Why do I exist?

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 Geoffrey Klempner

Peter and Jurgen have both given very reasonable replies to this question, but I am going to have a go anyway. ‘Why am I here?’ is a question I ask every day, and sometimes more than once. I don’t distinguish between ’cause and effect’ and ‘purpose’, because ultimately if some entity other than myself purposed that I should exist, that would be the cause of my existing rather than not.

And every time I ask that question, the same alternative presents itself: Either there is something, an entity or explanation or principle X that accounts for my being here. Or not.

One plausible account of X would be the Big Bang hypothesized by cosmology. I am here because the Big Bang banged in precisely the manner necessary and sufficient for the coming together. of the particular sperm and egg that made the embryo that eventually became me. Each of us is here for a similar reason.

On the cosmological view, I am not here for the ‘purpose’ of any entity other than my own self. The secular view, which is widely held. Fine. You probably haven’t heard the quip by W.H. Auden (who got it off an old music hall joke) ‘We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know.’ (Maybe this is all my personal video game, and you are just sprites or monsters. If I do well, show altruism, etc., I will ascend to the next level. And if not, etc. etc.)

Then there’s the religious view, which is also held by many millions of human beings, so I don’t need to tell you about that. This is all just one big Family Story with a loving parent, who cares for our welfare, and even sends earthquakes and Hitler to improve our moral well-being, so that we can prove how courageous we are in the face of adversity. You’d have to laugh?

Personally, if we’re going in for this I prefer the theory of my friend J, an accountant, who believes that we were made by aliens. Who made the aliens? I always ask. Well, maybe that’s not such a stupid theory. You have to think of every possible angle. Maybe we are the ‘aliens’ who after inventing time travel went back to create the human race.

Each theory has its answer to the ‘purpose’ of human existence. According to the alien theory, you and I are just someone’s chemistry experiment.

Or, as I said earlier, not. Nothing could have made me, none of the above and not something else either because that would only suffice to make an entity like me, someone with exactly my physical and psychological attributes — who was not I. Nothing that is not I can explain why I am here. I am uncreated. (Maybe I am God, I just haven’t woken up to that fact, yet. Not impossible.)

(Visitors to this page will be getting weary of my going on about this. But, you see, the Question gets into everything.)

It’s good to be positive and affect other people in a positive way, because that is — OK, not a guaranteed — a reliable route to happiness, which has worked for many people. And what’s wrong with that? It has worked for me, because I compartmentalize. I ask the question, I ask lots of questions, but I never allow myself to forget that I am a human being and have human needs.

Just be honest. Talk about what you believe, what you hope for, for yourself and the human race, the questions that trouble you. The point isn’t to come up with some clever new answer that no-one has ever thought before but just to dig a little bit deeper than you have normally been accustomed to do. And then you’ll be fine.

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.

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.

Heidegger and the grid of meaning

Olivia asked:

Hello. I see that the natural and constructed world around us offers us meaning. I find myself constructing a grid of meaning that uses abstract nouns e.g. peace, hope, love, excitement, beauty, belonging, freedom, creativity. All things offer up the possibility of ‘meaning’ which will vary according to the situation, the person and the particularities (social, religious, etc) of that person. Is there a philosopher, or philosophical understanding that can articulate this ‘grid of meaning’ that I’m speaking of?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

There have always been writers of what used to be called “edifying literature”; and there are many still around today. But as you asked for the name of a philosopher, the obvious candidate would be Martin Heidegger.

But now I’m going to say something that I would not normally offer as a suggestion — because a philosopher should be read, not just talked about. Nevertheless, reading Heidegger is not the same as picking up any book, not even a philosophy book.

So here goes: You would probably be much better off reading an account by a sympathetic Heidegger scholar first.

The reason I make this recommendation is, that Heidegger is inordinately difficult to read. He wraps up all his “easy” ideas in a tortuous diction full of endlessly long sentences, recondite terminology and neologisms. He is also up to his eyeballs involved in existentialism and phenomenology, as well as all the metaphysical, ontological and epistemological problems of the German thinkers from Kant to Husserl. None of this is ‘edifying’ in the least, nor easy bedtime reading.

There happens to be a good and readily comprehensible book by Stephen Mulhull, “Heidegger’s Being and Time”, published by Routledge in their series “Routledge Guides to Philosophy”. If you find this appealing, then you can go a little further under your own steam, as Heidegger also wrote several shorter texts on other subjects of interest to your context. You might also find George Steiner’s book on Heidegger useful, which is part biography and part assessment, and perfectly readable.

Philosophy of language

Olivia asked:

Hello. I see that the natural and constructed world around us offers us meaning. I find myself constructing a grid of meaning that uses abstract nouns e.g. peace, hope, love, excitement, beauty, belonging, freedom, creativity. All things offer up the possibility of ‘meaning’ which will vary according to the situation, the person and the particularities (social, religious, etc) of that person. Is there a philosopher, or philosophical understanding that can articulate this ‘grid of meaning’ that I’m speaking of?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

I would propose that such a philosopher could be Ludwig Wittgenstein.

In his earlier works such as the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) Wittgenstein offered a Logical atomist view of the ‘grid of meaning’. A word had meaning if it could correspond or be reducible to an object: Logical statements could be verified by reference to facts or ‘atoms’. So far so good. Unfortunately, this excluded words such as ‘peace’, ‘hope’, ‘beauty’ etc which could not be reduced to observed objects. Wittgenstein himself became dissatisfied with this position which, he had once believed had solved the problems of Philosophy.

Enter the Philosophical Investigations (1953).In this work, the meaning of Language is its use. How it is used is constituted by rules – in the same way a card game is constituted and operable by rules. Knowledge of the rules allows knowledge of how the language, in all its guises, operates and is used. The rules have to be mastered by Language users. So the ‘grid of meaning’ exists as knowledge of all the various ‘language games’ of a language such as for instance, the language game of Religion. However, the ‘grid’ is not immutable and fixed, it changes as it interacts with life and as life interacts with it.
Words such as ‘peace’ etc are understood and used in the context of the language games in which they are used.

Wittgenstein’s views on Language have been employed and developed by contemporary Thinkers such as Richard Rorty (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature) and Jean-Francois Lyotard (The Differend).

Can it ever be right to hate?

John asked:

What are the moral implications of hate?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I have already given a partial answer to this — or taken the first steps towards an answer — in my response to Chris’s question, ‘What would drive a person to hurt another intentionally?‘. Hatred is a very effective motivator in this respect.

You could ask whether it could ever be ethically right to hate another human being. Or there’s the more general question what we should do about the hatred there is in the world, that splashes across TV screens most nights of the week. Both assume that hatred is somehow wrong, on principle.

A few years back I had a student, Thomas Bartlett Whitaker, who was on death row at the Polunsky Unit, Texas, for the murders of his mother and brother. He had arranged for a hitman to kill his parents and younger brother, but the father survived. Lying injured in hospital, he made the decision to forgive — as a good Christian — whoever had been responsible for this terrible deed. Later, he wrote a book about it. The story was so good it made the Oprah Winfrey show. In 2018, Whitaker’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment after his father pleaded that he would be ‘victimized a second time’ if his son was executed.

It was Whitaker’s father, now remarried, who arranged the Pathways course — on Moral Philosophy, would you believe — on behalf of his errant son. (I’ve written about this in my article, ‘Philosophy, Ethics and Dialogue‘ Journal of Dialogue Studies Vol. 2 No. 2 2014.)

Would you have forgiven the person who did this, if it was your family? Would you, could you make the existential decision not to hate?

In my previous answer, I made a distinction between acts of punishment and actions motivated by malice. One could say that whereas punishment invokes a sense of justice, acts of revenge are motivated by hatred. Yet often, these can coincide. When opponents of the death penalty assert that it reduces justice to revenge, that is not strictly true. Justice can only be rightly meted out on the guilty, whereas revenge can be carried out on the innocent, and has been many times.

It doesn’t follow from the belief that revenge — or revenge carried out on the innocent — is wrong, that hatred is wrong. I acknowledge that a Christian can be sincere, when he or she says, ‘I love every human being, even Hitler.’ But what kind of ‘love’ is this? If you tell me that you love me, and in the next breath tell me that you also love Hitler, I think I could reasonably question what value your attitude has, for me or anyone else. It is ultimately demeaning, in my view.

I believe it can be right to hate another human being, when they deserve it. However, supposing that were true, it does not follow from that that it is necessarily wrong to love someone who doesn’t deserve it. There’s an interesting asymmetry there that deserves further ethical exploration.

The philosophical quest

Hubertus asked:

What could be the nature of the quest in the cases of the Buddha, of Socrates, of Dante, of Don Quixote, of Dr. Faust? What were they looking for, what insatiable longing was driving them? Does modern philosophy take note of this longing? Does it offer any answers? Do we need a re-enchantment of our world to understand the problem?

Answer By Peter Jones

By ‘modern philosophy’ I assume you mean the philosophy of the modern university. As you will know it offers no answers. It is not obvious that it is looking for any. Pardon my cynicism but from here it seems justified.

The world is no more a less enchanted than it ever was, but much of philosophy seems to have become an attempt to disenchant it. I suppose this is some sort of science-envy. It’s easy to see that that the attempt is hopeless and leads to stagnation and confusion. A different approach is clearly required. If Yoga and self-enquiry represent a ‘re-enchantment’ of our world then we can note these methods worked just fine for the Buddha, not to mention a few million other people.

So a ‘re-enchantment of the world’ seems the only way forward. Or, rather, a recognition of its enchantment. It remains to be shown that the world is not enchanted in precisely the way the Buddha describes, and the ongoing failure of philosophers to find a workable but less enchanted description is surely a glaring clue to the futility of the search.

I would say we do not need a deliberate ‘re-enchantment’ for before we start we don’t know what we mean by this word, but just an open mind and a willingness to follow logic and reason. Examining this idea would need a long discussion.

-=-

Emmanuel asked:

Why are philosophers more interested in questions than answers?

Answer by Peter Jones

From your question I assume you are familiar with academic philosophy but not the whole field. Academic philosophers usually assume philosophical questions cannot be answered. This is because they do not study all of philosophy and tend to be ignorant of the answers given in the Perennial tradition. They find that no other answers work, so are forced to assume there are no answers.

Meanwhile, philosophers in the Perennial tradition are interested only in answers and expect to find them. This philosophy provides answers to questions, albeit that understanding them takes some work. This is ‘non-dualism’, which is a solution for all philosophical problems.

So, your question is only relevant in an academic or professional context. Quite why the mainstream profession is disinclined to seek answers and contents itself with questions is a mystery and I have no explanation, but this is only one limited area of philosophy. It would be a mistake to extrapolate from this to the whole of philosophy.

The problem is that philosophical problems only have one correct answer. IF the answers given by non-dualism are correct then for as long as academic thinkers reject, ignore or are unaware of them they will have to content themselves with asking questions for which they have ruled out the answers. This will lead them to the idea there are no answers.

I would suggest ignoring this narrow scholastic approach. A philosopher should seek answers and expect to find them. This can be achieved only by studying philosophers who claim to know them, and this means ignoring the artificial limitations academic researchers usually place on themselves and studying the whole field. Then you’ll see it is only a sub-set of philosophers who see philosophy as a collection of questions with no answers.