As An Atheist Can Your Life Have Purpose and Meaning?

I was wondering what other people thought about this.

I realize we weren't born with a purpose. No creator or "higher calling".

But as a non believer can your life have meaning and purpose without god?

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McGill University concluded last year after studying a couple of those hospital bugs that the biggest culprit in hospital superbug transmission is high pressure water taps. These commercial oxygenated high pressure taps are installed more and in most commercial buildings. So McGill University is going to work on replacing all their faucets and increasing the ratio of bathrooms to paptients, in order to reduce transmission.
Other superbugs are direct consequences of GMO and synthetic pesticides. There are many causes. But each and every one of the multiple causes is compounded by population density and secondly, not to be forgotten, building insulation. As modern H.sapiens with modern homes, those of us living in colder climes are experiencing an onslaught of diseases which are related to our filthy indoor air conditions. We are animals, we need clean circulating air... but somewhere along the religious pathway of dominion over nature and separation of human from the "evil animals", that was forgotten.

Yes TNT, insulation poses lots of issues, from asbestos fibers on early insulators to trapped debris which harbors bacteria, allergens and mold, all detrimental to human health. 

Also many roof insulations techniques trap dust and debris, to become a fire hazard in itself, even though the fiberglass or wool insulation itself is reasonably fire resistant.

Such is one of many hazards humans have created for themselves.

Sadly, I am VERY familiar with super bugs.  MRSA in particular.  A major reason for these super bacteria is the overuse, as a food additive, in raising factory farmed animals.  The conditions in these massive concentration camps is so filthy, the air so rich with ammonia fumes and the stench of feces, and the crowding so extreme, that these animals require constant antibiotics.  The drugs also speed growth.

 Then, a careless attitude toward cleanliness and hand washing, filthy hospital room walls, the curtains around each bed, and medical instruments, like blood pressure cuffs and stethescopes, all contribute.  The hospitals have policies in place to reduce their liabililty in deaths resulting from their active transmission of these bugs.  They test entering patients, to prove they already were infected.  They NEVER test patients leaving the hospital.  Why? Because, that would show they caught the infections while in the hospital.  

Oh, I forgot.  It is because of our over-population that we raise animals in this unhealthy, unethical way.

Which is why I got irritated when a certain person came around with their high and mighty talk of purpose is to "do good", when the definition of "good" is so entirely subjective. And what is "good" for the few is deleterious for so many.

TNT666 - you are so wonderful. Thanks very much. I agree that good is subjective. In fact there could be a discussion on exactly what the meaning of "good" is. Many thanks for your intelligent responses. Appreciate it.

The curmudgeon thanks you :)

Thank you GOD'aye for your thoughtful responses here. I agree about antibiotics being overused.

When tackling a question such as "What is the meaning to life?", it would do us well to understand what exactly we mean by purpose, for every word has multiple meanings in all its different contexts. A person may or may not be cognitive of the distinctions between the ideas referred to by this word, so any position must clarify its terms to enhance comprehensibility. There are 2 dichotomies which I will be focusing on:

  1. Objective and subjective. An objective purpose is one that must exist independently of a being's will, and subjective purpose dependent on a being's will.
  2. Categorical and hypothetical. As explained by Kant, a categorical imperative is one that is true of all situations, and is required end in itself. Hypothetical imperatives work for some other end. While Kant's focus was morality, I will adapt the usage of his terms to cover the purpose of life.

Next, I will briefly explain the different ways in which purpose may be used.

  • A) Suppose I have a calculator in which I use to solve simple math problems. It could then be said that the purpose of the calculator is to solve simple math problems. However, this is not exactly the purpose of the calculator, but my purpose for the calculator, since for someone else given the same calculator, his purpose might be to satisfy boredom by passing messages in code, or to scratch his back. These are subjective and hypothetical purposes, assigned by a capable agent and for some other end. In fact, I will pass along the idea that most if not all subjective purposes must be hypothetical, one that many will vehemently deny since it may be construed as an attack on core assumptions of their being. The idea is that most of anything we do is a result of attempts to satisfy biological or emotional impulses. Like how one uses a calculator in order to solve math problems, one also eats or drinks in order to satisfy hunger or thirst -- it must be stressed that even though hunger or thirst are necessary in order to live, these are still external ends. That is, one does not eat or drink as an act in itself, therefore these actions do not satisfy the conditions for being considered categorical. Even if someone feels strongly about living in order to take care of a loved one, that is not fundamentally different than the assigned purpose to a calculator. There is a special case that falls within this category, and that is one where a creator assigns a purpose; it is quite easy to fall into the trap with the idea that if a creator assigns a purpose, then it must exist within the definition of the thing being described. This is a mistake not only because the will of the creator is also subjective, but also because the physical creation exists independently any assigned purpose, such that: 1) It is true that the calculator consists of X, Y, and Z physical properties. 2) It is true that the calculator was invented with the purpose of solving simple math problems. 3) It is true that the purpose of the calculator according to the inventor is to solve simple math problems. 4) It is not true that the purpose of the calculator is to solve simple math problems in itself.
  • B) Often people make the mistake of speaking about purpose within an evolutionary framework, saying such things as that the "purpose" of life is to survive and evolve, or the "purpose" of a heart is to beat. I say it is a mistake because Evolution is a descriptive process and does not hold expectation. When people make these kinds of assertions, they tend not to be cognitive of the fact these "purposes" of which they refer are not moral or conscious purposes like what we typically refer to when we talk about "the purpose of life", or "What should I do?". No, the purpose of a heart refers to how the heart is expected to function within a system by the person making the assertion. When we say "the purpose of a wire is to conduct electricity between 2 points", what we are actually saying is that we expect that that electricity will be conducted between 2 points because of the wire, and that is the wire's role in order for the system to function. Once again, these assertions are hypothetical --they work towards some other end-- but the difference between these and (A) is that these tend to be objectively true by definition: we define ideal state of being from our expectations, and to that end these things have purposes towards our expectations.
  • C) Most commonly though, when people ask the question, "What is the meaning to life?" (as well as moral questions), they have in their minds a transcendental conception that would satisfy their spiritual being. They are not interested in what they should do next in order to survive or accomplish some task at hand, nor are they really interested in how they should be expected to be productive workers in some societal system. What they are interested in is this elusive purpose in itself, the categorical imperative that Kant devoted his moral philosophy to. I propose that a subjective "purpose" cannot be purpose(C), since all conscious imperatives are motivated by experience, and therefore cannot be an end onto itself.

So to answer the question: Can our lives have purpose(A/B)? Absolutely. But can our lives have purpose(C)? This is a distinction of paramount importance. One must realize the extent and confines of their conclusion, for if they have worked out a problem using some limited conception of purpose, and then adapt it to encompass and breathe life into a purpose that exists in itself, then he has just committed a semantic shift fallacy perhaps even without his knowledge. On paper it may all appear the same, but someone proclaiming to have found purpose must have some conception of what that "purpose" is, and that conception makes all the difference. Some people tend to drop their intellectual guard after some time, perhaps weary of being unable to grasp what they seek, that they start to confuse purpose(A) or purpose(B) for purpose(C). They may even be satisfied in their abilities to choose some worthy goal to live their lives for, or consciously work towards being a model citizen in some arbitrarily chosen system to follow. I risk controversy for saying what I'm about to say, but it is not wrong to do either, even whether that system be a system of God or some system of naturalism drawn from scientific principles such as Evolution as inspiration (such as a system backed by Christopher Hitchens). Neither are wrong. But I do believe in intellectual honesty -- as long as a person recognizes and accepts that his purpose is either purpose(A) or purpose(B), but not purpose(C), and be honest and forthcoming about that revelation, then I should also accept that in the face of overwhelming unknowns and absurdities it becomes necessary to adopt a "purpose", whatever it may be, or face eternal stagnation wrestling with a spectral problem that may as well be epistemically impossible to solve.

Many thanks Jonathan. What a wonderful piece of writing. Very well written.

Important that I update this - so the new members can see it.

Jonathan Chang's response gets to the heart of the problem. Certainly, I can have a purpose in the sense that I can make myself useful participating in the community, contributing to knowledge, raising and caring for my family, etc. But can I have a transcendental 'purpose in itself'? I am not so sure.

When I was a Christian, my ultimate 'purpose in itself' was to get home to heaven. (Truly a terrible, selfish motivation for doing good things.) But I never really considered the logical progression: What would my purpose become once I got there? What happened once my body and soul were transported into utopian space? What purpose COULD they serve in a place that is by definition free of all problems and suffering? My priest would have told me my purpose in heaven was to glorify God, but that seems awfully narcissistic on his part.

It seems to me that even the religious lack a Kantian Purpose with a capital 'P,' perhaps even more so than some humanists.

For my part, I have never heard a better answer to this conundrum than this verse:

"Look at the flowers, so faithful to what is earthly
to whom we lend fate from the very border of fate
and if they are sad at all about the fact that they must whither and die
perhaps it is our vocation to be their regret." (Rilke)

Flowers have a biological purpose, absolutely. A narrative purpose, briefly, if we impose one on them. And an ultimate Purpose, unlikely.

I doubt we humans are so terribly different.

The closest thing to an ultimate, sacred purpose we have is tucked into the last line, and it is, in fact, not a sacred purpose but a poetic one: Perhaps it is our vocation to practice and extend our human consciousness.

"Perhaps it is our vocation to be their regret."

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