On having a purpose in life

Katherine 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 from Hubertus Fremerey

I put the question here again for clarity:

“From a secular standpoint there is no true purpose of human existence. However, in order for one to feel that their life has purpose they must do the best they can with what they have under the condition that it affects others in a positive way.”

Thus you make the important difference of “having a purpose of life” and “feeling a purpose of life”.

I share your view that there is no given purpose of life — at least I do not know of any.

I do not share your assumption that to feel a purpose of life people “must do the best they can with what they have under the condition that it affects others in a positive way.”

People see life as a given, and by this can see it as a chance to fulfill some task or dream. Think of it like a bank account full of money. What to do with that money?

While there are many options, to use this money “to affect others in a positive way” can be on one’s mind but is not in any way necessary. You can go for a world-tour or you can buy a house or you can start a charity or you can give your money away as Wittgenstein did. You can set up a lab to do research, but that does not include that the well-being of others in on your mind. You just like to find out some things and enjoy the life as a researcher. Or you prefer the life of a painter or of a general.

You are right that many people try to do “something useful”. But it is not in any way necessary. When the famous long-distance runner Paavo Nurmi was asked “Did you run for Finland?” he answered “No, I run for Paavo Nurmi!” And what is the purpose of running for a gold-medal?

Think of humans as of a special sort of machines. They are delivered to a strange world and then try to orient themselves in this world and make some sense of what there is. But we are making the sense, it is not provided. We are writing our own script for our own movie. To “affect others in a positive way” is not a condition.

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