Commentary: Looking for the Purpose of Life by Brian King

*The original article can be found at: https://philosophynow.org/issues/147/Looking_for_the_Purpose_of_Life

Brian King writes a solid introductory piece about what the purpose of life may be and why it is such a thorny question for philosophers to answer.

*Video below unrelated, but still entertaining and quasi-relevant!*

OVERVIEW:

King begins by way of analogy in discussing how tools or artifacts (or human life) are specifically designed with a particular purpose in mind at the time of their initial production. For instance, the spoon was invented/produced when we needed a utensil that was capable of scooping up food, making it easier for us to consume (while also allowing us to develop new mixing and cooking techniques).

“Things which have a purpose are often created for that purpose, such as man-made artifacts. One could establish an analogy or comparison between life and tools. The purpose of a tool is present at or before it is manufactured. A garden fork has been made to help gardeners dig, a tap is made to control the flow of water, and so on. The maker of the object and the person who uses the object both know this purpose and the correct use of the object is seen as being used in line with the maker’s design.”

“The [a]ncient Greek anatomist Galen (129-200 AD) was so impressed by the omnipresence of function or purpose in nature that he thought it a kind of demonstration that everything worked according to a grand cosmic plan designed by God. In fact, by the Middle Ages in Europe, this attribution of design had spread to human society, so that everyone was seen to have their place in the social order, which was seen as sacrosanct since it was designed by God. Therefore the purpose of life for man involved acceptance of their (for the most part lowly) station in society, with a rewards to come later in heaven if they fulfilled their allotted function.”

“The idea that everything in nature harmonises in an interplay of mutually supporting functions and purposes set by the grand designer contributed to the ‘design argument’ for the existence of God. However, that idea received a major setback when Darwin formulated the idea of evolution through natural selection in The Origin of Species (1859). The implication is that things in the natural world only harmonise and operate together with each other because if they didn’t they wouldn’t have survived and reproduced. On this perspective, design in nature is an illusion in that there is no designer – only a blind process that necessarily produces circumstantially favourable for organisms.”

The problem that King rightly points out is that this kind of forethought only finds a parallel within a Theistic worldview (i.e. one that believes in the existence of God); more specifically: pre-determination or God’s Providence. For if God exists, then it is entirely possible, indeed very probable, that God has a specific purpose for each and every person’s life, according to God’s ultimate plan. That would mean that those who believe in God would be justified in believing what the Bible (or the Torah or the Koran) tells them about the meaning of their lives. But what about those who are non-believers? What about those who are Atheists, Agnostics, Buddhists, Hindus, or the like?

King observes:

“1) If you don’t believe in a God, or an omnipotent state or ruler, it’s difficult to see how this kind of externally-imposed purpose could work for us. Why should you accept anyone’s authority in making such a claim of purpose on your life?

2) Submission to a greater authority to some degree involves deliberately denying ourselves the responsibility to think for ourselves concerning issues of fundamental importance, such as our purpose in life, and the values by which we should live in order to achieve that purpose. Many philosophers (Jean-Paul Sartre particularly comes to mind) would argue that this surrendering of our will is denying the basic humanity of our existence, which is that we are free to choose and are inescapably responsible for our choices.

3) If we complete this purpose – if the purpose is achieved – then by definition we no longer have a purpose. For example, a person who sees that his life’s purpose is to attain eternal salvation is rendered purposeless once he has achieved that end. Is heaven full of people who have no sense of purpose? Furthermore, if a person saw the whole meaning of his life in terms of a given purpose and he achieved that purpose, he would cease to be the same person, in that what he regarded as the most basic point of his life would no longer apply to him. He would, it could be argued, have lost his fundamental identity.”

4) If nature can confer purpose on humans, then we should be able to ask in what context does that purpose operate? A bee’s purpose is in the context of making honey or pollinating flowers. This is a matter of choice of use from man’s perspective. Or the eye’s purpose is in the context of a complete organism. This is a given matter. Which of these two models fit the purpose of life? What is the greater natural context here, and is it a matter of our choosing what is important?

5) If it’s not a matter of choice and we say that nature just confers a purpose on us, we can always ask what the purpose of nature itself is. This argument can also apply to family, religion, or state; if our purpose is to serve one of these institutions, we can further ask what the purpose of the institutions is. It seems to me that from there we would often argue round in circles, explaining that these things are there for our purpose. There are similar arguments with God: He confers a purpose on us, but we can ask for what reason He does this.

6) Moreover, to accept that a purpose is a given makes us to a degree like automata that act according to perceived instructions. Again some would argue that this detracts from our dignity and freedom. The fact that we can always question given purposes would suggest that somewhere along the line we must make a choice whether or not to accept the purpose given.

All the above points seem to suggest that the idea that there is a given purpose to our lives is rendered incoherent either by our inability to understand the larger context or by our ability to question that purpose. In the end it all seems to be a matter of our choices. It could even be argued that it is choice which confers meaning and purpose in our lives – as indeed many existentialists do argue.

King then summarizes his argument as a syllogism:

-Either our purpose is achievable or it is not.
-If it is achievable then after it is achieved we no longer have a purpose.
-Then our lives would be futile.
-If it is not achievable then attempting it would end in failure, and to continue would be futile.
-Therefore, either way, our lives are ultimately futile.


COMMENTARY:

In his article, King makes a terminological and conceptual shift that I found both fascinating and worthwhile. Instead of saying ‘purpose,’ we can only mention the ‘function’ of some process, object, event, or agent. I think the distinction is a useful and naturalistic one. Something which has a purpose typically involves some kind of free will or autonomy; a purpose is specifically…designed (or chosen) and can either be adhered to or strayed away from. In contrast, a function is just something that happens repeatedly, expectedly, or by intended contrivance.

To bolster this distinction, we can appeal to semantic analysis. Let’s say we have a printer at the office that our team uses. There are 6 of us who use it weekly, if not daily. One morning the printer short-circuits and dark grey smoke slowly billows out the sides of it. As we log a ticket to our IT Help Desk, we type out that the printer is malfunctioning (or that it malfunctioned). That is, instead of printing out the contracts and other documents we needed for our meetings that day, the printer short-circuited and stopped working altogether.

Now, let’s consider when someone or something fails to live up to (or fulfill) its purpose. Let’s consider the historical example of Siddhartha Gautama. Surely, his father was shocked and at least initially disappointed when his son said he wanted to forego all of his family’s empire and riches and become a holy man. They had been educating and grooming Siddharta to become the next ruler. But because he was exercising his own free will, he was able to widely stray from what was perceived to be his life’s purpose.

Thus, that which has a purpose typically involves consciousness and the use of free will while that which has a function typically involves the designated or repeated use of some kind of part, feature, or piece of the whole. It is important to keep this in mind as we delve further into King’s perspective.


IV. Point 4 is insightful because King is asking in what way nature could or would confer ultimate (or even relative) purpose on humanity. Would our purpose be sexual (i.e. broadly related to procreation)? Would our purpose be social (i.e broadly related to our relationships with others in our community, tribe, clan, or family)? Would our purpose be something else entirely? Humans have often been considered to be dualistic creatures: half rational, half emotional; half material, half spiritual; half calm, half chaotic; etc. But if we are that way, how can we reduce our purpose, as conferred upon us by nature, in such a one-dimensional fashion?

V. Point 5 references the Infinite Progression/Regression problem that commonly plagues Epistemology and Philosophy of Religion/Theology. Really, the problem is that any time you reference an infinity or some kind of ‘omni’ trait (i.e. omnipotence or omniscience), logical analysis encounters some unique limitations and difficulties that require meticulous and careful explication. King is right to point out its potential futility.

VI. Point 6 emphasizes or signals his allegiance (or, at the very least, his sympathies) to the Existential philosophers of old: Sartre, Camus, Kierkegaard. Just like them, King points out the importance of choice and how our endorsements or decisions carry eternal consequences for our fellow human beings.


Overall, King makes an interesting case, but it falls short of being completely convincing (or conceptually concise). A future post will assess the validity of King’s argument, but point out its flaws. Stay tuned and check back soon!

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