A long time ago I've come to believe that there is no inherent purpose for existence, that is, we can't find any single "unifying" goal of living. So - I thought - we all have to find a purpose for ourselves, be it the accumulation of shiny new cars or achieving enlightement or whatever.

But lately I've been starting to think about this more in depth and now it seems to me that this isn't satisfactory at all - after all, how could you defend any single position? Take for example the common goal of "becoming happy". Why would you think becoming happy is a valid purpose? Probably because being happy feels good. But how is feeling good better (or more desireable) than feeling bad? Of course I like to feel good - I just can't find any justification for seeking happiness, or for any other purpose, really.

I hope I'm not too unclear. This might seem to be some sort of pseudo-problem - and it might as well be one. But I'm seriously concerned about this - it feels like the ground is disappearing from under my feet, so to say.

  • Justify to whom? Answer that, and you'll see that it's possible to justify anything at all that one wishes for. To destroy the world? Sure! To find a married bachelor? Sure! Tilting at windmills? Why not? – prash Oct 22 '13 at 23:39
  • 'Justify any purpose in life?' Why would you want to do that? – amdouglas Jan 9 '14 at 11:07

In a very rough sense, the meta-question of whether or not this is a "pseudo problem" or not is the dividing line between classical philosophy, which was often focused directly around this very question, and modern philosophy, which typically denies the entire legitimacy of the question.

I have my own strong ideas about this, but since forum rules discourage original philosophizing, I would direct you instead to read some of the classic thinkers --Plato, Aristotle, Lao Tzu. While you might end up concluding their answers are wrong, inadequate, or nonsensical you could at least learn what some of the great minds have thought about the question.

In brief (and these are only rough glosses on complex concepts), Plato's idea is that our purpose in life is to come closer to embodying a metaphysical ideal more real and eternal than the superficial illusions of every day life. Aristotle's idea is that our purpose can be discovered by coming to understand, through observation and classification, what kind of creatures we are. Lao Tzu seems to imply that we are all parts of a giant cyclical process centered around the dynamic tension and ebb and flow between opposites.

You might also find it useful to read both Sartre and Kierkegaard who wrestle (from opposite sides of the atheist/theist divide) with the question of how to find purpose in a world in which in which no set purpose is imposed on you from outside yourself. We might characterize Sartre's answer as "you are what you do" --your personal actions and choices create their own purpose as you progress through life. Kierkegaard, in contrast, draws meaning from a direct personal connection with the divine, and judges the activities of daily life with an aesthetic standard, through the eyes of an artist.


At the risk of being tautologous, living is a purpose in life. It's really hard to argue against, as long as you accept that one may ascertain purpose not merely by statements made by an actor but also by their actions. Given that we eat, avoid being hit by trains, etc., it is apparent that staying alive is a major purpose in life. Given that we date, engage in risky behavior to save or impress members of the opposite sex, etc. it is apparent that reproducing is a major purpose in life. Given how many people have no children yet feel profoundly driven to contribute to charity or other things that benefit society (and enjoy being meaningful members of a social group), it is apparent that having your own offspring isn't the only way to aid reproduction as a social primate.

We act as though we are typical living creatures: we preserve ourselves and ensure the existence of the next generation through those means available to us. We do all sorts of other things, too, but we additionally do this pretty reliably. (Anything that does not routinely do this goes extinct.) It looks just like purposeful behavior, even if we do not always consciously identify or adopt that purpose.

Anything else is much harder to justify. There have been innumerable attempts, but I've yet to see one that doesn't require one to swallow some pretty dubious assumptions (e.g. existence of an all-powerful entity; that we are rational beings and rational beings have certain necessary goals; that one particular emotion that shapes our behavior must necessarily be elevated above all others; etc.).

And even that living (incl. reproduction broadly construed) is a purpose in life is debatable once you forbid inferring purpose from actions. If you must go purely rationally and by stated goals, people are free to say (and believe) all sorts of things about why they act the way they do that may have nothing whatsoever to do with being sensibly-behaved living creatures. ("I eat because I like the taste of food and that is all." or "My religion commands me to be nice to my neighbor and that is the only reason I am.")


A thing need not have an intrinsic purpose, or any purpose at all, to be valuable and good. Purpose might be the wrong starting point for thinking about value. Certainly it is a way of thinking those of us in much of the west inherited from Aristotle, and the Catholic Church's embrace of him, and scholarship under the influence of the Church. But I would disagree that a thing is good or has value only if it has a purpose. Happiness, pleasurable experiences, and projects that are capable of giving us a sense of fulfillment, may well have no intrinsic purpose. But they can be very good, and valuable.

Clear examples of things I myself value but which do not have built-in or intrinsic purposes, are: eating non-nutritious chocolate-glazed donuts, joking with my friends, meeting new people, sitting quietly and thinking, and watching other animals behave in their own ways. My point is just that some things, perhaps different ones, probably strike you as good, too.

Then, we might assign purposes to ourselves and to other things, so that we make them aim at promoting some such goods. They come to have purposes just because they aim at those goods, and not because they had any purposes naturally built into them to start with. We might choose goods, like helping others, which don't so obviously lack purpose as my examples do.

To see how this might work, consider tools. The things in the universe that most naturally have purposes (I think, thinking in a non-Aristotelian way!) are our tools. Tools have purposes because WE assign those purposes to them. The tools aim at some good, as hammer has the purpose of bringing about the good of having nails well-driven, because we make them that way. Similarly, we can assign purposes to our actions, our projects, and even ourselves, and modify or construct our actions, projects, and ourselves to better aim at some goods we recognize or choose.


The purpose of your life is called, nontechnically, the "future."

What I mean by this is that the telos or "end-in-itself" of a life is not to be discovered within that life. It is external, not yet arrived at, not to be found empirically in advance of experience or analytically within the subject. The acorn, to use the Aristotelean cliche, cannot infer or discover that it will become an oak. That is forever outside of its existence, except perhaps partially by reflection upon other oaks.

So it is no wonder that you can't find the purpose of your life by "looking around" or "thinking it through." That's good. To fully answer the question would imply that the "future" is over.

So the purpose of life is a "higher purpose" than what presently exists. We have a strong intuition that it entails other lives and their "future" as well. We can't ever know. For all you know, the purpose of your life may have nothing to do with "yourself" and everything to do with someone about to the born on the other side of the world.

Would you really want it to be any less unanswerable and mysterious? You may secretly be asking: "To whom must I justify my life?" But that would require posting another question.


If you think literally that humans are really a breathing organism, then yes we do not have a purpose in life other than eat sleep and live. Similarily if that was the case nothing would have a purpose, and really what are we meant to do? But humans and other creatures have emotions , futhermore we are made with the will to live. Of course you can say that materialistic things such as money and sex are things that society has influences, but really what motivates us to do these things are emotions, the desire to belong and be loved. I think that is the most important part of humans. Without emotions we wouldn't really be able to live the way we are right now. If we didn't have emotions we probably wouldn't exsist, becuase emotions motivates us to do things and that is why we are able to improve technology, wear clothes and thnk of philosophical questions like this! So i have o say we do have a purpose in life. If we didn't, why do we have emotions?

protected by Keelan Oct 25 '15 at 17:57

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