Does life have a purpose? That’s the central question of existence, right?

During our exploration of the Intelligence Squared debate on the proposition that science refutes God, we’ve taken a long look at Lawrence Krauss’ summation of Team Atheist’s position which he wrapped up this way:

… human beings are also inevitably programmed to ask, “Why?” as we’ve heard it.  But the “Why?” question is ill-posed, because it presumes purpose … And science tells us there’s no evidence of purpose.

Krauss’ purposeless existence, like many human constructs, only works if one does not think about it too deeply or ask the sort of questions that humans tend to ask, but cows—in their infinite wisdom—never do. Ultimately, he proffers the idea that we create meaning with the full knowledge that it is imaginary.

In what way is an imaginary purpose or meaning better than none at all? Krauss does not answer this question, nor does he explain what it means to say that, through a random and purposeless evolution (that somehow exists within a deterministic universe), this one life form—humanity—is programmed to do anything, much less recognize its own programming.

These are areas into which Krauss doesn’t extend his questions, nor does he consider the ramifications of possible answers. Some of these are areas of critical importance to daily existence. It’s fine to debate purpose versus determinism where it relates to the substrate of physical laws, but that’s just mental doodling if it has no beneficial impact on human existence.

The logical extension of Krauss’ debate points is that worrying about a beneficial impact on human existence creates false purpose in a fabricated reality.

This reminds me of an odd form of environmentalism that views humankind as a pernicious interloper superimposed on Nature from the outside. Krauss, though, does not argue that man is unnatural as much as that he is irrelevant. His science is a standalone reality that conforms to its own definition of physical laws, yet has the power to answer all questions humans might ask. Of course, why any part of a deterministic universe should ask any questions at all is puzzling, and atheists usually ignore that question.

Most crucially, his atheist answers fail to yield practical consequences for my life, or any other. If we all believe life to be without purpose, and human beings to be marginally smarter animals, in what way does that make our lives more livable, valued, happier, fulfilling or productive?

I would ask Krauss for two things:

  1. Evidence to support his various contentions about the universe, including that science refutes God and says definitively that there is no evidence of (or need for) purpose.
  2. An illustration of how his philosophy of reality informs, benefits, or transforms lives, individually or in the aggregate.

In response to Krauss’ philosophy, physicist Ian Hutchinson—arguing against the motion that science refutes God—offered a perspective I wish he’d enlarged upon:

Claiming more for science than is warranted by its competence does not promote science; it damages it. Talking as if science is all the real knowledge there is, that—as this scientistic motion does—alienates from science people who know better than to accept such an unjustified metaphysical extrapolation. It alienates intellectuals, particularly from other nonscientific disciplines, and so gives rise to the culture wars that have roiled the academy for the last few decades. And it alienates nonintellectuals whose opinions are more intuitive and practical but who know that their life is more than some reductionistic description in terms of atoms and molecules.

I agree. I think scientism—as a dogmatic, reductionist outgrowth of science—is as damaging to real science as religious dogmatism is to real religion. What do I mean by “real religion?” Abdu’l-Baha offers this definition in a talk he gave at the Temple Emmanu-El in San Francisco in 1912:

… when we speak of religion, we mean the essential foundation or reality of religion, not the dogmas and blind imitations which have gradually encrusted it and which are the cause of the decline and effacement of a nation. These are inevitably destructive and a menace and hindrance to a nation’s life … – The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 363.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

10 Comments

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  • Susan Jeffers
    Mar 19, 2017
    It's a waste of time refuting the existence of God. Worse case there isn't a God. It's not like you die and say, bummer, because that implies you have consciousness. Best case is you pursue your journey further towards the light, drawing closer to the divine. Baha'u'llah tells us "My love is my stronghold. He that enterith therein shall be safe and secure and he that turneth away shall surely stray and perish. " An atheist who purposefully indoctrinates philosophies opposing belief of God to his pupils may indeed make his perception realized...especially in light of this hidden word. ...Being trapped in a dimension, Knowing you had will to choose the Light, and didn't, leaving you unresponsive yet still aware, is not this the def of hell?
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  • Brian Asklund
    Mar 18, 2017
    Strawman Atheists Say Life Has No Purpose
    There. Fixed it for you.
  • Melanie Black
    Mar 17, 2017
    I may be splitting hairs, but I had to chuckle at Dr. Strauss' illogical views on the meaning of "purpose". If he had no purpose to his life, he would never have chosen to study physics and get an advanced degree. In fact, he would stay in bed everyday. If there's no purpose to life, why bother getting up at all. Why bother eating, going to the doctor when you are ill? When one thinks about it, even the most inveterate atheist has some kind of purpose to life. Nearly every single human being does. Then there are those who ...commit suicide whether they are a believer or not. In their despair they lost their purpose. Thank you.
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  • Nasser Rohani
    Mar 17, 2017
    I believe it is fair to say that most of us are confused about the purpose of life. But that does not negate the fact there are ample evidence that there are a lot mysterious 'things' in the universe that point to a 'purpose' - what purpose? We don't know. Or we don't fully comprehend. There are reference as to those reasons in the Baha'i writings. We do not, and Baha'u'llah attests that we CANNOT, fully embrace them. Too stupendous to comprehend.
  • Matt Woodling
    Mar 17, 2017
    The author asks: "In what way is an imaginary purpose or meaning better than none at all?"
    Why not ask: "In what way is an apparently imaginary god's purpose or meaning better than purpose created by people?"
    • Matt Woodling
      Mar 17, 2017
      It doesn't matter that Baha'i's God gives purpose if people have to imagine and pray the god into existence. Just cut out the middleman.
  • Hooshang Afshar
    Mar 17, 2017
    What is the purpose of life? I don't think there is a definitive answer. Though the Baha'i writings state the purpose of the Creation is to know and adore God the Creator.
  • Mar 16, 2017
    It is true that science does not tell us that there is evidence of purpose, but "science tells us there’s no evidence of purpose" does not follow logically or scientifically, regardless of one's beliefs about anything else. I am surprised that scientists would accept this kind of reasoning.
  • Mar 16, 2017
    really! not all atheists say it. i didnt. even now, i really love the Bahai Teachings and as to theism, i am in between - not mixing it up with being confused!!
    • Nasser Rohani
      Mar 17, 2017
      I believe it is fair to say that most of us are confused about the purpose of life. But that does not negate the fact there are ample evidence that there are a lot mysterious 'things' in the universe that point to a 'purpose' - what purpose? We don't know. Or we don't fully comprehend. There are reference as to those reasons in the Baha'i writings. We do not, and Baha'u'llah attests that we CANNOT, fully embrace them. Too stupendous to comprehend.