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The meaning of Life.

Review of Julian Bagginis book: ”Philosophy and the meaning of life”.

According to Jean-Paul Sartre: ”Purpose and meaning are not built in to human life, we ourselves are responsible for fashioning our own purposes. It is not that life has no meaning, but that it has no predetermined meaning.” Which to many might ring a bit hollow: ”Ok, we can’t see any meaning out there, so we are just going to make one up for ourselves….”

Really, is a made-up meaning a real meaning at all? Yes, according to Baggini, assigned purposes are not inferior to predetermined purposes! He thinks that we should ”grow up” and accept that there is not some hidden or secret purpose that we have not yet discovered.

 Instead, our decision making should be based on what is out in the open for everyone to see: ”The whole problem of lifes meaning is not that we lack any particular piece of secret information … It is rather to be solved by thinking about the issues on which the evidence remains silent.

So what could life’s purpose then be? Some might claim that life is all about having a good material standard of living or becoming successful someday in the future. Others claim that life is about helping others, serving humanity, being happy, enjoying each day or freeing the mind. According to Baggini there might be some truth in these answers – but not the whole truth. The rest of the book (an entertaining and thought provoking journey) walks us through some of these ideas that people have (on lifes purpose).

Trying not to be dogmatic, he doesn’t reject anything completely, but does point out weak spots in a lot of the reasoning. In the end the reader should decide for himself, as long as he makes a ”Moral” and ”Ethical” choice.

Having a good material standard of living: In the western world people want ”a great partner, who is both a terrific friend and a terrific lover. A good material standard of living, well adjusted happy children. A fulfilling job, a varied social life with amusing intelligent friends – and regular holidays abroad.” Obviously, very few people actually have all of these things, so if this is the standard expectation, most people must obviously end up very disappointed. So, what does people do? According to Baggini, ”we imagine that we will have all of these things in the future..” But this cannot be right. Life will never be without difficulties or worries. And there will not be one event in the future to make everything right. – Even, if you win the World Cup, get a Nobel prize or win an Oscar.

Sure, people say that if they achieved nothing else then their lifes would have meaning (with that World cup title, Nobel prize or Oscar). Meaning that a single event and achievement enables you to become something you will always be. Still, most people know that you might not get a lasting effect from such events.

And it might still be better to be a contented family man than a washedup alcoholic Oscar winnner. And surely: The recognition. admirers and sunny smiles that people want might demand some hard choices and tradeoffs. Indeed, life will never be just simple.

And it gets worse. (Even) more knowledge is not going to make us happy. Baggini turns to Mary Shelleys Frankenstein. Unlike us, Frankensteins monster was so lucky to discover why he was made and for what purpose. But these revelations did not have any lasting effect. In the end the monster wanted Frankenstein to create a female monster as his companion to make his life tolerable. Knowing its origins did not reveal lifes meaning for the creature.

The joy of being an ant: Helping others helps us break free of the pointless cycle of eating to live, living to work and working to eat. But, logically there might be a problem with having this as ones purpose. (Rather hypothetical) If there are noone to help, then ones life doesn’t have a purpose?

 Then what about helping planet Earth? Indeed, some take inspiration in the Bible that our purpose is to look after the planet (and avoid global warming and other threats). But why does the planet need any looking after in the first place? Turning to the Bible you might wonder why God couldn’t do himself? And in the political world you don’t see green people thanking polluters for giving their lives purpose!

Then what about being an ant that works for humanity?. Nevermind the hubris  (The progress of humanity would continue more less the same whether you live or die this afternoon. Very few people have the power to alter the course of human history), the real problem, according to Baggini is: ”That we can’t elevate the welfare of the species, which is an abstraction, over members of the species. Human beings can feel pain, joy, love and pleasure – humankind can not. Human beings can learn, think, develop intellectually – humankind can not. Purpose of life cannot therefore be something as abstract as to serve the advancement of the human species…..”

Catch 22: Either you go for some specific unfortunate souls to help (without them you don’t have a purpuse) or you go for humanity, which doesn’t really exist.

The phrase Carpe Diem is part of the longer Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero -”Seize the day, putting as little trust as possible in the future.” The true spirit of carpe diem is to appreciate the things we like: Relationships, creativity, learning, food, travel – and not put them off indefinitely. making sure that every day counts.

This wisdom becomes folly if we assume that only pleasure counts, and life becomes and endless chain of restaurant meals, mini-breaks, holidays and so forth. In popular culture the philosophers Carpe diem easily becomes Party on. Have a laugh, have a drink, enjoy yourself….. Some sort of hedonism. Where hedonists differ only in their predilections. Some seek sexual pleasure, others good food or wine, or music, travel or art. In Kierkegaards ”The Seducers Diary” a man makes very elaborate plans to bed a woman. The goal of the scheme is a moment of pleasure – so it is possible to work and plan for such a moment.

But the philosophers warns us…a life of plesaure becomes a life of toil. Each day you are alive, you have to seek new pleasures – because you are either enjoying yourself or you are nothing….

As long as you are happy. Obviously, people know that being happy is not everything. Think about virtual reality (see my post on Nick Bostroms Virtual Reality Simulation Argument): Imagine that there is a virtual reality machine that you can step into and have any experience you want: ”Before you step into it – you decide what kind of experiences you want. If you want to be a rockstar that can be arranged and so forth. If we really thought happiness should be pursued above all else – surely we should not hesitate to live inside a virtual reality machine. Instead most people tend to reject it. There should be some ”authenticity” to a life, according to most people.” Life should be lived ”truthfully”, not as an idle prince or a princess in some castle doing nothing.

In Aldous Huxley ”Brave New World” people are kept happy by taking the drug soma. But, it is a dystopic future, because happiness is bought at the price of authenticity! Not the result of personal effort and ability, but the result of a drug.

Finally, it should be noted that ”Psychological studies suggest that the keys to contentment are stable and loving relationships, good health and a certain degree of financial security and stability.” Things that can be enjoyed by anyone whether they read Kierkegaard or are pleased with just watching soaps on TV (see my post on Positive Psychology) – Anyway, pleasure is not all.

Finally, some people think that Freeing the Mind is the purpose of life. I.e. Lose yourself….be one with the universe….How this is done is not always clear though …. In Buddhism there is the ”Anatta”  or no self view. An individual consists of 5 parts . The rupa (the physical form of the body), vedana (feeling), sanna ( perception), sankhara (mental formation thought processes), vinnana (consciousness). The self is not any of these five khandas – rather it is the khandhas working together (think: David Hume’s ”bundle theory of the self”).

Rather mysteriously, Buddhism teaches that some of the mental processes passes from one life to another on death through some unknown mechanism….. ”the Buddha reprimanded a disciple who thought that in the process of rebirth the same consciousness is reborn without change. Just as the body changes from moment to moment Because the mental processes are constantly changing, the new being is neither exactly the same as, nor completely different from, the being that died….” Clinging to these 5 parts, as in ”what I am”, or ”mine” gives rise to unhappiness – and is what you should try to avoid, according to Buddhism (An enlightened being is one whose changing, empirical self is highly developed. One with great self has a mind which is not at the mercy of outside stimuli or its own moods, but is imbued with self-control, and self-contained. The mind of such a one is without boundaries, not limited by attachment or I-identification).

But the idea that you can be one with the universe still doesn’t make sense….. If one genuinely lost ones sense of self, one would not be able to report back any feeling of oneness with universe. Who should do it? And it seems rather silly that the purpose of ones life should be not to have a life and self at all. By ceasing to exist as one!?

Our sense of self seems to be rooted in our thoughts, personalities and memories. We are embodied, mortal, human animals. We can’t really imagine living for 200 years and still being the same person. Let alone imagine what an afterlife (should we believe in that) would be like? Baggini therefore concludes that it is futile to find life’s meaning in the life to come and freeing your mind isn’t much better. It inevitably just asks the question: ”From what..?”

Purpose and Ethics. After we have been given the pros and cons we should then decide. Indeed, Sartre would argue that we need to create meaning and purpose for ourselves. However, he does not provide guidance on what is morally acceptable. I.e. it would not be acceptable to find meaning and purpose in joining the Gestapo?! Still, meaning and morality are connected. According to Baggini: ”The sufficient conditions of a meaningful life is that it is of value to the person living it and it is morally good.” But Baggini does agree with Sartre that we should make out a purpose for ourselves: ”…the transcendentalist wants what is of value in life to be underwritten by a higher order. Love is only good if it conquers everything, Morality is not morality, if it is only rooted in human behaviour…. ” A view (desire for something more) that is understandable – But Baggini doesn’t accept it. To confront and accept the limits of human understanding is the mature approach according to Baggini.

 Indeed, Baggini might close the book here, but as the reader you might wonder, what to do with all the things you don’t know and that might never be revealed to us about our existence. Sure, he can joke that we are really reptiles from Tau Ceti inside some virtual reality gear that makes us think that we are earthlings – but what if we are?!?

His trust in current reality does become a bit annoying in the end. What if future generations fight artilect wars and believe that their purpose is to become non human cyborgs – surely the Buddhist are wise to state that reality is a fuzzy thing, and that we should keep working to improve our minds – Indeed, maybe there might even be some purpose in that……

-Simon

www.SimonLaub.net

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