A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 8 – Hope and Meaning

continued from a previous entry

  1. What I Hope For

What then should we hope for? The objects of my hopes are vague and indeterminate. I hope that something better will emerge in the course of cosmic evolution, that things will work out for the best, that truth, goodness, beauty, justice, and love are real, that my life and universal life are meaningful, that somehow it all makes sense, that life is not in vain, and that things ultimately matter. These are my most fervent hopes and having them gives me a reason to live.

Stating these hopes also sheds light on how they differ from what most people mean by faith. Faith typically has religious connotations and involves believing certain propositions—God made the world, Jesus died for our sins, the Koran is the word of Allah, etc. So, with the exception of fideism, religious faith has cognitive content whereas the objects of my hopes are amorphous or nonspecific. (However, my conception of hope has some things in common with more sophisticated religious ideas about faith—such as the idea of faith as ultimate concern.)

  1. The Source of Hope

I don’t know the exact source of my hopes, but I feel them with an ineffable passion. My attitudinal hope probably emanates from biology and culture. Our biological drives to survive and reproduce, combined with the emergence of consciousness and culture, prompt the acting and hoping that aided our ancestor’s survival—we descended from those who had hope.

As for wishful hoping, its source may be some cosmic longing within me or perhaps it’s the expression of the wish that, at the heart of reality, there is some good principle to which I’m ultimately connected and with which I can commune. Note again that this is a wish, and I won’t disguise my ignorance by calling what I wish for Apollo, Zeus, Vishnu, Jehovah, Allah, or God. Thus we return to our previous themes—connection with something more than ourselves and to the desire for a fully meaningful reality.

      27. Ignorance and of Hope

Our ignorance provides another justification for our hope. As we have seen, we don’t know if there is one or an infinite number of universes, if we live in a simulation, if we will become as gods or if they already exist among the stars. We don’t know the nature of ultimate reality or if it is or will ever become meaningful. What this implies, at the very least, is that we not be arrogantly dogmatic about the nature of reality.

Now if we knew that life was absurd and meaningless, intellectual honesty would demand that we accept that truth. But we don’t know this, anymore than we know that life is meaningful. So our ignorance provides a space for the possibility that ultimate reality may be intelligible and meaningful in ways we simply cannot now even imagine. Thus we can hope while maintaining our intellectual integrity. If you despair, remember that you don’t know life is meaningless anymore than you know the opposite.

    28. Hope and Meaning

No, I don’t know if life is or will become fully meaningful; if truth, beauty, goodness, and justice matter; if there is any recompense for our efforts to bring about justice; if suffering can be ameliorated; if cosmic evolution leads to higher levels of being and consciousness; or if anything matters at all. I don’t know if my wishes will be fulfilled or my hopeful attitude can be sustained. But I see no value in giving into despair, at least not yet. If the time comes when I judge my life no longer valuable, then I hope to have the option to end it. For now, though, I still have attitudinal hope and still engage in wishful hoping. And when I can no longer hope, I hope that others will carry on.

    29. Losing Hope

Still, any of us can lose our hope and give in to despair because hope and despair exist in a dialectical relationship. We can respond to despair with hope, and within hope, there is always the possibility of despair. To despair is to say that nothing is worthwhile; to hope is to affirm that your concern, your action, your love, and your life, all matter.

Yet, it is easy from the safety of my study, and with an adequate supply of life’s necessities, to opine about the value of hope. No doubt some people are in hopeless situations—starving, fleeing violence, in unremitting pain, serving life in prison, being tortured by solitary confinement, etc. For them hope is no salve and their lives perhaps no longer worth living. These hopeless situations should make us all weep as they make a mockery of what human life should be.

      30. What Hope Recommends

But, for those of us lucky enough not to be in hopeless situations, hope demands that we forgo acceptance and resignation and to try to improve the world. Be sympathetic, but act! We may not succeed, but we can try. And, even if the abyss awaits, its best to live honestly and courageously. As James Fitzjames Stephens taught me long ago:

We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. … If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.

    31. Is Hope Enough?

We have discovered that people find meaning in life, and that meaning can be plausibly connected to a meaning of life. We could play a significant and valuable part in a grand cosmic narrative. But we have also found that humility and honesty demand skepticism about the reality of our dreams. In response, we can buttress our resolve with attitudinal and wishful hope. Still, of any proposed solutions about life and meaning, we can always ask whether it’s enough.

But then, what would count as enough? The problem is that nothing would be enough if we expect definitive answers to our questions about life and meaning. If our expectations are too high they will be dashed. Our questions simply don’t allow for the precision of mathematics or physics—the best we can do is to adumbrate. But if there is a voluntary component here, if we have a modicum of free will, then we can be optimistic, we can hope. And while this isn’t an answer, being optimistic and having hope helps us live well.

Of course, some will still not be satisfied. They imagine that Apollo lives on Mt. Olympus and gives life meaning or they accept some other childish nonsense. Many prefer having the void as purpose rather than being devoid of purpose. They are so forlorn that the bromides of popular religion, philosophy, and politics appeal to them.

But if we accept our ignorance in this infinite and to us mostly unknown universe and if we reject illusory nonsense, then we can begin to better understand how we might play a meaningful part in a cosmic drama that leads, hopefully, onward and upward to higher levels of being and consciousness. We may really be as links in that golden chain.

So let us reject pain, death, and destruction and try to create a better and more meaningful reality. We must grow up and take our destiny into our own hands. For we are responsible for the truth and lies, the beauty and the ugliness, the love and the hate. And we can find meaning in life by playing our small role in making life increasing meaningful. Surveying our long past and indefinite future I’ll end by echoing the poetry of the great biologist Julian Huxley:

I turn the handle and the story starts:
Reel after reel is all astronomy,
Till life, enkindled in a niche of sky,
Leaps on the stage to play a million parts.

Life leaves the slime and through the oceans darts;
She conquers earth, and raises wings to fly;
Then spirit blooms, and learns how not to die,
Nesting beyond the grave in others’ hearts.

I turn the handle; other men like me
Have made the film; and now I sit and look
In quiet, privileged like Divinity
To read the roaring world as in a book.

If this thy past, where shall thy future climb,
O Spirit, built of Elements and Time!

The Presocratics – Pythagoras

Marble bust of a man with a long, pointed beard, wearing a tainia, a kind of ancient Greek headcovering in this case resembling a turban. The face is somewhat gaunt and has prominent, but thin, eyebrows, which seem halfway fixed into a scowl. The ends of his mustache are long a trail halfway down the length of his beard to about where the bottom of his chin would be if we could see it. None of the hair on his head is visible, since it is completely covered by the tainia.Bust of Pythagoras of Samos in the Capitoline MuseumsRome.

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

Pythagoras was among the most celebrated philosophers of the Antique period. He supposedly was “the first to bring to the Greeks philosophy in general”  and was the first to use the term ‘philosophy’ and to call himself a ‘philosopher.” His teaching focused on mathematics and rational inquiry, yet was thoroughly esoteric.

He is said to have traveled very broadly and to have incorporated teaching from everywhere he went. It is said that he met with and learned from Thales, as well as Anaximander. He is also thought to have studied geometry with the Egyptians and to have gained knowledge of ethics at Delphi. His esoteric teaching would have been particularly influenced by learning of the Orphic mysteries from Aglaophamus and to his initiation into the mysteries of Egyptian religion.

There are many myths surrounding Pythagoras’ life. One myth was that he had descended into Hades. Another was that he remembered his earlier lives, indeed that his soul had wandered and could remember “all the plants and animals it had been in and everything that his soul had experienced in Hades and that other souls there endure.” There are myths of him being a miracle worker. Some even worshiped him as a god.

The school that he founded, which is said to have lasted ten generations, was a sect devoted to theoretical learning, moral training, but also a strong indoctrination. There were levels to the initiation. Learners who joined the school would initially be silent for five years. After being tested they would then belong to the “household.” In the Pythagorean school, students were prohibited from eating animals, except for those that were allowed for sacrifices. Those were the animals into which the human soul does not migrate. Pythagoreans were “to abstain from beans as though from human flesh…and from almost all creatures of the sea.”

In a story surely apocryphal given its poetic (in)justice, Pythagoras is said to have died after the house where he was visiting Milo the Wrestler was set afire. He fled, but the jealous people who set the house ablaze caught up with him at a bean field when he refused to cross it. They there slit his throat. We might assume the tale is meant to sarcastically point out the absurdity of not eating beans, which were not consumed because they looked “like testicles or the gates of Hades.”

Despite the strangeness of the apocryphal stories surrounding Pythagoras and his school, we see in him great learning. He viewed the reality as numerical. He formalized the Pythagorean theorem, named after him. He and his students also came to understand the ratio character of musical scales. Along with Parmenides and the Eleatics he represents an epistemological orientation that is important in the development of Western thought — the focus of his thought being not primarily on sense experience but on concepts and logic. His focus, in particular, was on mathematical knowledge. With this focus, along with Parmenides, he was a was influence on Plato.

Side by side with great learning, however, Pythagoras and his students also displayed great dogmatism. Hippasus, who is said to have revealed how to draw the dodecahedron (and is thought by some to have developed the idea irrational numbers and thereby undermined the Pythagorean view of the rationality of the universe), was killed by the Pythagoreans, cast to sea.

A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 7 – Optimism and Hope

continued from a previous entry

    22. Attitudinal Optimism

One response to the failure of our intellectual analysis to demonstrate that life is or is becoming fully meaningful is to adopt, to the extent it’s possible, certain attitudes to help us live in the face of the unknown. Let’s consider two potentially helpful attitudes—optimism and hope.  

Optimism is a tendency to expect the best possible outcome. Optimists believe that things will improve, while pessimists believe that things will worsen. I wholeheartedly reject such optimism because I don’t expect good outcomes or have faith that the future will be better.

Optimism also refers, not to expectations about the future, but to an attitude that we have in the present. This kind of optimism sees the glass as half-full rather than half-empty or looks on the bright side of life. Such optimism is generally beneficial—you tend to be happier seeing the glass half full. Thus I recommend this attitudinal optimism if it excludes expectations about the future which can easily lead to disappointment.

    23. Attitudinal Hope

Hope also need not refer to an expectation but to an attitude we have in the present; a kind of hope illuminated by contrasting it with its opposite—despair. When we despair, we no longer care; we give up because our actions don’t seem to matter. After all, why play a game we can’t win or fight for a better world if it’s impossible to bring one about?

So attitudinal hope entails caring, acting, and striving. To hope is to reject despair—to care although it might not matter; to act in the face of the unknown; and to not give up. I don’t know if my actions will improve my life or help bring about a meaningful cosmos, but I can choose to hope, care, act, and strive toward those goals nonetheless. Again, this hope isn’t about future expectations; it’s an attitude which informs my present while rejecting despair or resignation. Such hope is the wellspring for the cares and concerns which manifest themselves in action.

Moreover, if I despair I won’t enjoy my life as if I adopt a hopeful attitude. Thus there is also a pragmatic reason for adopting a hopeful attitude—it makes my life go better. The only caveat is that the objects of our hopes must be realistic—having false hopes usually makes our lives go worse. In sum, attitudinal hopefulness rejects despair, leads to caring and acting and makes my life better.

A key difference between optimism and hope is that optimists usually believe that a desirable outcome is probable or likely whereas hope is independent of probability assessments. I may hope for unlikely outcomes but it’s hard to be optimistic about them. Another difference is that despair is more debilitating than pessimism. So while recommending both attitudinal optimism and attitudinal hope, I regard hope as somewhat more fundamental.

      24. Wishful Hope

Yet hope is more than simply an attitude we adopt in the present; it also entails having certain desires, dreams, wants or wishes for the future. Again I reject such hopes if they include the idea of expectations, but I can have desires, dreams, wishes, or wants without expecting that they will be fulfilled. (I can wish or want to win the lottery without expecting to win.) Note this hopeful wishing is not faith since I don’t believe or have faith that my wishes will come true.

Like attitudinal hope, wishful hope rejects despair and spurs action. Hopes provide the impetus for acting, which in turn makes the fulfillment of what I hope for more likely. This connection between wishful hoping and action is straightforward. If I hope to become a physician and nothing prevents me from becoming one, then that desire may motivate me to act. In this sense, there is nothing intellectually objectionable or detrimental about wishful hoping—as long as there is a realistic possibility that such hopes can be fulfilled.

However, if the objects of our hopes are unachievable then hoping for them is futile—we set ourselves up for disappointment if we hope for the unattainable. Conversely, realistic hopes generally make our lives go better because they give us reason to live and to find meaning in the projects motivated by our hopes. I wholeheartedly recommend wishful hope.

to be continued next week …

The Presocratics – The One and the Many

Part of "School of Athens" by Raphael (Raffaelo Sanzio, 1483-1520)

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

One of the earliest disputes of the Greek naturalists and Eleatics concerned the question of the one and the many — that is was the substratum of the natural world or reality itself one substance or many? Parmenides is clearly a monist, who thought that all change and difference in the world was essentially illusory. Yet Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes were also monists. While they accept that there are many diverse entities in the world, they argue that the substrate underlying them or the primal stuff from which they emerge is singular. For Thales, they are all made of water. For Anaximander, they all come from the original unity of the unbound. For Anaximenes, they all stem from an original chaos but have aether as their basic element.  Some of those who most clearly argue that the basic components of the world are not singular but multiple have not been mentioned.

Empedocles, who many early Greeks viewed as responsible for the developed teaching of the elements, is thought a pluralist. There is not one substance underlying the diverse things in the world; rather, there are a few key ones. The change we view in the world occurs over and above a “mingling and separating” of things that are themselves unchanging, primary oppositions: Wet, dry, cold and warm are eternal qualities that comprise all things, but that are propelled in their motion by two other eternal powers that also pull in opposition to one another, love and strife. The various things in the world around us do undergo change and transition as these eternal elements and forces ascend and recede from the foreground. Yet these basic qualities themselves are eternal. Basic reality, ultimate reality is not singular but plural. Empedocles is not a monist but a pluralist.

Another great “Presocratic” pluralist is Democritus, who was born just after Socrates, around 460 BCE — a reminder of the trouble with the temporal designation of “Presocratics.” The atomists maintain that the primary components from which all things in the world are comprised are atoms. From eternity, they have existed, with slightly different shapes and sizes. All things combine from a mixture of atoms and void. But the reality is expressed not by qualities of things. “By convention sweet and by convention bitter, by convention hot, by convention cold, by convention color: in reality atoms and void.” Qualities that we experience only have an apparent reality. Some of the Ancients viewed Democritus as a skeptic, but Sextus, an early commentator on Greek natural philosophy, has contributed to a common view that makes greater sense in view of his various truth claims:

In the Rules[Democritus] says that there are two kinds of knowing, one through the senses and the other through the understanding. The one through the understanding he calls genuine, witnessing to its trustworthiness in deciding truth; the one through the senses he names bastard, denying it steadfastness in the discernment of what is true. He says in these words, “There are two forms of knowing, one genuine and the other bastard. To the bastard belong all these: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch. The other, the genuine, has been separated from this.” Then preferring the genuine to the bastard, he continues, saying, “Whenever the bastard is no longer able to see more finely nor hear nor smell nor taste nor perceive by touch, but something finer…

Over the course of time, Democritus sees the atoms combining into different formations, which for their part then again dissemble. In fact, the atomists propose an idea that various other Presocratics also shared — that over the course of time the cosmos emerges, then collapses only to later re-emerge.

A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 6 – Skepticism and Meaning

continued from a previous entry

  1. Skepticism

Yet, as we ascend these mountains of thought, we are brought back to earth. Looking to the past we see that truth, beauty, goodness, love, and meaning have emerged from cosmic evolution but so too have ignorance, loneliness, war, cruelty, despair, poverty, and pain. Surely serious reflection on this misery is sobering and we must temper our optimism accordingly.

We should also remember that if we find patterns of progress in evolution, we might be victims of confirmation bias. After all, progress isn’t the whole story of evolution—most species and cultures have gone extinct, a fate that may soon befall us. Furthermore, this immense universe (or multiverse) is largely incomprehensible to our three and a half pound brains, so we should hesitate to substitute an evolutionary view for our frustrated metaphysical longings. If reflection reveals that our deepest wishes may come true, our skeptical alarm bell should go off. For we want to know, not just to believe.

Yes, cosmic and biological evolution—and later the emergence of intelligence, science, and technology—leave us awestruck. But this doesn’t imply that we are meant to be here or that human consciousness was inevitable. It is only because we value our life and intelligence that we succumb to anthropocentrism. The trillions and trillions of evolutionary machinations that led to us might easily have led to different results—ones that didn’t include us. We want to believe evolution had us as its goal—but it did not.  We are radically contingent, our existence serendipitous. Like the dinosaurs, we too could be felled by an asteroid.

So while we can say that meaning has emerged in the evolutionary process, we cannot say these trends will continue as evolution proceeds. We are moving, but we might be moving toward our own extinction, toward universal death, or toward eternal hell. We long to dream of better worlds but our skepticism awakens us from our Pollyannish imaginings. The evolution of the cosmos, our species, and our intelligence give us some grounds for believing that life might become more meaningful, but they offer no guarantees.  

Here then is the essence of the problem. Despite our best efforts we may collectively fail to bring about this meaningful reality we imagine. In other words, while we know how life could be fully meaningful, we don’t know if it is or will become fully meaningful. We could only know that sub specie aeternitatis. So it seems that we can’t erase all our doubts or allay all our fears. As long as we are committed to intellectual integrity we must admit that life may be utterly absurd, futile, and meaningless. All of reality may be heading … nowhere. Our lives, our cares, our dreams … all for naught.

to be continued next week