The Beauty of a Life without a Purpose

I have been told (following my previous article) that the only viable option for an honest non-believer is effectively a depressing life. Such a conception is one of those which I would really like to write against because I believe it to be entirely false.

I guess that ultimately the main reason behind such claim is the fact that non-believers do not generally believe in a purpose to life. Thus, some would claim, they do not have any basis on which to direct their lives. While this reasoning may sound fine, the problem I find with this argument is the assumption that without a purpose you do not have a direction. On the contrary, I believe that a direction does not require a purpose, just as the design of the universe did not require a designer but an evolution. Natural evolution is in fact an example where you clearly have a direction but not a goal. Who knows where evolution would eventually lead to? Who could have imagined our sophisticated intelligence a few million years ago?

Basically, what you need to have a direction is some kind of movement or change and a notion of what is better. In the case of evolution you have random mutations which provide the “movement” and natural selection which provide the notion of “better”. Similarly, I think that in my life I also have movement, born out of my innate desire to live, and a notion of better: that which is more peaceful, tolerant, liberating, loving, etc is better; that which is based on fear, mediocrity, anger, etc is worse. I think the concept is very similar – if not inspired from – the idea of discernment of St Ignatius of Loyola.

As for me, this is how I wish to live my life: like a child fully immersed in a game: enthusiastically participating, taking risks, tiring to get better at it, but with no clear goal or purpose. The beauty of this game is incredible! It is also a part of the larger game of the universe in its direction towards ever increasing sophistication. Through us, the universe is self-conscious! Through our thoughts, we are evolving the universe further and further.

While this gives me direction, still I do not have a purpose. I think the best metaphor for this idea is a never ending game: it has a notion of better, it is exciting, it may be challenging, it may be taken seriously, it may be exhausting, but you play it for the fun of it.

The fact that this game knows no end is what makes it even more beautiful! Eventually, when the times comes for me to stop playing the game, while knowing the game is not yet over because others will continue playing it (hopefully also using my contribution to improve the overall score), I shall be happy that I have had my turn in playing the game.

17 thoughts on “The Beauty of a Life without a Purpose

  • Reply Sinclair Bugeja 13th March 2013 at 4:33 pm

    Well done for both articles you have written for zuntier. I truly admire your openness which lacks the arrogance typical of some atheists (Dawkins and the like). Yet I cannot agree with you on the dichotomy you highlighted between ‘direction’ and ‘purpose’ which for me (and Aristotle) are one and the same thing. One doesn’t set off on a journey having directions that do not presuppose some final purpose/end (even if the end is unknown to the traveller). Otherwise what is the whole point of directions if they do not ‘direct’ the traveller to a desired end? I think that your life has a purpose (to better oneself); your poem in the article has a purpose (to entertain and pass on a message); the human race has a purpose (survival).

    • Reply Christian Colombo 14th March 2013 at 6:18 am

      Thanks Sinclair for your comment which I will try to address through the following points:

      1) I think that most works of art are not created for a purpose, art just happens; eg the poem was not written to accompany this article, to entertainment, or to pass a message – at one point it was inside me and it simply took a form outside me. My view is that, generally, passing a message is a mere by-product of art rather than its purpose.

      2) Probably the article can be better understood in light of eastern philosophy/religion which puts less emphasis on purpose and more emphasis on simply living the present moment – being. Also, (from the little knowledge I have) it uses the concept of a circle/cycle to describe life instead of our “directed line”. Interestingly, we use the expression “going round in circles” in a disparaging manner to describe something which is not reaching its target. Note that moving in a circular pattern is still a directed movement but leads to “nowhere”.

      3) The third point but most significant, when one thinks of having found a purpose, one could try to find the purpose of the purpose, eg, what is the purpose of survival? I think if one repeatedly asks this question long enough, one ends up either with God or with no purpose at all. This, I believe was the point raised in the comment of my previous article.

  • Reply Carlo Calleja 15th March 2013 at 4:36 pm

    I believe that we can deduce purpose from the inherent qualities of the object (or subject if you like) itself. A flame does not have any purpose, but we use its qualities (heat and luminescence) for our purposes. In morphology we speak of “structure adapted to function” so that the features of the plant or animal are adapted for the survival of the organism – and of the whole species at that. Among the unique characteristics of man, are, for example the development of language, which has led to community, among other realities. My life must therefore reflect what is inherent to me as a human being and as an individual for it to be rational and not be a waste of energy and resources. The end (as in “aim”, not merely as “the final moment of” (!!)) of my life is to continue to develop fully these qualities – for and within the particular context in which I exist. The end of my life is to be discerned from this perspective, and I agree with Christian that it can arrived at playfully and creatively, making of myself a more authentic me!

    As for the poem, like Sinclair, I’m not convinced it had no purpose, until it was produced with this article, that is. It was never devoid of meaning even were it simply a bunch of garbled text, because it always an expression of what the poet was experiencing at the moment of writing. Once it is an expression, it has a purpose, and an aim even it has not been noticed by anyone.

    • Reply Christian Colombo 15th March 2013 at 10:57 pm

      I agree that purpose can be retro-fitted to reality – improvised if you like – but I still do not think that there is an “a priori”/intended purpose. In the text I am referring to the latter rather than the former.

  • Reply johnpcauchi 15th March 2013 at 4:53 pm

    Interesting thing to point out Chris (in reply to Sinclair, point 3)…that in effect yes, if one keeps asking, one gets to have God in the equation of life, or simply accept there is no purpose.

    In effect, it reminds me of “The Life of Pi” – great film, and even better book. That ultimately one has to make a choice… which is the better story? Forget the whole “one is more likely than the other” in the Life of Pi context… look at your life… which is the better story? Atomic determinism? Or a story in the writing? Both are totally valid prepositions, both can be invalidated, and both are equally up to the individual to decide.

    For me, a purposeless life is a very negative one (my perception) as we are, at the end of the day, a very destructive species, and whatever we create is mainly for our own satisafaction (no cat can appreciate Michelangelo’s art, for example). In effect, a purposeless life is very self-centered – the person’s advancement at the end of the day is paramount. Any other focus – such as the other, is in effect delusional, as it is only there to serve oneself. In effect, every action is like that if you think about it, but having God in the equation offers the possibility of a greater reality and impact.

    A purposeless life therefore means letting go of one question: “Why?” Why in the sense of “Why are things this way”? The fact that we keep asking it, regardless, even if we don’t want to, might point to a greater reality than what we see…

    • Reply Christian Colombo 15th March 2013 at 11:06 pm

      While agreeing that any propositions that explains the reality of the universe is valid in the sense that it cannot be disproved and that the story with God is more desirable, for some reason I am more drawn towards the simplest explanation of things rather than the most desirable.

    • Reply Jennifer 16th March 2013 at 6:59 pm

      @Chris: Very interesting article Chris 🙂 You stirred up quite a discussion in here!

      @johnpcauchi: What is the ‘better’ story? I prefer to choose which one is the most probable and realistic. This reminds me of when people ask you to choose between a beautiful dream or the not so straightforward and ‘pretty’ reality. I prefer the latter.

      I also disagree with you when you say that a purposeless life leads to someone not questioning or thinking. A purposeless life requires the acceptance that in life there are various things one doesn’t know, the humility to say that we don’t have the answer to everything and also the strength not to make up things to make it ‘better’. What is so negative about that?

      What if you woke up tomorrow and you knew for sure that God didn’t exist? Would you kill yourself since wouldn’t have the ‘possibility of a greater reality’?

      It’s question I really like asking believers – the most shocking answer I’ve heard is that they would go against the 10 commandments, because now they can! 😀 heh!

      • Reply Sinclair Bugeja 17th March 2013 at 8:22 pm

        @Jennifer: by no means do I want to precipitate an infinite regress of responses to this article 🙂 nor do I want to digress from its contents yet I couldn’t help responding to the last few words of your comment. I think that when we talk of ethics we need to distinguish between 3 types of persons:

        Believers: with the promise of eternal life, believers surely have an incentive to do what is right. Since actions have eternal consequences, the believer must act morally right not out of fear but out of love for God.

        Moderate atheists: these can be ethical not out of faith but out of right reason. Aristotle was not a believer in the modern sense, yet he could arrive at a morality through that which distinguishes man from beast – reason. To be ethically right is to act in accordance to our human nature (what some might call ‘natural law’).

        Hard-core atheists: what distinguishes these from the moderates is their dismissal of freedom of the will. For them, all human actions are the result of the genetic and social composition of man. Over here, it is not man that takes decisions but his biology. Such determinism stifles human freedom which is the essential prerequisite for moral actions. Here ethics is nothing more than a dead concept.

        So, what would I do if I woke up tomorrow and I knew for sure that God didn’t exist? I would not become what I call a ‘hard-core atheist’ but I would continue to remain ethical, because it is not rational to be otherwise.

      • Reply John P Cauchi 18th March 2013 at 8:31 am

        🙂 Good questions Jennifer!

        Regards the 10 commandments thing: Believe me, that very reply makes me think “Oh darn”… it clearly shows that this person lives under the image of the SuperEgo (God), hence requiring him to obey at all costs. A very conditional God. A God, therefore, not worth loving. Believe me, my faith has nothing to do with that.

        By not questioning, I didn’t mean “One doesn’t question” anything. I think it’s quite the opposite in fact! But I think that the specific question “WHY are things the way they are” in the philosophical sense that is numbed down, subdued by a sense of helpless acceptance. That there is no point, in fact, of asking that question without a diety in then picture, so it would be a fruitless exercise.

        You also wrote: “I prefer to choose which one is the most probable and realistic.”

        Why is it the most probable and realistic? Is it a decision, or a factual conclusion?

        What is your reply to the question “Why IS there something, rather than nothing?” That is a question that science can never answer, because science, at the end of the day, is based on observable facts and mathematical conclusions that are a result of observation. What goes beyond observation is beyond the realm of science… so how would you answer the question?

        My options are “I don’t know”, or “perhaps there is something beyond.” Both are perfectly valid, in equal measure.

        • Reply John P Cauchi 18th March 2013 at 8:38 am

          As for the waking up bit, I’d simply say this:

          “Life it is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing. ”

          And there is nothing else to contest that. It is all very well for us who live in some measure of comfort, who can fulfil our instinctive needs for pleasure and mental stimulation. But for the uncountable billions living in poverty, life is an endless meaningless struggle of existence, without God. One that cannot change except through ethical conduct, which many people ignore, and keep ignoring because there is no reason not to (for them).

          Also, at the end of the day, my other conclusion is that it is far better for us not to exist. Because all we do is consume, at the exploitation of everything under the sun, and we are destroying the very biosphere of our home planet. So what if we can be self-observant? It only adds to the tragedy… at the end of which is nothing but a dead, cold universe which we are moving towards billions of years hence. It is like a pond saying to itself “look, I’m a pond!”. And then it evaportates into nothingness under the sunshine.

          Nihilism, therefore, at the end of the day, is my other alternative… Anything else is a constructive delusion tantamount to what an atheist would consider belief- in- God as being.

          I would ask you to contest this rather bleak picture I have presented… but I think, frankly, it is a very true one!

  • Reply Ros 22nd June 2013 at 7:00 pm

    Umm so.. once upon a time there was nothing, and nothing happened to nothing, and then nothing magically exploded for no reason, creating everything.. and then a bunch of everything magically re-arranged itself for no reason whatsoever.. into self-replicating complex creatures and into the world as we know it LOL yeah that makes perfect sense!

    Looking at the complexity of humanity and of beautiful nature all around us and at the immense complex universe.. is actually proof of the existence and immensity of a higher entity that Created all this. Did we manage to taint it here or there.. yes of course. But there is also the other side of it, where many do alot of good too. Truth does not depend on whether a person believes or not in the Creator.. it simply is.. it simply remains the truth.

    Do you ever wonder about the source of from where the other voices that go against the ultimate truth come from? Are they really yours.. or do you unknowingly or knowing serve something or someone?

    • Reply Pawlinus 8th July 2013 at 8:39 am

      The concept of ‘nothing’ as you describe it does not exist. Recent developments at the Cern collider are unveiling astonishing fact. However, if you are not the science type, try immagining absolute nothing. It just does not exist. 95% of our universe is dark energy(of which we know almost nothing), but it exists. Prior to the big bang (when there was ‘nothing’), time and the laws of physics as we know them did not exist. Therefore, the cause-effect principle obeyed different rules.
      Re truth or reality, it is also not absolute. Look at your laptop what do you see. If you were a fly or a virus, your laptop would have a different truth. Who is right?

    • Reply Pawlinus 8th July 2013 at 8:46 am

      Once a fellow teacher of religion remarked that how can one not believe in god and his love and goodness when one sees the beauty and order of nature around him.
      I told her that if I were to draw conculsions about god from nature, I might deduce that god is so violent, uncaring and unjust – just by watching a giant tsunami sweep whole towns and killing all in its path.

      • Reply Christian Colombo 8th July 2013 at 1:46 pm

        I agree with Pawlinus… I think that there was never a state when there was ¨nothing¨… from what we can observe in our universe we can never create or destroy anything… things simply change. Furthermore, my understanding is that there is general consensus among many believers and non-believers that you cannot argue the (non-)existence of a supernatural being by reasoning alone.

    • Reply Ramon Casha 16th July 2013 at 7:53 am

      The only persons I have ever heard suggest that “once upon a time there was nothing, and nothing happened to nothing” are Christians. In short, this is a classic straw man argument.

      The complexity of humanity and the universe is pretty well understood now, and what is obvious is that every step of the process that is currently understood required no external intelligent force to take place. In other words, no it is not evidence of any creator. This is a classic “god of the gaps” problem. If you use God as a filler for any gaps in our knowledge, then as our knowledge grows, your god will keep shrinking.

  • Reply Ramon Casha 16th July 2013 at 7:58 am

    To me, the difference is not that I do not have purpose – I do – but that this purpose is one I chose for myself, rather than having it assigned by some external entity (ie, “God”).

    • Reply Christian Colombo 16th July 2013 at 8:00 pm

      I agree that you can have a purpose as in a game you can have a mission to solve, but I think God gives an extra layer of purpose – a purpose for your purpose if you like. I can say that I have the former but not the latter.

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