Universal Ethics > Research > Purpose of Life

Purpose of Life

Often people feel like they need some purpose to their life. Otherwise a person may feel like he (or she) is drifting aimlessly. Or perhaps he (or she) bounces from one desire to another, like a ball hitting bumpers in a pin-ball game. A person may have a greater sense of satisfaction if there was some purpose.

For as long as people have existed, there have been attempts among philosophers to define a "purpose" as a single sentence, so that it serves as a simple goal that is easy to understand. They often fail to reach agreement on it, however, because people tend to have different opinions of what is most important. Nevertheless, there may be an approximate solution, as this story illustrates:

Many years ago, when I was attending high school, one of my teachers asked the students what they thought was the purpose of life.

One student said that the purpose was to find true love. The teacher, on the other hand, thought that the purpose of life was to get respect. I also expressed my opinion. At the time I believed that life's goal was to learn the truth (to gain knowledge).

At about that point, another student piped up and said that the purpose of life was to be happy. There was a moment of silence because, oddly enough, no-one had thought of that. Then someone asked him how he had come to that conclusion.

"Well," he said to the student who sought true love, "if you find love you'll be happy, won't you?"

To this, the answer was yes.

Then to the teacher he said, "And if you get your respect, you'll be happy won't you?"

Again yes.

And to me, he said, "And if you get your truth, you'll be happy?"

"Of course."

"So," he concluded, "there you go."

This simple story illustrates a very important point. Each person was seeking happiness from some source outside themselves, while in fact their motivation was internal (i.e.: they wanted the thing they sought). And what each person most needed in order to satisfy their motivations differed from person to person.

Although people may state different purposes, ultimately their purpose comes from within. There are basic human motivations, some better fulfilled in some people than in others, and this gives rise to different manifest desires.

So, it would seem that "the pursuit of happiness" would serve as a simple goal. And, inasmuch as people can achieve happiness most effecticely via cooperation (to benefit from synergy), it seems to work well as a goal for a society collectively. Modern rules of ethics are often based on that premise.

Although this seems like a simple solution, in actual fact happiness is a complex thing. So, before adopting it as a goal, it would be useful to understand what it is, and how the desire for happiness has come to exist in people.

A simple model of the mind

Despite the advances of modern science, the human mind is still only partially understood. We see our mind at the "macro" level, as it is revealed to our consciousness, and as we observe its operation in other people.

As a crude means of understanding any system, we can break it down into a block diagram (divide it into functions). This is true of the mind, just as it is true of computer programs.

Incidentally, computers do make a good analogy to the human mind, even though there are some significant differences. The mind is to the brain what software is to hardware. Neither the mind nor software are tangible. They are not physical objects. Software cannot be touched, although it can be represented in various ways (as printed instructions, as punched cards, as magnetized oxide on a disk, as electric states in semiconductor memory, etc.).

One significant difference between the brain and a computer is that the brain is not designed to load software, but runs only one program (the mind). Also the mind has the capability to learn, while most software is designed with little or no learning ability.

If something learns, that means it changes its behaviour as a result of exposure to its environment.

Because the environment is unpredictable, the behaviour of a learning being is also somewhat unpredictable. That is one reason why we machines are typically designed with little or no learning ability--we want machines that are reliable, that do what we want them to. If machines did what they wanted to do, they wouldn't be useful servants.

I have used the verb want on purpose here, because wants (motivations) are closely associated with learning. If there are no motivations, there is no learning either. Let me explain why...

Computer programming has been one of my professions, and I once tried to write a program that learned. It was designed to play a simple game, and within limited parameters it would improve with each subsequent game that it played. This undertaking made it very clear that there needs to be some means of guiding the machine so that it knows what to do with its experiences.

Human beings can adopt a wide variety of behaviours, but nevertheless there must be some mechanism that governs the behaviors they adopt. If a person were to adopt behaviors that didn't involve eating, for example, the body wouldn't survive very long. So if the human mind were divided into two functions, one must set the goals that govern the learning process. I use the term motivations for these goals. The learning process involves observation and trying various activities within the environment, and then judging the outcome according to the motivations. Activities that satisfy the motivational criteria become learned behavior.

So as a crude overview of the functions of the human mind, we might use this diagram:


Motivation This is "what a person wants to do" (their inherent desires).
Learning Learning is a process by which the person's mind forms an internal model of himself and his environment. Learning relies on observation, and thus it requires a body that can gather information by sight, sound, touch, etc. Construction of mental models also involves analysis (of cause/effect relationships, etc.).
Imagination Imagination is a process by which a person's mind forms an internal model of possible scenarios. This is related to motivation and learning, because the individual not only models images of the scenario, but also imagines how he will feel.
Reason This is the process by which the mind uses learned information and imagined outcomes to determine the actions that will satisfy desires.
Action This is the process in which the mind actuates the body (moves, walks, talks...)

Please don't ask what sections of the brain are devoted to these functions. It doesn't work that way!

Consider what the brain consists of: billions of tiny neurons firing! Someone once told me that they couldn't conceive how this could possibly account for the human mind. Would it help if I responded that their favorite computer program (say, a spreadsheet or word processor) consisted of nothing more than millions of tiny switches going on and off? No doubt they wouldn't understand that either, unless they had studied Computer Science.

The difficulty people face is that they can't associate the forest with the trees. For someone who knew nothing about computers, they might expect to find a "word processing" section in the circuitry, or a "spreadsheet," or other sections devoted to functions they observe the machine doing. But no such sections exist in hardware. Rather there are millions of microscopic electronic switches organized into groups as adders, comparitors, and other very primitive building blocks.

Similarly, you should not expect to find an "imagination" section of the brain, nor a "motivation" section, nor any of the other categories I have listed. However, the result of the brain's operation nevertheless gives rise to these attributes.

Now in case you are wondering "so what's the point?", here it is: Your motivations are built-in. You were born with them. They are not learned, but rather they guide learning.

In the classroom story I presented earlier, I pointed out that each person has different goals. But that is not quite the same as having different motivations. Motivations are things that underlie goals: things like hunger, and sleepiness, and pain, and curiousity, and kindness (and many others too numerous to list).

If people have different goals, it is usually because they differ in how well their various motivations are satisfied. When motivations go unfulfilled this causes the mind's attention to be drawn to them, so that goals are formed around those things. Thus, it is easy to assign a "purpose of life" as being love, or truth, or respect, or other things (and the focus differs from one person to another). But beneath it all, they are all responding to motivations that are remarkably similar.

Happiness is merely the aggregate satisfaction of motivations over a long period of time. Happiness is not a single joy, but the sum of all joys. So, it is easy to summarize the motivation fulfilment process by calling it "the pursuit of happiness."

The components of Happiness

If happiness is built on motivations, and motivations are necessary in any living animal, how did those motivations come to exist? We see over the history of the world, via the fossil record, that many different kinds of animals have existing, with increasing complexity over time. Many of these animals have some degree of learning ability and associated motivations.

At the outset I spoke of the "purpose of life," but mostly we were thinking about ourselves, people. However, there are some motivations that every learning-capable animal must have. Other animals are not entirely autonomic machines, but rely on some degree of learning to explore their environment, find food, select a mate, etc. People will have some of the same basic motivational structures that are present in simpler animals.

As an example of that, consider the avoidance of pain. As a learning creature, one might gradually gain knowledge of what things might be risky or harmful. Once that knowledge is obtained, a desire to live would be sufficient in order to avoid those things, and the motive of "avoiding pain" would not actually be necessary. But consider the early stages when learning is occuring, in a baby or toddler who discovers by seeing, touching, and putting things in his mouth. Warning signals from the body in the form of pain, unpleasant tastes and smells, etc., are part of a motivational system that rings "alarm bells" in the mind, help the baby survive and learn to differentiate between what is harmful and what is safe.

Both simple and complex learning animals will have basic motives to avoid pain, seek comfort, find food, and when mature enough to reproduce, to find a mate. In more complex animals, capabilities also extend into abilities to communicate and cooperate, and to pass on knowledge from one generation to the next. On earth, this ability is most advanced among humans. It is the ability to gain and disseminate knowledge which most differentiates humans from simpler animals, and hence "knowledge" is often thought of as a primary purpose of human life. But really it is not the whole purpose; it is, however, a major part of it.

A lot more can be said about the components of happiness, and to pursue that further you can open the happiness information on this web site.

As part of the evolution of happiness, motives develop not only to support learning, but also to support group solidarity. To put it another way, there is an evolutionary advantage to cooperation-capable animals who develop empathy of one to another. This emergence of altruism is described in the research section of this web site, and the advantage of altruistic ("peacemaker") motivation is tested within the NewWorld computer simulation.

To reach one's full potential as a person, it is necessary not just to seek happiness for one's self in ignorance of how one's behavior affects others, but to seek mutual happiness. This becomes very evident from the above simulation and other evidence on this web site. So that is recommended as a worthwhile purpose of human life.

To make that happen, it is necessary to expand one's thinking, so that it is not constrained by limited space or time. Earlier I mentioned a concern of being "bounced from satisfying one desire to another, like a ball in a pin-ball machine." That won't happen to a person if the person develops time-independant judgement. If an action produces pleasure now and misery later, those effects will both be weighed and the person will choose a course of action without regret. Likewise if an action produces some benefit for one's self but harm for someone else, the person will realize that this is counterproductive to his own happiness as an advanced cooperation-compatible being.

This works if the person understands the whole package of his motivational system, and of how to achieve his full potential in a synergistic way with other people. It is fulfilling the full package that produces happiness for a person, that is implicity the purpose of his life. Moreover, in order to feel like his life has some direction, a person can use a step-by-step planning method, whereby he identifies his interests and talents, and plans for the best way that he can contribute to a satisfying life and a better world. One way to do that is via the Pathways Planning method. which is based on well-established techniques of effective planning.

Alternate paths to the same conclusion

The preceeding explantion assumes the inevitable emergence of intelligent life as part of a natural process. On earth, it would appear from the fossil record that this life has gradually developed over millions of years, and at last we are at a stage where intelligent life exists.

There is an alternate hypothesis for the origin of earth life, which proposes that there was intellegence behind the creation of life. For discussion purposes, we might call that intelligence "god," without regard of whether "god" is one person or multiple people. There are various religions that offer explanations of god, but typically they assert that god created people with the intent that they should be happy (rather than creating them humans a cruel trick!). In that case, the pursuit of mutual happiness is still a satisfactory goal, both to the people here and to god. For a further explanation, click here.

Yet another approach to define a purpose is to ask "why" repeatedly in order to find a root cause behind any given decision. However, this approach seems fruitless because for any cause there is typically a prior cause and a prior cause before that, continuing back indefinately. It could be used to trace a decision to a root motive, but because motives are components of happiness, we are back to selecting happiness as the goal.

More yet: Potential problems with Happiness as a goal

One objection to happiness as a goal defines happiness as self-centred "hedonism," in which one person creates their own happiness without regard to whether their behavior causes misery to others, or even if it has future consequences that they would regret. However, in actual fact, that kind of behavior is not optimal for happiness because it is the nature of people to care about each other and about the future. This is further explained in the happiness section of this web site, which covers cooperation-compatible happiness, and how to avoid invoking anomalies in the motivational system that produce counterproductive motives. The recommended goal is mutual happiness, or, as I state it in the main slogan of Universal Ethics: "Spread Happiness!"

Lastly, there has been some concern among people about the idea of having the motives for happiness "built in" as an inevitable part of the motivational system of a learning, cooperation-capable animal. The concept here is that if the mind of a person can be understood as a kind of thinking system, that means that the person is no different from an atomoton, that doesn't learn and has no freedom to choose. That is a misconception described in this brief article on destiny (click here). The point is that the actual source of your decision is you, not some external force. You cannot avoid making decisions, because that is your nature, so you might as well make decisions that will bring happiness to you and your world.

Do you have any comments on this topic? If so, click below.

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