As An Atheist Can Your Life Have Purpose and Meaning?

I was wondering what other people thought about this.

I realize we weren't born with a purpose. No creator or "higher calling".

But as a non believer can your life have meaning and purpose without god?

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Here's an excerpt from the Orderism website that I'm bringing this year.  It is specifically about purpose and meaning.  Orderism agrees with the Nihilists to a point, that we were simply a happy accident.  There was no direction, but there was a progression, and now that we are cognitive there CAN be a direction.

The 3 Purposes of Life

To say that there may be a purpose to life, a reason that we’re all here as if we had some job to do, is incorrect if you come from a naturalist position.  Naturalist and many others would be quick to point out that “purpose & meaning” are very human constructs that only exist in our minds. Just like the issue with “good & bad”.  Since we came about from natural causes, and that nature is essentially mindless, then there can be no ‘reason’ for us to be here.  We just are.

Orderism accepts the fact that for the most part there was no reason or purpose for any of us humans to be here.  A cosmic happening is all that is was.  But Orderism does make two exceptions to this absolute notion.  

The first is the idea that an ‘observer’ may be necessary for reality to exist.  In the strangeness of quantum mechanics, scientist have discovered that having someone physically watch certain experiments can affect reality itself.  From this, some have construed that the observer may be a very important part of reality.  A sort of “if a tree falls in the wood -and there’s no one around, does it make a sound?” situation.  It is a real situation however and it points to a reason for us to be here: That reason would be to observe the universe around us.

The second idea of reason and purpose is that although there may be no reason for us being here, the situation has recently changed with the arrival of our cognitive mental abilities.  Yes, we were not made by anyone for any purpose, but now, now we can make our own purpose and our own reasons for being here.  It’s quite wonderful really that we were nothing, and now we are something.  

From our view that we humans are evolving from simple animals to something more, and from the possibility that life has an affect on reality, we draw Orderism’s 3 purposes of life.

1. The Animalistic Purpose
The first purpose is the same purpose that most every animal feels in some way.  That is to breed and raise the young to survivability.  We must again point out that animals do not have a ‘purpose’, only people do.  Therefore we should rephrase what we mean when we say it here.  Animals have an instinct and an imperative urge to reproduce and protect the young in whatever degree that suits them.  The Orderists would say that if this reiteration behavior was not ingrained into the generations, the population of this animal would falter and fail.  It is the reiteration and feedback of the system that allows it to flourish.

The animalistic purpose is also the lowest of the 3.  It means we have the same purpose (imperative urge) that all mammals do.  The same urge that a cow has.  It is easy to see that some people blindly follow that urge and they claim it brings them much joy.

2. Your Big Brain Purpose
The second purpose may be the highest of the 3.  Yes, we were once mere animals and now we are not.  With the abilities of our new big brains came a torrent of benefits and problems all at once.  Unknown that it is probably the greatest of problems was when we could finally ask ourselves “Why am I here? What should I be doing?”.

There is a big quest to find ‘the meaning of life’, and the truth is there probably isn’t just one meaning of life, and there probably isn’t any meaning to it at all.  No meaning - it just is.  

Some would take this as there is no meaning in anything that we do, and therefore we should be able to do whatever the hell we want to do.  What can we think of a person with this perspective.  A person with no boundries of conduct other than to keep themselves out of jail.  It is a perfectly fine perspective for that individual, and they may even be a just person.  However, others looking at this boundless person notice the lack of boundaries and his pitiable outlook.  

Now comes the answer to this greatest of problems, “why am I here?”.  Here it is:  You are free to choose a purpose.  It can be any purpose that is meaningful to you.  If you follow that purpose, you will be on the path to a happy life.  If your purpose is “good” and helps or affects others positively, then the meaning to your life skyrockets.

When we talk about the meaning to a life, it is not the same as purpose.  The same arguments apply, meaning is human construct and not real.  Purpose adds value to your life, meaning adds value to the lives around you.

3. Witness, Experience, Build the Fantastic
What’s amazing is that we are here at all.  Think about it, the unimaginably huge universe could have been sitting here for all of it’s billions and billions years with nothing or no one to see it.  There didn’t have to be life -or did there?  Remember the talk about reality needing an observer.  How true that may be, is yet to be seen, but we can draw these conclusions.  Either life had to be here so that it could observe the universe, and the property of self organization has brought us here. Or we’re just that lucky that we’re here to observe the universe.  Either way, we each are here for just a brief bit, and it is precious.  Your job may just be to take in whatever wonders you may find both in the small scale and large.  Our lifetimes may just be the flickering candlelight of the consciousness of the universe.  A universe that’s trying to become aware of itself.  


It's still a work in progress.

purpose #1 is the lowest of purposes and really only "counts" if you're only an animal

Hi John,

First, thanks for putting this out there. Displaying one’s philosophy open for comment can be daunting.

Some initial thoughts, for what they’re worth:

The alteration of the wave/particle duality in quantum mechanics does not require a human (or living) observer.  Also, there is a significant difference between how quantum physics works versus the physics of large bodies. No scientific explanation has yet reached a consensus to explain this difference that I am aware of.

Trees do indeed make a sound (causing a wave of oscillating pressure through the air), even if humans are not around to perceive those pressure differences with our ear drums – unless by definition you insist sound is only sound if heard by human ears.

You write, “Animals don’t have a purpose, only people do.” According to evolution, humans are just one species of animal on this planet. At what point in our evolution did we evolve the ‘purpose’ gene? If you confine purpose to humans only, it seems that you are defining the word as something along the lines of: only creatures capable of contemplating their purpose can have a purpose.

“…the true utility function of life, that which is being maximized in the natural world, is DNA survival.” – Dawkins: River out of Eden (1996) This may not seem like much of a reason to get up in the morning, but it seems to be what you're trying to get at when you say, “No meaning – [life] just is.”

You have some positive, feel good platitudes - follow a path that’s purposeful to you and helps others – but for me, there’s not enough substance to this philosophy to generate much enthusiasm.

I DO appreciate the feedback.  I am aware of the science stated above and it doesn't conflict with anything said (as I see it).  -You're right.  The point is to accept ALL of what reason and science are telling us, our BEST assumption of how things work, and CHOOSE our response -that's the beauty of position: cognitive and aware.

There is a progression, I say direction (now), to this life. 

There is only 3 positions to take after that...

  1. You can be part of the growing "order" or complexity

  2. You can fight or sabotage the growing "order" or complexity

  3. You can stay put and have the decision made for you.

I'm an ATHEIST, but that's not exactly a great position.  The question is what DO you believe in.  

There is no need for us to be here. -Except for the self organization principle -the order that springs from chaos when the numbers are tweaked just a bit.  Evolution is a prime example of the self organization principle.

Viktor Frankl said that either all life has meaning, or none of it does.  We already choose that it does, when suicide is not an option (yet). 

>>The first is the idea that an ‘observer’ may be necessary for reality to exist.  In the strangeness of quantum mechanics, scientist have discovered that having someone physically watch certain experiments can affect reality itself.

You haven't been specific about the effect you are describing, but these are interpretations of scientific statements, not scientific statements themselves. For example, the notion that an observer may be necessary for reality to exist is not something that can be verified by experimental means—it's an interpretation, and, I think, a false one.

On my mobile now, gotta work. I refer to that popular "double slit" experiment where photons shot through 2 slots act as a wave until an observer (or camera) watches it closely - then the photons act as particals.

There was an "or" in my text. Or or or, either the observer is required OR its still incredible that we're here to observe.

 I refer to that popular "double slit" experiment where photons shot through 2 slots act as a wave until an observer (or camera) watches it closely - then the photons act as particals.

That is not an accurate description of the double slit experiment. Individual particles—photons, electrons, etc.—in the double slit experiment are always observed as particles. However, with both slits open, after many particles pass through and are registered on a photographic plate, an interference pattern slowly emerges. You can see it happening in this YouTube video:

There are many variations on the double slit experiment and there are certainly non-intuitive aspects of the phenomena, but before interpreting the results in metaphysical ways, the first thing is to get a clear idea of what happens in the classical experiment.

When detectors are added to determine which slit the particles go through, the interference pattern is no longer observed and the expected double bar is seen. This has led to the idea that observing influences what happens and seemed to verify Bohr's complementarity principle, but a recent experiment in 2012 preserved the interference pattern while detecting the pass-through slit:

In any case it doesn't matter whether the "observer" is conscious or not, the results are the same.

Steph! You hit the jackpot! I have never seen a thread with 4,099 responses before. And such compelling and profound responses. You have the raw material for a book. Let me know when it is finished, I want to buy a copy. 

Odd experience, I have not had notification of many of these responses and discover I had the "Stop Following" button pushed. Bummer. Well, I shall have a great time starting at the beginning and reading them all. 

Hi Joan! Yes I have so many people to thank here for their wonderful insight and knowledge. I could take all of these replies and make it into a book. It would be good to get more people thinking. Critical thinking and deep thinking is a very good thing.

I do have a creator. Well, I have several. I come from a long line of people who couldn't keep their hands to themselves... among other things. I am the product of millions of years of evolution. Also, I am convinced that whether or not we were created by gods, that we should be able to determine our purpose through an examination of our nature. That is, we can look at tools from the ancient human past, and through study, we can determine what purpose those tools served. If we were created by a god/gods, then said purpose would be etched into our very nature, just as the nature of the tool dictates it's function. The same is true if we were formed via perfectly natural processes. The blind watchmaker isn't always so blind.

I know someone who once admitted that the real reason they had children was because they didn't like doing chores. Terrible parenting and/or terrible jokes aside, this illustrates a valid point. Our "creators" are our ancestors and they may or may not have had a purpose in mind when they "created" us, but we have most certainly been shaped by the larger society as a whole. That would be an external purpose which is imposed on us by our parents, our family, our social circles, our society, our species, and nature itself. At the very root, I believe that all life shares the same purpose. Past that, it's all just flavors of that purpose. The purpose of life is the perpetuation of one's traits... and I mean that in the broadest possible sense.

That which makes a bear a bear is passed from mother bear to cubs at each generation. Sure, that changes over time, but never too drastically or too quickly. For humanity, we each have a basic concept of what it means to be human. We then pass on our humanity to the next generation. These don't even have to be our children. We can pass on our humanity genetically, socially, economically, spiritually, etc. because there is more to being human than our genes.

And it's not just a bulk transfer either. Since those with "bad" traits are less likely to pass theirs on, we try our best to only pass on what we feel are "good" traits. Each generation is intended to be better off than the previous. You can see evidence of this in things such as the fact that human violence has been dropping precipitously for the entire history of humanity. That's because society, to a degree, dictates who does and does not reproduce. Those who are considered "bad" examples of humanity are more likely to be shunned and ostracized, limiting their reproductive opportunities. Those who are "good" examples of humanity are popular, sometimes nearly worshiped and their reproductive opportunities soar.

Still, that's all external. It doesn't say what my purpose is. The brain, for instance, gives rise to the entirety of human thought. That is the purpose of that organ. However, that doesn't tell you what the purpose of an individual brain region might be, let alone the purpose of a single neuron. Likewise, while the purpose of humanity may be one thing, it cannot tell us what the purpose of an individual human might be, even if the two purposes are inexorably intertwined.

As individuals, at some point we realize that the purposes imposed upon us aren't as much rules as they are suggestions and ultimately, there is no such thing as universal purpose. That is, once you step outside of the lens of life, the universe is completely uncaring. There is no purpose that could be imposed upon you from there. Sure, if gods exist, and they created us for a purpose, then we should still be able to determine that purpose by examining our nature, but even then, we can't sort that out with a single data point. We can only determine the purpose of a large group, not the purpose of a single individual. But does an individual only have a purpose in relation to the group? I'm not so sure about that.

Just like the purpose of a human is to be a good human, then perhaps my purpose is to be the best me. I am uniquely qualified to be me. I'm the only one who can fill the position. As such, there are good things and bad things about me. I should, if I use the same logic I have been throughout this entire rant of mine, with each passing moment, attempt to become a better me. Just like my parents had a choice in creating me. They had a choice in how they raised me, and what mental, emotional, psychological, and philosophical traits they would pass on. Just like my parents, I have a choice in the matter. Every moment I am alive, I am in the process of creating myself. Just as I could build a tool whose purpose I decide, I can choose my own purpose, and construct myself to that end.

There's some cool interplay here with the imposed external purposes. We are going to tend to choose a purpose for ourselves which meshes well with those external purposes. After all, our desires are shaped by millions of years of evolution and by the societies we live in. Sometimes, we might actually chose a person purpose which directly opposes those imposed purposes in an act of rebellion. Those too are beneficial, on the whole, as they test of the limits of acceptable purposes. For instance, we see psychopaths and extremists on the news, and we react by categorizing their chosen person purpose as "bad". We then pass that value judgement on to others and the next generation is better off for it.

So, that being said, the short answer is thus:
I am alive, therefore I should try to be the best sort of life I can be.
I am human, therefore I should try to be the best sort of human I can be.
I am me, therefore I should try to be the best me that I can be.
For every x that I am, if I want to be an x, if being an x makes me a better me/human/life, then I should try to be the best x that I can be.

I would also say that we should try to encourage others to do the same, but I actually feel it's best to lead by example first. I'm with Gandhi on this one. If we want to change the world, we should be the change we wish to see in the world.

That was a rather long rant, and there's a lot of philosophical backstory to much of it, but this just about sums up my sentiments on purpose in general and human purpose specifically.

Wow - Thank you so very much Nathaniel - I sure do appreciate it. That was a very well written response. I am so glad you took the time to write that for us.

Nathaniel Summers, as rants go, yours was superb!

Nice post Nathaniel!  :-D-& (I'm wearing my boy scout tie today)

Hmmmm: Purpose:

Primary: To learn as much as I can about life and pass useful stuff on to those who may find it useful, children, grand children, etc...

Secondary: Keep my family as happy and healthy as possible.

Other (Sub) Purposes:

Support worthwhile and humanistic causes

Have fun with knowledge and freedom of speech in using these to stir up as many Young Earth Creationists and Deeply Superstitious loonies as possible, though I could put this down as supporting worthwhile causes.



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