6. about the Meaning, Purpose, and direction in Existence –
The Path of our Life
6.1 About the Meaning, Purpose, and Direction in Existence
Since Copernicus’ discovery, highlighted by Galileo’s unfortunate process, we know that our Earth is not at the center of Creation. Additional discoveries in modern times – of a universe filled with billions of galaxies – cause us to expect that there was, is, and will be other intelligent life in this universe that has been in existence for almost 14 billion years by now. There is reason to assume that the appearance of intelligent life on other heavenly bodies, all being formed very hot and subsequently cooling off, has also resulted from an evolution, progressing from some primitive forms of life to the higher forms, as on Earth  . One must assume that other civilizations in the universe have occurred or will be occurring at various times, most of them at different times from the appearance of human civilizations on Earth.
This implies that the appearance of the animate phase of existence and the appearance of more gifted or “intelligent” living beings most likely did not happen first on Earth.
Why, then, did the delay of 2.5 billion years occur between the appearance of single-cell life on Earth and its evolution during the Pre-Cambrian and Cambrian periods into sophisticated and diversified organisms? Why did it take 600 million additional years of Darwinian struggle for humans to appear on Earth? Certain evolutionary phases may have been just as necessary on Earth as they most likely were on other celestial bodies. But why did they take that long if the next creative idea had already occurred to the creative spirit of the universe, to God, at an earlier time?
We now know, that all of this inanimate and natural existence will come to its certain dissolution or end at a calculable time in the future – either in giant black holes or, later, as infinitely dissipating and ever colder radiation.
In conclusion, the inanimate phase of celestial bodies of existence may have been, and still is, nothing but fireworks for the pleasure of one viewer, the Formative Essence of Existence, God. Equally the Darwinian phase of life, ever different on different celestial bodies, may be nothing else but a kaleidoscopic pleasure for its creator, without any other purpose in itself.
The “human” phase of natural evolution (whatever that means on other celestial bodies) attributes mental freedom and responsibility to those living beings on a human level or above (or their leaders) – possibly supported and guided by consciousness and goals or “values”. Thereby, these conscious beings become co-viewers and co-actors of existence, within their limitations, thus adding their own purpose to the evolution of existence.
It is indeed pathetic how we humans, possibly still being in our early phase of development, continue to struggle with their weaknesses – as insects struggle in the mud trying to lift themselves by their wings. There may be no purpose or meaning in the totality of the universe beyond the pleasure of God. But there is specific purpose, meaning, and direction for our own lives to reach our potential and to form our environment in accordance with our values – in improving, perceiving with joy, reaching out in curiosity, and fulfilling human existence – specifically as we regard the shortness of time allocated to our individual lives.
It is of great importance to take a new approach to theology, to incorporate what we now know about evolution and the universe. Too many traditional images, perceptions, and dogmas are not tenable in such an expanded view. What is expected of theology is not only an anthropocentric theology, explaining our own lives, but also a theology commensurate with the observation of ongoing Creation, of natural evolution, of natural catastrophes, and a theology viewing the vast and evolving universe of billions of galaxies, knowing that all will certainly find its ultimate end. One must hope for a new religious understanding of universal existence, of the transcendental essence of existence, of whatever name one gives one’s personal “God”, and of our human existence on Earth .
If the universe is aimless, there is no other meaning or purpose in life than to be there. A status of aimlessness would exist if all atoms in the universe were to randomly move around forever. The universe is different. Things take shape – in galaxies and planetary systems – and those configuring movements and transformations continue. In the ongoing evolution of the universe, life appears and fills every existing opportunity for its survival with adapted species. Finally, humans appear and find the unique opportunity of their existence in thinking, having values, and forming cultures. Thinking allows a higher level of comfort and power. The values give direction and meaning to human thought and actions.
Is human development the meaning of the entire universe? Most likely, not. Human existence here on Earth exists in one very remote and very small particle of the universe, squeezed in with the violent astronomical and physical events of the original phase of Creation, with the cruel Darwinian struggle of earlier life forms, and will find its end in self-made destruction or in one of the many natural extinction catastrophes – if not in the end of our Sun and the universe. This leaves as the specific meaning of existence for us humans the filling of the specific niche opened to us and to use the unique opportunities given to our minds.
How can we not see the meaning of our existence in using the opportunities that, in such a unique way, were given to us? We should not just be another species of animals, senselessly feeding on other forms of life, fighting off predators and competitors, and multiplying. This may still be in our blood; we are still part of the real world. But there is more for us in our unique gifts. The fulfilling of our potential in thought and values is the meaning of our existence in the universe.
Are “purpose” and “meaning” the same? Possibly not. Meaning indicates “what makes sense”, purpose indicates “what for”, “what to do now”, or “what is expected from us” – any one such statement related to the others.
Purpose is related to objectives and results. The earlier religious expectations of another world to come, the later scientific perceptions seeing phases of development in nature, and, lately, the theory presented by some believers of ongoing Creation (“Intelligent Design”) led some people to concepts of direction, objectives, or purpose in human existence on Earth. But the ultimate end of the universe has now become understood by modern science – in either a number of Black Holes, their ultimate dissolution in radiation, or in a total cosmic collapse, the Big Crunch. Therefore, it became visible to us that there is no permanent objective in Creation or possible result thereof. This leaves existence and its evolution only as a purpose in itself.
In individual human terms, this indicates the meaning of existence not only as being here and now as one came to exist, but also to participate in evolution while it lasts. The purpose of personal existence is a mandate to utilize the given opportunities, to fulfill personal existence, and to contribute toward the world’s development in our phase of human values with all our nature-given capabilities and human values and in accordance with opportunities.
One must mention the limits of opportunities, because Creation is moving on a large scale, with unevenness in detail. While Creation grows and develops in general, large sections of Creation have always been given over to oblivion, without continuity, indicating no other meaning than to have once existed. Large segments of our Earth have been destroyed by natural disasters, human communities or families have been wiped out by plagues, all kinds of living beings have been run over senselessly by trucks, children have died in accidents. Many, if not most, human individuals have lived in constrained circumstances and have not found fulfillment in the full use of their gifts. But are we to judge God? We can only search for peace of heart by giving ourselves to existence as it is, by accepting and by struggling to the best of our capabilities for the time given to us in existence.
Can this interpretation of the purpose of existence lead to an understanding of a Transcendental Formative Essence of Existence, God? All one can say is that this essence, God, wants the flower to bloom, the tree to grow high and strong, the lion to kill for food. God must also be seen as wanting diversity, with room in Creation for an infinite variety of existences, from the tender flower to the powerful beast. When one realizes that nothing in Creation remains static, that everything changes in time, ages and disappears, then one must see existence, God, as wanting development. God must have wanted the realization of the phase of Creation comprising human values – within the Darwinian world and within the world of inanimate celestial mechanics.
Mankind is leading nature’s development on Earth to abstract dimensions: Thought, ingenuity, moral values, decision-making, responsibility, compassion, aesthetics, humor, joy, and the building of cultures. Therefore, one can see God as wanting us to fulfill our existence by realizing this unique potential course. We must survive, and, being part of nature, we must keep strong through struggle. Human advance implies struggle. But, with diversity in nature, there is room for both, the weak and the strong. Each individual can or must choose his or her own path from a variety of possible approaches to existence, reaching from the tender and humble to the powerful and pioneering, each one developing initiative to using his or her given capabilities to the fullest.
Should we now work twenty hours every day to implement the results of our thoughts and to transform the world in accordance with our values? Earlier phases of our civilization, especially the last century, were filled with such ideals. Now, we are more critical. We want to conserve the environment and historical places. We see too much development as negative. But we all want to have a car and a computer and fly to distant places for vacation. We want to help third-world countries reach our level of well-being. We do want more development, but of the right kind. The meaning and purpose of human existence – the human opportunity – is not quantitatively defined, it is qualitative. It is value-related.
If “freedom and responsibility” are the guiding principles of the human phase of Creation, what shall we use freedom for, and what implies “responsibility”? As do all living beings, we must struggle for our survival. Beyond that, there is room for the enjoyment of existence. Above all, there are our values. It is the development of a life form corresponding to our values and ethical concepts that is the unique opportunity and, consequently, meaning and ultimate purpose of our human existence.
Quite realistically, we cannot dedicate all our waking hours to the pursuit of our values. Many people, if not most in the world, still struggle for bare survival; they have minimal social contact and are necessarily satisfied with basic pleasures.
In our successful societies, most people just want a more comfortable life, to have some significance in society, to be entertained.
Few people on Earth have the time or resources, or the admirable determination, to strive for mental growth, to dedicate some of their resources to public service or charity, to partake with joy in the cultural aspect of their society. This is the resulting ranking matrix of human goals and values:
Caring Service & Charity
Building a Better Society
Culture, the Arts
Security and Dignity
Positive Significance in Society
Family and Clan
While most philosophies and religions teach the pursuit of only one value – be it ethical perfection or withdrawal – in fact, any single individual is embedded somewhere in a combination of the three distinct values on three different levels in accordance with personal qualification, constantly requiring balancing compromises.
Survival – food, shelter, medical care – must come first, and procreation is the most natural urge. But the love and caring for one’s family, friends, and an increasing circle of people, is the most important basic “value”. Additionally, some aesthetic preferences and forms of art appear everywhere in the most primitive cultures. Personal strength, effort, and some success is needed to reach the next level, to gain security, dignity, freedom, and resources or to build a power base, while enjoying entertainment. On the highest level one finds the pursuit of mental growth and personality improvement, a dedication to society in charity or public service, and the enjoyment of art and culture. It is disappointing, however, to see success only on the middle level in terms of ever more money or power as the only goal of gifted individuals and whole segments of the human society, all used for nothing else but entertainment or basic pleasures! Fulfillment comes from reaching the highest level of mental growth, caring service, and culture.
It is interesting to note that our highest values and ethical standards, to the extent that they are typical for all humans, become more refined and evolve as our civilizations grow. The values of fighting bands in courage and honor or the value of hard work of pioneers lose their first rank in our times and give way to the values needed in our modern society: personality qualification as expressed by integrity or fairness – and by caring service to the community.
Additional Comments regarding conflicts between different directions in life:
The fact that there are not one but three different directions for our life, the one of personal development, the one of dedication to others and the community, and the aspect of art and culture, necessarily leads to conflicts between those preferences when time and resources are limited. How can one handle the conflicts between specific values – love of family, the arts, conservation of nature, charity? How can one find a compromise? Christ indicated only extreme solutions – preference for celibacy, selling all one’s belongings for the benefit of the poor. There are only two guiding thoughts out of this predicament, Aristotle’s and Kant’s, both of which are unsatisfactory.
Aristotle sees virtue as lying in the right balance between two undesirable extremes, one usually being weak deficiency, the other foolish excess. However, Aristotle cannot indicate what the “right” balance is. This balance may be different from case to case. Nor does Aristotle provide guidance in situations of conflict between different values.
Kant, in his Categorical Imperative, indicates that one should act in such a way that “the guideline of one’s action could be used as a directive for general legislation”. However, all people are different. The situations of their lives are different; and their cultures may be different. Therefore, your own Kantian maxim may not apply to others. If the guidelines were formulated universally for all people on Earth, they could become so vague as to be useless for decision-making in practical situations of life. Kant does not provide guidance in trying to find the universally right guidelines, especially not in situations of conflict.
Ethical standards of inter-human behavior are a central part of our values. They may even be the most important part of values, providing guidance to the formation and the foundation for the functioning of cultures and civilizations – and, thereby, to the lives of all members of those. In this sense, they are founded in our human essence and, hence, in our role in the universe, whether through “religious” inspiration of gifted individuals or, more likely, through the genetic gift of ethics caused by natural evolution in “Creation (evolved as an evolutionary advantage through the resulting formation of social coherence) and expanded through our value-guided minds.
Ethical standards, as discussed before, also suffer from the practical need for limitation and the absence of guidance in handling practical limitations. Nobody will divide his or her property down to the lowest denominator of all the poor people he or she may encounter. There are moments when lying – even killing – is necessary for survival or to help others. Job obligations in an organization do not allow for the pursuit of personal ethical preferences, as in hiring and firing or fighting off competition.
Lack of guidance in the dilemmas of limiting ethical behavior is the most disturbing problem in attempting to clarify one’s convictions and find a clear path through life. Celibacy and poverty for all is not the answer. Conscience, as discussed before, is not an adequate guide – nor are reason, philosophy, theology, and practical experience. Don’t shrug your shoulders, dear reader, and say “that’s the way it is”. That’s not what this essay is about. Rather, it searches for the limits of understanding – and here it can go no further.
What is the conclusion? Compromise of ethical behavior with other demands of life is necessary – time and resources are needed for personal growth in knowledge, skills, and character development, for one’s family and friends, for the arts, a walk through nature, sitting on the porch as an old man and enjoying one’s blessings, pursuing one’s hobbies – all within limits. But which? In any event, in searching for a compromise, one had better stay more on the demanding side of one’s ethical standards.
A summary of these thoughts is presented in the “Abstract and Conclusions” at the beginning of this essay.
6.2. The Path of Our Life
- Where do we come from? Should we not stand in greatest awe and admiration of the ultimate Formative Essence of Existence from where the power, structure, and dynamic course of the universe and of our own existence came?
- For many people, life is a serious struggle, with limited hope. As we lift our heads, however, we can deeply appreciate our human capability to perceive the grandiose universe and to actively participate in the small area and for the limited time of our personal existence.
- This vision of the ultimate origin and evolving existence provides us with the inspiration to rise and responsibly fulfill our life as best we can. This vision can also provide us with peace and can comfort us in accepting the limitations of our life and our ultimate return to where we came from.
- As all nature strives to live, grow and evolve, we must struggle with prudent determination to overcome adversity and, despite setbacks, to further develop our individual human potential in character and thought – through learning, exploring, and maturing – while always actively striving for excellence in our endeavors. We shall not abuse our skills for selfish aims only or to the detriment of others.
- Only in social coherence can we develop our greatest potential, in contributing and receiving light and harmony – in the love of our family, in caring assistance to the needy, in dedicated service to our community, and in responsible stewardship for our natural environment. We must attempt to compassionately reduce the many forms of suffering and overcome the darkness of the world – and also strive to improve true opportunities fairly for all. We shall not abuse the social forces of society for personal power only or to the detriment of others.
- We possess and gratefully cherish the gift of aesthetic appreciation in nature and the arts. We shall not abuse the intriguing influence of human sensitivity for selfish benefit only or to the detriment of ethical values.
- We are grateful for harmony in our world and need the community with our fellow travelers through existence in supportive congregations and cultures – for encouragement, comfort in suffering, constraint of damaging behavior, and for coordinated contribution to a beneficial evolution of society. We shall not abuse such congregations for vocal dominance or hierarchical power.
Purpose and Direction in Life:
- We recognize the natural longing for survival, procreation, and companionship. We must learn a marketable skill, find work and work well. It is not right, however, to gain benefit from the suffering of others and to procreate when caring for offspring is not provided.
- We recognize the striving for additional security and resources, for recognition, and for uplifting rest and joy. But there is no value in the accumulation of resources without their meaningful application, for gaining fame without merit, or for entertainment in frivolity.
- We recognize the personal growth in mental accomplishments or useful skills, the caring dedication to others, and the participation in the aesthetic formation of the human environment as the highest goals of human existence. They find their reward in the deepest human emotions and in benefit for society and the environment.