Happiness and the Meaning of Life

Happiness and meaning while connected, don’t seem to be the same thing. We can imagine a paradigmatic meaningful life that is unhappy and vice versa. For example, one might seek truth, do good things, or produce beauty—paradigms of meaningful lives—and still be unhappy. Or one might have health, wealth, friends, and knowledge—things associated with happy lives—and yet live a meaningless life, say because individual or universal death undermine meaning. We could be happy, but think our lives ultimately meaningless.

Nonetheless it would seem that happiness and meaning are closely connected. Subjectively meaningful lives are generally happy ones, and happiness typically follows as a by-product of a meaningful life. In other words, meaning is an element of a happy life, and happiness an element of a meaningful life. So there is a reciprocal relationship between the two. If pressed I’d say that the meaningful life is somewhat more fundamental than the happy life. What I mean is that, similar to the way a good or happy life is more than just a pleasurable one, a meaningful life is more than just a happy one.
As for happiness, many people mistakenly think that happiness is a fleeting feeling pursued for its own sake, when instead it’s often a by-product of meaningful activities like helping others, seeking knowledge, creating beauty, becoming wise, or working for justice. Nonetheless, happiness may be determined more by our happiness set point, the average level of happiness set by our neurobiology and basic temperament, rather than by achievement or level of engagement.

Of course we can’t be sure that an individual life or the whole universe is objectively meaningful, but we can still derive subjective meaning by engaging in the worthwhile activities. And such meaningful lives are the most satisfying, the best, and the happiest. As the philosopher James Rachels put it:

When we step outside our personal perspective and consider humanity from an impersonal standpoint, we still find that human beings are the kinds of creatures who can enjoy life best by devoting themselves to such things as family and friends, work, music, mountain climbing, and all the rest. It would be foolish, then, for creatures like us to live in any other way.[i] 
[i] James Rachels, Problems from Philosophy, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012), 174-75.

The Meaning of Life, in 3 Minutes

My friend Lawrence Rifkin MD, who has thought deeply about the meaning of life, recently posted this beautiful, inspriring, and philosophically sophisticated video. I have outlined its basics ideas below, but this is meant merely as a guide, and in no way substitutes for the emotional power of the video itself which I highly recommend.

1. From the Universal or Objective perspective the meaning  or purpose of life is just to stay alive, reproduce, and keep life going.  Without this there is no life.

2. From the Social or Interpersonal perspective meaning emerges from engagement with positive or worthwhile relationships, goals, and actions. Love of people, ideals, knowledge, creativity, helping others or life itself drives or inspires such engagement. Without this there is no progress.

3. From the Subjective or Personal perspective the lack of pain and suffering and the experience of bliss, pleasure, inner peace,awareness, beauty, and happiness give life meaning. Without this there is no peace and joy.

Putting this all together, Rifkin is saying that there must be life as a prerequisite for anything, but from the point of view of the universe there isn’t much more purpose than survival. Since this doesn’t totally satisfy conscious beings, unless survival totally consumes them, deeper meaning emerges from personal and interpersonal perspectives which, when driven by love, produce good things like creativity, productivity, knowledge, inner peace and ultimtely joy. This also entails that suffering, lonliness, hunger, stress, have been minimized.

In the end Rifkin finds meaning in what I would call a hybrid subjective-objective meaning position. Meaning is found subjective engagment with objectively worthwhile things such as relationships, creative labor, inner peace and joy, etc. This echoes the position espoued by the philosopher Susan Wolf, which I have summarized here and here.

The Value of a College Education

My last post responded to some queries from student about the value of a college education. Chris Crawford added some additional insights on the topic in the comments section. I thought they earned a guest post. He adds 4 additional benefits of college to the ones I mentioned.

1. Social
Young people are intensely social; you learn from your peers as well as your professors. The great benefit of prestigious colleges is not that they have better teachers, but that they have better students. Plop yourself down amongst a lot of geniuses and you’ll find yourself working harder and learning more. Plop down amongst a group of dummies and you’ll get A’s without learning much.

2. Autodidacts learn what they think they need to learn. This works only if you already have a pretty good idea of the range of human knowledge. But how do you get that range of knowledge to start with? How do you learn to study concepts that you don’t even know exist? College shocks you with ideas that never dawned on you. I remember arguing with my professor once and he hit me with an idea that had never occurred to me. I was so stunned that I stuttered, “I have to go think about this.” and walked away. I learned an immense amount in that one moment.

I’ve had lots of ideas crammed down my throat in college that later became fundamental to my understanding. The concept of vector fields, divergence, and curl really confused me at first, but once I grasped them, they opened up new vistas for me.

3. The Hard Parts
When walking up a hill on a slant, we tend to drift downward; it’s difficult to keep heading upward. In the same way, when we study a subject, we tend toward the easy stuff. But all too often, you need to tackle the ugly stuff (often mathematical) in order to properly grasp the concepts. There are a zillion people who follow pop science and can talk all day about black holes, the Big Bang, galaxies, and stars. But their knowledge of this stuff is shallow. If you don’t understand the four equations of stellar structure, you can’t understand how a star works, why it can go nova, or how it can collapse into a black hole. If you don’t understand special relativity, including all those equations for time dilation, spatial compression, etc, you just can’t understand how a black hole works. In the world of physics and astronomy, the math IS the material.

4. Sorry, you don’t get to take a test to prove yourself. A college degree is a certificate that gets you in the door. It doesn’t get you a job, it gets you an interview. No employer has the time to be fair; they must sort through dozens of applicants quickly to zero in on the handful that they can afford to interview. Sure, it’s not fair, but in the dog-eat-dog world of business, you cannot afford to be exact; you have to settle for “good enough”. And throughout life, that degree will continue to give people a quick-and-dirty assessment of your intelligence.

I quit college with a Master of Science in Physics. My advisor urged me to stay on and get a doctorate, but I had realized that the academic world was not for me. I was far too curious to commit myself to the narrow existence of an academic who is the world’s leading authority on color centers in barium crystals. I wanted to learn everything, and, equipped with the solid education I had already gotten, I went on to learn much about computers (which I can now program in many languages), history, psychology, evolution, Erasmus of Rotterdam, economics (ugh!), climate change, and linguistics. Surprisingly, I haven’t followed physics or astronomy; I’ve already gotten a solid grasp of those. My personal library consists of two or three thousand books, all of which I have read at least once. Yes, I sometimes go back to an old book and re-read it; what you get out of a book depends on how much you know when you read it. If you want to see the range of my studies, go check out my website at http://www.erasmatazz.com. It has a surprising range of topics.

No, I never got the PhD, and I don’t regret it. I have learned so much more; at some point, breadth of education yields a greater intellectual benefit than depth of education.

But it has taken me over forty years to learn all this great stuff.

Review of Massimo Pigliucci’s, Answers For Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a More Meaningful Life

Massimo Pigliucci.jpg    

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, July 1, 2017.)

I just finished Massimo Pigliucci wonderful book: Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life. Pigliucci was born in Monrovia, Liberia and raised in Rome.[1] He has a PhD in genetics from the University of Ferrara, Italy, a PhD in biology from the University of Connecticut, and a PhD in philosophy of science from the University of Tennessee.[10] He is currently a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

In the first chapter, which serves as an introduction to the work, Pigliucci explains what he calls “sci-phi,” which is short for the wisdom that comes from thinking about the world and ourselves using philosophy and science, the most powerful approaches to knowledge that humans have discovered.

The basic idea is that there are some things that ought to matter, whatever problem we experience in life: the facts that are pertinent to said problem; the values that guide us as we evaluate those facts; the nature of the problem itself; any possible solutions to it; and the meaningfulness to us of those facts and values and their relevance to the quality of our life. Since science is uniquely well suited to deal with the factual knowledge and philosophy deals with (among other things) values, sci-phi seems like a promising way to approach the perennial questions concerning how we construct the meaning of our existence. (p.2)

Pigliucci traces his idea that sci-phi gives us the best chance to understand the world and ourselves to the classical idea of scientia, a Latin world meaning knowledge, and he argues that Aristotle was the first philosopher in the West to take this concept seriously. For Aristotle life was a project in which we search for eudaimonia—a Greek word best translated as flourishing—and we have the best chance of flourishing or living well if we take into account both scientific facts and philosophical values. (I have written elsewhere about Aristotle’s notion of the good life.)

This sci-phi approach aids us in having an informed, rational position about a variety of issues including: ethics; epistemology; self-knowledge; love and friendship; politics; and the gods. Yet this approach assumes that “you are interested in using reason and evidence to guide your life and make it better. If you’d rather be led by mysticism, superstition, or “other ways of knowledge” … this book is not for you.” (p. 17) In short, he assumes that living well entails using human reason as best we can.

In Part I of the book, “How Do We Tell Right From Wrong?” Pigliucci investigate ethics. He is generally critical of deontology and consequentialism and more receptive to Aristotelian virtue ethics. But he argues that combining the best elements of these three ethical theories may ultimately be the wisest course, although he is cognizant that elements of the three ethical theories are in tension. For we need to heed the insights of all the great moral philosophers and then, after careful reflection, do the best we can.

Part II of the book considers epistemology: “How Do We Know What We Think We Know?” His main theme here is that while science is imperfect and its knowledge always provisional, it is still  the best means we have for uncovering the truth about ourselves and reality. So science works—as the success of technology demonstrates—yet most scientific theories have at some point be shown to be wrong. How do we resolve this tension?

To answer this we should remember that science is both objective and subjective. There are objective facts about our experience of color–electromagnetic radiation, wavelengths, retinas—and there is a subjective experience of color. Similarly, science results from the subjective perspective of human beings interacting with an objective world. Now what does all this have to do with living well? The key is to realize that:

Scientists are not objective, godlike entities, dispensing certain knowledge. They have a human perspective on things, including the field in which they are experts. But other things being equal, your best bet—particularly when the stakes are high—is to go with the expert consensus, and if a consensus is lacking, you’re better off going with the opinion of the majority of experts. (p. 124)

A particular area of scientific interest that informs us about living well is cognitive neuroscience, which is the subject of Part III of the book titled, “Who Am I?” The first half of this third part explores free will and Pigliucci advocates for compatiblism—the idea that free will and causal determinism are compatible.

free will is … our (demonstrable) ability to consider information, balance it against our desires, and take a particular course of action among several available to us. So compatibilism is a compromise between the undeniable fact that we are a particular type of biological being … and our sense that we own our decisions and can therefore
—within limits—be held responsible for them and praised for them. (p. 140)

The issue of free will provides a good example of how our best understanding is informed by sci-phi. Philosophy helps clarify the conceptual issues, while science helps settle the empirical ones. So we can say, for example, that what we call free will has a neural basis, but that doesn’t mean the phenomenon is illusory.

The remainder of Part III considers our sense of self. Pigliucci is skeptical of arguments that our conscious self controls the subconscious, being more receptive to Hume’s famous remark that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” Moreover, “modern neurobiology seems to vindicate Hume when it portrays reason as the instrumental tool deployed to achieve our desires, with the fundamental engine generating those desires lying much lower than the cerebral cortex.” (p. 151)  Such considerations should minimize our hubris about how much our conscious selves dictate our lives.

Part IV applies these insights about human nature to something that gives our lives meaning—love and friendship. Pigliucci begins by acknowledging what science has learned about the hormones of love, and how philosophy informs this knowledge.

Neither biology nor philosophy will ever be able to substitute for the first person experience of feeling what it is like to be in love, but they certainly give us plenty of ideas and empirical evidence to begin to answer the Bard’s question [What is it to love?] in a broader sense—and hence to use our new knowledge to further enhance our enjoyment of a purposeful life. (p. 172)

As for friendship, it has a large impact on our happiness.  As Aristotle noted: “friends hold a mirror up to each other; through that mirror they can see each other in ways that would not otherwise be accessible to them, and it is thus (reciprocal) mirroring that helps them improve themselves as persons.” (p. 179)

Part V looks at politics. As with so much else about us, our politics and political views often have less to do with rationality and more to do with our biological origins and cognitive biases. Our sense of fairness and justice are similar to those of chimpanzees, where in-group loyalty and out-group hostility reign supreme, and our cognitive biases are well-documented. How then might we bring about a more just and impartial society? Pigliucci suggests that John Rawls best describes such a society in his monumental work, A Theory of Justice. This leads him to conclude that the best governments producing the most just societies are those of the Scandinavian countries.

Part VI looks at belief in a god. He begins by noting how science can induce mystical experiences. While this doesn’t preclude the existence of supernatural beings, it does seem likely that mystical experiences probably result from malfunctioning brains. Why? Because, while evidence of a meteor on the night you thought you saw a flying saucer doesn’t prove there was no UFO, the meteor is a more reasonable explanation.

Nonetheless people have a hard time letting go of supernatural explanations for a variety of reason: brain chemistry, the psychology and sociology of human being, and our evolutionary history. As for religion’s evolutionary origins:

Genetic evolution provided the building blocks of pattern-seeking and agency projection behaviors, getting the process started as a by-product of behaviors that were adaptive for other reasons … The move from superstitious and simple religious beliefs to the bewildering variety and complexity of modern religious cultures, however, was a result of cultural evolution, a process that takes place on top of and by distinct mechanisms from the standard genetic-Darwinian one … Needless to say, gods are not actually excluded from the picture … but they are also very clearly not required. (p. 261-62)

Pigliucci adds to the case against religion by showing how Euthyphro’s Dilemma demonstrates that god can’t be the foundation of morality. All of this leads to the conclusion that religion is most likely a human invention that doesn’t reflect a supernatural reality. And this means that we should use sci-phi to understand morality.

The book’s conclusion is titled, “Human Nature And The Meaning Of Life.” Here Pigliucci elaborates on an idea found in Aristotle—we all share a fundamental human nature. By this Pigliucci doesn’t mean what some evolutionary psychologists do, that very complex cultural phenomena are completely explained by biology. For while some human behaviors obviously have a partial genetic basis, it is ridiculous to think that biology completely explains complex cultural phenomena: “… it is increasingly clear that what has mattered most for human evolution and the shaping of human nature during the past tens of thousands of years wasn’t genes, but culture (as well as how the two interact, the so-called gene-culture coevolution.)” (p.277)

Insight into what makes our lives meaningful generally comes not from evolutionary biology but from the social sciences. We know for example that seeking pleasure or wealth for their own sake doesn’t bring happiness or meaning—a result that wouldn’t have surprised Aristotle. “Psychologist have found that what really satisfies people instead is lifelong happiness—which comes only through the search for meaning.” (p. 279) In addition we have discovered that our emotional lives are enhanced by experiencing states like gratitude and mindfulness.

Pigliucci now turns to wisdom, which isn’t factual or technical knowledge, but something that comes with age and experience and philosophical reflection on life’s meaning. Here he adopts Vivian Clayton’s view that wisdom entails the cognitive function knowing things, the reflective function of analysing that knowledge, and the affective function of being able to filter our knowledge through our emotions. What we do know is that research has shown that older and wiser people: better distinguish situations that call for action from situations that don’t; focus more on meaningful goals;  exercise greater control their amygdala with their prefrontal cortex; and spend more time on positive emotions. Perhaps William James was right when he said: “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” (p. 284)

So what has sci-phi told us about the meaning of life? It may not seem like much, as science is provisional and philosophy isn’t in agreement about life’s meaning. Compare this to the certainty that religious fundamentalism supposedly gives. Why prefer the uncertainties of sci-phi to the certainties of the Bible or Koran? Pigliucci responds that religious texts need to be interpreted by humans so they admit to no literal reading of them nor is certainty to be found in them. Such texts are open to far more doubt that science or philosophy. Moreover the uncertainty of sci-phi is a virtue not a vice. I’ll let Pigliucci have the final word:

We need to wrap our minds around the fact that as human beings we are inherently limited in our ability to reason and to discover things about the world. These limitations do not give us license to arbitrarily “go beyond” reason and evidence into religion and mysticism. On the contrary, they are reminders that nobody has final answers and that the quest is open to all people who are willing to use their brains intelligently. Our limitations also give us a reason to cut ourselves a bit of slack for not getting life exactly right, for failing here and there, as humans are bound to do. This is why the eudaimonic life is always an imperfect and incomplete project, all the way until the moment of our death. But it is by far the most important of our projects, and one for which sci-phi is far better equipped to help us along the way than common sense, political ideology, or religious mysticism. We are social and (somewhat) rational animals, and we can reflect on how to employ our rationality to improve our lives and our societies. Seems like the meaningful thing to do.

Reflections – This is a wonderful and readable book. Virtually no rational person can deny that sci-phi provides the best, though imperfect, means to understand our lives and the world. His conclusion is (roughly) that meaning can be found by satisfying our nature. This happens when we use sci-phi to find the happiness and wisdom that are ultimately constitutive of a meaningful life. This is a good description of a meaningful life.

We are limited in time so we must choose our books wisely, and this work is definitely worth our time.  I thank Professor Pigliucci for his work.

Should I Go To College?

Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable.” ~ Hannah Arendt

I received the following questions from a student in a recent university class that I taught. While adequate responses to these queries would constitute a dissertation length study, here are his questions and my brief responses.

1) What is the meaning of college?

The point of college is to help you become educated, which is good for individuals and the society of which they’re part.

2) I can learn anything on the internet, so why am I here?

Various methods of distance learning, most notably the vast store of online lectures from major universities, do serve to replace in-person attendance. I suppose the social elements of such attendance and the superior credentials of a university education offer something that online education can’t.

3) If I weren’t here, I wouldn’t be learning as much as I am because I would lack the proper discipline. So is the university now a disciplinary institution?

Your first statement provides another answer to your second question—you don’t have the discipline to be an autodidact. Your question assumes that there is something negative about the university providing a structure in which you can become educated. But that is a positive for you if you otherwise lack the discipline to learn. After all, they aren’t forcing you to attend and you are free to become self-educated.

4) If I had the self-discipline to learn on my own, what would be the point of going to university? Is it simply a qualifier for real-world employment? If so, why not just learn on my own and take a series of tests to prove my competency to employers?

If you can be an autodidact, great, except that perhaps you can’t and you won’t have the credentials you would otherwise have. So yes. universities today have been transformed in large part to technical schools that certify people for employment—business, accounting, nursing, computer science, etc. As for just taking the tests, that is an alternative model and in areas of great need—like computer science—there is a lot of this going on, and I have no problem with that model if education is just about technical training. I also don’t believe that the cost of college is justified for a lot of people.

But I don’t think that is the point of education, as I’ve argued in a recent blog post. Here is a brief excerpt.

What is the point of education? Is it merely to learn practical techniques? Consider a nurse or physician who has mastered all of the techniques necessary to practice their professions. Are they complete nurses or physicians? Most of us would say no; they need to understand their patients holistically, and this knowledge doesn’t come merely from their technical training. Thus, we do recognize the place in our education for philosophy, literature, poetry, psychology and history, even though they may not be practical. However, if material needs are all that matter, then the life of the mind may be irrelevant.

Now ask yourself: Is the point of lifting weights merely to push them against the force of gravity? No! In lifting weights we seek to transform our physiques, accomplish our goals, learn the valuable lesson that nothing comes without effort, and that life’s greatest joys accompany personal struggle and subsequent triumph.  And through this process our bodies are transformed. Analogously, education transforms us by increasing our awareness, diminishing our dogmatism, honing our critical thinking skills, and, at its best, helping us to live well, and to be happy and wise. Jiddu Krishnamurti made this case:

Why do we go through the struggle to be educated? Is it merely in order to pass some examinations and get a job? Or is it the function of education to prepare us while we are young to understand the whole process of life? Surely, life isn’t merely a job, an occupation: life is wide and profound, it’s a great mystery, a vast realm in which we function as human beings.