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What is the object of life? by Grant Allen
by Grant Allen (1848-1899)
The following essay originally appeared in The Hand of God and Other Posthumous Essays written by Grant Allen and published in 1909 by Watts & Co., a Atheist publisher in London. The work was issued for the Rationalist Press Association, Limited.
Grant Allen (1848-1899) was a Canadian-born writer of fiction and popularizations of scientific material. As part of his advocacy of free-thought, he wrote extensively on the origins of religion, postulating that the worship of the dead was the basis of all religion.
From the modern evolutionary point of view, the very question \What do we live for?\ becomes, when abstractly regarded, in itself superfluous and meaningless. For it implies that everything has an object or purpose; implies, in fact, the old, exploded dogmatic fallacy that the cosmos has been constructed upon a definite plan and with a deliberate design, instead of being merely, as we now know it to be, the inevitable outcome of unconscious energies. In order to see the true futility of the naked question we need only ask ourselves the exactly analogous and parallel question, \What is the object of the nebula in Orion?\ or \What do the satellites of Saturn revolve for?\ The obvious answer is, that Orion's nebula and Saturn's moons exist where they are, and act as they do act, not for any profound and hidden cosmical purpose, but simply because, in the ceaseless redistribution of matter and motion which constitutes the process of evolution, those particular masses of cosmic material were so conditioned as regards environing forces and energies that they had to move in such or such particular curves or orbits, and in no other. There is no why in the case at all; there is merely the fact, with nothing else behind it.
To suppose otherwise is to fall implicitly into anthropomorphic and anthropocentric error. It is to figure to one's self the universe as an objective totality, worked upon from without by a vast and idealised quasi-human artificer and designer, who moulds and models every part and detail of his work with special reference to its preordained place in his projected scheme of a cosmical system. Those who think in this manner think anthropomorphically; they accept that conception of the outer world which Herbert Spencer 1 well describes as the \carpenter theory of creation.\ More than that, they think anthropocentrically as well. For this whole idea of an object for everything in the universe has been imported into the wider fields of thought — into astronomy, for example, and into ontology — from the theological explanations usually given of small difficulties in the practical life of human beings. \What is the use of earwigs?\ people ask, taking for granted that earwigs and everything else must have a use; and by a use implicitly meaning to say, a definite purpose of good for the human species. Darwinism, however, has conclusively taught us that in this sense nothing is useful; the earwig exists for itself alone; every species of plant or animal is adapted solely for its own good, and fills no place or subserves no purpose (save incidentally) in the life of any other species whatever, the human included. The seeds of wheat are not for us to feed upon, but to perpetuate the kind of the parent wheat plant. The fur of the ermine is not for us to make judges' robes of, but to keep the ermine himself snug and warm, and to enable him to steal unperceived upon his prey in the white snowfields of a northern winter. We know now that every part of every plant and every animal is designed, not to subserve any function \in the wider economy of nature\ (which always means, on human lips, with ultimate reference to some purely human want), but to subserve the needs and functions of the species itself to which it belongs, and no other.
|But, viewed abstractly, [the human race] cannot have any special purpose to subserve in the scheme of the universe, any more than the fungus of the vine-disease, or the maidenhair fern, or the little green aphides that feed upon our rose-bushes; ...|
Life as a whole, therefore, has no object, any more than the revolution of the planets has an object, or the double refraction of Iceland spar, or the particular flow of the black currents that swirl and eddy below the spray of Niagara. All these things are the necessary outcome of pre-existent conditions; their laws of sequence and causation can be investigated and proved; but the idea of an object as applied to them is philosophically inadmissible; for an object implies a person who designs, a person who overcomes particular difficulties in the raw material on which he works, by some particular and cunning arrangement of its parts and organs. But the power which underlies the universe works on very different lines indeed from these. We only degrade it to our own puny level of handicraft by conceiving of it (to use Paley's famous analogy 2) as we conceive of a watchmaker making a watch. Life is merely one particular set of correlated movements occurring under the influence of solar radiation, in a certain peculiar group of material bodies on the surface of one small and unimportant planet, in a minor solar system, hidden away on the skirts of a galaxy in some lost corner of a boundless cosmos. Why on earth should it have a purpose to subserve any more than the bubbles that rise and fall aimlessly on the wave, or the terrific commotions that rend and revolutionise the sun's photosphere? Nor does human life, so far as science can tell us, fall under any different category. The human race is one of the most advanced groups of terrestrial mammals, and, therefore, a highly evolved final outcome of kinetic energy, falling upon the aqueous and gaseous envelopes of this particular earth's surface. But, viewed abstractly, it cannot have any special purpose to subserve in the scheme of the universe, any more than the fungus of the vine-disease, or the maidenhair fern, or the little green aphides that feed upon our rose-bushes; because, first of all, the universe has no scheme; and, further, man is only a result of just the same local causes in a petty satellite as all the rest of the living creatures yet known to us. Pushed to its very furthest term, the idea of a purpose necessarily implies that the cosmos was made by a sort of glorified great Man, and that he made it all for the ultimate benefit of the lesser men, created in his own image, who occupy a fragment of dry land in one of the tiniest and most insignificant of its component bodies. The question of the object of life really descends to us from a time when men did not in the least realise their own absolute and utter smallness in the hierarchy of nature. They thought the universe was made for them, as implicitly as the London cockroach still believes that London was built in order to afford a convenient home, in its well-warmed kitchens, for myriads of sleek and well-fed cockroaches.
So much for the abstract view of the question. Life as a whole, and human life in particular, can have no object at all, looked at from outside, as component factors in that vast assemblage of atoms and energies that we call the cosmos. No more has the sun; no more has the milky way; no more has the little wingless parasite that lives between the close and jointed armour of the honey-bee. But, looked at from inside, as a question of mere personal conduct, life has, of course, an object of some sort for each individual person; and in so far as the race is made up of individuals, the average object of all put together may be looked upon as the object of the entire aggregate.
Can we find any such objects common to the vast mass of individuals? Perhaps not. Two only seem to be fairly universal, and those two are, to a large extent, unconscious. They are, first, self-preservation; and, secondly, race-preservation, as shown in the production and care of children.
I know this is an unfamiliar view, but it is one forced upon us by biological considerations. Every species of plant or animal knows, as a species, but one main desire — specific continuation. This desire produces two effects — devices for the preservation of the individual, and devices for the due production and culture of new generations. The sole purpose of humanity, as such, therefore, seems to be its own continuous perpetuation. And, in effect, who can doubt that such is really the main central object of our race? If we view humanity from outside, as objectively given to us in the street, the shop, the house, the factory, do we not see it forever striving simply, through its millionfold embodiments, for daily bread for itself and its children? Is not hunger the most imperative stimulus of the species, and, after hunger, the need for warmth, for fuel, for clothing? Supply these needs, and what comes next? The instinctive impulse to take to one's self a wife and family. Every man's first want in life is self-maintenance; that attained, his next want is marriage and children. The profoundest ingrained feelings of the race are the feelings that prompt, first, to the preservation of the individual life; next, to the perpetuation and propagation of the species. To some extent, indeed, the last aim, which is the most important for the race as a whole, outweighs the first one; for parents are frequently ready to sacrifice themselves on behalf of their children; and in our existing industrial state a vast number of parents do, more or less completely, so sacrifice themselves, by working harder, longer, and more continuously than is at all desirable from the point of view of individual preservation alone.
\But these two aims, the main central aims of the human species, are not, for the most part, consciously present to men at all, as an integral portion of their object in life.\ No, certainly not. They are innate and inherent, not reasoned and deliberate — physiological, not psychological. The question whether life is worth living is a question which nature, blind, dumb nature, never posits definitely to herself. If she did, it could have no effect upon her. Suppose a certain number of living beings — say the whole human race — to have thoroughly convinced themselves of the pessimistic position, to be quite certain of the undesirability of existence; and, in pursuance of that conscious bit of ratiocination, to set aside all the instinctive love of life, and to commit one great unanimous holocaust of universal suicide — what would be the consequence? Why, simply that the next highest remaining animals would go on, under stress of circumstances, evolving to something much like the human condition, and that history would, on the whole, pretty well repeat itself, barring the minor details of special incidents. The creatures that were not rational enough to kill themselves out and extinguish their race would go on living, and would do so just in virtue of these instinctive \objects of life\ which underlie all our conscious wishes and preferences. Men live, in the main, not for the objects that make life \worth living,\ but for the blind instincts and innate impulses they can never get rid of.
Nevertheless, there are purposes in life which seem (fallaciously enough) to the reasoning minority among us to constitute the sufficient ground (if any) for continued existence. Why do we not all commit suicide? That is, in fact, the real inquiry which veils itself under all the nebulous current pessimistic questioning as to the use and value and import of life. The answers are various — various in the degree of human idiosyncrasy. The vast majority do not commit suicide because they are restrained from it by pure instinct. The natural clinging to life is far too strong for them. And, indeed, if it comes to that, they have never even asked themselves the question, \What do I live for?\ Furthermore, they are mostly of opinion that suicide (or death generally, for that matter) does not really terminate existence. They believe they would be jumping, only too literally, out of the frying-pan into the fire. Of the remainder, the cultivated and educated minority, some are, no doubt, more or less optimistic by nature; admitting the world to be (for us) far from perfect, they are prepared, at any rate, to make the best of it. That is, perhaps, all things considered, about the sanest and wisest philosophy left us. The final residuum, the pessimists pure and simple, remain alive because it is so very troublesome and difficult to commit suicide. Besides, they always want to do something or other special to-morrow. The plot-interest of life is sufficient to deter them. Usually it takes the form of wife and children, acquired, no doubt, before the duty of checking the multiplication of the human race became quite apparent to their emancipated understandings.
But if human life has in this very restricted sense any general object at all — any conscious object present as a rule to the mind of the individual — that object is undoubtedly happiness, and happiness may be approximately defined as a decided surplus of personal pleasure over personal pain. In the species as a whole, no such object is primarily inherent; race-preservation is its sole generic aim and purpose. But inasmuch as pleasure, on the whole, roughly coincides with race-preservative activities, and pain, on the whole, roughly coincides with race-destructive activities (as I have endeavoured to show in Physiological Aesthetics) 3 it follows that these two apparently distinct objects, the unconscious generic aim, and the conscious individual aim, are at bottom practically almost identical. In other words, what to the race is preservative instinct is to the individual, in nine cases out of ten, the conscious pursuit of his own happiness.
|Men live, in the main, not for the objects that make life \worth living,\ but for the blind instincts and innate impulses they can never get rid of.|
His own happiness I say advisedly, but not necessarily to the exclusion of the happiness of others. Quite the contrary: even in the lowest races some regard for the happiness of wives and offspring enters into the concept of happiness for the individual, and among the higher outcomes of the highest races pleasure for others has become a necessary element in pleasure for self. One cannot yet say that in humanity as a whole the object of life, as consciously apprehended, includes the idea of equal happiness for all, but an approximation is ever being made in that direction. Misery for others, especially when brought home to us, suffices to make most members of the higher races thoroughly miserable, and the tendency is always to minimise as far as possible such misery, and to equalise as far as possible all available means of pleasure. Such a consummation — the socialistic and Christian ideal — is continually retarded by the as yet unconquered selfishness of the mass of men, and it is also at least retarded equally by the existing bad social arrangements and the blind conservatism of even well-meaning and philanthropic people. But as an ideal goal, realised already by the chosen few of all nations, we may say that the aim and object of human life in its entirety, apart from the conflicting aims and objects of its several component elements, is the greatest total happiness of all, consistent with the equal individual happiness of each separately.
In our present confessedly imperfect moral state this ideal goal is recognised by only very few; it is aimed at, it must be feared, by fewer still. The actual object of life, as conceived by the vast majority of existing human beings, is the enjoyment of mere selfish personal pleasure and the avoidance of threatened personal pain, with very little regard at all to the imagined pleasures or pains of others. And so far as mankind in the lump can be said now to live for anything in particular, outside the instinctively guarded aim of race-preservation, such purely selfish and personal happiness is the real object that most of them live for. Even in the worst cases, however, it is slightly tempered by the thin end of the altruistic wedge, which necessarily comes in, no matter how imperfectly, with the first introduction of the wife and children.
1 Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), English philosopher, attempted to create a systemic account of all cosmic phenomena, including mental and social principles.
2 In Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearances of Nature (1802), William Paley (1743-1805), an English theologian, developed the famous analogy of god as a superhuman watchmaker who fashioned the machine of the world. He argued that traces of an \intelligent maker\ are evident in the structure of the world.
3 A book by Grant Allen published in 1877.