What is the Purpose?

Glen T. Martin

April 2019

In his famous 1920 essay critical of the irrationality of capitalism, British economist R.H. Tawney shows that the system of profit for profit’s sake is not only irrational but disastrous. He declares: “The essential thing is that men should fix their minds upon the idea of purpose, and give that idea pre-eminence over all subsidiary issues….as long as it does not conflict with some still more important purpose” (p.59).

For Tawney, by making profit an end in itself, modern capitalist society has made a disastrous mistake. Marx had understood that the purpose of production, of work, should be to create use-values for the sake of living a good life. Production was for the purpose of a good life, not an end in itself. But modern capitalism has made the ownership of property, and the profit that can be derived from this ownership, the end in itself. Not the creation of useful things, not support for the goods and services needed for life, not justice, truth, or beauty, but profit for profit’s sake.

There need be no purpose beyond this, we were told, because the “invisible hand” would take care of all the rest. The immense suffering of the majority of humanity for the past several centuries has testified to efficacy of this “invisible hand,” as does the destruction of our planetary environment, which may soon become beyond repair (Klein 2014). If there is no credible purpose, then the only recourse is appeal to some “invisible hand,” or some “inscrutable will of God,” or some mysterious karma accounting for the failure of our purposes in the present.

Let us then consider our purposes. Human beings are first and foremost temporal creatures who synthesize our remembered past within an ever-moving dynamic present and project a future that seeks to transcend that past and present by intending to create a better future. We also understand that our purposes, directed toward creating a better future, are necessarily social. We are connected with others in ever-widening circles. Our better future and their better futures are interdependent and interconnected. Ultimately, it is all of us, or there will be none of us left (Martin 2018).

With the advent of contemporary global issues and global crises, we have begun to see ever-more clearly that all human beings are in this situation together, and that, unless we unite under universal common purposes (which include the prevention of nuclear holocaust and devastating climate collapse), we do not have a future at all. Purposes are about the future, and they invariably give meaning to the present. Indeed, even the meaning of the unalterable past can be transformed depending on the quality and intensity of our purposes for the future.

A negative past of suffering and confusion can be reinterpreted as the precondition for our enlightenment and joy as we move into a transformed future. An unintelligent past, when our purposes were nothing better than private profit for its own sake while appealing to an “invisible hand,” can be redeemed as we reclaim an intelligent future based on authentic, inspiring and credible purposes. We can wake up, have a moral conversion, or become enlightened.

The great world religions have all formulated answers to the question of purpose. What is the ultimate purpose?  Yet the answers emerging from the history of these religions may only serve to deepen the mystery of the ultimate purpose, or even whether these may be an ultimate purpose. Every religion has had sages claiming there are levels of understanding to the depths of the revelation or the depths of meditative experience, and that what may look like the purpose at one level may not appear as the purpose at deeper levels.

Similarly, every religion has had both theologians and mystics, and sometimes both are joined in a single sage or movement. The truths conveyed may appear contradictory. Some theologians speak of God’s purposes in history, and the power of the three Abrahamic religions draws greatly from this image. However, mystics of all religions, and especially in the East, appear to discover an unsayable dimension beyond all purpose, a dharmakaya that is imageless, nameless, and purposeless.

In the name of Hinduism, Swami Vivekananda declared in 1893 that “we can no more think about anything without a mental image than we can live without breathing.” While the ultimate ground of being, he affirmed, is beyond any and all mental images (2006, 17). Meister Eckhart, the 14th century German Christian thinker, declared of God that “you should love him as he is a non-God, a non-spirit, a nonperson, a non-image, but as he is a pure unmixed bright ‘One,’ separated from all duality” (1981, 208). If the Godhead is a non-God and non-person, how can there be divine purposes? What is the relation between this depth dimension and our human purposes?

Initiates in Buddhism being guided toward enlightenment are often drawn upwards through a meditative process beyond the sambhogakaya level of images to the nameless and purposeless fulness-emptiness of sunyata. In Zen and the Art of Archery, professor Eugen Herrigel describes his experience of studying with a Zen master in Japan as he is taught to become one with the depths of the universe in the act of releasing the arrow. At one point, Herrigel cries out in frustration to the master: “How can I become purposeless on purpose?” However, despite Herrigel’s dilemma, purpose and so-called “purposeless” may be intimately related.

We know today that the world has evolved through a 13.8 billion year history since the Big Bang. Physicists have formulated “the Anthropic Principle” arguing that the emergence of self-conscious, rational creatures was inherent within the very structure of the universe from its earliest origins through an astonishing integration and coherence that has continued as the universe has expanded to its present vast dimensions (Harris 1991). It would appear that human life emerges from some mysterious cosmic purpose.

Contemporary physics has also discovered that the universe, with its immense, deep systemic coherence and consistency, can be characterized as “mind” just as much as “matter” (Laszlo 2014; Katatos and Nadeau 1990). In fact, this duality between mind and matter has substantially disappeared in recent physics, since the distinction is based on mere sensory experience, leaving out the depth dimensions. As cosmologist and interpreter of science Ervin Laszlo summarizes:

A mature science recognizes that the world is far greater and deeper than our sensory experience of it, just as a mature religion recognizes that the higher or deeper intelligence its doctrines suggest is the real core of the cosmos. A mature science is spiritual, and a mature religion is scientific. They are built on the same experience, and they reach basically the same conclusion. (2014, 93)

As physicist Henry P. Stapp expresses this, science gives us the image of a self “not as an isolated automaton but rather as a nonlocalizable integrated aspect of the creative impulse of the universe” (in Kitchener 1988, 57). Our minds participate in the depth dimension of the cosmos, an insight that should surely impact our sense of purpose. As Laszlo expresses this:

Consciousness can extend the range of our freedom. If we adopt consciously envisaged worldviews, and bring consciously envisaged goals and values to bear upon our life, our freedom acquires an additional goal-oriented dimension. And if we allow not only the sensory information that connects us with the manifest world to penetrate to our consciousness but also the more subtle insights and intuitions that reach us from the A-dimension [depth dimension], we further extend the range of our freedom. (2014, 63)

What goals and purposes emerge from this wisdom?  “Life,” he says, is clearly the fundamental value. This universe has produced conscious life, a reality that appears to have incalculable value and that translates into the idea that human beings possess the inherent dignity claimed by thinkers such as Immanuel Kant and documents such as the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This seemingly miraculous phenomenon of a self-conscious creature with the freedom to create and live by values has been produced, Laszlo affirms, through the immense coherence of the universe that is also grounded in the “supercoherence” of the quantum dimension (ibid. 66-67). Nevertheless:

The great exception to this rule is the human species. In the last few hundred years, and especially in the last decades, human societies have become progressively incoherent both with respect to each other and with their environment. They have become internally divisive and ecologically disruptive…. We can now say what is truly good in this crucial epoch. It is to regain our internal and external coherence: our supercoherence. This is not a utopian aspiration, it can be achieved. But it calls for major changes in the way we think and act. (ibid. 67)

Our purpose is coherence, harmony, unity in diversity, the uniting of all men and women within world union. Philosopher Errol E. Harris summarizes this: “the whole of humankind has become a single community, the common good of which is necessarily implicated in the good of every individual and every society. Contemporary politics as well as contemporary ethics should therefore be global.” (2000, 106).

Just as modern economics has left out purpose with its bizarre theories of the “free market” and the “invisible hand,” so the modern system of nation-states has left out purpose from the political organization of our planet. The Westphalian system of autonomous, sovereign nation-states was created in 1648 only for the purpose of ending the Thirty Years War, not with any intent for the future of society or the good of humanity. The result, as Laszlo affirms, is that nations have “become progressively incoherent both with respect to each other and with their environment.”

As Tawney expresses this: “nationalism, like individualism, lays its emphasis on the rights of separate units, not on their subordination to common obligations” (p. 35). Just as money as an end-in-itself violates our human capacity for intelligent purposes, so sovereign nation-states as ends-in-themselves violate our common human intelligence that requires common human, planetary purposes.

However, the “invisible hand” of the nation-state system has perhaps been more apparent than that of the economic system. For that invisible hand had been characterized by perpetual war. By definition, war is the breakdown of civilized relationships in an anarchy of violence and destruction. Like capitalism, in which the purpose is not a common good or the production of use-values but simply property and profit for their own sake, the system of sovereign nation-states has no stated purpose beyond “sovereignty” itself.  That is, in some mysterious way, the purpose of being a nation-state is to maintain, strengthen, and protect its own “sovereignty.”

This, of course, is another word for autonomy and independence in defiance of the reality of our interdependent humanity and the coherence of both ecology and human civilization. It is another word for perpetuating what many thinkers, including Kant, have called the “war-system,” a system of “savage and barbaric” lawless freedom that refuses to accept a “rational freedom” characterized by the rule of law, order, justice, and civility for the whole of humankind (1957). Like the system of private property and profit that is tearing humanity apart because it has no purpose beyond itself, the sovereign nation-state, now sporting nuclear weapons, threatens to exterminate all of humanity in the service of a “sovereignty” that has no purpose beyond itself.

Both contemporary science and the deep insights of the world’s religions have shown that we live in one, coherent world system arising from unsayable depths (as the dharmakaya in Buddhist language or the quantum plenum in scientific language). In either case the unity and deep coherence of the cosmos is emphasized. From any whole that is simultaneously temporal in its existence, the intrinsic coherence will give rise to a teleological end—a movement toward the self-actualization and completion of the whole. Philosopher of cosmology Errol E. Harris writes:

It is the immanence of the principle of order in the parts of a structured whole that constitutes its teleology…. In the case of a dynamic movement or a genetic process, subjection of the phases to the governance of the principle of wholeness will determine the end, which is typically the completion of some whole; thus a teleological process is one of genesis of a whole, and if the process is consciously directed it is purposive…. The goal of purposive activity is not merely…its terminal stage. The aim of a musician composing a symphony is not the final chord but the symphonic whole…. As Aristotle rightly perceived, “not that which is last deserves the name of end, but that which is most perfect.” (1991, 168)

The very fact of systemic coherence, Harris tells us, implies purpose in at all levels of nature and human life. The purpose of the supercoherence of the cosmos, Laszlo asserts, is “life”—as consciousness, freedom, and actualization of the good. The wholeness of the cosmos, Harris likewise affirms, is the teleological actualization of ever-greater coherence, harmony, consciousness, and freedom. These purposes, inherent in the universe (whether conscious or not) also inform human life. Theologian and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin summarizes this process:

The flame that for thousands of years has been rising up below the horizon is now, at a strictly localized point, about to burst forth: thought has been born. Beings endowed with self-awareness become, precisely in virtue of that bending back upon themselves, immediately capable of rising to a new level of existence: in truth another world is born. (1969, 102)

The evolutionary thrust of the universe has come to consciousness in us and a new level of existence has been born. The human mind, Harris concludes, embodies the organizing principle of the whole, now conscious in us, “For what ought to be done is what promotes health, unity, and harmony, as well in the biosphere as in human society” (2000, 262). Laszlo also concludes that the good is life and what made it possible: the coherence and supercoherence of the cosmos (2014, 66-67). It is here that we begin to integrate the conflicting claims of the world’s religions between a cosmic purpose and an intuition of cosmic purposelessness.

The matrix of coherence and supercoherence has given rise to conscious beings who may comprehend and live from that wholeness. The conscious purposes of our lives need to foster coherence, harmony, peace, and sustainability but, in any teleological system, the ultimate goal is not simply a temporal end point but what Aristotle called “perfection”—the living of the ecstatic fullness of life in each moment as we continue to live in terms of legitimate purposes of greater or lesser scope.

The greater scope of our purposes necessarily includes planetary peace, justice, and sustainability for all people on our planet. The purpose of the symphony of life is the perfection and harmony of the whole, a temporalized progression in which the end point includes within itself the very process of self-actualization. Both the system of private profit and the system of sovereign nation-states violate and impede the self-actualization our common human purpose.

In his book The Fate of Man in the Modern World, Christian-Russian philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev declares:

The problem of man takes precedence over that of society and of culture, and here man is to be considered, not in his inner spiritual life, not as an abstract spiritual being, but as an integral being, as a being social and cosmic as well…. But the true and final renaissance will probably begin in the world only after the elementary, everyday problems of human existence are solved for all peoples and nations, after bitter human need and the economic slavery of man have been finally conquered. (1969, 130-31)

The problem of man is that of fragmentation, our inability to solve our most elementary problems such as the means of survival for citizens of the Earth. Our first purpose, and the first necessary result of our quest for wholeness, needs to be addressing the horrific suffering of at least 50% of humanity who are victims of our planetary economic and political chaos. Before the fullness and ecstasy of life can arise for all people, we need food, clothing, shelter, and security for all people. Our lack of compassion and action on their behalf impairs our holistic purposes all around.

The Constitution for the Federation of Earth draws all these purposes together within a common sense blueprint for their actualization. It overcomes the incoherence of a global economic system that has no legitimate purposes, as well as the irrationality of a system of sovereign nation-states with no purpose beyond fragmentation, irrational sovereignty, and defiance of the wholeness of humanity. The Earth Constitution is founded on legitimate ultimate purposes from the very beginning: on the unified sovereignty of the people of Earth with their natural and coherent purposes to end war, disarm the nations, establish universal human rights, diminish social differences, and protect our planetary environment.

Without expressing any religious or scientific conclusions, the Earth Constitution nevertheless presents a beautifully designed holistic world system to actualize our higher human purposes for peace, harmony, and coherence that derive from the very foundations of the cosmos. It overcomes the irrational fragmentation of both today’s economics and the system of sovereign nation-states, joining human beings together to cooperatively solve our horrific economic and governance problems of planet Earth.

No option is more important. None is more fundamental. Ratifying the Constitution for the Federation of Earth needs to be integral to our most fundamental purpose. It is an expression of both the holism of humanity and the cosmic holism that informs the very ground of Existence.

Works Cited:

Constitution for the Federation of Earth, on-line at www.earth-constitution.org or www.worldparliament-gov.org.

Eckhart, Meister (1981). Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense. Ed. Bernard McGinn. Mahway, NJ: Paulist Press.

Harris, Errol E. (1991). Cosmos and Anthropos: A Philosophical Interpretation of the Anthropic Cosmological Principle. New Jersey: Humanities Press International.

Harris Errol E. (2000a). Apocalypse and Paradigm. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Harris, Errol E. (2000b). The Restitution of Metaphysics. Amherst, NY: Humanities Press.

Herrigel, Eugen (1971). Zen in the Art of Archery. New York: Vintage Books.

Kafatos, Means and Robert Nadeau (1990). The Conscious Universe: Part and Whole in Modern Physical Theory. London: Springer-Verlag.

Klein, Naomi (2014). This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Kant, Immanuel (1957). Perpetual Peace. Ed. Lewis White Beck. New York: Macmillan.

Kitchener, Richard F., ed. (1988). The World View of Contemporary Physics: Does it Need a New Metaphysics? Albany: State University of New York Press.

Laszlo, Ervin (2014). The Self-Actualizing Cosmos: The Akasha Revolution in Science and Human Consciousness. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.

Martin, Glen T. (2018). Global Democracy and Human Self-Transcendence: The Power of the Future for Planetary Transformation. London: Cambridge Scholars.

Tawney, R.H. (n.d.). The Acquisitive Society. (Publisher not listed). ISBN 9781544682877.

Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre (1969). Hymn of the Universe. New York: Harper Colophon.

Vivekananda, Swami (2006). The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda. Volume 1. Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama Publisher.


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