born without any real “human nature” or inherent purpose and were free to become whatever we wished without our biological limitations. (Sartre followers and other existentialists are free to disagree with my phrasing here, and I’d be happy to accommodate you and correct my wording.)
I am very much in the middle. As I am personally a determinist (or, more precisely, a pragmatic determinist), underneath it all I would have to say that essence precedes existence because “it’s already been written”. But, as I said, we are setting determinism aside for the sake of this discussion.
Assuming free will to be true (or acting as though it were, as I do), I am left to conclude that we are biologically determined to be certain things, but also we are free to be a large host of others. So, our essence is only partially preceding our existence. This might be a “cop-out” answer, but I don’t think falling down on either side completely is a realistic choice.
Plato must be rejected if we are to be free as humans. What makes humanity so wonderful is how adaptable it is. As I answered to the previous question above, a human’s meaning and purpose varies with each culture and generation. So, for humanity to have the same essence across all times and places is just ridiculous unless we reduce the “essence of humanity” to the most generic of definitions, and not even Sartre would disagree with those generalizations.
And Sartre should concede, or at least I do, that biology plays an aspect in what we can be. I believe that much of our body type is out of our control. A short man will always be short and will likely never be able to be a great basketball player. I am not athletic, and even with the best training I do not think I could have developed into an Olympic sprinter. I feel the mind, which I think of as a biological and not mental thing, has limitations, as well. Some people can be mathematicians and others cannot. Almost anyone can learn almost anything, but there seems to be a natural variance in brains that allows certain people to understand certain concepts easier than others. We know about “right-brain” and “left-brain” people, and I suspect this is more biology than training or schooling.
So I believe that we are free to be whatever we please, keeping in mind there are great limitations. This ties in to the first question regarding human deviance — people’s strengths will likely push them in one direction over another, keeping them in an acceptable level of deviance and using their strongest attributes as a primary factor in their purpose or meaning. This is not true in all cases (there are many “wasted talents”) but in a general sense I think we can say the best traits show up in people, and the people with the necessary traits for a goal tend to float in the general direction necessary. It would take more effort to go against what we felt to be natural for us than to simply follow it through, although we could choose to be adverse to our inclinations — biology is strong, but willpower can be stronger.
I will accept questions from others.
James Skemp: What about experience?
James is asking about nature and nurture, claiming I addressed nature but did not get into nurture much. Perhaps this is true. Largely, as I intended to imply, I find nurture in the sense of “experience” to be very minimal.
If we are talking about experiences such as taking a certain class, I think if we are more inclined to that subject matter the class will push us in a direction we already inherently desire to go. We can choose to override this desire, but I think brain structure is a key in deciding our strengths in advance, and it’s only natural to be interested in those things we are strongest at.
This is much the same for our “nurturing” other people. A friend can turn another friend on to a particular idea or hobby, or a parent can raise a child as they see fit. Yet, I think there is a natural ability in each person that will make some ideas or opportunities more interesting than others. Perhaps looking at studies of adopted children reunited with their biological parents or identical twins reunited after years of separation would yield some interesting results. I have heard much anecdotal evidence of these reunions and the two finding how much they have in common. One memorable example is of two men who both grew up to be firefighters with the same mustache and a variety of other similarities. Their names escape me at the moment.
So, James, for me nurture or experience is like an oar — it can push the boat down a particular life course if nature is gentle, but nature is a raging tsunami…