Written by Professor Means. The contents of this post do not reflect the views of Tomat0.
In a culture increasingly gripped by cynicism, purpose, or the lack thereof, is a point of contention in general discourse. A nihilistic perspective states that purpose is illusory, and as such life and all experiences are utterly pointless. This is based upon the notion that purpose is merely a product of perception, that reality on its own is so inherently abstract that no genuine meaning can be divined from it. From nihilism spreads either hedonism, where in the absence of a greater purpose individuals seek only to satisfy their base desires, or cynicism, where an individual decries the inevitable meaninglessness of their existence and falls into inaction.
Such a view comes into conflict with a Dharmic view of the world on several fronts: the nature of perception, the nature of external reality, the nature of choice, and ultimately the nature of purpose. A Dharmic conceptualization outlines the relation between action and larger reality as well as humanity’s place within both. Action and choice exist in a continuum, as all things enact some kind of change upon the world around them. If we define action as the causation of change and choice as the willing execution of an action, then it is fair to say human beings are helpless in whether or not they may choose and act, simply because we are constantly choosing and acting. By choosing to remain alive we enact change upon our environments in innumerable ways, and naturally choosing to die enacts change as well. Nobody can choose not to act and consequently cannot choose whether or not to choose.
In order to analyze purpose from my perspective, we must look into the concept of Dharma. Dharma is a concept that exists on all levels, from the most general possible perspective to the most specific. Generally, all entities are forced to act in some way or another. The Dharma of a river would be to flow, the Dharma of a fire would be to combust, and the Dharma of a human being is to choose and act. These myriad Dharmas are respective to the innate properties of the entities they are attributed to, the properties of fire entail combustion just as the human will entails choice. Dharma can also be applied more specifically, as there are paths of action that serve various properties of reality. Beyond outlining the basic, inevitable behaviors of an entity, Dharma can be applied more specifically on an individual level. On the most pragmatic note, Dharma can be said as actions that generate good Karma, and on a more esoteric note, Dharma can be said to be action that is in line with divine will. If all that is perceived is a reflection of reality, then the conceptual must also be recognized as a part of reality. By following the conceptual one is able to act in a way that is not limited by the animal state of being and as such achieve humanity’s true potential: the ability to conceptualize beyond animal desire.
Also in the Dharmic model of action is Karma, the aspect of consequence. Karma is the reaction to any action, how the action affects the world at large as well as the actor who initiated it. This can manifest itself in any number of ways, however it can be easily explained by the Newtonian statement that every action creates an equal and opposite reaction. For example, the action of taking a step has the obvious consequence of moving you in some direction, but also may leave a footprint, slightly wear one’s shoes down, etc.
If humanity is forced to endlessly choose, then naturally paths begin to open amongst the choices. Different actions that lead to different consequences and compound on each other infinitely. From this, purpose becomes a possibility. The sprawling pathways of choices will ultimately lead somewhere, and purpose can be said as the pursuit of this greater Karma. The human experience can be divided into two parts, the physical and the theoretical. A person’s state of being and actions occur at some intersection of the two, with action and choice being under the influence of aspects of one or the other. All action not only serves the needs of something physical, but is caused by and has consequences within the theoretical. For example, eating not only causes the physical effect of feeling satiated, but also is in service of the abstract concepts of hunger, satiation, and whatever else that would cause one to eat. Without the theoretical, the physical is totally absurd, and without the physical the theoretical has no substance. Both aspects of reality complete each other and are of equal validity.
Dharmic purpose utterly negates the purposelessness of Nihilism, as it defines purpose as a self evident aspect of reality. As previously explained Dharma is a facet of, and as such inherent to, reality. In addition, all entities act and as such are subject to the laws of Dharma. Although ultimately characterizing Dharma as purpose does not capture the full meaning of the term, it’s the closest analogue to true purpose that exists in my opinion. Dharma, as a facet of reality, provides an infrastructure for humanity to act and achieve its full potential.
Nihilists tend to deny the validity of the theoretical or espouse the priority of the physical over the theoretical. Obviously, when taken out of context either concept is absurd. If one chooses to, they could see the two together as absurd as well. However, one thing is for certain. That which is, is and I know this because I perceive it. In a lot of Nihilist discourse, there seems to be pressure to place purpose above reality in the sense that reality itself must have a purpose in order to validate the concept of purpose in general. However, this does not need to be true for purpose to have validity. The existence of choice and action are self evident, Dharma and Karma are self evident, and consequently purpose is self evident as well.
Ultimately purpose is something that is undivorceable from Karma and Dharma. All people not only exist, they choose to exist, and they choose to exist to some end or other. Even those who choose to cease existing choose to do so in service to something or another. The theoretical entities that shape action into paths are purpose. It is a simple, undeniable fact that nobody lives for nothing and nobody dies for nothing. Even the most passive existence is in service to an idea, even if that idea is something as banal as the fear of death. Choice indicates the presence of will, and willful action is by nature directed toward something, or more often a combination of targets. This target is inevitably some aspect of Karma; as all action occurs out of a desire for a preferred outcome. The will does not arbitrarily choose an action, rather both consciously and subconsciously a willful entity grades the outcomes of Dharmic paths based on a subjective set of standards, i.e. the purpose it wishes to serve, and executes the actions that will bring about the most desired reaction, and in doing so cause the entity to pursue its purpose. If reality was truly purposeless, there would be no paths and consequently no life or dynamism. Actions would exist in a formless cloud, and as such render choice impossible.
As is the case for anything, there is an overarching Dharmic struggle for humanity as a whole. The human is an animal, and as such is subject to the Dharmic purposes that govern the animal kingdom, i.e. to eat, sleep, reproduce, etc. However, the human is also sapient, and capable of perceiving and interacting with the theoretical. This enables the human to pursue Dharmic purpose outside the scope of a purely animal existence. From this ability stems much of humanity’s achievements, from art to philosophy to the free thinking most people are capable of and engage in. The ability to conceptualize beyond one’s immediate wants and needs is what both grants the human being the ability to explore the realm of abstract concepts with relative freedom and chains mankind to a sense of despair. The human condition is to be able to see the irrational crossroads upon which it stands, to be able to see beyond one’s base animal urges and to simultaneously see how one is limited and fallible because of them. The human being is both an imperfect god and an imperfect animal, blessed with qualities of both and cursed with the knowledge that it is an irrational creature, not belonging fully in either category. This knowledge leads to despair and ultimately dread, and an escape from that sense of dread can be said to be among the chief struggles of the human race.
From this crossroad, one can take many paths. The hedonist walks the path of the animal, declaring the animal condition to be the baseline upon which human existence is built, and consequently deems the theoretical to be irrelevant to any practical form of life. The hedonist then proceeds to immerse themself in their animal desires, lusting, feeding, doing whatever they want in the short term. However, as previously shown, the theoretical is as real as the physical, and this path lacks self-awareness. The ascetic shuns the physical world and seeks to dwell primarily in the theoretical. True asceticism is impossible of course, as one who totally removes oneself from the physical needs of the animal would cease to eat, drink, sleep, or breathe, and die in minutes. The human being is a physical entity, and the brain is made of matter. Reality is composed of the physical as well as the theoretical, and the two are not easily divorced. As such removing oneself from the physical world is a fool’s errand. Finally, we come to the nihilist, who upon seeing this conundrum is filled with dread and declares the human existence to be purposeless, as there is no perceivable escape from the human struggle. Although the nihilist arrives at the wrong conclusion, they are correct to state that there is no escape, as struggle is humanity’s Dharma.
Despite the best efforts of some, no human being can ever be truly ascetic or hedonistic. The simple truth is that there is no escaping one aspect of reality or another, so the human is forced to live in both. The Dharmic purpose of humanity is to constantly maintain a balance of the two, not as a stable equilibrium but as a constant state of flux. Ultimately, whether or not a person chooses to feel despair or hope in response to their situation is that individual’s choice. I personally find it empowering. There is goodness and divinity on both sides of reality, there is an infinity of concepts to explore and paths to take, and it is all in the hands of the individual. This is the blessing of humanity, to be free to act and choose, to live and die, to make use of one’s agency to further one’s will. The struggle itself is purpose, regardless of how one characterizes it. Neither the nihilist, hedonist, ascetic, or uninterested party can escape that purpose, however how one reacts to the struggle and chooses to address it is completely subjective. Why needlessly make things difficult?
As written by the sage Vyasa:
In accordance with the three modes of material nature, there are three kinds of knowledge, action, and performers of action. Listen as I describe them. That knowledge by which one undivided spiritual nature is seen in all existences, undivided in the divided, is knowledge in the mode of goodness. That knowledge by which a different type of living entity is seen to be dwelling in different bodies is knowledge in the mode of passion. And that knowledge by which one is attached to one kind of work as the all in all, without knowledge of the truth, and which is very meager, is said to be in the mode of darkness. As for actions, that action in accordance with duty, which is performed without attachment, without love or hate, by one who has renounced fruitive results, is called action in the mode of goodness. (Bhagavad Gita Ch. 18 verses 19-23)
Professor Means focuses his studies on both philosophy and economics, with an interest in both Dharmic religion and the work of Slavoj Zizek.