Society today is likely no different than any other society has been in their pursuit of meaning and purpose. As amazing as mere biological complexity is, plain old existence has never seemed to matter much to people. Everyone alive knows that they exist, but this fact is not sufficient for some to choose the continuation of this existence, as they decide to end lives, which to them, seem to lack purpose. Purpose - it is what drives all humans. Throughout history this purpose has generally been grounded in different religious notions. People seemed to understand that their purpose required establishment outside of themselves – whether in a religious book, religious practices, or a religious figure. That is a notion that has been largely lost today in the West.
While the systems that were built to explain the external grounding in the past may seem very foolish to us today with their complex ideas, our society is more foolish in a number of ways since we defy philosophical grounding and logic altogether. While a Hebrew monotheist may have been fearfully superstitious, his fear that God would strike him dead made sense if that god existed. On materialism, while actions of nature may be explained through cause and effect without a direct link to God, philosophies of life as we intuitively know them end up being incoherent without a creator (e.g. free will, love, purpose, etc). Materialists laugh at ancients for believing in a god, but the ancients can laugh at the materialist for believing anything at all. The ancients may have been wrong, but they could live consistently. The materialists may be right, but find that in so being, they cannot live. For the sake of this discussion, I will be focusing on the incoherence of purpose on materialism.
Many today, however, attempt to find their purpose through descriptive means. Descriptive means are the only option on the table for materialists. While many religious individuals have been drawn into this sort of thinking as well, its origin really comes from a more naturalistic philosophy. If individuals are not created and are therefore not endowed with purpose from the outside, the only other way one can attempt to find purpose is descriptively. We can observe what sorts of actions tend to lead towards survival. We can observe what sorts of actions tend to make societies function well. We can observe what kinds of actions cause us to feel good. Taking all of these descriptions about the way things are, we then attempt to assume a conclusion that doesn’t follow. “If X action makes me happy, I should do it.” How does such a conclusion follow? The assumption from such a statement is that there is some purpose endowed within me that implores me to fulfill my happiness. Here I am not talking about some feeling that makes me want to pursue happiness, but rather some goal or purpose that says it should be. In a world formed by chance and aimlessness, why should it be that I find happiness? This path may, on the surface, sound all well and good, but it leads to some intuitive conundrums for those who embrace it. As an example, the suicidal individual can make the same sorts of descriptive claims as any other hedonist. The normal hedonist may make merry on wine, but the suicidal makes merry in death. The claim made by the suicidal hedonist makes them just as right in their pursuit if one follows this modern "as you wish" sort of "logic." For if there is no true goal or purpose for the suicidal individual – if they can create their meaning - then why should anyone stymie their “purpose?”
This descriptive sort of purpose finding is vacuous, as purpose can only be found, and only in a world with prescription. Prescription brings intention, description does not. In a world where there is no creator, all things boil down to a description of mechanistic, deterministic or chance processes. Nothing endows us with a prescribed goal that produces purpose. In a world where there is nothing above us to prescribe, then, men are drawn to becoming their own source of purpose through personal prescription – and what does man want but to prescribe himself happiness and the enjoyment of pleasure? But this notion has a multitude of problems. First, refer back to the suicide example. If an individual finds that their happiness will best come from killing themselves, why should anyone impose their contrary, personalized view on the suicidal individual? Who are you to tell the suicidal individual that their personal prescription for happiness is wrong? The reason for your imposition cannot at all be altruistic, as we shall see. Rather, imposition in a world where purpose is personalized can only logically occur because of your interest, not another’s. In the example of the suicidal, friends and family members prescribed happiness for themselves, and it is their own happiness that would be hampered when their loved one took themselves out of existence! The suicidal individual wants to be happy in their escape, but their closest compatriots won’t allow them this freedom, as it would impose upon their own pleasure and purpose. Materialists can't answer any other way, since imposing upon someone's personal perception of what would make them happy is to prevent them from achieving their goal – their purpose.
Beyond the contradictions and absurdities mentioned above, such a view of self-created purpose is one that is impossible to implement in the first place. As I stated previously, purpose is something that must be endowed with intent. Inanimate matter cannot endow something as it has no intent. Complex forms of matter, like man, however, are able to endow other objects with purpose because man can intend goals. An ax, for this reason, can have a purpose. Its job is to cut down a tree. Its job can also be to kill, to blaze a trail, or to be a bookend. Its creator and/or its wielder can endow an ax with purpose. An ax, however, cannot endow itself with purpose. But this inability to endow self with purpose is not merely because the ax is not sentient, but also because something cannot endow itself with purpose. The man who endows an ax with purpose would be just as unable as the ax to endow self with purpose.
To illustrate, think of how absurd it is to say that one creates their own purpose. Imagine that a woman desires to be happy, and she finds that her happiness is best fed through altruism. She feels happiest and most fulfilled when she helps other people. Notice that when she performs altruistic actions, though she is in fact helping others as she intended to do, the purpose lies in the act of helping, and its function is to provide the woman with the happiness which is her goal. The woman here did not endow herself with purpose, but endows her actions of altruism and/or those in need with purpose. Her giving to charity or feeding the poor has purpose - to make her happy, but she herself does not have purpose.
Now one might argue that the poor or needy who are helped by such an altruistic woman are served by her, and therefore they can endow her with purpose. This is certainly true. One who is in need of food can seek another person, endow them with the purpose of feeding them, and then receive what they desire. But this is no conciliation to those who establish a system of self-purpose, for their goal is to be the masters of all and to be master to no one. How would accepting prescribed purpose from others - being objectified by all - be more palatable than accepting purpose prescribed from the creator God? Understanding that one’s purpose cannot originate from within means that purpose must come from some other source (God, other humans, etc).On materialism, the only available source is other sentient life - our equals. While many of us may be ok with being endowed with purpose for the sake of altruism, mankind has all sorts of other goals that are nefarious. Nobody wants to be endowed with the purpose of being a human experiment, a sex slave, a murder victim, etc. But if man is the creator of purpose, all men are able to equally endow as they see fit, and there is ultimately no objective standard with which we can push back. The most one can say is, "I don't like that."
In a world where sentient beings are the only endowers of purpose, everything becomes an object to us and we an object to everyone else. Our desire to fulfill our goals prevents us from wanting to be used for another’s purpose, but in a world where all others are endowers of purpose, it is impossible for us to live without being objects. Objectification works functionally to achieve desired outcome in a world with no God, but it only works if the Golden Rule is followed. However, in this materialistic context, the Golden Rule actually becomes a utilitarian notion rather than an altruistic one. I do unto others not because my purpose is to actually help or care for others. I am willing to be an object of purpose for someone else only because it increases the chances of another becoming an object for me.
A great example of this concept can be seen when we look at jobs and hobbies - both tasks in which purpose is endowed. When we participate in a job - even businessmen and women who create their own businesses - workers are essentially the objects of their customers. We could never say that an individual creates their own job. While a savvy businessperson may recognize a particular job that isn't being done, they are not creating a job but rather recognizing a need someone else has. When they "create" and perform their job, then their job is to do the bidding of their customer. They become objects for their customer's use. Their customer pays them in return, of course, becoming an object for the businessperson, but it is the customer who endows the worker with the purpose of his work. The worker doesn't do a job just to do a job, but rather to do the bidding of their customers. This exchange is the materialist’s golden rule in action. I create a service you need in hopes that you will provide me with fungible assets.
Someone may reply that sometimes individuals do jobs or activities just to do them. They may pull weeds in their garden because they enjoy gardening or because they want to. They may go fishing - not to eat - but to enjoy nature, nostalgia, or some other calming thing. However, in these instance, the "job" of gardening or fishing is often something we'd call a hobby, or something that brings us what we want. When we do jobs only for our enjoyment we are not all of a sudden endowing ourselves with purpose. My purpose or job is not to pull weeds or to fish. Rather, the job or task of fishing and pulling weeds serves me. These activities have been endowed with the purpose of making me happy or providing me with some sort of pleasure. It may feel good, be calming, increase my social capital and standing, or whatever – but it serves me.
The Bible may not have invented the Golden Rule, but the way the Bible presents the Golden Rule is the first and only - as far as I'm aware -of its kind. Its spin on the “rule” is significantly self-sacrificial and altruistic, and consistently so. Whereas other Golden Rules may claim altruistic cores or tendencies, these aspects are rather facades and thin shells of a deeper, juvenile and immature form that generally boil down to self-interest. Other Golden Rules help us to assess how to get what we want from others (by doing to them what we would want). On Christianity, however, we are to measure our goodness to others by our own desires. The Bible’s rule has the moral imperative that derives from purposed prescription in creation. Other Golden rules have us measuring how to get the most out of others for our good – or they lack moral imperatives. They’re simply nice ideas. Christianity's Golden Rule has us measuring how to get the most good out of ourselves for others. This is very different from most/all other forms of the notion.
We have already seen how the idea that we can create our own purpose brings about inconsistency in our actions towards suicidal individuals and in claims of altruism. We have also seen how it is actually impossible to endow oneself with purpose. But even beyond these two major criticisms, self-created purpose also runs into a problem due to its reliance on the huge assumption that our existence and natures warrant following in the first place. When one feels as though altruism, money, sex, masochism, or any other sort of thing will make them happy and give them purpose – why are we to believe that such notions warrant following? This assumes that the way we are is the ideal. And if we are the endowers of purpose, I suppose it makes sense for us to objectify everything else for the purpose of appeasing whatever nature chance has given to us. But once again, such a realization makes the self-creators of purpose inconsistent, for it is intuitive to us all that some forms are more desirable than others. This is the concept that was largely explored in the previous segment on beauty.
Transgendered individuals have desires based upon who they think they should be. They are trapped in the wrong body. The disabled have desires to be otherwise – to be healed – as their bodies aren’t as they should be. When one has OCD or a form of phobia, they and we often seek to change that because we recognize the way they are is not desirable. We all recognize that there are good forms and not as good forms, ideals and non-ideals. If the physical, mental, hormonal, and the like can all fall short of the ideal, shouldn’t we expect the same of our desires? We all recognize that this is the case when we impose our ideals of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts.” We have interventions for those struggling with addiction even if they want to remain in their addiction. We encourage, mandate, or impose treatments on the suicidal or clinically insane even if they don’t think they need treatment or want treatment. We all understand that there are more than subjective ideals and mere descriptions. If there aren’t objective ideals and prescriptions placed upon us through creation, than these impositions upon others are pure self-serving hypocrisy. The proclaimers of self-created purpose say that one creates their own purpose and decides for themselves what is good, yet they impose their views and prescriptions on others at times. They do this because they intuitively understand that there are objective truths and ideals about how we should be. To adhere to a notion of self-created purpose once again defies consistency with what we all know to be true at the deepest intuitive level – ideals exist that are defined beyond myself.
Now I have already given the materialist a consistent way to fight back, and that is to acknowledge that there are no ideals but selfish ideals. The addicted, the suicidal, and the mentally ill are provided compulsory assistance not because there is an ultimate ideal or because other people care about them for their sake, but rather because people care about them for their own sake. There may not be an ultimate ideal, but that doesn’t mean I can’t push for my ideal to be ultimate. Consistent materialists recognize that they want their suicidal friend to change because they value the relationship and the happiness it brings them, not because they truly care about the individual. They can fool themselves into thinking they want their friend saved, but they really want the relationship and its benefits preserved. If our purposing stems from our happiness, and our purposing objectifies, what other conclusion can the materialist draw? They are objectifying their friend to produce happiness for themselves. While I am not a fan of materialism, I don't think many of them are pessimistic enough to believe that this is really the way the world works. I suppose I should count my blessings, as it’s better for them to be stubbornly inconsistent than consistently heartless. Are there objective truths about the way things should be? Is there an objective moral law that says we should love others for their sake? There must be some explanation for the materialist who is willing to defy their own law of self-purposing to overrule another's nature and system of self-purpose.
The Christian notion, however, endows humanity with purpose from the outside. Humanity was made to be in relationship with God, man, and nature. We were meant to love and to be good stewards of these relationships. Even more, Christianity provides us with true pleasure and happiness, as God made man to have dominion over creation, to create, and to enjoy. So even when we take pleasure in hobbies that serve us, we can find true joy because we are fulfilling the creation mandate. The creator has endowed his creatures - us - with purpose. We should then seek to fulfill this purpose, and are only truly fulfilled by doing this. This means there are standards, guidelines, and models of systems and being that are true and which we should seek to follow. When we see something broken and out of place from how it should be, we seek to fix it and set it right. It is in this sense that the Bible paints discipline and reprimand. To correct someone who is wayward is to love. To allow them to continue on a path towards destruction is hateful. But our culture often reverses this, viewing reprimand, dissent, and judgment as that which is evil. Christianity explains the notions of purpose we all feel, notions of a rightness we all recognize when we push back against disorders and say that there is a true way people should be. Christianity makes sense when we think of the Golden Rule, as most of us know it in our deepest heart to be a truly altruistic rule, not a utilitarian one. Christianity makes sense when we think of meaningful and loving relationships that don't exist just for our sake, but for the sake of another. Christianity just makes sense.
The final question that arises, then, is “what about God?” If God is uncreated and is the ultimate endower of purpose, then what of God's purpose? It would seem that God cannot have purpose if he is uncreated, and at the moment, I would agree with that. God does not have purpose. Purpose flows from God – from his nature. If we could say God’s “purpose” was anything, we would say that it was just to be who he is. God just is God and does God actions. So when God created his creatures, he created them as an outpouring of who he is: good, loving, just, beautiful, etc. Their purpose is meant to display and proclaim who God is, and to manifest his attributes in relation with all other created things. God is perfectly satisfied in this and needs no purpose because he is the source of all things (important emphasis), the uncreated creator – the relational trinity.
Humans, on the other hand, are finite creatures whose coming into existence demands an explanation of purpose. While we can, as sentient creatures, choose to endow other things with purpose in whatever way we desire, we do so only when we objectify those things, and we do so at the cost of throwing off the existence of created ideals that we all know exist. Following the purpose of the one creator leads all things into harmony, edifies all, and always leads to love. Following the purpose of selves set up as gods leads to selfishness, pain, and dehumanization. We cannot create our own purpose and live consistently or harmoniously. We may find moments of sanity and harmony, but I imagine the madman and tone deaf find such moments every now and then as well. The materialist can find meaning in the sense that they sometimes enjoy pleasures or experience happiness, but they enjoy and experience those things devoid of a purpose. They are pure consumers who will one day be consumed, that the worm may enjoy the same vapid pleasure and experience of happiness a good meal brings. For the worm has just as much purpose as the materialist on their system.
Instead, we must find our purpose as the one who has endowed us with it has revealed. And what is our purpose? To live a life glorifying to God by loving and enjoying him and by loving others as ourselves. Our desire for our own well-being is the measure for how we are to treat others – and that fulfills our purpose. Our purpose is to live in right relationship as defined by God. That not only means we reflect the attributes of God, but that we also recognize the ideals and structures of relationships that he set in place. By doing that, we are fulfilled in our purpose and we glorify God.