(This post was originally published on July 4, 2009. It's a somewhat philosophical answer to the question of what my purpose in life is.)
I spent some time presenting my framework for thinking about one's life purpose and how it is connected to goals and ultimately every decision we make in our lives. I'll now attempt to describe my interpretation of the world I observe around me, and thus my purpose in life.
The observable universe is enormous -- trying to systematize all the observations one has is a prohibitive task. Instead, I'd much rather convert my observations into themes -- create, in a sense, equivalence classes of observations in order to get my head around them better. Those themes I can then further combine into more abstract themes, and so on, until there are very few themes that permeate everything I see.
One of those themes is the concept of "betterment" -- progress, improvement. We see it everywhere -- cars get faster, batteries get more efficient, humans beat speed records from year to year. This betterment is a direct extension of our ability to build tools to solve our problems (which is what I perceive to be one of the fundamental enablers of intelligence: one theory posits that our ability to build tools to leverage our natural abilities allowed our brains to increase in complexity leading to the emergence of the self -- the "I" -- which I see as a condition that must necessarily exist in order for us to speak of intelligence). As we build these tools, we solve the most immediate problems and get ready to tackle more fundamental problems. So by "betterment" I mean mankind's ability to solve problems at increasing level of fundamental-ness.
A unifying theme for betterment and other kinds of phenomena (such as evolution of species) is increasing entropy: as the complexity of our tools increases, so do the energy demands (it takes more energy to solve a root problem than to patch one of its instances). As a result, then, mankind's pursuit of a problem-free universe forces the Universe to increase its entropy at an ever increasing rate.
Why is it the case? Why do we increase the entropy of the Universe? I don't believe this to be a meaningful question -- asking "why" about a process in a system makes no sense in the context of that system. It's a little bit as if a creature on a two-dimensional plane (say, a piece of paper) asked questions about the three-dimensional space that the piece of paper is located in. It's not a question that we'll get an answer on, because it concerns concepts outside of our Universe -- which, by definition, are not part of our Universe. In other words, the question is not meaningful because any answer would be meaningless (we would be unable to draw any conclusions about our Universe from it). This is very important. It allows us to stop asking "why" and it's also the reason why there is nothing beyond our observable Universe.
So instead of asking why the entropy of the Universe increases at an increasing rate (i.e. why the Universe wants to self-destruct) I am accepting it as an axiom of my existence. This is an epiphenomenon at the most fundamental level that seems to permeate everything that surrounds us, and so my purpose is to contribute to this epiphenomenon.
My purpose is to aid in the self-destruction of the Universe
(Actually destroying the Universe is not achievable within my lifetime, of course, but through my actions I can certainly increase the probability that its entropy reaches its maximum level faster.)
It may sound ridiculous, or crazy, or pointless (but there again, given my reasoning, there is no use figuring out what the "point" is of the most fundamental epiphenomenon in the Universe). But it has some interesting implications that are not far from what many people imagine their purpose to be (in other words, it can be thought of as a kind of "super-purpose" that supersedes a class of purposes -- or maybe even all of them). For example, let's look at the track record of mankind: in a relatively short time frame, humans went from having their existence be threatened by all sorts of natural phenomena and predators to being able to materially affect Earth (unfortunately in a destructive manner -- we can, for example, release bacteria that decimates any other species, or scorch the skies thus substantially change the climate on Earth -- or make it virtually uninhabitable). This is an incredible increase in the potential to increase entropy. There are good reasons to believe that mankind will soon be able to harness the energy of the Sun, and be able to affect more than just its planet. Given my goal in mind (and the lack of information on whether there are any other intelligent beings in the Universe), my goal should be to prevent mankind from destroying itself (as it may be my only means of increase entropy in the Universe quickly). Suddenly altruism is highly relative to one's perspective on the Universe!
My purpose is to aid in the self-destruction of the Universe. Once you accept this, dear reader, we can start making use of this result.
Of course, the purpose itself is not particularly useful in answering my fundamental question ("What should I be doing right now?"). But I can follow the framework I outlined to get to my goals, and thus actions. It's a long path, and I haven't defined it nearly enough to talk about concrete actions (or even goals), but I have some ideas. First let's recap the framework:
- At the root of everything there are observations of the known Universe
- We interpret these observations by unifying concepts into themes and themes into epiphenomena. We don't ask why these epiphenomena exist because any answer would not be meaningful in the context of our Universe: we simply accept them as given. It seems to me that at the root of everything, there is an epiphenomenon of entropy increasing at an ever-increasing rate. The Universe wants to self-destruct
- Our interpretation leads us to our purpose in life. I strongly believe that such a purpose should be to contribute to that root epiphenomenon. The purpose should be stable, i.e. not sensitive to small changes in our interpretation of the observable Universe (or to small changes in the information we accept -- since throughout life we refine our observations: we can see more). The purpose should also be singular -- if your purpose is to do A and to do B, you haven't really figured out your purpose
- This purpose defines our values. There can be multiple values. For example, given that my purpose is to help the Universe self-destruct, one of my values would be to cherish mankind because it's my best bet to achieve my purpose (given the information I have right now). Note that I mean mankind, not individuals or arbitrary groups of people
- Our values inform our desires. Desires don't need to be measurable but they need to be specific. Given that I cherish mankind and want it to increase entropy more, I should allow it to do so by harnessing energy better. The ability to control fire gave humans a significant advantage over other species; the ability to harness the energy of fossil fuels allows us to build airplanes; just think about how much more we can do if we can really take advantage of the near infinite energy of the Sun. One of my desires could be to help invent a way to extract renewable (long-lasting) energy efficiently. Similarly, I may want to replace some of the intermediate epiphenomena with their more efficient counterparts. In my post on evolution I remark on as processes that increase entropy go, evolution is inferior to intelligence, genetic engineering, or non-biological intelligence. Hence, one of my desires may be to allow humans to progress through lifting existing limits -- for example, to reach singularity
- Our desires define our goals, which should be measurable and specific. Our design to achieve the goals contains a tree of subgoals, each subgoal becoming more attainable, realistic and timely
- Finally, at the bottom of that tree are actions. This is how I figure out what I should be doing right now.