Let’s start this book in the middle. The main course is a ways off, and I want to give you a taste now.
Let’s talk about purpose. (Purpose is one of the dimensions of meaningness discussed in this book.)
Especially at turning points in life, people ask questions like:
- Is there any purpose at all in living? Or is everything completely pointless?
- What am I supposed to do?
- How can I choose among the many ways I could spend the rest of my life?
- Does everyone’s life have the same purpose, or does everyone have their own?
- Where does purpose come from? Does it have some ultimate source, or is it just a personal invention?
Various religions, philosophies, and systems claim to have answers. Some are complicated, and they all seem quite different. When you strip away the details, though, there are only a half dozen fundamental answers. Each is appealing in its own way, but also problematic. Understanding clearly what is right and wrong about each approach can resolve the underlying problem.
Let’s go through these alternatives briefly. I will explain each one in detail in the middle part of the book.
Five confused attitudes to purpose
Everything has a fixed purpose, given by some sort of fundamental ordering principle of the universe. (This might be God, or Fate, or the Cosmic Plan, or something.) Humans too have a specific role to play in the proper order of the universe.
This is the stance of eternalism. It may be comfortable. If you just follow the eternal law, everything will come out right. Unfortunately, it often seems that much of life has no purpose. At any rate, you cannot figure out what it is supposed to be. Priests or other authority figures claim to know what the cosmic purposes are, but their advice often seems wrong for particular situations.
For these reasons, even people who are explicitly committed to eternalism generally fall into other stances at times.
Nothing has any purpose. Life is meaningless. Any purposes you imagine you have are illusions, errors, or lies.
This is the stance of nihilism. It appears quite logical. It might seem to follow naturally from some scientific facts: everything is made of subatomic particles; they certainly don’t have purposes; and you can’t get purpose by glomming together a bunch of purposeless bits.
It is easy to fall into nihilism in moments of despair; but, fortunately, it is difficult to maintain, and hardly anyone holds it for long. Nevertheless, the seemingly compelling logic of nihilism needs an answer. It turns out that it is quite wrong, as a matter again of science and logic. But because that is not obvious, three other stances try (and fail) to find a middle way between eternalism and nihilism.
The supposed cosmic purposes are doubtful at best, but obviously, people do have goals. There are human purposes no one can seriously doubt: survival, health, sex, romance, fame, power, enjoyable experiences, children, beautiful things. Realistically, those are what everyone pursues anyway. You might as well drop the hypocritical pretense of “higher” purposes and go for what you really want.
This is the stance of materialism. Realistically, most people adopt this stance much of the time. However, at times everyone does recognize the value of altruistic and creative purposes, which this stance rejects. Moreover, most recognize that materialism is an endless treadmill: the enjoyment of new goodies wears off quickly, and then you are left craving the next, better thing.
You can’t take it with you. After you are dead, it is meaningless how many toys you had. What matters is how you live your life: whether you create something of beauty or value for others. You have unique capabilities to improve the world, and it’s your responsibility to find and act on your personal gift.
This is the stance of mission. The problem is that no one actually has a “unique personal gift.” God does not have plans for us. People waste a lot of time and effort trying to find “their purpose in life,” and are miserable when they fail. Besides that, rejecting material purposes causes you to overlook genuine opportunities for enjoyment and satisfaction.
Since the universe (or God) does not supply us with purposes, they are human creations. Mostly people mindlessly adopt purposes that are handed to them by society. You need to throw those off, and choose your own purposes, as an act of creative will.
This is the stance of existentialism.1 It is based on the assumption that if purposes are not objective, or externally given, they must be subjective, or internally created. Existentialism holds out hope for freedom. But it is not actually possible to create your own purposes. Choosing at random would be pointless, and impossible; and what purely personal basis could you have for choosing one purpose over another?
Each of these confused stances treats meaning as fixed by an external force, or denies meaning or some aspect of it.
The central message of this book is that meaning is real (and cannot be denied), but is fluid (so it cannot be fixed). It is neither objective (given by God) nor subjective (chosen by individuals).
The book offers resolutions to problems of meaning that avoid denial, fixation, and the impossibility of total self-determination. These resolutions are non-obvious, and sometimes unattractive; but they are workable in ways the alternatives are not.
- 1. Actually, it is more-or-less what existentialists called “authenticity.” Using that term would be confusing, because existentialist “authenticity” hasn’t got all that much to do with the everyday sense of the word.