on purpose, meaning, function

from wikipedia

The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.
So says the Westminster Shorter catechism and so I believe.

I’m reading a recent paper by Stephen Law (an atheist) on ‘the meaning of life'[1], so am thinking about related things; I’ve also just written a short essay on human flourishing in virtue ethics and am quite interested in teleology in general, particular with how it relates to biology. I’ll come back to this later to add to the post if I have more coherent thoughts; this is an organismic kind of thing. Dr Law has been known to comment on NZ blogs before (quite frequently); if you’re reading and have any thoughts, feel free to click the comment button (even if you’re not the philosopher in question!)
We can distinguish between purpose and value. For a life to be truly ‘meaningful’, I suggest that it should instantiate both facets.

Living in a world governed by a good God, the concept of a ‘meaningful’ life is a live hope.

God is the kind of Being who gives coherence to things. As the original Orderer of the world and its minute-by-minute Upholder, His intentions explain the world’s features. His benevolence and wisdom serve to ensure that these features have a particular character, albeit one marred by systemic defects resulting from human and cosmic rebellion in the moral sphere. All this is to say that, given God’s reality as Source and Sustainer, we can expect certain things to line up – that ultimately apparent ‘disconnects’ will be made right or shown to have an important part in the whole scheme. Two things that seem to me like they will line up given God’s existence are our natural end as He purposed and the thing of most value to which we will be attracted (when properly informed and capable; when the moral/aesthetic dimension of our will is not distorted).

In the absence of God, it seems to me, without really looking in to this much yet, that our ‘purpose’ is restricted to the biological one to which Law refers – making babies. I hope to look into his view of life’s meaning soon, but it seems to me unlikely that (even if it’s not just about the babies we can make) a concept of purpose will be able to be derived from biological facts which happens to line up with that which we consider of particular value (beyond the aforementioned children). But on a theistic view, we have whatever purpose God intended for us and because God is benevolent, this is a good purpose, which coincides with a life directed towards something of supreme value. Indeed, there is such a thing as objective value (dubious sans God) and it lines up with our intended end.

Dr Law is quite adamant that God is not necessary to give our lives meaning. In fact, He is said to be quite superfluous to such an end.

The arguments given in support of this seem to me to rely on splitting ‘purpose’ and ‘value’, whereas I would prefer a robust concept of a ‘meaning for human life’ to keep these together.
Below, if I get around to it, I will give a more technical analysis of the problem of linking purpose with value in the absence of a benevolent Purposer. For now I just note that Law seems to skip over the question of whether we really can have a ‘non-biological’ purpose in the absence of design. I’d also like to suggest that we have a chief end, namely God, but also other worthwhile ends (such as family life and pursuing worthwhile projects in general) and that all of these ends in the hierarchy are worthwhile because they are loci of overlap between objective purpose and value; both sourced in God.

[1] Think (2012), 11 : pp 25-38
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2011
DOI: 10.1017/S1477175611000388


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s