Sunday, March 05, 2006

On Purpose, Naturally

What kind of god would make a mortal creature and build into them the nagging angst of being able to simultaneously imagine immortality and recognize their own mortality?

We use "god" as explanation when we hope to see purpose in the world, that is, purpose beyond our own suspect intentions, tainted as those intentions are with all sorts of low and passing hungers. Those who are more satisfied with the explanatory power of evolution and other analyses of our lives and our world that rely on observables and what may be deduced from them are accused by some of finding life purposeless. So many subtle possibilities of benign supernatural interference in the world's course can be [and are] imagined, none with clearly superior claims, that arguing amongst ourselves about "higher purposes" seems to me quite suspect. The animus in such debates oozes up from ego as we fumble for ways to fit the awkward boulders of experience into the skimpy mold that is our own purposes projected on a world we hardly understand. But neither should we cease looking for purpose.

Purpose is natural. While I share Dennett's intuition that consciousness is an emergent and perhaps inevitable capacity, I find his wisps of possible beginnings for religious notions almost silly..he has no more access to the minds of haunted cave men than Jerry Falwell has to the mind of Mother Teresa ...they make it up folks! The problem is that purpose, like consciousness, emerges given a sufficiently rich substrate of life tumbling through the ages of our biosphere. Purpose should not be imposed on all creation by minds that, in the last hundred millennia got the ability to transfer, in words, intentions and symbolic causes from private experience to cultural practice. Not one of us, even the author of the book of Job suspected, is in a position to judge whether the vast four billion year unfolding that went on without the benefit of conscious reflection, let alone oversight, had any purpose at all other than the default of being the path that happened to bring us to this moment of awareness. Only now can we ask "why" and only we can answer. The worst answer we could come up with is dumbly curtailing many other branches of evolution and clogging or poisoning the self cleaning machinery of earth's support for this experiment. Such ruin betrays the implicit answer: all the more purpose we could envision is our next meal. The observed effect of humans on earth shows without need of something as fancy as language, nor even consciousness, no wider purpose than the life plan of a bacteria.

If mortality is too harsh, consider another great teacher: pain. "Why must I suffer like this? Give me some morphine!" Millions go out of the world with such a thought on their mind. I cannot say if I may have such a departure myself so must only have sympathy for those who suffer thus. It is not for the dying that pain evolved. Pain is a corrective signal for those who have longer to live. When it does its job well, pain experienced or in prospect, will guide you in some way to live longer than if you didn't know something was harming or threatening you. Could it be that death might be doing its job well if it too turned us each toward our neighbor with a softened heart, showing us that whatever their mistakes, they too raced against the descending dusk of nonexistence?

Why can we not gracefully accept that our awareness of mortality is just to sensitize us to the value of life while we have it? We can see more purpose in life when we quit making too much of the purpose of death.

I don't think we can cease looking for purpose...that exclusively human penchant being the latest step evolution has taken, we can only honor the progress of the world that gave our minds birth by not hobbling its next step.

When we succumb so much to arrogance as to think we have our own purpose for pain and death, it is the lowest ebb of humanity. A mortal who fancies a purpose for death only devalues life.

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