Like many people, I spent a long time trying to decide on what I felt was the purpose of my existence. I’ve come across so many answers to the meaning of life that it took me a long time to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff and find some robust reasoning upon which to grasp what seems genuinely true.
Firstly though, we have to guard against falling into a battle of semantics. The word ‘purpose’ implies intention – some objective consciousness who stands to lose or gain from whether something accomplishes its purpose or not. Cars are designed to assist travel; food is designed to taste nice. Assisting travel and tasting nice can be said to be these things’ purposes. They have purpose because they were consciously created with intention to afford some benefit.
This concept harks back to teleology1 – one one of Plato’s contributions, concerning itself with the study and explanation of natural phenomena in terms of what their purpose seems to be. Rain’s purpose was to grow crops; fire’s purpose was to cook and warm things. Children often investigate the world in this way, part of their natural tendency for anthropomorphism – the projection of humanity into non-human things. Adults, who are more used to arbitrariness in nature, do not usually consider natural phenomena in terms of their purpose.2 A mountain merely exists as a result of prior causes – it doesn’t have any true ‘purpose’.
Most people reading this will probably accept human life likewise to be the product of natural prior causes (as opposed to having been designed with intention by an objective consciousness). So why would it make sense to ask a question like, “what is the purpose of humans?” We wouldn’t do so of a mountain – we agree that such a question doesn’t make sense – so why of ourselves?
Popular suggestions for the meaning of life
Among non-theists, the most popular suggestion I’ve heard is that our purpose is to survive and replicate (or one or the other, depending on whom I speak to). There is nothing much underpinning this argument. In order to decide purpose, there must be some perspective we can consult in order to identify whether meeting the purpose or not produces a meaningful effect. The car owner is affected by whether the car meets its purpose or not; the food eater is affected by whether the food meets its purpose or not. By surviving and replicating, presumably we are meeting nature’s need, but this is false; nature does not care whether we survive and replicate. Nature is totally oblivious.
Nature has no perspective and has not provided us with any purpose. The reason we have survival and reproductive desires is down to circumstance – these instincts were a prerequisite for us to exist in the first place. Now that we do exist, we can dismiss them as natural bias. Indeed, survival and replication are just two behaviours nature gives us, and for what reason should we single them out? Saying we exist to survive and reproduce is no different to saying we exist to eat or sleep – they’re just two behaviours that have contributed to our existence today.
Another popular suggestion is that our purpose is to be happy, live hedonically or accomplish some personal ambition. If this were truly so, it would be a perfectly rational decision to kill oneself and save oneself the trouble. This isn’t to say that these purposes aren’t legitimate, only that they lead to a conclusion that seems contrary to other beliefs we’re likely to hold, and in that case must be critically examined and some beliefs dropped in order to alleviate the contradiction. In this scenario, the only reason you need to achieve this purpose is because you are alive, permitting us to simplify matters.3
My answer to the meaning of life
So, being that we have eliminated intended purpose and subjective purpose, if we’re to have anything to call a purpose, we need to decide it for ourselves. In order to do this, we need to discover something that is existentially worthwhile – by which I mean it must have some external significance. It must, in some sense, matter whether or not we meet our purpose, or else it’s simply trivial and not purposeful. Another way of saying this is that it must matter from some external perspective.
The only external perspectives we know of are other conscious creatures on Earth – humans and animals. What matters to humans and animals, who exist independently of you? What matters to these creatures whom your life can either benefit or not? What matters to them, of course, is the happiness and well-being of themselves and their loved ones. In a phrase, what matters to them is their quality of life, which is dependent on these things.
Having reached this point, the immediate conclusion to be drawn is that the only real meaning available is to commit actions that benefit others.4 By benefitting others, you seal for yourself indisputable meaning for your existence, etched singularly into the fabric of the universe for eternity. By affecting the experience of others, your life can unequivocally be said to have mattered – mattered to the degree that your actions impacted events for others in universal history.
In a word, our purpose is compassion.5 Personal ambition, selfishness, greed – we can recognise these as dead ends, only mattering for the brief time you’re alive. Being a slave to one’s ego rears its head as probably one of the lowest achievements available for a person; in universal time, it will have made no difference whatever, save to benefit a single person in the ancient past.
Consequences of adopting this answer
Taking matters into our own hands now, the wider adoption of compassion could affect our politics and push us towards the creation and governance of a fairer, more equitable society that neither seeks to punish criminals for faulty beliefs, corroded values and poor will power (none of which can easily be said to be a criminal’s ‘fault’),6 nor tries to particularly benefit those individuals whose beliefs, values and will power have led them to success.7 Likewise, countries’ international relationships could be strengthened if they were not concerned solely with benefiting people born in their own nation,8 as decided by imaginary lines determined by historical political disputes, often outside of living memory.
Once a person has identified a purpose for themselves, nothing is more powerful a motivator – purpose is felt in their bones. My ambitions in life, my politics, my actions, my career – all these follow from an understanding of what is meaningful in life. Humans have a desire for meaning, a desire for their life to be worth something. Don’t let society lump its irrational views on you about what constitutes meaning – governments and corporations are more than willing to influence you on this matter. Think critically, and see if we come to the same conclusion.
I hope that by writing this I will help to convince others to think similarly, and by doing so influence people to adopt a disposition of greater selflessness. The two things the world needs most are compassion and rationality, and we should do our best to promote these. Seeing as we’ve happened upon the opportunity to, let’s live meaningfully – the alternative, it seems, is to squander life in vanity.
Teleology was subsequently influenced by Aristotle, and later by Saint Anselm c. 1000 CE. It continued to influence philosophy up until the times of Kant and Hegel, though is now considered somewhat old-fashioned. ↩
We often still see intention where there is none; this is the origin of superstition. ↩
The suggestion that the purpose of life is to live for oneself is criticised further in Man’s Final Triumph over Nature. ‘Rational suicide’, as I called it, would seem to be the appropriate response to such a scenario, being that it is hard work to be happy (or to live pleasurably), and most people only succeed at it partially. Better is to remove the requirement for it. ↩
Astute readers might recognise that this is just a macro version of living to benefit oneself. In this case, by removing all consciousness everywhere, we also remove all requirement for benefitting them. Being that this is impractical, I dismiss it, though should circumstances change, it could be considered. ↩
There’s a risk of conflating ‘purpose’ and ‘meaning’ in this essay, though I think they’re sufficiently close to use them similarly. If treated distinctly, it’d be enough to say that the only meaning to be had is in benefitting others. ↩
I wouldn’t advocate a lack of consequences for criminals, only that consequences be grounded in what is known to be to the benefit of society, not simply consequences for the sake of them (wasting money and harming people). ↩
People still require incentive to work and so on, but after a certain point money fades from primary concern. Indeed, the very value of money itself goes down; £1 more an hour for a rich person accomplishes little, but for a poor person accomplishes much. There is no strong argument to have exceptionally rich people when one’s goal is to govern in the interests of society as a whole. ↩
Our inability to do this is what is principally responsible for our failure to act in response to global warming. It is in our best interest to act together, but we do not, because (as in the Prisoner’s dilemma) each nation is individually incentivised not to bother to act if all the other countries do decide to act. ↩