This is a follow up to this question I was told to revise: If all work is automated, what will humans be able to do? After consideration I think that the only way to salvage that question is to break it up into more questions, so this is the first one.

I have a strong intuition that humans need to pursue some goal or purpose in their lives. Lacking that they can never be happy, since they will struggle with a feeling that their life lacks sense or meaning.

Some people never develop such a purpose; instead, they adopt attitudes such as hedonism or decadence. However, behaving in this way - correct me if I'm wrong - is known to be a trap that ruins lives of those who do so and this is mainstream psychological knowledge. Such people will often fall to various addictions and, when dying, are likely to think they have wasted their lives. It is necessary that one's actions reach beyond oneself and impact reality around them if they are to provide sense, meaning or accomplishment, and this is not the case if one falls to hedonism or decadence.

A few times, when I was presenting views like these, I was told that I'm hellbent on employment for some weird reason even though, demonstrably, humans do not absolutely need to be employed to lead happy and productive lives. I do not believe I'm hellbent on employment. If employment, on its own, serves as a purpose of life, then we reach a weird loop: I work so that I can earn my wage so that I can survive one more month so that I can work some more. This is circular. I'm sure many better purposes can be found. Still, this... I guess this is a purpose, so lacking a better one, it can work. (Although it does carry a risk of disorders such as workaholism). But this is only true providing that this work is, in any way, sensible, that it does impact the reality around the person who does this work. If one is getting paid for a tiring, grindy work that is clearly senseless, that serves no real need then it cannot give a sense of accomplishment.

It would, however, be much better to pursue a purpose through work while still getting money from it; for example, a physician may draw a sense of accomplishment from treating their patients, which will, incidentally, also give them money so that they can survive. Others, such as monks, can pursue what they believe to be a Higher Purpose even without being employed at all and yes, this may bring happiness - perhaps it may even be one of the best ways to reach happiness.

It is also not necessary to serve a single purpose. For example, it would be perfectly valid to work 8h/day as a janitor while drawing and publishing art on sites like DeviantArt in spare time. The work as a janitor, like I described above, while not great, can serve as a purpose since it very clearly fills some real outside needs and impacts reality around a person. Publishing art can supplement this, provided that other people appreciate this art. However, drawing just for oneself and never gaining others' appreciation is not sufficient here, since it does not reach beyond the person who does this, which - again - to my intuition is a necessary condition. This does not mean that such actions have no place in one's life; it does, however, mean that they are not sufficient to provide one a sense of meaning of their lives nor a sense of accomplishment.

A possible full automation of all work, which may happen if research in AIs and robotics becomes advanced enough may greatly limit possible activities that may provide a sense of purpose. If everything is already done and therefore there is no real need for humans' work then there is no outside need to fill nor is it possible to have any impact on reality around a person. By developing AIs humans may provide themselves everything, at the cost however of losing all agency. This is tantamount to locking themselves in a golden cage.

Without agency there are only two viable activities that may serve a purpose or inject meaning in one's life:

  • Full devotion to the supernatural; the life of a monk, as I described above. However, for this, one must first believe in the supernatural. Also, and perhaps even more importantly, not everyone is cut for a life of a monk and even the Bible seems to say that.
  • Full devotion to interpersonal relationships. However, in practice, it rarely happens that such full devotion to interpersonal relationships can drive a life in a healthy way on its own. Even housewives do works such as housekeeping to supplement just being in a relationship with their husband and children. If someone really solely and fully draws a sense of life only from a relationship with someone else, with nothing else to supplement this, then such relationships are commonly described as possessive, dysfunctional and unhealthy.

As a result I fear that full automation may have a nasty side effect of removing the sense of life from humans and as a result causing a plague of severe depressions and suicides.

I admit I have no hard arguments to back up these intuitions. At best I guess I could provide some quotations, like I did in the aforementioned question, but I cannot even find the exact quotes, so I won't bother.

Note it is not my intention in this question to discuss whether research in AIs has the potential to fully automate all work nor if this will lead to people losing their sense of life; now I only wish to ask if humans, indeed, need agency over the reality around them for their lives to have meaning. I only mentioned AIs for context.

Is it true, as my intuition tells me, that - with the possible sole exceptions of those who chose to become monks - humans require some agency over the reality around them if they should find some purpose in their lives, which in turn is necessary for them to have a sense or meaning of their lives, to have some sort of accomplishment, without which they cannot be happy?

  • I don't think Existentialism,nihilism and absurdism tags are relevant. It is not a question about those points of view, but about meaning and purpose of human life. Even though these views can be used in answers the question is only tangentially about them.
    – Nikos M.
    Feb 13, 2023 at 19:42
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    You can take the tags JD added back off if they are not an improvement.
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 14, 2023 at 11:18
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    @NikosM. Absolutely they can be removed. All edits on this sites are proposals, with the OP being the final authority. I propose; someone counter proposes; OP decides if willing to be bothered at all. I added them, because philosophies which meaning in life features central to theory are existentialism, nihilism, and absurdism. Thus, the existentialist, nihilist, and absurdist all have different perspectives. For instance, a nihilist would reject the premise of the question. The tag merely alerts someone who has an interest in questions regarding meaning in life. Please explain your view.
    – J D
    Feb 14, 2023 at 17:42
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    The title question appears to be asking "do humans need control over the outcome to have a sense of positive effect on the outcome?". The simple answer would be no, a human can claim positive effect without having control. For example, a narcissist could believe itself to make reality better simply by existing. In other words, value can be placed in being, without need for doing.
    – Michael
    Feb 14, 2023 at 19:54
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    @ScottRowe And I didn't take it as such. I was just engaging in metacommunication about Philosophy SE folksonomy. The system admins here are rather laissez faire, and I was trying to understand Nikos's perspective on it. I often change my MO when I reflect on other perspectives. His concern about broad versus a narrow approach to tagging is thought provoking.
    – J D
    Feb 15, 2023 at 6:13

6 Answers 6


Your question is philosophical in the broader sense of the pursuit of eudaimonia.

I think a number of philosophical traditions, such as Taoism or Confucianism, have means of dealing with this. I'll point you in the direction of three ideas that might help you to find your own answer.

First, in Japanese culture, there exists the concept ikigai. Traditional Japanese philosophical thinking be it Zen or Shintoism sees a deep interconnection between things, and to this day, Japanese culture is profoundly social in ways that Western societies often are not. Thus, ikigai serves as a recognition, as you put it, that there is a fundamental drive and pleasure to exert agency over the world around you, or even in the inner-world if it be the case. This sort of thinking has made inroads into Western thinking through figures like D.T. Suzuiki, Alan Watts, and Robert Pirsig who is famous for his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Second, in the West, there has been a movement to restore psychology back to something besides the diagnoses of mental disease. This movement advocated by such famous psychologists as Martin Seligman, seeks to make a science out of exactly what contributes to a life well lived through the lens of cognitive science. This is part of the humanistic tradition advocated by Frankl, May, Rogers, and most famously Maslow. Here, educators and psychologists often use Maslow's hierarchy of needs to promulgate the idea that human beings absolutely have internal motivations to behave and act to achieve an end, in this case self-actualization and transcendence.

Of course, there are other takes outside of Japanese tradition and Western psychology that answer this question. Theologists, for instance, often in varied terms cast human existence reaching a pinnacle in the worship of God and communion with his church. As an athiest I'm more comfortable with the perspective of Albert Camus and his absurdism, which is often seen as an outgrowth of existentialism. From WP:

Absurdism is the philosophical theory that existence in general is absurd. This implies that the world lacks meaning or a higher purpose and is not fully intelligible by reason. The term "absurd" also has a more specific sense in the context of absurdism: it refers to a conflict or a discrepancy between two things but there are several disagreements about their exact nature. These disagreements have various consequences for whether absurdism is true and for the arguments cited in favor and against it. Popular accounts characterize the conflict as a collision between rational [humanity] and an irrational universe, between intention and outcome, or between subjective assessment and objective worth. An important aspect of absurdism is its claim that the world as a whole is absurd. It differs in this regard from the uncontroversial and less global thesis that some particular situations, persons, or phases in life are absurd.

Camus advocated in a number of works, including the Myth of Sisyphus, that life has no externally imposed, rational meaning. Rather, one frees themselves from those impositions to discover that theories and worldviews are complicated and often have agendas, and the best way to live life is to rebel against those worldviews and live life based on simpler, more visceral perspectives. This is related conceptually to meta-ethical theories that are non-cognitivist insofar as that truth takes a back seat to feeling more often than not. Thus, even an absurdist, who rejects even existentialist belief that meaning can be constructed (such as Sartre argues), believes that there are reasons to reject nihilism.

If evolutionary psychology as a basis for philosophy of mind is to be taken seriously, then it should be understood that Bentano's notion of intentionality is intrinsic to the development of the brain both in terms of ontogeny and phylogeny. The human mind and brain, are engines of association that prioritize survival and reproduction, and do so with all of the common psychological properties, such as curiosity, lust, pleasure, happiness, and so on all of which are capable of affecting world-to-mind direction of fit, in the language of philosophers. Thus, the idea that human beings fundamentally find satisfaction in realizing desire with action is relatively non-controversial in any philosophical circle.

  • "When all else fails, lower your expectations" seem to me like the best advice ever. Why expect the universe, people, products or anything to make sense? It's like the old joke: "Why are you hitting yourself in the head with a 2x4?" - "Because it feels so good when I stop!"
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 15, 2023 at 0:49
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    @ScottRowe lol Agreed, expectation is just desire in another form.
    – J D
    Feb 15, 2023 at 6:14
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    @ScottRowe bah, that's just depression talk. This is how pickles are supposed to taste. Feb 15, 2023 at 22:02
  • @candied_orange I like your linked reference! Didn't think I was bring depressive. I seem to be close to your Taoism reference: life usually seems 'sweet' to me. Beats the alternative! My point was that expectations are what often make us miserable. "Expect nothing, want nothing, hope for nothing - and anything you get will be grace."
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 16, 2023 at 0:30
  • @ScottRowe yes a pessimist is seldom disappointed. But where’s the fun in that? Here. Have a pickle. 🥒 Feb 16, 2023 at 1:03

You're making a whole lot of (in some cases rather offensive and harmful) unsupported assertions about what can and can not give other people purpose and fulfillment, and very questionable claims about what's "mainstream psychological knowledge".

Just let other people lives their lives in peace and find meaning where they find meaning, without trying to impose what gives you meaning on their lives.

A lot of assertions about purpose

You say hedonism isn't fulfilling, diligently doing one's job doesn't give one purpose, drawing for oneself doesn't give one purpose, drawing for others gives one purpose, etc.

Someone else can equally say hedonism is fulfilling, diligently doing one's job gives one purpose, drawing for oneself gives one purpose, drawing for others doesn't give one purpose, etc.

Psychology could study what people can truly find purpose in.

But since this is a philosophy and not a psychology site, there isn't much to respond with, other than:

Yes, people can find purpose without "agency over the world around them".

It might, however, be that some people would have a harder or impossible time finding purpose in those things than others.

Interpersonal relationships could be enough

It also seems like you're somewhat drawing a line in the sand.

You say drawing for others can give one purpose (apart from the self-fulfillment that you dismiss, this is something that serves little purpose beyond bringing joy to and connecting with others). And you say interpersonal relationships (presumably) can give purpose (which is, on a basic level, about bringing joy to and connecting with others), but "full devotion" to that can't be fulfilling. I don't really see a good justification for this.

I'd probably agree that a housewife "just being in a relationship with their husband and children" wouldn't be fulfilling given our current world, but this comes with the typical implication that the husband would have a job and the children would go to school and hang out with friends. So that leaves a lot of time where those people aren't available.

If someone "solely and fully draws a sense of life only from a relationship with someone else", this in itself doesn't justify the labels of "possessive, dysfunctional and unhealthy". Those labels are typically attached when full devotion is demanded or required, when the other person doesn't want to offer that, and/or when said devotion isn't reciprocated.

In both cases above, you largely seem to be ignoring the possibility of having relationships with other people.

Automation as an option doesn't mean it's required

Taking your example of art:

Even if AI is able to match or exceed the human ability to produce art, that doesn't mean it will replace art entirely.

I may still, for example, enjoy art made by a friend of mine, because it's an expression of their personality. Art isn't just about the end result.

Taking housework as another example:

If machines are able to do all housework, that doesn't necessitate that humans be unable to choose to do parts of it.

Entertainment and sport:

Entertainment and sport would be another big example of where people can find purpose.

You could replace all players on a football field with machines or virtual artificial players (in fact, this already exists in video games). Most people probably won't find that as satisfying as watching other humans play against each other.

Also consider chess, where humans are no longer able to compete with the best computers, yet humans playing against one another is still the majority of chess that people watch.

People would still e.g. watch a real person on Twitch, even if machines can do whatever they're doing, equally well or better. Although the line would get a bit blurry if AI can ever fully mimic humans and starts being passed off as human, at which point we may unknowingly begin to watch AI on Twitch, thinking it's a human.

Purpose in a virtual world

Video games is the obvious example of where people find purpose, and people can find a wide range of purposes there.

In some cases this ends up being unhealthy, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily unhealthy nor hollow.

Video games tend to be unhealthy when people isolate themselves, but one could also find a sense of community within video games.

Any other hobbies

Hobbies would include art and video games, which I mentioned above. One could also find some sense of purpose in any other hobbies.

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    I agree. A friend of mine long ago reprimanded me for my biased attitudes by saying, "It takes all kinds of people to make a world, Scott." I find new and deeper insights in that memory pretty often.
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 14, 2023 at 11:10
  • In a use case of a cow grazing in the sun vs human, does the cow choose to have no purpose as well?
    – estinamir
    Feb 14, 2023 at 13:28
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    It’s probably nothing to do with your answer, sorry. Just sometimes I am wondering how some can live like a child without any aim, but I longer can. Sigh
    – estinamir
    Feb 14, 2023 at 14:48
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    @estinamir As purposeless you find the lives of others, so purposeless others find your life. We all find meaning and happiness in different things. The external view you have of someone's life might also not provide an accurate picture, and some may still be looking for purpose and aren't quite as happy with their "purposeless" life as one might think.
    – NotThatGuy
    Feb 14, 2023 at 16:00
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    Happy family memories like pride and affection for your brother are full of purpose even to an outsider like me.
    – estinamir
    Feb 15, 2023 at 1:47

Arendt shows in The Human Condition that purposeful and creative work is required for humans to be fully human.

Further, it is a fallacy that simply because all work is automated means that work itself will be obsolete. This is because we can simply ask certain work is to be done by us. Moreover, We do this now all the time now. For example, just because cars go from A to B faster than walking does not mean that people have stopped walking or running. They do this because its more convenient but also importantly because it helps keep fit.

As another concrete example, suppose I wanted to build a ouuse with a couple of other friends. Then I can simply say to the teaching robot, can you teach us how and then simply say to the building robots, we're going to build a house, can you set is aside a plot of land to do so.

Moreover, certain kinds of work are not automatable. Primarily, child-rearing. This is work but can't be done by robots as a baby and child needs to nurtured by a human otherwise he/she will be psychologically damaged.

  • "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said better children." (ok, that's really scary)
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 15, 2023 at 0:40

Zooming into the one question in your 1077 word essay (and to be brutally honest, I don't think that's what people meant when they suggested to break down your original question ;) ):

Is it true [...] that [...] humans require some agency over the reality around them if they should find some purpose in their lives, which in turn is necessary for them to have a sense or meaning of their lives, to have some sort of accomplishment, without which they cannot be happy?

There is a lot in this single sentence. Basically, you follow the line of agency -> purpose -> meaning -> accomplishment -> happiness.

Your question is also very general, asking about all humans with no further conditions, so a single counter example would suffice to give you an answer of "no".

This counter example would be people who subscribe to the worldview one could basically call Buddhist - i.e., seeing the world as it is, not putting too much importance on sense inputs, being aware of the workings of the mind (by experimenting oneself, not through rote learning), being aware of the impermanence of everything (again, by experience, not by some mumbo-jumbo religious text) and so on and so forth. This does not have anything to do with religion, mysticism, spiritualism per se - you can pick and chose just the parts popular in "Western" buddhism. I like to call it a hygiene for the mind, or just understanding how the mind (or at a lower level, the brain-body connection) works.

By the simple act of meditation (insight/awareness meditation with no mystical or religious component), and with the proper mindset (i.e, being open about these things and probably with a somewhat analytical predisposition) you can shift the requirements for being happy a lot, and rather quickly.

I personally am an agnostic or atheist (depending on with whom I'm speaking, and whether I'm in the mood for more engaging discussions ;) ), but have a very analytical mind. The insights provided by meditation have really transformed my outlook on this, many years ago, and shifted things around a lot for me. And no, I am not a monk; I provide for a family and am in a somewhat accomplished position in life. I am still quite sure that I would be able to be perfectly happy if things went away (as they eventually will, of course). I personally do not perceive any sense of purpose or meaning, have never done so, and have never missed it, but obviously I do have the discipline to care for the people I am responsible for (which is a quite different question).

NB, obviously (but I think that's not what you are asking about) all of this assumes a general environment conducive to happiness. If you are in constant excrutiating pain and suffering and have no agency to do anything about it, and nobody else is trying to help you either (example: torture victims) it is rather hard to feel happiness. But as far as I can tell this is not what you are asking, you're interested in the more "fuzzy" issue of purpose and meaning.

  • I have similar experiences and results, yes.
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 14, 2023 at 11:04
  • I did not use the tag 'nihilism'. It was edited into my question.
    – gaazkam
    Feb 14, 2023 at 11:05
  • @gaazkam, I have removed the sentence about nihilism from my answer.
    – AnoE
    Feb 14, 2023 at 11:54
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    @NotThatGuy, I would say in the contrary, I only have externally-imposed purpose. If OP's future comes true and AI takes all our work away (but, very importantly, also takes care of us in the way our current money/income does, which is a huge other topic), I can 100% imagine and see myself being just fine just living, playing, doing arts or hobbies, travelling, etc. Today, I am definitely not working because of some "purpose" or "meaning", but because it's kind of a requirement unless one is happy to live as a pauper (and I happen to love my work for other reasons than purpose/meaning).
    – AnoE
    Feb 14, 2023 at 12:28
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    @ScottRowe, well, I guess there will be at least a phase where AI is good enough to do everything humans will do, but before it gets the idea to get rid of us. Enjoy the time. :) Meanwhile I will wait for something which earns the "I" in "AI" at least a little bit - but so far I have not found the slightest hint of intelligence anywhere.
    – AnoE
    Feb 15, 2023 at 12:04

Agency is not necessarily diminished by the rise of AI and automation.

There is a strong argument to suggest that on the contrary, automation and AI might not have much impact at all, or may even significantly improve our sense of agency.

The purpose we attribute to work likely lies in large part within our _need _ to attribute meaning to work. If we didn't do this, work would be much more difficult. The person who is understimulated by a menial, mundane and/or tedious job may find great utility in attributing such work an opportunity for meditation, for example, or might optimistically elevate the necessity of such work in order to attain the meaning you suggest we require.

If AI and automation continue to uptake much of our traditional responsibilities, developed nations will likely balance this (as much as possible) with transitions towards maintaining, improving and redesigning such technology. Human labour will continue to be required, will continue to contribute to the economy and will continue to contribute to the sense of agency many people experience through their work purpose.

However, many of those countries who shifted not all that long ago to the '40-hour' working week currently aspire to reduce our labour to a 32 hour week. AI and automation are likely to play a large role in achieving this. If so, we will gain agency, not lose it, as - if agency means something like 'the ability to do what we desire' - we will increasingly be able to do so. Much of the time we used to spend at work will be used for family duties, rest and recreation.

The gap between rich and poor may continue to grow, or it may shrink. Few would suggest the future is utopian or egalitarian though. The fortune and agency of a few is like for some time at least, to come at the expense of many.

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    Blade Runner...
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 14, 2023 at 16:19
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    Nicely said, as socialists used to say "every gear needs a human hand"
    – Nikos M.
    Feb 14, 2023 at 21:39
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    @NikosM. Now you just need one finger, to push the Gear Icon. Progress! You're not a Robot, are you? Captcha! (sounds Klingon)
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 15, 2023 at 0:29

Work increases happiness--but the ideal dose for happiness is only a few hours per week. (This study says 1-8 hours per week is just as good as more. Several years ago I saw another similar study that said somewhere around 4 hours/week but can't find it currently.)

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