Pontificating life’s purpose, or the lack thereof, can be a demoralizing practice. No worldly endeavor appears to have eternal ramifications and no eternal endgame seems rewarding enough to offset the suffering required to get there. If you aren’t careful, it’s dangerously easy to fall prey to the pernicious idea that nothing is worth doing. It’s an idea that feeds itself, validating its core concepts in realtime and offering an escape hatch that justifies the damages it has inflicted. You become so overwhelmed by the pointless work you’re doing day in and day out that you put in less and less effort because in the long run, you don’t believe it will matter one way or another. Your performance deteriorates. Life gets worse as society peers at you with an unforgiving gaze. Knowing you should be more deliberate with your efforts, you try to pay more attention to the things that will benefit your career and help you earn money but you’re constantly reminded that even money and a successful career won’t solve the philosophical problem that caused you to relinquish in the first place. So you relinquish again and life gets harder, the looming force of a single idea powering you downward in a straight line (forget the spiral). How sad.
If you find yourself sliding helplessly down this slick slope, grab onto something. As I mentioned in my post My Purpose is Purpose, the optimal way to live does not include accepting the untested “truth” that purpose doesn’t exist. Instead, you need to believe that there is something beyond our present understanding of nature that we can eventually understand, something that represents a purpose or an equivalent concept. Not only this, but you need to maximize your ability to pursue that rendition of purpose. Why? Simply because the consequences of ignoring a purpose that exists are far greater than ignoring one that doesn’t (assuming that failure to satisfy that purpose will result in harm or loss).
I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn’t, than live as if there isn’t and to die to find out that there is.Albert Camus
The first step towards living life in this way is to convince yourself that the underlying reasoning has merit (ie. A greater purpose may exist) and the fastest way to do that is to acknowledge that there are things you do not know. On the contrary, if you believed that you possessed all possible knowledge, you could never manipulate your brain to chase new understanding – you wouldn’t believe there was new understanding to chase. It is easy, however, to accept that we don’t know everything nor do we know the extent of what we don’t know (because if we did…well, we would know it). To visualize this, imagine that you are a dot on a piece of paper and there is a circle around you that represents everything you do know. If I asked you to draw a larger circle around the smaller one that represented all possible knowledge, you would be uncapable of doing that. From here we can project that there are concepts we don’t understand. If you can agree to this, you’re well on your way to understanding that something more sophisticated than us may exist.
Now that we have established the possibility of a greater purpose, we need to determine whether or not it is desirable for us as individuals to discover what that purpose is…I think this is difficult. There is no promise that the greater purpose pertains directly to individuals. In fact, it seems more likely that the greater purpose pertains to everything that exists. As Spinoza argued, everything in existence belongs to one Substance with infinite attributes so the concept of the individual is a fictitious one to begin with. That said, it is unlikely that the greatest of purposes is meant for the “individual”, a negligible subset of everything that exists. Instead, we can infer that the greatest of purposes is attached to everything all at once – that is, the universe, God, Nature, what have you. We may pursue knowledge of this purpose only to discover that it does not satisfy our egotistical brains. To hammer the point home, it may not matter if a single being contributes to accomplishing the purpose we are envisioning as long as the collective continues to head in a positive direction (towards realizing their purpose). It sounds like we will be disappointed, right?
NOPE! In order to entertain this foreboding, we must assume that we will retain our individualism even after we learn what the greatest purpose is. This line of thought is punctured by a malicious contradiction, though. If everything is One and the greatest purpose pertains to that thing, then that greatest purpose is also our purpose since we are part of the One. Will we always prefer the benefit of individual success? Or will there come a time when we detach ourselves from this selfish mindset? Here’s a more superstitious thought, but if we are a fragment of the whole, our sense of self may one day rest in a collective pool of consciousness and the failures or successes of the fragments (each individual life) will be known by the whole. A failure to pursue purpose now may hurt us as the “individual”, and later, us as the “collective”. Spooky.
I may have belabored this point unnecessarily. The short of the long is that if we are part of a larger substance, the greatest goal would also be our goal and so pursuing this unknown purpose does seem worth it.
If we are sufficiently confident in this, the goal then shifts from proving that there is something worth chasing to optimizing our ability to chase…and even if you are not confident, you need to ask yourself if you ever will be. Chances are, if you thought about the existence of a greater purpose your whole life, you might still die unsatisfied with your conclusion. In that vein, I see it beneficial to quickly transition onto stage two.
- STAGE 1: Convince yourself of the possibility of a greater purpose
- STAGE 2: Search for that purpose with the intent of finding it
- STAGE 3: (If a purpose is discovered) Achieve that purpose
What factors contribute to our ability to find purpose? What can we do to tip the balances in our favor? Stay tuned.