Life on earth is not only without rational significance, but also apparently unintentional. The cosmic laws seem to have been set going for some purpose quite unrelated to human existence. Man is thus a sort of accidental by-product, as the sparks are an accidental by-product of the horseshoe a blacksmith fashions on his anvil. The sparks are far more brilliant than the horseshoe, but all the same they remain essentially meaningless.
~Bertrand Russel, Religion and Science (London, Oxford, 1949)
ne of the Ultimate Questions, perhaps the most perplexing of all, is: “What is the purpose of life?” The individualized version of the question is: “What is my purpose?”
In tackling this question, let’s start by rejecting the notion that living beings have purposes.
Purpose means the intended result. The goal. The aim. The reason something was created. It implies intention. It implies a Creator. And it implies a very specific sort of Creator – one that is particularly controlling.
We sometimes use the word purpose to mean any function, even unintended function, which creates confusion. Purpose primarily means an intended function, which is how I use the term here.
What is the purpose of a hammer? It is to pound nails into wood. A hammer is a tool designed by people for a purpose, for a specific intended function.
What is the purpose of a stalactite? This is harder to say. A stalactite has a shape, certainly. You might be able to envision ways to utilize the stalactite’s natural shape. A back scratcher? Possibly. But even if a stalactite could be used to fill a certain function this does not mean it has a purpose, because the stalactite was not designed. The stalactite has no intended function. The word purpose does not apply.
What is the purpose of a frog? Although you might say that from the evolutionary perspective the purpose of a frog is to survive and propagate its genes, really a frog is like a stalactite, not like a hammer. It has no purpose. A frog is not a tool designed by an intelligent creator to serve an intended function.
A person is like a frog or a stalactite. No purpose.
The reason it’s important to get rid of purpose is because it’s a poisonous notion. We are led to believe purpose should be a good thing, but it is the source of angst for the majority of people, and there is a far superior alternative to purpose (which I’ll describe in a moment).
Even if I was created by a God, I refuse to believe God designed me for a purpose as if I were a mere hammer or a screwdriver. Benevolent deities do not create life forms for purposes; mad scientists do that. And perhaps I owe mad scientists an apology for the implication. I can imagine a mad scientist’s indignant reply:
How dare you, sir! Yes, when I created Igor I had hoped he might serve as a strong, intelligent butler. I sewed on arms that I salvaged from a dead wrestler to give him great strength. I stitched together two of the best brains I could find for him to give him great wisdom. But how could you accuse me of being so banal? I am an artist not a tool manufacturer. What drove me was creativity and curiosity. I gave him a nose to smell flowers though a butler needs no nose. I gave him ears to hear my commands, but I also thought he might enjoy music. And then I lost all control of myself, giving him the legs of a dancer, the heart of a bear, and the eyes of a painter. I have no idea how he’ll use those, though I hope he’ll use them well. By the end I saw him not as a butler but as my masterpiece. I created him for the joy of creation. And when the lightning bolt zapped life into him, what I felt was love.
Actually some parents do have children in order to assign purposes to them. Their children are slaves on their farms or are property to be traded. In contemporary western society we have a name for such people: very bad parents. God does not come off well for being compared to them.
Christians and Jews should reject the notion of purpose. A passage in Genesis says that Yahweh made man in his image. Since Yahweh was not himself created (it is blasphemy to suggest that the Lord was intentionally designed), Yahweh has no purpose. He is free to give himself whatever mission he wishes. Therefore, since we are reflections of Yahweh, we also must have no purpose. We are free, like Yahweh, to choose our destiny. If man was created for a purpose then the Bible is mistaken that man was created in Yahweh’s image.
A deity that assigns spiritual specializations demeans his or her creations. Free will would be diminished, if it existed at all. The world, when all the players were behaving properly, would be like a grand clock, and people would merely be gears within it. That sort of boring world is unfit for beings with the depth of humans.
Atheists should automatically reject the concept of purpose. Purpose implies intentional design. It implies a Creator. Natural selection is not an intelligent designer. It does not generate physical traits with any intention or grand scheme.
A bird’s tail feathers provide lift. They clearly serve that function, and do so admirably. But it would be technically incorrect to say that rectrices are anchored to a bird’s rear vertebrae for the purpose of providing lift; it would suggest that the tail feathers were intentionally designed by somebody. They were not.
Natural selection cares nothing for purpose. Individuals are born with random morphological variations, and those variations that benefit survival are naturally selected. Creation first, then (for lack of a better word) design. This is the exact opposite of purpose! A human conceives of a design for a tool first and then creates it. Design first, then creation.
The vestigial leg bones in a whale have no modern function that we can ascertain. The same is true of the human appendix. It is commonly said that the appendix has no purpose.
But in that statement is a subtle misunderstanding of natural selection! Rectrices, although they may be quite useful, have no more purpose than appendixes. A whale’s spout has no more purpose than its vestigial leg bones.
Purpose dictates how objects ought to be used in the future. Natural selection explains how physical traits came to exist in the past, but it does not care how they are used in the future.
Nothing about a human being has a purpose. No part of the body was intended. The opposable thumb might be helpful for grasping things, but the purpose of a thumb is not to grasp. A thumb has no purpose. A finger can poke, point, pick, flick, scratch, beckon, or pull a trigger. But the finger was not intended for any of these activities. One could invent a new use for the finger, perhaps to pry open a jammed DVD player, even though DVD players did not exist when fingers formed on the hands of our ancient ancestors. Physical traits might serve unintended functions, and we ought to be grateful for these. They also might have unintended limitations, and we must cope with these. But physical traits do not have purposes.
We come at last to the alternative to purpose: possibility.
While your life was not supernaturally intended and has no externally assigned purpose, there’s no reason you cannot use your life to pursue your own self assigned purposes (or missions). This is certainly an option.
There are no externally conceived intentions guiding what you should do. If there is no deity then purposelessness is an existential fact. If there is a deity, then this deity purposed you to have no purpose; it trusts you to make up your own mind. You have the freedom (and the responsibility) to choose for yourself. So be creative.