by Jason Stotts
It’s interesting that when you tell people that you’re a philosopher, one of the first questions they always ask you is “What’s the meaning of Life?” as if you should automatically know the answer to this question, as if it were a prerequisite of any philosophical endeavor. Well, usually I give a flippant retort that the word means anything that is self-animate (self-moving) as opposed to inanimate objects. Sometimes however, I do pause and give serious consideration to a similar question: “What is the purpose of Life?”
I find that our latter question is a much more intriguing question and more worthy of our consideration. The question asks, in a more elaborate kind of way, “What is the end (purpose or goal) of self-animate organisms (life)?” Phrased this way we see that the question is truly one of teleological intent, it is asking us whether life qua life has an end for which it must strive.
Now, without much philosophical premise building, it is my position that all life is geared towards one thing: living. Now wait! You’re probably sitting there wondering why I have issued what is apparently a tautological statement – thinking that I have said that the purpose of life is life, yet that is not what I have said at all. The purpose of life is to live. All things which are in a state which we call “alive” are actively engaged in a process called living.
Every single living organism must act in some way to preserve its life, i.e. to continue living. From amoeba who must take in minerals and perform cellular functions, to plants who must perform photosynthesis, to animals who must actively search for food, all living organisms must take actions to maintain their life.
It seems then, since in every case of a living being we find a case of a being taking actions to preserve its life, the purpose of life is simply to live. The telos (final cause) of life is living.
Now that we have established that, it seems the most relevant next step is apply it to out own situation as humans and see if this little clue about part of our nature will lead us to another answer.
The more common meaning of the question “What is the purpose of Life?” is usually something of the form “What is my purpose as a human being, what should I be doing with my life?” Since we have already established that the purpose of life is to live, what then shall we be able to say about the purpose of humanity?
This is (unfortunately) the question that many people begin with when they begin thinking about Morality, yet this is precisely the wrong place to start. Morality cannot tell us what the proper role of being human is unless we first construct a morality proper to our nature as humans. By beginning with an answer to the question of what it is that we as humans should do, we have begun the endeavor of morality towards the end ot the enterprise and would have to build our moral system from the top down instead of doing it the proper way, which is from the bottom up. Let me elaborate.
From “the top down” means that we start with presuppositions about what we want morality to say once we have finished constructing the moral system so we build these ends into the system and use the rest of the system to justify these ends.
From “the bottom up” means that we start with no presuppositions about what we want morality to say and instead we look at the nature of what it is to be human and try to construct a moral system. This way of construction should lead to the truth because it allows itself to explore every possibility and not to start on pathes whose ends are known.
If we construct a system of morality from the ground up, we must begin by looking at man’s (human) nature. We have already observed that one key characteristic that sets man off from the majority of things in the universe is the fact that he is alive. As such, we have already determined that part of his purpose is to further his own life. However, such a proposition is not exhaustive of the possibilities for man’s purpose and could be one of many purposes, although life is a necessary condition for ends of any sort.
So, you may be wondering what other sorts of purposes we humans have, other than to continue living our lives. This is a question that only morality, a proper morality, can answer. I shall give a general guide to what to look for and I shall end this piece by pointing you to a couple of essays which will get you started on the right path.
The morality must begin by examining human nature in order to build the moral framework from the ground up.
The morality must not make any presuppositions about the ends. It can only talk of ends once it has a framework of reasons in place. The endeavor for morality must be done with an open mind to possibilities.
Do not be afraid to take roads which challenge your beliefs to see where they take you. Most good discoveries are of this sort.
Lastly, you do not need to look elsewhere to find a moral system, you can create one on your own. Just follow the guidelines laid out and work from human nature. Your mind is efficacious, you can do this for yourself if you really have the resolve.
For those who do not want to spend time re-inventing the wheel, I would recommend reading Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness and Aristotle’s De Anima. The latter will give you a pretty good conception of human nature and faculties while the former will show you a proper conception of morality.