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It is in the nature of man to contemplate his place in the cosmos. To wonder what is the purpose of his existence; what is the meaning of his life. It is this earnest contemplation that separates man from the lesser beasts, who follow their brute lives devoid of this nobility of thought. And so, on the occasion of my 40th birthday, I take up this question from time immemorial and ask myself what is the purpose and meaning of my existence?

One cannot approach the question of the meaning of life without conceding it is the doctrine of most men that god provides the answer. And so I will reflect on that doctrine and share what I find to be its failures.

It is believed by the many followers of the great Abrahamic traditions of the world that their creator, god, has endowed them with their purpose: to worship him and to keep his commandments. And the culmination of this purpose, if successfully fulfilled, is eternal, blissful life in heaven. A different and more ominous eternity awaits those souls who do not find success in the mission of their corporeal lives. This canon of the theists greatly occupies their minds and they spend a considerable amount of time and effort in service of it. They form great congregations and amalgamations devoted to the pursuit of their mutual purpose. Their theologians study the finer points of their doctrines and tease out the perceived differences by which they can name their denominations and set themselves apart.

Judging by the unshakable devotion of the monotheistic faith traditions, they must draw strength and conviction from this purpose throughout their lives. Although, it is a curiosity that when confronted with the culmination of their life's purpose and in anticipation of their ultimate reward, none seem too eager to transcend their mortal coil. It is mainly those who continue to carry the burden of their mortality that are quick to reassure each other of the recently deceased’s station in eternity.

And while eternal life is a thing of inestimable value, it paradoxically renders the instantaneous moments of life valueless. Any given moment which our consciousness illuminates is worth nothing if there are an infinity of such moments. Any given moment may be successfully procrastinated if a limitless number are ahead; any given moment may be completely forgotten if an unbounded number of memories are yet to be. As the esteemed author Isaac Asimov once said "whatever the tortures of hell, I think the boredom of heaven would be even worse." Indeed, whatever such beings exist as relish living with infinite time; they are surely not us. We who are saturated with the importance of moments, ever striving to utilize them and remember them; what solace does heaven provide that it would obscure in timeless paradox the things we find important in our moments all too few?

And in regard to those tortures of hell: what an execrable doctrine that is. Any man or god who prescribes endless punishment for finite transgressions has the vilest of natures. The specter of eternal punishment would render the purpose of our lives into desperate obsequiousness as the only right course of action is to avoid damnation at any cost. Who would dare to challenge, to question, to transcend when the consequence may be ultimate for even the slightest misdemeanor?

Could this sycophantic genuflecting truly be the purpose of my life? I think not. I have examined the doctrines of the theist and found them wanting. They seem to me borne out of a misappropriation of man's more primitive instincts. The story of a powerful father: watching, caring, who teaches, rewards our friends, punishes our enemies, who grants eternal life, is written entirely by our own egos, abetted by our relentless drive to find agency in all our interactions. The story is too perfect. It is exactly what we want, and so it is exactly what we have told ourselves. The purpose delivered by god is a distortion of our own primitive psyche; incentivized to perverse degrees, it delivers only absurd infinities. I cannot accept this purpose.

If not the purpose of the theist then, what purpose does the atheist offer?

The atheist coolly considers the absence of external agency and the finiteness of our years and declares that our purpose is only that which we grant to ourselves. And that, therefore, our purpose should be to live our lives to the fullest: to suck the marrow out of life, to regret not a moment. As this purpose is highly exhorted among prominent atheists I will consider it and explain why I find it to be hollow.

As I type this missive forty years from my birth I am acutely aware of the seconds passing by. Again, another has passed and again I did not avail myself of it. The atheist purpose is a terrible burden, a cruel and unrelenting taskmaster. We are told to capitalize on all of our finite time on this planet, yet we cannot. Few are the men who spend their every waking moment on those tasks which offer them the most fulfillment. For myself, I spend most of my days toiling at tasks that perhaps I do not hate, but that I would not do if I cared to spend every second to its utmost.

Of course I would have fewer seconds in my life if I neglected those tasks which enable my sustenance. Yet I cannot complain of bare survival for all of my base needs are met easily enough and I still chose to scatter the corpses of seconds uncounted into my past, wasted. I cannot live up to this purpose. It would require me to be a better, more energetic person than I am. As I imagine counting down the last seconds of my life it is inconceivable that I would not want for more because I had achieved my purpose. This atheistic purpose is one that cannot be fulfilled, and I cannot accept a purpose I cannot achieve.

The final, fatal, flaw of the atheist purpose is that it violates its own definition. The atheist says that there is no purpose external to us; that purpose must come from within ourselves. Yet the very meaning of the word in question requires that it come from outside. When not asking about our own purpose the word invariably conotates the intent of some agency external to the object in question. No doubt we sometimes anthropomorphize the word and apply it to those aspects of nature not directly arranged by human action. But this is a post hoc story of phantom agency similar to the one theists tell themselves. Speaking of the purpose of our own lives is a fatal circularity to the coherence of the concept. If there is no external purpose, then there is no purpose.

What then of natural purpose? I have dismissed gods, but it is certain that unguided nature exists independently and externally to us. Am I not the end product of an unbroken chain of organic ancestors spanning the chasm of time back to the earliest moments of this planet? Where each ancestor in the chain was endowed by blind nature with the purpose of propagating another link? As Charles Darwin said "There is grandeur in this view of life, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

Grandeur.

Yes, there is grandeur in being at the tip of the tree of life. Of being connected to every organic thing on the planet both living and dead. Everyone feels it; everyone shares the purpose of growing the tree. Those branches where such a purpose was only weakly perceived or entirely absent are quickly pruned. There can be no doubt that I have this foundational biological purpose given to me by the fixed laws of nature, the happenstance of chance, and the selection of the fittest.

But is this the purpose that I seek? Does the fantastical and unlikely truth of common descent provide solace and succor on this personal anniversary? Alas no.

While I do have a purpose by dint of being the improbable culmination of a trillion sequential trials of natural law, it is a cold purpose. It is the purpose the universe proffers but what does it amount to? As Carl Sagan said "We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.” There was a time when I thought that was enough. I pretended that there was some poetic justice at a small, insignificant piece of the universe arranging itself into a pattern such that it could perceive, at least in gross outline, the true nature of the that very universe. If man could peak behind the curtain, as it were, and unwind the intricate mechanisms to reveal the inevitability of the universe, then somehow, while the universe would win the ultimate struggle of mortality, it would do so shaking its fist at those organic arrangements that had pierced its deepest secrets.

But it turns out that the deepest secrets of the universe are themselves chimeras. The universe is not an elegant machination of inevitability; rather, it is nothing. A crude but accurate description of the universe would be naught but empty space broken only by a stray hydrogen atom here and there, but that description is not empty enough. It is the punishing, unrelenting, nothingness of a void. The universe is not some amalgamation of matter however sparse: it is literally nothing. The matter of our familiar world is but a faint scaffold; required only to balance the remorseless expansion space itself. The universe is a particular manifestation of nothingness that has, perhaps, developed in an unlikely direction, but nonetheless could be compressed back into the same featureless, directionless, timeless, void from whence is accidentally sprang.

And so, there are no happy answers to the questions of purpose and meaning asked herein, which seems fitting as none were promised. There is no purpose to our lives except that which bare biology provides, and that purpose is the cruel tease of a universe which advertises a satisfying man-behind-the-curtains finale, but which delivers only a cold, super symmetric, trackless, void. It would seem that for a cognizant being, depression would be the natural response, but, in an act of consilient mercy, the same nothing-verse that gave me my biological purpose also gave me well balanced brain chemistry making it practically impossible for such depression to take hold. I hope the reader is similarly equipped.

In conclusion:

Even as the universe hurtles, heedless and irrevocable, towards its thermodynamic destiny; man practices his philosophy, his theology, and his science. And yet, for all the words and ideas, all the proofs and arguments, only one truth remains undefeated. There is but one fate for us all, inexorable, undeniable, and denuded of purpose and meaning.

There is only death and the void

Happy birthday to me.
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Rich Shipley
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That was well said, but I might quibble that there is an "atheist purpose". I like to think many are like me and don't demand or desire meaning or purpose. The purpose you describe is created by people who want one, but ignores the possibility of not wanting one.
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Happy Birthday, my friend.
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Dude. More party, less talky. Happy Birthday!
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I was going to give you a couple $10 words for your birthday, but it seems you have enough already.

Happy Birthday, Webster.

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I don't agree with just about anything you wrote. I think that your description of religion is sneering and cavalier, and your description of "atheist purpose" (and its failure) is pointlessly nihilistic.

That said, I'm wishing you a super-happy birthday!
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Gotta agree with (more or less) Rich on the whole quest for 'purpose'. Nonetheless, happy birthday, have good one.
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I agree with most of what you wrote but would amend the conclusion to something along the lines of "we must find our own purpose", which, for me, is to follow my interests, making selective sacrifices along the way, and to fulfill my societal roles of active father and active citizen. I'm not saying that anyone else has those responsibilities, but they are important to me, and inform what it means for me to be human.

Also, you did seem to ignore all the non-Abrahamic religions.

Anyways, thanks for a good read. Happy birthday!
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corross wrote:
I think that your description of religion is sneering and cavalier,


But certainly accurate. Happy Birthday Marshall. You are one of the people who make this site a pleasure to be a part of.

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Yeah I'm pretty much with Lawson as well.

Is not the "need" for ones life to have "purpose" just more of your typical primate egotism?

My own purpose in life is to safely reach the end of it without too many regrets. That's the purpose this atheist has found for himself. Trying to live life to the full every second is impossible and a bit daft. And probably selfish. In fact it's the kind of thing a non-atheist would accuse an atheist of doing.

"The dead know only one thing: It is better to be alive." - Joker, Full Metal Jacket.
"Live, Suffer, Die." - Nuclear Assault.

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Ed Bradley
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Oh and yeah, happy birthday.

I had my existential crisis at 30. 40 was a cakewalk: a mere speedbump on the steep downhill slope from "used to have it" to the grave
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Marc P
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I was amused to visit A Word A Day today and encounter these two quotes after reading your essay:

"I hate mankind, for I think myself one of the best of them, and I know how bad I am."
-Samuel Johnson, lexicographer

"The more sand that has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it."
-Jean-Paul Sartre, writer and philosopher (1905-1980)
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Thanks for sharing and happy birthday.
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Marshall P.
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"Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution" - Theodosius Dobzhansky
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rshipley wrote:
That was well said, but I might quibble that there is an "atheist purpose". I like to think many are like me and don't demand or desire meaning or purpose. The purpose you describe is created by people who want one, but ignores the possibility of not wanting one.


Well, from the comments I can see this is probably begin taken too literally. This is really more of a writing exercise I guess than accurate philosophy (although I tried not to say anything that I didn't think I could defend).

I had really only three goals in mind when starting this:

1) I felt like it's expected to write something melancholy and reflective on one's 40th birthday so that kind of set the tone.

2) I wanted to say something about the common atheist belief that that we should "make the most out of life". Which is true and innocuous, of course, but always makes me feel like I'm doing a shitty job living because I don't really feel like I'm living every moment to the fullest.

And of course I understand and agree that there is no "atheist purpose" per se. There's no atheist doctrine at all except for the one about not believing on god. So, it's just what individual atheists want to believe. But I think this "purpose" I was writing about is fairly common and often trumpeted as some kind of great benefit to being an atheist. So I think it's valid to address it.

3) Finally, I wanted to use the phrase "death and void", which I think sounds cool and which I've been trying to work into a sci-fi story of some sort. Well the fiction story is going nowhere so I decided to use the phrase at the end of this. As you can imagine when you start by asking what is the meaning of life and you know you're going to end with "death and the void" some gymnastics are required in between.

Specifically, as I wrote through drafts I found I was naturally using more convoluted phrases as I was trying to lead up to "death and the void" so I just kind of said, what the hell if I'm going to do it I'll go for it all the way, chucked everything I had written, and rewrote as convoluted and Victorian as possible. And, of course, the writing became kind of a goal on it's own.

So, I don't know. Don't take this too seriously.
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I take great comfort in the meaningless and purposeless of life.

If life had a purpose, I would have messed it up years ago. The lack of meaning in life means there's a good limit on the amount I can get things wrong. I can screw everything up, and one day it'll all be forgotten.

I'd also hate to think all the horrible things out there had a purpose.

That said, happy birthday!
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Happy Birthday!
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Happy Birthday!
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People are dying and children are crying but happy birthday!
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My purpose is to live a happy life, to increase the happiness for myself and those around me, and to foster science which may ultimately allow us freedom from the universe.

I'm pretty sure it gets very ugly in the next 50 years tho. I think we missed our chance to focus our race outward and now we'll end up dying on this ball of rock with maybe robotic progeny carrying on our legacy.

With regard to religious purpose-- even if I believed in the existence of yahweh, from the biblical text and stories of the character, I find it it to be a petty, impulsive being who often commits evil or good at a whim so I would not worship it. Besides that, a large block of followers interpret that only something they call the soul continues to exist- not the personality. So again no benefit for worshipping.

For many other dieties, my belief of disbelief in them would have no effect on my life (if they exist- they don't care).

Always nice reading your posts.
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Marshall P.
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"Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution" - Theodosius Dobzhansky
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corross wrote:
I don't agree with just about anything you wrote. I think that your description of religion is sneering and cavalier, and your description of "atheist purpose" (and its failure) is pointlessly nihilistic.


Well, of course when addressing a general theistic belief like the afterlife it's impossible to capture all the various nuances and shades of belief. So, I suspect that you object to having your particular beliefs lumped in and addressed so brusquely. And that's fair.

I admit that when I was writing that part what I had in mind was a very literalist concept of the afterlife. Very much harps and hosannas and fire and brimstone. And what I wrote is pretty much how I feel about such a fundamentalist doctrine. But of course it's easy to adjust that doctrine in many ways and those adjustments would require adjustments to my response and so on.

I do feel that in the abstract I have a case against any belief involving eternities but in the details I would probably have something else to say about your particular beliefs.

And, of course, the brusqueness was part of the style, as was the nihilism. That's kind of what I was intentionally going for as an exercise. In fact, the whole paragraph about the primitive egos was a late rewrite because I thought to myself that I hadn't been hard enough on the theistic portion. I thought I was going to come in to criticism from atheists for being too soft. Although, once again, I think in the abstract I would defend a case that religion and god belief can, to some extent, be explained as a manifestation of some of the basic needs embedded in our mental toolkit.
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いい竹やぶだ!

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Right on. Here's another quote from Asimov I like:

Quote:
Once, when a religionist denounced me in unmeasured terms, I sent him a card saying, 'I am sure you believe that I will go to hell when I die, and that once there I will suffer all the pains and tortures the sadistic ingenuity of your deity can devise and that this torture will continue forever. Isn't that enough for you? Do you have to call me bad names in addition?'

Happy birthday!
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
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rshipley wrote:
That was well said, but I might quibble that there is an "atheist purpose". I like to think many are like me and don't demand or desire meaning or purpose. The purpose you describe is created by people who want one, but ignores the possibility of not wanting one.

I'm not an atheist, but with or without G-d, people must create their own purpose in life and hence only those sufficiently motivated to do so will in fact do so.
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Marshall P.
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"Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution" - Theodosius Dobzhansky
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MWChapel wrote:
I was going to give you a couple $10 words for your birthday, but it seems you have enough already.

Happy Birthday, Webster.



Jesus Christ the Word thesaurus is fucking useless! I almost never found a good substitute in there.
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Marshall P.
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"Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution" - Theodosius Dobzhansky
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bjlillo wrote:
Yeah, I have to agree with Lawson, but happy birthday anyway. Did you know you share a birthday with Ronaldus Magnus? That's got to count for something.


yep, I knew that since Reagan was President when I was a kid.
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Marshall P.
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Fwing wrote:

Is not the "need" for ones life to have "purpose" just more of your typical primate egotism?


Yes. Absolutely.
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Marshall P.
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Fwing wrote:

I had my existential crisis at 30. 40 was a cakewalk: a mere speedbump on the steep downhill slope from "used to have it" to the grave


My own existential crisis was really when I had kids. Which reminded me of when I was a kid. Which reminded me of my parents when I was a kid. Which reminded me of how old my parents are now. Which reminded me that I'm a parent. Crisis ensues.
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Happy birthday!


mdp4828 wrote:

1) I felt like it's expected to write something melancholy and reflective on one's 40th birthday so that kind of set the tone.


Dude, that is depressing. Isn't the 40 the new 20? You could have held off to 60 for this and been out there living it up in the meantime.
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