Saturday, March 23, 2013


Something unknown is doing we know not what.
                                                 Sir Arthur Edington

What, ultimately, is purposeBoxed in, as we increasingly and inescapably are, by reflections only of ourselves and our science-based achievements, we are I believe in danger of becoming hypnotized by teleology: the explanation of phenomena in terms of the purposes they serve. We are in turn constantly being reminded that we are – or should be – rational beings. Purposelessness, like irrationality, is dismissed as nonsensical. Accordingly, you can't just take a stroll in the modern technocratic state, you'll be apprehended for suspicious behavior.  No, you must be "out jogging" - with all the accoutrements that jogging requires – so as to stay fit, or heading down the road to catch the bus to get to work to earn the money to pay the 25-year mortgage to eventually retire - and die - in comfort, if cancer or a heart attack doesn’t get you first.  Meanwhile, you are working like a slave at a job you dislike for the interim purpose of affording annual holidays. Yet the holidays are deemed “escapes”, “away from it all”, and at the end of them you head “back to the real world”.  It’s all very odd.

In his play Death of a Salesman, back in the 1950’s, Arthur Miller illustrated this phenomenon with a neon sign over the stage which flashed  
Our obsession with purpose, he was warning, is a treadmill. Alan Watts, writing around the same time, referred to it as “eating the menu, instead of the meal”. 

Philosophers have long pondered the purpose of life. The question sounds reasonable, but in reality it’s nonsense, a paradox thrown up by the dualism of the thought process itself. Gertrude Stein famously solved the riddle on her deathbed, with her pronouncement that  "a rose is a rose is a rose". Her lover, Alice B. Toklas, echoed this insight when her own end came. "What is the answer?" she demanded, in philosophical anguish, and then, after a long, ruminative pause, "What is the question?"

The utilitarian questions we put to the universe deliberately limit us to the finite, and that would be fine if we were merely the robots, or slaves, of some brave new world paradigm. “What is a giraffe?”, we ask – and then proceed, with a certain smug pride, to enumerate its physical attributes, its “function” in the ecosystem of the Serengeti, and its evolutionary ancestry as traced back through the fossil record; its purpose, in fact. Thus cleverly enmeshed in our own Aristotelian net we reckon we’ve got that giraffe taped, when in reality it has escaped, entirely unmeasured and unmeasurable, through all the holes.   
Watch this video, and for these five minutes at least drop all the utilitarian questions the scientists are pondering and which earn you your daily bread. As these expressions of the Universe - their habitat miraculously as yet untampered with by man - so perfectly show, life is a dance! That is perhaps all that can be truthfully said about it. The universe simply - wonderfully, exuberantly, non-sensically - IS.

Stop press!
From the same source I just received this, which seems to illustrate the problem of the utilitarian mindset we are presently mired in.



  1. Paul, as they say, "Thanks for sharing". The astounding beauty and mystery of the birds of paradise is a wonder of nature and evolution. Just think, if there weren't people who were compulsively driven to observe and perhaps even understand and classify the 38 species, we wouldn't be given this treat of observation. I'm not sure that the video gives credence to your thesis. The point here is that these two men are trying to make sense of what in your mind just is...or is that a wrong conclusion for me to draw. Anyway, your thesis resonates with me, and the video is great. It has gone viral I think, as I have been sent it by a diverse group. frank

    1. Thanks, Frank. I have considerable misgivings myself about this thesis, but I am struck by the immediacy of the images we see here - not dissimilar to underwater views, where there's nothing familiar for our conceptual brain to cling to. In the city everything is not only familiar, it's man-made! And I'm about to add Edison's famous quote, in relation to the sub-atomic: "Something unknown is doing we know not what." Maybe what drives these scientists is wonderment?

  2. Utilitarian? Moi? I don't think so. Beauty is my middle name. And the video on Birds of Paradise you link is awesome eye candy. [I passed it forward on my Facebook page.]

    You can't just watching a cute video like MAN and say, "too bad, someone should do something", forget about it and go on being part of the problem. It won't change a thing unless it makes YOU ponder and change your OWN thinking AND behavior.

    I reserve the word Purpose for something perhaps a bit deeper, more personal: it's to answer the age-old question - why are YOU here?

    The guys who filmed that bird video have a passion, a curiosity, a desire to learn and understand. It is the realm of science to ask questions of what, why and how, but not simply for utilitarian purposes. The juice that got them out there in that rough rain forest with heavy equipment is a sense of Purpose.

    Here is someone else who has a clear Purpose, who is daring greatly: Avaaz Executive Director, Ricken Patel. He wants to shape the world into what most of us wants and sets out the steps to do so in this inspiring lecture (you can skip the first 15 mins or so): I'm totally in his camp, at least one of his active 20M Avaaz members.

    And daring greatly? That phrase comes from a soul-stirring speech Teddy Roosevelt gave in 1910:

    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

    Are you in the arena, Pablo?

    Cheers, friend.

    1. Thank you for the comment. :-) Teddy Roosevelt's stirring speech applies to the entire spectrum of worthy human endeavor - however, and by whomever, that may be defined. I watched Ricken Patel - thank you for the link. His prescriptions - a highly accountable government at the local, national, and global level; a free press; restructured government institutions; and citizenship awareness; with strategies for achieving each, and action to implement the strategies - seem very much in line with his philosophy of "practical idealism". What particularly impressed me, however, was his emphasis on the journey within - love yourself. The story of his visit to Sierra Leone after his graduation was also inspiring, with its message of love and hope. I am uncomfortable about being challenged as to whether I am "in the arena". "Making a difference", and "saving the planet" have always sounded a little vainglorious to me. The planet knows how to look after itself. All we need to do is stop interfering. "Touch the earth lightly" as the American Indian saying goes. If that counts as saving the planet, then I guess I'm in the arena. :-)