Friday, December 14, 2007

Is There Purpose and Finality to our Existence?

When we look at man, we see that he can only exist if all the conditions necessary for his survival are in place. Any small deviation such as the distance of earth from the sun would not have allowed for the appearance of man. We also find that same exquisite balance in the interrelationships of all the components of the universe. Looking from the point of view of each component, there is a tendency to see everything outside it as being there for its own existence. Man, the great narcissist, takes it for granted that everything is there to serve him. Of course, this is preposterous. In the evolutionary biological system we exist in, each component that adapts to its environment survives while the rest perish. Each component is wired in a way that it can adapt and survive as a species. Man is no different.

However, we also can see a much larger system where everything is wired for the survival of the species and of the whole universe of species in their interrelationship with each other. Looking at this whole existence from the outside, can we discern a hierarchy?

We know that the world we live in evolved from the original cosmic soup systematically. It went from the inorganic to the organic and eventually to being populated by conscious and sentient beings. If the latter development can be seen as an improvement then, in addition to survival, we can also detect an underlying push towards perfection. The combination of the built in “instinct” for survival and improvement gives us a sense that perfection is the ultimate goal. That becomes the basis for the elitist idea that all is here for humankind and humankind is here for the more perfected human being. We thus have a hierarchy going from lesser perfection to the perfect - man. It fits with our perception of our universe. This is how I understand Rambam in MN 3:13 –

I infer from the words of Aristotle that according to his opinion the ultimate finality of these species is the preservation of the course of genesis and destruction. This course is absolutely necessary for the successive formation of material objects, because individual beings formed of matter cannot be permanent. Still the production of the best and the most perfected thing that is possible is generated from it. For the ultimate purpose [in these productions] is to arrive at perfection. Now it is clear that man is the most perfect being formed of matter; he is the last and most perfect of earthly beings. Accordingly, even if it is said that all sub lunar beings exist for man’s sake that would be true from this point of view. I mean because the movement of changeable things exists for the sake of coming to be in order for what is as perfect as it is possible to be should come about.”

It is only in this context and in this conditional and tentative sense, that Rambam sees man as the final end of the sub lunar world. The sense I get is that now that sentience exists, perfection has been reached. If perfection was the original goal of existence and thus creation, that goal has now been attained and no further evolving is necessary. To me this is one of the ideas that Shabbat stands for and it always comes to mind when we say

מִזְמוֹר שִׁיר לְיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת: טוֹב לְהֹדוֹת לַיהֹוָה וּלְזַמֵּר לְשִׁמְךָ עֶלְיוֹן: לְהַגִּיד בַּבֹּקֶר חַסְדֶּךָ וֶאֱמוּנָתְךָ
בַּלֵּילוֹת: עֲלֵי-עָשׂוֹר וַעֲלֵי-נָבֶל עֲלֵי
הִגָּיוֹן בְּכִנּוֹר: כִּי שִׂמַּחְתַּנִי יְהֹוָה
בְּפָעֳלֶךָ בְּמַעֲשֵׂי יָדֶיךָ אֲרַנֵּן: מַה-גָּדְלוּ מַעֲשֶׂיךָ יְהֹוָה מְאֹד עָמְקוּ מַחְשְׁבֹתֶיךָ:

This however does not address the larger question of what is the purpose and finality of our existence. We can explain the mechanism and the software that runs the system but why is there is a system in the first place? Why was there a Big Bang? If the cause was a “quantum singularity”, borrowing from Star Trek, there is no point in looking for a reason or purpose for our existence; we are just here! If however, we go the Revelation route and accept that what we are told is the correct ontological perspective, namely that this existence is created by God, one may think that we must know the reason for creation. Considering that man is the most perfected thing, he must be the reason why everything came into being. Another series of questions though come to mind - why is man here? Is he here to worship God? What purpose does his worshipping God accomplish? What does God get out of his worship?

The truth is that the question has no answer. There is no difference if we are here because of a “quantum singularity” or because God created us. We do not know why we are here and we cannot know that. There is however, a difference between the two possibilities namely whether existence was willed or just happened as a natural event. If we see coming into existence a “quantum singularity” it must be a natural consequence of the First Cause, the non- contingent Entity. In this scenario, there is no will or thought. There just “IS” and we just “ARE” and there is no reason to think that there is a purpose or goal for anything. The concept of God in this scenario is just a necessary existent without any other attribute. God is the God of the philosophers.

The reason we do not accept this scenario is not scientific or empirical but because Revelation teaches us the correct way to look at our existence. Revelation tells us that the world was created in time, that at some point it was willed. Revelation tells us that this non-contingent Entity has will and thought and has willed us into existence. Revelation does not tell us and we do not know why we were created although there must be a reason for there cannot be will without reason.

Actions are divided as regards their object into four classes; they are futile actions, frivolous actions, vain actions, or good and excellent actions… After having explained this division, I contend that no intelligent person can assume that any of the actions of God can be in vain, futile, or frivolous. According to our view and the view of all that follow the Law of Moses, all actions of God are "exceedingly good." Thus Scripture says, "And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good" (Gen. 1:31)… For although we believe that God created the Universe in time, none of our scholars and none of our men of knowledge believe that this came about through the will and nothing else. For they say that His wisdom, which we are unable to comprehend, necessitated the existence of this world as a whole at the moment when it came into existence, and that the selfsame immutable wisdom necessitated non existence before the world came into existence.” (MN 3:25)

Summarizing, there is an internal raison d’etre for the universe and its components - survival and perfection. We also know that there must be a reason for the whole of existence. We do not know that reason nor can we expect to ever know it. How does this insight affect our daily life? Is there a practical outcome from all this cogitation? That will hopefully be the subject of my next post.

Note: When I refer to Revelation, I mean the teachings of Torah. Outside the Dogma of God’s existence and unity, the other Ikarim or Dogmas proposed by Rambam are based on Revelation and are ontological. They are metaphysical conclusions that cannot be arrived at through empirical, scientific or historical proofs. They are teachings of a way of looking at our existence and reality as religious people. The only other exception is Revelation itself. I believe (note emphasis) that Rambam understands prophecy to be empirically provable and exists at all times to all men, if not in actu at least in potentia. If you are interested further, follow the Prophecy label on my blog.

Shabbat Shalom.

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