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Is There a Purpose for Human Existence?

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"Remember man, presume not God to scan; The proper study of mankind is man." 

These words from Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man” might be quite satisfying to many people when attempting to nail down our place in a godless universe. After all, we are what we are, conscious, experiencing humans, bodily stranded here in a remote space of the Milky Way. If we begin by analyzing what we know about ourselves, surely we can synthesize some intelligent belief—a purpose for our own being.

I can touch, taste, smell, hear, and see myself because of data I’ve perceived from the outside world. With a mirror, I can see my entire naked self in one glance. Early on in grade school and then later in high school, I learned about the various systems of this body.

The blood system, of course, depended on the pumping heart, but the heartbeat relied on signals from the brain. Muscles moved in response to sense stimuli interpreted by the brain; likewise every part of the body—every system within it—depended on an equilibrium between body parts to keep me alive.

But what intrigued me most, even as a child, was that the explanation for the nervous system seemed a bit lacking. I can recall diagrams of the central nervous system atop which sat the brain with its fissured lobes. The diagram reminded me of a tree planted upside down. Branches of the nerve tree grew smaller and smaller until the axons and dendrites reached the most distant body parts. Of course, the brain appeared to act as its root system.

The purpose for all these body parts working together is to provide me with life. Instinctively, I know I am more than the sum of my body parts. Even as a tiny tot, when I skinned my knee and went crying home to mommy, I would tell her “I cut my knee,” or “My leg is bleeding,” or words to that effect. I identified my knee as belonging to me, an entity existing separately from my knee. I was a “people.”

Thus, part of the purpose problem is solved: The thingie I posit as my body has a genuine purpose: to keep me alive and hopefully well. That makes me happy—well, not quite. To have a meaningful life—to have the desire to live and survive—I must have some purpose other than death. Like it or not, human logic instills this intelligent belief.

In The God Part of the Brain, Matthew Alper (Philosophy of Science Degree) suggests there is an actual God center in my brain, which makes me believe, however falsely, that a supernatural motive for living exists. If this is not true, Alper claims the human race could never have evolved.

Why? As early man developed into a thinking creature and grasped the truth that his only purpose was to die, an overwhelming hopeless lethargy would have led him to meaninglessness, emptiness, despair and eventual extinction. Thus, according to Alper, when looking back on the immensities of the past, all the discoveries and advancements made by humans up till now, occurred because man’s brain has supplied false trust in the existence of something supernatural beyond this life.

I would think that if humankind could not develop a sense of purpose for its own existence, then pursuing any purpose for an expanding universe is comical foolishness. I liken this dilemma to a pocket watch resting on a desktop. Assume the watch spring is tightly wound; it is highly intelligent. Could the watch spring ever figure out its own purpose? Would it ever know the purpose of its parts as a ticking timepiece before it stops? Incidentally, Matthew Alper is an avowed atheist.

In The Mind of God, Paul Davies (Professor of Mathematical Physics) initially agrees somewhat with Alper. Davies believes that our mental powers “… are presumably determined by biological evolution.” Accordingly, the scientific quest Davies argues, to seek the structure of the atom, to hunt the law of gravity, to determine the laws of electromagnetism, must be traced back to some “… highly special, cosmic initial conditions.”

Although he proposes that these initial conditions involved the exploding Big Bang singularity, like many philosophic thinkers including Alpert, Davies seems to suggest that the universe might have just popped into existence. He explains that nuclear particles act differently from the material of our everyday world. At the subatomic level, physicists have shown that particles regularly pop in and out of being.

Since they race at unbelievably fast speeds, only at the instant when they are measured do these particles appear to have being. Left in their natural state, merely the speed or energy waves/strings of these possible particles can be measured. Akin to them, the Big Bang singularity could just as easily pop in or out of existence.

Yet Davies believes all reality is following certain laws which scientists keep uncovering. He believes these laws are actually out there governing the universe; they are not mere concessions scientists statistically generate to explain reality. These laws are framed as mathematical relationships so Davies would insist math itself is a reality much like Plato's Universals. It exists as the bona fide language of the natural world.

However, in spite of science’s inability to answer the final questions: Why? What is the purpose of existence? Davies believes we are linked to a real supernatural dimension which will forever be beyond our capacity to comprehend, much like the “intelligent” mainspring of the pocket watch mentioned above. Yes, “We have cracked part of the cosmic code,” but Science can only go so far and then as conscious, self-aware beings, we must embrace the metaphysical mystery for what it is.

At the present time, my own thinking would align more with Davies than Alper. Some basic instinct urges me to question my being, maybe neurotically so. I find it difficult to believe that a life of the mind arose strictly by accident and evolutionary adaptation from an explosive singularity some 13-15 billion years ago.

There is more to me and my mind than the sum of my physical parts; there is more to the universe than the sum of all its particles. Although I may never find it, I believe I have a purpose. Some people, especially in the East, I think, might call this obsessive search: the path to the Ultimate. I wonder … 

"I am," I cried.
"I am," said I;
"And I am lost, and I can't even say why …  (Neil Diamond)

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About Regis Schilken

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    I can see my entire naked self in one glance.

    Actually, it’s a series of snapshots that make up a whole picture for your brain to then turn into information.

    But, beyond that… Nice Article. I don’t think people have a problem with the idea of a “creator”, necessarily, I think the fairy tale as told in the bible is totally far fetched. And, even if there was some sort of “creator”, whose to say that it/he/she is still alive?

    To say that we keep living or “evolve” because of some attachment to a greater being is a bit restrictive in my opinion because I have never met this creature nor do I have any emotional connection. I struggle to survive because of the things that the human race has created with our own intelligence(music) & the emotional bond I have with my family(cat included)…

    Oh well, just some of my own ideas…

    Thanks for the nice article:)

  • Regis Schilken

    I can see my entire naked self in one glance.

    Actually, it’s a series of snapshots that make up a whole picture for your brain to then turn into information.
    ———————
    Thanks for the response. I’m curious about your comment though. Why is it necessary that my brain turns a series of snapshots into a “naked self” image? Why is it necessary that we appreciate only the universal image? Are we seeing only the FORM and not the real SUBSTANCE?

  • http://acercadomundo.blogspot GPC™

    “I find it difficult to believe that a life of the mind arose strictly by accident and evolutionary adaptation from an explosive singularity some 14 billion years ago.”

    This is not a question to ‘believe’. This is not religion. It’s a question to understand.

    Are you saying that you’re a little dumb and can’t understand some things (for me is the String Theory) or are you saying that being so smart and all there must be something wrong with that fact?

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Why is it necessary that my brain turns a series of snapshots into a “naked self” image?

    Are you trying to be philosophical here?? What would you want to or expect to see? Considering that our only untainted and non-translated connection to this world/life is through our nose, I think it best that our eyes work as hard as they can to produce an “accurate” visual portrayal of what is around us…

  • Regis Schilken

    Regarding the comment above:

    Are you saying that you’re a little dumb and can’t understand some things …

    Yes!

  • Regis Schilken

    You’ve got me thinking regarding:

    “I think it best that our eyes work as hard as they can to produce an “accurate” visual portrayal of what is around us …”

    I guess what puzzles me is that our eyes send a bazillion impulses to our brain that we somehow recognize as a picture. How all the zappings and firings of countless neurons in our brain are able to produce a single image we then interpret as reality is a real mystery to me.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    I agree…

    Now think about this: If you were to be able to map out the brain & how it works onto a computer, as of right now, it would take a whole football field full of servers. Talk about compressing technology!

  • Regis Schilken

    Compressing info keeps improving. Years ago I worked for Westinghouse. In one building, there was an entire floor dedicated to a computer that did ONLY payroll. That floor was air conditioned because of the heat from so many vacuum tubes necessary to run its analog computer.

    Today, my tiny flash drive has more storage space than that entire floor.

    Incidentally, I had the chance to stand in front of a TV (with a Wii attached) a few months ago in an attempt to beat a second grader to the finish line with my race car. Needless to say, he beat me. I felt I was actually inside the race car on the screen.

    I’m waiting anxiously for a holodeck, the kind seen on Star Trek, to be invented. As tech and storage gets smaller and smaller, this is a real possibility. Hopefully before I croak …

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/seanmooregonzalez Sean Moore Gonzalez

    I approach our ‘purpose’ question from two perspectives: we are a force of nature in this world in the same way the wind or gravity is, and our ultimate purpose is not something absolute and unchanging.

    I believe the third law of Theromodynamics is ultimately wrong; if entropy always increased, then we would not have organized so quickly from such initial chaos. If we take this observation a little further, then our purpose as a part of this world is to continuously reduce entropy, to continuously dream and build what has never before existed.

    The forces of wind, gravity, the sea, etc., acted first to create us, and now we act with the world around us to create something more than ourselves. We continuously reinvent our existence through our dreams and our actions; there is no final answer, no limit to our purpose.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    In my limited knowledge of Thermodynamics, if Entropy is a measure of the disorder of a system, then I have to agree that it might be false. I feel that these systems are of a supposed disorder due to our limited ability to see the whole system.

    Our purpose should not be limited to the idea that some great “creator” enslaves us with these rules to living & creation….

  • duane

    A little clarification is in order here. Just for the record, it’s not the 3rd Law you’re referring to, Sean. It’s the 2nd Law, which says that the entropy of a closed system tends to increase over time. For our purposes, entropy can be thought of as disorder, although there are precise mathematical definitions.

    The earth is not a closed system. Earth is bathed in sunlight. We draw energy from the sun. The amount of energy that Earth dumps back into its solar system environment is equal to the amount that it absorbs from sunlight, which gives us a more or less stable global average temperature. But the entropy of the dumped energy is higher than the entropy of the absorbed sunlight, because it is degraded to infrared (so-called heat energy) compared to the “yellow” sunlight. The net entropy change is positive, consistent with the 2nd Law.

    The other reason that I mention this is that many anti-science “believers” claim that God or gods must be intervening in our Earthly existence by violating the laws of physics. But the laws of physics are intact, whether or not gods are intervening.

  • Regis

    I agree with you Brian regarding:

    “Our purpose should not be limited to the idea that some great “creator” enslaves us with these rules to living & creation….”

    I think that purpose, or at least the hunt for a personal purpose, is what motivates me to want to survive. For some, this purpose becomes a god. For me, purpose is an end in itself.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Just for further clarification, the Third Law is actually the one that says you can’t cool something down to absolute zero – only very close.

    Because those darned electrons, they will just keep a-spinning and making a noise when I’m trying to get some sleep.

    Oh, wait, no. That’s my cats.

  • Regis

    I think I’m still bothered by the fact that we are capable of discovering rules or what we think are rules operating in reality. Is the tiny electron that just keeps on spinning following such a rule?

  • Regis

    Hey Sean, what a neat encapsulation you made:
    “The forces of wind, gravity, the sea, etc., acted first to create us, and now we act with the world around us to create something more than ourselves.”