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Formulating Modern Purpose

Part 1: Projects vs. Platforms

During the first era of humanity’s tenure, surviving moment-to-moment involved such an overwhelming effort that contemplating the problem of purpose was rarely on the foreground of anyone’s mind. The global emergence of deification provided a cornerstone for purpose that dominated most of recorded history. More recently, Nietzsche declared the death of god and secular thinking has increasingly penetrated the western landscape; we’ve been left to our own devices to construct personal and communal purpose ever since. It’s a tough problem that only gets harder the more broadly we think on it.

A foundational premise toward the solution has recently become re-popularized; we ought to voluntarily take on responsibility in order to create meaning in our lives. Unfortunately, there’s a gap left between the desire to take on responsibility and the determination of what that responsibility should be. While most people on earth still don’t have the luxury of deciding on a responsibility beyond the basics of what is necessary for survival, likely you do.


a) Overcome existential risks (nuclear war, environmental collapse…)

b) Secure basic living and opportunity standards for all

These are the two greatest challenges of our age. Until they meet satisfactory resolutions, they’ll persist as the most ethically appropriate focuses for our excess time and energy; there’s plenty of responsibility to go around. However, they’re clearly not insurmountable problems — they won’t consume humanity’s efforts forever. Furthermore, the underlying reason we want to see their resolution is to enable the rest of our projects to flourish. A purpose found in the enabling of others to pursue their own purposes is perhaps more appropriately described as the creation of a platform. While it represents movement in the right direction, it doesn’t wholly satisfy what we want from an answer to the question of purpose. As global wellbeing continues improving, our thoughts will more frequently peer forward over the horizon and wonder, “what’s next?”

The trick is to imagine ourselves living in a civilization that has achieved satisfactory solutions to problems a) and b); how then would we tackle the formulation of purpose?


From this vantage point, proposals for projects to have responsibility over are broad. Like, really subjective and broad.

Should we be exploring the solar system for signs of extraterrestrial life? How about creating massive particle accelerators to uncover the deepest laws of physics? And what of the exploration of the human condition through expansive artistic expression?

I approach it by first looking at the set of all projects. Is there any way to establish an objective hierarchy? Are there projects with inherent features that stand out above the rest? Why not just participate in every desirable project?

So far, the most ethically important projects have been those that worked to create the most opportunity. Empowering every other type of project is arguably the best quality any one project can have, especially while ubiquitous roadblocks severely limit potential. But in a hypothetical world where humanity is no longer threatened by existential risks nor lack of access to opportunities, what’s left to improve? What’s the next platform?


Time. There just isn’t enough time in one human life. Einstein died working on the Unified Field Theory through to his very last evening. Jobs died before he could see Apple through to its climax. If people had more time, they’d be able to pursue and complete more, grander projects.

Time doesn’t slow.

While the merits of giving ourselves more time are clear, what’s to say it’s even possible? So far, the most realistic approach is to continue expanding our understanding of how the human body ages and bio-engineer solutions around it. CGP Grey recently published an awesome video based on Nick Bostrom’s White Paper The Fable of the Dragon Tyrant that does a great job summarizing why it’s a problem we shouldn’t shy away from pursuing.

Creating another platform is not a solution to the original question. We’re still left without a grander purpose. What purposeful thing would we do with such an awesome amount of time and opportunity? How does enabling us to participate in our most ambitious projects without a time limit help?

Continued here: Part 2: The Most Relevant Mystery.




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Steven ten Holder

Steven ten Holder

The future could be marvelous - let's make it happen. BioEng Entrepreneur.

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