Wednesday, January 23, 2008

what if you knew God's purpose?

I just finished reading a fun, forgettable sci-fi/thriller called "Blasphemy." In it, a group of scientists seem to have contacted God. God explains to them His reason for creating the universe, which is, essentially, to help Him think. The universe is like a giant computer. All of the galaxies, stars, planets, people and animals are the "ones and zeros" in this computer, and we're all working together to solve some great problem.

This got me thinking about the so-called "meaning of life" that many people search for and wonder about. If they're searching for it, they must think (or at least suspect or hope) that it exists. It exists; they're just not sure what it is.

Imagine someone revealed it to you. Imagine someone was able to categorically inform you that the meaning of everything -- or the purpose of everything, which I think is a better way to put it -- is to do X, Y or Z. To All Work Together On Some Big Project. To Help Defeat An Evil Demon. To Transcend Matter And Become Pure Spirit. Whatever.

Let's say someone proved this purpose to you, and you had no doubt in the validity of the proof. You now know the purpose of living, the purpose of everything. Now what?

I can't grasp the concept of a purpose without some sort of intelligent designer behind it. As I see it, it makes sense to speak of a hammer or a teapot as having a purpose, because someone designed those tools with a goal in mind. On the other hand, a rock doesn't have a purpose, though an individual person can choose to give it one. Even in that case, purpose is endowed by a thinking mind.

(People speak of evolved traits as being purposeful: "ducks evolved webbed feet in order to propel themselves through the water." But I interpret such statements as metaphors. Traits evolved due to a cause-and-effect process: some ancestor species to the duck lived in the water. Individuals of that species that happened to have webbed feet were able to swim better, which increased those individuals' chances of survival. There was no purpose; there were just events that happened. And the outcome of those events is that ducks now have webbed feet. Saying "ducks evolved web feet in oder to..." is a shorthand, metaphorical way of describing a purposeless process.)

So since (in my thought experiment), we've proven that the universe has a purpose, it must be somebody's purpose. Keeping with tradition, I'll call that somebody God. In fact, one might define God as the "person" who created the universe and gave it a purpose.

Fine. So we "know" that God created a universe and gave it a purpose. And we now know what that purpose is. Let's say that we even know how to best live our lives to help further that purpose. (I can imagine a no-free-will version of this thought experiment, where we have no choice but to further the purpose. We're simply cogs in a machine, running according to spec. But to keep things interesting, I'm assuming that's not the case. We can choose to work for or against the purpose.)

My question is: now that you know the purpose and how to further it, do you care? I suspect that there are two sorts of people: those who, given this knowledge, would gratefully fall in line with the purpose and those who wouldn't. I wouldn't. And I didn't realize that until I read "Blasphemy."

Remember, I'm not saying I wouldn't further the purpose because I don't believe these is one. True, in real life I'm an atheist, but for this article, I'm assuming I'm a believer. Someone has proved to me that God does exist and that he has a purpose in mind for us and for the universe. My honest gut response is "Why should I care?"

Let me pause to clarify a couple of things: first of all, I wouldn't cut of my nose to spite my face. If it so happened that God's purpose aligned with my personal goals, I'd be fine with it. If God's purpose for me involved staying with my wife, directing plays, and other things I'm already doing (or want to do), I wouldn't perversely stop doing them, just to be contrary. Still, I'd be doing those things for the same reason I always did them -- because I like doing them. If they furthered God's purpose, that would be coincidence. (Remember: I'm assuming free will, not some physics in which we can't help doing God's work.)

Second, I'm not immune to rewards and punishments. I'd probably fall in line with God's plan if it wasn't too onerous and if He (or some of His followers) offered me enough cash. And I'd definitely fall in line if, by not doing so, I'd spend an eternal afterlife in the Lake of Fire. But let's assume there are no rewards or punishments. Or rather, there are no punishments. The reward -- if you think of this as a reward -- is being part of the process itself: being part of God's plan.

Given all this, choosing to follow God's plan strikes me as similar to choosing to follow the president's plan. Or choosing to follow the king's plan. There's a powerful person; he has a plan; he wants you to follow it, though he won't punish you if you don't. Do you? If so, why? If not, why not?

I know God is much more than a political leader, but my imagination is limited. He's an intelligence, and I can only map that onto a human-like intelligence. So the only way I can understand God is as "a guy." A really powerful guy ... a guy who created everything... but still a guy. As a guy, he has his wants and needs. As another guy, I have mine. Why should I care about His? Why don't I care about His?

In stories and discussions about Purpose or Meaning, it always seems like people are searching for it with the intent of living their lives by it, once they find out what it is. There's never a discussion of evaluating it first. People don't seem to worry about whether they'll like the purpose once they know about it. They don't seem to worry about whether or not it will conflict with their personal goals and lifestyles. Why not? I get the impression that there are a ton of people out there who are lost. They are so lost that they want a purpose. Any purpose. And I suppose any purpose is better than no purpose.

In my cynical moments, I imagine God descending to Earth and saying, "My children: in order to fulfill my purpose, I need you all to grab the first infant you see and bash his head in with a mallet!" And that since this is God's purpose, many people will do it.

On the other hand, am I being colossally perverse not to fall in line with God's plan? (Even if His plan turns out to be something that strikes me as repugnant, boring or evil?) If the entire universe is a machine that does X, is it crazy (and selfish) to work towards Y? I can't help feeling like, selfish or not, I didn't ask to be part of this machine. I can't help feeling the desire to escape from its chains.

Or am I being perverse in the same way as the guy who keeps himself awake for five nights in a row? Our bodies weren't built for that. They were built to spend part of each day asleep. It's perverse to punish your body that way. In the same sense, it it perverse -- unhealthy -- to rebel against the machine you're a part of, even if that machine's purpose is unknowable, boring or repugnant to you?

(The unknowable part is interesting: if God said to you, "I need you to do X, Y and Z in order to fulfill my purpose. Unfortunately, I can't explain to you what that purpose is. But rest assured, if you do X, Y and Z well, you'll be furthering it," would this be enough for you? Would you do what He wants without knowing why He wants it?)

I've noticed that many people have a strong sort of respect for creators that I don't share, and I think this difference between them and me is key, though I'm puzzled as to why I'm so eccentric. And I'm puzzled as to why so many other people don't share my eccentricity.

In the theatre, I constantly hear people talk about "what the playwright intended." If they somehow know what Shakespeare or Ibsen or Mamet intended, they think it's perverse -- or disrespectful -- to thwart that intention. I don't.

(You may find my view selfish, and maybe it is, but I extend it to my own work. If I write something and "put it out there," I don't expect people to use it or interpret it "as I intend it." As a director, I consider my job to be telling stories to an audience. Though I often use written scripts to do this, I don't think my job is "to present the playwright's intentions to the audience." My job is to tell a story. If the story is clearer or more evocative when I thwart the writer's intentions, then I should thwart it. In other words, I see my responsibility to the audience as greater than my responsibility to the writer. And I don't see my responsibility to the audience to be to "tell the playwright's story to them, as he intended." I see it as "to tell the them the most interesting story I can tell."

I wonder if respecting the author/creator's intentions, above everything else, is a cross-cultural, pan-historical syndrome. Have we always done it? Will we always do it? If it's a local effect, what started it?)

As I see it, if I create a tool and keep it in my own house for my own use, it's mine. You don't have a right to break into my house, take it, and use it for your own purposes. But if I create a tool and give it to the public, part of that gift is letting go of my purpose. If I make a tool for you, you're free to use it for your own purpose. You don't have to respect mine. If you feel compelled to respect mine, then I haven't really given you the tool. A gift is given freely, or it's not a gift.

So I can't respect God's purpose just because He is the creator. The creation was a historical event, but the creator no longer has special significance or rights. The Chinese invented gunpowder, but we don't have to consult with them and ask them what they want us to do with it. We can use it for our own purposes. If God wants me to follow His plan, he needs to show me how it will benefit me.

Yes, that's a self-centered attitude. I'm not self-centered towards my friends and loved ones. I'll do things for them, even if they hinder my purposes. So maybe if I had a personal relationship with God, I'd feel differently. But since, to me, God is "a guy," and the world is full of guys, I'm not sure why I should choose this particular guy for a friend.

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