Perhaps the most fundamental question that we all must ask ourselves is: why am I here? What is my purpose in life? The answer to this question from a religious person’s perspective is usually to worship God and live life in accordance with religious teachings. However, a secular person does not have as clear an answer.
More generally, a religious person and a secular person have different answers to the question: what is the purpose of life (in an objective sense)? The Abrahamic religions teach that God created humans with a purpose, and thus, there is a reason why we exist. Once again, that fundamental purpose – to the religious person – is to serve God and live a life aligned with God’s wishes.
However, a secular person does not believe that such an objective purpose exists. To a completely secular person, who does not believe in an Abrahamic God, life has no objective purpose. All life, and human beings included, is a product of evolution by natural selection, which has no direction, goals, or intentions. From this perspective, it is more or less an accident that humans exist, and there is no reason for our existence. We were not created by a being with an intention for us, or a purpose to give us. Therefore, there is nothing that we should do with our lives, as there is no purpose for it.
And yet, most secular people are not satisfied with this conclusion. They often say, yes, there may be no objective purpose to life, but they can choose their own purpose in life, and create their own meaning. However, this is where the thinking of some secular people begins to contradict itself. Modern science has made it quite clear that choice is an illusion. Even if the semantic conception of “free will” is still debated, I think most secular people can agree that human beings are ultimately physical beings, and our thoughts, feelings, and actions are determined by electro-chemical processes and physical laws. Understanding this leads one to understand that any choice that “you” make is an action made not by an independent “you,” but by the many particles and chemicals that make you up.
Therefore, it is meaningless to say that “you” can choose your own purpose in life or create your own meaning. We, as physical systems, do not really choose things. A machine does not make choices, or at least it is not ultimately responsible for its choices. Like a machine, we simply act according to how physical law determines we will act. And thus, a person does not choose his own purpose in life. What he decides to do with his life, and the things he finds purpose and meaning in, are determined for him.
I think this realization allows for an interesting perspective. On the one hand, it can lead to a sense of nihilism. “Not only is there no objective purpose to life, but I am not even in control of my own life.” However, at the same time, this understanding can allow for a much greater sense of connection with the rest of the world outside of oneself. It allows you to realize that you are part of a larger system – you are part of something bigger than yourself. You are not separate from the rest of the world because there actually is no independent “you” to begin with. “You” are a collection of many atoms and particles, no different from any other thing in the universe – no more, no less.
Moreover, one cannot help but notice that while not everyone has a strong sense of purpose generally, most people are usually driven and determined to accomplish some goals in their lives. Recognizing that these purposes are not freely chosen, one can reasonably speculate that perhaps there is some kind of objective purpose after all. We are living our lives according to the deterministic laws of nature. Whatever is responsible for setting the universe in motion is responsible for any purpose in our lives, and all of the choices, decisions, and actions that we make.