As at the level of society, the choice of cosmic purpose can be one that offers pleasure to the individual or not. The pure mathematician may chose his field of work based on love of it or in respect for his natural aptitude. In his essay, A Mathematician’s Apology, G.H. Hardy combines philosophy, mathematics, and humor into an intriguing mix which applies to everyone:
“A man who sets out to justify his existence and his activities has to distinguish two different questions. The first is whether the work which he does is worth doing; and the second is why he does it, whatever its value may be.”1
He admits the first of these is very difficult to answer, but the second is easier and takes one of two forms. The first is:
“I do what I do because it is the one and only thing that I can do at all well…I am not suggesting that this is a defense which can be made by most people, since most people can do nothing at all well…It is a tiny minority who can do anything really well, and the number of men who can do two things well is negligible. If a man has any genuine talent, he should be ready to make almost any sacrifice in order to cultivate it to the full.”2
Hardy does not deny we should take into account difference in value between different activities, but believes career choice is usually dictated by the limitations on natural abilities. His second answer as to why one chooses a particular line of work is:
“There is nothing that I can do particularly well. I do what I do because it came my way. I never had a chance of doing anything else.”3
Hardy does not feel anyone should be content with this reply, though he does not offer an alternative for those so disposed. However it seems to me this particular feeling should be countered with further soul-searching for one’s authentic calling. Hardy does come back to the question of whether mathematics is work worth doing noting:
“What we do may be small, but it has a certain character of permanence; and to have produced anything of the slightest permanent interest, whether it be a copy of verses or a geometrical theorem, is to have done something utterly beyond the power of the majority of men.”4
This then is the beauty of science and mathematics and perhaps all cosmic purpose: a lasting if incremental legacy.
Last as with societal purpose, desirability is a key criterion, although unlike societal purpose, one tends to choose cosmic purpose specifically because its desirability overrides the alternative of a more customary societal role. In other words we cannot imagine a person choosing a cosmic purpose which is unsavory (as we saw with the development of nuclear weapons); cosmic purposes seem to be intrinsically desirable.
1Hardy, G.H., A Mathematician’s Apology, in Great Books of the Western World – Volume 56: Natural Science. Encylcopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1992. ISBN: 0-85229-531-6, page 364.
3Ibid., page 365.
4Ibid., page 366.