The following is a reply to Steph S’s discussion on the purpose of life for an atheist. I’m posting it here because there’s much food for thought and discussion. It’s the most important pages of my book.
Steph, Teleology (the study of the purpose of life) is a major theme of Mirror Reversal. The following scene takes place at the end when Prof. Cynthia Whipple faces final retribution at the hands of Mr. Morality. I think it’s beautiful, but I wrote it.
Mr. Morality’s heart began to patter in sweet anticipation as the van traversed the dreary dirt road twisting and winding its way up the hill to the farmhouse. “Leave the gag off, I want to hear what she has to say when I recite the word of God.”
Cynthia gazed through the window at the darkness and vastness of the infinite heavens. She began to think of the end of life. It wasn’t death that scared her, just death’s portal. To her mind, she was going to the same place she had been before she was born. Not sleep, but non-existence—the non-caring, dispassionate inertia of rock. Nothing bothered her that went on during the billions of years she had waited to be born. She doubted that anything in the future would inconvenience her in the least. And missing eternal bliss won’t be a problem either. Who the heck wants eternal bliss? Judging by all the squares she met in her life that believed in it, and even blew themselves up for it, they can have it. Beatific vision, keep it. Just give me my tropical lagoon with the inquisitive red uakari monkey and the orange-cheeked parrots of this life—even if for a moment, so I know what a real heaven is.
“Hey, Cynthia,” called her mother, Elizabeth, from the depths of subconscious memory, “would you care to be born? Your father and I will love you and give you a good home. In the vast universe you’ll be alone and insignificant, but in our loving home you’ll be important and rare. And we have enough money to lavish you with all the education your mind desires. Through books, you’ll be able to converse with humanity’s greatest geniuses. You’ll find that the more you learn about how you got here, the more you’ll appreciate how lucky you are to be alive. Would you like to come to us? We promise to love you.”
“Nah, not unless you bestow on me eternal bliss. Talk about missing the boat! What an ungrateful position to hold. Just the fleeting glimpse of the cosmos is enough to make life worthwhile. Just to know it’s there, even if for the lifetime of a mayfly. And in addition to nature’s greatest spectacle of the stars in the sky, I get sea otters teasing a polar bear and sliding down the icy mound. My eyes get to behold a giant cloud of flamingo feathers flickering multi-hued rays of buffered light in the sunset. And my hummingbirds! Capricious pixies doing nature’s work of providing balance, making love to orchids, and performing aerial acrobatics for my enjoyment as they grant my primate eyes a feast of dazzling color.
“Plus I get Disney, the opera, Mozart and Beethoven, Rembrandt and Van Gogh, a career, adventure, travel, cooking, cinema, and the Internet. Plus through sex I physically touch the mammalian force that makes all the mundane chores and toil of life worthwhile more than anything else: the moment we touch the force of all life that ever lived.
The van reached the farmhouse and the gnomes jumped out to fetch another wheelchair.
Heh, heh, you clever chap! Here is dictionary.com on teleology:
What is the purpose of life?
A bee wakes up in the morning, leaves its hive and flies from flower to flower in order to get nectar that is its food. In the process it pollinates plants. And we all know how important bees are to agriculture for food for humans. The bee doesn’t rub its front legs together saying, “I have to do the will of god.” It does what it does to maintain itself and to participate with other bees to produce the next generation, to maintain and protect it.
A robin gets up, sings, searches for worms, pulls them out of the ground and eats them or takes them to a nest of baby robins. It sings, flies, runs, listens, eats, poops, lays eggs, maintains, and protects the next generation. It doesn’t say, “I must pray to god for guidance.”
A human gets up, does whatever it takes to maintain oneself, socializes, finds a mate of the other sex or the same sex, learns, explores, experiments, fails and succeeds at whatever interests him or her, some have babies, some adopt babies or children, and does what is necessary to be healthy, active and participate in living. There is no meaning or purpose to life, at least not as imagined by those who seek meaning and purpose. There is no grand plan or blueprint for the individual.
Whether bee, robin, or human, there is no grand design, meaning or purpose. Life is. That is all. And then it is over. One’s life creates meaning and purpose, for good or for ill. It is not a goal that is one’s purpose; it is one’s effect on oneself and others. Thriving, flourishing, comes about by living in balance.
Evolution is a process of change and adaptation and flexibility of thought and act. If there were another planet that supported life, there is no reason to believe it would develop Homo sapiens or other life forms such as found on Earth. There is not a silent hand of god directing evolutionary processes, no one to ask for help or guidance, no divine power to protect one. Life is. That is all.
Quite so, Joan. We certainly see eye to eye.
"There is no grand plan or blueprint for the individual."
That’s why I feel the line by Gaylord G. Simpson is so important. Paraphrased, “Mankind is the result of random and purposeless forces of nature that did not have him/er in mind.”
If people would only realize this, we’d be better able to cope with the serious problems that threaten the world. No God is coming to save us. There’s no good or evil in nature. The only thing that counts is if it works to increase chances of survival.
I like your line about, “Life is. That is all.” Similar to what Barbara said about the universe. “It just is, what meaning could it possibly have?”
That line of reasoning leads to Cynthia’s enticing conclusion, ““C’mon, do I have to write you a memo? What can I say? We evolved from oversexed primates; that’s not my fault. Let’s make the best of it.”
These conclusions lead to an entire different worldview of just about everything.
James, hoping not to appear too much a modern-day Humpty Dumpty, “A word means what I want it to mean,” the word “teleology” has varied meanings but I’m using it to refer to the study of purpose or goal.
I’ve always had an interest and fascination with etymology. A really fun study. Words like companion, for instance, from the Latin for “bread” and “with,” someone you eat with. I recently learned some beauties: How about “movies” and “gypsy”? Barbara’s Man Made God has a treasure trove full of them. Words like hag, berserk, and crone. The middle one, as I remember, is from the Celtic referring to getting high, putting on a bear skin and running around the campfire.
My examples refer to the abbreviation or shortening of the term, “moving pictures” and the latter people who said they were from Egypt but were actually migrants from the Russian Steppes.
A few days later, Dad came home grumbling about the Catholic Church. "They won't let the Captain be buried in sacred ground."
I can imagine if they ever told me that. I’d say, “Who the heck wants to be buried on sacred ground with all those holier-than-thou spooks flying around?”
More pertinent to the discussion above, neology also enters the picture. Put simply it’s the study and coining of new words, which I always had a penchant for. Mirror Reversal introduces three which I hope will someday be household words.
I believe they would be very important to a new religion based on the revelation of science. “Endmeme” refers to the belief that Christ or the Holy Prophet is coming to destroy the world and bring on the Day of Judgment. It’s a perilous situation when you consider that most of the world’s population believes it. The possibility of self- fulfilling prophecy increases tremendously. Used in a sentence, “Mitt Romney shouldn’t be elected because he’s infected by the endmeme.”
The next word I made up (as far as I know) and is equally important is “futureworld.” What does that say about society when we don’t even have a word to describe what continues after we’re gone? Futureworld should be a major concern of our lives, and we don’t even have a word for it.
The last word is, “Ga-Ga”, a word I was using in Mirror Reversal years before the popular lady came around. In deference to time and brevity, it’s a sorority word that the girls use to describe a particular type of sister. Cynthia was the biggest ga-ga they had ever seen. I’ll let your imagination figure this one out.
Thanks for your comment. Fun stuff, Rich.
Just to add the inimitable Tim Minchin's ideas on the purpose of life to the mix, from his epic and amazing piece Storm (link):
Isn’t this enough?
Just this world?
Just this beautiful, complex
Wonderfully unfathomable world?
How does it so fail to hold our attention
That we have to diminish it with the invention
Of cheap, man-made Myths and Monsters?
If you’re so into Shakespeare
Lend me your ear:
“To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw perfume on the violet… is just fucking silly”
Or something like that.
Or what about Satchmo?!
I see trees of Green,
Red roses too,
And fine, if you wish to
Glorify Krishna and Vishnu
In a post-colonial, condescending
Bottled-up and labeled kind of way
But here’s what gives me a hard-on:
I am a tiny, insignificant, ignorant lump of carbon.
I have one life, and it is short
But thanks to recent scientific advances
I get to live twice as long as my great great great great uncles and auntses.
Twice as long to live this life of mine
Twice as long to love this wife of mine
Twice as many years of friends and wine
Of sharing curries and getting shitty
With good-looking hippies
With fairies on their spines
And butterflies on their titties.
Logan, just great! Some really cleaver, tricky rhymes in there: Vishnu/wish to, lily/silly. You have talent.
You remind me of the great songwriter Lorenz Hart. He’s probably before your time, but his talent always amazed me since I was a kid. He’s a fellow Brooklynite, maybe that’s why. Lorenz Hart was Richard Rogers’ partner before the great Oscar Hammerstein. Just a charming man. A lot of the old standards were written by him. Consider, “you’ll look so fancy on old Delancy, Street you know.” Or, “the city’s a great big world (pronounced ‘whirl’). Just made for a boy and girl (pronounced ‘goyl’).” Your line about the “advances and uncles and auntses” reminds me of it.
I wonder if you heard of these songs: Where or When, My Heart Stood Still, Blue Moon, Mountain Greenery. Here’s an example of what I’m trying to get at. From the latter song, here’s some fun stuff: Dig how great it sounds when sung. Hope you enjoy it.
When you love your lover, let
Blue skies be your coverlet.
Now’s the time to trust
To your wanderlust.
Beans could get no keener reception in a beanery.
Bless our mountain greenery home.