By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
We know, with almost absolute confidence, life on earth arose, evolved, and produced us humans with the actions of genes in DNA. We have emerged from the cauldron of evolution, masters of the earth and all living things on it, or at least with the power to destroy everything. But what is the purpose of us humans, and of all life in the universe? What is the purpose of your life or mine? Some say we have no true purpose; we just exist, striving to survive to no purpose at all. If you are a Christian, you may assume the purpose-driven life: fitting your life within God’s plan for you, a plan explained to you by your mother, father, a teacher, or a minister, such as Rick Warren of “The Purpose-driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?” What, however, is meant by God’s plan? That is whatever your particular religious tradition dictates. I follow no particular religion though I am not irreligious. My purpose in life is to discover God, the great spirit of all that is lovely and glorious in the universe–and do good works in that spirit; or, failing that, to create God in my own image, pouring out that art in which I excel: nourishing and expressing my love of wisdom with logic and lyricism. In my view, your purpose and mine, and of every living unit, each cell in our bodies, or each cell floating freely, is to create beauty where there is ugliness, and order where there is chaos in the world–or by opposing this purpose to strengthen and enhance it.
I admit your purpose in life may be more or less ambitious than that, or different. You may not be interested in God if you are an atheist or an agnostic. But consider this: Our bodies are biochemical, mechanical, and electrical machines, made up of parts that are machines: the liver, the heart, stomach, brain, and gonads all performing functions for the survival of the individual, family, tribe, and species. What comes after survival? What is our purpose? Purpose is a concept we invented to direct our efforts for survival. It has the exact meaning we ascribe to it.
We find meaning in life when we have a purpose and a function. Since we are machines, we need to function to feel useful and happy. Our proper function is to work at what we do best to serve ourselves and others. If the work we do best also is something we love doing, we do it even better, because it is pleasurable and we do more of it before tiring.
Some people think that simply pursuing pleasure or more generally happiness in life is enough, and the U.S. Constitution is with them there. But can there be much happiness for long without a primary purpose in life? Although purpose may be subjective and arbitrary, having a serious purpose in our lives, gives us motivation, interest, and keeps us healthier, saner, and happier on a long-term basis. Anybody who has raised children knows this. Those who have followed careers with a consuming passion and talent know this. On the other hand, people who wander in life aimlessly tend to be unhappy, are drawn to addictive behaviors, and generally end up badly, besides not contributing anything to society.
A person without a purpose in life is like a feather in the wind, like a ship without a destination on the high seas, wondering here and there, cursed like the Flying Dutchman. Someone who does not set up a goal for his life is likely to pick the burden of a goal handed down by parents, teachers, ministers, and other leaders, a goal which may or may not be right.
Someone may say, “I like my freedom–floating around, playing with things every chance I get, not bound by goals, disciplines, or rules of the game.” Such a life may work fine for you if you have inherited a lot of money and you don’t overdo the playboy or playgirl role. If you must realize other dreams, then you will consider this: Purpose or goal is some end result we want to achieve in spite of obstacles, time, and discouragements. We design and tie a plan to our goal to achieve it in our lifetime. In business, this is called goal-oriented management. If the goal is complex and difficult, we divide it into manageable tasks or steps, which we do in a logical order, where a task accomplished results in the prompt beginning of another task. A flowchart is helpful for a complex end. For a program of such steps of work to be fruitful, we set a reasonable completion date for each step; reasonable means not too early or too late a completion deadline, otherwise, a goal may become too difficult or too trivial; that is discouraging in the first instance or when trivial, not challenging enough to elicit our best efforts.
A challenge, a contest, a good fight, makes strong people, and all living things, do their best, drawing on every reserve of energy and ingenuity they possess—provided the challenge is not overwhelming. Our immune systems get stronger with the challenge of some germs and poisons; it’s called inoculation. “That which does not kill me makes me stronger,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote. In World War II, the British people became stronger after Dunkirk, defending their freedom against the onslaught of Nazi Germany, fighting alone after the fall of France. They had their finest hour, inventing radar, breaking the enemy’s enigma code, and stopping Rommel at El Alamein.
Hitler and his party led Germany’s rise to new heights of power out of the defeat and humiliation of World War I, depression, inflation, and the impotence of the Weimar republic. His purpose was to make Germany’s Third Reich the dominant force in Europe and the world. His plan was to defeat England on her own shores, subdue the Soviet Union, and then allied with Imperial Japan bring America to her knees. Thus he would restore the rule of forceful authority over the whole world after the long run of degenerate democracy.
Also at that time Lenin and Stalin had a purpose and a plan to eliminate liberal democracy together with capitalistic enterprise, and bring the blessings of a classless society to the Soviet Union and the world. Lenin was the ideologue while Stalin was more concerned with his personal power and glory. He ordered the assassination of Trotsky, his personal foe and another ideologue, even though Trotsky lived in distant Mexico. Stalin’s purpose was to rule absolutely and in that effort he murdered millions of adversaries and many innocents.
In 1941 America stood against authoritarian rule from the Nazis and from the Communists, but did little else except lend lease equipment to England and the Soviet Union. Then on December 7, 1941, came the day of infamy at Pearl Harbor and Americans woke up, beginning a gigantic effort against Imperial Japan and in support of England–and the Soviet Union, because F.D.R. believed Hitler and the Japanese militarists were a greater evil than the communists.
Since its inception in 1776, America has had a sense of national purpose and mission, declared so to the world by Thomas Jefferson in that document which begins with “We the people of the United States…” Americans believed their destiny was going westwards, spreading American culture across the continent, and in the time of President Theodore Roosevelt, the one who spoke softly and carried a big stick, across the shining Pacific and Atlantic seas.
In our times, President George W. Bush and his neo-conservative entourage ordered the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq to bring freedom and democracy American style to those oppressed lands, at the cost of many lives and wealth on both sides. That was the administration’s response, because a few mad Muslims decided the purpose of their lives was to destroy America and the Jews, and on September 11, 2001, launched kamikaze attacks on New York and Washington with stolen jumbo jets.
I could cite many cases of such national enterprises from History: the Trojan War by the Greeks to defend their honor for the loss of Helen; the building of the pyramids by the ancient Pharaohs, their purpose in life for success in afterlife; the conquests of Alexander of Macedonia to spread Hellenism in the ancient world; the long rule of Rome to maintain order and peace throughout the empire; the human sacrifices of the Mayans and Incas to appease their gods; Peter the Great of Russia with a purpose to bring to his country the advances in Europe and grow a new culture, technology, and science on his soil, largely accomplished; the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte to spread French power and culture throughout Europe and establish a unified code of law; General de Gaulle’s “La France,” with nuclear weapons directed to all points of the compass after World War II; Jack Kennedy’s purpose for America to land men on the moon and bring them safely back to earth before the decade was out , a mission accomplished in 1969.
My point is: nations set up purposes. So do families when they work together, and other organizations. Some business organizations today state their charter missions in providing services, and international corporations, such as Exxon, Microsoft, General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, Toyota, General Motors, Wal-Mart, and others, which have budgets larger than many nations, and more power.
Let us not forget the missions and powers of religious organizations in the world. Religious innovators, prophets, and holy men believed they had been chosen by God to reveal the right way to us and lead us out of sin to the wisdom of heaven. In the Old Testament, Moses had fiery talks with God who instructed him to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt, guide them through the desert, teach them the ten commandments of ethical behavior, and lead them to Palestine, the land of promise. Ever since, the Jews have felt their mission in the world as the Chosen People, and have endured many challenges as a consequence, thus becoming stronger and more versatile. Their mission was to get the world acquainted with the One God, which they carried out by inspiring Christianity and Islam, the two largest religions today. The ancient Greeks thought similarly, that they were the only civilized people in the world, and all their neighbors were barbarians. Their mission was to give to the world their brilliant culture of philosophy, poetry, rhetoric, history, theater, logic, architecture, etc., all Greek words. They succeeded mainly through the military organizations of the Macedonians and the Romans who conquered the Greeks to be taught by the Greeks. Then the Macedonians and Romans spread Hellenism to the barbarians as far as India.
In India, the Buddha, the Awakened One, a prince to become King someday, abandons his palace and splendid clothes. Dressed as a mendicant, a holy beggar, he wanders the streets and woods, seeking the purpose of life. He practices meditation intensely in the rich Hindu spiritual culture that had flourished for thousands of years. Buddha discovers his purpose in first freeing himself from the frustration and grief of living with the right meditations, reaching a state of perfect acceptance, calm and peace, later teaching his mental disciplines to his disciples and with them to all humanity how to reach nirvana, roughly what we call heaven or paradise.
Five hundred years later, Jesus, the well-known carpenter, son of Joseph also a carpenter, abandons his trade to seek a higher purpose in saving souls for heaven. “I am not of this world,” he says. He is an alien visiting for a while to guide us safely to God’s universe. Inevitably, he is thwarted by the authorities, who represent a different universe, and at last is crucified, because that is what great rebels and innovators have to endure as a rule. But after the Crucifixion, he lectures to his disciples one last time, giving them specific instructions how to spread his gospel, and then rises up to the skies, according to the Christian scriptures.
About six hundred years later, a camel driver in Arabia named Mohammad sought heaven too, meditating in a cave in the desert. In the Koran, Mohammad recites holy verses prompted by the angel Gabriel, verses that embody the teachings of Islam, surrender to the will of God. Mohammad’s purpose is to teach his faith, but the local idolaters attack him and his followers. Unlike the early Christians, Muslims led by Mohammad take up arms to defend themselves and to spread the faith by the sword and the word. Mohammad’s heirs continue this militant tradition, spreading Islam from Morocco to Indonesia, including large parts of India. This is more like the way of Christians in the New World, and unlike Northern Europe where the pagan Nordic and Germanic tribes defeat the Christians and then take up Christianity; and unlike third century Rome and eleventh century Russia, where Christianity is established as a state religion by imperial decree, yet another form of persuasion.
Where does all this lead? Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and other smaller sects, unify people from different ethnic backgrounds, cultures, and genetic pools, into cohesive wholes to spread the spirit of love, peace, and cooperation– sometimes. Other times, one religious group will fight another, or within one faith sprinter groups will fight among themselves. It all depends on the mood of the people. Before the English left India, Muslims and Hindus lived in a fair amount of peace among themselves. In the Middle East, Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived for centuries with reasonable tolerance until after World War II, when the state of Israel was established. In the Koran, the prophet Mohammad recognizes Moses and Jesus as fellow prophets of the One God, objecting only to the tribalism of the Jews and the deification of Jesus by the Christians. Today’s militant Muslims simply display their foolishness by fighting Christians and Jews, instead of cooperating with them in spreading faith and ethical conduct for the advancement of the world.
On the other hand, scientists and business leaders generally aid in the advancement of the world employing reason, fact finding, cooperation, open dialogue, bloodless competition, open borders, open channels of communication, and the profit motive. Peoples who trade goods and ideas with each other are less likely to exchange attacks at each other. Peace will come to Palestine when Arabs realize the futility of waging war on Israel and the West. Arabs have little to fear from Israel, except knowledge, culture, and progress. Arabs may work with the Israelis if they choose to do so, and learn from them all that the Jews have learned from the ancient Greeks, as their Arab ancestors did seven to nine centuries after Christ, when Arab culture flourished. Thereafter, Muslim leaders took other roads of thinking and trading.
Today a large number of newly enlightened (and rich) Muslims are back to learning from the West, such as in the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Jordan, and Malaysia. In Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Northwest Pakistan, and Chechen, they continue on the other roads, spoiling for a fight with America and the West. For my part, I place my bets on international science, technology, and business (with the profit motive), rather than religious practices the way they are conducted today, to see greater peace and cooperation among peoples, and to bring order to the world and a cleaner planet.
When I look at life on planet Earth from the time life began about three and a half billion years ago in volcanic cauldrons of fire and ice, I see evidence of some overall purpose or function that pervades everything. As in the economy the invisible hand of Adam Smith guides people to produce abundant goods and create a prosperous society, while each person and each company pursues their own profit, so I see all living things competing and cooperating to advance life in general. I see predators, not spoiling, but benefiting the herds. I see germs and poisons making living things stronger, more adaptable, and resilient. In human societies I see criminals keeping us alert, cautious, and tough, rather than weak and lethargic. What people call evil is often not so. For example, excrement is fertilizer, better than chemicals for our fields. Drought makes plants to resist the loss of water better. Hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, and volcanic explosions destroy lives and property, but force us to build better homes and lives. Meteors and comets colliding with the earth bring water and other needed materials. When a giant meteor hit the Gulf of Mexico sixty five million years ago, it caused the extinction of the large dinosaurs, and allowed the growth of mammals that were our ancestors. Even wars contribute to life’s progress unless they become totally destructive.
Where goes the progress of life to bigger, more complex, and more adaptable forms? What is life and what is its purpose? Irwin Schrödinger, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, in “What is Life?” observes that life goes contrary to the general entropy of the universe towards greater disorder, disorganization and decay; life creates negative entropy or “neg-entropy,” towards a state of greater order. In my 2002 book, “The God Connection,” available at newvistasmedia.com, I proposed the notion of twin universes, perfect crystals of zero entropy, organized into a heaven and a hell.
But a crystal has no life, no motion. Life implies motion, action, change, growth and decay, both of which are missing in perfect crystals. A crystal grows for a while and then stops growing and remains in a frozen state. A diamond is a regular, perfect, carbon crystal, which does not die, does not decay, it is very hard to break, but does not change. A living thing is also made mostly from carbon in its structural parts, but it is in motion and growth, and it eventually decays and decomposes into its constituent parts. Scientists agree that living things have had and are having a profound effect on earth’s atmosphere, waters, and surface soil, including today’s planetary warming.
So, all living things on earth and other planets may have a purpose, going beyond mere survival, which purpose is worthy of exploration in our imagination. What might that purpose be? Some people say our purpose is to praise and serve God. If so, the purpose of our lives is to work, work as servants or slaves of God, doing his bidding in the running of the universe, fitting in everything we do to the divine plan. Reverend Rick Warren in “The Purpose-driven Life” gives us the Christian view on life’s purpose, with the assumption of a God and revelations from God through the prophets.
Warren’s views may be fine for Christians, but not for those of another faith or no faith. What is this Christian faith, if not the traditions spread by spiritual leaders of the Church? Why should we trust these people that they know things we don’t know? Trusting so, are we doing any better than the Muslim acolyte trusting his mad mullah who tells him the purpose of his young life is to strap on explosives and detonate himself together with alleged enemies of Islam? Is this worse than for a Christian to follow a man such the Reverend Jim Jones in Guyana or David Koresh in Waco, Texas, who, suffering delusions of persecution from U.S. agents, directs his followers to mass murder-suicide, women and children first?
I trust no one and nothing absolutely, not even myself. I trust my own experiences that I have gathered first hand as my most reliable but always imperfect source of knowledge and guidance. I trust people, those living and those remaining as spirits in world culture, whom I judge to be trustworthy to the extent their views agree with my personal findings, but only to a degree of confidence. I follow no human who claims direct contact with the divine, who declares to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and all else is false which others believe. I am the truth, the light, and the way, as far as I can go.
Reverend Warren quotes Bertrand Russell, a British atheist philosopher and Nobel Prize winner for literature: “Unless we assume a God, the question of life’s purpose is meaningless.” In that case, I shall return to creating God in my own image, and I shall give meaning to my life, not according to the words of such prophets who profess to know everything by revelation, but with my own investigations into facts and feelings, my own interests, and my own best judgment.