Life’s Purpose?

Robert Wheeler

We live in a cause-and-effect world. There seems to be cause for things that happen. This gives us some influence in our situation and things that happen to us. Having cause implies a purpose of producing an effect. Life would, indeed, be chaotic if we did not recognize the purpose of things we experience and have some degree to influence them. Our ancient ancestors thought a lot about cause and purpose of their existence because it helped them influence things—life was tough then and their survival depended on this influence. Assumption and speculation about cause and purpose developed beliefs and religions that continue today to influence culture and civilization. A perennial issue has been the question of whether there really is a purpose for our existence. In philosophy the universal attribution of purpose is called teleology and has been a controversial and unresolved topic. So, big questions are: 1) is there a purpose in our existence and for Life in general; if so, 2) what is it; and 3) is it important?

Science has been unable to answer the first question about validity of a purpose for life, but a look at history indicates a probability. Studies of history and paleontology show a pattern of continual development in nature toward increasing complexity that enables more effective ways of existing. We modern day humans are the result of this process. There is a pattern of emergent capabilities that seems to have purpose and design. Whether this was the result of a supernatural Great Creator, or the result of a mysterious evolutionary process, is not as important as realizing that this advance of nature exists. Primordial forces combined to form atoms which combined to form molecules which, in turn, combined to form living cells which combined to form animals from which developed humans. Humans with their mental abilities combined to form societies and civilization revealing what seems to be a purposeful pattern of increasing complexity. So, here we are, people with sophisticated mental abilities that realize we are part of a developing pattern that seems to be pointed to increasing complexity—a continuing process rather than a short-range goal.

Science also cannot answer the second question about the nature of life’s purpose, but the pattern or thread throughout history indicates that the continual development of increasing complexity of nature and sophistication of mental capability and consciousness constitutes a purpose. This is compatible with the belief built into most religions about a goal of transcending current physical existence for some form of deification. Another approach in theology is the view of God is a universal type of consciousness and individual human consciousnesses are aspects thereof. Both develop together as proposed by Panentheism and Process Theology. An “omega point” was proposed by the famous French theologian and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin as the time when humans have developed a personal consciousness that melds with the universal consciousness. Eastern ideologies also support this approach with concepts such as reincarnation, Nirvana, and Moksha.

For best well-being, health, and performance an individual needs not only a sense of purpose in their own activities and life, but also a sense of purpose for life and existence in general. Most religions advocate a purpose of transcending earthly existence or of doing the will of deity, growing closer to deity, or joining/rejoining deity. The nature of these purposes can only be assumed or revealed by a mystical source. Philosophy, literature, and culture have perpetuated many forms of belief involving a supernatural realm. It is unfortunate that many of these beliefs now conflict with research findings and modern experiences to such an extent that traditional beliefs are questioned, and their traditional benefits reduced. It is proposed here that the most supportable ultimate goal is to foster the continued development in complexity and sophistication of nature. And maybe that purpose includes developing a form of life that transcends physical nature. The most sophisticated aspect of nature at the present time is human consciousness. Should we not be devoting more effort towards developing human consciousness toward that goal?

Many secondary goals result. A major goal is to increase our effectiveness so that daily activities  are more efficient and comfortable. This requires additional skill, resources, and knowledge. Another goal is to have relations with and support from other people. There is no animal more dependent on the fellow member of its species than the human. Family, tribe, community, state, and nation are structured to meet this need resulting in many complications such as individualism vs. collectivism, altruism vs. self-interest, cooperation vs. competition, aggression, and war.

A third goal grows out of the first two. We have a mental structure that wants sufficient explanation of our existence to make our activities manageable, and meaningful. This has been referred to as worldview, philosophy of life, outlook, etc. It results from the same mental structure that causes realization of the need to grow in complexity, to wonder about the cause of all of this–why I am here, where did I come from, and where I am going. These are known in psychology as ultimate concerns and result from an innate drive to explain existence and make life more efficient. Despite the amazing advance of science, answers to these questions remain allusive,  so supernatural explanations with spiritual and religious beliefs have continued to dominated societies.

Religion and culture have traditionally ameliorated ultimate concerns by organizing belief systems that not only give answers and explanation, but they also provide resources, support, social structure, and interpersonal relationships. Even the people that do not hold the beliefs of religion and culture live in an environment thusly dominated. These benefits have been quite effective in enabling civilization to advance providing technologies, comforts, and explanations that have made ultimate concerns less pressing. They have recently become subjugated to more pressing concerns of modern daily existence, “getting and spending.”. Furthermore, conflicts between religious dogma and modern experiences and recent research findings has caused a loss of the traditional benefits of religion. The ultimate concerns are eclipsed now by emphasis on consumerism, wealth, competition, politics, and aggression, but they are still there. They lie in the recesses of the subconscious mind creating an unsettling feeling of discontent and may boil up to create emotional turmoil resulting in the current increase in dissatisfaction, depression, anxiety, and suicide. Instead of reaching out for a long-range goal of development, most people mainly pursue short-range goals of meeting immediate  desires.

These factors help to answer the third question about the importance of this issue.  Not only has there been a major increase in personal problems, crime, murder, and violence have mushroomed and global terrorism with warfare have increased. Many factors have been proposed for causes of these problems such as: decline in religion due to conflicts between dogma and science; cultural emphasis on consumerism, wealth, and competition; loss of family and community ties; increase in mobility; availability of entertainment and other self-centered activities; and delegation of caregiving and responsibility to government. However, these are all ramifications of the more basic cause of losing sight of the development purpose and the need to provide for explanation.

Many remedies have been proposed for the current increase in personal, domestic, and global problems; however, they all will be ineffective until the emergence of a culture dominated by efforts to move toward something bigger and better than our current nature, to contribute to personal development and development of our species. Personal well-being and peace are possible, and despite the current problems, history indicates a continuing trend in that direction.

The role of a sense of purpose, feeling of meaning in life, and provision for ultimate concerns are widely recognized as being important for mental health and social issues. Many programs and therapies have been developed to stimulate these benefits for individuals, but problems of discontent continue to increase. Science predicts that physical life as we know it will cease in about one billion years due to the sun’s expansion, the ultimate climate change that is beyond our control. Most religions also predict a cessation of current human life at the time of the apocalypse and eschaton. The human organism has evolved tremendous abilities during its known history of about 2.5 million years and if nuclear war, overpopulation or some other mishap does not occur in the next billion years, it could fulfill the positive religious predictions if public society adopts the long-range goal of developing complexity and sophistication of human nature including consciousness so that a form of life emerges that survives material destruction on earth. Will we make it?


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