Rabbi Adin Even-Israel (Steinsaltz)
5. The Question of Purpose and Time
The question of purpose is also time-related, although the answers to this question cannot always be arrived at through a mathematical function (linear or other) in which time is as an element. Nevertheless, the question of purpose is inherently related to the direction of time - namely, to something which does not exist now but which we would like to reach at some other time. Yet, unlike science, time in the question of purpose is, in essence, the future. The purpose is a goal in the future for which a certain thing or person is striving presently. According to this model, the past, too (in explaining past events), is reached by way of extrapolation - namely, by presenting the goal and then taking the necessary amount of steps back into the presently-existing reality.
Let us take, for instance, a goal that certain people set for themselves - sending a spaceship to Mars and in order to document certain phenomena there. In this case, goal-definition is the starting point of the project. Setting this goal now creates other, secondary questions; i.e., what instruments are needed in order to record the phenomena in question, to set the space-ship in motion, to communicate the recorded date to the launching point, etc. Each of these needs, too, becomes, in turn, a question, and from here we return to the problems involved in achieving the secondary goals. These problems, too, may contain secondary goals, such as high-resolution films, ways of correcting deviations in the spaceship s course, ensuring that the vessel has sufficient energy to bring it to its destination, etc.; and again, each one of these goals calls for thinking about the means required to attain it. Thus, the process of planning and thinking goes on and on, until it reaches the point of the present: the existing objects and resources.
The common denominator in this entire line of thinking is operation from the future back into the present - from something that exists, or that we want to exist, in the future, back to current reality. This way of thinking exists not only in the planned act, but also in any kind of goal-setting. Here, too, there is causality - namely, a cause-and-effect relationship; however, here the causality works in the opposite direction, for the result precedes the action, and is the impetus for the action. In the same way, this entire mode of thinking, which begins with the question "What For," starts with the purpose, the goal to be reached, and returns from there to the existing reality.
Similarly, when goal-oriented thinking surveys the past, it sees it through a projection of the existing reality onto the past. In such a case, there is a meeting between two systems: the scientific causality system, which works from the past towards the future, converges with the goal-oriented, teleological system, which works from the future towards the present. Sometimes (especially where human reality and conscious goal-oriented thinking are concerned) these two systems become one, but not necessarily. In such cases, the process of scientific thinking and exploration deals with the mechanism of phenomena, whereas goal-oriented thinking deals with the purpose and the goals to which those mechanisms lead. When one asks, "For what purpose does such-and-such a thing exist?" he does not deal with the "How did it come to be?" (or, in other words, with the causal mechanism for its existence), but rather with the purpose of that thing, its uses, its usefulness, or its influence on other things.
Is the question of purpose as real and objective as the questions of "What" and "How?" Or is it only a projection of our way of thinking upon reality? Philosophically speaking, any question we ask is a human question, which depicts things in a way that will make them meaningful to our thinking processes. Scientific thinking, by nature, is one way of assuming causality in objective reality; and if one insists, one can say that things happen the way they do, and that personally, he is not interested in why it is so. But since this question is a human question, it is a question that human beings ask because they are human beings. Just as they strive to connect the past and the present in their effort to understand the "How", so they strive to connect the future and present in an effort to solve the question of "What For."
Any religion, by its very essence, deals with the question of purpose. Moreover: the ethical and legal systems of any religion are, in a sense, a projection of the definition of its purpose. Since a certain goal is being set for man s life, there is a need to take various measures, and to behave and think accordingly, in order to attain this goal.
Surely, consensus about the purpose of man's life - or, for that matter, any other goal set by man - does not necessarily lead to identical means of achieving it. There may be a number of different ways to reach a certain goal, and there may also be some misleading ways, but the common point is that the primary goals and the secondary ones which stem from them - and which are, as we said, points in the future - operate on and influence life in the present.
The close connection between religion and purpose, then, is not only in that religion is a system based largely on purpose, and that it can therefore be seen as one of the most outstanding examples of this way of thinking. Rather, this connection has additional meaning: it can also be said that any question of purpose is, in essence, a religious question. Questions such as "For what does the world exist?" or "What is the purpose of society?" cannot be neutral questions, because they entail a certain assumption - namely, that there is a certain objective point in reality which is the yardstick for everything else. Such an assumption about the existence of any such entity - namely, a basic point, metaphysical or material, above and beyond which there is no other primary entity - is in itself a religious assumption. In a broad definition, not related to any specific religion, this assumption (that there is indeed some kind of a primary reality by which to measure all else and which, in itself, cannot be set by any other values) is the non-theological definition of the Primal Cause.
It should be stressed that this recognition of the Primal Cause in terms of time exists in various religions and, itself, is related to the system of scientific thinking - namely, to the question of causality. However, recognition of the Primal Cause in its future- and purpose-oriented sense is the basis for religious faith of all kinds. Although the question of purpose, the "What for," is in essence a religious question, it does not necessitate a religious answer in the common sense of the word. Since it falls within the realm of religion, though, any answer to this question necessarily creates a religious system - namely, a set of principles stemming from an axiomatic premise regarding the reality towards which man strives.
Thus, if the question "What is the purpose of society?" is answered by saying, that its purpose is to bring about a just division of economic resources, this answer creates a kind of religion which may be materialistic in its definition, but is religious in its very essence. Whoever states that the purpose of man s life is to eat caviar, drink vodka and enjoy other people's suffering, also creates a religion - one which is both materialistic and hedonistic, and entirely atheistic. For here, too, there is the central religious element: faith in a certain supreme, absolute value which is not questioned and which determines everything else. Such a religion may be quite unpleasant, and its god rather base, but it, too, is a religion, whose icon is, perhaps, the emptied bottle of liquor.
In any way that the question of purpose may be raised - be it as a philosophical question, "What is the purpose of existence?" or as an existential one, "What is the purpose of my life?", and even when it is phrased in a more rudimentary way, "What is the purpose that I strive to achieve in my life?" - whenever such questions are asked, the questioner is launched into the third time-system, the in which it is the future that determines the past. Or, in other words, into the realm of religion.
* Based on a lecture given at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Dept. of Space Sciences, 1988.