A hackneyed profundity: we are conscious of our own existence. But despite distinguishing “self” from the environment, human beings are ultimately indistinct from the Earth. Life–human life–is part of the natural condition of the planet. Humans are no less part of the Earth than any other constituent of the ecosphere. In our consciousness of the Earth, the Earth is conscious of itself.
With consciousness such as ours comes a natural existential self-interrogation. We turn our minds inward and wonder why we–the Earth, life, humanity–exist. Wondering why we exist begets two answers: one physiochemical and one teleological. The physiochemical answer gives the reason for our existence, whereas the teleological answer is a matter of purpose.
Our relationship with the Sun is a special one. Each day, the very idea of which presupposes the Sun, we are reminded of the physiochemical answer to our existential question. Without the Sun, life on Earth–complex consciousness, the Earth itself–would not exist as it does. The Sun is an immediate and tangible answer to the existential question. But only half. While the Sun enables life, it does not give us purpose.
Purpose is something humans conceive because we recognize function in the natural world. While we often conflate the two, function is not purpose. Purpose is a narrative we create to give a sense of meaning and direction to our existence. But the history of life is not a procession of purposive events. Life is the result of billions of years of matter-energy interacting stochastically with itself.
Our contingency is not cause to abandon ambition, recluse from society, or resign to nihilism. While we are contingent beings, we are also teleological beings. We should be content to see that our purpose is just to be the kinds of creatures who are concerned with purpose at all. Other animals need no sense of purpose. Teleology is uniquely human.
We should observe the idea of purpose from a mindful distance. Purpose should be viewed from high above and from all temporal perspectives so that we see and appreciate cultural diversity, cultivate tolerance and open-mindedness, and avoid offensive teleological dogmatism.
But to view the idea of purpose from an objective vantage means confronting our contingency. We must be comfortable knowing that human beings have no particular universal purpose–except, perhaps, to co-exist as part of the Earth. But Gaia is not concerned with purpose, nor does the Sun dictate teleology. Only humans conceive of purpose. Though rarely do we value the same purposes. Teleology is pervasively diverse. Only the idea of purpose itself is universal to humanity. However, if we wish to approach the limit of universal human purpose, we should restrain ourselves to the generality that the purpose of being human simply is to be teleological beings.
Almost universally, human nature is to ponder, create, employ, deconstruct, and take pleasure in the idea of purpose. Evolutionary theory would reduce teleology to the physiochemical–to being no more than a fitness advantage–but the phenomenology of purpose is something over and above its neuro-chemical groundwork. The experience of being conscious could be explored and explained for eternity yet never be fully captured–by art or by science. The same holds true for the teleological branch of the existential question. Purpose is a canvass of infinite depth.
The idea of purpose is essential to the human condition. But conceiving of purpose does not change the fact of our physiochemical contingency. While perhaps a contradiction–an absurdity–we must remember to imagine Sisyphus as happy. Our utter contingency is an opportunity–a privilege–to create purpose as individuals and together. Purpose is the foundation of skill, companionship, and community–without all of which, I contend, consciousness would be unbearable. The reason for purpose may be evolutionary, but the purpose of purpose is to make life feel meaningful in the face of contingency. We use ethics to judge what is worth doing and proceed to fill our days with purposive activity while the Sun beams silently upon us. The Sun empowers life, but does not give us purpose. Teleology is a human endeavor.