Jonathan Chang's response gets to the heart of the problem. Certainly, I can have a purpose in the sense that I can make myself useful participating in the community, contributing to knowledge, raising and caring for my family, etc. But can I have a transcendental 'purpose in itself'? I am not so sure.
When I was a Christian, my ultimate 'purpose in itself' was to get home to heaven. (Truly a terrible, selfish motivation for doing good things.) But I never really considered the logical progression: What would my purpose become once I got there? What happened once my body and soul were transported into utopian space? What purpose COULD they serve in a place that is by definition free of all problems and suffering? My priest would have told me my purpose in heaven was to glorify God, but that seems awfully narcissistic on his part.
It seems to me that even the religious lack a Kantian Purpose with a capital 'P,' perhaps even more so than some humanists.
For my part, I have never heard a better answer to this conundrum than this verse:
"Look at the flowers, so faithful to what is earthly
to whom we lend fate from the very border of fate
and if they are sad at all about the fact that they must whither and die
perhaps it is our vocation to be their regret." (Rilke)
Flowers have a biological purpose, absolutely. A narrative purpose, briefly, if we impose one on them. And an ultimate Purpose, unlikely.
I doubt we humans are so terribly different.
The closest thing to an ultimate, sacred purpose we have is tucked into the last line, and it is, in fact, not a sacred purpose but a poetic one: Perhaps it is our vocation to practice and extend our human consciousness.
"Perhaps it is our vocation to be their regret."
Everything ends. Great empires fall, no matter how many lives where lived for them. The mark we make in the world fades, be it memory or monument. The world we create will be reformed and our planet will die with our star.
I understand how this depresses people, but I find it liberating.
No cause or country can claim to truly matter; none have claim to your life but you. If everthing is irrelevant what you choose to do with your life is as good as any choice. You need not strive or achieve anything unless you're doing it for you, because you deem it worthy.
Hear hear. :)
I wonder if the Sisyphus reference at the end of that comic is intentional.
That. Is. BRILLIANT!
And I cant' help but notice that it was done by Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame. Same attitude, same joy for life!
I don't think that simply staying home to breed more people is a useful practice. We are enough already. God said to be fruitful and multiply. It's the only commandment we faithfully, and carelessly, obey. Let's stop now!
I think the imperative to be fruitful and multiply is one of the terrible errors religion teaches its adherents. The first consideration, can a family afford to raise a child? the second is can the Earth support all these people?
There is nothing purposeless or meaningless about humanism. If we throw ourselves into humanist activity, including bringing a humanist view to one's work, I suspect we have a much more meaningful life than some believers. After all, we can take pride in doing what we do because we genuinely want to help people, not chalk up brownie points with an old fool in the clouds.
Well no surprise there, that is the function of religion, whether that religion has celestial gods or human gods. The obsession with "helping people" is a power trip, born out of our need to feel good about ourselves, and to control those we help. The only thing more foolish than brownie points for a fool in the sky is brownie points for the fool within.
Thanks for the comic strip, Idaho Spud! My husband and I are professional artists. He just quit a good gallery job to paint full time. We certainly got some of those reactions. I didn't understand why. To be able to devote your life to the thing that gives you fulfillment, and in the process, be able to spend more time with your family.... is that, like, the ultimate?!
Sitting in my garden, I observe a robin running across the beds, stopping, listening, pecking at the dirt, pulling out a long, healthy worm, flying off to a nest in the Blue Spruce to feed her young.
Or I watch as a bee pokes its nose into each part of a sunflower, moving quickly, flying to another blossom, and on closer inspection, I see huge blobs of yellow on the bee's legs. It flies off to a hive to deposit nectar, leaving behind pollinated blossoms that will turn into seeds and bring forth the next generation of sunflowers.
Or I observe masses of baby earth worms, all coiled together, then grow into eating and pooping machines that till my soil, leaving behind a rich supply of worm castings that feed the sunflower, and the worm feeds the next generation of robins.
The robin doesn't rub its feet together and ponder, "What is my purpose?" Or the bee doesn't rub its legs together and ponder, "What is my meaning in life?" Or the worm doesn't wiggle its nose and ask, "What is my reason for being?" They do what robins, bees and worms do.
How are humans like these creatures? We have eyes to see, a nose to smell, a mouth that tastes, ears that hear, and skin that feels tactile sensations. Furthermore, humans have emotions and a brain that functions as a problem solver. Do we rub our hands together and ask, "What is my purpose, my meaning in life, my reason for being?"
Well, I think humans do what humans do: we are born, we live with our senses and feelings and thinking and learn attitudes and values of our cultures. We participate with others because we are social creatures.
If we learn how to be dependent, we seek out others to feed, house, clothe, care for us, Being dependent means looking for others to define who we are and what we are to do.
If we learn how to be independent, we develop functional skills, how to think and reason and solve problems. Being independent means looking to oneself for all the needs one has to survive.
If we learn how to be interdependent, we develop skills of communication, teamwork, and cooperation. Being interdependent means looking to oneself for supply of our needs and looking to others for companionship, community, and compassion.
My deepest learning comes from observing natural processes, looking for consequences of different options, deciding which option has the highest probability of getting me from where I am to where I want to me. I can explore, experiment, take risks, make mistakes, try another option and continue until my needs are met and I feel connected to life.
This is the web of life that continues generation after generation after generation through all of time.