[Adapted from a lecture presented at the University of British Columbia, Canada, 22nd January 2012]
I’d like to ask a question. If suddenly your vision went dark, and you woke up on a desert island along with other people, what would you think?
If other people, who had landed on the island, just started playing soccer, would you blindly follow them? Would you just join in as the mid-fielder? Or would you ask yourselves, why am I here? Who put me here, and what should we be doing?
But the problem is, when it comes to setting life objectives, most people generally only ask the question ‘how’ – how do I prepare for my exams? How do I pass a job interview? how do I get a better job? How do I get a good car?
How do I get a boyfriend? How do I get a girlfriend? How do I get a husband or a wife? How do I spend my Friday night? How do I get what I want? How? How? How?…
Strangely, the question we never hear people ask in life is the question why?
Why should I follow what society tells me are the important things in life? Why is right, right, and wrong, wrong? Why should I dress a certain way? Why should I act a certain way in society? Or why should I follow my impulses which appear to be random and conflicting at times? Why am I here? And what should I be actually doing?
Most human beings blindly accept their environment and the information they are taught.
The language you speak, the culture you were born into, the beliefs and values you were first taught by your parents, the different set of beliefs you may have adopted later in life after coming into contact with the prejudices, tastes and fashions of your society, the primary and secondary education you received, the circumstances of your background, whether you lived as in riches or poverty, the life experiences and family regimen that has mostly defined your behaviour, attitude, character were all given to you, and defined for you.
The question I put to you, my friends and colleagues, is if we blindly accept the values we are told, and the conditioning that gave us our character and habits, how can we ever truly know what we should be doing? How do we know that our beliefs are right? How do we know that what we are doing is not neglecting our purpose, self-defeating, and ultimately self-destructive?
Maybe the truth is completely different to what we think we know – and maybe, just maybe, not bothering to seek it, or discover it, will have serious consequences to our lives, to the existence of humanity, and in future realities we haven’t yet experienced.
I think with a little bit of thought we can come to know of the fallacy of the artificial ideas that have been taught to us. Let me give an example, in Western culture people are taught, via media, advertising and its philosophers, that the purpose of human existence is the pursuit of happiness and experiencing pleasure.
But if that is true, then why, if we are all equal humans, do some people experience more happy and comfortable lives than others? Why do some people experience no happiness at all? Why is there suffering in life? Why are humans so special to deserve happiness and pleasure, when the natural world is so uncaring and the life of animals is full of struggle and suffering? Why is there death?
Why is it, that if drug takers take drugs to induce a feeling of contentment and joy, does the brain compensate for the drug, requiring the drug user to have to take increasing dosages to get the same ‘high’?
It seems that whatever, or who ever made us and this universe, pleasure is only part of our lives, not the purpose of our lives.
A common misconception is that the Purpose of life is something esoteric, mystical or hard to find out. But why would it be so? Surely the purpose of our lives is not something we need to spend most of our lives trying to figure out.
That would be like putting someone in education for 70 years of their life, just so they could master a job, that they would be too old to do by the time they finished the training. Our purpose in life, should be something simple, straightforward and makes sense of man’s experience of life, and is something we all can achieve.
So what is the Purpose of life?
The first real question we should ask is, is there even a purpose to Life? Or a purpose to existence? Or is everything that exists without meaning?
Purpose means the intention behind existence. And an intention for our existence can only come from our origins. The thing or process that made us.
What is the source of our existence? How do we know we were created?
When we look around ourselves, we see existence of the universe, and it is immediately clear that we are not the only things that exist in it.
The universe is filled with objects that all possess a particular nature that defines them, and what they do.
It seems that all objects with defined natures, including us, did not choose what they are, or what they do.
The question to ask is, what defined what they are and what they do? Since they did not define it themselves, the only conclusion we can come to is something else made them what they are, and what they do?
For example, say a man called bob was born with blue eyes, would you say he chose it? Would you say you that there is no cause behind it? Of course not, there is always a cause behind things which are limited. What do I mean by limited? I mean, that Bob has blue eyes, and not brown eyes, or green eyes.
Limited means that Bob’s eyes are a particular shade of blue, and not another shade of blue. Limited means that Bob’s eyes are only so big, and he has only two of them, not three or four. A limitation is evidence that something defined it, for the number, size, shade and colour of bob’s eyes were determined to be a particular thing and not another thing.
Allow me to posit another example, take this rock, which I call my ‘philosophers stone’, how do you know it was created? You never saw it created, nor is it the case that because other rocks are created, that this rock has to be also. So how do you know this rock is created?
We know it is created because is has a defined (or limited) shape, mass, form, substance and colour.
This rock is part of a universe of things which are all limited and defined. The job of science is to detect and map these things, catalogue their attributes and nature and measure their characteristics. But the key question is what ultimately defined all these things within the universe, and the universe itself?
The only two answers are, either there was an infinite number of limited things each creating the next thing in a chain of creation stretching back to eternity (or infinity), or the second answer, that there was a beginning to all creation and First Cause that is not finite.
The first answer is absurd, it is like me saying that before me, I had an infinite amount of ancestors. Which of course, would be problematic because that would require an infinite number of ancestors to live before I could live, which would mean I would never come into existence.
This is called the Infinite regress fallacy, and is well known to philosophers.
So the only rational possibility left open to us is a First Cause that is infinite and unlimited. It requires no predecessors, which means it much possesses no limitations, no parameters or boundaries which define it or limit it. It does not change its state from one to another, and so it transcends time and space.
Our minds literary cannot comprehend infinitude limitlessness, and existence beyond time and change.
Even the words in English I am using bear testament to this: Infinite – means not finite, and unlimited means not limited.
The only way we can define this indentified First Cause, is by what it is not.
Does the First Cause possess intentionality?
Did the First Cause create everything else with an intention or was it merely a ‘mindless’ or ‘automatic’ process?
Let us consider first the possibility of the infinite First Cause being a ‘mindless’ or ‘automatic’ process for creating universe. Lets call this idea the Multi-verse.
If this Multi-verse created universes without any intention of doing so, then this would mean that there is either something outside of it that is causing it to do so, or some internal mechanism inside it was causing it to so.
If we humour the idea that there is something outside the Multi-verse which compels it to create universes, then that Multi-verse is not the First Cause at all, but would really be a second cause. The First cause would be something else, which would lead to an infinite regress fallacy if we keep insisting on each causing being an automatic process.
Now let us take the alternative possibility that there is an internal mechanism within the Multi-verse that compels it to create universes (e.g. like the clock’s internal mechanism of springs and sprockets compels the clock to function and chime every hour).
If the Multi-verse possesses such an internal mechanism, then that internal mechanism would be more fundamental than the Multi-verse, and it would itself be the real first cause.
Again, this would compel us to ask, “what causes the internal mechanism to create universes?” Again, there is no answer an atheist could give without falling into an infinite regress fallacy.
Therefore the only conclusion is that the First Cause is the First Cause which created all creation. It initiated creation without being externally forced to do so, or without an internal mechanism compelling it to do so.
We therefore must acknowledge that the First Cause simply chose to initiate the existence of creation. There was nothing compelling it do so, nor did it do so out of necessity.
And when it created the universe, it decided its exact proportions to be ones it has. So the reason why this universe is not twice the size it is, or half the size it is, is because a decision was made, out of many possibilities.
The ability of the First Cause to initiate Creation, and decide it’s proportioning demonstrates an act of its own will. Therefore, our existence was intended.
What is the purpose or intentionality behind creation?
Since the First Cause would not ‘need’ anything from his creation in terms of sustenance, we can discount that as a possibility.
However, what is certain is that our existence has certainly displayed the ability of the First Cause to create.
Thus, the first thing we can conclude about our purpose is, we are first and foremost, an evidence of the existence and creating power of the First Cause.
I shall now call the first Cause, using the term, the Creator, since the act of creation defines the primary relationship between us and it.
Additionally, all things we observe in the universe are in a state of change, they are changing their positions, changing their states and conditions, they are affecting and acting upon other things, and every time they interact with a particular thing, they do so to a regular proportion and degree.
The interaction of their natures in the universe operates under regularities, these regularities we call the laws of the universe. These laws describe the relationship between the attributes of different objects and forces to other objects and forces. E.g. The relationship between two objects of mass, at a moderate distance from each other, is gravity.
We witness that there are laws for all things, and that these laws are intended for all the creations of the universe.
All things in the universe fulfil their purpose, by existing, experiencing change, and affecting other things, all in accordance with their set natural law. Hence the purpose of all things in existence is the submission to the natural law intended for them.
“Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day are signs for those of understanding – Who remember Allah while standing or sitting or [lying] on their sides and give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth, [saying], “Our Lord, You did not create this aimlessly; exalted are You [above such a thing].” (Quran, 3:190-191)
And We did not create the heaven and the earth and that between them aimlessly. That is the assumption of those who disbelieve, so woe to those who disbelieve (Quran, 38:27-28)
“Do they seek a religion other than the religion of God, while whatever is in the heavens and the earth submits to Him willingly, and will return to Him?” (3:83)
And I did not create the Jinn and mankind except to worship Me… (Quran, 51:56-58)
What is the natural law of humans?
If an object has intended attributes, then these attributes provide clues to an object’s purpose. For example study a car.
Humans are not as simple as other created things. We are made of the same substance as inanimate matter, we seek to pro-actively preserve our existence, grow and re-produce further iterations of our kind, like living matter does. However, we are more than that.
We are Conscious beings that experience life, not merely participate in it. We experience emotions, pain and pleasure.
When we fulfil a drive, we are rewarded with pleasure, and when we fail to fulfil a desire or experience harm, we feel pain. There must be significance that we experience these things, rather than mindlessly respond to external stimuli – like plants do.
Seeking pleasure and avoiding pain are not the purpose of life, for these things are merely a reward and punishment mechanism that drives us to do actions according to a higher natural law.
Thinking (or meta-thinking) gives humans the ability to plan activities, behaviours and take courses of action that can be used to ensure optimal and sustained fulfilment of our drives/instincts.
So instead of hunting for food, which can have varying success, mankind used thinking to invent animal husbandry, farming, and improved their tools for food sources they couldn’t control, like fishing nets. The existence of thinking means humans are meant to overcome their obstacles.
With the power of thinking you may well believe that humans are in a state of contentment – however this is sadly not true.
Humans still find that their pursuit of their instinctual drives are still frustrated, as they may select a solution that offers a partial solution or they may select a short-term solution that causes the longer-term frustration of the instinct in the long term. OR they may seek benefit at the expense of other humans.
These situations arise because Humans are not born with a complete knowledge of the universe or themselves.
As a result of that, the human may possess characteristics that are self-defeating, or self-destructive to themselves, or others.
‘But you may dislike something which is good for you, and you may like something which is bad for you. GOD knows while you do not know’. [2:216]
We are complex creatures by dint of the variety of our emotions, and our ability to make choices, think and hold knowledge which considerably complicate our existences and social interactions.
Further to this, there exist a number of values whose details we cannot rationally deduce or justify e.g. Definitions for Justice, Goodness, Evil etc. Furthermore, we do not know the right method to achieve these things (i.e. laws and systems).
Lastly, we are not the only things in existence, and our existence is subject to change and non-uniformity.
So we as humans need to know how to form a relationship with the rest of creation, with the origin of ourselves, the Creator, and understand the significance of the actions we do beyond their material description e.g. killing a human, is not merely a electro-chemical change in a mass. It is something more than that.
We witness that not all humans will fulfil their natural law, nor will they attain the objectives their instincts move them towards, nor are all humans equal in their abilities or fortunes – so we need an explanation for these things, since these things are all intended. How will Justice be attained these inequalities?
These things and more, are why we should expect guidance from the Creator
Consider if you were successful in a job application for a job that possessed some complexity. You go to the premises on the appointed start date to begin you’re new job, but when you go to your allotted department, there was no one there to show you what to do or what you should be doing. What would you think?
Perhaps, management forgot you’re there, or perhaps you made a mistake thinking this was your start date, or perhaps someone told you the wrong start date by mistake, perhaps this is all part of a prank by a TV show.
But no one would think that Management knows you are there, and consciously didn’t provide you with any guidance on what they wanted you to do. I mean, they created the job role for you, and brought your existence into their firm for a reason. So to fulfil that reason, they need to guide you, as the nature of your job role is more complex then just standing around doing nothing.
Likewise, the Creator of the universe, being possessed of no limitations to its existence, and therefore no limitations to its knowledge, knows we exist, intended us to exist, and by observing the nature of human life, we know that the Creator intended us to live a life more complex than just standing around.
“Does man think that he is to be left aimless?” Sura 75, verse 36:
So considering these factors, it is reasonable to expect guidance to come to us from this Creator, and inform us of how we fulfil our purpose, and what the natural law for our creation is.
Humans are not born with an instruction manual. We are complex creatures.
Philosophers, psychologists and sociologists have not been able to work out a harmonious system for what the natural law of human beings is. The fact remains that humans need explaining what our natural law is, so that we can organise humans and their nature to enable them to fulfil their purpose of life, without acting as an obstacle to others.
What should we expect guidance from the Creator to be like?
To be centred around the Creator since creation itself is Creator centred. The universe does not revolve around man, but around the Creator.
God is the Creator of everything and He is in charge of everything. (39: 62)
The creation of the heavens and the earth is indeed greater than the creation of mankind; yet, most of mankind knows not. (Sûrat Ghâfir 40:57)
Be rationally consistent, and justifiable through human thought.
‘Then do they not reflect upon the Quran? (i.e. its meanings and its objective) If it had been from [any] other than Allah, they would have found within it much contradiction’. (Quran, 4:82)
It should not mix the infinite with the finite, and point to a limited, finite and self-contradictory Creator.
It must not contradict the reality it is explaining. The explanation it imparts should confirm and agree with all the signs in the universe and explains them and our relationship with them (i.e. it makes no claims about the universe that are explicitly disproven by observation, or later discovery).
It must provide a system that organises human activity and personality in concordance with human nature. Its guidance for human nature should produce contentment and fundamental satisfaction with the human individual and human society – otherwise known as peace.
We sent our messengers with clear signs, and sent down with them the Book and the Balance so that men may conduct themselves with justice’ (al-Hadid 57:25)
To be comprehensive in scope, covering purpose of human existence that would define every aspect, emotion, facet and area of our existence. So it must also organise the human emotions of hate, jealously and greed, and not just love, sharing and modesty.
Say: ‘Verily, my Prayers, my sacrifice, my living, and my dying are for Allaah (the true God), the Lord of all that exists’. [Quran, Ch. 6, 162
To explain the significance and values behind our actions, and that having free will and the ability to think, brings accountability.
“Did you think that we created you without purpose, and that you would not be brought back to Us?” [Quran 23:115]
To be conveyed to us through a messenger – ideally a human, who can act as an example for other humans to emulate.
The messenger would require some form of authentication of the source of its message and have their message authentically preserved. If you received a letter telling you that have been hired for a new job, you’d want to see the signature of the manager, or deputy, hiring you).
And finally, since all humans share the same overall purpose, the guidance from God should be universal for all humans for all times and places.
I’d like to posit that that there is one such iteration of guidance from the Creator that fulfils all these criteria and is accessible to all of us. It is not a new message, but the re-iteration of an old one. The message of Islam.
Islam – is the word deriving from the Arabic root, istislam- which means submission. The message of Islam is the voluntary submission of Humans to our own ordained Natural law, to take our place in this universe, and enter into a relationship of acknowledgement and indebtedness to the Creator of existence.
1,400 years ago, a man called Muhammed (saaw) was born in Arabia. He was a merchant by profession, and came from an esteemed and noble tribe. He lived during the time where his people where governed by tribal politics, feuding, superstition and polytheism. The Arabs excelled in three things, survival, poetry and endless feuding.
Muhammed (saaw) changed the entire way of life, and way of thinking of the Arab peoples, and created a social and intellectual phenomenon that changed the entire region, and its ripples have not ceased since.
He brought a message from the Creator, called the Quran. A book unlike any other, not chronologically arranged, not a book of philosophy like Platos works, or a written in narrative style like the Bible, neither is it an instructional book on spirituality like the vedic texts.
The writing in the Quran does not conform to prose or poetry, and caused the best Arabic poets in Muhammed (saaw)’s time to be mystified by the very possibility of its composition. Some of them, called Muhammed (saaw) a magician of words. But Muhammed (saaw) never claimed he wrote it, neither under inspiration, or due to his intellect. Muhammed (saaw) relied on the Quran exclusively for his authority as a messenger.
Once, when Muhammed’s baby son died, there was a solar eclipse, and many superstitious people believed this was a miraculous sign that even the heavens mourned for his child. Now here was an opportunity for Muhammed (saaw) to shore up further support for himself and his claim of Prophethood. However, what did he say? He told them, it was just celestial phenomena, and in essence, a coincidence:
“The sun eclipsed in the life-time of Allah’s Apostle on the day when (his son) Ibrahim died. So the people said that the sun had eclipsed because of the death of Ibrahim. Allah’s Apostle said, “The sun and the moon do not eclipse because of the death or life (i.e. birth) of some-one. When you see the eclipse pray and invoke Allah.”
Bukhari, Hadith collection 2:153
The Quran was all the sign Muhammed (saaw) required.
The Quran brought a message; this message was that there is no god except the infinite and unlimited Creator of the universe, that mankind should not worship idols made of stone, wood and human vanity. The Creator is not a human, nor is he like humans. He is the creator of humans.
The Quran does not say it is something new, but rather a reiteration of many many messages that have been sent to humanity throughout its existence.
The most interesting thing about the Quran is, it tells mankind that they should use their intellects and observe the universe to recognise the existence of the creator and that they should have expected a message from him.
We believe the Prophet Muhammed (saaw) was sent as a mercy to mankind, bringing a re-iteration of the natural law for governing human life and bringing liberation and freedom from the oppression and burdens that mankind imposes upon itself.
“He will enjoin upon them which are right and forbid them which is wrong. He will make lawful for them all good things and prohibit for them all the bad things; and He will relieve them of their burden and the fetters that they used to wear (7:157)
It is in this, that for those who without prejudice, and who use their Creator-given mind, will conclude, the Creator of the universe, has instructed mankind over centuries with our purpose, and in Islam, we find the latest and last iteration of the Creator’s guidance for mankind.
Through seeking, we find a Message already delivered.