Monday, May 04, 2009

What Is The Purpose of Existence?

As we have discussed many times, there is no empirical proof that the world was created. Although the existence of a First Cause can be proven empirically, that God created our existence in time from absolute nothingness is an ontological and theological belief. There are two possible explanations on how we came into being; that God created our existence in time or that existence is eternal in parallel with God. There are also two possible explanations for the mechanism of how creation happened; our existence came into being as a necessary result of there being a First Cause or that God willed us into existence whether from absolute nothingness or from the Platonic first matter (Materia Prima)[1]. The answers to these questions are ontological and the Torah teaches that there is will and that existence was created in time.

The question that I want to address in this post is whether there is any reason, purpose or goal for the whole of existence. Were we to ask that question from the point of view that existence came into being necessarily from the First Cause or for that matter from an atheistic perspective, there is no point in looking for any purpose other than existence per se.

For according to Aristotle, who holds that the Universe has not had a beginning, an ultimate final cause cannot be sought even for the various parts of the Universe. Thus, it cannot be asked, according to his opinion, what is the final cause of the existence of the heavens? Why are they limited by this measure or by that number? Why is matter of this description? What is the purpose of the existence of this species of animals or plants? Aristotle considers all this as the result of a permanent order of things.” (MN3:13)

Things are as they are because they are! But from the standpoint that God willed the world into existence, at first blush, the question seems to be reasonable – did God have a goal or purpose in the creation of the universe? The answer we are used to read and hear in Yeshivot is that everything was created so that humans exist to serve God. At least that was how I was taught. What always bothered me was why would God need that? One answer which was given and I tried to understand was that as God is good, and one cannot be good unless there is someone on whom this goodness can be bestowed. So here again, I was confronted with another absurd possibility that God needs existence to make Him perfect!

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." (MN3:13)

Rambam is saying that the purpose of the whole of existence cannot be known even according to our belief that the world was willed into existence by God in time. There is therefore no real difference between the philosophers and the Torah understanding of purpose; they both agree that we cannot know it except that we attribute existence to God’s will and the philosophers to necessity. Having come to this conclusion, we however observe that self-sustainability and continuity seem to be an objective. The philosophers clearly agree with that assessment, as does the Torah.

When therefore Scripture relates in reference to the whole creation (Gen. 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.” (MN3:13)

We therefore conclude that as God willed the universe in a way that it becomes self-sustainable and eternal going forward (a parte post), that continuity is a goal in itself. All the components of this universe are therefore there to keep the whole in existence. Continuity and existence are therefore goals in themselves and are seen as the will of God.

It is important to note that the verse Rambam uses in the above quotation refers to the last of all creations – man. It is only after man was created that the words Tov Me’od – exceedingly good – are used. Which brings us back to the question, what is the status of man in relation to the other components of the universe? True he is not the goal of the whole of creation but does he have a special status among all other created things? I will address this in my next post.

[1] See my posts under the labels “belief”, “cosmogony”, “will” and “existence of God” for extensive discussions of these hypotheses.


  1. If "the purpose of the whole of existence cannot be known", why try and figure it out?

  2. Ergo, Exactly. However there is the possibility that although we do not know the reason for existence as a whole other than it is God's will, we still have to wonder if we have a reason for existing. The answer to that question may help us decide how to behave and act.

  3. I understand intellectually (not really emotionally I think) that we can't perceive the purpose of existence, I still however find it very difficult to be satisfied with this knowledge.

    Do you have any practical suggestions for how to deal with this longing to see purpose to existence?

  4. Malka,

    Please understand that when I say that we cannot know the purpose of existence I am talking about the whole universe and physical existence and not individual man. We know that God created the universe but we don't know why, other than His will. It really should not concern us if we think about it carefully as our actions will have a very small likelihood of affecting it anyway. We do know though that the world we live in has a built in survival mechanism and we are part of it. That should be the focus of our serach for understanding. That is the point of this discussion. As I move along the subject I hope it will become clearer.

    It may sound harsh but Judaism is not in service of man but man in service of God. In other words it is not there to make us feel better but to define our responsibilities towards God and consequently fellow man and the rest of the universe. Marx's "opiate of the people" applies to many religions but not to true Judaism.

  5. if anyone is interested to study this topic further the sefer THE WAY OF G-D By Moshe Chaim Luzzatto is a great place to look

  6. We are talking about the purpose of all this. But the point is,even if there is a purpose whether its fulfilled or not does not make any difference. If its fulfilled,its fulfilled. Then what? if its not,its not.then what?what difference does it make? Assuming that there is a purpose in the first place. ABA

  7. The existence (as a whole) itself does not have any purpose. But the purpose of human being existence is to understand the system in existence and live accordingly to make a mind (a concious element) fullfilled with knowledge (Truth).
    The one thing that i don't understand is 'How is the existence is created? (i.e. The source of existence)'.
    If god exists, then what is the purpose of existence of himself? Why does god exist? How the god is created? What are the source elements for creation of god?
    If we consider that god has created the existence than there are still questions which are about existence, are also applicable for/about god.