THE PRINCIPLE OF PURPOSE
Biology, Virtue and Mission
During adolescence or young adulthood, many stumble into the same awful awareness that life has no apparent meaning or purpose, and that our living is mostly for naught, besides the fleeting relevance our time, attention and actions hold to the others who share our common delusion. Adults, and others who care about us, will quickly cry “nihilism” and proclaim our discovery as nothing more than a phase of youth, a sophomoric epiphany, or a stage of development to be quickly outgrown and discarded, like the ragged short pants and sneakers we wore at play when we were small.
Nearly everyone does give up this idea. Like a man or woman slumbering—and dreaming—who suddenly wake and become cognizant of the dream, and perhaps embarrassed they’d been asleep, and hoping they hadn’t talked too loudly of what they saw while under twilight meditation. Nihilism fades…or at least it’s adherence…for the facts remain, though we no longer linger upon their august face or suggestion. We carry on through life, filling our days with contrived meaning, never asking for proof, never questioning the purpose we purport is self-evident.
When death arrives—if we’re lucky—then we may see again—just before we pass—that awful landscape of irrelevance and empty meaning. This happens just before we die, when we no longer recognize or acknowledge the faces of loved ones, or loving words being spoken at us, or cherished mementos such as photos, flowers or gifts. Our mind is dying now, and the layers of non-essential cognition are being shed like the clothes of a hiker whose body burns under the desert sun. Gone are recognition. Gone are loving feelings. Gone are care for the suffering or good will of others. Gone is self-concern—let whatever come now. Now, I will not even raise my hand to death. Such is the depth of irrelevance. Such is the abyss of a reality where the finest qualities of life are nothing more than a contrivance of life itself. Life and living have no deeper meaning than the meaning we develop, ascribe and believe. When we were young we quickly gave up this perception as nothing more than a stage of being, a stop along the way to maturity, a signpost to a museum fixture of philosophy few ever take seriously. Now this reality looms, with an un-worded promise that this is final truth, and a guarantee that you will have neither the means nor interest from this point on to learn otherwise.
So, let’s stop pretending the emptiness is not real. Let’s no longer gloss and cover over the silent fact of an uncaring cosmos. Let us no longer make up fables and excuses to cover over what we’ve seen. Pull back the dark shade. Look deeply into the unfaltering night and decide what meaning you will create from the reality you now behold.
So, here we are one day… Alive and seemingly thinking. There’s lots to do and say and hear to distract from birth and death. A fairly pleasant way to pass a life. But what of our purpose? What of this sense that I need some reason to be? Is it all just pleasant sensation? Or the struggle to improve and get by? Is there some better or other reason to be here? Are we nothing more than a momentary flash and glimmer of life in an otherwise silent void?
The investigations of science have revealed one certain purpose to our lives; and that is to live. Life seems to abhor death, resists the fact and pull of mortality to take us away. Answers “no” or “wait” or “why” to the necessity of life’s end. We see that everywhere where life is, and tries, and carries on – and endless grasping after more life, and more time; even if that time is suffering, painful and without peace. So, we have that at least—the purpose of staying alive.
Another seeming purpose is our motive will to reproduce. For if death must get us in the end, then maybe we can escape this fate in a way by making some copies of ourselves? We don’t think that way, of course, though our actions betray our deeper, instinctual reasoning. So, we find a mate, perhaps get married and build a life together, and then make a child or two. Some people to take our name, our culture, our faith, and maybe even our nose, into the next generation and beyond. It’s a good guise and fool against death. We’ve cheated you, reaper! We’re gonna live after all.
So, that’s two purposes then. Or maybe it’s just one? The same one—life and living—expressed in two ways? Yeah, I think that’s it. And if that’s the case then that ain’t much. It’s just the fact of life wanting to live. Wanting to carry on. And isn’t that just what we’d expect of life? Would we not be here if life were otherwise? So why be impressed by life’s expected mandate? And what’s so dear and satisfying about doing what we cannot normally do otherwise?
So yes, staying alive and having children are quite a good and satisfying purpose—enough indeed for many—but is it possible there’s more? My conclusion is yes. But only if we are willing to accept that these other purposes are contrived to the extent they are not simply a means to ends of fulfilling the first two purposes of life, and the passage of our genes into the next generation. So, then what are these other purposes?
They are what we decide shall be our purpose. I’ll agree if you complain this answer is unsatisfying, for, shouldn’t our purpose be something timeless, eternal or maybe even a bit holy? Shouldn’t our purpose—or our meaning even—be a principle or mandate we strive towards from the place of our as-yet unrealized desire. Like commandments in stone… Something worthy of commitment and an aspiration towards our better selves. Are you saying it is up to me to decide? But who am I to determine such a thing?
That’s our dilemma in fact. For when we ask the universe its ??? its only mute answer seems to be: you must live. And make more of yourselves.
So now what? We’ve got the universe’s perspective—heck, it seems written in our genes. And now the rest is up to us. From this place it seems there are three ways to go:
Invent a god to sponsor some purpose and meaning
Abide the seeming wisdom of someone else
Make up some purpose and meaning ourselves
The first option is by far the easiest, as it requires only that we surrender our reason at the altar of credulity—a quite easy task for many it seems—and then live our lives in seemingly contented self-satisfaction of the road we’ve invented and the leader whose authority we dare not question. So many live—and die—this way. So many form communities of like mind this way. So many govern others this way. It does work. But only if you are willing to relent the power of reason in favor of the impotence of faith.
The second option is also quite attractive. And it also works very well, and for many of the same reasons. Again, with authority, tradition, eloquence, charisma and other truths—not to mention sound ideas and arguments—the wise man or woman can win over adherents and bring them into line for an orderly march to consensus. The price of entry here is less dear than with gods, for humans have their flaws, which are forgiven sometimes in pursuit of stability and the status quo.
The last is by far the hardest—though many do it, to greater or lesser degree and success. It may take time to compose a satisfactory world view and philosophy, especially if you want to convince others you are right. But when this is done—and your cosmology is complete, then look for whatever purpose of meaning might be the result. What end have you found? The test now is in the living.
As for me, I choose The Path of Wildness as my way, and the pursuit of virtue as my worthy end. Where I define virtue as the objective improvement of well-being for as many as possible without compromising the well-being of the few.
Providing an accounting to God
If I could stand before God now and offer my accounting, I’d tell Him my purpose had been “good,” that I’d only ever wanted to increase the incidence of well-being and reduce the experience of suffering. I’d only hope then that God would smile and thank me for my service before obliging me to whatever fate my efforts have richly deserved. I wouldn’t expect to know or understand God’s mind on such matters, and I’d only hope for a smile and a node before I go. My concept of purpose is just that simple; to live a good life and to be a good man. To increase well-being and innate happiness at the expense of despair and gloom. To help myself and others prosper in meaningful ways. And to again alleviate suffering at every opportunity.
I have another purpose which is to be a good husband and father. I want o cultivate family and the bonds which provide stability and sustenance. I want to love and care for my wife. I wish to be together and to talk and to listen to whatever she has to say. I want to comfort her when she struggles or has a bad day. I want to sit with her and offer my company at small entertainments and big life events like marriages and funerals. I want to be the man she turns to at every juncture to either share or vent or hold when holding is what’s needed. This is another purpose. This is likely my central purpose.
But I’m also there for my child. I am my daughter’s father. I helped to make her. And I helped to raise her. And I help now to guide her into adulthood. This is another central purpose. This is a meaning to my life.
There are other purposes to my life. However, these three are those I select as most important. To be good and to further virtue and well-being, to be a good husband and a partner and a friend, and to be a good father. There’s more purpose to life than these… Many more. But, instead of numbering them here, I’ll simply count them aloud to myself as I life and strive to be and do good.
The pursuit of virtue
Life is essentially devoid of intrinsic meaning. That's a tough thing to write even. As it feels like a slap to the face of decency: Life without meaning... What nonsense! Well, I'd like to qualify this idea with the word "apparent," as I strongly reserve the right to be wrong on this issue. In fact, I rather hope I am wrong. However, all of my experience of life to-date suggests that life is indeed without "apparent" meaning, with the exception of one thing...reproduction.
Each living organism seems to come alive with a mandate to stay alive and make more like itself. In a sense then, this is a clear meaning and purpose of life. Although it is a purpose which rings rather hollow in terms of the loftier human dignity we so often wish upon ourselves. Is that it? Just life? Just making babies?? For myself, I answer yes and no. Yes, to the fact that staying alive and making close copies of ourselves seems life's sole intrinsic purpose. And we humans are good at it, with almost eight billion of us on the planet now. But I'm not satisfied with just this purpose. It is too hollow for my taste. So, I decided years ago to make my own purpose. I made up my own definition of The Good Life, and the life well-lived, and the life of meaning, and the life of purpose.
My purpose is a life of virtue, where this word is defined as the improvement of well-being: better circumstances, better relations, better livelihood, better everything. My adopted purpose then is to simply try and live in such a way that the fact of my living reduces suffering and increases well-being–for humans, other animals and the planet in general. It is a good purpose. Quite satisfying. Though I know it is contrived... But that's fine. As contrived good is as wholesome as intrinsic good, especially when we forget the depth of Indifference which swirls beyond us in the universe at large, like a great maelstrom of empty. But sometimes I like to remind myself of this "apparent" true fact of empty. And so, I go into the deep universe sometimes. I go alone. And I don't look back until I've had a good eyeful of the nothing. And then I return. Possibly wounded and hobbling, and a bit deranged–like after this past weekend–taking days perhaps to fully recover my sense and sensibility. And then I remember–and cannot forget–and this memory tempers my living with an "apparent" truth I do not want, yet which I cannot deny. I see the empty. And I decide to live well in spite of it.
May be a fearful thing
If you don't go out to see
What it really isn't
I only attempted to address right and wrong late in life. I lived all the way into my forties without any sound idea about what good or bad thinking and behavior were. I only took on this challenge when I found myself in need of a definition of life meaning, and when I decided this meaning would be the pursuit of virtue, and I did not know what virtue was.
I decided then that virtue was the pursuit of well-being, which in turn is defined as the objective improvement of the welfare and circumstance for any living thing. I know that this is a very broad definition, though my principle aim in virtue is the well-being of my fellow humans, with an understanding that improvement of well-being of other creatures, as well as the ecosystem as a whole, creates an overall betterment which raises the relative well-being of all life. But what's this to do with right and wrong or good and evil? And how do these two concept-sets differ?
What is right is simply whatever makes things better for the many without unreasonable compromise to the well-being of the few. Wrong then is the corresponding opposite and that which makes things worse for the many with unreasonable improvement of the few. Good and evil in turn describe the overt intent of the actor in performing right or wrong behaviors. In this sense, someone who is ignorant of the harm their behavior causes to the many is guilty of doing wrong, while their intent may not be evil. Yet, if they understand the harm they cause yet they choose to do it anyway, then they are guilty of evil. On the other hand, someone who makes the world better by their choices and actions performs right, and is also good if they understand the positive impact of what they do. The pursuit of virtue then is nothing more than seeking first to understand the potential impact of our decisions regarding well-being (right and wrong) and then resolving to make the choices which knowingly make things better (good over evil). Making the decision for right and good often takes work and is rarely easy...though this is the way to virtue...this is how to live The Good Life.
We "go into evil" when we first collect the facts we need ahead of an important decision, and then weight and consider these facts in light of the pros and cons and assumption about what will happen if we make a choice. The critical path is the way forward that seemingly leads towards virtue and the improvement of well-being for the many. We "go into evil" if this path takes away from our preference in pursuit of the good. Going into evil begins with ourselves; this fight starts with a resistance to our own unworthy desire and want. We engage the fight with temperance and simplicity and apathy and a decision to do right and perform good in spite of the discomfort it may cause to our own desire or even our own well-being. We go into evil when we choose The Good Life first.
Why bother waking if only to then rest with our eyes wide open? Are there not better ways to improve the world than as an inanimate living corpse; reclining and at ease while daylight surges overhead and necessity demands a helping hand? Sure, we need our rest. But is it not better to sleep long and full by night to then rise and engage long and full by day? I'm not suggesting we never rest—but only that rest be found in its proper season and in such a way as to be in harmony with nature and the judicious and modest use of our time.
I did not rise this morning for ease or
leisure, but to spite my lack of ease or
And what if I've no chance of leisure, despite my fatigue or sense of having earned a rest? Well, what then better way to couple resolve with the fact of necessity, or our current circumstance, to then form virtue of worthy action, words and outlook? Such a blessing to work when we must, despite our desire to rest when necessary work must yet be done.
The circular value of caring for one another
I took our sick dog Ollie to the doggie E.R. yesterday. The visit was a costly, though worthwhile expense, for Ollie's sake, as well as the deep and meaningful satisfaction of caring for someone you love...whatever the cost. It is a sensation which presses hard on that part of ourselves which desires purpose and meaning in life, which needs are suddenly evident and met in the opportunity to help relieve the suffering of someone we love, or even someone we barely know, or even a stranger--as beneficence cares less for relation than the opportunity to care for and simply relate.
The good feeling
Of caring for my sick pet,
Pursues the circular purpose
Of being cared for by my pet...
And as I cared for my sick dog, I fulfilled my end of an unspoken bargain between us: a compact of well-being wherein I promise his care in return for my own, which contract Ollie fulfills every day of his life as a member of our family. I kept my end of the bargain in keeping Ollie well through medicine and the care of a skilled doctor, while he helps keep my family well through his companionship and presence in our home. So too, the pursuit of the well-being of others, which is an activity which is challenging, and painful, and costly in many senses of the word, though also rewarding in reinforcing the mutual agreement of social creatures to be there for one another through good times and hard, to care for our sick and dying, to live seemingly for one another, and to pursue together the shared and common purpose of a more universal well-being.
Notes from my muse
The Veil of Relevance and Meaning is that very thin layer of interface we maintain between our conscience experience of life, and our biased perception that human ends are in themselves worthwhile or meaningful. The veil drops during adolescence, and we call our response nihilism—older folks reassuring us we'll outgrow it. The veil may drop again shortly before we die, when no one can comfort, and there's no chance we'll outgrow what we perceive is true.
As the Veil of Relevance drops, either through disease or old age, or the dawning revelation of experience and understanding, we see that our best acts—like the worst—are without merit in a universe which cannot care. Our next step—if it isn't death—is either despair or resolve, fear or determination, inaction or forward motion—forward, where no direction is perfectly true.
Perceiving the Veil of Relevance renders all things irrelevant, save that which we fool ourselves is not.
Going to the wild alone reduces my life to a small, brief, moment of personal light in a seeming eternity of dark, cold night. But I'm grateful for the experience—which is like a hard slap in the face, or a dive into cold water—as I always return to civilization a better man: more resolved to do good in the time remaining, more determined to look deeply into the eyes of my wife and daughter, and be with them sincerely in the moments we’re together, and far more attentive to the few remaining days I have to live; to use these moments well, and to never expect more from life than the mere opportunity to live. So, in a way, though the wildness robs me of my illusions and fantasies of forever, I gain much more in the bargain by way of improved living in the here-and-now.