Friday, January 28, 2011

Does life have a purpose?

I don't think life has a purpose, at least not right out of the box. "But," you say, "aren't survival and procreation purposes?" 

You'd think so, but survival and procreation are life. That's pretty much life's definition. So is that a purpose? It does accomplish something but procreation is merely replication, life's trick that allows it to survive into the future. If that is purpose, then the machine replicators on Stargate SG-1 had purpose. More, more, more. It's the cry of life but is it purpose in the way we humans use the term? Of course, human purpose may just be an illusion that comes with these bodies we inherited. We have to consider that possibility, too.

Still, we humans can do a great trick -- we can accord our lives a purpose. We create purpose, we design it and set it loose in the world. We can do anything we want, unlike animals that must rely on an unchanging way of life to survive. We change, we grow. We adapt easily and it's all because we can think in a comprehensive manner. That's the game changer.

So does this mean human life has a purpose? No, not unless humanity itself decided in a unified way to have a lasting purpose, such as pursuing world peace, and then kept it up for eons. Beings in the future might look at us and say, "Boy, those humans really have a purpose: peace." I guess then you might say humans had a purpose.

But there's little chance of that sort of high-level purpose emerging from our race. Much to our chagrin, we have seen that people only want to eat, buy things and have sex (and note that the last two often coincide). If humanity has a purpose, human nature is at cross-purposes with it. We can't even change our behavior when all life on our planet hangs in the balance. (Climate change, anyone?)

To answer the original question we first have to answer a more basic one: "What are we?" In the year 2011 we still don't know the answer to this question. We don't even know how our brains create the illusion of a mind.

Richard Dawkins suggested in "The Selfish Gene" that it is our genes that are the prime component of existence, that it is they who "want" to proliferate into the future, to continue to exist for all time. In other words, it may be fair to say that they are the key "beings" in life. Thus the name: "The Selfish Gene". But that's just the replicator thing again. What of purpose?

All sorts of biological activities occur within our bodies without our knowledge. Our health is maintained by the production of new cells, by antibodies patrolling our body and taking on invaders, and a host of other, wildly sophisticated biological activities. But we're not even aware of this. For that matter, nine-tenths of "our bodies" aren't even made of human cells. The bacteria inside us far outweigh our human components. And all this activity happens outside our view. This is one level of "our" lives.

We, the personalities we call "us", ride atop this maelstrom of internal processes. And we are in an enviable position: we drive the car (our body) and can take it in a direction that accomplishes a purpose of our own design. We make purpose. That is our job description: it's what we do.

But life itself seems to have no purpose other than replication. In the vast sea of non-purpose that surrounds us, it seems we are the alien creatures. It's both strange and beautiful.

To me, it's almost like we're fairytale creatures that magically emerged from the long and bloody evolutionary process. To think that we came from that pool of pain and suffering and yet we can pick our own values, the things that we consider important and true -- that's so amazing. And as a result of this ability we live meaningful lives. To me, this is a true fairytale. Disney ain't got nuthin' on this story.

But as I said at the outset, I sometimes wonder if anything really matters. We seem to have purpose -- at least, to our eyes. But how fogged are our eyes, how primitive and unseeing? Do our purposes really rise to the level of "purpose"? I don't think we're in a position to judge. 

It's unthinkable that we are the pinnacle of creation. It seems highly likely that there are creatures in the universe that far outstrip our meager mental abilities. Perhaps they have true purpose. I treasure this idea and find it hopeful. If any creature makes it to a higher level of understanding, something well beyond our meager scope, then this is a very successful universe in terms of purpose. 

And I want that. I want at least one race to snag the golden ring and perhaps live forever in a Utopia beyond our ability to imagine. As long as one race gets there, I'll be happy. It doesn't have to be us. In fact, I don't think it could ever be us. We're too flawed.

And to think that all of this came out of elementary particles and their tendencies to group, spin, attract, repel, etc. This is the most amazing thing, and it too gives me hope. Reality is fascinating.