Monday 29 October 2018

How Life Has Value, Even Absent Overarching Purpose

Wherein lies value?
Posted by Keith Tidman

Among the most-common questions from philosophy is, ‘What is the purpose of life?’ After all, as Plato pithily said, humans are ‘beings in search of meaning’. But what might be the real reason for the question about the purpose of life? I suggest that what fundamentally lurks behind this age-old head-scratcher is an alternative query: Might not life still have value, even if there is no sublimely overarching purpose? So, instead, let’s start with ‘purpose’ and only then work our way to ‘value’.

Is an individual's existence best understood scientifically — more particularly, in biological terms? The purpose of biological life, in strictly scientific terms, might be reduced to survival and passing along genes — to propagate, for continuation of the familial line and (largely unconsciously) the species. More broadly, scientists have typically steered clear of deducing ‘higher purpose’ and are more comfortable restricting themselves to explanations of empirically, rationally grounded physical models — however inspiring those peeks into presumed reality may be — that relate to the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of existence. The list is familiar:
  • the heliocentric construct of Copernicus and the mechanistic universes of René Descartes and Isaac Newton
  • the Darwinian theories of evolution and natural selection
  • the laws of thermodynamics and the theory of general relativity of Albert Einstein 
  • the quantum mechanics of Niels Bohr, Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, and Erwin Schrödinger. 
But grand as these theories are, they still don’t provide us with purpose.

Rather, such theories focus on better understanding the emergence and evolution of the cosmos and humankind, in all their wonder and complexity. The (not uncommonly murky) initial conditions and necessary parameters to make intelligent life possible add a challenge to relying on conclusions from the models. As to this point about believability and deductions drawn, David Hume weighed in during the 18th century, advising,

             ‘A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence’.

Meanwhile, modern physics doesn’t yet rule in or rule out some transcendent, otherworldly dimension of the universe — disproof is always tough, as we know, and thus the problem is perhaps unanswerable — but the physical–spiritual dualism implied by such an ethereal dimension is extraordinarily questionable. Yet one cannot deduce meaning or purpose, exceptional or ordinary, simply from mere wonder and complexity; the latter are not enough. Suggested social science insights — about such things as interactions among people, examining behaviours and means to optimise social constructs — arguably add only a pixel here and a pixel there to the larger picture of life’s quintessential meaning.

Religious belief — from the perspectives of revelation, enlightenment, and doctrine — is an obvious place to turn to next in this discussion. Theists start with a conviciton that God exists — and conclude that it was God who therefore planted the human species amidst the rest of His creation of the vast universe. In this way, God grants humankind an exalted overarching purpose. In no-nonsense fashion, the 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza took the point to another declarative level, writing:
‘Whatever is, is in God, and without God nothing can be, or be conceived’. 
This kind of presumed God-given plan or purpose seems to instill in humankind an inspirational level of exceptionalism. This exceptionalism in turn leads human beings toward such grand purposes as undiminished love toward and worship of God, fruitful procreation, and dominion over the Earth (with all the environmental repercussions of that dominion), among other things. These purposes include an implied contract of adding value to the world, within one’s abilities, as prescribed by religious tenets.

One takeaway may be a comfortable feeling that humankind, and each member of our species, has meaning — and, in a soul-based model, a roadmap for redemption, perhaps to an eternal afterlife. As to that, in the mid-20th century, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in characteristically unsparing fashion:
‘Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal’. 
Universes constructed around a belief in God, thereby, attempt to allay the dread of mortality and the terror of dying and of death. Yet, even where God is the prime mover of everything, is it unreasonable to conceive of humankind as perhaps still lacking any lofty purpose, after all? Might, for example, humankind share the universe with other brainy species on our own planet — or even much brainier ones cosmically farther flung?

Because if humankind has no majestically overarching purpose — or put another way, even if existentially it might not materially matter to the cosmos if the human species happened to tip into extinction — we can, crucially, still have value. Ultimately value, not exceptionalism or eternity, is what matters. There’s an important difference between ‘purpose’ — an exalted reason that soars orders of magnitude above ordinary explanations of why we’re riding the rollercoaster of creation — and value, which for an individual might only need a benevolent role in continuously improving the lot of humankind, or perhaps other animals and the ecosphere. It may come through empathically good acts without the expectation of any manner of reward. Socrates hewed close to those principles, succinctly pointing out,

            ‘Not life, but a good life, is to be chiefly valued’.

Value, then, is anchored to our serving as playwrights scribbling, if you will, on pieces of paper how our individual, familial, community, and global destiny unfolds into the future. And what the quality of that future is, writ large. At minimum, we have value based on humanistic grounds: people striving for natural, reciprocal connections, to achieve hope and a range of benefits — the well-being of all — and disposing of conceits to instead embrace our interdependence in order not only to survive but, better, to thrive. This defines the intrinsic nature of ‘value’; and perhaps it is to this that we owe our humanity.


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Aristotle considered that meaning has to do with 'the whole aim and end of human existence'. The trouble with smaller meanings is that nothing lies beyond them. They are satisfactory only within a limited context. I see various problems there.

There has been much debate as to whether or to what extent theism has had 'environmental repercussions', whatever might be meant by this above. The Torah, for instance, has been seen as a blueprint for environmental sustainability.

docmartincohen said...

"Aristotle considered that meaning has to do with 'the whole aim and end of human existence'."

- sounds tautological to me!

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Not only. Someone said that 'meaning is more'. This seems to me to be what Aristotle implied. It is about the 'whole' -- it is always more than you have got.

I think there are two great dangers in 'my own meaning' -- a meaning about which Thomas Nagel said, 'Perhaps the trick is to keep your eyes on what's in front of you.' Such meaning can fail, not seldom catastrophically. But it may also open the temptation to 'more'. Offer people a larger meaning, say Kultur, and they too easily jump ship for that larger meaning.

Keith said...

“[I]t may also open the temptation to ‘more’. Offer people a larger meaning, say Kultur, and they too easily jump ship for that larger meaning.” I wonder, though, if the “jumping of ship for that larger meaning” is too often done out of quiet desperation. Life absent a transcendental purpose — such lofty purpose, we might convince ourselves, ‘divinely’ justifies humankind’s existence — can, for some, be terrifying. Just as terrifying might be fear of death absent the promise of eternity — some variant of eternity handily filling in the gap left by the concomitant fear of incompleteness in life and of the shaky underpinnings of our species’ presumptuous exceptionalism. All in all, thereby, I’m not sure the mass ‘jumping of ship’ has historically been a good arbiter or metric of wise decision-making regarding life’s higher-order matters. As I propose in my brief essay, ‘value’ (with humankind’s welfare at the epicenter) can be satisfyingly sought in less otherworldly ways.

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