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Reply part 2
present questions are far more straightforward that the previous ones, by
virtue of being universal, far removed from dangerous specifics, and smacking
of metaphysics. I will answer them briefly -- though not as briefly as you would
The question of the purpose (or meaning) of human existence.
In fact, it is no different than
the question of the purpose-meaning of any object.
What is the purpose of a hammer's existence? To hammer
nails? To crack nuts? To be used in street fights? To scratch one's back? To
hang on the front door instead of a bell? The right answer is that the hammer
has no objective purpose. Its purpose is decided -- if it is decided -- by an
outside agency, by its owner for example. Besides, the very act of asking the
question of purpose necessarily brings us to the owner himself. First the
owner, then maybe the purpose, but only provided that the owner is not
indifferent to the hammer.
us consider the most prosaic example of a purpose, or aim -- that of the target
in a shooting gallery. We try our hardest to hit it, and yet it does not
represent any sort of an objective purpose for shooting. We were the ones to
hang the colored piece of paper on the wall. We were the ones to call it
"target". That, and only that, is what makes it one -- and only where we are
again, the very act of talking about a purpose presupposes a purpose-giver, an
aim-setter. A purpose, or an aim, is first set, and only then can we shoot at
it. A purpose is a reflection of some need, not the need itself. A purpose is
the product of our self-constitution, and no more than that. Our common sense
accepts this convention, for it is convenient and efficient. Yet we must not
take it too seriously. Man (or man's existence) has no objective, a-priori
purpose. Those who ascribe a purpose to man tacitly imply the existence of a
mastermind, be it a creator, a ruler, a God, a state, or a collective. Yet by
making this implication, do we not from the very outset eliminate the chance of
any discussion of God or state?
so, human existence has no immutable, objective purpose, even though temporary
objective purposes are quite possible. In principle, there are dozens of
interesting subjective purposes (targets), but each of them is derived from one
worldview or another, and thus is not an a priori entity by any means. We can
talk about your or my provisional purpose (and even then cautiously), but not
about purpose in general. Those whose purpose is knowledge view the world primarily
as a mystery. Those whose main purpose is personal success regard the world as
an antagonistic rival game. Those who believe their purpose to be the
attainment of social justice see the world as a habitat. Yet the world is none
of those nor is it anything else -- from the teleological point of view, it is
nothing at all. The world does not know the concept of purpose (which is why
teleological speculations of any kind are fundamentally wrong, leaving aside
the second law of thermodynamics). Purpose is the product of the
anthropomorphic attitudes to which we subject the world we live in. The world
disagrees with Kant and his desperate last-ditch attempts to retain something
of the dead God by inventing a-priori categories. Alas, the world itself is
totally indifferent to purposes and meanings. However, the world's indifference
to a priori purpose also implies its absence in man.
collectives are a different matter. They are inherently incapable of existing
in an ideological vacuum. On the contrary, they are in the grip of ideologies,
and thus, whether they like it or not, they are armed with, or rather driven
by, purposes. Yet these purposes too are not objective or a priori. Rather,
they are a typical derivative of the material and ideological state of the
is another good example. A soccer team has a clear purpose -- to score a goal.
To kick the ball in between the goalposts -- couldn't be any clearer. But now
imagine a badly drunk team. What if it confuses the goals? What if it forgets
that it is playing soccer, and not handball or rugby? That the game has not
even started, or is already over?
order to have a goal, one must clearly grasp the rules of the game. Yet the
rules of the game do not fall from the heavens. Someone invents them and sets
it is not enough to understand the rules. They must be accepted. Only then does
the concept of purpose acquire meaning. Only then does it make sense to aim the
gun at the target -- particularly at the bulls-eye.
why not at the top right corner?
The question of the highest value.
I am very sorry, but, unlike the
quite thought-provoking question about purpose/meaning, the question of values
is a trap pure and simple. Let us try to extricate ourselves from it.
For starters, I would like to
note that a value, to be a value, must be at least somewhat immanent. In other
words, it cannot be too temporary, too relative, or too antiquated. Instead, it
should be stable, reliable, and more or less universal.
Obviously, there is no such thing
in the world. For the sake of discussion, let us focus exclusively on the Jews.
For a portion of the Jews, the highest value lies in obeying the will of God as
interpreted by the author of the Shulchan Aruch. To others, this allegedly God-given
codex does not mean a thing. Some of these others are dyed-in-the-wool
socialists, sparing no effort to try and transform the world into what they
consider the ideal society -- a kibbutz. Others -- anti-socialists of every kind
-- believe that the way to redeem the world is to eradicate socialism and its
manifestations, including kibbutzim. The liberals save the world through free
love, the conservatives by banning abortions.
The simplest thing would be to
assume, tentatively at least, that purpose is in itself a value. But whatever
for? Purpose is an artificial construct, one that allows us to function in a
more or less efficient manner, whereas value is the motley plumage covering our
teleological nudity. Besides, one can hardly talk about individual values (or
morality) in earnest -- they simply have no physical meaning. Most importantly,
however, any a priori morality or a priori values are absolutely out of the
question. Aficionados of moral exercises have tried to use survival as the
measuring stick of value -- often collective, less often personal; or, failing
that, human life, religion, race, truth, or pleasure. However, more often than
objections, they were met with misunderstanding. Your values are not our cup of
tea, they would be told. We have plenty of our own.
Universal values do not exist, if
only because actually existing values are particular and evolutionary. It would
be useless to admonish an Indian for savoring his enemy's liver -- every man to
his value. It would be equally pointless to offer money to an Amazon Indian -- he has no idea of ownership. Our ancestors were exactly the same (they ate
human liver and had no idea of ownership), but we have forgotten that. Human
sacrifice is either a heinous crime or a sacred duty, depending on which
picture of the world is closer to our heart. Nor would it be of any use to
bring in the golden evolutionary rule "Do not do unto others as you would not
have them do unto you"(probably invented in China, reinvented in Greece, and
lifted by the authors of the Mishnah -- yet in fact as old as the dinosaurs; if
there is anything that holds world and society together, it is dynamic
equilibrium, whereas its theoretical grasp helps society no more than the
concept of equilibrium helps our vestibular apparatus). After all, before
putting this rule to use, we must choose our partners, "our" people to whom
this rule applies, and the "others", those whose liver may be eaten. You must
agree that this makes universality vanish along with appetite. Look at the way
the world reacts to famine in Africa, compare this reaction to the current
disaster in the Southern seas, and everything will become crystal clear.
There is hardly any point in
applying the moral yardstick you have offered. Just like a conductor's baton,
it is effective only in the presence of a professionally trained orchestra.
Otherwise waving it around is an exercise in futility -- unless it is used to
chase away flies
On the other hand, rejection of
the concept of universal values, absolute values, values that are outside of
time and social realities, must not be viewed as rejection of values per se. It
is just that no one has the license to arrange them in a hierarchical order –
unless it is done according to one's own taste. I myself am a liberal, and I
adhere to a liberal moral framework. Yet I would never hold it up as universal
or even immutable.
Whatever the system of values you
adhere to, do not make it into an idol. Trust me, the result will look ugly and
unappealing. I have tried it myself.