The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. – Richard Dawkins
My life has no purpose, no direction, no aim, no meaning, and yet I’m happy. I can’t figure it out. What am I doing right? – Charles M. Schulz
The purpose of our lives is to be happy. – The 14th Dalai Lama
Thinkers great and small have speculated on our purpose. What does the word even mean? Our reflex is to equate purpose with the task for which something was invented, but I think that short-changes the concept.
When I was in school in the 1960s, we were taught that humans are distinct from all other animals because we make and use tools. This has since been disproven by many counter-examples, but the fact remains that we are incredibly prolific at inventing things for every purpose imaginable.
Think about a typical day in your life. Almost everything you touch, from the moment you pick up a spoon to eat your breakfast cereal, until you lay your head on your pillow at night, was invented by a human being for its particular purpose.
Not content to create inanimate objects for their respective purposes, we assign new purposes to living things. We domesticate some animals for companionship, and breed others for slaughter. Plants, too, are subject to our relentless drive to bend nature to our purposes. We directly modify their genes in order to make them more disease-resistant or more prolific, all for the purpose of satisfying our ever-growing appetites.
Being surrounded all day by things whose purpose was conferred on them by their creators (us), we tend to believe that every object’s and every event’s purpose is created for it. It’s a habit of mind that is very difficult to shake.
As a first step away from that, let’s consider the humble screwdriver. Surely a flat-bladed screwdriver’s purpose is to drive slot screws. That’s what we invented it for, and it does its job well.
Now let’s give our little screwdriver the gift of consciousness. Happily ensconced in the toolbox of a carpenter, he knows his purpose every time he drives a screw. He would say his life is filled with purpose and meaning, and we would agree.
The carpenter works hard and gets hungry. He approaches his friend the chef, and trades the tool for a meal. The chef made the trade because he is a kind-hearted fellow, not because he knows anything about screwdrivers. He attempts to use it as a soup-ladle. “There is no way this is my purpose,” the screwdriver says, and he is right.
Realizing his mistake, the chef gives the screwdriver to a house-painter. It turns out that the screwdriver is just as good at opening paint cans as he was at driving screws! And who would deny our little friend his sense of purpose as he happily opens can after can of every imaginable color? Although it is not what he was invented for, it has become his purpose.
We can see that some purposes are more fitting than others, but purpose does not have to derive from a creator’s intent.
But didn’t the screwdriver rely on how a higher being used him? Wasn’t his purpose still given to him?
This is where we get to be thankful that we are humans. We have free will (or, more exactly, we are able to make rational choices). Suppose we were to give the screwdriver not only consciousness, but the same sort of free will we have.
He decides to get the paint cleaned off his blade, get it polished up, and spend the rest of his life reflecting starlight, contemplating the vastness and wonder of the sky.
Who would deny that he has found a true and worthy purpose, even though it’s one that none of us had considered for him?
In the same way, I think we are free to choose our own purposes, and whatever we choose (good or bad) is a real purpose. It is not fake because we chose it for ourselves.
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins had the opening quotation of this meditation and I’d like to let him close as well. In a TV special about the purpose of life, he spent nearly half an hour explaining the wonders of evolution by natural selection, and then closed with this.
We can leave behind the ruthlessness, the waste, the callousness of natural selection. Our brains, our language, our technology make us capable of forward planning. We can set up new purposes of our own, and among these new goals can be the complete understanding of the universe in which we live.
A new kind of purpose is abroad in the universe. It resides in us.
That’s his purpose. What is yours?