Friday, 13 September 2013

Objective and Subjective Meanings of Life

This post is aimed at exploring the Ultimate Question: Purpose of life. Let me begin by classifying the kind of possible purposes of life  into two broad categories : Objective and Subjective.

By Objective purpose I mean the kind purpose which are assigned to us externally i.e. "from the outside". This sort of purpose would be the one assigned by a creator to its creation e.g. god to man . Or a programmer to a robot  or to chickens by the farmer  (i.e their very purpose of life is that they can be eaten  infact the particular variety of Broilers chicken would not have existed had there been no humans with desires to eat them) .

By Subjective purpose I mean the kind of personal purpose which an individual assigns to himself  as the goal of his life. Such a purpose could be anything and could even be extremely trivial. what are various examples of such purposes ? It could be things like experiencing  a good loving family life, traveling the world to experience world culture , helping others via philanthropy and social works, seeking knowledge and truth , excelling in ones career and job, pursuing creative works such as art, obtaining power , wealth etc etc  or a combination of all of these. It could be anything.  Each one of us will decide for themselves what is it going to be our calling.

Given the aforementioned descriptions it seems obvious to me that if God doesnot exist their would no reason think that human life has any kind of objective purpose. On atheism, humans beings are just contingent unintended by-products of naturalistic processes that causes complex systems to arise . Should we rewind and replay the course of the universe,  we would have a very different sort of reality. There is no objective purpose of life if God doesn't exist.  Having conceded this point , I would argue that the atheist can still have a purpose of life. There is absolutely nothing which stops such a person from going ahead and adopting a  personal subjective meaning to what he wishes to accomplish in this life. There can still be subjective purposes to life if God doesn't exist. i.e a person can still find meaning in activities such as the knowledge and intellectual pursuits , reading books.,self-development, the company of friends, in travel, food, movies, games,  in enjoying a loving relationship, spending time with a loving family, pursuing hobby projects. Basically anything that ones find worthwhile doing.

Whats the point ? 

At this stage one might be tempted to object to subjective purposes with something like this : "what's the point?, its all useless and meaningless anyway on the grand scale , why bother seeking knowledge, helping others etc when its not going to matter on the cosmic level . the universe will exactly be the same whether one tried or not . so why even bother? " .

But i find this objection a bit puzzling . Why must a purpose count only if it effects the cosmos on some grand scale ?  Isn't the fact that the person pursing his subjective purpose is ultimately fulfilling his desires itself a reward  for that person?  what other reward could we ask for apart from desire fulfilment? even in case of objective purposes we are also ultimately working towards desire fulfillment , if not our own atleast that of the creator.  Clearly all purpose is ultimately linked to desire fulfilment whether it is subjective or objective.

Interesting thing to note  is that  even the theist use many subjective purposes as a guide to there lives in addition to there objective one. If they didn't you would think they would embrace some sort of religious monasticism becoming a astetic who wanders the roads in search of God and yet a theist would pursue wealth, power, worldly happiness, worldly knowledge, family life  as much as s/he would pursue spiritual ones. That alone demonstrates that subjective purposes aren't as useless as one might be tempted to think on first glance . Even without god we can live purposeful ,  fulfilling and satisfying lives which are free (or substantially free)  from nihilistic worries.

Isnt Objective always better than Subjective ?

No. The purpose which is assigned to us externally (i.e an objective purpose ) is not automatically and by default always preferable to any personal purpose of life which one might assign to himself and herself (i.e subjective purpose) . Ultimately it depends on the actual content of the purpose instead of whether it falls in the objective category or subjective category .

Here is a hypothetical thought experiment to demonstrate that it is possible for  subjective purposes to be  far more  preferable to objective ones :

Imagine a farm with a lot of chickens on it being born only and only for a singular purpose: to be eaten by human beings as food. Now imagine somehow one such chicken obtains self-awareness and self-reflection to the same extent as humans do. Such a chicken ponders on its purpose of life and realizes its very reason for existence is so that it could be killed by another superior species for food. The chicken escapes the farm and decides to reject this purpose which was objectively forced onto it from the outsides by its "creators" and instead decides to find its own meaning of life which might consist of activism for chicken rights, traveling the world seeking knowledge etc etc. whatever it selects as its personal purpose it seems clear that in such a scenario any subjective purpose which that chicken chooses would be million times more superior to the kind of objective purpose it was assigned by its creators

Similar situations arose in the movie The Island where clones discovered that there very purpose of existence was to be killed for organ harvesting in case their original needed the organ. They decide to reject the purpose , escape from the detention facility and ultimately choose to lead there own lives with there own purposes of life. Although the movie doesn't depicts their future but its safe to extrapolate that whatever purpose of life  they would have assigned to themselves  it would probably  have been superior to the one they were created for.

But lets get back to reality : Is it not possible for at-least some human beings to be in a similar position when it comes to objective purpose assigned to us by God ? The purpose of life in religion is somewhat close to something like obey and worship god,  or even "Enjoy" God etc. In this case , whether a person finds this objective purpose preferable over subjective ones or not  ultimately depends on the personal views and tastes of person. For example, I personally don't find much love towards the idea that  I exist  purely so that I could worship/obey the creator first on earth and then for an eternity in heaven. Given the choice I would rather pursue my own desires (and that of my loved ones) rather than some invisible deity.

I have nothing against  worshiping and obeying a  morally worthy diety but I would personally prefer the pursuit of knowledge, reflecting on various philosophical puzzle, the pleasure of the company of friends and family and even the pursuit of wealth and power over the objective purpose of mindless worshiping rituals  anyday. Perhaps it  might be that I would come to respect God and worship him on my own (thereby "enjoying" him) but I can only see that at best as just one of the underlying purposes of life. Defiantly not the most preferable one.

Therefore it seems to me that even without god a person can live a fully "purpose-driven life" which might actually be far more interesting and meaningful given the fact that we are free to choose whatever path we want to take.