Archive for 12/20/2004
While browsing Amazon, Rick Warrens new book “The Purpose Driven Life” caught my attention. The name interested me because I believe that a sense of purpose is vitally important for human beings. Without a sense of purpose and the identification of values to act towards and achieve, life would indeed be useless and meaningless. With my interest thus piqued, I opened the first (virtual) page to investigate what purpose the book suggested. The book begins with the quote from Bertrand Russell, who said “Unless you assume a God, the question of life’s purpose is meaningless.” Here is the first paragraph from the book:
It’s not about you.
The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It’s far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions. If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God. You were born by his purpose and for his purpose.
The rest of the book expands on this answer. I want to analyze the alternative presented by the author above, but before I do that, I will consider the question he attempts to answer. Is the question of purpose of one’s life important at all? Does man even need a purpose to life?
We can begin the analysis by asking, “Why does the question of purpose arise for human beings?” The question does not apply to all entities. A stone does not have a purpose. It is created by some process, exists for some time, and then is destroyed by some other process. At no point does the question “What am I here for?” arise for the rock, since rocks are inorganic entities lacking a consciousness. Some would argue that it is applicable to man-made objects, such as a table, but in such cases, the purpose exists only because a conscious being such as a man created it to achieve some value. Man might also decide to use a rock, a tree, or a field for some end, but these things only have a purpose insofar as they provide a value to a conscious being, and not one inherent in themselves.
Animals and plants do act to achieve particular values by particular means. Their actions are aimed at specific ends – namely, their survival and reproduction. But the question of purpose does not arise for them either because their actions are automatic, determined by instinct. They cannot choose, as men do, to live by one means or another, to be carnivores or herbivores, to live or die. Unlike non-living entities, they have various values, such as food, reproduction, and shelter, but they have no way to consciously choose which values to achieve or which course of action to take to achieve them beyond their immediate environment.
Human beings are unique in being a living being without an automatic guide to actions and values. We alone must choose which values we want to achieve, and the means we take to achieve them. Like animals, our survival is still conditional — we must take a particular course of action to stay alive, but the means to achieve the values necessary for our survival are not automatically given to us by instinct. We have some basic urges – to eat, or to reproduce, but no means to achieve them without conscious action. In place of instinct, nature has equipped man with the facility of reason – the use of his senses and his rational faculty to gain knowledge of reality and then act on it. If an animal’s instinct fails to provide the values it needs in a given environment, it will die – but a man has the capacity to adapt to almost any environment he finds, as the proliferation of humanity on every corner of the earth demonstrates. The basic question every man faces as a living being is “to live or not to live,” and since reason is his only means of survival, his basic choice is “to think or not to think.” Every value we enjoy in our civilized, comfortable, existence is the product of the application of man’s mind to reality. The food we eat, the cars we drive, the entertainment we enjoy are all products of some man’s mind. The difference between our comfortable lives and the short, dangerous, and miserable existence that our ancestors eked out in trees, caves, huts, and caverns not so long ago was created – and is continually made possible by application of the reason to the problem of man’s survival.
What does the cynical atheist Bertrand Russell and the Christian pastor Rick Warren, the author of the “The Purpose Driven Life” say is the purpose of man’s life?
The Christian perspective is that the issue of man’s survival is irrelevant to the question of what the purpose. As pastor Warren stresses repeatedly, our earthly values – whether in our career, family, friends, or any other are in themselves meaningless. The very things that make life on earth possible and pleasurable are irrelevant to him. Instead, our actions should be focused on a higher, unearthly realm, which contains the answers of our existence. “Unless you assume the existence of God, the purpose of life is meaningless,” he says, thereby voiding our selfish happiness as a worthwhile purpose to existence. Instead, he argues that “We were planned for God’s pleasure, so your first purpose is to offer real worship.” According to Christianity, man’s purpose on earth is to be a sacrificial offering (sacrificial, because we are to sacrifice earthly values) to some invisible, unknowable entity. This entity deserves devotion not because it offers a proof for its existence or material reward for service, but because man has not yet uncovered all the secrets of the universe, and no one has stoop up to say that just because man is not omnipotent does not mean that he can’t be certain of what he does not. The main reason that religion still receives the devotion or lip service of billions is not on the strength of its argument, but because the secular opposition has rejected man’s primary means of knowing himself or his world.
What alternative does the typical cynical, nihilistic, materialistic atheist, such as Bertrand Russell offer in response to the Christian mystic? He agrees with the mystics that without God, life is meaningless, but seeing that there is no evidence for a supernatural realm, he therefore rejects meaning. He agrees with the mystics that without God man has no free will, so he rejects free will and volition. He agrees with the mystics that without God, there can be no morality (“If God is dead, all is permitted” as that quote falsely attributed to Dostoevsky goes) so he rejects morality. In the crucial question of man’s existence, the skeptic and the mystic agree that man has no purpose, volition, or virtue outside of the authority of some external entity. Man’s life in itself therefore, is meaningless, the skeptics and the mystic agree, and only has value so far as man offers himself as a sacrifice to some greater entity or purpose.
The skeptic denies the supernatural and claims to be a materialist, but he usually proposes some other “higher” purpose for existence anyway. He replaces subservience to the supernatural with subservience to an equally mystical or collectivist entity, such as service to society (socialism), the race or state (fascism), the environment, the ethnic group or tribe (multiculturalism) innate emotionalism (Nietzschean nihilism and “intuition”.) The cynical atheist simply replaces the worship of one supernatural and unknowable entity with another. The mystics present man as a pathetic ghost, unworthy of life, in conflict with his physical (baser) nature, and existing only as a sacrificial offering for another realm, The skeptics present man as a Frankenstein – a walking bag of chemicals without freedom, meaning, or self-esteem, and existing as a sacrificial offering for the “common good.” The mystics demand that man sacrifice his worldly values for the supernatural, and the skeptics either argue that man should sacrifice his life to the collective, or that he should pursue whatever values he wants at the moment, while denying his basic means (his rational mind) of achieving them.
Are these the only possibilities man has – to choose which entity to sacrifice himself to? Is morality measured by the totality to which man abdicates his own, selfish interests to serve some “higher” and “greater” end? If denying one’s “selfish” interests means denying the things that make life on earth possible and pleasurable, then isn’t death the highest reward of following such a moral code? After all, the only way to be a consistent altruist, and consistently reject one’s “lower” urges, is to sacrifice everything one values, including the things that make life possible. (Luke 14:26-33, 18:18-22) The only way to practice the religious – or the collectivist morality and continue living, is to live a life of guilty contradiction, pursuing one’s values one moment, while denying them the other, using reason for “practical” matters, but denying it when it is truly important. Is it any wonder that faced with the alternative of being a ghost and a sacrificial offering or an unthinking bag of flesh, blindly following hormonal urges, so many men either live a life of guilty contradiction or reject morality and philosophy entirely – thus becoming even more helpless to whatever bromides they unthinkingly and uncritically accept.
The false alternative presented by the mystics and the skeptics is not the only kind of existence open to man. Recognizing man’s nature and the requirements of his life provides both the purpose of existence and the means to achieving it. Life – the choice to live or not to live, is the basic alternative that makes morality both possible and necessary. Life is the trait that makes morality possible for man, and reason is the unique characteristic that makes it necessary. Without the possibility of death, no moral values are necessary, and without the faculty of reason, no moral choice is possible. The primary moral value is each man’s own life, and the primary virtue – the means of maintaining it — is rationality. “Man has a single basic choice: to think or not, and that is the gauge of his virtue. Moral perfection is a unbreached rationality — not the degree of your intelligence, but the full and relentless use of your mind, not the extent of your knowledge, but the acceptance of reason as an absolute.” — Ayn Rand. Morality is not a means to a supernatural realm, a restrain on the enjoyment of earthly values, a supernatural revelation, a social consensus, an absolutist commandment, or a biological imperative, but a practical, selfish means of living a complete, happy, meaningful, moral earthly existence through the consistent application of reason as the answer to the question of one’s life.
This moral code represents the total opposite of the mystics and the skeptics morality. The Christians pervert morality by deeming man guilty for the actions of one man – and then claim that redemption comes from the actions of yet another. The skeptics pervert morality by enslaving man to live for the needs of everyone but himself, or by denying morality outright, and enslaving him to his emotions. As man’s reason has discovered more and more of the deepest secrets of the universe, he has improved his condition tremendously – even as the mystics and the skeptics systematically deny that man’s reason has any efficacy or significance to his existence. Both pervert morality by denying the very things that make life possible and meaningful – reason, egoism, self-esteem. Both oppose the virtues necessary for man to thrive – independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productivity, and pride by advocating self-sacrifice, collectivism, faith, mercy, dependence on the supernatural/collective, and humility in their place.
Here is the undiluted evil of “The Purpose Driven Life,” from the third paragraph of the book:
“We ask self-centered questions like What do I want to be? What should I do with my life? What are my goals, my ambitions, my dreams, and my future? But focusing on ourselves will never reveal our life’s purpose. The Bible says, “It is God who directs the lives on his creatures; everyone’s life is in his power.” [emphasis author’s]
Christianity requires us to reject our goals, ambitions, dreams, and our very lives as moral values, and demands that we sacrifice them to a supernatural realm. Rick Warren recognizes man’s vital need for a sense of purpose, moral worth, and then denounces all the things that make them possible. He claims to offer a “purpose driven life” but instead gives us a death-driven sacrifice. We need not endure the unearthly torment of that anguish.