I was having coffee with a friend of mine. He’s a minister and a nurse, and one hell of a gardener. We were delving into theological minutiae recently when our conversation progressed to the point where he asked me, “So, then, do you think you have a purpose?”
I’ve mulled this over before. My response was, “No. I do feel purposeless.” Those words sound so sad when said aloud, we’re used to it being a depressing thought.
But I went on, “But it doesn’t bother me.”
I think my beliefs about certain fundamental truths have some bearing on my choice to just enjoy myself, rather than striving to perform some great feat, or noble duty, or bettering the world.
I suppose my beliefs could be summed up most easily by calling it existential nihilism. The worldview of choice among angst-ridden teens. Though I manage to hold such views while simultaneously whistling a happy tune.
It is basically a belief that the universe, and consequently, life itself, is random and pointless (or “absurd” as the philosophers like to call it). That the collection of atoms that make up my body and consciousness are no more valuable than the atoms that make up the sun or a rock. Indeed, they are the same thing, just arranged differently. And that my self will soon be completely wiped from the face of the universe along with every human being and the memory of every human being who has ever, or will ever live. The sun will explode, the universe will implode, and nothing we do will have meant anything.
If there is some greater meaning, it can’t be known. We can’t trust that our senses aren’t lying to us. I trust that what I see and touch actually exists, I have to in order to get through the day. But I can’t use that information to figure out some fundamental truths about life or the universe, because I can’t be sure I’m not just some brain hooked up to a computer, or that I’m not being tricked by some divine being who’s toying with me.
And I can’t trust logic. It makes sense to me that something can’t both exist, and not exist at the same time. Or that 1 + 1 = 2 .That makes intuitive sense. But how can I know that that’s true beyond any doubt? How can I be sure what appears to be intuitively logical to me is actually so, or if I’m just a product of an absurd universe tricking me into thinking it makes sense? I can’t.
So just like I trust my senses enough to help me navigate through the world, I trust the rules of logic so far as they help me navigate through the world. But I can’t count on either of them to help me get to any undeniable truths since they are both ultimately based on assumptions and intuitions that I can’t be sure are universally true or just things I’m being tricked into believing.
Descartes basically concluded, after wrestling with this problem, that we have to just choose to trust that logic is real, and our senses aren’t lying to us. Because reason itself was created by God, and God wouldn’t lie to us, would he? Descartes asks that you make that choice to trust though, because without doing so, there isn’t much else you can conclude.
Some people, angst-filled teens namely, but also many an adult, when faced with these realizations, fall into a state of despair. Why do anything if everything is pointless?
Indeed many existentialist philosophers spend a great deal of time trying to figure out whether or not the most rational thing people could do is commit suicide.
This leap from “everything is pointless” to complete despair doesn’t have to be the case though. It could actually be a liberating realization. If everything is pointless then you really don’t have any obligation to do anything. Moral codes are optional, duties you might feel towards your fellow man are irrational, so there’s no need to uphold them or feel guilty about not doing so, and you needn’t worry about pleasing any divine beings or following religious doctrines. Simply do whatever you want without guilt.
I happen to find that the fact that life is meaningless doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. Food is still fun to eat. Friends are still fun to laugh with. Love is just as attractive. I like to think of it as mindful hedonism.
If everything is pointless and you can’t really know anything for sure, the best I can do is choose to maximize my pleasure. While my pleasure all might be an illusion, and is definitely pointless, at least I like it.
Now let me quickly try to fill in some gaps of my thinking without being too heavy on the formal logic of the system.
There are some problems that crop up with such a belief system. Such as, well, if everything is pointless and humans are not more special than any other assortment of atoms, why couldn’t I choose to kill people I don’t like? Or why not steal or cheat whenever it benefits me? Why follow any rules of society or morality?
It seems like a real conundrum, but the answer is pretty simple. Because if I did any of those things there is a good likelihood I would be caught, and imprisoned, and thought less of. All of which would lower my overall enjoyment of life. Friends and socializing are an important part of my happiness, and if it is known that I’m a thief or a murderer, well then, I’d probably have a hard time keeping good friends and would be less happy in the long run because of it.
So it becomes a pure utilitarian approach to morality by simply measuring what will bring the most pleasure over the long-term. This typically leads to conclusions that align well with societal expectations and the law.
I also love a lot of people. Given this hyper-rational approach you might wonder how I could embrace such an absurdity. If a person is just a bunch of atoms, why should I feel a special connection to them beyond their utility to me?
For this, I just choose to embrace the absurdity. I’m already assuming and accepting that life and the universe are absurd, yet I choose to embrace them. So why not just acknowledge that love is absurd and go ahead and embrace it anyway if it adds to my pleasure?
This includes romantic love, familial love, the love I have for my friends, as well as a Christian-esque love for people I’ve never even met.
Other virtues line up well with an approach to life seeking to maximize pleasure; practicing forgiveness, patience and generosity all make life more pleasant and less stressful for the practitioner. So living with the aim of maximizing pleasure can look very similar to living with the aim of being virtuous or pious.
Practically speaking this purposelessness is freeing. I don’t feel any need to set arbitrary goals for myself, or to constantly progress at things. Everything is ultimately meaningless anyway so I shouldn’t ever worry that I’m “wasting my time” since anything I could possibly do would, ultimately, be no more wasteful than anything else.
I’m not worried that I’ll ever run out of fun things to do. I mean, I spent a year in a desert basically doing no more than sleeping and hiking in near solitude, and I only left that life with some reluctance. My current life offers far more options than that. There’s too much fun to have to ever tire of it. Nietzsche asked, “Is not life a hundred times too short for us to bore ourselves?”
So, am I purposeless? Sure. So what?