Why Are We Here? One Agnostic’s Half-Baked Philosophy

A friend of mine recently read my essay, Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, and she had an interesting criticism of it.

Well, not a criticism exactly. What she said was that it didn’t address her own existential crises. Her non-believer crises aren’t about “What happens when we die?” She’s not troubled by that. Death isn’t the problem for her.

Life is. The non-believer question that keeps her up at night is, “Why am I here?”

So I want to talk about an atheist/agnostic answer to the question, “Why are we here?”


Let’s make it more general. Let’s not ask why we, human beings, are here. Let’s ask why anything is here.

When you ask why something is here, the question can have two completely different meanings. The first is, “How did it get here? What caused it to be here?” The second meaning — often totally different from the first — is, “What is its purpose?”

Example. If you ask, “Why is the television in the living room?”, you could answer by saying, “It’s there because I put it there.” That’s the first kind of answer — “What caused it to be here?” Or you could say, “It’s there so we can watch ‘The Simpsons,’ and the living room is where the sofas are.” That’s the second kind of answer — “What is its purpose?”

So what does this have to with God, and why we’re here?

I think the problem with the famously big philosophical question “Why are we here?” comes, to a great extent, from a confusion of these two meanings of the question.

I mean, if you do believe in God, the answer to both versions of the question is the same. The answer is God. God is the cause of us being here — and God is our purpose for being here.

But if you don’t believe in God, then those two versions of “Why are we here?” become very different questions — with completely opposite answers.

The “what caused us to be here?” version of the question has a very straightforward, physical answer. We are here because of evolution and natural selection  and in a larger sense, because of the laws of biology and chemistry and physics. We are here because this planet supports life, and life happened to evolve in a certain way, and our ancestors — and their ancestors, and theirs, and theirs before them, ad infinitum — were successful in surviving and reproducing. It’s spectacular, it’s wicked cool, there’s huge amounts of detail about it that we don’t understand — but it’s not conceptually difficult, or philosophically traumatic. It’s physical cause and effect. It doesn’t keep anyone up at night.

Of course, like any other “How did it get here?” type question, any answer to the question “What caused us to be here?” just begs the new question of what caused the cause to be there… and so on, ad infinitum. Once you answer the question of how you personally got here, you then have the question of how humans got here. When you answer the question of how humans got here, you then have the question of how life started at all. When you answer the question of how life started… you get my point. But even when you reach a place in the cause-and-effect chain that’s currently mysterious and unanswered, the basic concept of physical cause-and-effect isn’t mysterious at all.

But let’s look at the other version of the question.

When you don’t believe in God, the question “What purpose do we serve?” is as elusive as “What caused us to be here?” is solid. It isn’t simply mysterious. It’s unanswerable. Or at least, it has no objective, external answer. There’s no-one who put the TV in the living room. There’s no creator or designer with any job for us to do.

But I don’t think that means we have no purpose. I think it means we get to make up our purpose for ourselves.

I think it means we’re free.

And I much, much prefer that. I don’t want my entire reason for existing decided by someone else’s design, like I’m a memory chip in some cosmic video game. I want my place in the world decided by me, based on my own values and ideas and experiences. It’s a huge responsibility — it sometimes feels like I’m carrying a sixteen-ton weight on my shoulders — but I want to decide my own purpose in life. (Lately I’m leaning towards some combination of “Connect with other people and other living things,” “Work on making the world more like you’d like it to be,” ‘Be a strong, interesting link in the chain of history,” and “Get as much joy as you can out of this very short life that you were unbelievably lucky to get”… but it’s still evolving.)

There’s a passage from “The Lathe of Heaven” by Ursula K. LeGuin that says part of what I want to say better than I can, so I’ll just quote it: The hero, George Orr, has been asked what he thinks man’s purpose on Earth is. This is his reply:

“I don’t know. Things don’t have purposes, as if the universe were a machine, where every part has a useful function. What’s the function of a galaxy? I don’t know if our life has a purpose and I don’t see that it matters. What does matter is that we’re a part. Like a thread in a cloth or a grass-blade in a field. It is and we are. What we do is like wind blowing on the grass.”

Of course, we aren’t quite like grass or a galaxy. We have consciousness, and conscience, both of which make everything less simple. But conscience and consciousness don’t hand us any external purpose. They’re tools we use to help us create our own.

The thing is… believers in God have this exact same freedom as well. Even if you believe that there is a God and we’re here to fulfill his or her divine plan, you still have to choose which of your religion’s specific teachings you should follow, and what to do when different teachings conflict — and of course, which basic religion to follow in the first place, and indeed whether to believe in God at all.

So it’s not as if believing in God gets you off the “What is my purpose?” hook (although many believers do act as if it does). All of us — believers, non-believers, doubters, everyone — we all have the same freedom, and the same responsibility, to decide what our purpose is, and to act on it.

Why Are We Here? One Agnostic’s Half-Baked Philosophy

11 thoughts on “Why Are We Here? One Agnostic’s Half-Baked Philosophy

  1. 1

    Hi Greta. The thing that keeps me up at night is actually the “…place in the cause-and-effect chain that’s currently mysterious and unanswered.”
    What freaks me out is that we don’t know, and probably will never know, that ultimate mysterious, answered question. I say we’ll probably never know it because I just assume its outside the realm of our 3-dimensional existence. How could something come from nothing? Why does matter exist in the first place? My question is really more about how the television got into the livingroom than why someone thought the livingroom would be the best place for it.
    But then, I guess the question of our “purpose” is linked to the question of why everything is here (in the first sense.) Maybe we’re all just unconscious food for the Matrix. Why not? Or maybe we are just the science experiment of some higher being.
    I’m an atheist only in the sense that I choose not to believe in anything that can’t be proven. But just because I don’t actively believe in something doesn’t mean that I actively disbelieve it. (Okay, I do actively disbelieve in the white dudes with the beards — both God and Santa Clause.) Until we know the ultimate answer to why everything is here, the possibilities we can imagine are endless.
    So, of course, for sanity’s sake, I should drop it. What good does it do to waste time in the shower every morning pondering these questions when I’m just going to be late to work AGAIN? But sanity has never been my strong point.
    And the thing is, I don’t actually need to know these answers myself. I don’t know how a TV works, but I watch one and don’t fret about it. I definitely don’t get how a big hunk of metal stays up in the sky, but I still get on planes (with some trepidation, I’ll admit) and trust that they’ll get me to my destination without falling. I don’t understand many things about this world, but what comforts me is that there are people who do. I don’t have to know everything as long as somebody knows the answer.
    But nobody knows ultimately why everything is here. And as much as scientists learn, we humans may never know the full story. So for me, valium has proven to be very useful for those nights when no amount of deep breathing or mindfulness meditation will stop the wheels from spinning so I can sleep.

  2. 2

    “What freaks me out is that we don’t know, and probably will never know, that ultimate mysterious, answered question… How could something come from nothing? Why does matter exist in the first place?”
    I’ll admit that’s a poser, and something we may never really know. (Although maybe we will — we certainly know things now that a thousand or even a hundred years ago we thought were unknowable!) Has the physical universe always existed — and if so, what does that even mean? If it hasn’t always existed, how did it come into being — and again, what does that even mean? How could there be a time before existence: what meaning could the concept of “time” even have without a universe?
    But I don’t think these are questions that can be answered by “God.” God really just begs the question. If you believe that God created the universe — than what created God? And if God always existed… well, why is it impossible to imagine the universe always having existed, but not impossible to imagine God always having existed?
    My point isn’t so much that non-believers have no imponderables. I think my point is that believing in God doesn’t actually answer those imponderables. Many believers (although certainly not all) act as though it does — but it really doesn’t. You still have the question of how the first thing (whether God or universe) came into being… and you still have to take responsibility for deciding what your purpose in life is.
    I guess for me, the “How did the universe get here?” question isn’t ultimately troubling. It’s fascinating, it’s sure something I’d like to know. But I think the most likely answer is “some form of physical cause and effect, which is currently beyond our understanding but may not always be,” and while the infinite regression of answer and question is at times frustratingly tantalizing, I guess I find the basic concept pretty straightforward. Can you explain more about why that keeps you up at night?
    (FYI, for me, the big mystery that keeps me up at night is this: What are free will and consciousness? If I don’t believe in a metaphysical soul, if free will and consciousness are somehow the result of neurological processes in the brain, then what the hell are they and how do they work? I don’t believe free will is an illusion (although I don’t have any evidence to back that up, other than the evidence of my awareness and experience, which could of course be an illusion). But if there’s no soul, I don’t have any idea what either free will or consciousness are, or how they work. And to me, those questions are much more central to my sense of self than where the physical universe came from.)
    Oh, BTW: Airplanes stay up in the sky because, when the plane is moving forward, the shape of the wings creates greater air pressure under the wings than above them, thus creating lift. If the plane is moving forward fast enough, and the plane is light enough, then the difference in pressure is enough to make it go up and stay there. (I think that’s the essence of it, anyway. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong.)

  3. 3

    Some religions state that people have free will as well. They are free to do as they please (although there is a consequence for actions in the next life, but then again there’s consequences in this life as well, the existence of consequences doesn’t eliminate freedom, it just changes the ‘equation’ of what you might do)

  4. 4

    Hi Greta,
    Speaking of evolution and sex-positivity, what do you think of the evolutionary theory that vindicates the sexual double standard? Where women are built to be attached to one man and men are built to sleep around with many women?

  5. 5

    According to Matt Ridley it’s not just that men are built to sleep around with many women; women are built to get a bit on the side with a second man. Neither sex is programmed for monogamy. I find this quite plausible, but you can’t go directly from “is” to “ought”. Even if it is correct, some kind of tricky argument would have to be put as to what, if anything, it says about our moral norms. In my humble opinion, we should all be much more open to ideas of polyamory, but the argument for that is not going to be straightforward.
    But I mainly wanted to congratulate Greta for unpacking the “why” question so logically and neatly. I tend to give short shrift to the question when it has the second meaning, since there is no reason to start with an assumption that there is any “why” to it in the second sense. However, that was a nice, patient exposition that you gave us.

  6. 6

    “What do you think of the evolutionary theory that vindicates the sexual double standard? Where women are built to be attached to one man and men are built to sleep around with many women?”
    I’m tempted to make this a blog entry of its own; but the conversation has started here, so here it’ll stay.
    I don’t know enough about this particular theory to comment on it specifically. What I can say, in more general terms, is this:
    a) We often forget that human being are animals — a mammalian species, with certain kinds of hard-wired behavior. And in fact, most mammals do have some sort of gender-differentiated behavior that appears to be genetically programmed. Strict constructionists, I think, really tend to forget this. I don’t know enough about this theory to comment on it — but it doesn’t seem implausible.
    b) That being said, human beings do seem to have the ability to choose our behavior, in a way that most animals don’t. As Russell said above, we need to distinguish the “is” from the “ought” — and while I think that means we need to acknowledge and accept the reality of our genetic programming (sexual and otherwise), I also think we can’t just say, “Hey, baby, I’m a male animal (or female animal), I can’t help it.” We do have choices about how we act.
    c) Perhaps most importantly — I think it’s a very bad idea to critique a scientific theory on the basis of its political implications. I mean, if you think a theory or a study is flawed because of political prejudices and biases, that’s a valid criticism. But a theory is either true or it isn’t. It either describes reality or it doesn’t. (Elisabeth A. Lloyd, who wrote a book on her theory that the female orgasm doesn’t serve any evolutionary purpose, has discussed this at some length.)
    Now, I do think that when it comes to sex, it’s awfully difficult to untangle genetic programming from social programming. And obviously, any gender-differentiated behavior is going to have lots of individual variation.
    But I’ve been spending the last six years screaming at the Bush administration for ignoring science just because they don’t like what it says. I’m not going to start doing it myself.

  7. 7

    Getting back onto topic:
    “Some religions state that people have free will as well. They are free to do as they please (although there is a consequence for actions in the next life, but then again there’s consequences in this life as well, the existence of consequences doesn’t eliminate freedom, it just changes the ‘equation’ of what you might do)”
    No, I understand that. I wasn’t trying to say otherwise. I’m not saying that free will — including the freedom to determine what your purpose in life is — is something that secularists believe in and religious believers don’t.
    If anything, I’m saying the opposite. Secularists and believers both have the same ability — and the same responsibility — to decide why we’re here, and what we should do while we are. And we all have the same options for dealing with these and other knotty questions of existence and stuff. We can ignore them; we can wrestle with them; we can come to some sort of peace with them and move on. Or some combination of the three.
    I *do* think, though, that many religious believers — although certainly not all — use their religion to abdicate this responsibility. They say they believe we have free will; but they then defer serious moral and existential decisions to their doctrine. (“The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it,” or however that goes.)
    Of course, it’s not as if non-believers don’t abdicate this responsibility as well. We all have the same ability to either come up with glib answers to important questions, or let someone else answer then for us, or just ignore them and watch “CSI.”

  8. 8

    Hi Greta,
    I’ve been wanting to weigh in on this discussion and finally found time to do so. A very reductionist interpretation of human purpose is that we exist to perpetuate our genes. This is Dawkins’ argument in a nutshell. And all the other stuff: language, opposable thumbs, ability to read Kant, is just a byproduct of the ultimate goal which is to make more DNA.
    I know the evolutionary psychologists are willing to make the argument that culture, art, music are forms of sexual display – means of demonstrating the fitness of our genes.
    The same argument goes for altruism. People have a strong ability to measure reciprocity. It boils down to whether your offspring, or the offspring of your close relatives are more likely to survive if you pick parasites off of your neighbor in the expectation that you’ll have parasites removed from you in turn. Like I said, this is a very reductionist perspective.
    As for free will, I’m not sure that we have as much as we think we do. I’m starting to fall in with the argument that consciousness is a useful illusion created by our brains. A good example that I think about all the time is our sense of vision. We experience the illusion of a seamless image, but in reality, our brain is busy filling in the pieces and making stuff up so that reality seems to make sense. There’s a lot of really interesting research trying to get at the puzzle of consciousness right now.
    That’s a pretty stark vision, and not very comforting. But for some reason, it doesn’t bother me very much. I’m willing to just ‘be’ and not worry about it. Of course, there was a study that indicated that people’s intensity of religious belief has a genetic component, so perhaps I’ve inherited the genes that put me at the low end of “the need for religious comfort” scale.

  9. 9

    You know, I don’t worry much about “why” I’m here. I believe in evolution and I believe in God, but I don’t really worry too much about the details of either. For me it’s more about *HOW* I’m here. Am I happy? Am I kind? Are my actions making the planet a better place? I have no idea what the cosmic plan is, but I’m sure that if I do my best to honor myself and others then I’m working towards the plan, whatever it is. I used to spend a lot of time trying to figure out what different passages in the Bible meant and whether or not I could believe in them. I used to wonder why God did or didn’t do certain things, but then I realized I don’t need to know these things in order to know what I should do, and the time and energy I was spending pondering these things could be used working towards the things I knew were right and good.
    No matter what you believe, any sane person knows that we are supposed to take care of ourselves and be good to others. There are some moral questions that remain, and I deal with them as they arise with a mixture of prayer and logical thought, but mostly, I just do my best to be a good person and figure that whatever the reason I’m here is, that’s the best thing I can do to work towards it.
    And I think, but of course can never really know. That I would have come to the same conclusion even if I didn’t believe in God.

  10. 10

    I had the same mysteries attatched to my consciousness for a while now, but I recently read a book – Godel, Escher, Bach; An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter – that really helped me understand it all. I suggest you take a look if you’re interested.

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