The real or not real purpose of our existence

WEDNESDAY, 16 DECEMBER 2015

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

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 organism we see today, without any interference from deities or aliens.

Each of these possible origins has unique implications for the possibility of a purpose of 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 mess with our genes? What are we supposed to do? What will happen if we fail to do what we should do or if we cannot 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 really look at a force beyond us that had, at one stage or another, some kind of plan or purpose in mind.

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 means “purpose of existence”, like identity, is something we came up with ourselves to help us get through the proverbial day. In other words, it is not really real.

But something does not necessarily need to be actually real to have practical value. Like identity, the idea of a purpose of our existence has real value in the world in which we live. An 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 do not. But “Brand Smit” does have practical value. Not only does it help the author of this text get through his day and get along fairly well with other organisms and creatures in the environment, but it may even motivate me to assist other people and animals – who won’t care too much how I think about the purpose of my existence. For example, I can start a soup kitchen to feed hungry people sleeping at the train station, and I reckon they will not really grumble too much if I declare that I do so because I see it as the purpose of my existence as revealed by beings from outer space.

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There is a good chance that both identity and belief, or presumption, that our existence serves a purpose are things we invent ourselves. It is also true that some of us view these things as if they are holy truth that we cannot really do much about.

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 will do his best to get along well 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 the latter person. And if the person at the soup kitchen says he is a creature of extraterrestrial origin who is simply doing what he was commanded to do, I will not have a problem with him either – as long as the soup and bread are of a quality that can sustain ordinary earthlings through the day. On the other end of the spectrum I will mind if someone wants to cut off my head because he says it is not because he wants to but because writings from 13 centuries ago instruct him to do so, that it is indeed part of the purpose of his existence.

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 way to the prison or a mental institution remarkably short and straight. And both can enable you to live in relative peace with the majority of the community, or it can set you on a warpath with other members of the community or with the majority 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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