The question of purpose is one that religious people of all stripes raise when confronted with an atheist. “If God does not exist,” they ask, their faces aghast, “then why are we here?” When confronted with this question, I am often tempted to refer to the famous exchange between the British Prince Phillip and scientist Peter Atkins. Prince Phillip, upon hearing Atkins speak about science, said (with all the haut of royalty,) “You scientists are awfully good at answering the ‘how’ questions, but what about the ‘why’ questions?” Atkins, with a keenness of wit that I can only dream of one day possessing, responded, “Sir, the ‘why’ question is just a silly question.”
While this poignant response stopped the British royal in his tracks, I dare say that it may not suffice for everyone. After all, we do have an inherent urge to make our lives mean something. Can this intrinsic desire be ignored so easily? Can we really assign our lives to meaninglessness? I believe we cannot. A deeper purpose is needed for most humans and at least a partial fulfillment of that purpose is requisite for happiness.
I believe, however, that we can find such purpose without pretending that imaginary things exist. We do not have to fool ourselves into thinking that we are the playthings of some dictator in the sky in order to have meaning in our lives. As with almost all things, the answer to the question, “why are we here?” can be found in science. In this case, we can look to the process that took us from a single, simple, self-replicating cell to the intelligent, creative, loving beings that we are today: Evolution.
Deriving Purpose from a Purposeless Process
Evolution by natural selection is a cold, cruel and heartless process. It works by allowing only the most fit to survive solely on the basis of their genetic predisposition to reproductive success. It works like a machine—without intention, it morphs beings over time into plants and animals adapted for their circumstances. It is the last place one would think to look to find meaning in life.
And yet, one can infer some measure of purpose from an understanding of it. One has to look at humans in the context of evolution and realize what we are. Everything that makes us human, our fingers, our vision, our appearance, our posture, and most importantly our brains—8ilbs supercomputers that allow us to make decisions, feel emotions, perceive the world around us and reason through problems—have been crafted by this process, pitiless though it may be, so that we may more effectively protect the genetic information that constitutes our DNA. Remember, the human is not the information; the human is the brain and the body that contain that information. In a way, the human can be considered the protector of that information—a guardian that has been built, over millions of years in extremely small increments generation-by-generation, to protect it. We are like Olympic runners, carrying the torch that is our precious DNA for a short time until we can pass it on to the next runner who will continue to carry it forward.
When evolution is viewed in this context, it becomes very clear that, in the absence of an intelligent creator, humankind does have a purpose. Our purpose is to survive and to ensure the survival of those who also carry our genes. This includes all members of our species, but most importantly the focus is upon our off-spring, the ones within whom our own precious information lives past our individual deaths and who give us some sense of immortality.
This purpose manifests itself in a host of beautiful and meaningful ways. Romance is one such manifestation—the joy we feel when we find a partner who is willing to share themselves with us. The ecstasy and nourishment of sex, the act of creating the next runner in the Olympic relay of life, is a pleasure that is incomparable and irreplaceable in the human experience. But most of all, the unconditional love we feel for our children, the fierce desire to protect them and ensure that they survive and thrive long after we are gone.
These powerful emotions are the result of nature selecting those beings most capable of living long lives and producing viable offspring. So even though evolution by natural selection can seem to be a capricious and wasteful process, we can also see it as the method by which the strongest and deepest human emotions were created and infer a validation for the romantic and paternal impulses that constitute the best in all people.
Objective and Obligatory
Religious readers will be quick to point out that the purpose which evolution imbues us with, while clearly objective—insofar as it crosses cultural boundaries and applies to all humans regardless of national, religious and historical boundaries—is not obligatory. Despite the fact that we have a biological impulse to love our spouses and our young, we are not required to do so. They may point out that we have other, less pleasant biological impulses that we feel morally obligated to control, like the impulses towards tribalism and belligerence. If we are naturally evolved rather than created, then we are no more obliged to follow our altruistic instincts than our destructive ones.
They would claim that, if the god of Christianity (or Judaism or Islam or Mormonism, etc.) exists then there is a purpose for humanity that is both binding and obligatory. Most theologians claim that this purpose is to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” It was for this purpose, they assert, that god created all of humanity and therefore that is the purpose of each of our individual lives.
This may seem like a satisfying answer, until you actually think about it. Once you realize what it really implies, you understand that this would be a very unsatisfying answer indeed! I for one am very glad it is not true. The best illustration of this point is made by Christopher Hitchens when he compares the god of Christianity to the North Korean dictator Kim Jung Il.
Hitchens writes about his experience in a rare visit he was permitted to North Korea. There, upon waking every morning, children are taught to thank the Dear Leader for allowing the sun to rise again. Every day, the people of North Korea sing the praises of their dictator and their entire lives are spent working for his benefit. The North Korean government is not “for the people,” the North Korean people are for the government. If anyone dares to rebel against Kim Jong Il, they spend the entirety of their lives in a work camp, suffering one of the most miserable existences imaginable.
Your choices are servitude to someone who appears to be your moral inferior (but claims otherwise) or a life of inescapable suffering and torture. Nothing could be more similar to the view espoused by Christians. Eternal subjugation in Heaven to a celestial dictator who is beyond all petition or eternal torture and suffering in Hell. In fact, the only difference I can see is that at least you can escape North Korea by death! The god of Christian scripture offers no such mercy.
The notion of a purpose that we may not wish to pursue and to which we are inescapably bound is one of the most despicable and undesirable ideas I can imagine. It would be the ultimate cruelty.
Furthermore, the very notion that we were all created so that we could have the opportunity to become devout Christians is undermined by the fact that this option has been made unavailable to the vast majority of people throughout human history. Remember, humans have been on this Earth in our current state for approximately 200,000 years. Out of this, the self-proclaimed benevolent god of Christianity has offered people the opportunity to have a relationship with him, through his human form, Jesus Christ, for a mere 2,000 years. So all humans who lived in the 198,000 year period prior to Jesus, except for the small, exclusive desert tribe that Yahweh defined as his ‘chosen people’, were denied knowledge of the purpose of their existence!
Not only this, but, as I observed in The Salvation Paradox, knowledge of the god of Christianity was withheld from the vast majority of people on the Earth after god decided to turn himself into a human and sacrifice himself to himself to get around a rule he made himself. Knowledge of their supposed purpose in life was withheld from Native Americans, for instance, until European settlers arrived in the 1600’s. It was withheld from Australian Aborigines until the 1700’s. Surely if there is some objective purpose to life, some reason for why we are here, that knowledge should be apparent to all people, not just the small minority fortunate enough to be born in the right place and the right time. If we look to evolution for an objective purpose, we find that this is the case—all people, regardless of race, religion, nationality or place in history, have the opportunity to find their purpose in creating, caring for and protecting their offspring. If we look to religion for an objective purpose, we find the knowledge of that purpose confined to a select few throughout history.
Subjective and Voluntary
So, we can infer a purpose for everything that makes us human from evolution. We are under no obligation to pursue this purpose, but we should not wish for a purpose to be obligatory in the first place—that would be very unpleasant indeed. But I think the thing that can give most humans the most satisfaction would not be an objective purpose, but a subjective one. One that they can determine for themselves. No one likes to feel that their life is outside of their control, so we cannot think that some dictate of purpose, whether it comes from nature or from a god, would be enough to satisfy anyone.
What we need to realize is that we determine our own purpose. While our minds and thoughts may not be the arbiters of reality or fact, they are the arbiters of meaning and value. We can decide what pursuits we want to spend our life on. If you decide that you want to make the purpose of your life the advancement of human understanding of the cosmos, you can do that. If you decide that you want to make the improvement of the lots of others the purpose of your life, you can do that. If you decide that you want your life to be about having as much fun as you can with the people who you love, you can do that, too. You control your own purpose.
At the end of the day, we have to realize that life has a purpose in the same way the pantry in your kitchen has a meal. All the ingredients are there, but if you want it you have to make it yourself.