Monday, November 21, 2005

On Purpose or the lack of it

Earlier I had thought that i shall write a long series of articles almost a book on purpose in human life. Since that does not seem to be happening any time soon, I realized it might just be a better idea to sum up what I currently am thinking lest it should change drastically and I should lose track!

Here goes. The question of purpose is teleological. By teleology, I am referring to the study of or thinking around purpose. It can be purpose of universe, earth, dolphins or anything for that matter. Although most of our ancestors (the ones philosophically inclined at least) spent a lot of time on speculating on purpose of universe. Several hypothesis were proposed. Some through religion, some through philosophy while others through common folklore. In a similar vein, and as a continuation of the teleology of the universe, human life was also put under microscope of purpose finding. It turned out to be somewhat more difficult of a task. Because unlike rest of the universe, what one believed regarding one's purpose has a direct bearing on the kind of activities one undertakes, kind of things one works for and so on. Probably that was one reason people were less tolerant of the opinions of the philosophically minded ones on this!

Anyway, before starting my quest for purpose, I had asked myself the most obvious but often tactfully avoided question: Is there one? Here, being a non believer in god helped. Since for me there is no God, He cannot assign a purpose to me. I did not believe in nature's big design and fundametal purpose of the entire cosmos either! So that pretty much robbed me of the typical bedrock most (thinking) people base their purpose on. It took a while for the obvious to dawn upon me. There is no externally assigned purpose to my life. (I speak for myself, I believe the same for all human beings, but why impose?). The purpose or lack of it has to be defined by my own self for the person that I am. That is at once a big independence and big responsibility.

While I may well feel great about being able to define a purpose for my life, I also realized that I cannot take refuge in an externally assigned purpose or purposelessness. Typical believers would expect god to show them a purpose through some part of their lives. Typical materialists will generally claim that there is no purpose to life and get on with it. I have put myself in the difficult situation where I know that purpose CAN and NEEDS TO BE defined by myself. So I cannot claim purposelessness without giving it a try!

That brings back the fundamental question. What is purpose? To me, it is a reason of activities undertaken by a conscious entity outside the causal relationships between events and its activities. Hence, if I am eating to stay alive, that does not constitute purpose and if I am running away from a lion, that is not purpose. Purpose is outside the mechanistis causality. That I want to learn more about mankind's past can constitute purpose. So can an attempt to make a lot of money beyond that needed for bare survival. I am essentially pointing out the non material nature of purpose. An entity which is not conscious is governed by nature's laws. While we may not know them, there are laws that govern inanimate entities. Animate entities are composed of inaminate entities and hence are governed by the same laws. However, in nature, there are sponteneous evolutions of various patterns etc which are not governed by thought processes similar to those of conscious entities. So if, there is a hill and a river and a jungle, I would want to assume that this is by natural evolution of biosphere within laws governing inanimate objects. However, if a human being builds a house there, that involved a thought process within the mind of the individual. While one can always claim existance of a high level consciousness which actual organizes things natural in a certain way, that is tautological for the purpose of present discussion.

What I am willing to grant however is that maybe there is purpose at a higher level of a consciousness we are not aware of or used to. However, at the level of existance that we are, one mind governing a body of a certain size, human beings and some animals are unique. An earthwide mind or something of that order is similar to what human mind is to that is a cell (in case there is one!).

Human beings work within the constraints of laws of nature. However, their mind enables them to steer the effects of laws in ways they prefer. While I do agree with the biosphere argument that we are not separate from the environment but are a part of it, what I am referring to here is the interaction between an organism and its environment. In that regard, human beings behave in a manner (for better or worse) more complex than animals who in turn behave in manner more complex than plants and then non living matter and so on. Of course, human beings fall when left in air just as a stone does, but even if the stone could, it would never try to stop the fall unlike a human being. Self preservation is a naturally occurring purpose of all living matter.

So is procreation. However, again I would want to point out that the purpose I am referring to is a subtler phenomenon. As a part of animal kingdom, we also have the inherited purpose of self preservation and procreation. That is heirarchically higher than no purpose of non living matter. Note here that self preservation and procreation both satisfy our earlier extramaterial definition of purpose. Causally speaking, living beings have no more a reason to preserve themselves than non living entities. They just "tend to". That is the extramaterial nature of purpose.

So far so good! We have the obvious purposes like any animal. However, these purposes come with being alive. We are not only alive but are self conscious. This self consciousness brings about further complication in matters of purpose. At the outset I should state my view of self consciousness as a phenomenon arising out of sufficient level of complexity of brain leaving enough space and time for "thinking" outside what is needed for survival. Animals have faint consciousness. Early humans had a bit more. Current humans have lot more. In future, they may be even have more of it. Looking for purpose thus has been driven by these two factors. Both arise from larger brain and consequent processing power. Increased brain size enabled free time to think because survival and self preservation was managed in lesser time (hypothesis... can be disproved). Secondly, the excess processing power could be employed in asking more questions that were necessary for the inherited twin purposes of self presevration and procreation.

Hence, human beings are at stage where thay have realized thus far.
I am
I can survive
I can procreate
I can do more than that
There are various options under this "more than that"!
This is where the quest for purpose begins! If we could barely fulfill the two purposes naturally inherited by us and/or if we were not capable of thinking/doing anything beyond, there would hardly be a discussion of purpose.

With this backdrop, I have restarted my quest for purpose. I do not need a purpose to survive. I am not a fatalist. Nor am I going through such tough times that only something mentally provocative can keep my will for life intact. I can survive without purpose. I do not need purpose for being happy either. I know some things that make me happy. I have means to manage the same. I know I can discover more of such things if I try which I do. That can go on without an overarching purpose. In short, I can manage most of what is required of me by my body, my surroundings and my society without a purpose per se.

To be frank, I am not even desparately looking for a purpose. I know it has to be invented, not discovered. I am just trying to see if I can invent it in a sustainable manner. I want to optimize on the purpose. It should not be a complete pipedream nor should it be a no-brainer. Hence leading pan galactic settlement of humankind is out of question and so is becoming a millionaire. It has to be of the order of say improving the standard of living of more than a tenth of Indians or becoming a billionaire or establishing a cult in 21st century with followership of at least a few thousand people.

Now what makes these purposes optimal? The fact that they can provide some general interest in doing things beyond the bare minimum for survival and happiness/well being. That they be lofty or impress other people is probably a distortion I should beware of!!!