A life that serves a purpose – intelligent, creative agent – or agents

TUESDAY, 6 DECEMBER 2005

15:30

I need for my life to have purpose. To this, some people may respond in somewhat sceptical fashion. “Purpose?” they’ll ask. “Purpose in life is a primitive religious concept. It supposes things that cannot be proven. It also implies that your life is worthless unless it serves a purpose.”

My reply: Say you have two men, Mister A and Mister B. The latter has no desire to feel that his life has purpose. His focus is mostly on himself, and his own material and emotional needs. He works – because he needs the money; he marries – because it’s better than being alone; and he makes friends – because he likes the feeling of being liked, he likes the companionship, and it relieves his boredom. His life thus consists of family, friends, work, and doing things he enjoys. He does not actively strive for any action or participation that would make him look at his life with the conviction that he has served some (good) purpose. (Chances are that he inadvertently does serve and has served a good purpose, but for the sake of this argument it is important to illustrate his case as one where no purpose is actively and deliberately served.)

Mister A, on the other hand, is one of those people who believe merely existing – working, having a family of his own, being a friend and having friends, and doing things he enjoys – is not enough. He feels a strong urge to serve a good purpose – something that would give his life more value and meaning. Say he chooses as his purpose in life providing legal aid to people who do not have the means to obtain this type of assistance when they need it. Over the course of 30 years he provides legal assistance – directly, or indirectly through an agency he founded – to hundreds, even thousands of people. (It might be that he pursues this purposeful life as an adherent of some religious belief system, which will also give him the satisfaction of knowing that his service is sanctioned by his particular religious community. It might also be that he is an atheist, and that he is motivated by the self respect his service inspires, and by the respect and gratitude he gets from other people. Religiously motivated or not, his choice of pursuing a purposeful life would have the same end result for the people who benefit from it.)

Let’s say both Mister A and Mister B were born in the same year, in the same city, with similar cultural backgrounds and socio-economic standing, and let’s also say they die in the same year after short illnesses. Mister B’s life was a good one. He will be missed by his colleagues, friends and family. Mister A also had a good life, and he, too, will be missed by colleagues, friends and family. What is the difference? Mister A’s life benefited hundreds, even thousands of people. His life had value far beyond the value of the life of the average individual who does not actively pursue a purposeful life. He dies with the satisfaction that his life served a purpose. He lived his life with the satisfaction that not only his inner circle of colleagues, family and friends but many other people benefited from his life and the choices he had made. Mister B lived without this satisfaction, and he died knowing that beyond his inner circle no one really benefited much from his existence. Hopefully this would not have mattered to him, since he had professed early on in his adult life that he does not feel the need to serve any purpose nor for his life to have value and meaning beyond that which it has or had for himself and his inner circle.

Then my partner-in-dialogue responds: “So it’s about personal satisfaction? Or is it about numbers – the one guy affecting hundreds, even thousands, the other guy maybe 20?”

My reply: One guy’s life positively affected the lives of two dozen or so people. The other one positively affected hundreds, even thousands. What is exactly is your question? [*]

Partner-in-dialogue: “Say I tell you there’s a new drug on the market that has no side effects, is very affordable, and it contains a natural component that provides your brain with exactly the same feeling as the satisfaction one would derive from a purposeful life. It will thus give you the same kick, without the effort!”

Me: And the people whom I may have positively affected stay unaffected. Very real results of my intended actions would remain unfulfilled. I’d say no thanks. I will stick to the effort.

* [Question is perhaps this: Is affecting two people better than affecting just one? How about affecting 2,243 versus affecting the lives of 2,242 people? How about one person positively affecting the lives of 50,000 people and the other person positively and constructively affecting only 76 people’s quality of life?]

WEDNESDAY, 7 DECEMBER 2005

00:10

For many people the idea that there is no intelligent, creative agent behind everything that exists is the most preposterous thing anyone can imagine. What, or who this agent is – or what or who these agents are, is something that people have pondered, argued about, fought and died for since the dawn of human thought. We have given this supposed agent – or these agents – names. We have given him/her/them human-like qualities. We have even imagined the gender and appearance of this supposed agent – or of these agents. Many people have settled on a simple term: “God.”

We can continue to contemplate, argue, fight and die for particular beliefs about this agent – or these agents. It is apparently in our nature to do so, and if it gives us a sense of purpose, security and meaning in our lives, then I guess it makes sense to some degree that we continue to do so. One thing remains certain: for many people, nothing will ever take anything away from the idea that an intelligent, creative force is the only reasonable explanation for our own existence, and for the existence of all other forms of life.

Why this supposed intelligent, creative force caused our existence, whether or not our existence serves a purpose, and even the possible nature of this supposed agent – or of these agents, these are questions that will remain as fascinating as they have always been.

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