From a book I’ve just read:

“Our technological development had reached a peak and had been established long enough for us to understand the problems it must bring. The chief one was this: there was nothing for billions upon billions of indiviuals to do. They had no purpose but to exist, and then die. That this would be a problem had not been foreseen. […] We had not understood that there is inherent in every creature of this galaxy a need, an imperative, towards a continual striving, or self-transcendence, or purpose. To be told that there is nothing to do but consume, no work needed, nothing to achieve, is to receive a sentence of death. The hapless millions, offered by their triumphantly successful leaders plenty, leisure, freedom from want, from fear, from effort, showed every symptom of mass psychosis, ranging from random and purposeless violence to apparently causeless epidemics and widespread neurosis.”


16 thoughts on “Purpose

  1. andrea December 3, 2008 / 5:06 pm

    Doris Lessing’s books are always thought-provoking. I think there is a lot of truth to that quote.


  2. Erik R. December 3, 2008 / 5:58 pm

    Bah-loney. “Peak technological development” is an asymptote we won’t get anywhere near during the lifetime of our sun or the next one we inhabit.


  3. andrea December 3, 2008 / 11:45 pm

    Well, I’m not sure we ever would, either. But I think she has a point about how we would be lost without a purpose.


  4. Erik R. December 4, 2008 / 6:25 am

    Yes, but I think that human nature is such that it is impossible to be without purpose. If someone told us all that we no longer had to do anything, I think that (because she’s right that we’d feel “lost”) we would invent new purposes to strive for.

    Isn’t that basically what sports and all games are?


  5. simonlitton December 4, 2008 / 9:12 am

    Erik: first of all bear in mind that this is an ancient alien civilisation she’s talking about, so a) they’ve had time to reach their peak, and b) they may have different ideas about what constitutes such a peak.
    Secondly, Lessing doesn’t write hard SF – she uses the genre’s ideas and images as metaphors, so they’re not necessarily to be taken at face value.
    Thirdly, could you really say that your life has purpose because you’ve invented a game or sport that fills your time? I don’t think a purpose is something you can invent – it’s inside you already and you just have to find it.


  6. Erik R. December 4, 2008 / 12:16 pm

    Oh, my mistake. I was assuming we were talking about humans. My answer below continues with the faulty assumption because you posed a direct question to a human. Although I suspect that other advanced civilizations are probably similarly at the mercy of their original biological imperatives of competition. But that’s another discussion.

    Re: thirdly… If we’re going on the definition of purpose as “reason for existing”, then it is my religious/philosophical view that there is none, or at least that humans aren’t any more special than, say, rocks. This irks the living daylights out of our big brains, so we have to invent Creators that have some final higher objective in mind. It’s more comforting to feel like a pawn in a chess game than a rock in the dirt.

    We spend most of our lives working to fulfill our biological and social needs. Everyone’s skill set and interests are slightly different, so we choose a career path that most stimulates our brains.* When something feels right, we think, “I was meant to be a dancer/chef/accountant/teacher. I can feel it!” It matters not that being a talented chef at a fancy restaurant isn’t really doing much to advance civilization in the way that this alien civilization is supposed to be “advanced”. It still feels good, so we call it purpose.

    I have no doubt that the inventors of basketball, Monopoly, badminton or Tetris felt like they had “served their purpose to civilization” by inventing such entertaining pastimes.

    *This is what you call “already inside you and you have to find it”, which is a comforting euphemism for “come up with (aka. invent) something that feels right to you”.


  7. simonlitton December 4, 2008 / 1:49 pm

    I think we need to be clear about personal perspective here. What’s important, as usual, is not reality, but the individual’s perception thereof. Regardless of what someone’s “purpose” is, simply having a purpose is often enough. So in that sense I guess you’re right – purposes always have to be invented, but not just in a “arbitrarily pick a challenge and devote yourself to it” way. That’s why I said that you also have to “find” it – it has to resonate with something inside you. I think that’s more or less what you just said, right?
    But the book also looks at the larger question of the purpose of an entire civilisation. They’ve expanded as far as they can, technology provides them with everything they need, they’re effectively immortal…now what?
    On the other hand, although I don’t know anything about the person who invented Tetris, I’m pretty sure that they didn’t sit back in their chair afterwards and say to themselves “There! My block-stacking game constitutes my greatest, most enduring contribution to civilisation on Earth!”
    It may be that I’m just biased as I have no patience for sports or games of almost any kind, but at the end of the day many (not all, I know), regardless of their religious beliefs (or lack thereof) feel the need for something more than just entertaining ways to pass the time.


  8. Erik R. December 4, 2008 / 2:46 pm

    I think that’s more or less what you just said, right?

    Yes. More or less.

    That’s what we have art for. Should all questions of science ever be answered, we can all just become artists. The space of all possible songs, paintings, and stories is infinite. 🙂


  9. Erik R. December 4, 2008 / 2:49 pm

    Or blogging…and participating in philosophical debates in comment threads.


  10. simonlitton December 4, 2008 / 3:00 pm

    I like to think that we’re making our modest contribution to the evolution of humankind’s consciousness via this comment thread too.


  11. Di December 5, 2008 / 10:03 am

    I do believe that the comments section was possibly more interesting than the post, in that the post was a quote from an author whereas watching you two discuss was quietly thrilling.


  12. simonlitton December 5, 2008 / 10:08 am

    Di: I know – a clash of intellectual titans, right?


  13. J December 6, 2008 / 7:28 am

    For some reason, this reminded me of a quote from a Frankie Goes to Hollywood song, “Lunar Bay”

    “In the common age of automation, where people might
    Eventually work ten or twenty hours a week, man for
    The first time will be forced to confront himself with
    The true spiritual problems of living”


  14. J December 6, 2008 / 7:30 am

    And I think that lyric is wrong…it says “the Common age”, but I think he’s saying, “The Coming age” with a Scottish accent.


  15. simonlitton December 8, 2008 / 11:24 am

    I’m still waiting for that day, J, when automation makes my job unnecessary and I can live a life of subsidised leisure. I don’t think the ruling classes would ever let that happen, though.


  16. Peter December 8, 2008 / 5:27 pm

    I must agree with Di:
    your comment section interaction at this post has become a superior part of the whole write up.

    As for Doris Lessing: I know she’s an icon,
    but I can’t forget what we *had to read and discuss when taking English.



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