Why Are We Here?

In the recent post on Occam’s Razor, we touched on this topic, instigated by Boz.

There seem to be two types of answers to this question. And I think that is the root of a certain degree of frustration with science.

If you ask a scientist or most atheists why we are here, they will give a more or less detailed description of how we came to be here. If you stop them and say, no, you misunderstand; why are we here? They might say something like “science can’t answer that kind of question” or “that question is strictly meaningless” or “there just is no reason, we just are” or “if we weren’t we wouldn’t be having this conversation”.

Science generally lacks teleology: the idea that there is a purpose to things. Teleology is deeply engrained in our psyche. You could call it a psychological bias. And it seems clear to me that as such, it is going to be wrong in some cases. Some things have no purpose, but that doesn’t stop our minds desperately searching for one. Or feeling deeply dissatistifed if we can’t find one.

Here religion is very good, of course, it provides answers to those questions. Why are we here?: “you were created in the image of God to enjoy relationship with him for eternity.” Simple, beautiful, and (in my opinion) wrong.

I wonder if we as atheists could do a better job of helping people break free of religious dogma if we were more sensitive to these questions. I’m not sure what a great answer would be, but the lack of a good answer I’m pretty sure is a problem.

Religious or not, how would you answer (or reject the premise of) the question “why are we here?”

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Why Are We Here?

  1. to live.

    the question then is: how? in what way?

  2. Calvin asked Hobbes that question once.
    The answer: Tuna Fish.

    Sounds right to me. Wish I could find that strip again.

  3. Anyone who answers the “why” (not “how) is speculating. But that’s OK. Speculations have engendered all religions as well as all sciences. For example, quantum theory, Darwinian theory, string theory.

    One casts about for a theory and then looks to see if it fits the evidence. How well, for example, do the postulates of process theology fit the universe as we know it? Are there obvious contradictions? Are we here because the universal “will to live” has an obvious survival value (a “how” answer), or because a process god has the aim to make novelty and enjoyment increase forever through the involvement of partial self-determinism influenced by the past?

    I wonder if metaphysical theories will ever have the success of physical ones?

  4. oh, and before anyone else gets to it, the answer is “42.”

  5. John Clavin

    On a cosmic level there is no reason for the human race to exist, but from the point of view of any human being, the emotional element of our brain somehow makes life interesting. We are going to find this out soon enough when we start developing artificial sentient beings that may not have any will to live if we don’t get the emotion system working correctly.
    When people ask me “What is the meaning of Life?” I say that the only meaning to life is what you make out of life.
    I think as more people in the world are educated, the less we will see the religion paradigm as the reason for meaning in human existence.

  6. Jakob

    If we weren’t here, we wouldn’t be asking the question. The question presupposes the answer.

    That is either obvious or subtly brilliant!

  7. Ian

    Thanks everyone.

    @Jakob – thanks for commenting and welcome, Jakob. Yes, I think there’s something profound about the anthropic principle too. But it isn’t satisfying to some people. For some people ‘why’ is about a reason for inevitability. And the anthropic principle doesn’t solve that.

    Its the same reason we would find the video below a not very pleasing answer to ‘why do you love me?’:

  8. Jakob

    Thanks for the welcome and for the link. Your post encouraged me to investigate the topic of “is existence a property?” which just made my head hurt, the intelligent humour was welcome relief.

  9. Boz

    wow, I’m famous on the internets! :p

    If a person is very teleological in their thinking, then their answer to any ‘why’ question is always “to fulill the purpose”. why is this rock here? to fulfill its purpose.

    So the answer to “why are we here” is ‘to fulfill the purpose’. easy.

    now, the more difficult question. What method should we use to determine what the purpose is? What method should we use to determine whether a purpose even exists?

    I have no idea. 🙂

  10. Verochiomer

    If something has a reason to exist, it’s a purpose given to it by its creator. Only things that have been created can have a purpose.

    A fence exists for the purpose of keep something in or out. A meal exists for the purpose of sating someone’s hunger.

    Given such a view of purpose, I would suggest the purpose you are here is to fulfil your parents desire to have children.

    Congratulations, you fulfilled your purpose, mearly by the fact that you were born.

  11. Ian

    @verochiomer – Good point, but I’m not sure I totally agree. The purpose of many things is given by their owner, rather than their maker. I have an old iron flat-bed grill. Its purpose was to grill flatbeds. It is now a drain-hole cover. That it its purpose, and will be now until it is recycled as scrap metal. Teleological purpose is about the end to which something is applied, not necessarily its start. I think.

  12. Ian

    *flatbed = flat-bread !?

  13. I’ve stayed away from this post as long as I could, mostly because it’s still a gaping void in my own approach to life. But I’m going to take two stabs here.

    Your flat-bread grill illustration is kind of poignant for the separation between maker and owner. In terms of theology, even if there is a god that made us, it is still up to us (supposedly) free-willing individuals to put a purpose upon being here. We have to put ourselves over the drain-hole, as it were. And the same goes outside theology. I don’t know if atheists could sell the idea of purpose as a temporal and invented psychological phenomenon, but it may be a way to go. It could almost be set as an “authorial intent vs. end-user use” situation, only in the atheist’s case it would be “predictable outcome vs. end-user use” situation. Meh? Still may not solve the teleological part, but may help in framing the issue for those heck-bent on intent.

    I came across this quote, a kind of history of scientific explanations to your quest for meaning and thought it might help:

    The rationalists would say it’s to optimize pleasure via the pursuit of material progress. The Darwinians would say it’s to survive and produce offspring. The embodied experience philosopher, however, would argue that the meaning of life is to enter into relationships with others in order to deeply experience, as much as one can, the reality of existence. The meaning of life is to celebrate it as fully and expansively as possible.

    So it’s simple, really. We’re here to party!

    [Personally, I think the problem itself shows that the reason we are here is to share the joke… or at least take the joke as far as we possibly can…]

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