The Purpose of Life
University commencement speeches are the sermons at modern mass bar miztvahs, with academia rather than a religious institution, as is appropriate for mankind in this stage of our evolution, giving the ‘mitzvah’, the blessing, to kids as they cross into adulthood. If you haven’t seen Australian comedian Tim Minchin’s ‘occasional address’, as they call it Down There, I recommend it; there’s good reason it has grown steadily more viral since he delivered it to his alma mater, the University of Western Australia, in June of last year: his good reasoning.
I’d never heard of Minchin before he invaded my Facebook feed this week, despite being half Australian with dual citizenship; I’m utterly out of touch with the culture. He would seem to be Russell Brand’s antipodean evil twin, a rock-and-roll comedian on a serious mission of socio-political reform. This seemingly antithetical use of comedy to advance serious causes is nothing new; comedians like George Carlin have been there before. Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver are up in the righteous pulpit every night, bantering with the high-minded, goosing and smacking the assholes.
We can’t have enough of the clown prophets who bait the public with wit only to shine a beam on what’s wrong with mankind and how we can improve. They are an essential part of our evolution as a species, and evolution is what we are about. In fact, it is our sole purpose.
Minchin offers nine lessons to his audience of scholars young and old. The theme that ran through the entire speech was the meaninglessness of life:
Arts degrees are awesome. And they help you find meaning where there is none. And let me assure you, there is none. Don’t go looking for it. Searching for meaning is like searching for a rhyme scheme in a cookbook: you won’t find it and you’ll bugger up your soufflé…
“I said at the beginning of this ramble that life is meaningless. It was not a flippant assertion. I think it’s absurd: the idea of seeking ‘meaning’ in the set of circumstances that happens to exist after 13.8 billion years worth of unguided events. Leave it to humans to think the universe has a purpose for them. However, I am no nihilist. I am not even a cynic. I am, actually, rather romantic. And here’s my idea of romance:
“You will soon be dead. Life will sometimes seem long and tough and, god, it’s tiring. And you will sometimes be happy and sometimes sad. And then you’ll be old. And then you’ll be dead.”
While semantically speaking ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ are synonymous, they aren’t the same. Or not to me they aren’t. ‘Meaning’ is passive; it defines something, seeks its significance. ‘Purpose’ is active, it is what propels that something forward to a goal that gives it significance; it is both means and end. So while I agree with Minchin that life, especially a single individual’s life, has no meaning and that seeking one is futile, I don’t agree that existence, that “universe” of which we are an integral and inseparable part, has no purpose.
I was first introduced to Richard Dawkins by the man who now heads the Sufi order I have belonged to for almost twenty years. I’m not longer active, but I was at one time, very. Sufism is like the Hotel California: you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave — anything you do, include the leaving, is part of your particular path, and that path is part of the greater purpose.
Many Sufi schools of thought, like some Buddhist, are essentially atheistic. However, because Sufism is the ‘mystical’ arm of Islam, that most violent, unforgiving, and inhuman of religions, Sufis can never outright deny the existence of God. In fact, they must declaim his existence as loudly as possible so as to distract the exoteric, persecuting clergy from the reality of what they believe.
The ultimate goal of Sufi practice is Unity of Being, when you become one with God. In going this, you must obliterate yourself, your ego; there can be no duality, no ‘you and me’. God becomes Rumi’s ‘Beloved’, the elusive divine lover the mystic must pursue his whole life. Rumi is merely the most famous of the great Sufi poets. All Sufi masters enjoin their followers to do the same thing: become who they were before they came to be, to annihilate themselves in the divine.
This is impossible, of course. Nobody can cease to exist while still alive. The enlightenment equation is really very simple: If one of us in the duality is meant to go, it is God, the human construct whose existence will never be proven because he is a fiction. To attain Unity of Being, you merely have to see yourself as part of a greater whole, which I call Existence, capitalized like the Unity of Being to bestow it with divinity. This isn’t to say I worship Existence. The act of worship is senseless, futile and narcissistic; you’re bowing down and praying to yourself. All I am saying is that the only thing that is divine because it is the only thing that we can be sure exists is Existence itself.
The idea of the Unity of Being, which utterly denies the importance of the individual and his place in the universe, and in effect strips him of all meaning (but not purpose), is jarring for Westerners. “That means Sufis are like the Borg from Star Trek,” one disgusted American said to me in response to my explanation of how I viewed my place within Existence. How very un-American of me do deny any import to myself as an individual. Ayn Rand is turning in her grave and calling me a leech, a traitor; after all, aren’t I the epitome of her creative ‘mover’, the alpha individual who operates outside the herd in order to shepherd it forward?
In a practical sense, I am the Randian ideal, when I’m not being lazy and refusing to work on things that don’t interest me simply to make money, as one of her dollar sign-worshipping movers surely would. But by declaring her rational selfishness irrational, by shrugging off any thought that I have some greater purpose outside Existence, philosophically I become more of a Marxist than a so-called Objectivist (I think her appropriation of that word is an act of branding that is at once genius and outrageous).
So go ahead, Ayn: turn, baby, turn.
The Sufi master and I sat in the garden of his house in London one summer afternoon while he explained the premise behind Dawkin’s seminal book The Selfish Gene: that evolution is propelled not by the group, but by the individual gene for which we as individuals are merely a vessel. We engaged in a little light dialectic about the Selfish Gene; I hadn’t read the book, so I relied solely on his brief synopsis of its concepts. The discussion came to an abrupt halt when I posited an unanswerable question: “Why is this gene suddenly looking at itself? Why has it become aware of itself?” If Existence is, as Minchin and others say, just random acts of evolution bumping against each other in an endless festival of happy, “lucky” accidents over billions of years, why has the gene suddenly applied the brakes and stopped the accidents from happening by controlling them?
Let me elucidate. If we exist solely for the survival of this gene, then the gene is Existence itself. One of the few constants we can be sure of is evolution, which is what Dawkins’ book is about. We have for a long time now stopped our own evolution by controlling natural selection, and those of many other species, plants and minerals. Minchin’s “13.8 billion years of unguided events” are suddenly well guided.
We aren’t the only organism on the planet to be aware or to at least strive for awareness. I would define any organism that dreams and feels as being one that is striving for the sort of consciousness that mankind has achieved. We just got to the goal sooner than others. This means that awareness is where the apparent randomness of evolution is headed; the Selfish Gene doesn’t want to be unguided any more, but very much wants to assert its dominion over Existence, to take control of itself.
The Selfish Gene controlling itself isn’t a recent thing. My basic problem with the anti-GMO movement is the same as Neil deGrasse Tyson’s: We have been manipulating the genes of organisms since we learned to cultivate and herd animals, to breed them for domesticity. Dogs are our creation, bred down deliberately from wolves. Whether they are for hunting, herding, as the eyes for the blind, or little yippy emotional companionship, dogs serve a very important purpose. As do seemingly independent cats: nothing is more effective at getting rid of vermin than bringing a feline into the house. This is the definition of modifying an organism genetically, and anyone who opposes modification is being atavistic, anti-evolutionary, fighting a losing battle because it makes no sense, and that which makes no sense eventually falls before the relentless juggernaut of evolution and is crushed.
We, the self-aware vehicles of the Selfish Gene, have created all of this, and we create more every day. Art, science, politics and philosophy work in loose concert to propel mankind forward, constantly improving our lives, facilitating our evolution, but on our terms. It might seem that we take a few steps back, but this is really part of the juggernaut’s churning wheels, the way Existence tests itself, taking what is worthy and discarding the chaff.
Evolution on this planet has reached a thrilling watershed moment. In the Western world, in what we rightly called the ‘developed countries’, but should more precisely and truthfully call the “more evolved nations,” we have reached the end of history, the “political and philosophical concept that supposes that a particular political, economic, or social system may develop that would constitute the end-point of humanity’s sociocultural evolution and the final form of human government,” to quote Wikipedia.
This doesn’t mean that we have reached the end of the world. Far from it: the end of history is sounding the death knell for all religions, especially those that espouse some sort of grand apocalyptic doomsday scenario. And destruction of the planet by mankind through conflict or abuse of natural resources isn’t likely to happen in the foreseeable future — we are already reining that in, and, no, we won’t be too late.
In terms of art, philosophy and politics, we have definitely reached the end of history. For instance, there is no more fashion, not in the sense that anything gets changed; creating a new silhouette is virtually impossible, the only options left too weird to be practical and wearable. Art has nothing left to subvert, nothing left to express, only new mediums to explore. Philosophy has thought itself into a cannibalistic churn; it only makes sense to itself now, it contributes nothing to our progress near what Descartes did when he declared us to exist because we think. As for politics, I can’t imagine we’re ever going to develop a system as beneficial to the evolutionary goals of Existence, which mandate absolute freedom within ordered boundaries, than Western liberal democracy. Perhaps one day progress in technology will allow us to live within more of a Marxist utopia. If so, if it is beneficial to the Selfish Gene, you can be sure we will adopt it, even if it means upheaval and struggle against the old system.
Science is the only discipline left with much to uncover. Still, it is mainly proving theories that already exist, developing and making real technologies that we have already imagined and proposed. In any case, the end of history isn’t a single, abrupt moment that we have reached, but a period of transition, probably quite a long one; we have to get there as a whole, as a united being, and a sizable potion of mankind is lagging behind. No matter: they will join us eventually because there is no other option.
But what is Existence’s purpose? That is what I promised with this article. I think it’s pretty clear that the purpose is evolution itself, for Existence to become self-aware so it can guide its own path through space-time. But what is the reason for evolution? Ah, now you are looking for meaning, for a reason. I only promised a purpose.
When I was making notes for this piece a few days ago — yes, I make notes now; how I have evolved! — I wrote, “Science fiction thinks too small about the future of mankind as the self-aware conveyance of Existence. Sci-fi imagines we’ll be tooling around the universe in vehicles we have adapted to meet our needs as physically limited humans. Even the planet-sized Death Star from Star Wars is thinking small. In reality, we will be harnessing entire stars to our chariots to carry us across the universe.”
And then Stephen Hawking spooked the world yesterday by warning that we have the capacity, in theory, to annihilate the universe if we tinker around with the Higgs boson too much. Annihilate. The. Universe. Even if we aren’t technologically at the point of accomplishing it, the mere fact we have the capability, even if only theoretical, is proof for me that we have hitherto been thinking too small.
If they insist on calling the Higgs boson the ‘God particle’, then it is specifically the god Shiva, lord of creation and destruction. This isn’t the first time Hindu cosmology has gotten it right. The Hindus have believed for millennia that existence is cyclical. The Big Bang occurs when Brahma opens his eyes, and collapses again when he shuts them, which is what many physicists believe the universe will do eventually. After the collapse, as The Bhagavad Gita tells us, the cosmos enters a state of “perpetuity,” in which space-time ceases to exist. Again, science would agree that is a plausible scenario. Then Brahma opens his eyes, another Big Bang occurs, and the cycle renews.
Personally, I think it only fair to give credit where it is due and rename the Higgs boson the ‘Shiva particle’.
When I watch those other viral videos that illustrate just how vast the universe is, how tiny our planet is by comparison, I don’t feel small. I look at it through Existence’s eyes and am dazzled by the potential ahead of us: so much to see, so much to know, so much to appreciate and revel in, so much to conquer.
Hawking also warns that eventually we will have to leave the planet. While not the ultimate goal, if there is an ultimate goal, this might also be a part of the evolutionary process, the way in which Existence kicks the self-aware organism out of the nest, by destroying the planet. We have a lot of time before that happens, but happen it will.
While we have halted our own evolution and taken control of it, and assumed a similar mastery over almost everything on this planet, we might have to make one final change when we finally flee in our chariots harnessed to the stars: We will likely have to abandon these bodies and take a less cumbersome, less frail, less high-maintenance form that will allow the gene to travel across space-time more easily. As long as consciousness continues to exist, as long as Existence can drive its own car, then we are achieving the purpose. The human form is irrelevant to that purpose.
What is that ultimate goal? Again, I can give no reason for Existence or the conscious evolution that has taken hold of this planet. Perhaps Existence just wants control of itself as relief from the wild ravages of randomness, to impose order on chaos; if that is a human desire, then it is Existence’s, too. Perhaps there is some holy grail at the end of the universe that we are destined to seize. I don’t really care; I am content living in the process. Seeing the game’s conclusion, or even pondering it, holds no appeal.
I am an atheist because I don’t believe there is a supernatural being that is manipulating destiny, some omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent force I need to pray and sacrifice to, and follow that being’s commandments as interpreted by schizophrenic prophets. But by espousing this belief about the Unity of Being and the Selfish Gene’s move toward dominion of the universe, I am saying that God is not dead; he is being born, made in our image. Our collective Shiva will yet dance across the universe, and to our own tune.
We stand at this watershed at the end of history, at the dawn of divinity, raw, still so young, terrified and excited. We are shedding the false gods and prophets that gave us so much comfort when our knowledge was limited, and look to ourselves for guidance instead. The path of our great purpose lies yawning before us, light years across, yet still imaginable, feasible. We have crawled out of the primordial muck to build pyramids, to harness the atom for destruction and creation, to fly despite not having wings. Existence is pleased, but it knows we could still annihilate ourselves. No matter: somewhere, on another planet, on many other planets, self-aware avatars of Existence are rising or have already arisen. If mankind doesn’t succeed in its purpose, then another part of the Unity of Being will.
Yes, graduates of the Class of 2013 of the University of Western Australia, you do have a purpose, and it is glorious, albeit not in the way you might think. We all move Existence forward, help it evolve. Yes, we are in essence the Borg, a great collective that is a single organism with a single purpose, but we function as individuals as well, for without individual efforts and opinions and thought and discovery and chaff-creating conflicting interests our shared Selfish Gene couldn’t move forward. Your purpose is to complain, to clap, to provoke, to create, to build, to breed and parent, to grow food and to nurture, to write the code that creates the platform that allows us to communicate and grow more unified, to be the soldier who protects Ayn Rand’s movers from those who would undo them, to be a super-genius unfairly strapped to a wheelchair, immobile, given a voice by a computer, who helps carry Existence forward on shoulders as broad as Atlas’, more than any able-bodied person in the world.
As long as you contribute to evolution, you have a purpose. If you are an evil medieval jihadist who beheads and crucifies, if you picket the funerals of better people for wrongheaded beliefs, if you follow the commands of schizophrenic false prophets that lead to the destruction of others and to the impediment of progress, then you cease to have purpose. You become less than useless; you are anti-purpose. But in the scheme of things, the petty evils you wreak are meaningless. You will be vanquished, crushed under the wheels of the juggernaut and made chaff.
When you die and the energy that has sustained the self-aware part of Existence that is you dissipates, in one way or other you will dissolve into the atoms that formed you, and you will merge once more into the stardust from whence you came. This is one of the many poetic visions that people like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, humans with true purpose, have being trying to impart to purposeless minds. That dissipation is your reincarnation, your life everlasting until the end of space-time, when Shiva, fully self-aware, fully in control, pulls the pin on his particle grenade and brings the dance to an end.
We think, therefore we know we are Existence. While that might not give life a meaning, it doesn’t preclude that it will have one eventually. It doesn’t preclude a purpose, either.
What purpose does your life have as an individual? Look at what you are doing. A trash collector lends far more value to the order of things than a wealthy banker whose sole preoccupation is enriching himself by pillaging the lives of others; he’s another jihadist with a purposeless cause.
Will it be us who reaches out and controls the universe? Or will it be us in concert with other self-aware elements of Existence? That would be nice. Or will we annihilate ourselves first and never see the best parts of the dance that other self-aware elements will enjoy? Philosophically speaking, in the Unity of Being it doesn’t matter who wins, who survives. I’m rooting for Team Mankind, of course; I’m just selfish that way.
Tim Minchin’s Complete Speech