Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Why are we here?

Is there a purpose to existence? How do we answer the question why we are here? When we look at the biological systems that perpetuate life on earth we perceive a mechanism where waste is eliminated, the fittest survive and everything seems to be geared towards self-preservation and perpetuation. Laws of physics and chemistry also seem to operate with a precision that is elegant and awe-inspiring. The existence of humankind can very easily be seen in the same light as just another element in the self-perpetuation of the universe. Humans have freedom of will, mental and physical abilities to change their environment. Their role in the perpetuation of the universe can easily be understood. However the larger question still remains unanswered what is the purpose of the whole enterprise? Is there indeed such a thing as purpose?

Let us first assume that the universe is eternal in some form or other, for even if we accept the Big Bang theory, there still had to be something physical out there, a particularity from which everything started. That being the case there really is nothing that forces us to find a purpose for existence other than existence itself and its perpetuation. Everything just has been there in some form or other forever.

However if we assume that the universe was created in time ex - nihilo, there must then be a Creator and therefore, at first blush it would appear that there must be a purpose. An intelligent entity that willed existence must have done so for a reason and a purpose. As we observe our surroundings, focusing on the biological system we are part of, we notice that there seems to be a hierarchy where lesser animals are a source of food for more advanced ones. Man is ultimately the most powerful and everything seems to be serving his needs. To the question of why man the answer may be so that he serve God and get to know Him. But again the question is why? What purpose is there in doing that? Does God need our worship? Does it add anything to Him? The answer is of course not. We are therefore left with the answer that we are here because God wished it so. He willed the universe into existence because that is what will is, it wills. MN 3:13 –

Even if the Universe existed for man's sake and man existed for the purpose of serving God, as has been mentioned, the question remains, what is the end of serving God? He does not become more perfect if all His creatures serve Him and comprehend Him as far as possible; nor would He lose anything if nothing existed beside Him. It might perhaps be replied that the service of God is not intended for God's perfection; it is intended for our own perfection,--it is good for us, it makes us perfect. But then the question might be repeated, What is the object of our being perfect? We must in continuing the inquiry as to the purpose of the creation at last arrive at the answer, It was the Will of God, or His Wisdom decreed it; and this is the correct answer. The wise men in Israel have, therefore, introduced in our prayers (for Ne‘ilah of the Day of Atonement) the following passage:--"Thou hast distinguished man from the beginning, and chosen him to stand before Thee; who can say unto Thee, What dost Thou? And if he be righteous, what does he give Thee?" They have thus clearly stated that it was not a final cause that determined the existence of all things, but only His will.”

Will as it relates to God is a word we use to describe the idea of a cause for a resulting action. Those who believe in physical eternity see a mechanistic system where the First Cause, assuming they accept one, is just another natural component of that system. The same mechanism that produces gravity for example induces the First Cause to cause everything to exist. There is no wisdom just existence. On the other hand those who believe in creation in time have a choice. They can also see a mechanistic universe without wisdom or thought. They can see the Creator as another component of a natural system. They however can also accept that there is thought and therefore Will in that Creator.

There is no possibility of ever proving any of the three positions; it is a matter of accepting one or the other. Judaism, led by its prophets, chose to accept the concept that God willed the universe into existence. Mishlei 3:19 puts out the idea very succinctly:

יט יְהוָה--בְּחָכְמָה יָסַד-אָרֶץ; כּוֹנֵן שָׁמַיִם, בִּתְבוּנָה.
19 The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding He established the heavens.

God willed us into existence and we know only one thing; our existence fulfills His will. It is our responsibility to perpetuate our and the whole universe’s existence. We do good when we are creative; we do evil when we are destructive. Torah and Mitzvot are tools that we have to help us fulfill our responsibility. This idea is quite dialectic, it contains an internal tension, as it on the one hand sees man as just another cog in a wheel. On the other hand it gives him the power to change his environment and affect the whole universe and generations in the future. Ultimately however there is only one purpose; fulfill God’s will. “Vatelamdem chukei Chaim La’asot retzoncha belevav shalem”.

Are we deluding ourselves? Maybe. There is no certainty that we are right otherwise there would be no Bechira – freedom of choice.

טו רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַחַיִּים וְאֶת-הַטּוֹב, וְאֶת-הַמָּוֶת, וְאֶת-הָרָע.
15 See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil,
יט הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת-הָאָרֶץ--הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ, הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה; וּבָחַרְתָּ, בַּחַיִּים--לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה, אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ.
19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou may live, thou and thy seed;
(Devarim 30:15 and 19)

Life, creativity is good- death or destruction is evil; the choice is ours. We can see the choice of good as a self-serving goal which depends on whim or as an obligation that binds us with a higher authority. Some will call it belief. I prefer to see it as choice based on an intelligent analysis of alternatives. In his discussions regarding the creation of the universe Rambam discusses different types of proofs and how they are applied. Here is an excerpt of some of his statements:

I will not deceive myself, and consider dialectical methods as proofs; and the fact that a certain proposition has been proved by a dialectical argument will never induce me to accept that proposition, but, on the contrary, will weaken my faith in it, and cause me to doubt it. For when we understand the fallacy of a proof, our faith in the proposition itself is shaken… When I have established the admissibility of our theory, I will, by philosophical reasoning, show that our theory of the Creation is more acceptable than that of the Eternity of the Universe; and although our theory includes points open to criticism, I will show that there are much stronger reasons for the rejection of the theory of our opponents.” (MN 2:16)

Certain things are just not provable. All one can do is see if either one of the different theories is admissible. Having established that they are, one has to then look at the different things that will help to decide which to choose. If the system that we received from the prophets and that we live by cannot be proven inadmissible, we may chose it.

IN comparing the objections raised against one theory with those raised against the opposite theory, in order to decide in favor of the least objectionable, we must not consider the number of the objections, but the degree of improbability and of deviation from real facts [pointed out by the objections]; for one objection may sometimes have more weight than a thousand others… for a person might some day, by some objection which he raises, shake your belief in the theory of the Creation, and then easily mislead you: you would then adopt the theory [of the Eternity of the Universe) which is contrary to the fundamental principles of our religion, and leads to "speaking words that turn away from God." You must rather have suspicion against your own reason, and accept the theory taught by two prophets who have laid the foundation for the existing order in the religious and social relations of humankind. Only demonstrative proof should be able to make you abandon the theory of the Creation: but such a proof does not exist in Nature.” (MN 2:23).

This is the basis of our acceptance of God as the willing Creator of our existence. We will now have to define what we mean by Will and the ramification thereof in our understanding of providence and our day-to-day life.

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