Monday, March 17, 2008

Existence Denotes Purpose

Perhaps it’s the end of the Lenten Season that has caused me to reflect back on an idea that I originally developed when I was an undergraduate. The idea that “existence denotes purpose,” now seems so self-evident to me, that it’s hard to trace the logic of the argument and why I believe this is an important, fundamental idea. I realize this is a self-indulgent post with little interest to most people, but, nevertheless, I think I will indulge myself.

To understand my argument, one must accept two premises. The first premise is sometimes called the "butterfly effect." The butterfly effect is an effort to put chaos theory into a narrative rather than a mathematical framework. Essentially, the idea is that every phenomenon (in a physical sense), no matter how small, causes another phenomenon, and that causes another, and so on and so forth.
This is important because, if we apply this idea (first applied to weather predictions) to human interactions, then every one of our actions influences others, which then causes them to act in ways that affect others, and so forth.

The second premise is that humans are bombarded with a near infinite number of stimuli every day. As infants, we have to learn to ignore most of these stimuli. Those children who fail to develop the ability to deal with the near infinite amount of impulses experienced by humans every day develop serious problems like ADHD, obsessive compulsive disorder, tourettes, as well as other problems.

Putting these two ideas together, any stimulus changes us, even if infinitesimally. These changes are cumulative. Since we've trained ourselves to ignore most stimuli, these impulses go largely ignored by us. This doesn't mean that they are insignificant. For a very simple example: a king is walking in his garden when a rather annoying fly starts buzzing around his head. He can choose to ignore it, or he can choose to swat at it. If he chooses to smack at it, his peripheral vision is blocked, so he doesn't see the assassin. Two elements in this story are important. First, small stimuli may have significant consequences. Secondly, the actors in the story have free will to act or not to act.

Everyday, we are influenced by countless individuals. Even if we pass somebody on the interstate at a relative speed of 140 mph, if we sense that individual, they have, according to the butterfly effect, influenced us. Likewise, we influence countless individuals every day.

Therefore, to understand our lives, envision a long tunnel. Starting at the mouth of the tunnel is a straw. The straw is your life. As the straw, your life, moves down the center of the tunnel, a near infinite number of straws (other people's lives) and threads (stimuli) intersect your straw. From a different perspective, your straw, your life, intersects and influences countless other people's lives.

I must now introduce a third premise. One of the hallmarks of western civilization was the belief that humans were progressing inevitably towards perfection. Christians reflected this notion in religious terms. The idea was that our souls were progressing towards the infinite good found in God. The philosophes of the Enlightenment expressed the same idea in philosophical terms; seeking Natural Laws to ensure this progress. Even the Social Darwinists believed (in their own twisted way) that humans (at least those who were fit to survive) would progress, inevitably, toward perfection. Catastrophically, this core idea of western civilization was annihilated by the horrors of the trenches of the First World War and the unimaginable nightmare of the Holocaust or the Shoah of the Second World War.

I believe we need to regain this lost notion of perfectibility. As I mentioned in a previous post, “`Europe’ is Dead,” the West has lost faith in all absolute ideas whether religious, philosophical, or political. As I’ve demonstrated here, the belief in progress towards perfection in the past was expressed in religious, philosophical, and, even, if rather dubiously, scientific terms. Therefore, an idea like progress toward perfection could be acceptable to a host of individuals, even if for different reasons. Further, this idea, in no small matter, would be a hopeful and inclusive one.

If we are progressing inevitably towards perfection, then it would seem that our lives are governed by fate. However, free will exists in this system. First, because we have to choose which stimuli to ignore and which to pay attention to, this choice is a first element of free will. Secondly, as we move down the tunnel, we have to have some way to make a decision among so many choices from the competing stimuli. There has to be some outside source of information to provide guidance. We feel this guidance when we feel "comfortable" about our choices. As long as we maintain a comfort level, we travel through the center of the tunnel, avoiding countless paths that keep us from the goal. But, ultimately, we can choose to feel comfortable or not, and we see people every day freely choosing to be uncomfortable. Thus, we have free will to choose to progress towards perfection or not.

If we accept a premise that was at the center of Western thought for centuries, the tunnel analogy becomes more clearly a journey towards perfection. While we can never achieve perfection, we can make progress. Our purpose in life becomes clear -- we exist to help others on the journey. All the lives we influence ultimately become part of the quest of the entire community to achieve our unrealizable goal. Thus, existence denotes purpose.

No comments: