There is no Telos to Human Existence

Many ideologies try to define a ‘telos‘ or purpose/end that humans are destined by nature to move towards.  The Indic religions say it is liberation; Aristotelianism says it actualization of the perfect human form; Enlightenment philosophy says it is scientific progress and improved rational understanding; Marxism says it is revolution from economic alienation; materialism says it is wealth and prestige; consumerism says it is improved products and endless consumption.

Human life, in and of itself, however, is entirely without a telos of any kind.  There is no telos to human existence.  Our impulse is to survive and perpetuate the survival of our species. There is no ‘reason’ behind this urge to survive, no ‘reason’ to perpetuate the species.  Life has its own momentum and seeks only to perpetuate itself; it neither has nor needs a reason to do so.  Life seeks to survive for the sake of surviving.

All of these other ‘ends,’ these ideologically defined ‘teloi‘ are culturally imposed.  Regardless of what society, parents, priests, or politicians may claim, our lives have no pre-given direction to move towards.  Your destiny is not planned out in advance; it is chosen by you with every choice you make and every chain of consequences you set in motion.  The burden of responsibility for what you will be and what you will do is entirely on you.  You cannot make excuses; if you give that power up to your Church, or your politicians, or your parents, or your society, that, too, is your choice.  You remain responsible even if you are under the control of a commanding officer, for it is you who carries out the action, you who chooses to act.

Our conditioning predisposes us at each moment any given one of many possible directions, but this is not a ‘necessary’ direction, in the sense that it is not unavoidable or unchangeable.  We can follow the predispositions of our conditioning and act accordingly.  Or we can act against our conditioning and choose another direction.  Nothing in nature says you must choose this profession over that one or defines any life decision at all that you must make in life.  You can pursue an exalted career or choose to sit on the couch for the remainder of your days and do nothing at all.  It is one and the same to nature.

Nature does not give us a reason to continue to live.  It does not specify a purpose for our lives.  It only outlines the conditions for our continued survival.  We must breathe, eat,  drink, have some basic human nurturing, e some baseline of shelter and clothing, some hospitable ecosystem and environment, and reproduce.  All of our other choices about what we actually do with our time in our limited lifespan beyond attending to these basic needs are up to us.  We can make the decisions ourselves or we can give up that power to our our parents, teachers, society, etc.  Even if we let others make the decisions for us, however, we remain responsible for our own existence and actions nonetheless.

Society dictates conditions for a social life lived within it; culture supplies countless teloi that we can reject or accept in order to provide a telos or meaning or purpose for our life.  But, in fact, there is no such necessary purpose, no pregiven telos other than to survive for the sake of surviving, and no meaning or purpose apart from what we give to our lives.  In this sense, the ‘meaning of my life’ is entirely arbitrary; since it is intrinsically meaningless, or rather, prior to the mind’s movement to make meaning, I can choose any meaning I wish to give it.  This, too, places a great responsibility on me.

In closing, humans are not part of some great ‘plan;’ we are simply part of the spontaneously unfolding universe at this moment in its trajectory through space-time.   This is a wonderful and awe-inspiring fact in its own right, but it does not give us a predetermined ‘purpose’ or ‘role.’  As Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out, nature supplies us with our existence, but the ‘essence’ we choose for ourselves is entirely up to us.


One thought on “There is no Telos to Human Existence

  1. Adam, your blog post caught my eye on Facebook, and as I said there, really enjoyed it. I found your insights deep and thoughtful. Had to come here and say so, and I’m looking forward to reading your other essays when I get some time.

    I’ve subscribed to your blog via RSS and will keep track of your sharings that way.

    All the best,

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