Monday 12 October 2009

The purpose of life

This post is sparked by an interesting recent episode of The Unbelievers, an engaging podcast out of New Zealand, in which the two hosts discussed (among other things) the idea of purpose, and how it colours the perception of both religious and non-religious people. While they agreed that atheism does not itself have a purpose, they nevertheless went on to speculate that the purpose of life could in some sense be "to reproduce". This, I feel, illustrates the strong grip that the idea of "intention" has on our human way of thinking, and it's not, in my opinion, helpful.

In the absence of a religious purpose for human life (for instance, "the glorification of God"), it might seem reasonable for perpetuation of the species to be offered as a substitute. But reproduction is simply what humans, and other species, do. If they didn't, they would become extinct. Reproduction is not, therefore, a purpose, but simply the result of evolution. Those that are best at reproduction (which includes being good at surviving to reproductive age) are the ones who pass on their genes to the most offspring.

Such a statement is somewhat tautologous ("the ones that survive are the ones that survive"), but its very tautology shows why the idea of a "purpose" behind it is wrong-headed. Human reproduction is the way it is as a result of random mutation and natural selection. There never was any over-arching intention or purpose behind it. Any instinctive impulse to reproduce is there because those without such an impulse tended not to reproduce.

But if there's no intrinsic purpose to life, why are we here? That, surely, is entirely up to us.