Some Thoughts on Purpose in Life

When asking the question about the meaning or purpose of human life, one must be clear about what humans are capable of. A meaningful account of human capability cannot assert that humans are capable of anything or anything they can imagine, because in reality we always operate within limits of circumstances, qualities, and effects.

What I mean by that is that as humans we have certain biological qualities and the world has certain physical qualities and forms, and all of the elements in existence have a given way of interacting with each other. Even if one wishes to change biology, there are not only certain limits to such a possibility but a set of necessary procedures which must take place in order to enact a change.

All of that is to say, human purpose, if there is to be a purpose at all, whether innate or self-given, must be within the realms of the potential. This can be taken a step further by relating it to what Heidegger calls ‘thrownness’ (Geworfenheit). Your purpose, and the purpose of every living human at any given time, is also necessarily in a relationship with your specific circumstances.

These circumstances can be understood in degrees. It can be understood in terms of the knowledge and skills you currently possess, the temporal location you currently inhabit, the qualities of the society you currently inhabit, the means within that society to accomplish various acts as well as the degree to which you personally are capable of utilizing those means, and so on in this manner.

In this sense, so far from our potential and our purpose being an astounding ‘anything’, it is in truth quite limited.

I would like to change gears for a moment and mention some things of relevance to life in industrial and post-industrial societies. Life and potential in these societies is to a large extent shaped by policies which seek to channel human effort and exertion. The most apparent form of this is through a regular life course through the school system which not only sets the tasks which will be performed but also the extent of the information which a student will be exposed to.

A student at school does not simply learn a set of skills and acquire a base of information which can subsequently be freely applied to a receptive environment. Not only curriculums but the manner in which students are taught are intended to be matched to pre-existing conditions and institutions within society. This in turn contributes to a process of autopoiesis, or societal self-replication.

The implication to which I am pointing in the above consideration is that, within the limits of human potential, a society, through its decision-making structures which are then applied in its institutions, makes value judgements about which information about the world will be imbued to coming generations as well as which skills can be most valuably applied by them in the world.

The school system is, of course, not the only way in which humans and in particular children gain knowledge and skills which impact their subsequent self-direction in the world, but it is surely the most prominent and organized mode of teaching and social organization in respect to the early stages of development.

Much more could be said about various institutions in society, laws, regulations, effects of various taxes, as well as about the influence and impact of parenting strategies and the media, but what has already been said has contributed some of the tools necessary for making such inquiries. Other considerations could certainly be relevant particularly as concerns learning, such as, is one passive or active? That is to say, is one merely a receptor or a participant in the creation of knowledge? Such a consideration certainly has a large impact on questions of self-determination and therefore the potential for purpose in life.

To return to the general question of purpose in human life: Purpose implies potential. That potential will be either self-guided or else channelled by certain pressures and forces within the world. In either case, that direction is based upon value judgements about what the ends of our actions will be.

To give an example, if one merely works to sustain oneself, then the ends of one’s life is merely to survive. If one survives for the sake of something more, then it is towards that or those things to which one’s purpose is directed.

But even that does not conclude a full consideration of our purpose, because the aims that either we may have or others may have for us, nor the immediate events of our lives, do nor bracket our presence and effects in the world. Our presence and our actions also impact the world to degrees beyond our intentions and awareness. For example, we may have impacts on the people we meet either by the way we treat them or even how they perceive us. We may, through changes we effect in the environment, impact the effects which emanate from the environment, whether one is speaking in physical terms or in terms of an atmosphere of ideas.

These are all factors which must be taken into account in any serious consideration of purpose in human life.



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