Thursday, September 03, 2009

Life's Purpose

I promise I'll get back to that Edgar Rice Burroughs/planet Mars thing, but something just came up in an email discussion that I'd like to share.

A fellow atheist asked me, "How do we keep from being depressed believing life has no purpose?"

Here is my reply:

I agree that not having a purpose can be unsettling and depressing. But purpose doesn't require a god. Anyone can declare the purpose of anything they do.

Here's a simple example: yesterday I stopped at a gas station on my way to work. What was the purpose of that? To put air in my car's tires, which were getting a little low. I could have chosen to stop there for any number of different reasons. I could have put it off, or asked my spouse to do it, but I didn't. This was my choice.

You may be thinking, 'hold on, I meant ULTIMATE purpose, not mere transient achievements'.

What's the difference? It's true that the tires will lose pressure again, over time. But it would be silly to say that my visit to the gas station had no purpose, just because the tires won't remain inflated forever. The purpose of the visit was completely valid despite the fact that nothing permanent or 'ultimate' was achieved. Heck, if I'd gotten there and failed to get the tires inflated (because the gas station's air pump was broken, for example) I would STILL have had a valid purpose in going there.

Life is exactly like that. Why are you here? For whatever purpose you decide. Look around - I'm sure you can find something you think needs to be done. When you pick it, that becomes your purpose. It will be a completely valid purpose, even if you change it later, even if it doesn't result in any permanent or 'ultimate' achievement, and even if you wind up utterly failing.

No god could do any better job of choosing a purpose for you than you can choose for yourself. If God Almighty had personally commanded me to get air in my tires, would that have made the purpose of my visit to the gas station any more valid? Of course not. Exactly the same thing would be achieved, and the result would be just as impermanent and just as prone to the risk of complete failure.

Some people do find it easier to see validity in orders they receive from someone they feel is wiser or more important than themselves. Maybe you're like that, and that's fine - you certainly have the right to decide that your purpose in life is to assist some other person, organization, or cause. That's just as valid a purpose as any other that you might choose. But again, no god could provide you with a more valid purpose than any human leader or organization could.

I hope that helps!
-Jeff Dee

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At 8:01 AM, Blogger Applying the Law of Attraction said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 12:18 PM, Blogger ouini said...

Great use of a well-stated analogy, Jeff.

At 5:33 PM, Blogger Jeff Dee said...

'Applying the Law of Attraction' wrote:
"One certainly does not need an external deity to have a life purpose. We have one regardless. The trick is to find it."

There is NO trick to finding a purpose, as I explained in my post. Anyone who tries to make MONEY by pretending there IS a trick (or 'secret') to it, and selling it to people, is nothing more than a con artist.

But apparently you didn't bother reading my post, and are just here to hype this 'Law of Attraction' bullshit. I am therefor deleting your post, which amounts to nothing more than an advertisement. Go abuse peoples' gullibility elsewhere. You're not welcome here.

At 9:58 PM, Blogger Ing said...

I enjoy it when Jeff lets out a Dee-day level rage rant ^-^

At 4:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dee-day, bahahah.

My purpose is to exist and then eventually stop existing at some point. I don't find that depressing because that's just the nature of things, it's hard to be upset by something which is just part of the very fabric of reality. That doesn't mean I don't find the idea of annihilation kind of disturbing, but that's reality...I don't go around moping that humans cant fly either.

I don't really see the need for verification of your life by some mystical superbeing. We all decide for ourselves what we consider purpose and meaning, as Jeff said.

At 7:15 AM, Blogger Guillaume said...

Reading Sartre and Camus was an important part of my de-conversion, so I completely agree with what you said. I also find it is more rewarding and more stimulating to create the meaning of your existence through freely-chosen actions rather than having a destiny imposed upon you by a superior being. When I hear things like "God has a project for you", I am always tempted to say "that's none of his business".

At 8:28 AM, Blogger Ken Pickles said...


What a pleasant surprise! I was just talking to my drummer / gaming buddy last night and telling him about how I really appreciated your work on D&D, V&V and Gamma World. I'm also an illustrator and your strong lines and iconic style really made an impression on me as a kid.

I wonder if your art made me an atheist too? No sorry, Christian school gets full credit for that one!

Anyway, great blog... I'll be stopping back often to check out what's up with you!


At 11:48 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Jeff, one of the things that I've learned is that life has a purpose - and that is to FIND a purpose. We are amazing creatures capable of self direction. We are more than the end result of an amazing evolutionary line. We are creatures capable of self determination.

My purpose is to wake up every day and decide my purpose.

At 10:26 AM, Blogger David said...

I can appreciate your response, but in my mind it misses the mark a little. The key word in the question is 'depressed', which in my mind you didn't directly address.
For what little its worth, my personal responses to the notion that purposelessness and/or a finite existence is depressing are among the following:
- Paraphrasing Twain, you don't find the preceding several billion years of existence before you were born depressing, do you?
- I feel convinced that infinite life would quickly become so boring as to become tortuous. If you can get bored in a 85 year life span, imagine a 850 year life span, or a 8500 year life span and so forth. Our short life spans give us the ambition and urgency to accomplish what we need to accomplish.
- You did touch on this, but in comparison to theism, in which your purpose is decided for you, with atheism you get to decide your own purpose.
- Reality is reality, there's not much point getting depressed about something that can't be changed. You might not like your limited lifespan or your inability to fly or the weather on the weekend, but there's no point in getting depressed over it.

At 7:02 AM, Blogger Jeff Dee said...

You're right, David. I didn't directly address the question of depression. As far as I'm aware, depression can't be *directly* addressed except through medication. Short of that, one addresses depression by showing that the things the person is depressed *about* are really not that bad - and then you trust that anyone who is not *clinically* depressed will be able to pull themselves out of it.

Your Twain paraphrase is off the mark, so to speak. Twain was talking about *death*, not depression, equating his state after death with his state before birth. He was saying nothing about how we should feel while we're alive.

I also have to take exception to your comments about infinite lifespan becoming 'boring'. Tell me this: are you more bored today than you were yesterday? Last week? Last year? I'm not, nor do I expect to be more bored when I'm 85 than I am right now. Less physically fit? Probably. Less mentally acute? Sure. But those traits are not synonymous with boredom, nor would they be part of any package deal involving a truly perpetual lifespan.

Sorry if I sound all negative about your post. I don't mean to be, but you touched a few of my buttons. I do agree with your last couple of paragraphs, wholeheartedly. I think religion flourishes in part by feeding people false expectations - which *cause* depression, for which it then offers itself as a cure.

At 1:23 PM, Blogger I Do Not Accept The Terms of Service said...

Or, you could just base it all on Ghandi's "be the change you want to see in the world".

No matter how depressed you are, you probably have an opinion of what sucks in the world. OK, so you want to see change in the world. OK, then be that change.

It's real easy to find purpose then. How about taking a vow of perpetual poverty, and then sending away all the extra money that you make to feed the starving kids of the world? And then even going door-to-door in your spare time to collect yet more money for starving children, instead of (say) sitting in front of the TV watching Dancing With The Stars?

Funny thing is, very few religious people bother to do that, much less non-religious people. So maybe that shows us that religion is just an empty way to feel good about yourself without bothering to make the world a better place?

PS of course *I* don't do that charity stuff either - but I'm an evil person and have come to terms with that. :-)

At 7:36 PM, Blogger magx01 said...

Well, if The Merovingian is correct, purpose is merely a label ascribed to the relationship between cause and effect, which means that the "purpose" of which people speak is merely a deterministic outcome linearly based on caual factors.

Or, he and I, as well as the overly pretentious Architect, are full of shit :P

In all seriousness (sorry, just re-watched the Matrix Trilogy), I'm of the opinion that there is no purpose inherent in life.

From an evlutionary persspective, our main drive is to procreate, and, psychologically, we have a heirarchy of needs (Maslow, was it?)....but purpose?

Not the way I see it.

I can understand why religion is so attractive....

At 8:05 AM, Blogger Jeff Dee said...

I agree that there is no purpose 'inherent' in life. That's half the point of my post.

At 12:26 PM, Blogger magx01 said...

I know, I was agreeing with you.

I liked the tire bit btw.

At 9:24 AM, Blogger Gliktch said...

Not sure what Ing is talking about, this doesn't look anything like a rant to me. Instead what I see is a masterfully clear illustration of what is arguably the only healthy way to look at the whole 'life's purpose' idea.

Don't get me wrong, I love it when Jeff smashes stupidity on the show or just about anywhere, but this is far from ranty. :)

At 10:33 PM, Blogger sandbaggy2 said...

I wouldn't mind immortality either. Or super powers. That would be great.

As far as depression, There is a result to awareness and sometimes it is disheartening. Depression isn't something that needs a 'cure' unless it persists to the point of disrupting life.

Oh, yah, life has a purpose. For me it's persuading people that compassion is strength and that narcissism is weak. Maybe I'm just trying to mess with the existing norm, but it certainly keeps me busy.

And then there is the vrod, all hail.

I remember the security of authority worship. It came with a heavy penalty though, primarily I wasn't much of a 'me'. I'd rather be free even though there is a lot of uncertainty and work involved.

At 8:04 AM, Blogger Marius said...

I think Kurt Vonnegut formulated an excellent purpose in his novel Timequake which should work well (and is much better, frankly, than anything religion has ever managed to throw at us): "We are all here to help each other through this thing, whatever it is."

At 3:30 PM, Blogger mikekoz68 said...

Good analogy, I will have to steal that. To take this 'purpose' to the extreme, if theists are good and live their lives for god they get to live with him in heaven. Well then what? What is their purpose then? They are in heaven, with god, doing what exactly? Their great purpose is to get to heaven to sit around with god and his fundies for eternity--sounds fun!!

At 2:45 PM, Blogger dissertation said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 3:14 PM, Blogger Jeff Dee said...

What is it about THIS blog post that attracts scam artists who want to SELL a 'purpose' that depends on magic or invisible spooks?


At 2:06 PM, Blogger Mr. Zeph said...

My response got kind of wordy, so I replied on my blog, here:

Basically I agree, amplify then go on a tangent :)

At 1:53 PM, Blogger martiendejong said...

This blog post and the comments serve their purpose well :) I deconverted about two years ago now and I went into a serious depression because of it. I am glad to say that I am doing better now, and the Atheist Experience has helped me tremendously in getting over my christianity. I still have a lot of problems in my social environment since most of my family and friends are christians and pretty orthodox as well. I suspect a lot more people have these experiences and sometimes it leeds to terrible consequences, for instance in the case of Jesse Kilgore. Well thanks for doing such a great job at helping people out (you're literally saving them, in my opinion). Wish you all the best!


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