Looking for the Purpose of Life
Philosophy Now|December 2021 / January 2022
Brian King says that life’s meaning is a question of purpose; but what is the purpose of human existence?
Brian King

In the expression ‘the meaning of life’, people more often than not mean ‘purpose’ when they refer to ‘meaning’. The real question such people are asking is actually ‘What is the purpose of life?’.

Things which have a purpose are often created for that purpose, such as man-made artefacts. One could establish an analogy or comparison between life and tools. The purpose of a tool is present at or before it is manufactured. A garden fork has been made to help gardeners dig, a tap is made to control the flow of water, and so on. The maker of the object and the person who uses the object both know this purpose, and the correct use of the object is seen as being use in line with the maker’s design. However the object could be used differently – the tap could be used as a hook to hang something from, and in the hands of a psychopathic killer the garden fork could be used as a rather gruesome weapon. So the ‘purpose’ of an artefact has two major senses; its intended use at the point of design and creation, and its intended use at the point of use. The latter may also be described as a misuse.

In these examples we see the purpose of something as being the deliberate, conscious purpose of either its designer or user. The question is whether, or which of, these analogies applies to our lives. Are our lives ‘given to us’ to be used in the ‘correct’ manner in the light of the manufacturer’s instructions, so to speak? Or can we create our own purpose at the ‘point of use’ – as we live our lives? Another problem is whether we can meaningfully apply the language of dealing with tools and designs to a different subject entirely, human lives. Are we stretching the use of these concepts into inappropriate areas? Perhaps even more importantly, in the analogy of life with tools are we assuming what we are trying to prove – that life has any ‘use’, that is, meaning? And if we take the analogy of life and tools literally, are we therefore assuming that there must be a designer? The analogy could end up being a circular proof for the existence of God – ‘lives are designed for a purpose, therefore there must be a designer’ – but circular proofs don’t prove anything, since they assume what they’re trying to prove. We should maybe try a different analogy.

Natural Purpose

In biological terms, organs are also described in terms of their purpose, although we usually substitute the word ‘function’, as in the function of the eye or the liver. We also talk in similar terms when referring to the connections between plants and animals; for instance we talk about the purpose of bees being to pollinate flowers, or the purpose of some kinds of bacteria being to help dead matter decay and rot down, and so on. The Ancient Greek anatomist Galen (129-200 AD) was so impressed by the omnipresence of function or purpose in nature that he thought it a kind of demonstration that everything worked according to a grand cosmic plan designed by God. In fact, by the Middle Ages in Europe, this attribution of design had spread to human society, so that everyone was seen to have their place in the social order, which was seen as sacrosanct since it was designed by God. Therefore the purpose of life for man involved acceptance of their (for the most part lowly) station in society, with a rewards to come later in heaven if they fulfilled their allotted function.

The idea that everything in nature harmonises in an interplay of mutually supporting functions and purposes set by the grand designer contributed to the ‘design argument’ for the existence of God. However, that idea received a major setback when Darwin formulated the idea of evolution through natural selection in The Origin of Species (1859). The implication is that things in the natural world only harmonise and operate together with each other because if they didn’t they wouldn’t have survived and reproduced. On this perspective, design in nature is an illusion in that there is no designer – only a blind process that necessarily produces circumstantially favourable for organisms.

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