Humanity is the only species that is so driven to imagine a higher purpose for our lives, that we deprive ourselves of life's primary reward for living well. It has become a common mantra that there is more to life than the pursuit of happiness. In our obsession with finding purpose in our imagined unnatural world, we've become obsessed with guilt over the happiness that can be found in the natural world.
The pursuit of happiness was considered sufficiently important to be enshrined in the founding documents of our nation. But just as we've allowed so many of the other profound principles enumerated in those documents to be debased and redefined, we've allowed our natural desire for happiness to be distorted into a source of shame.
Our civilizations and social structures are largely the results of our efforts to overcome the natural order of life. Using power to do right is self-justified. Only abusing power requires an external justification. A predator that kills to feed itself and its young has no need to ponder the ethics of its actions. Only a species whose intelligence and dominance allows it the unnatural luxury of discretion in its actions, has any need to ponder ethical justifications.
Philosophers down through the centuries have tortured logic and language in their efforts to justify the effects of man's discretionary actions in the natural world. The most popular philosophies have offered the illusion that man is somehow separate from, and superior to, the natural world. And as we increasingly distanced ourselves from the natural world, we lost our understanding of the context within which our species evolved.
Having lost the context necessary to understand ourselves, we began to question the basic aspects of human nature. We've now become so obsessed with denying our basic animal nature that we've demonized nearly every natural expression of basic human nature. We've become so hostile towards ourselves that the mere suspicion that someone, somewhere, still finds it a source of pleasure is all that is required to turn a previously accepted aspect of human nature into the latest evil needing to be suppressed. Having intellectually inverted the value of pleasure, it was an inevitable next step to question our natural attraction to happiness.
But do we really want to condemn those aspects of human nature that made our modern artificial world possible, just because they've become associated with the "bad old days" when we still admitted our connection to the natural world? Can we find a purpose for human life if we reject the purpose of life in the natural world?
First of all we need to consider the definitions of purpose and happiness. The pursuit of happiness seems to be a common motivation in many, if not most, species. The universality of happiness makes it one of the most easily communicated shared experiences across the species barrier. For example, many people can empathize with a purring cat, even though most of the time the feline mind remains an enigma, even to those who've been allowed by a cat to share its home.
Humanity evolved as social animals. As such we have an instinctual need to interact with other humans. We've evolved a number of instinctual predispositions in order to facilitate the complex group dynamics that have allowed humans to become the dominant species on the planet. These instinctual predispositions are expanded and enhanced by the socialization process of childhood, where we learn how to function in our particular variation of human society.
Most of us suffer inner conflicts when we compromise these instinctual and learned predispositions. Our subconscious minds use their control over our emotional subsystems to encourage our higher level consciousness to satisfy our inner needs, by rewarding compliance with happiness. Our learned and instinctual predispositions may be flawed, or even entirely irrational and mutually contradictory, but each of us can only be truly happy when our life decisions accommodate whatever set of inner predispositions we've accumulated.
Some individuals with aberrant instincts and socialization can arguably find happiness in entirely selfish pursuits. However, the fact that civilization exists at all, demonstrates that most humans are predisposed toward some degree of need for the positive regard of their peers. The enlightened self-interest that has proven to be the most effective mechanism for progress in human history may superficially resemble selfishness, but is profoundly different in its fundamental motivation and implementation.
Using our intelligence to increase our ability to control our lives has always been humanity's best survival tool. Our intelligence has allowed us to greatly amplify our ability to alter our world, and thereby created additional levels of complication. It's in these levels that our conscious minds most commonly seek a purpose for our individual lives.
By creating the artificial civilization in which we live, we also created an artificial appearance of direct personal purpose in our lives. Our everyday lives have become multiple layers of purpose driven decisions. We consider not only what we can accomplish directly, but also how our actions today will affect our prospects for promotion next year, our overall career plans for the next couple decades, and maybe even our eventual retirement. The expectation that our actions will result in predictable outcomes is a fundamental aspect of our civilization, with the result that from childhood we are taught to make plans for the future. Plans appear to give our lives purpose - at least on a personal level.
Since by definition we are each the center of our perceptions of the world outside our physical bodies, it's understandable that we seek to find the same sort of personal significance to the universe that we can't help but find in our personal experiences of that universe. And as we daily strive to create purpose in our own lives, we in turn seek to find the same sort of purpose in the universe. Looking for the wrong definition of purpose in the wrong aspects of life dooms most quests for purpose to failure.
Some tens of billions of years from now the universe will die, and nothing any of us do today will have any detectable residual significance. Our science isn't yet capable of determining whether there is enough matter for the universe to collapse back into a singularity, or whether it will simply continue expanding until entropy results in its heat death. Either way, by the end of the universe, the earth will have already been gone for billions of years.
("It has long been a basic concept in thermodynamics that entropy affects all systems, and causes natural systems to degrade into greater confusion and disorder as time passes. Entropy defines the direction of time and prevents time from spontaneously reversing. The ultimate effect of entropy over the next tens of billions of years will be to create a temperature equilibrium in which maximum disorder has been achieved and no useful energy sources remain. This is referred to as the heat death of the Universe." - Entropy, Complexity and Life, Port of Call, Feb/March 95)
While the ultimate fate of the universe may still be an open question, the future of the earth is much easier to predict. A few billion years from now, our sun will have consumed its hydrogen fuel and entered its end-sequence, during which its still fiery surface will expand beyond the earth's orbit. By that time our species will have already been extinct far longer than it existed.
The matter that constituted our tangible physical bodies was originally formed in the heart of an exploding star. It had already accumulated a long history before becoming part of our brief existence. This same matter will still exist at the end of the universe. By then it will have accumulated so much additional history over the intervening billions of years, its association with our physical existence will be little more than an insignificant instant.
It's extraordinarily improbable that any residual effects of our individual lives will persist beyond the end of the earth, let alone the end of the universe. Any purpose for an individual life must occur within the scope of that individual's physical existence, and whatever memory of him lingers after he is gone.
Entropy is the single most pervasive and irresistible force in the universe, and life is a natural function of entropy. (See Entropy, Complexity and Life, Port of Call, Feb/March 95.) On a molecular level, life serves the purposes of entropy by assembling organic structures that contain less energy density than the same matter as freestanding atoms. Evolution is the mechanism through which life seeks to optimize the means of accomplishing its entropy driven purpose. On one level, we achieve our purpose in life simply by participating in the process of living.
The basis of natural selection is that each species strives to maximize its success within the process of evolution. Those that are best adapted survive until something better adapted for their role in the ecosystem appears, while less well adapted species become extinct. The proper functioning of evolution requires that we seek to maximize our success as a species by enhancing our potentials for long term survival. The civilization our intelligence makes possible serves the purposes of entropy by enabling an expanded population at the top of the organic complexity scale. As such we serve the fundamental purpose of life when we use our intelligence to advance the human condition in rational directions.
Enlightened self-interest has proven to be the most effective means of advancing the human condition. A well adjusted individual is most happy when expressing his instinctual and learned predispositions in ways that embody the social contract at the core of our civilization. For those individuals best adapted to life within an artificial civilization, pursing their enlightened self-interest, in ways that accommodate the social contract, is the most effective means of achieving personal happiness. Within the above definitions of purpose and happiness, seeking happiness is the purpose of an individual life.