If you watch any number of nature documentaries – or, perhaps, simply observe the world around you – it becomes readily apparent that we exist in both a nurturing and an incredibly harsh environment. The earth is supportive of our being here (to a point), but is also a notoriously dangerous place. For example, living beings eat and are eaten by each other all the time, often under violent circumstances. The cycle of life is such that each species is impelled to preserve and perpetuate itself, inevitably at the expense of other living things. There is no more dramatic an example of this than with a species known as Homo sapiens (Latin for, believe it or not, “wise man” – but then…who named us?).
If you are among the planet’s bipeds, equipped with a large-ish brain and the ability to ponder the vicissitudes of daily existence, you have probably at some point (if not regularly) asked yourself a question that has confounded even the most brilliant minds of all time:
Why are we here?
Life, on this planet alone, and speaking just to the degree that we hominids have acquired knowledge about it, is incredibly and spectacularly diverse. A stunning array of creatures of all shapes, sizes, and dispositions cohabitates here – all part of a vast, intricate, and ever changing eco-system.
But if every life form that exists does so (at least, in part) in order to sustain those life forms that subsist off of it, while simultaneously trying to avoid becoming food itself, what is the point of any of it? Why is anything here at all? (Including us?)
Before I explore this Big Question any further (and so as not to disappoint the reader any more than absolutely necessary), I must provide a SPOILER ALERT:
I have no idea.
I am also inherently wary of anyone who claims, with absolute and unwavering certainty, to know the Answer.
That said, I don’t believe it best to flat-out ignore the question. Since we are here, it seems to me worth spending some time and energy periodically thinking about why this might be. Even if we never arrive at a completely satisfying, comprehensive, confidence-inducing Answer, keeping the Question alive at the very least keeps us engaged and curious, rather than resigned or mentally checked out.
Perhaps, in the exploration, we might arrive at a philosophy of life that works for us, even if it requires that we revisit and revise it from time to time (which it likely will).
A Reason, or No Reason at All?
First off, we must acknowledge that maybe there is a reason for our being here, but maybe there is not. Maybe we simply happen to be. This, of course, runs counter to our tendency toward self-importance, but it is as legitimate a possibility as any. (The real question, then, is how should this possibility affect – if at all – how we go about living? But more on that in the final section of this post.)
Next, even if there is a preordained reason for our existence, how are we supposed to know exactly what that is?
There are, of course, plenty of people – especially within organizations and institutions that are also interested in self-preservation (if not world dominance – or, at the very least, accruing an insane amount of monetary wealth) – who are more than willing to give you an authoritative Answer to this question.
This, understandably, might provide you with some sense of relief. If you swallow a given Answer whole, you don’t have to think about it anymore, and don’t have to deal with the inherent anxiety that accompanies uncertainty like a pesky younger sibling that won’t stop following you around.
The only problem here is: what if the Answer you are given (and accept) as Truth happens to be wrong, or incomplete? There is, it turns out, much debate and contradiction among many people and institutions (and even within given institutions) who all claim absolute certainty on the matter. What makes any one of them any more credible an authority than any other? People are capable of believing a wide variety of things with intense conviction, even without substantial proof (or even when substantial proof actually falsifies their convictions).
There will always be someone out there more than willing to provide (or “sell”) you an Answer. But only you can determine for yourself whether or not it is a satisfactory one. Does it ring true for you all the time, in light of and in spite of everything you have experienced for yourself?
Despite our advances in technology (and, sometimes, because of them), life is ultimately unpredictable, and much remains a mystery to us. The greater wisdom seems to be not in our claiming to know things, but rather in our having the humility to acknowledge when we do not. And, perhaps even more, to be okay with that.
John Lennon, in his song “Instant Karma”, sang: “Why on earth are we here? Surely not to live in pain and fear.”
I love this lyric, because it doesn’t make any definitive claim. He simply says, in so many words: I have no idea why we are here. But of all possible reasons, it hardly seems likely that the Answer is just to suffer.
The Best Answer I Can Come Up With at Age 43
On a most basic level, it seems to me that we are here (if for no other reason than) to have experiences.
It’s hard to say what the nature of capital “R” Reality is – for instance, what is “real” versus what is a “dream” (our dreams that occur while sleeping often feel just as real to us as does everyday reality, when we are supposedly not).
But, here’s what most of us (believe we) know for sure:
We exist in bodies, in a physical world in which there is continuity (even if, also, constant and rapid change). Our bodies do much of the work of keeping us alive automatically. An incredibly complex system of interconnected subsystems keeps us afloat, unassisted, in any given moment.
We also have instincts, drives, and the capacity to reason – all of which serve to help keep us alive and have still more experiences.
As for our experiences themselves, we take in information about our environment via (up to) five senses. Depending on the functionality of our bodies (which itself is subject to change), we see and/or hear and/or smell and/or touch and/or taste things. These experiences, as well as our internal thoughts and emotions connected to them, appear to be very real, if only to our individual selves. (We tend to believe that we are, in fact, individuals, separate from all other things – which may or may not, ultimately, even be the case…but I digress!)
Life, then, might best be described in a single word: experience. (Presumably, the end of a life means the end of experience, at least for/within that particular form of life.)
Our biological impulses to survive and procreate (so that we, and our progeny, may continue having experience, or “life”) aside, are we here for something more than that? To learn and “grow” from our experiences, for instance? To use them toward some higher purpose(s), aim(s), goal(s), or end(s)? Or just, simply, to have them? The former would seem a more interesting scenario than the latter, but who’s to say?
Comedian and social critic George Carlin, in a commentary on the earth and man’s relationship to it, offered this speculation:
“Could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place: it wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it. Needed us.”
Whether or not Mr. Carlin stumbled onto our Ultimate Purpose, his comment speaks to the fact that we are here under certain conditions and without any regard to how we might feel about them (we age, as just one example). Like other living things, we are “programmed” by our genetics to exist and behave in certain ways, both individually and collectively. And our environment dictates to a large degree what we can and cannot do, as well. There is much debate among philosophers, in fact, as to how much free will human beings even have (if any!) versus what is predetermined, either by genes or by simply a chain of causalities.
Either way, though, with a measure of free will or not, it is hard to deny that what we are doing when we are alive is having experiences.
We cannot say for sure if we are here for a specific reason(s) other than happenstance.
Even if there is a preordained reason for our being here, we may or may not be capable of assessing what that is (or what they are, if there are multiple ones). We collectively have many opinions on the matter, many beliefs, but no certainty.
We cannot say for sure how much control we have, individually or collectively, in shaping our (individual or collective) destinies. We cannot even say for sure whether or not free will exists – and exactly what its limitations might be, if it does. It is possible that we cannot not fulfill our purpose for being here, even if that purpose is never revealed to us or is never fully understood by us.
We cannot even say for sure whether what we perceive to be reality IS reality. What we take to be reality might be a dream, or a simulation of some kind. At the very least, a mere five senses (with limited ranges of each) with which to perceive everything that is going on around us at any given time can probably only ever give us a tiny glimpse of the “whole story”.
About all we can say with anything even approximating certainty is that we are here (wherever and whatever “here” is). And being here – for some grand purpose or not, and with any significant control over our destiny or not – means having experiences.
So, my best answer to the age-old Question is that we are here to have experiences. We know this because we are here, and being here means having experiences.
Anything beyond this, it seems to me, is mere conjecture.
A Philosophy Created Out of Much Uncertainty
An obvious question, then, in consideration of the above is: what can we do with such information/lack of information about why we exist? What is the best way to live our lives amid such uncertainty, if all we know is that being alive means having experiences, with or without any greater point?
A few things, it seems to me:
1) We can increase our mindfulness or “presence” to whatever degree we can. In other words, while we are here having experiences, we can pay close (or closer) attention to them. We can savor them. Really take them in. We can do our best to actually be present to our experience, as opposed to just being lost in our thoughts and obsessing about the past or the future while missing out on what is actually happening in this moment. (Note: this takes practice!) We can pay attention to our experiences and, as much as possible, enjoy them (or, at least, appreciate them).
2) In seeming contradiction to #1 above – but, I would counter, in addition to it – we can make observations about our experiences and reflect on them. We can take actions after careful, measured, thinking that is in accordance with our best reasoning abilities and deeply considered values. We can comprehend that our actions – that all actions, in fact – have consequences, whether or not they are the ones we are hoping for or intending to produce. Through reflection (and practice), maybe we can improve at certain things. We can reflect on our experiences.
3) We can create our own purpose. We can decide, from our perspective (even if ultimately to the indifference of the Universe at Large), what our lives are to be about. For example, we can decide that our lives are about creating things, recognizing/seeking/appreciating beauty, being kind simply for the sake of increasing kindness in the world, etc. We can assign our own meaning to our experiences, and create our own life purpose(s) for ourselves.
4) We can exert the control that we (appear to) have to (attempt to) make the world in which we have our experiences a “better place”. We can make efforts to improve the quality of life for ourselves and others. In fact, one of the best ways to improve our own life experiences is to improve the quality of the experiences of others around us. This is both practically true, in terms of cause and effect (people tend to be friendlier to you when you behave in friendly ways toward them) and true in terms of how it makes us feel to be useful/helpful/of service.
The writer Kurt Vonnegut once asked his son, Mark, what the point of our lives is.
Mark replied to his dad, “We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”
This is as good an answer as any I have heard. Whether or not the Universe has a plan for us (and whether or not it even cares about our fate), helping each other makes for a better experience for all of us while we’re here, in a number of ways.
We are here, now, for whatever reason or lack thereof. So we might as well make the best of it. We might as well make the most of it. We might as well take the best care of ourselves and the best care of each other that we can, while we can. One might even say that these two things are really one and the same.