Consider this question: Do the Earth and mankind have a
purpose? If so, then the universe does too, ipso facto. If not, the universe
might still have (some other) purpose; but I don't have to face that
contingency, because I believe we do have one…
Namely, to defeat and rise above our animal natures; to
create goodness, beauty, and holiness where only physics and animal life once
existed; to create what might be (if we succeed) the only tiny pinprick of
goodness in the universe–which is otherwise (so far as we know) morally null
and void. If no other such project exists anywhere in the cosmos, our victory
would change the nature of the universe. If there are similar projects
elsewhere, more power to them; but our own task remains unchanged.
But why rise above and not blend into nature? Equivalently,
from a Western viewpoint: why did the Judeo-Christian tradition replace the
pagan idea of gods made in man's image with a revolutionary inversion, man made
in God's? Why should we be goaded not to be ourselves but to be better than
Why seek goodness?
Because most humans desire goodness. For most (not all!)
humans, this urge is easily ignored in the short term, but nearly impossible to
uproot over the long haul.
Males (and females) desire sex, too; but if a male had
somehow grown up without seeing a woman, this desire would (probably) remain
vague and unformed. Humans desire goodness; but until the Judeo-Christian
revelation this desire was, at least for Western humanity, vague and unformed
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Humans desire goodness; but until the Judeo-Christian
revelation this desire was, at least for Western humanity, vague and unformed.
For Western man, Judeo-Christian ethics felt right; felt obligatory; made some
internal tuning fork hum. (By Judeo-Christian ethics I mean, basically, the Ten
Commandments and the Holiness Code of Leviticus 19. Recall that, when he's
called upon to summarize his message, Jesus quotes two verses from the Hebrew
All urges are not created equal. Most humans need sex, but
in rare cases don't, and others choose to suppress the urge. The
goodness-and-sanctity urge is (likewise) absent in some, suppressed in others;
subliminally present in most.
When we seek goodness and sanctity, we defy nature. The basic
rule of Judeo-Christian ethics is, the strong must support the weak. The basic
rule of nature is, the strong live and the weak die.
But if you do achieve your ultimate human purpose–to become
good, to transcend your animal nature; to imitate God and thereby help
transform God from an internal subjective idea to an external, objective
fact–what have you achieved? Is there any hope of ultimate success? Of
gathering together enough pinpricks of goodness to create a swell that will
sweep suffering away and leave sanctity and joy (like glittering sea foam on
the beach) behind? Of realizing God on earth?
In Genesis, God warns us not to eat from the Tree of the
Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Talmud reports a famous dispute between two
leading rabbinical schools: would man have been better off had he never been
The decision: yes.
But as Job teaches us, we must play the hand we are dealt.
David Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale and a National fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.