What is the purpose of human existence?

Katherine Bolin asked:

For my senior thesis we are asked to answer a variety of questions, I chose “what is the purpose of human existence?” My thesis is basically: from a secular standpoint there is no true purpose of human existence however, in order for one to feel that their life has purpose the must do the best they can with what they have under the condition that it affects others in a positive way. I know that there is a lot there that I have to define but I need people to destroy my thesis so that I’m ready when the time comes… what’s the problems with my statement? Any suggestions on how to make it stronger?

Answer By Peter Jones

You chose a tough question. If I had to pick holes in your answer I’d mention various points.

1. You say your thesis is presented ‘from a secular standpoint’. What difference does this make to anything? The truth does not depend on your standpoint. I can see no justification for adopting any standpoint. If the question has an answer it will be same for everybody, regardless of their standpoint.

2. You say ‘from a secular standpoint there is no true purpose of human existence’. In this case human existence has no true purpose. Your standpoint is irrelevant. But how would you go about proving human existence has no purpose? It is not enough just to bluntly state it.

3. You say ‘we should affect others in a positive way’. Why? You’re arguing that there’s no ‘true purpose’ in such behaviour. The question is not asking you to proscribe how we should behave IF our existence has no purpose. This would be a follow up question.

4. By ‘true purpose I imagine you mean ‘metaphysical’ or ‘ultimate’ purpose. For a philosophical essay the word ‘true’ would be redundant.

5. You are addressing a metaphysical question but you mention no metaphysical arguments. You seem to assume existence has no purpose. Do you make an argument somewhere?

6. I would suggest examining the question more closely. If you argue that human existence has no purpose then you may have to argue that nothing has any purpose. But what do you mean by ‘purpose’? I feel this is not an easy thing to define. Whose purpose would it be? How can Reality have a purpose? In metaphysics the whole idea of purpose is fraught with problems but you do not seem to examine this issue.

7. As presented your approach seems to be to assume there is no purpose and move on to prescribing how we should behave under the circumstances. This is not what the question asks. I feel you would need to spend some time exploring the idea of ‘purpose’ and what it could mean. For instance, the idea that God has a purpose makes no sense since he is complete and perfect, and this is not an assumption but an argument.

8. There are only two ways of answering the question. One would be to attempt a metaphysical proof and the other would be to investigate the fundamental knowledge claimed by the mystics. There would be no third option. Yet you do not seem to examine either of these ways forward. Rather, you assume that a secular standpoint must reject the idea of purpose. It is not clear to me you’re right about this and even if you were you’d have to go on to show that a ‘secular standpoint’ is the correct one.

You’ve chosen a very tough question. As usual for philosophical questions half the battle is picking apart the question. I suspect that you’ll find a better argument against cosmic purpose just by analysing what the word ‘purpose’ could mean at the level of the ‘world-as-a-whole’. Then you may be able to debunk the idea of purpose on the grounds that in respect of the Totality the idea of purpose is nonsensical.

You would also need to debunk the idea that the sentient life is for consciousness to revel in its powers and experience ‘lila’, the play of dependent existence, and the idea that exist so God (or consciousness) can be known to Himself. These ideas do not require ‘purpose’ in the sense of intention but they would need to be disposed in an essay arguing for an absence of purpose.

Good luck. I would have chosen a different question.

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