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HAT Forum - "Do We Have a Purpose?"

  • The 519, Rm 304 (check lobby screen to be sure) 519 Church Street Toronto, ON, M4Y 2C9 Canada (map)

Do humans have a purpose?

A very good friend of mine is a veterinarian. He’s a man of science, to be certain. Once we had spoken about an animal’s purpose and it was his contention that the only purpose an animal has in life is to procreate, perpetuate the species. If not, they are considered failures and usually banned from the group to which they belong. He said, as an example, that there are solitary lions and tigers and other animals who walk alone in the jungle/savannah, quite apart from their prides/groups. Taken a step further, aren’t humans animals? Of course with higher consciousnesses, but animals all the same? Does this same theory hold true for us then? That our only purpose here on Earth is to perpetuate the human species? It strikes me though that this is a wholly unsatisfactory answer. After all, babies can’t procreate. Very old people too. What about gay couples? Does this mean they all have no purpose in life?

However, if we drill down into this a bit further, it is understandable that those who procreate, who raise children, have a very defined purpose. They are responsible for raising another life. For humans, this means soccer practices, dance lessons, swimming lessons, hockey practices, interactions with school teachers, and so on. In some fundamental ways, as a parent, your life purpose appears to be set. You become very busy. On the face of it, why search for anything else? Your answer is straightforward and easy. But again, what about those who have no children?

So perhaps then there is a better answer to the question of what purposes humans have than simply perpetuating the species. Perhaps the one essential purpose we all have is simple, that all animals have in fact, and that is simply to survive. This is maybe even more important than reproduction. To be alive is more than passing genes along. To be alive is to want to remain alive. It differentiates life forms from say, rocks, which simply remain inert, in a passive give or take process with their environment and surroundings, like erosion which slowly eats away at them. There is no planning on behalf of a rock to prolong what is inevitable. Ok, that seems to make sense. But if one digs deeper, one realizes there is a problem with this theory. And that is: not everyone wants to remain alive. Some people, after all, want to commit suicide. And some do succeed.

I read something someone once said about life’s purpose. And that is it is man’s purpose to try and discover what his purpose is, as futile as that may be. But supposing you do find your life’s purpose (aside from the parent angle). Supposing you say to yourself that you want to go to medical school and become a doctor, that you were ‘destined’ to do so. Maybe your parents were doctors, so perhaps it’s in your genes. But then you go to medical school and you flunk out. What then? Does that mean you no longer have a purpose? How do you continue to exist without a stated purpose?

However, given the fact that the act of living for each human is very different, one from another, does it make sense to talk about human purpose in general terms?

One of the universal truths of Buddhism is that life is full of suffering. There is nothing permanent in life is another truth that Buddha teaches. The teaching goes on to say that suffering is brought about by our desires. Sentient beings think and therefore want. Because of our ability to understand life, we tend to hunger for bigger and bigger things. We never feel satiated. The more money we have, the more we want to have. And because of all these desires, we end up in misery. But if we simplify our lives by lessening things that we don’t need, we find more meaning in our lives. We cultivate kindness and compassion. We make our connections with others better.

To find the true meaning of life, the Buddhists say we must find a way to release ourselves from the cycle of pain and suffering. Letting go of desire helps us achieve happiness and enlightenment. Taking it a step further, Buddhism espouses that the true meaning of life is helping others achieve freedom from suffering. That is the ultimate purpose, to assist others to realize their full potential. To grow into a kind and caring soul who is selfless and understanding. To achieve full enlightenment. One would suppose that someone like Mother Theresa had achieved this type of enlightenment.

There’s another theory about ‘purpose’ that might be worth talking about. And it is this: Life has been around planet Earth for at least 3.5 billion years. During the first 2.5 billion years there were only unicellular bacteria. Only some 600 million years ago did diversity take off; it is then that we see the multicellular complexity we associate with higher life forms. From there to here, life took over the oceans, land, and air, with amazing speed and resilience. From that point of view, life has a purpose, that of increasing its complexity. Of course, the apex of this process would be us, intelligent humans. Maybe then that is the answer for humanity, what our purpose is – to continually increase life’s complexity. To foster increasingly intelligent humans.

There is obviously no easy answer to the issue of ‘purpose.’ But what’s your opinion? Do you think humans as a whole have any real purpose? And how about your own purpose? Have you been able to figure that out? If not, does it matter to you that you haven’t? Do you even think about it? Or are you so busy that there is no time for such contemplation? Or do you simply think it’s all a very futile endeavour and so should not be given any heed?

Let’s discuss and enjoy exploring each other’s minds. Won’t you join us?

NOTE: The HAT Forum adheres strictly to the City of Toronto Policy on Non-Discrimination (http://www.the519.org/public/content/policy-files/The519SpaceUsePolicy.pdf)