What is our purpose in life?
Richard Taylor, in his book Good and Evil, A New Direction, addresses the question of meaning in life. To address meaningless existence, Taylor recalls the ancient myth of Sisyphus [Richard Taylor, Good and Evil, A New Direction, London, England: Collier-Macmillan Ltd, 1970, pg 256-268.]. Sisyphus, after angering the Gods, is condemned to roll a stone to the top of a hill, where it immediately falls rolls back down. Sisyphus then proceeds to roll the stone back up the hill, where it again falls back down. Sisyphus is doomed to repeat this meaningless sequence forever! Taylor uses this story to outline the meaninglessness with which humans pursue life. Looking at this from the outside, Sisyphus is stuck in an endless, miserable loop. His task appears to be meaningless. Consider the engineer who is responsible for building great structures. Are this person’s feats of construction not victims of the same meaninglessness, given sufficient time? Will today’s superstructures degrade to the point of nothingness in 2000 or 4000 years? It can’t be denied that today’s feats of engineering will eventually disappear. How is this any different than Sisyphus and his unenviable task?
Next, Taylor provides a second, slightly different scenario. What if Sisyphus contained within himself an urge to roll stones? What if, by some strange quirk within his mind, Sisyphus felt that his goal in life was stone rolling? In that case, Sisyphus would suddenly have meaning in life. Sisyphus would have internal meaning, as a result of what many would argue would be a misguided desire to roll stones. Regardless of the motivation, if Sisyphus contained within himself the desire to roll stones, then he would be achieving his purpose in life.
Thus, we can see two ways of looking at one’s purpose. To an outsider, the monotonous job of rolling the stone up the hill for eternity is seen as a meaningless task. From an insider’s perspective, life could obtain meaning and purpose. Erik Wielenberg summarizes Taylor’s argument as “creating your own meaning” [Erik J. Wielenberg, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005, pg 18.]. Wielenberg offers a couple of additional answers to meaning in life without God, including “Peter Singer’s Way Out: Meaning Through Eliminating Pain”[Wielenberg, pg 23] and “Aristotle’s Way Out: Intrinsically Good Activity”[Wielenberg, pg 31]. Wielenberg’s arguments, while compelling, do not offer the same comfort that meaning from God provides. Wielenberg’s arguments, as listed above, are all internal definitions of meaning.
Different people can interpret elimination of pain and intrinsically good activity differently. I argue that the elimination of pain and intrinsically good activity arguments are similar to Taylor’s “creating your own meaning”. The elimination of pain argument suggests that one could fashion an existence based on eliminating pain and suffering from the lives of others. The intrinsically good activity argument holds that some activities are intrinsically good and should be followed no matter what. Attempting to live according to either of these arguments appears, at first glance to be worthwhile ventures. I don’t mean to detract from them, but like Taylor’s “creating your own meaning” argument, these two arguments are both very subjective in nature. With many ethical discussions, there are circumstances when the eliminating pain argument becomes difficult to support. For example, consider a sick person suffering from a horrible illness. The patient requests your assistance in committing suicide. Do you comply? This case has two equally compelling conclusions, both of which could be argued to be morally or ethically correct, depending on one’s perspective. Similarly, the intrinsically good activity argument is quickly deconstructed when two people debate the ranking of intrinsically good activities. What constitutes an Intrinsically good activity, and which activities are better than others, is debatable. We can see that both of these examples, the elimination of pain argument and the intrinsically good activity argument, fall under the same “creating your own meaning” argument that Taylor laid out.
Thus, in Wielenberg’s examples, there is no absolute standard of purpose. With God, we know the absolute meaning or purpose to life. It is well documented. Different religions may have different descriptions of what that purpose is, but within a religious worldview, there is consistency in meaning and a clear purpose of existence. To the atheist, it is this lack of empirical meaning that is difficult to comprehend.
Based on this understanding, the life of the atheist is a blank slate. It is an existence that is based on internal definition. At what point in the atheist’s life does the atheist become aware of this self-direction? It is possible, for the masses, to get through life without reflecting much on one’s purpose. Considering Socrates: “an unexamined life is not worth living”[ Plato, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, trans. F. J. Church, New York, New York: Macmillian, 1948, pg 45.]. I think that Socrates was right, but unfortunately, I also think that the masses tend to avoid examining their own lives.
Next post: What options are available to the atheist?