Thinking about the possibility that our lives are entirely meaningless is pretty crazy. It’s not only possible that there is no inherent meaning to human existence, but it’s generally agreed upon. This phenomenon is described by Albert Camus as “the absurd”, the human tendency to seek meaning and our inability to definitively find any. So the question emerges, what should we do in response to our inability to conclusively find any purpose to our lives?
*The following slides are taken from a presentation I gave in winter 2018 about purpose*
OPTION 1: Accept an A Priori Purpose
- We can put our faith in an idea of purpose purported by a religion, culture, or figurehead
- These are vastly different ideas of purpose but all share the notion that purpose precedes our existence; that we enter the world with a purpose that should attempt to fulfill
- However, the problem here is that you could be wrong and spend your life living out a purpose that never really excited you and ultimately didn’t matter at all
- For example, if you were born to a preacher who told you the purpose of your life was to help save souls but you really wanted to be a great pastry chef and couldn’t do that on the account of having to save souls, you might be a little bit disappointed if you realized later on that saving souls wasn’t life’s true purpose…
OPTION 2: Accept an A Posteriori Purpose
- Alternatively, we can go the existentialist route and claim that we can pick our own purpose.
- You could still be wrong, but at least you did what you wanted with your life
- However, you will be eternally uncertain and may choose a problematic purpose. Maybe the purpose of life is actually to ‘save souls’ and instead you wasted your opportunity to do so cooking pastries. You might end up feeling pretty bad about that.
Regardless of whether you choose an a priori or a posteriori purpose to your life, I am of the opinion that choosing one is imperative. Without purpose to our lives, what’s gonna stop us from saying fuck it all and offing ourselves? There are plenty of purposes out there so get searching for yours today.
TWO CATEGORIES OF PURPOSE:
Earlier in this post, I distinguished between a priori purpose and a posteriori purpose. The former claims that purpose precedes existence while the latter claims that existence precedes purpose. However, I have since begun thinking about a more practical distinction that exists between notions of purpose that comes from asking the following question: do we enjoy life or does life enjoy us? Believers in the former might adopt an Aristotelian viewpoint and claim that the only thing we should be doing is seeking maximum happiness. Within this category, the means by which we attain happiness is less important than the fact that life exists to be enjoyed. When we die, the quality of our lives will be measured in terms of how much we enjoyed ourselves rather than what we did.
On the other hand exists the possibility that the accomplishment of one’s life mission is more important than personal happiness. At the end of our lives, the quality of our “life portfolio” is more important than how happy we were. This is an approach to life that many people adopt. Whether or not a certain path brings about more happiness is less important than how revolutionary, interesting, or productive that life was.
While both viewpoints possess a degree of logical validity as answers to a question that is likely unanswerable, I believe the best answer likely lies somewhere in the middle. Solely seeking to enjoy life runs into the practical problem of the unsustainability of short-term happiness while seeking to accomplish something (unless you’re 100% sure that your life purpose is x) likely only matters because it may bring about happiness. For this reason, I would argue for attempting to strike a balance between seeking happiness and personal fulfillment.
Thesis: assuming that humanity has free will necessarily validates the notion that ‘existence precedes essence.’ By this I mean that we can decide our life’s purpose. At the end of our lives, our purpose was the summation of our actions, which were chosen freely. The argument goes like this:
- Humans have free will (debatable but let’s assume it’s true for the purpose of this argument)
- Our ‘purpose’ will end up being what we did with our lives, our actions, the impact that we had on the world (also debatable)
- Our actions are our own choice, therefore:
C: Our purpose is not pre-determined, it is chosen by us.
This is a valid argument and it is also sound assuming the truthfulness of some of its highly controversial premises. The soundness of this argument would imply the somewhat existential view that we can choose our life’s purpose; that we should not search for our life’s purpose but rather should start doing what we seek to accomplish with our lives. “Soul-searching” shouldn’t involve searching for some ultimate purpose, but rather for one’s strengths in order to optimize the impact one is able to have with their actions. In many ways, one could interpret this hypothesis as claiming that meaning-making makes living meaningful.