Thursday, May 03, 2007

What is the purpose of our existence?

The accepted wisdom in the community is that Man is the purpose of creation. God created the universe so that man, in particular the Jewish man, who acknowledges God and serves Him can thrive and populate it. It is an important philosophical and theological question and I would like to take a stab at it to clarify it for myself. I hope to dedicate several posts to this subject “where the spirit takes me”.

Here I would like to focus on a striking paradox. If you were to ask which theory of existence lends itself more to man being the purpose of it all, the Creationists or those who believe in the eternity of the Universe? Most people would (I would) intuitively say of course the Creationists! Well think again.

When we say “purpose” it needs to be defined. In a universe of cause and effect it becomes clear that there is a connection between different species. Our whole environment is interdependent and is the basis of our conservationist instinct. One can say the purpose of vegetation is to feed the animal kingdom; the purpose of water is to sustain both the vegetal and the animal and so on. There clearly is an internal purpose for each component of our existence which is to perpetuate itself and the whole. The scientific enterprise is to understand, describe and take control of this observed phenomenon. From this perspective, the “purpose” of everything is the preservation of itself and consequently of the whole. Everything that exists is to perpetuate the continued existence of the whole. In an eternal universe the question of “purpose” has no other meaning. It is just there to remain there. Man looking at himself and his role can easily succumb to the narcissistic view of himself being the center and “purpose” of all this. After all he is the one with the brains and the ambition to take control and mold everything to serve him.

It is when we accept that God created existence (I prefer “existence” to “universe” as it is more accurate) that we are faced with trying to explain why He created it. Just as we do not do things without a purpose we assume that a perfect Entity would perforce have to have a goal in mind. We conflate the “purpose” I described in the previous paragraph and conclude that as man is the highest sentient being, the being that discovered God the Creator, he must also be the goal God had in mind when He began all this. Rambam in one of what is to me one of the most difficult chapters in the Moreh presents the problem as follows: (MN 3:13)

But of those who accept our theory that the whole Universe has been created from nothing, some hold that the inquiry after the purpose of the Creation is necessary, and assume that the Universe was only created for the sake of man's existence, that he might serve God. Everything that is done they believe is done for man's sake; even the spheres move only for his benefit, in order that his wants might be supplied… On examining this opinion as intelligent persons ought to examine all different opinions, we shall discover the errors it includes. Those who hold this view, namely, that the existence of man is the object of the whole creation, may be asked whether God could have created man without those previous creations, or whether man could only have come into existence after the creation of all other things. If they answer in the affirmative, that man could have been created even if, e.g., the heavens did not exist, they will be asked “what is the object of all these things, since they do not exist for their own sake but for the sake of something that could exist without them?” 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 inquiries as to the purpose of the creation at last arrive at the answer; it was the Will of God, or His Wisdom decreed it. This is the correct answer.”

If man could be narcissistic according to the believers in the eternity of material existence he has lost all such illusions according to Rambam’s creationist view!

This must be our belief when we have a correct knowledge of our own self, and comprehend the true nature of everything; we must be content, and not trouble our mind with seeking a certain final cause for things that have none, or have no other final cause but their own existence, which depends on the Will of God, or, if you prefer, on the Divine Wisdom.”

The implications of this approach are enormous. We are used to thinking that we are the most important thing in existence. When great tragedies befall humankind we tend to ask how it is possible that there is a God when such injustices occur? That question loses some of its edge if man is only another part of a greater whole. It also changes our perspective of what is good and bad. That is why Rambam has this discussion as an introduction to his explanation of providence – what is referred to as Pirkei Hashgacha. He is preempting the popular understanding that the universe is anthropocentric and that all was created to serve man. (There are Chazal who seem to say that – another interesting discussion addressed by Rambam. To follow).

How this thinking is in tune with the Mitzvah of Vehalachta Biderachav – emulating God’s ways – is the subject of another post.


  1. In 2005 Rabbi Chait held a Q&A session for the students of Northwest Yeshiva High School in Seattle. A girl asked him: "What is the purpose of our existence?"
    His response was very unique.

    "First," he said, "I do not want anyone to leave the room before I am finished with this answer. If you leave part way through, you will most definitely misunderstand what I am saying."

    "There is no purpose to our existence," he said. The room went silent. "Strictly speaking, when you have an entity, and you ask: 'What is it for?' you are implying that its existence per se is not good, but that in order to justify its existence, it must serve some greater purpose. The Torah states differently. 'And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good.' Existence is good because God created it; existence does not need to be justified with another purpose in order to call it good."

    "Man, however is unique. All other creations are compelled, by nature, to live in line with God's will - to exist as He designed them to exist. Man has FREE will. He may choose to live in a manner contrary to God's design."

    "If you must speak of a 'purpose' to man's existence (even though no such 'purpose' is needed) you can say that man must strive to exist - to live in line with his design. Unlike other creations, man must bring about his own existence AS MAN. That is what the system of Torah and mitzvos is for. If man were a malach, without free will, he would simply exist in line with God's will by nature. Instead, man must work on himself and rise to the level in which he exists as he was designed to exist. Otherwise, as the philosophers say, 'His existence is equal to his nonexistence.'"

    This idea requires much thought, but I had never heard an answer like this before, and think it is an interesting approach to the question. Perhaps this is the intent of the Rambam, though I haven't thought deeply into it.

    (Note: all of this is based on my memory of the shiur. It would be a good idea to listen to it for yourself at, under audio shiurim 2004-2005. I think the link is broken, but I'm going to talk to someone about fixing it today.)

  2. I should mention two points about the shiur:

    (1) Rabbi Chait had attended a wedding the day before and lost his voice, which is why he sounds the way he does.

    (2) You can right-click and save the file. The part I was talking about begins at 24:10.

  3. Matt Thank you and I will listen to it. Rabbi Chait, though I do not know him personally, has some very good stuff and I am impressed with his Talmidim.

    The answer is very much in line with Rambam's thinking. Every time I revisit the subject I get new insights and as i am working for the last few month mostly on Hashgacha this chapter came up this week. As I go along I will try posting and clarify more. As you vcan see from the ending of this post it is only the beginning.

  4. David,
    I believe the Rav in Ish Hahalacha relates a story where Reb Chaim was glancing at some Chabad books that said that the world was created for G-D's kindness. Reb Chaim said that is mistaken, it was rather created because G-D willed at, as Rambam says in MN.