THE PURPOSE OF THE UNIVERSE – PART II (CONTINUED)

The second dimension of cosmic reality for consideration is Nature,  meaning the environment of Earth and the living things which inhabit it. Geologists tell us the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old and has sustained immense transformations from an initial fiery ball through alternating periods of cooling and warming, the appearance of bodies of mostly liquid water, and varying formations of land floating on mobile tectonic plates. Paleontologists tell us the earliest forms of life appeared perhaps 3.9 billion years ago in the oceans, migrated to land at least 500 million years ago and have undergone nearly continuous alteration throughout their history. In the 19th century Charles Darwin and Arthur Russell Wallace made convincing cases  for evolution via natural selection as the underlying mechanism of variation of species, a theory strongly supported by the later science of genetics.

Meanwhile astronomers have been searching for evidence of extraterrestrial life for several decades without success. Many of us hope that is a temporary situation, but until we can confirm life elsewhere, we must entertain the possibility that life is restricted to the Earth. We must also recognize that for now, Homo sapiens is the only species that can intelligently impact the environment of the Earth and its biology. Thus we come to the crux of our analysis – through the slow process of emergence and evolution, the universe has brought into existence the most complex entities known (life) on a single fortuitous planet with an accommodating sun. We must remember that every species of life on Earth is not only the product of billions of years of this process, but also entirely dependent on the unlikely environment Earth provides. Thus we should act as if this is the ‘purpose’ of the universe operative at our level.

The third dimension of cosmic reality is extraterrestrial space and celestial  bodies. We come upon that dimension of cosmic reality where human limitations apply. For our immediate future, given the limits of our science and technology, we can only consider the purpose intrinsic to our solar system. Only the Sun and the Moon have clear purpose while Jupiter may have one as well. The Sun’s energy radiation is obviously essential to maintain the habitable environment of the Earth. The Moon has effects on the tides in our oceans and perhaps other critical influences. Jupiter may serve as a clearing mechanism for stray objects (asteroids, comets, and the like) which might otherwise impact the earth with catastrophic consequences. Additional ‘purpose’ can be assigned by the human imagination for other planets and moons in the solar system mainly as potential places for colonization and the spreading of Earth life – Mars being the most obvious.

In summary, cosmic reality can be seen to have ‘purpose’ as the movement towards increased complexity and compartmentalized order. At our level of existence, science has purpose as those laws and explanation that reveal and underpin the order intrinsic to reality and permit understanding and potential manipulation, Nature is the fulfillment of the universe’s seeking of complexity and variety, and the solar system provides the contextual support for Earth’s environment and perhaps offers future destinations for its life.

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THE PURPOSE OF THE UNIVERSE – PART II

“Man’s most sacred duty…is to promote the maximal fulfillment of the evolutionary process in his earth.” – Julian Huxley.

 

 

Last time I offered my best hypothesis on the purpose of the universe as the movement towards increased complexity and compartmentalized order, while conceding this is a subjective proposition. I leave it to the reader to decide on its merit and cogency. Today I would like to think through some specifics on the scope of this purpose applicable to a being as limited in size and time as Homo sapiens. I have delineated three dimensions of cosmic reality – Science, Nature, and the Universe – that we can subject to analysis at our level of comprehension.

Of course it may not be possible for humans to see beyond the curtain of our faculties as to the highest purpose that unfolds at the level of the cosmos as a whole. Cosmologists tell us the universe is barely out of its infancy, and thus any projection beyond the next several billion years is speculative at best. But we can identify purposeful aspects of the universe observable by us at the current stage of its existence.  And we have a singular responsibility to do this since we are the only being known to us capable of such an abstraction.

Let’s start with pure science (rather than its practical applications) which seems a creation of humankind, but is more likely instantiated in the universe itself, particularly as descriptive laws and statistical predictability. It seems odd to ask about the purpose of ‘science’ in this sense when its essence is interwoven into material reality itself. Nonetheless the short answer is that the laws and explanations contained in mathematics and scientific disciplines reveal and underpin the order intrinsic to reality. In turn this demonstrable consistency sustaining the universe serves to permit understanding and potential manipulation by a being of sufficient capability, such as a human  being. The study and advance of science by us then is a pursuit aligned with purpose of the cosmos appropriate to our meager stature in the universe.

(continued next post)

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THE PURPOSE OF THE UNIVERSE – PART I

“We have further illusion, in respect to living systems, that Nature’s ‘purpose’ is the development of increasingly complex forms and systems which are then selected for continued survival and/or evolution as experience proves their value for such ‘ends’ or ‘purposes.’ ”- Jonas Salk, The Survival of the Wisest.

One of the three great unanswerable questions about reality for humanity is: “Why is there a universe (or anything at all)?”1 This question is distinct from the similar:  “How did the universe come into existence (if it is not in fact eternal)?”  The former question is perhaps more precisely rephrased as: “What is the purpose of the universe?” While asking this question may appear presumptuous or even irrational, the answer, should one be found, will inform cosmic purpose for us.

In the section Teleology on this site, I addressed many of the issues around design in relation to Nature and the Cosmos including the applicability of purpose to them. In the absence of a designer (God or a demigod perhaps), the universe appears to be in effect, auto-designed through a reinforcing process of emergence and evolution. Based on our limited faculties, we cannot infer intelligence or intention in a self-organizing universe, but it seems reasonable to say purpose in this model corresponds to the chronological directionality of the universe. In other words its purpose is to continue on its course and actualize all of its continuously  emerging potentialities. When married to the sub-definition of good as that which promotes existing non-human reality in the universe, purpose at the level of cosmic reality for humankind must be promoting the recognizable trajectory the universe is taking.

While this may be a leap for some, the alternative comes down to seeing the universe as meaningless, inscrutable, or absurd, all subjective conclusions less defensible than the one I propose. The science of cosmology demonstrates that the universe is ordered, lawful, and progressive. Its history is revealed not as random but as directional with simple, small particles transforming into larger and more varied elements, and of amorphous gas clouds condensing into stars, planets, and black holes, which then may spontaneously organize into galaxies. Under favorable conditions inorganic evolution provides an environment where life may and perhaps predictably appears allowing organic evolution of the most complex entities known including some capable of consciousness and intelligence. Notwithstanding accusations of subjectivity, it remains entirely rational for one to see the self-determined ‘purpose’ of the universe as the movement towards increased complexity and compartmentalized order.

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1 The other two are “Does God exist?” and “What happens at death?”

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PURPOSE AND  COSMIC REALITY – INTRODUCTION

Nature’s not a temple, but a workshop, and man’s the workman in it.” – Turgenev, Fathers and Sons.

 

 

The basic thesis unfolding on this site is that reality consists of five tiers – internal, proximate, cultural, cosmic, and ultimate – and that a meaningful life consists of four interlocking components – virtue, purpose, contentment, and relationship to ultimate reality. The first three components of the meaningful life can be delineated for each of the first four tiers of reality, and the final component, relationship to ultimate reality, integrates all those parts into a whole for its level. The section prior to this one dealt with virtue at each level and in the current section, I have already addressed purpose at the level of self, others, and society. This takes us now to the notion of purpose in the province of cosmic reality.

Let’s begin with a review of the term, cosmic reality. For me this is that portion of reality not observable by the unaided senses and outside the realm of human relations. As such it does not denote our ordinary, unfiltered experience of animals, plants, or landscapes nor celestial structures such as the Sun, moon, planets, or stars perceived by the naked eye – all of which fall under my definition of proximate reality. Cosmic reality refers to the more intricate world revealed by scientific tools, to our understandings gained from experiment and disciplined analysis, and to the advanced mathematics which circumscribes the laws governing the universe, life, and the constituents of matter. In the largest sense, cosmic reality is conceptual; not referring to that portion of the natural world or cosmos we directly observe, but the outsized idea of Nature and Universe. It does not however refer to God, divinity, providence, or immaterial existence which if real come under the umbrella of ultimate reality.

In the section on social purpose I made two claims which are germane here. The first is that when we think of purpose we think of socially-sized purpose; but I suspect many people believe anything less than a cosmic purpose fails the test of true significance since even human civilization is temporary. The second is that one can bypass societal purpose for cosmic purpose; here I would say the opposite is true as well – one can choose to defer cosmic purpose in the name of humanistic purpose.

In the coming blogs I will address cosmic purpose in some detail following the outline below. There is much overlap in this list with the corresponding items under societal purpose, thus the material can be abbreviated.

  1. Introduction
  2. Purpose of nature and the universe.
  3. The nature of purpose at the level of cosmic reality.
  4. Types of roles possible.
  5. Factors in choice of direction.
  6. Success factors.
  7. Benefits of cosmic purpose.
  8. Synopsis and synthesis.

We start next time with the reciprocal question informing human purpose in the cosmos, that is, “What is the purpose of the Universe and of Nature?” Join me then.

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SOCIETAL PURPOSE – SYNOPSIS (continued)

As a result there are many public roles available for consideration which can be roughly placed into categories instructive to our choice. These include occupations with tangible outputs, callings with more limited measurability, entertainment with the added potential of fame, missionary work with the possibility inclusive of supererogatory duty, politics and positions of influence with their larger impact, and practical scientists and creators with hope of a more enduring legacy. Nonetheless the sense and magnitude of purpose of any given role is ultimately subjective and thus any category can be highly meaningful or seemingly futile to the actor.

Since societal purpose is a choice it follows a decision process is needed. Key decision factors fall into three groups: individual (physical and mental), external (geographic, political, cultural, historical, and future-directed), and intrinsic (size, quantity, proportion of contribution, measurability, and likelihood of success). Table 6 in the Appendix on this site presents a practical process for factoring these variables.

Next comes success factors which include commitment, patience or time, flexibility, enjoyment, realistic expectations, and intention. Unfortunately while societal purpose is critical to a meaningful life and perhaps even to happiness, it is precarious even for the talented among us. Employing in full the factors in success is the best means to find one’s way in the murky waters of human significance.

At the end of the day, the benefits of societal purpose – subsistence, self-fulfillment, value to others, and legacy – make it worth the extreme effort it demands. Perseverance in an authentic role in the world is a source of ultimate satisfaction, a defining characteristic of our species, and the source of all human progress. And we need not despair of imagined insignificance as long as we remember the sagacious words of Lucian: “The life of the ordinary man is the best and most prudent choice. Cease from the folly of metaphysical speculation into origins and ends; count all this clever logic as idle talk and pursue one end alone – how you may do what your hands find to do, go your way with never a passion and always a smile.” Good advice in antiquity and today.

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SOCIETAL PURPOSE – SYNOPSIS

“Culture arises only when the individual fulfills his cycle of obligations.” – Käthe Kollwitz

 

 

We have seen that, in my synthesis, purpose is the second key component of the meaningful life (the first being virtue). In turn the first two levels of human purpose concern the self and one’s contacts. At those levels purpose comes down to establishing a good life, improving the self, increasing understanding of the world, and pursuing happiness and meaning individually and reciprocally. A similar set of guiding principles informs societal purpose distilling into the question, “What am I uniquely positioned to do in society or for the advancement of civilization or for the future of humanity?”

We can bracket this question and pose its inverse, “What purpose does civilization or society serve for the individual?” By peering deeper we se that  civilization is not a mere fact of the world or random happening, but a functional product of the exertions of our ancestors and our contemporaries. As if by design its purpose emerges as the means to secure necessities and order, to transfer knowledge across generations, to improve the character and virtue of its citizenry, and as the platform for the quest for happiness and meaning by its members. Logic leads us to the conclusion that societal purpose for each of us must take the form of contributing to these functions of civilization – in short the answer to the first question is that we seek that unique and authentic role most apropos to our furthering the emergent purposes of civilization itself.

As Aristotle tells us, the state continues “for the sake of the good life” making it an uncanny mirror of the very purposes of the self and of our relationship with familiars. In return, he explains, the individual must remain an active member of the group, that is, fill a specific role in that community purpose. Here we find the rationale for an obligation to community that intersects with our personal need for a societal purpose in a meaningful life. Meanwhile Ernest Becker adds a further nuance; culture serves to validate our significance through our societal roles bringing individual and societal purpose full circle.

Unlike in the case of individual purpose, societal purpose is chosen not integral to rational existence itself. Thus it is variegated not uniform; such purposes range from manual labor or basic service for others to musical composition or philosophical inquiry. Societal purpose can be multiple  and can entail degrees of magnitude not seen with purpose at the level of the self. One may even choose to bypass societal purpose altogether and pursue cosmic purpose (the subject of the next section).

(continued next post)

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SOCIETAL PURPOSE – BENEFITS – PART II

“Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” – Theodore Roosevelt.

In the last two posts we looked at some of the personal benefits of pursuit of purpose within cultural reality. Today we consider the other two main categories – benefits for others and benefits which persist as a legacy for the human community and civilization. The value of social purpose regarding others comes down to two items – direct benefits to the community and the value of human association. Let’s take them in reverse order.

For a few people, societal purpose may be a solo activity, but for the majority of us, our role is as part of a group with a common goal. Thus every scientist builds on the work of other scientists and depends directly on some support staff, and every ethical business person achieves results only as a member of a team or organization. Integrated into social function is relationship with coworkers and likeminded individuals striving to see a higher goal accomplished. The value of these associations was addressed in the section on purpose and others, but it is important to remind oneself that many of our acquaintances and even some true friends originated from joint participation in a social purpose. Even if we fail in our purpose we have at a minimum the consolation of the benefits of expanded human relationship unique to mutual purpose.

But of course the very definition of social purpose refers to providing services or goods to others and this benefit is the ultimate justification of one’s efforts. From a purely ethical standpoint this dimension of benefit is foremost and ought to drive one’s decision regardless of the other benefits previously discussed. Therefore the purpose of the Union Army volunteer during the civil war should not have been some future political aspirations, but his sheer commitment to maintaining the nation whole and the elimination of the injustice of chattel slavery.

The final and perhaps most desirable benefit of social purpose is a legacy that lasts beyond retirement, and even death. Such a legacy we discussed as a form of metaphorical life extension or immortality. This enduring benefit to community and humanity is most apparent with artistic, literary, scientific, inventive, and political efforts, but likely applies in all areas. For example the teacher’s effect on a child may lead to the amazing accomplishments of the former student. For myself, in addition to my practice of medicine, I have founded several small businesses, some in which I no longer participate. There is an immense sense of meaning in leaving a purposeful and thriving enterprise for others to maintain and enhance as any retired entrepreneur can confirm.

Next time I will draw together the various elements of social purpose into a final synopsis. Join me then.

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SOCIETAL PURPOSE – BENEFITS – PART I (continued)

Continuing with the personal rewards of social purpose, next is creativity which emerges naturally through necessity as we encounter obstacles to our goals or contemplate maximum effect. the example of Benjamin Franklin whose noble purpose in 1984 was to represent the United States in the French court. There he found he could understand French better if he could see the expressions of the speakers but also needed to record notes, so in a moment of genius sawed his eyeglass lenses in half and combined them to invent bifocals.1 Many common examples apply in our more mundane work lives such as with problem solving, project management, team building activities, customer service, etc. And of course those who choose an artistic field experience the full force of their creativity.

A fourth personal benefit of social purpose is the exercise and consolidation of virtue. Some missions are intrinsically virtuous such as helping the homeless while others are the arena of the honing of virtue such as business where ethics are essential or politics where a moral compass is vital. Aristotle tells us virtue is a habit and like other habits one in which we initially progress awkwardly but in which we finally find pleasure in mastery. No venue like one’s social purpose is more apropos of this. The result is at last satisfaction in the achievement of purpose, the virtuosity of competence, and the realization of virtue.

Next comes contentment which is the subject of the next large section on this site. For now, it is worth noting that each human being is a basket of emotions, idiosyncrasies, and foibles which undermine contentment. Ordered work, particularly for a worthy goal, is an outlet where calm is attained by suppression of our defects. Professionalism then offers a kind of serenity which can be experienced on a day to day basis, and intense focus on work allows us to stay in the present moment which is a critical feature of contentment.

A seventh benefit of social purpose derives from interactions with the world that increase our understanding of life and what it means to be human. It forces us to face the big picture of our existence and figure out where meaning is found in a way impossible through idleness or recreation. Last, social purpose is one, and perhaps the main expression of individual authenticity. The unwavering dedication to that which one believes is worthy of a lifetime commitment becomes the statement of one’s raison d’etre and the ultimate manifestation of one’s authenticity in the panoply of human civilization.

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1Bronowski, J, The Ascent of Man. Little, Brown, and Company, 1973. Page 271.

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SOCIETAL PURPOSE – BENEFITS – PART I

“Without a vocation, man’s existence would be meaningless.” – Anwar al-Sadat, 1978 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

 

 

We return today to societal purpose, the third tier of purpose in a meaningful life – the first two being internal (for oneself) and proximate (towards others directly). We have already investigated five areas regarding societal purpose – clarification of the purpose of culture for the individual, the nature of purpose at the level of cultural reality, types of roles for consideration, factors in our decision, and success factors. Our next task is an analysis of the benefits of societal purpose.

Now on the face of it, the benefits of one’s particular purpose at the level of community or humanity appears to be instantiated in that specific selection, but in reality, all societal purposes involve at least the potential of four orders of benefit: subsistence of self and dependents, self-fulfillment, value to others, and legacy. In other words, although the arena of cultural purpose is society, its rewards are multidimensional.

For most of us, our chosen occupation, profession, or mission originates as the primary means of sustenance. In the absence of inherited wealth, our first social purpose functions, at a minimum, to meet our needs for food, clothing, shelter, and other basic requirements for survival  – typically in the form of a paycheck or reliable source of income.  The practical philosopher should not ignore this motivation underlying social roles nor its place in a properly functioning society. Two comments worth noting here: financial compensation alone is a poor criterion for the type of work we choose, and higher salary or profit, when virtuously obtained, serves as a quantifiable, if inexact, measure of the value of one’s exertions for society. This latter point illuminates the lower compensation of the college professor compared to the university football coach.

The second dimension of benefit of a well-chosen social role is its deeper personal rewards (in rough order of depth): identity, control, creativity, virtue, satisfaction, contentment, understanding, and authenticity. Starting with identity, many social purposes serve to define one’s image of oneself in society – for example as teacher, pastor, tradesman, merchant, judge, artist, and so forth. For myself, I know that one of the greatest challenges I face in retiring is the loss of my identity as a physician or healer. It is as if my social role is integral to my very sense of self. In a similar vein, we develop a competence in our work we often lack in other areas of life because of the control and order within our professional sphere and our occupational virtuosity (Lao Tze’s wu-wei) we wish we had in every theatre of existence.

(continued next post)

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CURRENT READING – Fallen Leaves by Will Durant (final continuation)

Aesthetics

After a lifetime of study Durant concludes the only consistent idea of beauty in nature and for humans is the opposite sex. He also admits to a bias in favor of or art prior to the twentieth century. His distaste of modern art is its revolt against beauty where his criticism is severe, “Any art that has no ruling form is the empty vanity of an undisciplined mind “31 He believes “the essence of art, as of beauty, lies not in content or elements but in structure and form.”32 He does however appreciates modern architecture where he agrees with Louis Sullivan that “form must follow function.” As for the place of art versus science in civilization he adds “Art without science is poverty and science without art is barbarity. Let every science strive to fulfill itself in beauty or wisdom, and let us rejoice when a science becomes an art.”33

Science

Durant appears to have a great respect for science and its accomplishments, its commitment to the advancement of human knowledge. However, he has some concerns. As a lay person, he sees scientists, whose specialized knowledge is seemingly inscrutable for most of us, as the new priesthood. We must accept their pronouncements on faith, and like religion in the past, science is used as such by government. He honors their discipline in truth-seeking, but expresses skepticism as to its uses citing the examples of the machines of war and the pollution of industrialization. He argues for the need of wisdom in addition to knowledge.

Education

He distills his theory of education to the following points: (1) “That education is of most worth which opens to the body and the soul, to the citizen and the state, the fullest possibilities of their harmonious life.”34 and (2) Education is the perfection of life – the enrichment of the individual by the heritage of the race.”35 He thus believes that a rounded education should emphasize health, cleanliness, character, and self-discipline – all of which he would teach each of the first 15 years of schooling. He would put more emphasis on human association, especially friendship and on Nature, and athletics. He would focus historical studies on the remarkable cultures and literature of ancient Greece and Rome. He would limit education on art and music to those who show interest, but of course believes everyone needs education on science, history, and philosophy. He would delay specialized training until after college.

History

Durant has written so much on history that I believe only some choice pearls are appropriate here. The reader should consult the book for more details.

“The present is merely the past rolled up and concentrated in this second of time”36

“A wise man can learn from other men’s experience; a fool cannot learn even from his own.”37

“History finds that human nature is essentially the same…”38

“Civilization is a fragile bungalow precariously poised on a live volcano of barbarism”39

Death

While On Death is the fifth of the 22 chapters, thoughts on death are logically the ultimate ones so I end here. What does a man whose life was devoted to the understanding of human existence and civilization think of his own death? I allow him to speak for himself:

“I am quite content with mortality; I should be appalled at the thought of living forever, in whatever paradise. As  I move on into my nineties my ambitions moderate, my zest in life wanes; soon I shall echo Caesar’s Jam satis vixi – ‘I have already lived enough.’ When death comes in due time, after a life fully lived, it is forgivable and good. If in my last gasps I say anything contrary to this bravado, pay no attention to me. We must make room for our children.”40

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31Durant, Will, Fallen Leaves. Simon & Schuster, New York, N.Y., 2014. ISBN 978-1-4767-7155-7, page 129.

32Ibid., page 130.

33Ibid., page 131.

34Ibid., page 139.

35Ibid.

36Ibid., page 157.

37Ibid., page 158.

38Ibid., page 159.

39Ibid., page 161.

40Ibid., page 39.

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