Toma is a reader of this blog who keeps asking unanswerable questions…to which I do my best to provide responses. Just the other day he wrote, “What is the purpose of life?” and I answered, “I’ll have to think about whether that even feels do-able.”
Frankly, I thought coming up with a reasonable response was unlikely to be do-able at all. But that was before Oliver Sacks learned he has terminal cancer.
Oliver Sacks is a professor of neurology and psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. He is best known to the public for his intellect, humor, and wide-ranging curiosity about how the mind works, which has led to his best-selling books featuring case studies of people with neurological disorders. The dozen or more titles include Musicophilia, Awakenings, Hallucinations, and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Time magazine calls him “ one of the leading public intellectuals of the last half-century.”
In keeping with all of those attributes, Sacks learned of his terminal cancer and wrote a brief essay about his prognosis for the New York Times. He concludes:
…I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.
And there, I think, is a worthwhile answer to the question of purpose. The purpose of our existence is being, in the same way the ancient name of the Hebrew God—YHWH, or Yahweh—has something to do with the verb “to be.” Because we are the creatures we are, for us being involves awareness, cognition, consciousness. We are aware that we are.
Perhaps evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley was right, back in 1957, writing, “As a result of a thousand million years of evolution, the universe is becoming conscious of itself, able to understand something of its past history and its possible future.” Is that truly our function, to be the consciousness of the universe? Or perhaps that is simply another example of human self-absorption and grandiosity. Other animals notice—some far better than we—the details of their physical environment. But the fact remains that we are the only creatures on this planet able to reason and communicate in ways that extend beyond our immediate environment and our physical lifetimes, able to speculate about how it all works and the “why” of our being here. And there is that word again: being.
Is this the ‘right’ answer to the question of the purpose of life—that our purpose is to be and to notice? Obviously, I have no way of knowing. In terms of satisfaction, though, it seems hard to do better than this from Oliver Sacks:
“Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”