Thinking beyond purpose

There is a difference between existence and essence. Best understood by the classical thought experiment of humans versus hole-punchers. Before the hole-puncher we got at the stationary, there was the hole-puncher factory. The factory was built on certain specifications that someone designed. And before the hole-puncher itself, there was the idea of paper, holes, punching holes in paper, and making a machine for that purpose. As soon as the hole-puncher exists, it’s playing the part assigned by its designers. We buy it and put paper into it. It then punches holes into the paper. This is its essence; it’s purpose. To use it as a paperweight or a hammer is to go against its essence. The essence of the hole-puncher precedes its existence. To the hole-puncher, and almost all other machines, essence precedes existence. To the humans, existence precedes essence. But only some of us understand this.

The human being ‘exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself,’ said the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. And the science writer Brian Christian, in The Most Human Human, explains that what really defines us is that we don't know what to do. Each of us, individually, have to make it all up from scratch. We don’t know what we’re supposed to do, where we’re supposed to go, who we are, where we are, or what comes next. This, to most of us, is stressful. Existence without essence is stressful.

Which is why many, including the subscribers of intelligent design, put essence before existence. Because it’s easier to believe that the human being is a designed thing. A thing with a purpose. Getting people to say things like, ‘Bolt was born to run.' It is therefore critical to understand that while our body parts may have an essence, we ourselves don’t — our bones and blood have a function, we don’t. Aristotle sums it in his view that hammers are made to hammer and humans are made to contemplate. Which means, essences or purposes aren’t discovered because they don’t exist ahead of us. They are, instead, invented.

We invent purposes, just as computers do. The computer was initially built as an arithmetic organ. It now turns out to process almost anything. The computer is probably the first machine to precede its essence. It was first built, and then came what to do with it. Apple’s ‘There’s an app for that!’ marketing rhetoric proves just that. Our relationship with technology has evolved accordingly. We don’t decide what we need first and then go buy a piece of technology to do it. We buy a piece of technology first and then figure out what we need it to do. With both humans and computers, the idea of existence precedes essence.

But when existence precedes essence, there’s a struggle to define the essence. Because it appears that the human being is nothing at all. And that goals really don’t matter. But because our lives are filled with forms of games. It helps to look at goals through games. A game is basically a situation in which a clear or an agreed definition of success exists. For a private company, there may be a number of goals, any number of definitions of success. For a publicly traded company, there is only one: returns. Not all business is a game — although much of big business is. In real life however, as observed by Sartre, there is no real notion of success. If success if having the most number of Facebook friends, then our social life becomes a game. If success is gaining entry into heaven upon death, then our moral life becomes a game. Life itself is no game. There is no finish line. The Spanish poet Antonio Machado puts is well, ‘Searcher, there is no road. We make the road by walking.’

So, while games have a goal, life does not. Putting us into an anxiety of freedom. Where anything that provides temporary relief from existential activity becomes life. This is why games are such a popular form or procrastination. And this is why, on reaching our goals, the risk is that the reentry of existential anxiety hits us even before the thrill of victory. To the point that we’re thrown immediately back on the uncomfortable question of what to do with our life.

Zen philosophy observes that we’re always trying to do something, trying to change something into something else, or trying to attain something. Trying to find the real essence. When the really beauty of essence goes beyond the essence itself; the existence. Beyond the idea of trying to attain something.

By putting existence before essence, we’re celebrating true originality and authenticity. Which is why Bertrand Russell stressed that men and women have need of play, of periods of activity having no purpose. Which is why Aristotle understood that the best form of friendship is the one with no particular purpose or goal. Which is why besides us, we regard dolphins and bonobos — animals that have sex for fun — as the smartest.

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