Updated: Jun 28
I spent much of the first thirty years of my early life preparing to be a scientist, a social scientist but nonetheless a scientist. I have spent much of the past thirty years questioning the adequacy of the science I was taught—not the validity but the adequacy. Today’s science has worked well in solving problems in the nonliving world of physics and chemistry. It has not worked so well in the living worlds of ecosystems, economies, and societies, where today’s biggest problems arise. In the living world, why we do something often determines how we do it --and predetermines the positive or negative consequences. The science that I learned, the science revered by scientists today, has answered many questions about how but not why. When it comes to questions of why, we are no nearer the answers today than 400 years ago.
In my first book, written more than twenty years ago, I wrote about the difference between knowing how and knowing why. “Science might describe how the earth was formed, but why was it formed? What is its purpose or reason for being? Science may describe how raindrops are formed, but not why it rains. What is the purpose of rain? Scientists may answer: rain provides water for people; it feeds crops and crops feed people. But what is the reason or purpose of people? Why are people born? The reproduction process only describes how, not why. Why do people die? The fact that our heart and brain start and stop functioning only describes how, not why, we live or die.”
The existence of purpose cannot be proven scientifically and thus is denied or routinely ignored by scientists. From the time we are children, we are taught to think logically and rationally and not believe anything that can’t be proven scientifically. However, we know instinctively and intuitively that our life has purpose, even if it can’t be proven. If there were nothing in particular that we are meant to do with our lives, then it really wouldn’t matter what we did or didn’t do. There would be no means of distinguishing between right and wrong or good and bad. Anything we might do would be okay--or not; there would be no way of knowing the difference. It would make no difference whether we lived or died. Without purpose, life simply makes no sense.
So, the vast majority of people behave as if life has purpose, regardless of the absence of scientific proof. Societies develop social norms and laws to define acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Life is treated with reverence rather than indifference. There is a sense that good people have a responsibility to contribute to the greater good of society and humanity, or at least not detract from it. Since science of economics rationalizes that the pursuit of individual economic self-interests contributes to the greater economic good of society, the pursuit of income and wealth might seem a logical choice for living a purposeful life.
There are at least two fundamental problems with this contention. First, today’s markets do not meet any of the conditions necessary for competitive markets to transform the pursuit of individual self-interests into economic well-being for society as a whole. Second, even if today’s markets were economically competitive, economic well-being does not necessarily translate into human happiness, satisfaction, or quality of life. We are social and ethical beings, as well as material beings. We need positive relationships with other people, and we need a sense of purpose in meaning to lead fulfilling lives. As a society, we have sacrificed both in a myopic pursuit of income and wealth. We, as a society, are systematically destroying the integrity of nature and society, upon which we ultimately depend for our happiness and well-being, in our bling pursuit of economic self-interests.
So, what is the real purpose of life? This is an age-old question. Over the years, I have concluded that the most inclusive purpose of life is “to love.” Love probably has about as many different definitions as there are people capable of loving. I have come up with my own definition of love, which I feel encompasses all of the others. It is not particular catchy or compelling, but it is concise:” Love is a belief in inherent goodness. The object of love can be a person, an animal, inanimate object, image, or even an idea – anything that might be inherently good. Love doesn’t require proof; it is an act of faith, of belief.
Unlike an economic transaction, an act of love is made with no expectation of anything in return. To love is simply to act in a way that reflects a belief in the inherent goodness of the object of affection, whether it is an innate object, person, society, humanity, the earth, or the universe. Logical and rational concerns for the well-being and sustainability of people in society today and the future of humanity are rooted in a belief or faith in the inherent goodness of life on earth – including both human and non-human life. Our purpose in life is to contribute to this goodness--to love.
I believe we each have a unique and equally important purpose in life, no matter how important or mundane our purpose may seem to others. Our purpose is not a goal to achieve but a path to walk. When we walk our path and do our part, it changes the essence of the whole of all life. If we fulfill our purpose, we will have made the greatest contribution we could have made and will have lived the best life we possibly could have lived.
Many acts essential to enhancing the quality, integrity, and goodness of life on earth, including the lives of other people, must be acts of love--made with no expectation of receiving anything in return. Love requires no scientific confirmation, justification, or validation. To love is to do something simply because it is the right thing to do. That is why we are here.