On Purpose

There is a school of thought in which people believe we are put on this Earth for a reason, each and every one of us – for a little primer on my thoughts, see a previous blog post on determinism.
It was known to the Ancient Greeks as “telos“, originally meaning end, purpose or goal, and is most used in modern day in the biological sciences. Discussions of philosophers about the subjects of causality, and due to the polymathic nature of many of these ancient figures this led into the development of the field of teleology – this stems from telos and logos (logic) to become – in effect – the logic of purpose.
This likely means very little to you (as it did to me, before a little light reading) but effectively it debates the questions of function and design within biology. Intelligent design is and will always be an unprovable argument, but the claim that we are in any way “perfect” belies the damage which we inflict on the planet in the attempts to secure our foothold as its premier species. As is well outlined in the link above by Colin Allen,

“the notion of adaptation is controversial among biologists because it suggests the Panglossian belief that this is the best of all possible worlds. However comparative judgments about traits of organisms, e.g., that the traits of present organisms are better at producing some effect than the corresponding traits of ancestral organisms, do not require the Panglossian assumption. This is because the claim that A is more optimal or better adapted than B with respect to some function does not entail that A is optimal or even good with respect to that function.”

To paraphrase the above (everyone loves a TL;DR, don’t they?), because we are now better adapted to life on Earth than homo neanderthalensis does not imply that we are a finished product. All human beings have flaws, and that is an established fact. If anyone disagrees with me there, I would love to hear why!
That being said, there are two distinct reasons for how we have so successfully managed to remove ourselves from the food chain.
These are two of our greatest strengths, and as a result can simultaneously be our greatest weaknesses – this dichotomy is discussed in numerous other blogs, and often on my favourite podcast. They are as follows.

1. We can comprehend the past.
Learning from mistakes happens in an instinctual way with other species on this planet – examples of which are Pavlov’s dogs, five monkeys and a ladder among many other experiments. It can be trained as an instinctive response. However what we have that they do not is the ability to reflect on the past, and our awareness of self. We can make records, document history and learn lessons from the past in advance of making them in the present.

2. We can look to the future.
Most other species occupying this planet live purely in the present moment, searching for the next meal, mating opportunity, bit of shelter or water. What this emphasis is short-term thinking. Due to our self-consciousness, we have been given the power to make decisions that may cause pain in the present to bring pleasure in the future. Animals without self-awareness cannot learn this.

And these two attributes make up, in my eyes, the greatest gift in the world.
What it means is that you can build a life that is truly yours, by shaping it as your directing mind steers you. It gives you autonomy, one of the three founding pillars of self determination (and arguably the most important).
It takes a great deal of introspection to find purpose. It can be found by embracing presentism, the philosophical concept that “there is only today” – that the past and the future are unreal and contained only in the mind and in subjective records. But the idea of purpose is all that is true – if we didn’t have one then our self-aware mind would have no reason to get out of bed each morning.
So a life spent seeking purpose is a life well spent. Step up and claim your prize.


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