From the Mouths of Babes
In the wake of COVID-19, many of us have taken up new projects and hobbies. My niece, who is 12 and wise beyond her years, is no different.
She recently began a weekly newsletter which she sends to family members and friends. Part of me (as do parents, I imagine) still sees her as the tiny little thing: spunky and adorable. And while I guess she remains spunky, she is neither tiny nor adorable in the sense that she’s a young adult. Yuck. She’s also smart, creative, and very bright.
I’ve been as supportive as I can be of her and her new project, offering to help as I can. So, in our most recent email exchange, referencing my undergraduate degree in philosophy, she asked me if I “had any ideas” about a piece she’s thinking about on the “purpose of humanity.”
Let me repeat. She’s 12.
For the biggest thinkers and most learned scholars, this is no small matter. No simple undertaking.
As long as people have had language (and maybe before) we have all asked the question over and over and over again. What’s the meaning of life? Or, put more bluntly; what’s the point?
Humanity’s Purpose: Biological
If we strip away all the social, emotional, theologic, and philosophic contexts, the answer is distilled down to its most basic.
Human beings, not unlike all creatures in the animal kingdom, are creatures of biology and our purpose is to ensure the perpetuation of the species and our genetic material from parent to child. We are born. We procreate (or not). We die. Anything else from this perspective is poppycock and unnecessary exposition.
Arguably there are few among us, except for the most simple and most jaded, who would subscribe to this notion. Or, at least subscribe to it exclusively. We are in so many ways distinguished from the rest of the animal kingdom that to cast our existence solely in this light is to come up short. To leave out so much that makes humanity… human.
Humanity’s Purpose: Theological
Every major religion in the world, when boiled down to its essence, would say this; humanity’s purpose is to obey the word of God. To do his work on Earth and to aim for “righteousness” in this life so to attain blessings in the next, eternal life.
Of course, the problem here is that every religion, major or otherwise, every sect and offshoot claims the moral superiority in interpreting the “word of God” and who is destined for blessings, or condemnation, in the next life.
Since nearly the dawn of modern man, religions and their various adherents have been the source of the greatest amount of and most violent strife. Numerous wars have been fought and countless lives have been lost between religions all claiming “their” God is the only righteous God. They are holy followers of “the one” and everyone else is a heathen.
Not being particularly religious myself, I find it difficult to accept that the theological purpose is the one we should elevate. It is often based on a lack of evidence, but rather faith. As beings of comparatively high intelligence, I cannot accept that life based on faith is our highest purpose, whether there is actually a God or not.
Humanity’s Purpose: Social
Beginning to think about how to answer my niece’s question, I employed a quick Google search of the question. Obviously, something she could do herself, but I often find that by simply browsing search results I can help focus my thinking before putting fingers to keyboard.
So I did; “what is humanity’s purpose?”
While the results were as mixed and unhelpful as you might expect, I did quickly find one gem. A brief interview from 2014 with one E.O. Wilson (who I’d never heard of) on the release of his new book, “The Meaning of Human Existence.” I didn’t read it in advance of this writing, but I have added it to my ever-expanding reading list.
It’s a cute, six-minute interview and worth watching. Of course Wilson does not answer the question there.
Having not read his book yet myself, I cannot summarize it. Though an article in the New York Times, from around the same time, appears to attempt it:
“We are all genetic chimeras, at once saints and sinners, champions of the truth and hypocrites — not because humanity has failed to reach some foreordained religious or ideological ideal, but because of the way our species originated across millions of years of biological evolution.”
Take it for what it’s worth. You might think, given the quote, this should be added to the “biological” section. Except I would argue that concepts like “saints” and “sinners,” “truth” and “hypocrisy” are social concepts all built by human society over our comparatively short history to help describe our interactions with one another.
Or, as a philosophy student, maybe it should be put like this: humans are intelligent animals with base instincts trying to succeed, but humanity is a social collective built to advance the species.
…Maybe this approach remains incomplete. What’s next?
Humanity’s Purpose: Moral & Intellectual
Ultimately, it is our capacity for exploration, technological advancement, and a sense of morality and ethics that distinguish us from the horde of beasts.
Of course, avarice does get in the way and complicate things. I believe every problem our world is currently facing is an unfortunate consequence of the avarice of a relative few. And those relative few, in order to maintain their power and wealth do what they can to pit the rest of us against one another.
This, sadly, has always been the case. And sadly it will continue to be so until the rest of us can set aside our own petty avarice. Our own prejudices and our own fears.
When we work together, we can accomplish great things.
We have been to the moon. We have sent man-made objects beyond our solar system (ok, just one, but still). We have split the atom. And we have transformed our world in unimaginable ways.
We are built to care for one another beyond our immediate family units. We are built to search and explore and learn. We have crossed the oceans and explore its depths. We have taken to the skies and extended our reach beyond the thin shell of our world. We’ve eradicated deadly diseases and battled devastating hunger.
Despite my cranky exterior I am, at my core, an optimist. Collectively, humanity has accomplished great things. When we set aside our individual avarice for the greater good, I believe there is no end to what we as a species can achieve.
And this, in my opinion, is our ultimate purpose.