The real or not real purpose of our existence

TUESDAY, 15 DECEMBER 2015

Stir up the topic of the possibility of a purpose to human existence, and you necessarily bring up the origin of the human being.

I reckon there are three possibilities: humans were created by a deity; humans were slowly evolving from earlier life forms, then beings from outer space arrived and injected their DNA in an earlier incarnation of what would eventually become modern humans; humans evolved slowly over millions of years from earlier life forms into the organisms we see today, without any interference from cosmic deities or aliens from outer space.

Each of these possible origins has unique implications for the possibility of a purpose to our existence.

If a deity created humans, it makes sense that we should start our search for the purpose of our existence with this deity: Who is this deity? What does this deity want from us? Why did the deity create us? What will happen if we do not do what we ought to do, or if we fail for various reasons to figure out what we ought to do?

If what we are today is the result of interference from beings from outer space, the questions are similar: Who are they? Where did they come from? Why did they come all this way to interfere with our biological ancestors? What are we supposed to do? What will happen if we fail to do what we have to do, or if we can’t figure out what they want us to do?

If we have developed slowly over millions of years, and if perhaps as many as hundreds but probably at least dozens of different incarnations passed before we came to be the organism we call Homo sapiens today, we cannot reasonably look for something beyond ourselves that had a plan or purpose in mind for us a long time ago.

If we owe our existence to the latter process – a highly probable yet strangely enough highly controversial possibility, we can make a reasonable conclusion. It would mean “purpose of existence”, like identity, is something we came up with to help us get through the proverbial day. In other words, it isn’t really real.

Important to note that something does not have to be actually real to have practical value. Identity is one example: I am not really “Brand Smit”. Or, “Brand Smit” is not a real thing like a dog or an elephant or a pencil. It is something that was originally devised by my parents, and then I contributed a little, and others lent a hand, and when I became older I got a little more creative with it, and nowadays other people sometimes play along with what I say, and sometimes they don’t. But “Brand Smit” does have practical value. Not only does it help the author of this text to get through his day and get along fairly well with other organisms and creatures in his environment, it may even motivate him to sacrifice some of his time and money to assist other people and animals.

Most of the people who will benefit from his selfless actions won’t care too much how he thinks about the purpose of his existence. For example, he can start a soup kitchen to feed hungry people sleeping at the train station, and I reckon they won’t grumble too much if the helper declares that he is doing so because he sees it as the purpose of his existence as revealed by beings from outer space.

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There is a good chance that both identity and belief that our existence serves a purpose are things we invented ourselves. It is also true that some of us view these things as if they are holy truth that cannot be altered to any significant extent.

Is it good to think your existence serves a purpose?

I have mentioned the example of someone providing hot soup and bread to hungry people without compensation and at no cost to the person who gets the soup and bread, possibly because he or she believes it is an expression of the purpose of their existence.

Then there is the guy who does not believe his existence serves any purpose; that he was born and that he will eventually die, and in between he will do his best to get along with his neighbours, stay out of trouble most of the time, and make his life as much worth the effort as he can manage, since he can easily enough end his own life.

Personally, I have no problem with someone who doesn’t believe their existence serves a purpose. And if the person at the soup kitchen says she is a creature of extraterrestrial origin who is simply doing what she was commanded to do, I won’t have a problem with her either – as long as the soup and bread are of a quality that can sustain ordinary earthlings throughout the day.

On the other end of the spectrum I will certainly mind if someone wants to cut off my head because they say ancient writings instruct them to do so, that it is indeed part of the purpose of their existence as revealed by this ancient text.

The belief that your existence serves a purpose is, like identity, not inherently good or bad. Both can help you get through the day in one piece and in reasonably good shape, and not end up in prison or a mental institution. Both can also make your path to the prison or mental institution remarkably short and straight. And both can enable you to live in relative peace with most members of the community, or it can set you on a warpath with them or with members of other communities.

Who are you, at the end of the day? And do you believe your existence serves a purpose? If you do, what is this purpose, and from where did you get the idea that this ought to be the purpose of your life?

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