What is the purpose of life? Why are we here? What is life’s meaning?
These are the questions that have occupied contemplatives of all sorts for millennia. From the wealthiest to the lowliest of people we ponder on these grand questions. I’ve always found these questions compelling – from a young age I continually sought out answers to them. I still do.
In this article I’ll “have a crack at” answering these questions. It’s important to say upfront that these are the kinds of questions that can occupy you for a lifetime, so while we can attempt to get close to answers, they are questions that in some sense we are continually answering and continually asking.
While I think the answers can’t all be written in one article, we can at least approach the subject somewhat with a few angles and draw a few conclusions.
Approaching deep questions
The thing about deep questions is that if we just answer them straight away without context then the answers won’t necessarily make sense. An analogy might be helpful here. Let’s say you want to get from your house to the local city centre. You first have to leave your house and navigate a complex route to arrive at your desired destination. Deep questions in some sense are the same; you first have to leave your house (set the context), then navigate the route (discuss the deep question from multiple angles), eventually arriving at the city (final or sort-of final answers).
So in this article I will first approach, then attempt to present answers to these significant questions. It’s important to approach the concepts systematically.
(That’s why philosophers use essays!)
The Mormon background
Readers of my blog will know I was raised a Mormon. When it came to significant questions like these I had ready-made, “off the shelf” answers. The answers to these questions had been put into a neat, coherent package for my consumption. I loved it. The universe made sense and my life had a deep and profound context.
I was a son of God. I had been sent to this earth to be tested. The goal was to obey the laws and ordinances of the Gospel, such that I could, in the next life, obtain my eternal exaltation in the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom. “Men are that they might have joy”. It all made so much sense.
However, unfortunately I discovered (much to my dismay) that these ready-made answers had very poor foundations. They relied heavily on faith – belief in the absence of objective evidence (and in many instances contrary to objective evidence), and when I examined both the objective evidence and the philosophical foundations of faith, I found them to be severely lacking. I had a “faith crisis”, and realised the church’s truth claims are false.
It was a harrowing journey, but emerging on the other side breathed fresh vigour into these big, profound questions. Now I could contemplate these grand questions with complete openness – and no assumptions! I could question absolutely everything right down to the very foundations of my reality, and build my worldview from the ground up – it was and is an exhilarating project!
Unpacking the questions
Beginning the journey of “leaving the house”, before we can systematically tackle grand questions like the purpose of life, we first have to unpack them somewhat.
In other words, we should first ask questions about the questions. Questions like:
- What do these questions really mean?
- What do these questions reveal about human nature?
- What kinds of answers would satisfy us?
- How would we know if an answer is the right answer?
- What kinds of answers would we view as absurd? Why?
There are many pathways of thought that these answers can lead to, I want to first examine some of these as we begin our journey.
#1 Where does “purpose” lead us?
When we ask the question “What is the purpose of life?”, what do we really mean by this? Breaking down these words into simpler words can help unpack their meaning further.
I want to focus on the word purpose. Purpose means: “the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists”. Another way to phrase it could be “the intent behind some action or object’s existence”.
But who or what is it that forms this intent?
We see a few chairs and table in the backyard of our neighbor’s house. We can ask “what is their purpose?” – by this question, we assert that some being capable of having intent placed them there for a predetermined reason (to be sat on). There is no purpose without someone having intent.
Hence, when we ask what the purpose of life is, we are seeking out a story about the intent of someone – presumably the one who created life, us and the universe.
This is why the concept of God is so compelling to us – we can invoke some grander being capable of having this intent, who then created the universe and everything in it for his own intentions with his own design and reasons. Thus, we are simply asking -what are those intentions?
It makes perfect sense.
But… (and here’s where the philosophy comes in) the problem with this line of thinking is that it simply escalates the philosophical question of purpose up the chain by one level. It doesn’t actually answer the question of the purpose of life rather it escalates the question to some other “higher” form of life. It merely defers this problem to someone else to solve.
To illustrate a philosophical problem with this approach, let’s ask a few different questions:
- Is God alive? Supposedly yes, then: what is the purpose of God’s life?
Now we have a major problem. Either we need to invoke a God of the God (and then a God of that God, and another, and another, etc. ad infinitum (infinitely) – this is called infinite regression), OR, we might just – simply – admit that God is capable of producing the purpose we seek without needing another being above him?
By this I am approaching a simple fact: purpose is created by beings developing intent and then telling themselves stories about their work.
In other words, for those believing in God, the question “What is the purpose of life” is a essentially asking what story God told himself while creating us.
Now, if God is capable of producing the purpose (by telling himself a story about his creation), then we have admitted that some conscious being (and self) is capable of manufacturing Purpose and Meaning by thinking and telling stories to themselves and others.
Do you agree? If so, that’s all I need for now. I just want to plant the seed that a conscious being is capable of producing purpose and meaning by thinking and telling themselves stories.
(You too are a conscious being…)
Good, let’s take a detour down another side-road.
#2 Does this make sense to YOU?
Let’s say that some crazy person approaches you on the street and claims that the human race was created by aliens as a huge science experiment.
“Nah, that doesn’t make sense to me, you’re crazy, where’s the evidence?”
By this statement you mean that your intuitions and knowledge do not line up with the new claim made by this person. You find their claim nonsensical, absurd!
But there’s also something deeper going on.
When you say “I think this is true” or “this makes sense to me”, you are taking authority for determining the truth into yourself – you are utilising your feelings, thoughts, logic and intuitions to determine what’s true (what else would you do? – these are the only real tools you have access to).
Let’s say for the sake of argument you’re a Mormon. You believe the standard Mormon narrative regarding the purpose of life.
Why do you believe it?
Because it feels true. It makes sense to you. You’ve had spiritual experiences confirming these truths to you.
But I want to unpack what that means more deeply. When you believe your feelings originate from God, you’re not actually giving authority to God, but to your feelings. Thus, the ultimate authority in determining the purpose of life is not God as you suppose it is, but it is your feelings, intuitions and sense of logic (which you may suppose or claim originate from a God).
So how do you determine the purpose of life?
Well, when candidate “purposes of life” (options, stories about the purpose of life) are presented to you for your consideration, how do you determine which ones are true?
Well, you might pray and ask God – a believed in “superior being” to tell you which ones are true, and how do you listen for the answer? With your thoughts, feelings and impressions (which you assume come from God, why? Because you feel that way). Thus, how you determine what you think the purpose of life is is not actually God, but how candidate purposes resonate with your thoughts, feelings and impressions.
Thus, if you are self-aware enough, you will recognise that your thoughts, feelings, impressions and logic are where the purpose of life comes from, by being the gatekeepers of what you are willing to believe is true.
Now, let’s change gears and take a left turn…
#3 What’s the purpose of Venus?
Venus is the second planet from the sun. it orbits the sun at a distance of 108.2 million km, has a crushingly thick atmosphere and is very hot. It’s a beautiful planet.
So, I’d like to ask: What’s the purpose of Venus?
Well, it’s really hard to answer that question. Venus is a massive rock in the sky! There’s nothing living on there, and it just spins around the sun. Most of the time we don’t even think about it (unless you’re an astronomer).
Must Venus have a purpose?
Some people believe that “everything happens for a reason” (and the corollary, “everything exists for a reason”). So what’s the grand reason that Venus exists? What about Jupiter? What about Mars? What about the globular cluster Messier 13?
Is it possible that these planets simply formed from pre-existing elements and have no purpose? (No being with an intention created them?) I mean, we’d really struggle to come up with explanations about the purposes of these planets that make sense or are compelling.
Now if you’re a Mormon and you know your temple ceremony, you might think: “Well, maybe God made these to “beautify and add variety to the universe” so that we humans could ponder in these grand things and be inspired. I’m certainly all good with that notion, BTW – seeing as myself I find these things very awe inspiring, but then what about the purpose of ugly things – what’s the purpose of mosquitoes, cockroaches, and frogs? What’s the purpose of dirt under your nails?
When answering the question about the purpose of life, we have to leave room for some things to not have any purpose. Surely, there are many things that exist that are merely coincidental? The specific shape of a cloud in the sky, the exact number of stars in the milky way, or those five rocks in your backyard: do the all have grand stories and purposes behind them?
And then what about the purpose of other forms of life? What’s the purpose of a wolf? A bat? A Kangaroo? If you’re Mormon, you’d probably refer to the temple ceremony where it says they “fill the measure of (their) creation and have joy therein”. I find that a very interesting candidate purpose, and I think that purpose would indeed be approaching the city centre, but it doesn’t need a God, it’s a story that can be told directly by us.
I’ll explain in the next section. Take a right!
#4 What’s the purpose of Chocolate?
There’s a bar of chocolate in front of you. What’s its purpose?
The question seems unnecessary. Isn’t it obvious? Chocolate tastes good! Duh!
There’s an entire worldwide industry dedicated to the creation of chocolate, all for what? Merely to help us experience the taste of it.
Because we like it.
The intent behind chocolate is to create a particular kind of experience.
But then, wouldn’t that apply to pretty much everything we make? Why do you go to a movie? Why do you study a university degree? Why do you buy a house? Why do you make love?
Because the real value of all of these choices is your attempts to create and maintain specific conscious experiences. For example, you buy a house so that every day you can keep enjoying the safety, warmth, security, and personal space it offers to you and your family. You watch a movie to enjoy many moments of viewing pleasure. You study a university degree to have a successful career and all of the emotions that this creates over the long term.
Extrapolating this idea to a larger context, enter a quote from Sam Harris:
“Everything we do is for the purpose of altering consciousness. We form friendships so that we can feel certain emotions, like love, and avoid others, like loneliness. We eat specific foods to enjoy their fleeting presence on our tongues. We read for the pleasure of thinking another person’s thoughts. Every waking moment—and even in our dreams—we struggle to direct the flow of sensation, emotion, and cognition toward states of consciousness that we value.“
Interestingly enough, this is true even if you believe in God and Mormonism. For example, why do you seek to go to heaven? Why do you want to go to the Celestial kingdom? Isn’t it because you want to have the experience of being there in the fulness of joy with your family for eternity? In your efforts to “obey God and His commandments” “follow His ways” “live the Gospel” etc. etc. are you not merely attempting to alter future states of consciousness based on acquiring knowledge of how your actions impact them?
Indeed, are not all of your stories for that very purpose? What story do we tell that does not attempt to make sense of the world and our interaction with it, with the final aim of altering our conscious experience further?
Straight ahead now, in high gear…
#5 Our hunger for meaning
Very young children (under the age of 2) do not have a sense of self. They have consciousness, but they don’t recognise that there’s someone (me) here within the consciousness. This sense develops slowly and is much more solid by age 3.
Part of the development of the sense of self is the creation of an elaborate set of stories. These stories start from the absolute basics, for example, that “I” am a body that can bump into objects and that can hurt. Certain experiences have a positive or negative character, and we, as we develop, begin to identify which actions lead to which kinds of experiences.
In other words, the self exists to maximise positive experiences, and minimise negative ones, and this is done through pattern recognition and storytelling. We begin to learn that storytelling is actually highly effective. If we feel this rumbling in our tummy, and then we eat, the rumbling goes away. If we feel a pressure in our bowels and we go to the toilet, the negative feeling goes away. If mummy is over there and we lie on her lap, we feel comfortable and warm.
As we grow the stories become infinitely more elaborate and complex. We seek a job because employment and security feel better than unemployment and insecurity. We seek a spouse because the feeling of love and companionship feel better than the feelings of loneliness.
Stories become so powerful that they weave a fabric that subsumes us. We can’t see the world without our conceptual overlay – without our stories. This is why the statement by Steve Covey “we see the world not as it is but as we are” rings true.
We develop an insatiable hunger for stories, meaning, and purpose. Everything that happens is analysed by the self, categorised and integrated into the massive whole.
But by so doing, we can also create false positives. Our talent for pattern recognition can create false patterns, and these patterns can become so strong that they themselves can alter our experience itself.
The grilled cheese sandwich
Many years ago someone grilled a cheese sandwich, and it came out like this:
This sandwitch was later on sold for $28 000. Who would pay $28 000 for a grilled cheese sandwitch with a facial pattern on it? Someone who believes it’s Mother Mary. “We believe that everyone should be able to see it and learn of its mystical power for themselves.”
Enter Neil DeGrasse Tyson:
“We hunger for significance, for signs that our personal existence is of special meaning to the universe. To that end, we’re all too eager to deceive ourselves and others, to discern a sacred image in a grilled cheese sandwich or find a divine warning in a comet”
We are, ourselves, deeply drunk on pattern recognition. We see patterns everywhere. But that doesn’t mean they’re true. And I believe in our deep yearning and hunger for meaning, we invent many many stories to fill the void. They may feel true to us, but it does not make them true in some objective sense.
Slowing down, entering the central business district:
What is the purpose of life?
With all of the above as context, we have arrived in the city. Let’s take a look around here, it’s a strange place!
Looking around, I summarise my thesis on the purpose of life thus: some statements will be deconstructive: (taking apart other supposed purposes), while others will be reconstructive; (putting something else in its place).
- We are addicted to storytelling and pattern-recognition. As such, we have erected massive complexes of made-up stories, fully fledged with Heavens (ideal conscious states), and Gods (grand creator beings with intent), but these stories are conspicuously revealing of our own minds when you dig beneath the surface.
- We invented God in our own image to fill the void of purpose. But the God we invented has no objective evidence to support it, and he is conspicuously like us; for a Mormon he is a white male with ten fingers and ten toes who has opinions and cultural preferences strikingly similar to the powerful men in Utah. For a Hindi one of the gods is like an beautiful elephant in India. For an ancient Norseman, a powerful Norse warrior.
- We invented Heaven to match our own ideal conscious states. For a Mormon, heaven is much like a permanent Sunday afternoon spent with family, basking in the summer sunlight. For a Muslim, heaven is described as “gardens in paradise beneath which rivers flow.” (Gardens? Rivers? Make sense for a religion originating in a desert?)
- We need to make room for things to exist without purpose: does every little event and object need a grand story bathed in significance?
- Our storytelling and pattern-recognition form the very fabric of our self. Our self is the grand set of stories about our life – our attempts to make sense. So we not only create stories, we are stories.
- As such, we are, our selves, Meaning and Purpose producing machines. We make meaning all the time. We make purpose all the time. In every moment that we are thinking, we are overlaying the universe and our conscious experience with meaning and purpose.
- So while the deconstructive element of our storytelling is the recognition that many of our stories are fictions, the reconstructive element is the recognition that you are the very fountain of meaning of your life.
- Hence, the self is the solution to nihilism – and always was. It is after all and ironically, the self telling the stories about nihilism in an effort to make sense.
- The purpose of life is to increase well being. We don’t need a God to tell us this. Why? – because chocolate tastes good without invoking a grand creator (translation: consciousness has the characters that it does, some states are pleasant and others unpleasant. Well being is the very definition of “good” experiences averaged over the long term, and as such this argument can be bootstrapped without needing anything to support it. See Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape for a deeper dive into this topic)
- Simpler version: Happiness is good, you don’t need a supreme being to tell you that. Well-being is good.
- All of our efforts ultimately have this aim. No matter who you are or what you believe, you are continually trying to create happiness and well-being, however feebly. Hence, if you believe the creation of well-being is the purpose of life, this belief supersedes any other beliefs (E.G religious ones), and we all inherently believe this – it’s in the very fabric of all of our efforts.
Wrapping up: the present moment
There have been moments where I find myself standing in an open field, gazing up at the beautiful stars at night, observing the immensity of space, speechless in awe.
Does this experience require a purpose? Do I need to tell myself a story about this moment in order to validate or complete it?