Purpose of Life

The purpose of life, sometimes confusingly referred to as the meaning of life, is to maximize happiness. (This was also Aristotle's view and is hardly new or particularly controversial.) Happiness can be defined as that which we are trying to maximize as our purpose in life. (In ordinary English, happiness has other meanings. We are limiting it here to have only the specific meaning just listed. We needed a word with this specific meaning, and happiness seemed the best candidate in English.) The circularity in this formulation can be eliminated, to some extent, if we can show that our behavior is not random. Because if not random, then all we have to do is observe our decision-making when faced with repeated situations involving similar circumstances and a similar set of courses of action among which to choose. Now clearly, circumstances will never be identical. If nothing else, the second time around will we will be slightly older and also remember how we decided the first time around. Nevertheless, we can often make circumstances sufficiently similar that an experiment is possible. Such experimentation will reveal that our decision making is not entirely random, which allows us to remove some of the circularity in the above formulation. That is, we can determine, via experimentation, what it is that we are trying to achieve in life. To take a trivial example, suppose experimentation reveals that we tend to make decisions so as to keep blood carbon dioxide levels stable. Then we could say that one of the purposes of life is to do just that.

Experimentation will reveal that we normally attempt to increase physical pleasure and decrease physical pain, though this is normally not all we seek to accomplish. Thus we can say that the purpose of life consists, at least in part, in maximizing physical pleasure and minimizing physical pain. Also, that happiness, at least in part, is a composite of much physical pleasure and little physical pain.

While common sense would suggest that it is more important to focus on physical pain than physical pleasure, since getting rid of the former is difficult (think kidney stones, toothaches, etc) while obtaining the latter is easy (think sex and eating), experimentation is inconclusive on this point. In particular, it is a commonplace that humans tend to make choices to increase short-term physical pleasure slightly at the cost of significantly increasing long-term physical pain. This brings up the issue of how we discount the future. Experimentation suggests there are substantial differences in the discount rate between individuals, but that the discount rate for a given individual appears fairly stable (either genetic or conditioned at an early age and thereafter stable). So we can rephrase the above conclusion by saying that the purpose of life, at least in part, is to increase physical pleasure and reduce physical pain, with future pleasure and pain discounted relative to present pleasure and pain based on some discount rate which is specific to the individual.

Overall happiness is a composite of bodily and spiritual happiness. But spiritual happiness can be unrelated to material reality, and there is no limit to how much happiness/unhappiness spirit can produce. Spiritual happiness/unhappiness can thus swamp bodily happiness/unhappiness, as in the proverbial cases of martyrs smiling as they are tortured to death, or young people in perfect bodily health (implying bodily happiness) committing suicide due to unrequited love. There is no experimental way to determine the purpose of life of someone with a highly developed spirit. We can probe such a spirit with questions, however a highly developed spirit can lie in response. We can attach lie detectors and brain wave monitors to the person's body, however a highly developed spirit can easily fool such crude measurement tools. Spirit's potential to free us from the limitations of matter is god-like. It is the glory of humanity. However, the sad reality is that most people have such poor control over their spirit that they are far more likely to resemble the heartsick young person who committed suicide due to unrequited love than the martyr who smiled as they were tortured to death. In other words, most people would be advised to reduce the role of spirit and focus on bodily happiness as their purpose of life. Most people would be better off with a head shrinking than a head swelling.

Spirit may be programmed such that we feel a need for a more impressive-sounding purpose in life than mere bodily happiness. If the programming is at a deep enough level, we won't be able to reprogram these learned desires but rather must satisfy them, though ultimately such desires, like everything about spirit, are illusory. That is, this need for a impressive-sounding purpose in life can disappear in an instant as the mind shifts perspective.