ballistic or guided?
Man likes to think that he is in control of his actions and that most of what he does is justified by valid intentions and purposes. It is therefore only natural that he would presume that the gods he imagined to explain the universe would act purposefully and that man, creation's crowning achievement, would exist for a definite purpose.
Shamans, priests and gurus whose stock in trade is the knowledge of God's secrets, naturally preach that man's existence can only be explained by his finality which they say is to can praise the glory of God so as to be eventually reunited with Him. They promote the guided missile scenario because it allows them to dictate the behaviour their followers should adopt to fulfil God's intentions.
A strong argument in favour of the alternative scenario of a ballistic projectile, is presented by the theory of evolution published by Charles Darwin in 1859 after thirty years of painstaking observation of a broad range of species around the world.
Ever since man has domesticated animals around 8000 BC, he has known that some of the offspring bear random mutations that make them different from their parents. He has used these random mutations to selectively breed cattle for meat or for milk, sheep for wool and dogs and cats for a variety of features.
Research by many independent observers has demonstrated that a similar selection occurs naturally in favour of mutants whose modified characteristics give them a competitive edge over their peers in a given environment. In a well known example, finches evolving in isolation on different islands of the Galapagos archipelago developed beaks of different shapes adapted to the most available food in their respective islands. After thousands of years of this process, the accumulation of small mutations led to large enough differences to give rise to different species.
Initial studies of the process revealed its three key elements in the 19th century, long before the role of genes became known (random mutations producing advantages that are transmitted to future generations). Since then, in depth investigation of the genetic mechanisms involved in the evolutionary process has shown evidence of the step by step links that relate the first manifestation of life to modern man convincingly enough to prove the ballistic nature of evolution.
Faced with this growing mountain of evidence, holders-of-the-truth have had to gradually tone down their cries of scandal and abomination about the links of distant kinship that join man and the primates. Christian fundamentalists are unable to disprove the mechanisms of evolution that are accepted by the scientific community (and also by the Vatican), but they maintain their belief that creation occurred less than 10 000 years ago by claiming that the physical evidence supporting a 15 billion year evolution calendar since the big bang was left intentionally by the Creator to test man's faith in the Hebrew scriptures. Their efforts to have their beliefs taught in American schools under the guise of "Creation Science" have been so far blocked by the Supreme Court as contrary to the constitutional separation of church and state but now they seek to advance their dogmas under the new costume of the "Theory of Intelligent Design".
Less extreme believers follow the example of the Catholic Church that recognises the validity of the big bang and evolution theories while claiming divine intervention at critical steps such as the advent of the first human soul. They support their position with the theory of punctuated equilibrium according to which evolution proceeds through punctual periods of intense evolutionary activity separated by long stagnant periods. This compromise allows for punctual divine interventions to nudge the evolution of mankind towards the ultimate finality that is supposed to explain our existence.
Man's vision of his origins has come a long way since the first creation myths that satisfied his curiosity millennia ago. The trend is unmistakable, science is replacing dogma but the progress of science has been so rapid that its discoveries have not had time to diffuse through the general population in all countries including some of the most advanced. According to a Gallup poll published in the US News and World report of 23 December 1991, 47% of all Americans believed that God had created man in his present form less than 10 000 years ago, 40% believed that man has evolved from more primitive forms of life over billions of years but with God intervening in the process and only 9% believed that God had nothing to do with evolution. Other polls present similar numbers. skepticism is still marginal but marginality is not a measure of truth.
What matters is not the snapshot of public opinion at a given moment but the trend towards which it moves. Only the most reactionary will refuse to see that the trend is moving away from the unsupported hypotheses of dogma towards the demonstrable knowledge of the world we live in provided by science. The ballistic scenario is presently held by only a minority but it contributes positively to progress and to the development of new discoveries rather than retard them.
Goals or Purpose
The concept of life's transcendental purpose (or finality), is a judeo-christian-islamic meme. The dogma that God created the universe with the purpose that man should glorify Him, was absent from the ancient polytheist religions of Egypt and Mesopotamia where a variety of anthropomorphic immaterial deities competed for man's attention, fear and worship very much like men compete with each other in the material world. These Gods imagined by building on the human model had human qualities, foibles and vices. (Today, the concept of transcendental purpose is still absent from Hinduism with its millions of human like and animal like deities.)
The invention of monotheism can appear to be a step forward for humanity because it reduced the wasteful dispersion of worship but it was a really only a small step for this new concept remained tied to the human model by human qualities if not by human foibles. The projection of man's need to justify his actions on the new unique God implied that the existence of his creation had to be explained by some transcendental purpose that the polytheist religions had not bothered with.
The concept of transcendental purpose replaced the traditional local myths and gods in the western world after Rome adopted Christianity as State Religion and imposed it in an effort to unify its decadent empire in the 4th century. Promotion of the glory of God justified the military expansion of Islam west to the Atlantic and east almost as far as China in the 7th century. It spread northeast in the 10th century when Prince Volodimyr of Kiev imposed it under threat of death on the subjects of the budding Russian Empire. The purpose of promoting the glory of God also justified the violent expansion of the Spanish colonial empire in the Americas and the utter destruction of the Aztec and Inca civilisations. Throughout history, the transcendental purpose of glorifying God has mostly very well served the earthly ambitions of power and glory of its promoters. More recently, that meme was present behind the so-called "ethnic cleansing" in the Balkans and was used by religious extremists to justify the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September the 11th 2001.
The meme of a transcendental purpose is not universal. The Hindu religion promotes the meme of an endless series of rebirths as an alternative to the harsh reality of man's definitive mortality and it makes no claim of knowing the purpose of life as western religions do. Hinduism says that man's fate is to be bound in pain and misery on the eternal wheel of reincarnation. That belief system is based on the futility of any individual life but it has also very well served the earthly ambitions power and glory of the Brahmin caste that invented it. Buddhism rejected the enormous Hindu pantheon and the Brahmin monopoly on virtue but it kept the basic dogma that life is a meaningless illusion. Buddhist dogmas were nevertheless source of power for monks be they of the Tantric Lamaist, the Mahayana or the Hinayana schools.
Many westerners who reject the most fanciful of the Christian dogmas such as virgin birth and resurrection have not yet been able to free themselves from the belief of their soul's transcendental purpose because of the overwhelming power of the supporting memes of heaven and hell. Pulled by the promise of eternal bliss and repulsed by the terrifying vision of hellfire the western believer cannot escape the powerful meme of a transcendental purpose vigorously promoted by a privileged elite. The meme of individual souls created for a transcendental finality is still dominant in a little more than half of the globe's population but it is more and more challenged by the growing accumulation of evidence that man has emerged from the physical world through random natural evolutionary processes.
Personally, I rejected the Catholic package of beliefs, hierarchies and social structures of privilege more than fifty years ago but it took me most of that time to free myself of the three dangerous memes of transcendental purpose, of hell and of heaven that brought me only anguish, guilt and irresolution. It took me a long time to accept life as it is without the exalted costumes of religious memes. I have now managed to accept that death is definitive and it does not bother me anymore to think that nothing will remain of me when I die.
I think that life has no profound hidden meaning. Life just exists. I am happy to trade a hypothetical transcendental purpose or finality for a collection of real, human sized day to day goals whose realisation reflects my total program; the sum of all the structures inscribed in my genes and into the neural networks of my brain. I realise that the freedom to choose what I think and do is severely limited by the memes that infect my mind but I do try to exercise whatever free will I have to gain some measure of control over those memes. I wish to participate actively in the evolution of mankind instead of fighting a rearguard resistance to change. This is very subjective, but I think that change is exciting and I welcome all the new opportunities it brings.
Actually, I think that participating in the evolution of mankind is the most fundamental purpose there could be. That's what life is all about for me, the local increase of order and structure in apparent defiance of the second law of thermodynamics. I don't know where this is going to take mankind but I consider it a great privilege to participate in that evolution and a still greater pleasure to be aware of it.