Purpose of existence?

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 by Jürgen Lawrenz

I’m sorry that I have to spread a wet blanket over your enthusiasm, but you asked for it, and unfortunately your thesis is all too easily falsified. Therefore your choice was not a good one — it is not a question that a human being can legitimately ask or expect an answer to.

Look at its grammatical form: “purpose” implies a conscious act targeting an end and enacting some performance in that behest. But “existence” is not a conscious entity and cannot have a purpose. Only the creatures who live can have a purpose. But their purpose is not existence, as they already have it. Accordingly their purposes can only be described in terms of matters which affect their well-being or ill-being in the state of existence in which they find themselves. And they found themselves in this state (of existence) without asking for it. It just happened, presumably on account of some purposeful act of their parents.

So you see you picked the wrong subject of the sentence. What presumably you meant to say is, “what is the purpose of humans in their existence?” In this question, the word ‘existence’ is superfluous. For the first answer would be, to have offspring. Thereafter you might wish to add any number of other criteria, such as living a good life, achieving something, fulfilling your potential etc. etc.

However, it happens to be the case that your question, in much the same form, has been asked millions of times by millions of people; and now it is precisely by reason of its inner self-contradiction that it has mostly been answered by sleight of hand — namely by assertions that human existence is of value to certain metaphysical entities for purposes of their own, which are not human purposes. We may be beneficiaries of those purposes, i.e. going to paradise after death; but this is no longer human existence.

If, therefore, we ignore such belief systems (which indeed you did not mention), we are born without knowing anything of ends and purposes, and we die without knowing anything of an end that we lived for, other than reproducing and living for the sake of living. Which leaves us, finally, with an altogether different slant of meaning to the question you asked. Not “what is the purpose of human existence”, but “how can we do something with our consciously aware apprehension of existing in a living state so as to add value to it?” In other words: “How can we humans devise a purpose for life that confers sense and meaning on it?

But it stands to reason that this cannot be a single purpose, not even for a single person. It is a multitude of purposes, from individuals, to families, clubs and associations, tribes and clans, towns and cities, nations and empires — a veritable criss-crossing of purposes that in fact we all live with relatively comfortably, and mostly without interrogating them, since at bottom we all know that they are human creations.

In sum: The relevant way of approaching this issue is not to ask for the purpose of life, but the purpose of living a life; and likewise for the related meaning of life and the meaning of living a life. Yet the answer in both of the italicised cases is the same: The purpose and the meaning of both are what we put in. They do not inhere in existence per se and they do not fall out of the sky.

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