A Sat-Nav With Nowhere To Go

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
14th February 2014

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Do you ever find yourself driving on auto pilot? Not just do you change gears and use the traffic indicator without conscious thought but do you also travel along habitual routes without thinking about it? Have you ever found yourself following your usual route but going in the wrong direction? Forgetting your destination is a significant mistake to make.

Humans are purpose driven, goal directed creatures. We learn early in life to override our instincts and use our rationality to pursue goals. We have a very long developmental process to reach such rational self-control. Few creatures require such lengthy educational processes as humans; especially those who live in the post-industrial world of Western urban civilization. Nevertheless, by adulthood most of the complex abilities to live in our society have become second nature to us.

However, that is when the problem of living by auto pilot becomes a real threat to us. We keep making the rational choices we have learnt and to which we have become habituated but we forget our destination. Yet, it is our destination that should govern our immediate decisions. This is made worse when the destination is a long way away and there seem to be several different ways to get there.

Raising a family is a very long-term project. Simply providing food, shelter and clothing for our family involves a lot of purposeful decisions and choices. In order to provide for a family we need to make some financially remunerated contribution to society – that is, we need to be paid for a job! But there's more to raising a family than simply having an income. The job we do must make some valuable contribution to society. Crime may pay; but to raise our family on the proceeds of crime does not pay. Working for industries, like tobacco or gambling, that destroy the health and welfare of society may be well remunerated, but are they consistent with even longer term moral purposes involved in raising a family?

Raising a family is so much more than simply providing food, shelter and clothing, for example there is the complex issue of developing personal relationships between husband and wife, parents and children, grandparents, in-laws and society. If we are going to raise children into adulthood, what kind of adults are we hoping they will be? What kind of education and socialization will we choose for them and, in due time, encourage them to choose for themselves? It's more than economics and careers; it is life and values, purposes, goals and meaning.

These moral purposes come from even longer term thinking. They affect, and should even control, our immediate short-term choices but they themselves are long term. These are not choices like changing gears or even following the right route but are the choices of the ultimate destination at which we hope to arrive.

Sadly, a group of mechanics who have learnt how the car works think they have ‘discovered’ that there is no destination. Yet, there is a great difference between learning ‘how a car works’ and from that ‘discovering’ there is no destination. To them, the whole sense of purpose is an evolutionary trick that enables us to be ‘the fittest’ animal, but has deceived us into thinking there is a meaning or purpose to life. They think every purpose is only ever short-term gear changing for there is no destination or meaning to life. All driving is joy riding. We are not going anywhere. The pleasure and excitement is in the way the car works, not in the possibility of getting anywhere in it.

The consequence of this ‘discovery’ is that there are no values, purposes, meaning or morality – other than what we may like to think, if we want to. A life of crime that provides for my family is ultimately no different than a life that contributes to the welfare of society. You may choose welfare over criminality but that is your personal preference with no greater claim to rationality or morality than the opposite choice.

They are like electrical engineers inventing a sat- nav but having no destination to put into the program. An engineer may be able to explain the component parts and the interaction that will allow it to give directions – but there is more to a sat-nav than its component parts. There is even more meaning than the sum of its component parts. And the meaning comes from outside the components – from the maker of the sat-nav and the language of the society in which and for which it was made and the destination that the owner programs into it.

An invention, or a creation, has the purpose and meaning of its inventor or creator and owner. Accidents have no meaning; they may have causes, they often have consequences, but they have no meaning – which is why they’re called accidents. The world was made, it is no accident.

It is as we come to know our Creator that we learn the purpose and meaning not just of our lives as a whole but of the component parts as well. We can understand and use the steering wheel and the rear vision mirror without knowing where we going. But it is as we come to understand where we're going that we will make the best use of the components. We can understand and use our Maths and Physics, History, Latin and Chemistry, but it is as we come to understand our Creator that we will best understand how to use them. Our immediate choices will best reflect and reach our ultimate goals when we have a clear understanding of our true destination. And so we will do well to heed the advice of the preacher of wisdom: "remember also your creator in the days of your youth" (Ecclesiastes 12:1), for then we may come to understand that in Christ Jesus “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3).