Le Penseur in the Musée Rodin in Paris
(I recently summarized a few salient points from a philosophical essay by Ms. Sylvia Jane Wojcik. She has since made multiple revisions to the essay and I thought the revised version worthy of a separate post. Here is the entire essay from a deeply searching soul.)
Most of us have known some golden days in the June of life when philosophy was in fact what Plato calls it, “that dear delight;” when the love of a modestly elusive truth seemed more glorious – incomparably – than the lust for the ways of the flesh and the dross of the world. And there is always some wistful remnant in us of that early wooing of wisdom. “Life has meaning,” we feel with Browning. “To find its meaning is my meat and drink.”… So much of our lives is meaningless, a self-canceling vacillation and futility. We strive with the chaos about and within, but we should believe all the while that there is something vital and significant in us, could we but decipher our own souls. We want to understand. “Life means for us constantly to transform into light and flame all that we are or meet with!” We are like Mitya in The Brothers Karamazov – “one of those who don’t want millions, but an answer to their questions.” —Will Durant
I have wanted for the longest time to set down what I believe about the world and me in it. This means how the world works and how to then live in that world as well as my understanding of how I think I myself am doing in it, but I’ve always had a hard time sustaining the effort necessary to produce a finished product. Part of it is the inherent difficulty of the project, particularly finding a way to navigate the vast length, breadth, and depth of the briar patch of inquiry in a way that is both simple and truly explanatory and therefore useful in living everyday life—mine and hopefully the reader’s. But the bigger problem is a debilitating perfectionism which sees me always second guessing myself with never-ending revisions and adding ever more material in the quest to be comprehensive, if not omniscient. The result is constant doubt and discouragement which sees me putting things aside for yet another day when I supposedly will have a clearer head and new resolve. Also, I’m a procrastinator and am easily distracted by the next shiny intellectual idea, new book, or current event that catches my attention. Finally, it doesn’t help that I want what I write to be so good that it not suffer the fate of most such endeavors: oblivion. Knowing my efforts are unlikely to stand the test of time, I become easily discouraged and wonder “What’s the use?”
Experience shows that when I do manage to complete a piece here and there it’s often because I am reacting to someone’s thought. The decreased formality and limited scope allow me to relax and just spit out my ideas without undue deliberation. I seem to need someone I can imagine myself conversing with—not just to test and refine my thinking—but as much to share the excitement of discovery of ideas as well as the joys, sorrows, and regrets of some of my experiences. In short, I need a friend, a soulmate. (I had one once but I held her off at an emotional arm’s length. Now I am nowhere with no one. My folly haunts me always, much like the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s Rime. I believe I am damaged goods—whether by nature or nurture—constitutionally incapable of seeing beyond myself and letting someone into my life because there seems to be room for only me. But that’s another story.)
Someone who figures large in my thinking in this way is Bryan Magee. He’s best known for bringing serious philosophy to the masses through a series of interviews of contemporary philosophers about history’s Great Philosophers presented on the BBC in the 1970s and 80s. He gives his take on the history of Western philosophy in his 1997 Confessions of a Philosopher followed by what I like to consider as its sequel in 2016 called Ultimate Questions, about what he calls the “human predicament”—our inability to ever know ultimate reality and the consequences it poses for living in the everyday world.
Both are somewhat atypical when it comes to serious philosophy books. They go beyond technical analysis to being very personal—at times intimate—accounts of how his take on philosophy evolved out of his life experiences as much if not more than what he learned at the academy. With the feel of autobiography and personal essay they resonate with readers because they see that he has lived “into” his philosophy more than merely learning it in a classroom. I find it a welcome throwback to a time when philosophy was something any intelligent person could and should participate in to lead a fully human life. Philosophy needn’t be a sort of rocket science using arcane terminology and demanding technical expertise to practice it. Philosophy, as has been said, is everyone’s business.
What initially attracted me to Magee was his interest in the problem of meaning-of-life—one of the central concerns of my life. For those of us with a first-things-first mentality, it’s the biggest of the Big Questions and at the core of the human condition. For why do anything without a reason and reward, why invest the effort to succeed when all will be lost at death without a compensating ultimate cosmic purpose to which our efforts contribute? We humans seem to require a purpose in life—a reason to be—for us to fully engage with life with the zest and spontaneity it takes to live in a fully human way. How do we cope with the reality that an honest evaluation of the facts seems to show that there very well may not be one?
His Confessions has the best account of the emotional turmoil that the topic of meaning-of-life can wreak and I am surprised that so little of it is explicitly carried over into Ultimate Questions. He shows how the search for meaning, if taken with the utmost seriousness and carried through to its logical end, can easily become all-consuming and, some would say, unhealthy. I take consolation in the fact that if someone as insightful and accomplished as Magee felt it important enough to invest so much energy and intellectual capital in wrestling with the problem, I am at least in good company with my obsession. His comments extend over several pages, so I have cut-and-pasted the most pertinent into a single narrative excerpt below.
This feeling, when it came, was not an ordinary fear or anxiety but was hyper-vivid and preternaturally powerful. As in a nightmare, I felt trapped and unable to escape from something that I was also unable to face, Death, my death, the literal destruction of me, was totally inevitable, and had been from the very instant of my conception. In the face of death I craved for my life to have some meaning. I found the thought that it might just mean nothing at all–might, in a long perspective, be nothing at all–terrifying. Confronted with this fact, I felt what can only be described as existential terror, a horror of nothingness.
To anyone in this frame of mind nearly all human pursuits seem vain beyond all description. What can anything I do mean or matter to me when I have gone down into complete nothingness for the rest of eternity? If the void is the permanent destination of all of us, all value and all significance are merely pretended for purposes of carrying on our little human game, like children dressing up. It is, of course, a willing pretense: we cannot bring ourselves to face eternal nothingness, so we busy ourselves with our little lives and all their vacuous pursuits, surrounded by institutions that we ourselves have created yet we pretend are important, and which help us to shut out the black and endless night that surrounds us. It is all, in the end, nothing—nothing whatsoever. I am biologically programmed to want to go on living, so I do: I eat, drink, sleep, try to ward off danger, and all the rest of it. But the idea that it means anything is a pathetic little piece of self-delusion.
There are, evidently, contemplatives who would agree with all this and view it with calmness and serenity. I have never been one of them. I was terror-stricken by these thoughts. I felt like someone standing on the gallows with the noose round his neck and the trapdoor under his feet about to open. I was on the point of being flung into eternal night. I raged against it with the whole of my being. And the impossibility of doing anything about it came close to sending me off my head with frustration and panic.
I used to look at people going about their normal lives with everyday cheerfulness and think: “How can they? And how can they suppose that any of what they’re doing matters? They’re like passengers on the Titanic, except that these people know already that they’re headed for total and irremediable shipwreck. In a short time every one of them will be dead, either a heap of grey ash in an urn or a corpse rotting underground with worms wriggling in and out of its eye sockets. Why aren’t they overwhelmed with horror at it? Why don’t they seem even to mind?” In some of my moods they seemed to me like a lot of lunatics chuckling dementedly while the asylum burnt down and turned them to ash.
I can relate to Magee’s emotional reaction as to just how horrible the recognition of meaningless can be. When it hit me for the first time, I felt as if I were an insect pinned alive to a specimen board—flailing and struggling but to no avail. I had that awful nauseating, sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that comes with knowing you’re utterly trapped. There was nothing I could do, no place I could turn—no way to save myself from the malevolent black cloud of death I imagined looming on the horizon creeping, creeping, creeping . . . ever closer, day by day, to claim me.
The scope of the problem is magnified when we shift our focus from how it might affect us on a purely personal level to a wider cosmic one. History shows how our lives are like so many leaves that fall at the end of each year only to be trodden underfoot by succeeding generations in never ending cycles of birth, growth, and death. All that living: that first kiss and falling in love, witnessing the wonders of science and technology, waging war and peace, and simple things, too—like noticing a flower unexpectedly emerging from a crack in a sidewalk or that wholesome feeling of worth and pride—of mattering—you experience by helping a child cross the street. The tight grasp of his warm little hand around your finger says everything about the sense of safety and trust he implicitly feels in your presence. What pride there is!—and the weight of responsibility, too, in having this precious little human being in your charge. Yet it’s all doomed for oblivion, as individual and collective memory inevitably fade and physical traces of our existence in writing, images, and place crumble into dust with the march of time. Our individual lives are but instances of a larger exercise in meaninglessness if not absurdity—or so it appears to those who, like me, see the world through Naturalism’s disinterested lens.
Maybe if we knew our species was at the top of the cosmic heap, the fear of our inevitable demise might be mitigated. But we are merely part of an ongoing evolutionary chain, the state of the art of animate complexity on earth, not its acme. It is likely that advanced electronic and genetic technology will result in posthuman creatures that are far superior to us. It’s one thing to deal with death so long as we think we’re the highest form of life that ever was or will be. It’s quite another to realize we are merely another link in a long chain. We can’t stand our insignificance any more than the idea of our nonexistence.
Consider, too, how unlikely it is that any of us exists at all. Every one of us is the product of a random union of one each of zillions of eggs and sperm from two people out of any number who could have become our parents and who, on top of that, had to survive disease, war, accidents, and natural disaster to produce us. When such randomness of the reproductive process is compounded over centuries the chances of winning Powerball seem infinitely greater than the probability of any single one of us being here at all!
The image of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s novel The Shadow of the Wind serves as a wonderful metaphor for the longing we have for immortality. It’s a mysterious place that has a copy of every book ever written—no matter how obscure—stored on tier upon seemingly infinite tiers of shelves that twist and turn down narrow walkways and through tunnels in every direction with stairways and ramps here and there connecting the floors. It’s an elaborate three dimensional labyrinth, like something out of Poe, constituting a sort of Heaven for books. Here their authors achieve a kind of immortality because their thoughts and stories have eternal “shelf” life no matter how unpopular or obscure they may have been in their time.
Each person in every era had aspirations and felt as if he mattered. Some even managed to build monuments to their memory, but inevitably everything crumbles á la Ozymandias. Would that there was a library of forgotten souls—never mind books! Some think it already does and call it Heaven. But this is of insufficient comfort for the naturalists among us who want to live consciously and honestly—in the world as it really is rather than how we might like it to be.
So what does it all amount to? Nothing—nothing at all. It ends, not with a bang, but with a mere whimper—to borrow a turn of phrase from T.S. Eliot. Mr. Natural is right: it “don’t mean sheeit.” I have known this at some level ever since reaching the age of reason at age 10 or so after seeing the biblical epic, The Ten Commandments. The beginning scene of what I took to be legions of slaves harnessed like mules to pull huge stone blocks for Pharaoh’s pyramid struck me as so hopeless and sad as to question whether their lives were worth living. While the specific instance was misinterpreted (I later came to understand that laboring for the Pharaoh was considered an honor), the question was not.
I have always wanted to know the “why” about things in the very same way Magee described certain of his childhood experiences in the opening chapters of Confessions and Ultimate Questions. I especially remember wondering about meaning. There was something about my sense of life even at that tender age that unconsciously gave rise to the idea that our efforts require a personal return on investment, as it were, to be meaningful. I began to see that death itself was the ultimate source of meaninglessness because it robbed us of our accomplishments and the people we love. If life wasn’t worth living, what was the point in going on, I reasoned. I concluded humans have what I came to call “the curse of consciousness,” meaning a knowing-that-I-know self-awareness in contrast to the oblivious autopilot of instinct possessed by all other living things. Still I wouldn’t have it any other way. As is said, better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a pig satisfied. There is a certain nobility to living a fully human life however disappointed we may be with the way it ends.
So how in the world does one live in light of this terrible knowledge? Magee and I are of the same mind, I think: life can be worth living even without ultimate meaning. There isn’t a solution so much as a way to cope by way of what I have come to call the compensations of pure experience. I call it pure because it’s direct and unmediated—there’s nothing between the individual and the experience itself. But pure does not mean raw in the Jamesian “blooming, buzzing confusion” sense of unfiltered sense data such as babies experience in their initial encounters with the world. Rather, there’s an awareness about it that something unique is happening—to us, with us, by us—in which we lose ourselves in the flow of the activity. We transcend and yet simultaneously retain the ego as we become a part of, or, indeed, the activity itself. These are powerful experiences resulting in a deep and profound sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that go beyond mere pleasure or joy. For Magee the highest form of such experience was sex (of course, as it is for most of us) but also art and especially music.
Having so much in common temperamentally with Magee leads to a natural affinity for the man. He ranks right up there with my other intellectual heroes, particularly Bertrand Russell, Will Durant, Michel de Montaigne, and Henry David Thoreau. While they all share in their own distinctive ways a passion for inspiring us to live mindfully and authentically, Magee’s focus on coming to terms with the problem of meaning-of-life speaks most personally to me. I never feel completely alone as long as I have Ultimate Questions close at hand. It’s a slim and compact little volume easily carried in a coat pocket or a handbag. I look upon his book as a talisman of sorts—a means of tactile connection with someone I imagine as a friend, mentor, and colleague. It’s the kind of thing I almost want to put under my pillow at night hoping to mystically connect with its author and channel his thoughts in a continued journey of discovery and enjoy the warmth of his companionship.
This is not to say that I agree with everything Magee says (and doesn’t say). For example, I do not understand why there is no discussion of the problem of consciousness and, by extension, artificial intelligence. How does that pound of meat in our heads lead to conceptual thought culminating in personal identity—that sense of “me” emerging in each of us? Is it possible to replicate it mechanically via computers and, ultimately, biologically? Does our inability to solve the problem of mind (so far) lend credence to dualist claims of the existence of mind as a separate kind of stuff from matter? I would have thought that Thomas Nagel, at least, would have gained Magee’s attention for his original work on philosophy of mind in his Mind and Cosmos. In the tradition of William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, Nagel argues that because science, as currently practiced, has yet to solve problems like how mind arises from brain we ought to reconsider relying on traditional reductionist scientific methodology alone and look into how direct “mystical” experience might shed light on such problems.
But my biggest beef is with his fixation on ignorance—how it limits our ability to know reality on a deep, all-the-way-down level—as the fundamental element of the “human predicament.” To my mind the problem of meaning-of-life takes precedence. If we don’t have a reason to be, it’s awfully hard to get out of bed in each morning, for what would be the point. Intrinsic, instrumental motivation only goes so far. For the long haul our psyche requires an extrinsic rationale—a cosmic purpose transcending self-interest to which our efforts contribute. Just because we can’t be 110% sure of knowledge doesn’t mean we cannot know, or at least have a well-justified idea about, what is likely to be true. His acknowledgement of the conditionality of knowledge would seem to validate such an exercise, for it’s not that (our knowledge of) truth changes so much as it’s refined. Einstein didn’t so much prove Newton wrong as incomplete. So why the reluctance to go on record with his take on a wider range of specific issues that matter to us all? Is there a God? Is there life after death? Is mind separate from or a function of matter (brain)? Do we really have free will? And of course that primary question with which we began, meaning-of-life: why are we here and where might we be going? These important questions and more deserve answers however subject they may be to revision.
It is in this spirit, then, that I’d like to do what I wish Magee had done: to produce a broadly scoped, high level statement of beliefs about the way things are in the world and what we should do to live good lives—in short, being and doing—and their relationship to the meaning-of-life problem. My approach is to focus on those foundational ideas that allow us to get out of that bed each morning confident that when we stand up there will be a floor underneath to support us. To my mind there are but five (albeit very wide!) boards in this floor. They involve the fundamental fact/value differentiations necessary to make sense of the world, that is to say, being able to tell the difference between the alternatives listed in the first column in the figure below:
Distinction Topic and Question
Real from Imaginary Reality What exists and how do things work?
True from False Knowledge How do we know it?
Right from Wrong Ethics How should we treat one another?
Fair from Unfair Politics What is the role of government?
Good from Bad Well-Being How should we compose our lives?
We judge what’s real, true, right, fair, and good by comparing what we experience each day to the state of our beliefs about the biggest of the Big Questions of life to which the distinctions respectively correspond shown in the second column. Our beliefs are continually being updated based on what we learn.
Reduced to lowest terms, this is really all there is to it. When we peer down at the world from on high, I believe this is the optimum framework with which to conceptualize existence and behavior. It aims to be simple without being simplistic, allowing us to see the Big Picture without becoming lost in detail, and has the cash value of practicality in that it addresses what we need to know to get along in the world of the everyday.
The place to begin is with reality and knowledge. These two problems constitute the greater realm of being and are actually two sides of the same coin. What we think about existence depends on how we know it and what we know can only be a function of what exists. We can’t think about one without implicitly thinking about the other.
I think of the realm of reality as three nested topics: the world (at large), life (in the world), and man (in life).
The world-at-large is about existence and causation—what’s here and how do things happen? There are just two kinds of things that exist: material stuff, like tables and animals, and activities of material stuff, like animals jumping from tables. Ideas, like the concept of freedom, for example, are activities of material stuff (i.e., brains) and do not have independent existence outside of the living entities in whom they arise. The material stuff has fixed properties and its activities are governed by similarly fixed laws of cause and effect, like gravity. When my cat jumps off the table, I can rely on him going down, not up in the air. Because of the stability of the properties and rationality of laws, it is possible to know how things are and work and thus survive and thrive if we learn the properties and obey the laws.
How do we know all this? The short answer is through sensory perception interpreted by reason, not divine revelation or mind alone. But it’s actually more involved than this. Truth is an absolute. Notwithstanding the probabilistic, uncertain nature of reality as shown by quantum theory, things do have a specific, immutable identity. They are what they are, but, because of our perceptual limitations, we have a hard time knowing them fully. So, although our knowledge of reality aspires towards Truth with a capital T, it is always conditional and subject to change as we learn more and more in a never ending process of refinement. However, because claims to knowledge can be independently tested by anyone who may doubt their validity, knowledge, imperfect and incomplete as it is, can be said to be objective—the same for all—never subjective. We may be entitled to our own opinions but never our own facts, even if those facts “evolve,” as it were, with new discoveries. Again, Einstein’s relativity theory didn’t prove Newton laws wrong so much as incomplete.
These foundational tenets of reality and knowledge, respectively, are the basis of naturalism; it’s the “Big Idea” in answer to the “Big Questions” that what exists and how things happen can be discovered by observation of nature by anyone curious and motivated enough to look and learn. Naturalism is anti-skeptical in its view of being and anti-relative regarding doing. As long as human nature remains fixed, as it has across time and place to date, there is, in principle, a single way to act in the world, just as there is a single way the world is physically constituted.
Now practically everyone would agree with this so far as it goes. A good many people would, however, want to add one big thing that challenges naturalism’s stand-alone adequacy to explain everything that is and everything that happens. This is the belief that the natural world is actually embedded within a greater supernatural realm controlled an all-powerful God responsible for the creation, operation, and destiny of the world including the power to intervene, whether on the basis of whim or in response to prayer, in what would otherwise naturally occur. Man is thought to have an immaterial, indestructible consciousness, or soul, that survives physical death and is rewarded with eternal happiness in Heaven or damnation in Hell based on his conduct while alive on earth according to a divinely prescribed code of private and public ethics. Knowledge of all this is revealed by God through certain favored individuals (prophets and saints) with the power to “divine” what God is and wants.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are the principal types of theistic supernaturalism. The many varieties of nontheistic, secular supernaturalism seem to be of two general classes. Eastern traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism, like their theistic counterparts, hold that one’s fate depends on the quality of one’s conduct while alive. But instead of eternal bliss in a Heaven or banishment forever in a Hell, the spirit endures cycles of physical death and rebirth as lower forms of life, gradually advancing to higher forms based on merit, until it’s finally gotten right, perfection of being is achieved, ultimately allowing merger with the eternal universe.
A second class of supernaturalism, common in the West, involves a dualistic conception of mind and matter. The spiritual realm of mind is seen as a distinctly different sort of substance from objects in the physical world. This immaterial consciousness is thought to survive death into eternity and includes the retention of one’s personal identity, or sense of self, in contrast with Eastern traditions in which the ego is seen as illusory and ultimately disappears as part of making one’s way towards perfection embodied in unification with the all of eternal Being.
Mind, as something distinct from matter and surviving death of the physical body, seems to be the sine qua non of supernaturalism, whatever its variety. For naturalists, however, the mind, or soul or spirit—call it what you will, is an entirely natural phenomenon. It’s a function of the body, not an irreducible, separate thing above or beyond nature. When we die, we are dead forever. There is only one life to be had and it is a strictly physical one here on earth. We don’t know how the mind works but the best research seems to show that it is an emergent property of brain complexity. Consciousness becomes what we call mind when our brains evolve to the point where experience expands to include self-awareness as personal identity. How this exactly happens is a mystery (for now) but there is nothing mystical about it. There is no justification for characterizing mind as something outside of nature just because we do not yet have the tools to explain how it works.
I am not a fan of the often espoused idea that we live on after death through our descendants. It may offer psychological comfort but is true only metaphorically and then only temporarily at best. The mechanics of biological inheritance certainly do not accommodate the transmission of personal identity and memory of loved ones gradually fades with each succeeding generation and soon it’s as if they never were.
So we are all either naturalists or supernaturalists. There is effectively no middle agnostic ground to stand on and any claims to the contrary are disingenuous at best. Despite what we might say, what we believe is revealed by what we do. We vote with our feet. We may not be able to prove this absolutely (something that frustrates Magee, fixated as he is on Kantian doubt) but I think we have a pretty good idea. You don’t have to know how deep the water is to know it’s deep enough to drown in.
The simple fact is that all these supernatural variants are not only incorrect but, moreover, superfluous, for naturalism is sufficient in all respects to explain everything about the world in which we live. The world is independent, not contingent, on God; mind is brain activity, not a separate stuff; miracles do not supersede natural cause and effect; and death is final and not succeeded by an afterlife or the continuation of one’s consciousness. So if there is no need to look further, why do we? Why the persistent attraction of supernatural explanations of reality in the face of ever increasing evidence offered by science to the contrary?
The answer lies in human nature’s fundamental concern with survival: we fear death, crave forgiveness for our sins, and want God on our side. Supernatural explanations seem to offer a way past death, guilt, and disadvantage. But the fact of the matter is that supernatural “explanations” actually explain nothing. They are merely confabulations and make-believe rationalizations to make us feel better about what we find distasteful about the world and ourselves in it and nothing more. Many of us all too often lack the strength of character to see the world as it really is rather than how we want it to be.
In this way, deciding what to believe becomes a moral as well as practical problem of how to best live in the everyday world. We should be willing to follow the path of truth wherever it may lead, even if it means giving up long held beliefs. I have always liked science fiction writer Philip Dick’s simple but profound view of reality as “that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away” in conjunction with philosopher John Stuart Mill’s observation that, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” We are at our best—our most fully human selves—when our beliefs aspire to coincide with the way the world really works rather than how we might wish it could be.
Now this naturalistic outlook on the world is foundational. It informs everything else we believe and ever will believe beginning with our view of life-in-the-world and man-in-life.
What drives life-in-the-world? Life is Darwinian—it’s driven by competition for survival rather than entitlement. We are each ultimately responsible for our own welfare and, because self-interest is thus required to live, selfishness, properly understood, is good.
For many of us this conclusion is counterintuitive and does not ring true. Selfishness has unfortunately acquired a negative connotation because it is typically conflated with self-centeredness; that is, seeking advantage without regard for the impact one’s actions have on others. But there’s actually more to it. In a state of nature it’s pure biology playing itself out. Bad things happen to those who cannot compete, but it’s as a function of instinct, rather than premeditated ill intent, driven by free will, as is all too often the case in human society. At the same time, we are social creatures, mutually dependent on one another and can only flourish within the context of a healthy group dynamic. So, while we certainly must make our own way in the world and compete for survival like every other living thing, there nothing wrong with kindness and providing support as appropriate, as long as it’s not coerced, for these, too, have survival value. The difficulty comes in knowing where to draw the line between the abusive pursuit of self-interest and an altruism that becomes self-sacrificial instead of life affirming. It’s complex with much more to be said but the basic lesson here is that self-interest and benevolence are not mutually exclusive. Before you can take care of others you must first take care of yourself.
Man-in-life has identity, reason, and volition: his consciousness is not oblivious, his actions not driven by instinct, and his choices not predetermined. This unique combination of self-awareness, ability to think analytically, and consciously choose result in a multidimensional “mindfulness”—an awareness of being aware of what we’re doing and why—that makes us accountable for our actions.
The role that free will plays here has lately been challenged by studies which show that much of what we do is influenced, if not altogether determined, by autonomous brain function. But deciding which shoe to put on first is hardly of the same ilk as a decision about right and wrong, for example, where we actively deliberate among alternatives that can have life or death consequences. It is a misconception of what free will means to conflate the two and therefore conclude that free will is illusory. We aren’t just intelligent stimulus-response automatons. There is a wide range of decision making activity that does not originate in our biology, as such, but from independently conceived purpose. This has implications in the realm of human interaction. When our decisions intend gratuitous or unjustified harm, the possibility of evil exists.
Naturalism’s view of reality in the realm of being as described above informs what we believe about the realm of doing. What is right, fair, and good is that which promotes flourishing. Since these requirements are a matter of objective fact, ought is derivable from is in principle however difficult in practice. We don’t need God to tell us what is right, fair, and good. All we need do is to take a realistic look at human nature in terms of what we need to flourish.
The idea of the existence of objective moral facts upon which ought-from-is depends is of critical importance, for the very possibility of establishing the legitimacy of any moral order depends on it. We have to be able to rely on what we learn about world and our place in it to guide our behavior and structure our society. Otherwise, anything goes, might makes right, and chaos reigns.
This is controversial and I never have been able to understand the given reasons why. All the arguments seem to originate in questioning what a “moral fact” actually is and challenging whether or not there really are such things, either because they lack universal situational applicability or express mere subjective preference. I do not find this criticism convincing. The first fails to account for just how complicated life can be. Theft is wrong because it violates the principle of property rights, but would we really condemn a luckless parent stealing bread to feed his children? The second denies the reality that we have a common human nature and thus the same needs that must be satisfied to survive. It follows that there has to be a prescribed way we ought to behave to secure those needs. In either case complications in applying principles does not invalidate the principles. As Aristotle said a long time ago in his Ethics, “We must not expect more precision than the subject-matter admits.”
The realm of doing encompasses ethics and politics. Ethics asks how we should make personal decisions in the course of dealing with people and situations involving right and wrong. Politics is about facilitation of interaction: the best way to organize our societies so all of us can pursue our lives without getting in one another’s way. The challenge is to simultaneously promote the need for and restrict the abuses of the pursuit of self-interest. Life’s grounding in the biological imperative to survive certainly requires men to be selfish and look out for number one, but they must do so without allowing rampant exercise of free will to result in taking unfair advantage of others doing the same thing. For anyone to succeed, all must have equal opportunity to succeed or else everything falls apart in a frenetic implosion in the form of violent cutthroat competition ending in mutual destruction.
Management of this push and pull of self-interest requires an ethics of hierarchical plural principles beginning at the low end with individual and group interest and then extending to duty, law, and rights at the top. It’s not about any single principle or set of fixed rules. The Ten Commandments’ imperatives, for example, the “thou shalt not kill” rule, are clearly incapable of fitting every situation and the Golden Rule lacks specificity. Who would question the right to kill in self-defense and why should anyone necessarily presume he knows how someone else wants to be treated? Better the rule should read, “Do unto others as they ought to want to be done unto,” in recognition of the right and the good (and even love and beauty, by the way) as fundamentally objective.
Generally speaking, each higher rung trumps all lower rungs. But it’s actually more complicated in that it’s not a straight forward choice between what is clearly right and clearly wrong. Often, ethical situations are dilemmas of “right versus right” and involve exceptions to the conventional application of decision making principles. These include loyalty vs. truth, justice vs. mercy, long term vs. short, and individual vs. community. This recognizes the importance of motive and context in judging right and wrong. Frustratingly, while the principles are absolute, their application is not and becomes situational because of legitimate disagreement about the facts and values involved in a way that facts concerning how the physical world works do not. It can become quite a mish-mash which is why it is properly said that ethics is as much, if not more, an art rather than a science.
The famous Trolley Problem thought experiment is a good, albeit extreme, example of the complexities involved in applying the “moral calculus.” The situation is that of someone who observes a runaway trolley hurtling towards five innocent people crossing the tracks. He has to choose between doing nothing, in which case the five will perish, or throwing a switch, which he happens to be near, to divert the trolley to a side track where a single person lies tied to the track. In this choice between omission and commission, between the principles of greatest good and sanctity of life, what should he do? If one of the potential victims happens to be a member his family, issues of loyalty and obligation add another layer of complexity to an already intractable problem. In deciding right from wrong, sometimes there is no single correct answer.
Politics is about the promotion of liberty, equality, and justice as part of government’s fulfillment of the Social Contract: the idea that men give up their unconditional state-of-nature freedom in return for state protection to live as they desire so long as their actions don’t impede the ability of others to do the same. Liberty means people must be free to fail as well as succeed. This truth about human nature—man’s need to be free—is what totalitarian forms of government fail to realize and why they ultimately fail. Equality is based on the conviction that no one person is inherently more important than any other. Justice proceeds from a vision of equality founded on basic fairness—establishing a level playing field of opportunity as access and rewarding merit rather than a system based on privilege or distributive equality of outcome. As with survival in a state of nature, success is not an entitlement but must be earned. Government may provide a basic safety net as it is able but its support is not unlimited. This typically means providing such essentials that individuals can never, as a practical matter, be expected to provide for themselves: clean air and water, utilities and transportation, and education—all in the spirit of “promoting the general welfare.” But, in the end, despite whatever support the state may provide, everyone is responsible for his own well-being. There is no free lunch in a social context any more than in a state of nature.
As in ethics the pursuit of self-interest in the political sphere is not unconditional. Just as we are entitled to free speech but not to cry “Fire!” in a crowded theater, our right to assemble to advance an agenda does not mean that a majority can tyrannize a minority. A way must be found to balance competing interests. History shows that this is best accomplished through a multi-branched government with offsetting powers of checks and balances and a constitution institutionalizing basic equality through democratic elections, rule of law, and term limits.
Taken this far, naturalism fosters an optimistic sense of control over our lives that is so essential to human well-being. By revealing the mechanics of being and the principles of doing; that is, how the physical world works and how to interact with one another in that world, we are conceptually equipped with the basics of a world view that enable us to set out on our own journeys in life confident that we have the intellectual tools to make the Big Question critical distinctions needed to meet any challenge. These include the conviction that the senses are a reliable guide to knowledge, existence is stable, and physical activity is governed by fixed, rational laws. Nature stands self-contained and self-sufficient without the need for a controlling deity to explain everything that is and happens. To survive we have but to learn and follow the rules of physical nature and abide by the requirements of human nature centering on the constructive promotion of rational self-interest.
But we soon discover that there is more to it than just mechanics, as the example of driving a car illustrates. Reality and knowledge can be compared to the how-tos of automobile operation and ethics and politics the rules of the road, but where to go and the best route to get there are less evident. Just as we know that we can’t stop a car without applying the brakes and that we should drive on the right side of the road and obey traffic lights to avoid accidents, we need a destination and a road map. This is the realm of personal conduct and is all about figuring out what we want out of life and how we should act as we go about securing it.
In other words it concerns how we conceive of the Good Life, and in particular, the notion of happiness—the master motive underlying everything we do. True happiness goes beyond mere pleasure to an enduring sense of contentment resulting from the successful pursuit of the “good” according to “right” behavior. This means satisfying real needs rather than the whims of ill-conceived wants according to a naturalistic, rather than supernatural, understanding of how the world and society within that world work and demonstrating appropriate character (virtue) in their pursuit. Happiness is, then, less a destination than a way of living—it’s what happens to us if we live well.
It is important to understand that the “right” and the “good” are not the same thing even though, because of language conventions, we often use both terms interchangeably. The right is an ethical concept in that it involves actions we consciously choose regarding how we should treat one another; the good, on the other hand, is morally neutral and simply reflects a value relationship that one object or entity poses for the utility or well-being of another. When we say someone is a “good (or bad) boy” we are speaking of the propriety of his interactions—not a relational goodness in the sense we mean when we say an implement is a “good (or bad) tool” for the job at hand. The former is about interpersonal conduct; the latter about functional suitability.
Also of critical importance to happiness is the role of attitude. If the good can be said to be about Maslowian need and the right about Aristotelian virtue, attitude is essentially concerned with Stoic judgment. It’s a dispositional synergy of proper intention, adequate knowledge, and perspectival point of view that governs how we are likely to act and react as we go through life, allowing us to keep everything in context. It’s the psychological catalyst that enables the philosophical formula for happiness—the virtuous pursuit of proper values—to work.
This involves seeing things for what they objectively are and having the discipline and courage to not give in to misperceptions born of unrealistic hopes and fears. Most challenging of all is having the will to take action in difficult, often messy and even dangerous, personal situations. In this way does attitude become the foundation of good character.
None of this is easy. In the first place when decisions concern value judgments, “objectivity” is often not black and white, as we have seen with ethical dilemmas above. On top of that the interplay of reason and emotion are wont to conspire in any number of ways to foster self-destructive thinking that sabotages success. Among the most pernicious (and those that I’ve personally struggled with) are self-repression, guilt—both earned and unearned, and perfectionism. These arise as a function of transgressions and shortcomings, both real and imagined, to create an enervating sense of unworthiness that eats away at our psyches. A part of us is always preoccupied with doubt or fear, draining us of confidence and compromising our ability to cope with life’s vicissitudes and otherwise fully engage with life.
We may also have to contend with certain constitutional elements in our nature that, while not harmful in and of themselves, can adversely affect attitude depending on how they play out in our lives. These are traits that are baked into us, whether by nature or nurture, and, like a reflex or an appetite, are nearly impossible to resist yielding to. They are like stains that continue to bleed through our best efforts to paint them over. We can mitigate them but not fully suppress them. All we can do is be mindful and work hard to cultivate new attitudes that grow into new habits that are stronger than the negative ones leading us astray.
In my case, problems of self-repression, guilt, and perfectionism mentioned above were exacerbated by self-absorption and gender dysphoria. This is complex with many layers and nuances but, in short, it boils down to having a damaged affect—that is, caring excessively about myself to the detriment of others I interacted with—and wanting to be a girl rather than the boy I was born as. With the added complication of a seeing life as inherently meaningless and the pessimism that comes with it, my life became—and, despite substantial progress, still is—a difficult row to hoe.
So we are complex creatures of mind and defining what proper attitude is and how to cultivate it is not a straight forward task as countless shelves of books on the topic attest. The place to begin is embracing its underlying spirit. I’ve always been partial to Max Erhmann’s poem “Desiderata” which makes the case that, if we would be happy, our conduct should emulate the harmony we see in the natural world. But perhaps its best expression is Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous maxim: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Happiness, then, is as much about emotion as reason, as much about what we feel as what we think. The importance of sound attitude cannot be overstated. Without it nothing else matters.
A consequence of looking back from whence we came and assessing the success of our journeys is the emergence of what is perhaps everyone’s ultimate concern: does anything really matter: why are we here, where are we going, and why should we want to live in the first place—what makes life worth living? Together these constitute the problem of meaning, and so we come full circle, back to the topic which inspired this brief foray into life’s Big Questions.
As we’ve seen, for those of us of a certain sensibility, meaning-of-life is life’s ultimate problem. We can neither generate the interest nor sustain the energy required to live effectively unless we take life seriously and a large part of taking our lives seriously is living as if they have an essential permanence and that our strivings are rational and count for something. When we realize that we will not live forever, we ask ourselves why we struggle to make something of our lives when death will inevitably see us lose everything we’ve worked so hard to achieve and everyone we love. We naturally wonder, too, whether there isn’t some grand plan that gives cosmic purpose to our lives so that despite our inevitable deaths we will not have lived our lives in vain. If I didn’t know better I might be inclined to think that the universe was playing a dirty trick on us. We get lulled into embracing life with all our might only to have the rug pulled out from under us by death. But this is giving the universe too much credit. The truth is that it doesn’t, and cannot, care. It simply is. How we reconcile a naturally felt purposefulness and zest for life against a persistent sense of life’s apparent pointlessness and indifference to human concerns determines the extent we can go on and lead fulfilling lives.
And it’s amazing just how debilitating the problem can be. It can feel so utterly futile and exhausting—like trying to divide by zero. We realize there is no logical solution yet we continue to search for one because we so want what we want and convince ourselves we just haven’t looked hard enough. We persist even as we realize that achieving immortality would not and could not be life as we know it and want it to be. Where would we put all the people from millennia past and to come? What age would we want to be into eternity? Shouldn’t we be more concerned with avoiding an uncomfortable, painful death than dying itself, we wonder. Life holds the attraction it does precisely because it is so fleeting. Life is life because it is about change and the experience of growth. We cannot re-experience any single moment in our lives with the same verve as if it were happening afresh. It’s just not how it works.
We live our lives as if there were an infinite number of tomorrows awaiting us. It’s part of what allows us to exert the effort it takes to survive. But as we grow older we begin to experience episodes of our impending mortality realizing that we might just be doing certain things for the last time in our lives. Because these epiphanies typically arrive out of the blue, abruptly and without forethought, they are particularly unsettling. Firmly into retirement in my late 60s, I recall it suddenly occurring to me that the new Subaru Forester I had recently bought might be the last car I’d ever own. Another such incident involved realizing that my newly installed roof (guaranteed to last 25 years) would almost certainly outlast me. Wh-o-oa! Where there was always another round to fight for better or worse, we now see the match coming to an end and it is more than sobering.
It gets even more surreal. It’s hard to think of the world going on without us. We begin to think of our imminent nonexistence as if we’re somehow still here. I see myself as from above, outside it all, watching the scene from which I imagine myself having just departed, yet at the same time feeling like I know it from present observation, as if I were still alive. Now this is really mind bending! It’s like helping to plan your own funeral, dying, and then somehow being around to attend it. Talk about dividing by zero!
A tendency to disassociate like this is especially common among those struggling with meaning-of-life issues. Most such incidents are of a milder form but they do add up and take their toll. We find our capacity to live in the moment becoming ever more difficult as we see ourselves from a third person perspective—like watching ourselves in a movie going through the motions but not being able to let go and be spontaneous. I most often have this experience in restaurants where, while most patrons have someone to dine and interact with, I struggle to appear comfortable in my solitude with a book or my iPhone as my only companion. People see me but filter me out of the scene as if I’m invisible—like homeless people on the street we seek to avoid and walk past as if they weren’t there. Over time this can corrupt the affect and, as we drift further and further away from the shores of human engagement, we risk becoming emotional zombies—physically alive but spiritually numb—equally indifferent to good and evil and pleasure and pain. It becomes ever more difficult to climb back out of the darkness of the rabbit hole of morbid existential self-reflection and into the light of everyday life.
Perhaps most serious of all is the question of what to do if we’re convinced that life has no meaning and believe that we have a moral obligation to act on our convictions? If we are honest with ourselves, are convinced that there is no purpose, and realize we cannot keep for ourselves that one thing we most treasure—our lives, what’s the point of continuing to live? Suicide seems to be the logical and even moral course of action but it is not easy to go through with, driven as we are by the biologic imperative to survive. It might even be seen as heroic—as the ultimate act of courageous self-assertion. Is it not better to attempt to seize control of our fate on terms of our own choosing rather than passively standing by and letting death happen to us? Or is this nothing more than rationalization of desertion whether due to character flaw, psychological defect, or simple self-deception?
The weight of these and other manifestations of meaninglessness can often feel positively Sisyphean and just about drive us crazy—if we let it. What to do? There is no solution, only a way to cope. I believe life still can be worth living, even if it is without extrinsic meaning, by embracing the pursuit of what I call “pure experience.” Again, this is about becoming one with the very experience itself—losing oneself in something wondrous such that our sense of self seems to dissolve and we become the experience itself.
This can range from the small thrills experienced in everyday life to the awe we feel in the presence of the cosmic sublime. I love the joie-de-vivre I experience whenever I think of my four year old grandson Luke’s infectious shrieks of delight . . . at chasing a red balloon on his birthday, swishing happily through colorful autumn leaves, or excitedly shouting “Grandpa! Grandpa!” over and over as he runs into my arms for a hug whenever I first arrive on a visit. As for the sublime, I remember once witnessing the full moon over Walden Pond on a perfectly still, crystal clear winter’s night. The pure white snow magnified the moon’s ethereal half-light and served as a perfect canvas for etchings of shadows of the silent black trees. Nothing moved and I breathed deeply of the cold. I was delightfully alone with the Universe at that moment and, indeed, lost myself in it, feeling an indescribable sense of harmony and unity with all things.
And it can be many things in between. Perhaps the most precious is having a lover and soulmate—someone to come home to after a trying day, who physically wants and delights in you, someone to confide in and who understands and unconditionally cares for you. To know that there is at least one place of refuge and solace for you in an otherwise meaningless universe helps make all things bearable. Or it can take the form of participating in a noteworthy event or making a great discovery—like Neil Armstrong’s being the first human being to walk on the moon and James Watson’s and Francis Crick’s discovery of DNA, the chemical building blocks of all living things.
Yet, even these fulfilling episodes sooner or later fall short because we realize we cannot avoid the death that ultimately robs us everything. I like the way scholar John Messerly expresses this sentiment: “People find meaning in life by their involvement with, connection to, and engagement in, the good, the true, and the beautiful. We should be satisfied. Yet we are not . . .
. . . There is another voice within, another perspective that cannot be stilled. After Gandhi, after Beethoven, after Einstein; after helping the unfortunate, playing our games, loving our family, bearing our suffering, and leaving our legacy—it still asks: is that all there is? Perhaps this is a voice that should be silenced, but if these meaningful things are themselves ephemeral, we cannot help but wonder if they really give meaning. The voice within cannot and should not be quieted. We can accept that these good things exist—and want more. There may be good things in the world, and we may add to that value by our creation, but that is not enough. And the reason that these good things are not enough is that there is a specter that accompanies us always. Everywhere we go, every thought we have, every happiness, every joy, every triumph—it is always with us. There to intrude on every meaningful moment, tainting the truth, the beauty, and the goodness that we experience. It is . . . the specter of death.
I do grant that for some of us death may come to seem a comfort—a release from pain, guilt, grief, or even boredom—especially as we age. But I regard this, generally, as more of an aberration, a psychological malfunction, rather than a rational conclusion dictated by a dispassionate look at the facts. We are naturally disposed to see the glass half full. Life wants to live! We should work through injury, learn from mistakes, see sorrows in perspective, and find something to do. It is proper to “rage,” in Dylan Thomas’s words, against “the dying of the light.”
This is not to say that we should deny death’s inevitability. We should accept it gracefully (however grudgingly) when the time comes. It’s just that while we are alive we should endeavor to live life to the fullest and enjoy what I have called those episodes of “pure” experience that come our way.
This is the logic by which it seems to me that Eastern concepts of resignation, founded on the denial of desire as a way to avoid suffering, do not ring true and are inconsistent with human nature. Perhaps this difference of outlook is merely a matter of emphasis. Naturalism also accepts the reality that everything at root does ultimately resolve to eternal Being. It’s just that it’s conceived in terms of atoms and quarks, governed by quantum mechanics and who knows what else yet to be discovered, rather than ill-defined mystical concepts of Being.
And so we endlessly go round and round, back and forth, in our hearts and minds alternating between despair that the problem of meaning has no solution and determination to figure it out. It’s the ultimate quandary. We’re like a squirrel caught in a trap endlessly racing back and forth, crashing into the sides of the cage in a futile effort to escape. We want something to be the way it is not and can not be. Maybe that’s why we keep revisiting the problem: we wonder if the future will somehow shed light on the problem in a way not apparent to us right now and reveal a way out.
After bumping our logical noses up against reality enough times, though, unlike the squirrel, we rise above instinct and resign ourselves to the reality of our circumstances and try to enjoy the ride such as we are able. As Mr. Natural says, “Twas ever thus.” It’s just the way it is. The beat goes on and so do we, even if we wish the melody were different.
I invite any and all comments. Please send to: SylviaJaneW@hotmail.com.