Wednesday, April 30, 2008

What is Man's Role and Purpose in Existence? The Ultimate Existential Question.

Thinking people have difficulty accepting revelation-based knowledge, knowledge that is transmitted from generation to generation without empirical supporting proof. Their difficulty is legitimate and the questioning is as it should be. In fact, it is exactly the thinking that revelation is intended to trigger and it is why Nevuah i.e. revelation is one of the Ikarim. A close friend of mine always comments when I go off on my theological musings that all my ideas are a posteriori, trying to understand preconceived dogma rather than starting from a tabula rasa position. I believe this question goes to the heart of the human condition and Judaism. The subject is quite lengthy and is an important component in trying to understand the purpose of Torah, Mitzvot and the whole enterprise we refer to as Yddishkeit and Avodat Hashem. I will try to address this in a series of posts. First, we must get a better picture of man, his hierarchical position in existence, how his mind works and his purpose as part of the whole.

Man is an interesting creature who from one perspective is no more than another component of a great universe, an insignificant species that struggles for survival just like every other creature and species. (See MN 3:13) From another perspective, he is the most advanced entity in the whole universe, the only one that can take his own fate into his hands and control everything. (See MN 3:25). The first perspective is how man is before he fulfills his potential; the second perspective is ideal man.

If we were to look at the whole of existence as one big living entity, each component would be seen as an important limb that contributes to the survival of the whole. Certain limbs are indispensable while others are optional; all contribute to the wellbeing of the whole of existence. Where does man find himself in that whole, what kind of limb is he?

Physically man is not impressive. Unlike other living things, he is not the strongest; he is much more sensitive to his environment for survival; he needs to put out much more energy to provide for his own sustenance. To compensate man has evolved into a thinking species that can use its mind to survive.

An animal does not require for its sustenance any plan, thought or scheme; each animal moves and acts by its nature, eats as much as it can find of suitable things, it makes its resting-place wherever it happens to be, cohabits with any mate it meets while in heat in the periods of its sexual excitement. In this manner does each individual conserve itself for a certain time, and perpetuates the existence of its species without requiring for its maintenance the assistance or support of any of its fellow creatures: for all the things to which it has to attend it performs by itself. With man it is different; if an individual had a solitary existence, and were, like an animal, left without guidance, he would soon perish, he would not endure even one day, unless it were by mere chance, unless he happened to find something upon which he might feed. For the food which man requires for his subsistence, demands much work and preparation, which can only be accomplished by reflection and by plan; many vessels must be used, and many individuals, each in his peculiar work, must be employed. It is therefore necessary that one person should organize the work and direct men in such a manner that they should properly cooperate, and that they should assist each other. The protection from heat in summer and from cold in winter, and shelter from rain, snow, and wind, requires in the same manner the preparation of many things, none of which can properly be done without design and thought. For this reason, man has been endowed with intellectual faculties, which enable him to think, consider, and act, and by various labors to prepare and procure for himself food, dwelling and clothing, and to control every organ of his body, causing both the principal and the secondary organs to perform their respective functions. Consequently, if a man, being deprived of his intellectual faculties, only possessed vitality, he would be lost in a short time.” (MN 1:72)

It is this same necessary trait that man evolved to survive that also is his uniqueness in that it allows him to use it for higher purposes other than personal survival. “The intellect is the highest of all faculties of living creatures: it is very difficult to comprehend, and its true character cannot be understood as easily as man's other faculties.”(MN 1:72). In the process of using his ability to think and develop ways of surviving man also delves into understanding how things work, how they came about and how this whole existence came into being. Understanding these existential questions leads him to try to understand the “mind” of the First Cause and what its purpose is in existence. He hopes that by doing that he will understand his own purpose and role in the whole of existence.

This idea of trying to understand his own role and purpose, the great existential question, is triggered by man’s self-awareness and contemplation of his own position in the whole of existence. The answer to this question is the most elusive and possibly unattainable by man. It deals with “pre” physical concepts, not necessarily “pre” temporally but “pre” hierarchically. Man as a physical entity cannot conceive of non-physical existence without going beyond the empirical. He may “know” that there must be a non-contingent Existent but that knowledge is indirect and deductive. Man can sense that there is such an Entity rather than having real empirical knowledge of its existence, existence itself being an equivocal term.

As hopeless as this quest may be, it lies at the center of all human thought. Our existence is senseless without the quest for the answer to that question. What is our purpose and role as a species and as individual components thereof? A thinking person realizes that this question cannot be answered by any one person in a lifetime, or a whole generation during its lifespan or even many generations over many life spans. It is a quest that may take an indefinite amount of time and generations, many millennia with the combined effort of all humankind and even then who knows? Is it a wonder that nihilism is such an attractive philosophy?

However, this question is more than just a conceptual exercise; it also has practical implications. Besides his own survival man seems to have a role in the survival of the whole of existence. It is after all inconceivable that the most evolved component of the universe has no other purpose than his personal survival. In fact, man’s role must be crucial to the survival of the whole of existence. It is only by finding the answer to the great existential question that man will know what his practical role really is.

The realization of the above I believe lies at the core of Judaism. It is what the whole enterprise of Torah and Mitzvot is meant to accomplish; to lead humankind in finding the answer to that question – what is man’s purpose and role in the existence of the whole? That is why the Torah starts with a synopsis of existence as it is and places man at the end of the process.

On this principle the whole Law of Moses is based; it begins with this principle: "And God saw all that He had made, and, behold, it was exceedingly good" (Gen. i. 31); and it ends with this principle: "The Rock, perfect is His work" (Deut. xxxii. 4). Note it.” (MN 3:25).

“When therefore Scripture relates in reference to the whole creation (Bereshit 1:31), “And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was exceedingly good,” it declares thereby that everything created was well fitted for its object, and would never cease to act, and never be annihilated. This is especially pointed out by the word “exceedingly,” for sometimes, a thing is temporarily good; it serves its purpose, and then it fails and ceases to act. But as regards the Creation it is said that everything was fit for its purpose, and able continually to act accordingly.” (MN3:13)

It is thus man that is seen as the final and most important component that insures the survival and continuity of the whole of existence. It is as if the Torah is giving us an introduction and a preface to what it is trying to accomplish – help man find his own role and purpose. The Torah is thus answering our question about man’s importance, what kind of limb he is. He is crucial and indispensable for the survival of the whole of existence. However to fulfill his role he must find and understand the “mind” of God, the First Cause, the Cause of the whole of existence. It is in this quest that the Torah is trying to teach man how to go about it. I will address this in an upcoming post.


  1. " It is after all inconceivable that the most evolved component of the universe has no other purpose than his personal survival."

    Inconceiveable to you.The elite scientists tell us that there is no apparent purpose in the universe,& certainly not of man.(Steven Weinberg & many others).
    It's futile to look for a "purpose" where none exists,as far as we know.

  2. >It's futile to look for a "purpose" where none exists,as far as we know.

    Hi Y, hope all is well.

    I think I said in my post that nihilist have a point!

    Well this is where revelation comes into play as my upcoming posts will discuss.

  3. Welcome back!

    There is a straightforward middle way between we have no purpose and we cannot have a valid purpose and we can discover our purpose by following the paths of the Rambam's reasoning in the Moreh.

    We each have the ability to develop a life plan commensurate with our ideals, values and ambitions and aspirations. Provided the life plan is moral, minimally rational (transitive preferences, etc.) our purpose is to achieve our life plan. If we succeed we are on our way to having lived well which is a prerequisite for happiness.

    Unlike your view a non- intellectuals, athletes, artists, poets, business people can have a purpose and find meaning in life in the activities they value. At most the activities and goals need to be of a certain degree of complexity for the agent, even if they are simple for others.

  4. >We each have the ability to develop a life plan commensurate with our ideals, values and ambitions and aspirations. Provided the life plan is moral, minimally rational (transitive preferences, etc.) our purpose is to achieve our life plan. If we succeed we are on our way to having lived well which is a prerequisite for happiness.

    I have many problems with this statement on a personal level. You seem to set a goal for life "happiness" which is self centered, transitory and truly meaningless. I have a much harsher view of our short life span and unless there is more to it than just living and dying it is meaningless. It becomes more so as I get older. It is what we leave after us, whether flesh and blood descendants or the mark we leave on others who come after us that turns a temporal life into an eternal one. More important even than that, is how our legacy impacts the continuity of existence per se. To me a great man who has fulfilled his part in living, is one who influences how humankind acts even thousands of years after his passing, and that action is constructive thus good. I do not think personal happiness comes into play though it may be a side effect. Rambam describes four such people as paradigms, Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov and Moshe (yehoshua as the fifth in one place. That effect they have on the future, even in our times thousand of years later, and for eternity to come as long as the human race exists, makes them fathers of our nation!

  5. >The elite scientists tell us that there is no apparent purpose in the universe,& certainly not of man.(Steven Weinberg & many others).

    Y as I reread your comment I realized you are relying on Weinberg et al to tell you what they "think" is truth - there is no purpose. They do not know that just like one cannot empirically prove the opposite. Are you then relying on revelation? (of your own choosing of course.)

  6. Your goals seem a bit grandiose, but if part of your life plan is to impact the continuity of existence per se,(btw what does that mean?) then for you as you look back on your life and evaluate what you accomplished relative to what you set out to do, whether or not you had an impact for the next thousands of years will be relevant. But your neighbor may have set other more realistic goals which would be valid for him.

    It is one thing to require a uniform conception of right and wrong, it is quite another to require everyone to have your conception of the highest good and to work towards it. When that occurs even if without legal sanctions there is a hegemony that destroys individuality and freedom. For you maybe knowledge of quantum mechanics is important because you prioritized your values in a certain way. But why must the next guy also devote his life to this?

    As I see it happiness is what happens in a life well lived, in a life that has gone some way towards fulfilling a coherent life plan. Accomplishing what one sets out to do, assuming with Aristotle that it is a complex task that engages one's talents and power, is no trivial acheivement in any age. For you to label it truly meaningless is the sort of nihilistic remark you seek to combat. If this message were to influence mankind for eternity you would have contributed to the depression and sadness of mankind,which I know is not your intent.

  7. I did not mean to come across as grandiose, but from a simple point of view we all influence others during our life. There is a definite causal effect to our actions, words and ideas. They can have a positive impact or a negative impact. Most people leave an impact on a small cadre of people family and friends, others - great people on nations and humanity. I believe that being aware of that and acting responsibly accordingly makes for a life lived well. that is why "ein adam ba'aretz asher ya'asseh tov velo yecheta". Assessing one's own impact is almost impossible. I do not think this is nihilism or depressing but responsible and exhilarating and gives meaning to what we do.

    I have a feeling that we are both talking the same thing just coming at it from a different perspective.

  8. R'David

    "our purpose and role"

    I looked up "purpose" and found the following meanings, which one(s) are you referring to?

    1. the reason for which something exists or is done, made, used, etc.
    2. an intended or desired result; end; aim; goal.
    3. determination; resoluteness.
    4. the subject in hand; the point at issue.
    5. practical result, effect, or advantage: to act to good purpose.
    –verb (used with object) 6. to set as an aim, intention, or goal for oneself.
    7. to intend; design.


    David W.

  9. "Hi Y, hope all is well."

    "Are you then relying on revelation? (of your own choosing of course.)"

    Hi David,thanks.
    Since I spoke to you last time when you were in Israel(do you recall?)I was hospitalized for over 3 months afer a very seious heart attack.The docs already gave up on me & prepared my children for my impending death.
    I have recovered & I am fine now .

    What I want to tell you that during the times when I was almost completely gone(at least 4 times),I haven't seen any "tunnels" or "lights",neither Moshe nor of any tzadikim or reshaim.All I recall is having terrible nightmares, all dealing with death.
    A religious person would no doubt consider it "a miracle",some of the kippot wearing docs did.
    But for me,having seen a younger person than I die in front of me in my ward,I doubt it very much...
    Why would "a God" intervene on behalf a kopher like me!..
    All that hasn't changed my phisolophical views.
    But even if I did,& became a "baal teshuva",screamed all the time that Mosheh emet v'torato emet & put on a shtreimle & kapote-it woudn't mean anything.
    A man facing imminent death will clutch at anything,even if its one in quadrillions.
    What "nachat ruach" could such a God have from having a person in the throes of death say "yes,I believe in you"!...

    As for your question about nevuah,I really don't understand what you mean by it.Do you mean Divine inspiration? But then how do we know what is "Divine"?
    Or do you mean intuition? An inteligent assessment? A prediction that happened to come true?
    Would you consider Einstein,etc. as prophets?
    You must be more specific what you mean by the word "nevuah".
    The Torah gives the criterion for testing who is a navi,but as you must know it never worked(e.g.Chabad meshichistim,among countless others in Jewish history).

  10. David W

    I meant 2 and maybe 7. I will expand on this further as we go along.


    Baruch Mechayeh Meitim. I was wondering that I had not noticed you for a while.

    Re your near death experience I am not surprised that you saw nothing. I don't believe anybody saw anything beyond having a fertile imagination.

    Re Nevuah - Rambam's nevuah is closer to a combination of intuition, rational thought and imagination then R. Yehudah Halevi's miraculous concept. I wrote an article on Nevuah and you can read it online at Hakirah link on my sidebar.

    Re Einstein - no question there was an element of prophecy in his intuitive understanding.

    The Torah esting applies only if the prophet tells us that God spoke to him and told him to tell people to do so and so. It does not apply to personal experiences or machashava.

    Again I am glad you are around to argue with and dont worry - God cares about you probably more than he does for the self righteous frummy that thinks he is linked with Him and expects Him to save him.