The Purpose of Life

If we assume that there is no soul, no god and no afterlife, then life has no purpose. That is a good thing: it means we are free to dedicate it to whatever we wish. In this article, it is argued that, in general, humans, whether religious or not, dedicate their lives solely to the pursuit of pleasure.

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If we are here to help others, what are the others here for?

The purpose of a steering wheel is that it allows the driver to steer the car. That's why it's there.

The purpose of a company finance officer is to keep track of the company's money and to make sure its financial commitments (like paying its bills and its employees' wages) are met. That's why she's there.

Something has a purpose if it is intentionally put there to provide a benefit to something else; to the driver in the case of the steering wheel, to the company in the case of the financial officer.

A tree in the forest wasn't intentionally put there; it just happens to have grown there. In that sense, it doesn't have a purpose. It might be of benefit to quite a few things like birds, insects, small mammals etc., but it wasn't put there with that in mind.


We might say that the purpose of mitochondria is to produce energy for a cell and that that's why they're there. But from an evolutionary perspective, mitochondria weren't intentionally put there - natural processes led to them being there. So, strictly speaking, they don't have a purpose. Like the tree in the forest, however, they still have a benefit. In the same way, rain allows plants to grow, though we wouldn't say that that is its purpose. It has a benefit, but not a purpose.

Just as the tree, mitochondria and the rain have no purpose, if there is no god, then our lives have no purpose. They might have benefit, but as they came about through natural processes rather than intention, it cannot be said that they have a purpose.

The realisation of this leads some into a depressing nihilistic despair. Others see it quite the opposite way. If life had a purpose, then we would be obligated to dedicate it to that purpose. If I were a slave, my purpose would be to serve my master and that is what I would have to do. But, as life doesn't have a purpose, we are free to do whatever we like with it (with the proviso of course that some things we choose might have negative consequences which need to be taken into account in making our decisions).

So what do people like to do with their lives? Most of us dedicate our lives solely to creating pleasure and avoiding displeasure. Doesn't seem right? Read on.


Irrespective of whether they consider their world to be objective or subjective, and irrespective of whether or not they believe in a soul, a god and an afterlife, people live for pleasure. This may not be at first obvious, but let's examine the idea.

First of all, what do we mean by 'pleasure'? Pleasure is sometimes thought of as short-lived positive experiences, like one might get from driving a fast car, watching a good movie, having sex or a good meal, or walking in the mountains. But here it is taken to also include longer-term positive states of mind like contentment, happiness, feeling safe and so on. In fact it is taken to mean anything that makes us feel good and most people would consider the longer term positive states of mind as more important than the shorter-term thrills.

Happy old lady

Feeling bad can be considered as negative pleasure, whether pain, unhappiness, regret, disappointment, loneliness, fear or whatever.

At any moment in time, we experience a pleasure level determined by what is going on in our lives. If life is good, we are in a nice home with family we love, we have had a good meal and are chatting by the fire, the pleasure level might be +60. If someone rings us up and tells us some bad news, the pleasure level might drop to 20. If we go outside to get some wood for the fire, fall over on the ice and break an ankle, the pleasure level might drop to -60. If we are then picked up by the local mafia, taken away to have our knee caps broken and our fingers hammered because we haven't paid them the money we owe them, our pleasure level might go down to -110. Let's call this number our pesonal pleasure level.

Note that these numbers have no absolute meaning, simply a relative one. They are just a convenient way of indicating that one state of mind might be more pleasant than another by giving it a level of +40 rather than +10. We could just as easily have used +400 and +100.

We prefer to keep our pleasure level as high as possible and we do those things which are likely to do just that. In that sense, everything we do is done to keep our personal pleasure level as high as possible. Unless there is something wrong with us, we don't deliberately do things that are going to make us feel bad.

But we don't generally act solely for our own pleasure; we are also concerned about the pleasure levels of our loved ones and those close to us (which often corresponds to the ones who share our genes or are capable of helping to pass on our genes, like the mother of our children). We care too about the welfare and hence pleasure of people (and animals) less close to us, though to a lesser extent. Other people's pleasure contributes to our own pleasure level and we can define a global pleasure level which is the sum of our personal pleasure level and the pleasure levels of others, each multiplied by a weighting factor, generally less than 1. The thought of millions of people going hungry in the third world doesn't reduce our global pleasure level by much, so the weightings for most people in the world are fairly minute. People we consider our enemies or who have done us harm, might even have a negative weighting in that we are pleased to see things go badly for them and sometimes will take steps to help them go badly.

Also, we don't act solely to increase our present global pleasure level: we take future pleasure into account as well. We will go to work now, even though we don't really enjoy doing so, so that we have to money to do things we will enjoy later on.

The total pleasure of us and others, now and in the future can be called our global pleasure prospect. We tend to put more effort into ensuring pleasue now than in the near future and we put more effort into ensuring pleasure in the near future than in the more remote future. At age 18, we don't tend to worry too much about how life will be when we are 60. Apart from anything else, we might be dead by then. So each time has a weighting, the weightings generally getting smaller the further into the future we look. So our global pleasure prospect is the sum of the expected global pleasure levels at all times in the future, each multiplied by a time-dependent weighting.

If p is our weighted global pleasure level at any time, t, in the present or future, then our global pleasure prospect could be expressed mathematically by the integral

Integral pleasure dt

Apologies to those who don't like maths or didn't study calculus, but hopefully you get the drift even if you don't understand the integral.

Our aim is to maximise our global pleasure prospect. Maximising our global pleasure prospect might be called 'Making the most of life'. This is what life is about and what most of us dedicate our lives to.

So, are we all just hedonists? Hedonism is living life for the sole purpose of producing pleasure. That's what we do, so yes, we are all hedonists. Not everyone will be convinced by this. If you would like a fuller argument, you might like to look at Chapters 22 and 23 of the novel Empyrean which can be found here. Alternatively, you can read the whole novel here.

Those who believe in a god and an afterlife might see the purpose of this life as preparation for the afterlife. But what do they want from the afterlife? Generally a pleasant one rather than a painful one. So, even for the religious, the ultimate aim of life is to maximise their global pleasure prospect. In their case, they strive to maximise their pleasure over eternity, i.e. to maximise

Integral to infinity pleasure dt

A Note on Happiness

Happiness is a pleasure, an extra pleasure which results when one's global pleasure prospect is looking good. It can be an indicator of one's global pleasure prospect.

But happiness isn't simply a sum of individual pleasures. Some people have charmed lives, but are still not happy; others have very meagre lives and are very happy. No, happiness does not arise simply from one's global pleasure prospect being high; it arises when one's global pleasure prospect is high compared to what one would expect or how it could or should be.

Take a slave who, for as long as they can remember, has done hard manual labour in the hot sun for 12 hours a day with little reward beyond enough plain food to keep them alive. Give him his freedom, a small wooden cabin in which he can live with his wife and children, and a bit of land on which to grow some food and keep a few animals, and he will be very happy. Put a rich girl from the city in the same situation and she probably wouldn't be.

There is a true story of a man who wasn't well off, but was fairly happy with life. In the hope of making things better, he bought a ticket in the lottery every week. He always used the same numbers. One week, he didn't manage to get his numbers in on time. And they came up. He would have won several million dollars. His life after the incident was no worse than it was before, but it was much worse than it could have been (and should have been). He found it very hard to be happy or to get any joy out of life. Not long after the incident, he committed suicide. Others who have won, but lost their tickets have done the same.

Suppose we found a way of living indefinitely, like the trogs in Empyrean. We might be able to make life much better. Our pleasure level might, for a while, exceed our expectations. But, after a while our expectations would rise to meet the new reality and then life would no longer be better than our expectations and we wouldn't be so happy. Unless life constantly improved, we wouldn't in the long run get any happier.

Different people who have always been in similar situations, like siblings brought up together, can have different levels of hapiness. Some people are happy by nature and others less so. Some are prone to depression. The longest-term assurance of happiness comes from having a happy nature, something dependent on the structure of our brain and something over which we have no control.

Clever, Wise and Good

A clever person is a person who is good at getting what they want. 'Clever' means good at ensuring that pleasure levels are as high as possible.

A wise person is someone who makes decisions taking into account the long-term consequences, not just the immediate ones. That is someone whose pleasure weighting on future events is not too far below that on current events.

A good person is one who considers the welfare of others in making decisions, not just themselves. That is someone whose weighting on other people's pleasure is not too far below that on their own pleasure.

These three traits largely sum up a person's character.


Some people think of evil as an objective qualilty, an absolute:

                    If Fred is evil, then he is evil - full stop; anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong.

Others consider evil to be subjective, dependent on one's viewpoint. Most people in the US consider ISIS to be evil. Most people in ISIS consider the US to be evil.

It is impossible to come up with a definition of evil as an objective quality that everyone would agree with. But evil as a subjective quality can be defined from a particular person's point of view as anything that reduces the world's aggregate pleasure prospect. An American might see the treatment of people by ISIS as reducing that pleasure prospect by placing restrictions on their lives or punishing them for things that aren't, by American morality, wrong. A member of ISIS might see America as bullying the world into the wrong direction spiritually and increasing the number of people who will end up in hell, thus of course reducing the world's pleasure prospect.

What one sees as good or evil is very dependent on ones's view of the world, particularly one's religious perspective.

Attila the Hun

Most would agree that Atilla the Hun was fairly evil, though Atilla himself (and his hoardes) probably wouldn't have agreed. It's possible that Atilla did consider himself evil and that he revelled in the idea. More likely, though, he just didn't have an opinion either way and would have considered evil an irrelevant concept. Evil is indeed a very subjective concept and one maybe best avoided. But most religions give evil a much more objective and concrete meaning and we tend to carry this concreteness into areas other than religion.

Whatever way, because most people have at least a background in some religion or other, evil is an emotive concept, of considerable use in propaganda.

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Image Acknowledgements

Trees: PickPik
Old lady: Martijn Roos (Copyright:, on Flickr
Attila: MuratCALIS on DeviantArt