THE BLOG
11/30/2015 03:45 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2016

The Purpose-Driven Life? No Thanks!

McKenzie Lloyd-Smith, freelance photographer & videographer via Getty Images

A lot of people these last few thousand years seem to be obsessed with something called "purpose" --especially with people having a purpose, actions having a purpose, life having a purpose.

Why does everyone care so much about having purpose?

Because the idea of purpose is part of the definition of what it means to want anything, and wanting things is what we living beings are all about.

Living beings have needs and desires. To be conscious in addition to being alive means sometimes having awareness that what we want is not what we have -- wanting some things that are not immediately available. So to be conscious and alive seems to require that we have some degree of a "goal versus means" mentality: since I can't stop wanting what I want and it's also not here, I am compelled to ask myself how to get it. What I want is the goal; how I get it is the means. And this seems to be the matrix of the idea of purposeful action: we do this "in order to" attain that.

Some have concluded that therefore purposefulness must reveal to us the essence of what we desire when we desire, of what is desirable. Purpose is locked into the very definition of goodness, and from there loaded into the very definition of being. On this view, purpose is the unsurpassable source and goal of all things that happen. I call holders of this view monotheists: Jews, Christians, Muslims, but also Platonists and Aristotelians.

Others have concluded that purposefulness is a kind of narrow foreground illusion endemic to our particular form of desiring and perception, a by-product rather than the source or goal of conscious animal life, which cannot be the real root of goodness or the real source of things that happen. Some of these consider it still the best thing there is, and wish there were more of it, and try to enhance it as much as possible. I call them secular atheists. Some of these, though, think purpose is an epiphenomenon of purposelessness and that therefore it must always play a secondary rather than a primary role in our understanding of ourselves and our world, and in our way of being in the world. These folks think that to prioritize and absolutize purpose will distort our understanding about what is really the best part of us and of the world, and how to have there be more of it--even the "best" part as defined by purposes, for indeed no definition of "best" can make any sense without some reference to purpose. I call these atheist mystics: some Spinozists, some Nietzscheans, some Daoists, also some Confucians and Buddhists, especially those working within the Daoist cultural sphere.

The idea of a personal creator God, a purposeful mind that stands at the origin of all existence and all value, is above all the deification of the idea of purpose. With the idea of the monotheistic God, purpose becomes the source and end and meaning of all things; purposelessness becomes by definition the thing most to be despised and minimized. The idea of God means that purpose is the ultimate, the highest, the privileged and eternally unsurpassable category at the root of all things. Purpose stands at the beginning of all actuality as its source, and purpose stands at the end of all activity as its goal.

The privileging of the idea of purpose creates a mode of relating to the world in which, literally by definition, no possible experience can be intrinsically worthwhile. Once we accept the idea that accord with a pre-existent purpose is what makes something count as good, or for what makes things exist, we have condemned ourselves to eternal dissatisfaction. This is the most obvious problem that arises when we prioritize the idea of purpose. If A's purpose is B, what is B's purpose? What is the purpose of the total whole, A plus B? Is it C? What is C's purpose? D? And so on. It would seem that once we have started asking this question we cannot stop until we come to the largest whole or the ultimate destination. But what is the purpose of the whole or the destination? What is the purpose, the meaning, the point of, say, the universe, or human happiness, or a future utopia? What is the purpose of pleasing God? What is the purpose of God? This is a mirror image of a problem that comes with making causality ontologically ultimate: if "to be" is to be caused by something prior, what causes the prior thing, and its prior thing?

The idea of God is engineered precisely to avert this infinite regress of purposes, as much as to avert the infinite regress of causes: the idea is that somewhere along the line there must be something which is "its own purpose," something valuable in itself, or else the entire chain of purposes becomes meaningless. The only problem is that the very definition of value as purpose makes the very idea of "valuable in itself" inconceivable and impossible.

This is a little ironic, since the whole problem only emerges because purpose has been absolutely prioritized in this way. Purpose creates the disease, and the deification of purpose is offered as the cure.

The first link and the final link in the chain must be defined as radically different from all the others, since all the others are caused by something prior and lead to something later, which are the usual definition of being and of purpose. But the first term and the last term cannot have these in the ordinary sense, so it must exist and be purposeful in some radically other way. The first and the last are typically conflated in theories like this. This first and last term has to be something that can somehow mysteriously be its own cause, unlike any other being, and just as mysteriously, it must have value or purpose or meaning just in itself, also unlike any other being. Things are by definition what have causes and purposes beyond themselves; this one has neither. If this non-caused and non-externally-purposed thing, this anti-thing, is removed, all purposes and all causes collapse. It must radically subordinate all the finite meanings and purposes in the chain: they have all of their purpose solely because of this mysterious item which is claimed to have "purpose in itself"--which is prima facie at least an oxymoron. All things must then be aligned from top to toe to serve this final end, or otherwise fail in attaining their purpose; as cogs in this grand plan, they must not have other purposes, but only the ones that derive from and also lead to the purpose-giver. From here we get the idea that all knowable things were specifically made for a specific purpose, whose sole meaning was to serve the purposeful designs of something or Someone that is itself not purposeless but somehow purposeful while violating the usual definition of purpose. So: Someone creates all things with the purpose of knowing, praising, loving, serving, obeying Him. You know the rest of this story, which still goes on and on.

Are there any alternatives to this arrangement, which some of us find so depressing? One would be to try to identify some experiences that we actually do feel to be intrinsically worthwhile. Unfortunately, this privileging of certain experiences over others, regarding some as intrinsically worthwhile and others as worthwhile only to the extent that they serve the first group, will again have the consequence of committing us to the idea of purpose as the most important aspect of existence. This seems to be what we have in the humanistic aftermath of formerly monotheistic cultures--i.e., cultures that have long regarded purpose as the ultimate category of all existence. Secular atheists in these cultures, which today compete with God-cultures for dominance of the globe, are generally themselves very much in the thrall, with a slight modification, of the main thing about God-cultures: the obsession with purpose as what matters most. Purpose no longer stands at the beginning of existence, but it still stands at the end of all action and as the standard of all value. The purposeful aspect of ourselves is still regarded as the best and most important aspect of ourselves. When God drops out of the picture, the obsession with purpose becomes one or another form of hedonism, whether of the crude type where we work in order to enjoy, earn in order to spend, endure in order to indulge; or else of the more refined type, where we esteem only certain achievements--cultural, social, artistic, technological, moral--and enslave all experience to their service, where life is considered good when we consciously know what we want and make attaining that good the purpose of our actions. In either case, the structure is the same: X exists "for the sake of" Y. Subordination is the name of the game. Conscious purpose still ends up dominating everything.

A great many people seem to find this arrangement just fine, or at least the best that can be hoped for, or perhaps are just used to it and see no alternative. But some, I don't know how many, will breathe a sigh of gratitude and relief to discover that there is another way to approach this problem, proceeding from the other end: by questioning the very structure of meaning, or purpose, or value, itself--the value of value, the point of things having a point, the purpose of having purposes as such. Though it pops up here and there in other places, its main source is the Daoist thinkers of ancient China, which was one of the few literate cultures that was not under the thumb of some form of the crushingly ubiquitous God-generating paradigm, the worship of purpose as the best thing about human life and what it would be best to discover at the root of all existence. I'm referring to the Daoist concept of wuwei 無為, literally "non-action," but signifying more specifically "effortless action," which is to say, "non-deliberate action," or to put the point more sharply, "purposeless action." This means action that does not proceed from a conscious embrace of a goal in advance, action that happens "spontaneously," or with no experience of doing it for any reason at all--not even "for itself." It is a critique of the idea that purposes as such--ideals, values--are the most basic thing about either goodness or existence. It begins with a critique of having any values or ideals or indeed, therefore, any ethics at all. The concept of Dao is the ne plus ultra of purposelessness, the precise opposite of the concept of God, which is the ne plus ultra of purpose.

Before getting scared about the alleged "nihilism" of this ("nihilism" being the alarmist term used by the purpose-driven to villify any attempt to challenge the hegemony of purpose), we must notice one hugely consequential point. Purpose by definition excludes the purposeless: to have a purpose is precisely to prefer one outcome over others, and to strive to whatever extent is possible to eliminate it: wanting something is wanting to get that thing and to avoid whatever is not that thing (though of course I may also have other, conflicting wants--structured however in exactly the same way). But this relationship is not symmetrical: purposelessness does not exclude purpose. On the contrary, it includes, allows--and on the Daoist account, even generates--purpose. Not one purpose, however: many purposes, perhaps infinite purposes, a surfeit of purposes, all of which remain embedded in a larger purposelessness, but not contradicted or undermined by it. This is the essence of "atheist mysticism." What does life look like, what does the world look like, when lifted free of its beholdenness to the quest for purpose, for meaning, for value? What is it like to learn to experience purposelessness, meaninglessness, valuelessness differently, welcomingly, perhaps ecstatically? Shall we make it our "purpose" to find out that would be like? There would be no contradiction in doing so. That too would be one of those infinite purposes that are not only not excluded but are even enabled and produced by the open vistas of a purposeless universe.