Today I meditated on the concept of purpose. The narrator in the audio meditation didn’t directly ask what purpose I think I have or should have. Instead, her questions were more indirect: what’s an example of a thing where I’m already purposeful, what is purpose in the first place, does it give life meaning? For a while it irked me: why was the question of my purpose not raised? Why was this problem dodged? But then I remembered some of my favorite reading.
Now Listening: Adem - Statued
What follows is a personal view of mine gathered from scattered notes I kept over the years on this subject matter. Don’t feel offended if you disagree with anything in particular. I’m no professional philosopher, I don’t claim to be a sage. I’m a random dude on the Internet. My intention isn’t to convince you but rather to share my personal perspective.
There is no purpose, not really
Want nothing, accept everything.
– Pieter Hintjens
Penn Jillette is one of my favorite people alive. As a fellow atheist, he doesn’t believe in inherent purpose set by the universe. Neither do I. There is no fate, no meaning assigned us by any higher ups. The wonder and tragedy of life is its uselessness and meaninglessness. But that also means that “every day is an atheist holiday” because here and now is all we got.
Derek Sivers doesn’t believe in fate either, instead embracing the randomness in life, finding beauty in there being no meaning. I totally agree with this. We project meaning onto things. Art is a perfect example of this because the observer is the one who actually decides on what a piece of art means. In this sense art is a communion between the artist and the consumer. As Derek himself says, art is useless – if it weren’t, works of art would be called tools. He goes even further by comparing himself to an art piece, saying that as a person he doesn’t need to be useful to himself and others.
This is a freeing perspective. I’m not a tool, I’m not a cog in a machine. I don’t need to tie my self-worth to how much value I directly provide to others, to the universe.
It’s all absurd
Since my teenage years I considered myself an existentialist, e.g. someone who believes that each individual is responsible for establishing their meaning of life, in particular with freedom being the predominant value, and authenticity the primary virtue. This angle is strongly expressed in a somewhat distorted form in American pop culture that I grew up on: be yourself, you can become whoever you wish, your free will can conquer fate and predestination.
In time I also found the Buddhist perspective attractive, with its acknowledgement of anguish due to reality being in constant flux where nothing is permanent, nothing is static, and labels cause suffering 1. A consequence of this is the advice of letting go and, fundamentally, becoming at peace with mortality. I wouldn’t call myself Buddhist though. I’m far too reactive and emotional for that.
Similarly, I find the Stoic perspective very noble, in particular accepting obstacles and finding happiness in virtue alone. I wouldn’t call myself a Stoic though. I’m far too petty and cowardly for that.
In any case, with age my existentialist views evolved into absurdist views. Once you accept that life is random and purposeless (and the universe is indifferent towards you), your human urge to find meaning and significance has got to be considered absurd. It’s tragically doomed to fail and yet it’s one of the strongest human drives!
This insight causes such existential dread that it might lure you into wishing for a transcendent realm and a higher being benevolently orchestrating everything. If you wish hard enough, you might convince yourself that you believe in such higher power. In your heart of hearts though you know it’s not real. You wish it were but it simply isn’t. What to do then? Kill yourself to escape meaningless existence? Many do just that. But instead, you can accept the Absurd and live in spite of it as an expression of freedom. This is where I’m at now.
Sometimes friends tell me this is a bleak way to look at life. I retort that it simply refuses to delve into make-believe in search of consolation. In any case, it’s far from the darkest philosophy you can find. For instance, pure nihilism is way more pessimistic. It states that even the concept of meaning is ultimately meaningless and worthless. No meaning can be constructed, and not even the pursuit of meaning is meaningful. Everything is futile in this view as there is no resolution: no ultimate meaning can ever be found. This is too black and white to me as even in the absence of ultimate meaning I believe that we can find temporary meaning for ourselves.
While nihilism is obviously related to absurdism, I find the latter’s loud expression of defiance empowering. There’s joy and contentment to be found in the acceptance of the Absurd. You reach it through personal meaning, even if it’s just transient. This temporary rebellion against the unstoppable annihilating force of the universe is beautiful. While it will be nullified by death, I can push back against entropy, even if only for a short while.
But there’s still Good
Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs insightfully posits that instead of focusing on answering metaphysical questions of purpose and meaning (like “Where are we from?”, “Where are we going?”, or “What happens after death?"), we should instead confront the facts of existence in a wise and ennobling way. He explicitly mentions the embrace of suffering as it’s an inevitable part of life, letting go of reactivity since it causes a lot of harm, and a cultivation of an integrated way of life. That last one means many things but in the most general sense is about exercising empathy and compassion, in particular to oppose violence arising in self, others, and societal structures.
This is important as it demonstrates that the concept of Good and Evil exists even in the wake of a silent, indifferent universe. We need no holy books, gods, or prophets to differentiate right from wrong. Instead, we simply recognize that there’s a lot of suffering in life. That suffering causes anguish in people. Through skillful action (and sometimes inaction!) we can meaningfully help others feel less anguish and more joy. That’s Good. But also through action or inaction we can choose to inflict harm. Whether it’s purposeful, reactive, or done unwillingly, it’s nevertheless Evil.
An entire system of morality can be derived from this simple root. Ethics and morality is a big subject though so we’re leaving it for the time being. 2 The important thing to realize for now is that despite the reality of the Absurd we can still lead Good lives. We can still experience and share joy, we can still reduce suffering and anguish among us. And because we’re all in this together, our true power is compassion and empathy. While it’s not always easy, we are capable of it.
After all, we’re still babies
As described by Tim Urban, we’re like three-year-old children on the spectrum of consciousness. We will never get on a higher major step, it is something that evolves much slower than any single person. We’re a mixture of animal instincts, dating back millions of years. But there’s already a higher being within us. We can strive to get it out by silencing the animals.
So, while the current state of our biology is a thing we have no control over, it is not fate. Within that framework there is still a lot we can choose to do, to dramatically different results. We can succumb to our low instincts or strive to get the higher being out by living lives of virtue.
I want to believe each one of us is capable of putting the shopping cart back.
Where to go from here
As I already mentioned, I’m no sage, I’m no philosopher. I have no lasting answers for myself, and definitely not for you. This post is necessarily incomplete and somewhat arbitrary.
I do feel empowered by realizing that I have the power to make life better for myself and others. And while the Void is so hugely indifferent to me that it doesn’t even bother to stare back, it fills me with hope that it’s perfectly valid to love my short life and enjoy it to the fullest. I can pursue some meaning, however temporary it might be. I can find some personal purpose. Best of all, since it’s all so absurd, I can relax and not worry about finding “the best” meaning and to serve “the most important” purpose.
I realize all this probably won’t help you determine how to make your life better, which things to enjoy, what purpose to choose. You’ll have to decide for yourself. The good news is that you don’t have to sweat it as in the grand scheme of things it probably doesn’t matter.
It’s empowering to assign meaning but it can also be a trap. When we label ourselves, others, as well as objects or events, we open ourselves to suffering in case we discover the label doesn’t fit, or it did at one point but doesn’t anymore. ↺
It’s out of scope for this particular article but morality is a fascinating subject for a different time, for instance Carl Sagan’s insight that the Golden Rule ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.") is less robust than the Silver Rule ("Do not treat others the way you would not like them to treat you.") because inflicting your preferences on others might actually cause them harm, even if you had the best intentions. ↺