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Do you remember when you first framed that universal human question, the one we all eventually ask: “Why am I here?”
I do: it happened one warm summer night in my sixth year of life, as I lay in the grass and stared up at the night sky.
Suddenly, without warning, the mystery of human existence opened up inside my six-year-old mind that summer, and I began questioning its ultimate purpose. All of us do. We each, at various points in our lives, want to know the answer to the primary human question.
That “why am I here?” question has many forms: “What will I be when I grow up?” “What’s the meaning of life?” “What is my purpose in this existence – if I have one?” “What can I personally contribute to the world?” “What happens to me after I die?”
These important questions essentially ask the same basic thing: Why do I exist?
No scientific answer to that question has ever emerged, or likely ever will, because science has a defined sphere of influence, a limited scope. Science helps us describe the world, and then we have to decide, with a higher code of ethics, morals and spiritual guidance, how to use that knowledge. Science confines itself, by definition, to systemized knowledge regarding the physical world. Because of those limits, scientific understandings can only take us so far:
Moral judgments, aesthetic judgments, decisions about applications of science, and conclusions about the supernatural are outside the realm of science, but that doesn’t mean that these realms are unimportant. In fact, domains such as ethics, aesthetics, and religion fundamentally influence human societies and how those societies interact with science. Neither are such domains unscholarly. In fact, topics like aesthetics, morality, and theology are actively studied by philosophers, historians, and other scholars. However, questions that arise within these domains generally cannot be resolved by science. – Understanding Science: How Science Really Works.
Only the most strict materialists believe that science can answer every human question. Matter and motion, the materialists say, constitute reality. Those who base their philosophy of life on those terms believe that perception defines what’s real – which means that everything else, then, must be false.
That, of course, isn’t science speaking – it’s a philosophical postulate, not the result of scientific reasoning. Because science restricts itself, by definition, to the material dimensions of existence, its conclusions will inevitably be material in nature – which makes it a fallacy to believe that the material world comprises everything that exists, and that humans can only perceive what our outer senses comprehend. Instead, as the Baha’i teachings point out, human beings inevitably want to perceive more deeply, to go beyond the senses and transcend the material world:
… man is endowed with a power of discovery that distinguishes him from the animal, and this power is none but the human spirit. …
Man ever aspires to greater heights and loftier goals. He ever seeks to attain a world surpassing that which he inhabits, and to ascend to a degree above that which he occupies. This love of transcendence is one of the hallmarks of man. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised version, p. 217.
Most people want answers about the purpose and meaning of life – that’s the crux of the “Why am I here?” question. Materialists may claim that no such answer exists, that anything beyond the physical is a fantasy, that all meaning reduces to mere mass and motion. But that’s a highly unsatisfying and even grim philosophy. Few people want to live with such an outlook on life – instead, we crave a deep inner life filled with love, beauty and meaning. The Baha’i teachings point out the path to that inner life, through the spiritual development of the human soul:
The soul is eternal, immortal.
Materialists say, “Where is the soul? What is it? We cannot see it, neither can we touch it.”
This is how we must answer them: However much the mineral may progress, it cannot comprehend the vegetable world. Now, that lack of comprehension does not prove the non-existence of the plant!
To however great a degree the plant may have evolved, it is unable to understand the animal world; this ignorance is no proof that the animal does not exist!
The animal, be he never so highly developed, cannot imagine the intelligence of man, neither can he realize the nature of his soul. But, again, this does not prove that man is without intellect, or without soul. It only demonstrates this, that one form of existence is incapable of comprehending a form superior to itself.
This flower may be unconscious of such a being as man, but the fact of its ignorance does not prevent the existence of humanity.
In the same way, if materialists do not believe in the existence of the soul, their unbelief does not prove that there is no such realm as the world of spirit. The very existence of man’s intelligence proves his immortality; moreover, darkness proves the presence of light, for without light there would be no shadow. Poverty proves the existence of riches, for, without riches, how could we measure poverty? Ignorance proves that knowledge exists, for without knowledge how could there be ignorance?
Therefore the idea of mortality presupposes the existence of immortality — for if there were no Life Eternal, there would be no way of measuring the life of this world! – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 92.
So why am I here? The Baha’i teachings answer:
… since [the human soul] is a sign of God, once it has come into being it is everlasting. The human spirit has a beginning but no end: It endures forever. … immortal, enduring and everlasting. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised version, p. 273.
Man – the true man – is soul, not body; though physically man belongs to the animal kingdom, yet his soul lifts him above the rest of creation. …
By the power of the Holy Spirit, working through his soul, man is able to perceive the Divine reality of things. All great works of art and science are witnesses to this power of the Spirit.
The same Spirit gives Eternal Life. …
Our greatest efforts must be directed towards detachment from the things of the world; we must strive to become more spiritual, more luminous, to follow the counsel of the Divine Teaching, to serve the cause of unity and true equality, to be merciful, to reflect the love of the Highest on all men, so that the light of the Spirit shall be apparent in all our deeds, to the end that all humanity shall be united, the stormy sea thereof calmed, and all rough waves disappear from off the surface of life’s ocean henceforth unruffled and peaceful. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 84-87.