Why are we here? Let’s be honest


“Why are we here?”  In December 1988 Life Magazine put this question to 50 people, famous and un-famous.  You can see the other answers here.  Most of the answers are predictably droll.  Richard Nixon gave a surprisingly good answer, given how he lived his life.  Leonard Nimoy fudged his answer.  He replied “I find the question “Why are we here?” typically human. I’d suggest “Are we here?” would be the more logical choice.”  That was good for a laugh, as intended, but Rene Descartes got us past the question “are we here?”.

In the last week there has been more fudging of the question “why are we here”.  It started on the ABC television program Q&A on 9 April when Richard Dawkins, the eminent biologist and outspoken atheist, said that it is a nonsense question akin to asking “what is the colour of envy”.  Philosopher A.C. Grayling made the same assertion, that the question is not well formed, on the same  program one week later.  This is a massive cop out.  It is a well formed and in fact essential question in every life well lived.

I thought that Dawkins was quite good on the Q&A program in which he debated religious belief with George Pell.  I wasn’t going to listen to the program because I didn’t think Dawkins, Pell and the program host Tony Jones would have much of interest to say, but I heard it by accident riding in a taxi from Melbourne Airport to Melbourne Business School, and it was surprisingly interesting.  But I was dismayed to hear Dawkins fudge the question of “why are we here”.  By pretending that it is a not a real question, Dawkins has exposed himself to criticism that will never go away.  He sounds like a weasel worded politician when he wriggles out of that question.  He needs to be honest and address the question directly.

My understanding is that Richard Dawkins is an empiricist and a materialist.  Empiricists believe that knowledge comes only from sensory perception — there is no innate knowledge beyond the knowledge built into the human genome that is needed by the developing human brain to organise all the information that arrives from the senses as a single cell develops into a person.  Immanuel Kant showed in the Critique of Pure Reason that some knowledge must be innate.  Empiricists believe that claims about reality that cannot be demonstrated empirically — by repeated experiment — must be rejected.   Materialism, which goes with empiricism, asserts that there is only energy and matter (therefore, only energy) in the universe.  Materialists hold that the spiritual part of the universe — that beyond the material world — is the empty set.

The problem for Richard Dawkins and like minded persons is the logical answer to the question “why are we here?”  The logical answer for empiricist, materialists must be that we are not here for any reason at all other than to reproduce.  Our bodies and our lives have only one purpose — to carry our genes into the future.  There is no higher purpose.  There is  certainly no collective purpose, save the collective propagation of the genes in our bodies and the bodies of our relatives.  

There is no such thing as love or beauty or honour or sacrifice.  These are just modal brain states induced by chemicals for the purpose of propagating the genes.  There is no such thing as ‘moral law’.  Morality is a purely human construct.  Because there is no purpose in the empiricist, materialist world other than to propagate genes, there is only one criteria on which different moral codes can be assessed — which one is better for propagation of the genes.  Morality is a means to an end — nothing is innately good or bad — it is only good or bad relative to the survival of genes.  The only moral framework that makes sense in an empiricist, materialist world is a utilitarian framework in which propagation of genes creates the objective function.

Empiricist, materialists believe that we are here by pure chance.  Life is simply a higher state of complexity than other matter.  There is no more purpose in your life than in the ‘life’ of a rock save the purpose of propagating the physical-chemical-biological complexity that is a gene.  The essential difference between you and a rock is only complexity and the level of energy that flows through you as a complex, energy consuming entity.

Dawkins and company fudge their answers because they want to convert others to their way of thinking.   Unfortunately, for Richard Dawkins most people don’t want to hear that they don’t really ‘love’ their children, they just have a chemical reaction when they experience them in thought or through the senses.  Most people don’t want to hear that their lives have no meaning.  So, they have to pretend that ‘why are we here’ is meaningless.

It is a pity that Richard Dawkins and others find this demeaning fudge necessary.  I find the beliefs of empiricist, materialists perfectly rational and coherent.  It is not what I believe, but it is unassailable unless it is fudged.  And stating that the question ‘why are we here’ is not a well formed question is a massive fudge.  Why not just be honest?  Dawkins should just answer in a plain and honest way that is true to his beliefs — we are here by accident, and not for any purpose other than to propagate genes.  That is the ineluctable conclusion for empiricist materialists.  They should be proudly defend their beliefs and face up to this difficult question.


12 Responses to "Why are we here? Let’s be honest"
  1. Very good post. Any adherent of the major religions has recieved those answers by revelation and the focus is then on ‘how to live’. There are a bunch of very difficult questions in there.

    But for the empirical materialist, the why question is very difficult. I have read very little Dawkins, but it seems from his earlier work that his true beliefs are similar to what you suggest. 

    One can simply live truly by those beliefs, but it is not a recognisably human life. Very few people do so. And if our purpose is effectively gene propogation, why does Dawkins care so much that some people are religious. He is clearly very driven by it. 

    Dawkins and others have presumably thought a great deal about this and probably have very interesting if unsatisfying reflections. It’s a shame we don’t hear about it because it doesn’t suit their polemcial purpose.

    I’m not at all impressed by these new atheist types like Dawkins and Grayling (though Hitchens is a big exception). From what i’ve read, their theological knowlege wouldn’t pass a first year seminary exam and yet they are so highly confident. They seem much more obsessed by publicity than intellectual honesty. This doesn’t apply to a great deal of athiest writers, just this agressive variant that has inexplicably become very popular in the past decade.

  2. As an empirical materialist I don’t think our purpose is to propagate genes. It’s one of the things we’re optimized for (along with every other living thing), but that doesn’t equate to purpose. Purpose requires intent. And since we’re all free-thinking individuals, the purpose of our life is whatever we choose it to be.
    As to the (different) question “why are we here?”, my answer is “because all our ancestors survived long enough to reproduce”.

  3. The question “why we are here?” presupposes there is an answer of the form “to do x”. A materialist can coherently answer anything given their value system. Eg we are here to better humanity, to try to be happy, to to gain knowledge of reality, to look after friends and family and so on.  The foundation for these beliefs is some moral system: eg utilitarianism or virtue ethics or whatever. To ask the foundation for this moral system is answerable in terms of neurology and psychology. To ask why one moral system over another is answered morally. To ask for another kind of answer presupposes something that doesn’t exist and is not required rationally or emotionally. 

  4. James

    I can’t see that the question pre-supposes an answer.  It is quite reasonable to answer that there is no purpose for our existence.  If fact that is the only reasonable answer for empiricist materialists.  We are after all only a form of complexity that has formed by chance and seeks to propagate itself in that conception of reality.

    Moreover, it is not obvious that there is any free will in a materialist world.  I think you need to explain more clearly what is meant by ‘choosing’ a moral system if you believe we are composed of matter, energy and nothing else.  What you describe as choice is surely just reaction to stimulus.    

  5. Sam, 

    In response to your first point, consider the response given by Ramon Pan “To look for a purpose in Life outside Life itself amounts to killing Life”. The answer to why are we here is given by some account of living fruitfully not some metaphysical story. If you don’t accept that sort of response, then, yes, materialism rules out the alternative kind of response (i.e. there is a non-material creature that divides dead people into two groups, and hurts the ones it doesn’t like and pleasures the ones it does).  

    In response to your section point, the way I think about it is this: Fairly soon computers will be advanced enough to be considered sentient and considered to make choices. If this happens, will you stop making choices, will you cease needing to decide what to eat for breakfast? Of course not, our folk psychology understanding of ourselves will continue just the same.     

  6. Calling the question “why are we here?” poorly formed is not a cop out. This question already presupposes an answer of yes to the more fundamental question of “is there a reason for my existance?”. I think this question is the one you really want an answer to and can be answered with a simple yes or no. If no, then the question “why are we here?” does not apply.

  7. Sam,
    At Richard Dawkins’ event this Monday (at the Sydney Opera House with Lawrence Krauss) he touched on the question of “Why are we here?”, and essentially – though briefly – gave the answer you suggested he give: that we are the product of how the universe developed, i.e. we are here by chance. Dawkins also again made it clear, though, that he doesn’t regard this question as being that important (unless you want to know about how the universe developed).
    Perhaps he simply expressed himself poorly on Q&A? (I didn’t watch, nor have I seen him address the topic elsewhere.)
    FWIW, I agree with your argument.

  8. An interesting and earnest posting! Does the question need to be answered with a purpose? In other words is one presupposing there is an agent that created reality with an end in mind? I think humaninty loves the idea of finding and understanding a purpose to guide our behaviors.
    On the other hand if one approaches the question as mechanically “How did we come to be here?” we can see the scientific approach to the question is still in progress. I think that is a clue to my answer. If we think of reality as some sort of donut producing machine, we would answer the question with “to create donuts.” I think of reality as a consciousness creating machine. I think the novel “Sophie’s World” suggested humanity is a participant and audience to the creation. I would suggest we are here to produce a consciousness and direction what is to come.
    I think a materialist can answer that and not be taking a cop-out.

  9. Sam,

    To see why the question is poorly formed, consider this variation: why are we human? On a trivial level, this question can be answered by reference to the biological factors that make us human rather than something else. But that is hardly interesting in the sense that it is somewhat tautological.

    To seek a nontrivial response would require the presupposition that there must be some purpose to being human and that, of course, is question begging … 

    Also, I don’t see why the lack of some “metaphysical” purpose to “being here” should somehow devalue the human emotions of love etc. One can live a humanistic life and find a great deal of fulfillment in the relationships one forms and the pursuits one engages in without the need for any high purpose for being here.

  10. Sam, the theory of evolution by natural selection claims nothing more than that some genes do propagate to further generations more often because the related phenotype has stronger survival characteristics.

    This doesn’t mean that the survival of DNA-based life is ‘for’ that propagation.  It’s just what happens under the circumstances—it doesn’t need a reason or a justification in terms of intent.

    As a relativist and an existentialist, I believe you’re right to say there’s no absolute moral law, but wrong to defer therefore to an imagined biological primitive.  Instead, just choose the moral law for yourself.

    @Matt Thanks for summing it up nicely as well.

%d bloggers like this: