"Why are you here?" Why the question doesn't make sense this atheist and what he does about it
On the face of it, this is a fairly nonsensical question, although looking at it carefully may be able to reveal what, exactly, is meant by it. To show why it doesn't make sense, let's ask another question:
Why is God here? What’s His purpose? Not His purpose for us, but His purpose, period.
Why is God here?
Most people don't know. For many, that question may not make sense, because God would be at the top of any hierarchy. So to say that “God is here because X” is to put “X” on a higher plane than God. So that’s really what the question is about, when you put your mind to it. What is more important than you, from your perspective?
But does that question even make sense? Dedicating yourself to something greater than yourself or investing yourself in something outside of yourself -- is that possible?
To see the problem, let's spell it out: Could I do something that I didn't do for myself? If I do something as me, then how could I not be doing it for myself? Look at it this way: if you’re doing something, that’s you, the “real you” (whatever that is) doing it with yourself because you want to do it. So your desire is privileged above that entity, whatever it is. You can never dedicate yourself to something you think is more important than you.
"It seems pretty straightforward to say this, although a lot of people seem to miss it: I think that it's fairly safe to assert that everything you do, you do because, on some level, you want to do it for your own reasons."
It seems pretty straightforward to say this, although a lot of people seem to miss it: I think that it's fairly safe to assert that everything you do, you do because, on some level, you want to do it for your own reasons.
So when you look a bit deeper in this mysterious “you” -- which is just kind of there, without any pre-endowed purpose that you know of, and nothing higher than it, in your perspective, than itself -- you realize that different things may motivate it, or act upon it, but there’s still this “you” there that you’re unavoidably attached to. You can’t wander off and do something that is more important than you. You’re always going to be you, reacting to the world around you. So really, there’s nothing more important to you than you, although in this maze of life this “you” may go through many twists and turns that impact the decisions it makes, and how this “you” views itself.
That may have been a mindful, but that’s kinda the way I think. So I get really confused when people say, “Is there anything that’s more important than you,” because...well...I’m always attached to me, and it’s always the same me making decisions for me...so how could anything possibly be more important to me than me? How would that even work?
Now, digging a bit further, when I put my mind to work on it, I begin to realize that you’re probably not asking me what could be more important to me than me but, rather, who I define as “me.” And, really, this is a pretty fundamental question, isn’t it? That is, it seems fairly helpful, if you’re going to answer the question, “Why are you here?” to get down to definitions and ask, “Who are you?” or, in this case (since, if you’re a Christian, you probably won’t agree with me), “Who do you think you are?”
And again, I don’t know. But I’m working on it. And in my digging -- in the inside of my subjective experience -- I notice that there are some things that I feel attached to. I feel pretty attached, for example, to these hands that are typing on the keyboard. I feel attached to my computer. I feel attached to my parents. So...yeah.
But the thing is...I can’t define any of these things as “me.” I can’t take any one of those things and be like, “Look, there I am!” This is similar, in a way, to a car. Like, the car is the sum of its parts. You can’t just take the engine out and show it to people and say, “This is the car.” The car is more than just its individual parts -- it's all of those parts.
Here, I should quickly insert that I’m not going to tell you that atheists have the same answer to this question of who we are, because they don’t. The bottom line is that we don’t know. A lot of people say it’s the brain...but in speech, we talk about “my brain” -- like the brain is part of this overall contraption of “me.”
So now we’ve gotten to yet another question. Beyond, “Who are you?” we’ve begun asking the question “What does it mean to be ‘you’?” Is it what you feel -- so that everything that you feel is attached to you is, actually, you? Or is it what you own, as a matter of law -- everything the law says belongs to you is, actually, you? Or is it biological -- everything from your skin inwards is what makes up “you”? What does it mean to be “you”? I mean, we take it for granted that we all know what “you” means when we use it (as I’ve been kinda taking it for granted in this article and will continue taking it for granted in this article). But when you get right down to the nitty-gritty of it, this is my honest question: “What do you mean by ‘you’?”
I know that may seem like a circular question, but it seems like a legitimate question that’s kinda unavoidable, given this line of inquiry.
Personally, for this atheist, I think a clue to the answer of “What does it mean to be ‘you’?” is in the question: “Why do you care about what it means to me to be me?” I mean, in other words, that I think it is relevant that you are asking this question because you have a vested interest in this question; because, for whatever reason, it makes a difference to you.
The spirit of that last question, I think is my best answer to your question of “What does it mean to be ‘you’?”: Whatever it means to be “us.” In other words, whatever it means to make a difference in your life and the lives of those around me. That’s what it means to be me, when you’re asking the question.
From here, it gets complicated, because now I have to diagnose you and what it means to make a difference in your life. And here, there are the questions of what it means to make a difference in your life, and of how I think about you -- do I think about “you” as a single, more limited entity or “you” as a collective? Definitions like these have practical application regarding questions like, for example: Should I do the greatest good for the greatest number, or fight for equality among individuals?
But here's the thing...when I answer the question with "whatever it means to be us," I think that this fundamentally changes the picture, because then I become part of you, in a way. I have my actions, but this "you" is not isolated. Like -- an engine is an engine, true, but it also is a part of a car. But it can only be recognized as an engine when it has a contrasting relationship to its environment. So I'm me, but I can only be recognized as me in relation to you, and vice versa. In this mutual relationship, we become part of an overall structure that, at the same time, allows us to be our individual parts. This is not purpose, exactly, but definition.
So, I suppose you could say I'm a tinkerer. I'm like an engine trying to figure out how it can work with other pieces of the car, so to speak. But we are not only the engines -- we are also mechanics. And as we go on, we can figure out ways we can work together to further our own desires and, in the process, the desires of each other. So although we kinda know what we're figuring out as we go along, we're still kinda figuring it out as we go along.
To be clear, this is not to say that there is a greater purpose. Rather, it's to say that the real question being asked when you are asking, "Why are you here?" is really, "What does it mean to be you?" And to answer the question when you're asking it, we have to figure out what it means to you for me to be me, and that's an ongoing process. It's a process that comes into being because of the raw presence of the question, not because of some kind of greater, overarching, assigned purpose.
The actual original question of why we are here remains unanswerable, for me as an atheist and for the God in Christian ideology.
I know that was a bit roundabout, but hopefully it's somewhat clear.
Here’s a riddle for you,
Find the answer: There’s a reason for the world:
You and I.