Are the toil and creativity of work manifestations of a flawed, confused or, instead, perfect, cosmic “design” or are they the consequence of the workings of a blind, pointless, randomly generated cosmic mechanism?
Historically and philosophically, our attitudes toward work and interpretations of its place in our lives and in the bigger universe cover a spectrum as wide and polarized as that of light itself.
The Moral Model
At one extreme, there is the Biblical negative explanation of work as divine entrapment and retribution for Adam and Eve’s appetite for or curiosity about apples. To hammer that point and punishment home, the primary form of labor was topped off with a secondary, even more unpleasant form of human labor, the pangs of childbirth. The third, work’s frequent scarcity, was, it seems, thrown in as a perverse afterthought.
Here’s the gist, from Genesis 3:17 (which has many versions, depending on which version of the Bible is in your hotel room or pew):
“I will greatly multiply Your pain in childbirth, In pain you will bring forth children; Yet your desire will be for your husband, And he will rule over you.” Then to Adam He said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat from it’; Cursed is the ground because of you; In toil you will eat of it All the days of your life. (Other variations on this gloomy theme, as well as the foregoing, can be found here.)
At the other extreme of the spectrum are the paeans to the ennobling nature of work—deliciously parodied in the Jack Lemmon comedy “For Richer or Poorer“—in which his character’s spoiled, unmotivated pool-potato of a recently graduated son challenges that declaration by asking, “If work is so ennobling, why is it the last thing the nobility ever does?”
The Protestant ethic made a comparable contribution by extolling “industry” and “good works”, as well as “thrift”,”sobriety” and “frugality” and celebrating God’s “elect”, readily identified by their conspicuous material successes ( buttressed and tempered by comparably substantial material donations to the Church and for the needy less fortunate).
What is nonetheless common to these diametrically opposite views about the necessity or place of work in the cosmos is that they are fundamentally moral accounts, i.e., relate to moral lapses or moral excellence. But what about other possibilities, such as scientific, mathematical or metaphysical explanations of why we have to work in order to live?
Science and Toil
Among my favorite possible scientific explanations is that the work of living things is required by the second law of thermodynamics, which precludes the existence of a perpetual motion machine, because of the dissipation of potentially useful energy as a consequence of the useless entropy associated with energy’s release and transformations.
It seems clear that even if it did not completely eliminate the need for labor (e.g., ours, amoebas and insects), the existence of perpetual motion machines and of the full recoverability of all energy that implies would drastically reduce the need to work, e.g., in searching for and extracting energy from new oil reserves.
This consideration raises doubts about just how perfect a universe that has entropy in it can possibly be (if we assume that a divine perfect creator would never create an imperfect universe).
But such a seeming “flaw” may in fact be a complex face of such perfection: A determined theologian could conceivably argue that without entropy and the attendant necessity of work at the gargantuan levels required of our and other species, much of the great work(s) of man would never have come to exist—perhaps that (and those) of Mozart and of your family doctor, because such necessity of work is not only the mother of a Bach 2-part invention, but also of decent medical care.
If the logic of this is not evident, consider how hard the average guy would work if impressing and satisfying women were much easier than it is.
Philosophy and the Necessity of Work
Then there are the philosophical takes on work, including that of existentialism: Work and its (non)necessity mean nothing except what you freely choose them to mean as a “project of your isolated being”, or some such thing; the universe and existence itself don’t “mean” anything (in any sense of meaning), so/and nothing is “meaningful” in itself except what you choose to call meaningful through an ultimately arbitrary act of free will.
Specifically, there is no meaningful “code” or compulsion built into the universe, as a message to us; there are also no implications we’d like the existence of the universe to reveal to us (in the sense of “mean” as “imply”, e.g., “What do you mean by that?”).
If you reply that meaningful or not, work is still necessary to survive, the existentialists have a ready reply: No, you can always freely choose not to eat or exist, given that “To be or not to be?”, as a life-exam question, has, in their reckoning, more than one answer.
Nor does work symbolize anything cosmic: The cosmos is not a symbol or mark of anything, your typical existentialist would insist, unless a symbol of nothingness—which, depending on which existentialists you read, may or may not be a something of sorts, with real properties,such as the German existentialist Martin Heidegger’s “nothing” that “noths”—the latter being an invented verb, perhaps the fruit of Heidegger’s labor in having to work, but at a job as a philosopher, which is about as easy as it gets in an entropy-ravaged universe.
As for a workman’s metaphysics, the temptation to think of the cosmos as a tool with a function and therefore purpose, like every tool in his toolbox, however strong should be resisted: That cosmic arrangement is neither provable nor necessarily constructive as an explanation of the necessity of work. In the first place, just because a tool exists doesn’t mean it must be used; secondly, it might be the wrong tool for the job.
Especially if the creator of the tool box and its tools was not perfect.