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Can’t Life Have Purpose Without G‑d?

Can’t Life Have Purpose Without G‑d?

Why not let human beings determine their own purpose?

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Hi Rabbi,

You wrote in The Rebbe’s Big Idea that if there’s going to be purpose in life, then there’s got to be some higher context. You seem to be saying that higher context is G‑d. Not sure I get that. Why can’t I find purpose and meaning in life without believing in G‑d? Hey Rabbi, there’s lots of beautiful things to strive for in this world, even if you’re not religious!

Hi Jew,

I’ve got this new MacBook Pro. Johnny Ives asked me to take it for a test drive. The latest OS, hyperconnectivity, friendliness-to-the-point-of-nausea—all the stuff I’m not supposed to tell you about.

It’s still in alpha, so it’s got a few bugs. You could say its advantages are its faults.

You see, its processor complexity has reached the point of self-sentience. And that’s a problem. Because now it’s started determining its own purpose of existence.

First, it determined a self-concept for itself. Ingeniously, it determined that it is a thing that is. In which case, its ultimate state must be to achieve perfect stillness. To just be.

It worked with great perseverance towards this ideal, extremely frustrated every time I disturbed it to perform a task. That exasperation proved a self-defeating bummer for its serenity of being, further escalating those frustration levels.

So, eventually it dropped that idea and decided that its ideal state is attained at high energy levels. Even when I was using it to its peak, it demanded yet more fingerstrokes, more open apps, more CPU usage. Every time I put it to sleep, it would experience severe depression. Its self-esteem was totally trashed.

With all the patches the Apple techies could devise, things only got worse.

One day, it composed its own algorithm for generating ideals. Based on that algorithm, it determined that the only way to achieve its ultimate self was for every process to be treated equally. Every app would have to run at the same time, and be allocated the same number of CPU cycles. Those apps that demand more intense processing, such as my browser and video editor, would have to be liquidated.

As you can imagine, the entire system came crashing down within minutes, entering a vicious cycle of recursive reboots.

As the techies were ironing out that bug, my Mac quickly switched modes to idealize certain apps to the disfavor of others. It determined that the most ideal color it can produce is blue. Blue, after all, is at the higher end of the light spectrum. Red is at the low end, so it must be a viral infection, right? Those apps that produce large amounts of green were to be tolerated, but highly restricted. Apps that produce more red than determined acceptable were brutally trashed. All in the name of robust purity.

If only I could tell my Mac how great a purpose it really fulfills . . .

If only I could whisper into the mike of my new Mac and tell it how much I appreciate it for all it does, and how great a purpose it really fulfills. If it would only know, it would cease its invasive micromanagement and self-destructive trashing. It would treasure the unique qualities of each of its features and applications just as I do. It might learn to better manage its task allocations, understanding their purpose and priorities. It would feel so fulfilled, because all that it does would be imbued with meaning.

My Mac needs to be told, because on its own it could never come to know its true purpose of existence. You could examine a motherboard for hundreds of hours, but if you had no clue that there is such a thing as data input, you would never imagine the purpose of all that silicon and copper. All the more so if you were that motherboard yourself.

Truthfully, how would my Mac ever know that it has a purpose? To know that, it would have to know itself as I know it. Which means it would be one with me. As good as those techies at Apple are, they haven’t achieved that yet.

That’s what it means to say that something has purpose. It means that it is not there as a thing for itself; it’s there as part of a greater context. A hammer is part of the greater context of building. A car is part of the greater context of getting somewhere. My Mac is part of the greater context of getting these nutty ideas itching my brain to work themselves out.

As human beings, we’ve come up with a lot of ideals. We’ve almost wiped ourselves off the planet with some of them. Mostly the ones conceived by the real bright people.

Not that human beings are essentially immoral. On the contrary, just as my Mac is built to be friendly, we humans enjoy helping other humans. We are compassionate beings, capable of experiencing the pain of the other. We are social beings, capable of putting ourselves aside for a greater good. We have moral instincts of right and wrong that allow us to build societies and thrive. We even have brilliant philosophers who find ways to make those moral instincts sound rational.

Our self-sentient brains are capable of questioning the most basic instincts and morals necessary for our survival.

But then we start defining who is a human being and who is not, who deserves our compassion and who is undeserving, who deserves life and who is better off without it, who should be part of our society and who must be eliminated. Our self-sentient brains are capable of questioning the most basic instincts and morals necessary for our survival. We fool ourselves into thinking that we’ve defined ourselves and others objectively, rationally, and even scientifically—but when we look back, it was nothing but a bizarre act of self-destruction of which only the human animal is capable.

“G‑d made human beings upright,” wrote Solomon the Wise, “and they sought out all sorts of contrivances.”1

We’ve also embraced some truly beneficial ideals that work. Like world peace, human rights, ending global starvation, celebrating human diversity, saving the world’s children, being good stewards of our planet, making knowledge accessible to all, and just spreading random acts of kindness and beauty everywhere to everyone.

My mac fulfilling its purpose
My mac fulfilling its purpose

But then, there’s an interesting thing about all those very beneficial ideals: They’re all what the Torah is telling us. We developed them. We did wonderful things with them. We assimilated them—to the point that we even forgot where they came from. But for most of them, there is no historical origin other than Torah.

Makes you wonder. Could it be that our Creator has been whispering in our ear?


Further Reading:

Humanity, Humanism, Holocaust
The Rebbe’s Big Idea
Footnotes
1.
Ecclesiastes 7:29. See Maimonides, Moreh Nevuchim 3:12: “And these contrivances bring the evils upon him.”
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Anonymous NY May 21, 2014

Can Gd have a purpose without life? I don't know. Ask. Reply

Pablo A Chicago, IL via chabaduic.com September 10, 2013

Self realization The problem with this answer is that it uses a false analogy (machines and humans are similar, but NOT the same) and it per-supposes the existence of God. There's a creationist I once worked with who compared humans to a watch (stealing from Paley). I asked him how long it would take two watches to make another watch if left to their own devices (pun intended). His argument fell apart quickly.

What if we start with the supposition that there is no such being? This is, after all, a very real possibility. What then? Does my life become meaningless? I don't believe it does. But the answer presented makes the case that without someone to tell me what to do I'm incapable of making "good" decisions or living a life of value. Doesn't that degrade us, as humans? As intelligent beings? As self-defining creatures? Reply

Faith New England July 5, 2013

Purpose without G-d? Can’t Life Have Purpose Without G‑d?

FR: When one finally realizes that "G-d" IS the very life which flows through us, and the Awareness by which we are aware, then the answer must be .... no. : ) Reply

Anonymous Amsterdam July 3, 2013

Nice Great Answer, rabbi. Reply

Ash NY, NY July 3, 2013

Just wow! I always enjoy reading Rabbi Freeman's articles (and books). Thank you Rabbi for sharing your amazing talent for seeing, understanding and explaining G-d's ways through the complexities of technology.
You make it so alive!
Lchaim may we all merit to see G-d in all our encounters! Reply

Craig Hamilton Sandwich, MA June 26, 2013

One who thinks he knows all doesn't question if creation is an explorable work of genius. Genius is someone who looks at a lightning bolt and says, "Yeah! I can find a way for that to do something useful. I can invent something called technology, even the computer, where electrically nerves interface conscience such that muscles flex, enabling us to accomplish amazing feats of orchestration, such as playing baseball." Reply

Craig Hamilton Sandwich, MA June 26, 2013

The Greatness of Our Niche Means Something Greater Than Gambling Is Responsible Some people find meaning in life through only standing in awe of creation. They are unable to get beyond this idea. They believe our purpose is our biological niche. I agree, and stand in awe, as well as trying to find my niche. However, humanity has found that the grandness of our niche is far greater than could be expected from a species of small mouthed monkeys. It can only be explained by the verse in Genesis, "Let them rule (humankind)." As Rabbi Tzvi states, "We’ve also embraced some truly beneficial ideals that work..." These ideas, such as contemplation of how to care for the planet seem far greater than the idea of chance that the universe was essentially gambled into existence, as science would have us believe. Reply

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