An aging philosopher returns to the essential question: ‘What is the point of it all?’

The video above records the last reflections on life and death by the philosopher Herbert Fingarette (1921-2018) who had a long career at the UC-Santa Barbara. As a reader put it:

… there is an immediacy here that cuts to the bone … the impact can be overwhelming: we internalize it as a transcendent phenomenon–as if it were happening to us …

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14 thoughts on “An aging philosopher returns to the essential question: ‘What is the point of it all?’

  1. It is a moving video but I’m not sure I find it quite compelling. I think it’s true that asking what the point of it all is foolish. I also think it’s not.

    It’s foolish to think that there’s an answer out there in the world to this question, that there’s a transcendental answer, to echo the quote above. Those answers seems like self delusion to my mind. The universe doesn’t care about life, about anything. We do and we’re indebted to each other.

    So in terms of our mutual connections it’s not foolish to think of a point to life. Not just humans either. In terms of what was given to us and what we continually take from other lives and our environment balanced with what we contribute back. Not simply extracting value and death as a tax on others to sustain our existence except as justified by enhancing the lives and world around us. That with rights come responsibilities, that everything must be in balance. Perhaps I’m overly austere. I have uneasy qualms about existing for the sake of existing or getting old and that video strays very close, maybe over that line for me.

    The idea that we don’t inherit our place in the world but borrow it from those who come after us makes a lot of sense. Systems that are furthest from that seem to be the most unstable — and less just and more immoral. We borrow from what others have made of it with the charge to pass it on better still for the next people to borrow. I think we should look at our food, our purchases, etc and reflect more regularly on what we’re going to do today to justify our having it, our taking it, our asking others to have sacrificed small or large for our benefit.

    I find this video about old age to be both moving and with a better grasp of what life is about.

  2. Moving indeed! I also extend thanks to your reader. And, with no intention of claiming that I myself possess a particularly powerful intellect, I thank Dr. Fingarette for showing me that at least one thinking individual fears death as I do. I consider myself an agnostic, but the fear of death keeps me flirting with religion – I can almost say that I’d rather wake up in hell than not wake up at all. But ultimately and sadly, I’m forced to agree with the venerable and learned gentleman that the point of it all is that there is no point.

  3. Perhaps the purpose of Herbert Fingarette’s life was to have a family and be a professor at Santa Barbara. Plus, maybe there were a few students at UCSB who were particularly influenced by him, thus those students were Fingarette’s professorial progeny. So you could reasonably write how a professor can have a family at home and, also, one in the classroom.
    Never thought on the above until reading ‘Goodbye Mr. Chips’, wherein at the very end of his life (and of the book) Mr. Chips overhears people at his deathbed saying that he was childless. He startles them by replying in a giggling delirium, on the contrary, he’d had countless children as a teacher at a boy’s school.

    At any rate the overarching point of life has been, and still is, to have children to carry on the species. Transhumanism is now changing such– with unforeseeable consequences. I like the Zen perspective: go with the flow; will not fight transhumanism albeit wont be much a part of it.

  4. Stiller’s comment shows that the meaning-of-life problem is essentially impervious to reason. If we are intellectually honest and get past the false comforts of religion or concepts of the persistence of personal consciousness after physical death, we come to know and accept that life has no ultimate meaning. The question then becomes whether intrinsic meaning is sufficient to sustain our interest in living life free of the angst of knowing it is all so temporary. Human beings have a need to take life seriously if it is to be lived at all. We can’t play the game of life effectively; that is, exert the tremendous amount of effort it takes to succeed at home, at work, and in our communities unless we believe we can play for keeps. For me, Stiller’s idea of borrowing from the past and in turn providing for the future is of insufficient comfort. Perhaps it is a matter of temperament. But I think that if we are truly honest with ourselves, at the end of the day we can’t rationalize away the horror of life’s meaningless. Isn’t this is what Fingarette is telling us?

    As I grow older, I wonder if the more important issue isn’t having control over the way we exit. Why in old age or terminal sickness do we have to wilt like a neglected houseplant dying by inches? Better to have a party to celebrate a life at least intended to have been well-lived and then be allowed to press the button of assisted suicide and go quietly into that good night with a measure of dignity.

  5. The point of it all can be that one can choose how one dies (assisted suicide included) and afterwards the world belongs to children and grandchildren. At a university, the point is to study, learn, and earn a degree. And btw to find romance, because later on in life one becomes a grizzled old taxpayer.

    The point of it all doesn’t have to be permanent. Westerners are obsessed with permanence, building various monuments to themselves that they think will gain them immortality. Yet there is no immortality by way of building monuments.

    Lifespans can be extended indefinitely, however we do not know the outcomes– the details are altogether lacking. Or, more accurately, there are a few details to be gleaned here ‘n there; but no outline of the future can be discerned..

  6. Sylvia Wojcik: “For me, Stiller’s idea of borrowing from the past and in turn providing for the future is of insufficient comfort.”

    My suggestion isn’t meant to be comforting any more than gravity or magnetism is meant to be comforting. That video struck me oddly and I think it’s because it struck me as so out of balance and I tried to voice that. We’ve found out a way to sit on top of a pyramid of resources and death, extracting with impunity for our comfort. It means that we should be mindful that commensurate with this privilege should come responsibilities. In my mind one of those responsibilities echos your own thought: I have no plan to “wilt like a neglected houseplant dying by inches.” A lovely turn of phrase.

    I’m realizing that I may not grasp the depth of this need for comfort. I’m reminded of when my children where very young and would get frustrated by things outside their control. I would tell them their feelings were reasonable but that they are meant to inform them not direct them. Then I would hold an object in the air and say aloud how much I counted on this object staying in the air when I let it go. That I commanded it to stay and more, how I wanted this so badly, etc. Then I would let go. I recently thought of that again reading stoic philosophers and the importance of understanding what is within our control and of working to improve those things we can if we want to make a real difference in the world.

    Anyway, to wrap up it also means that I’m as baffled by “rationalize away the horror of life’s meaningless” as I usually am when this comes up in these discussions. I find no horror in life’s meaninglessness and it makes as little sense to rationalize what it is as it would to debate that gravity exists as it does. The universe is amazing just as it is. I regularly stop and poke at tree barks, put my nose in the soil and move around blades of grass, just marveling at all that’s there. It’s not all for comfort, a lot of it is distressing. A universe with genocide is amazing, with carrots, with trees that wave in the wind, with mental illness, with the way grass feels under feet, with self-sacrifice, with eclipses, with dark matter, with the Riemann hypothesis, etc. I’m also amazed by the thought exercise of a just universe if I could make one my way.

    Life: exploration not rationalization.

  7. The video appeared well-balanced to me. It is it goes without saying slow, yet a 90+ year old is slow– thus it captured Herbert’s life at the time.

    Now, what super-longevity-inclined people have to decide is do they really want to make the effort to live over the age of 100? Because they can if they really really want to. They also have to consider what sort of a life they would want to live: would they want to be– just say– age 130, but residing in a nursing home?

  8. those who oppose death distinguish between increased lifespan in the traditional sense which includes increasing decrepitude, with healthspan which is super longevity with continual health resulting from new technologies. That’s how those who oppose death as I do advocate for both active euthanasia given today’s technology but the elimination of death in the ideal situation.

  9. Agreed– it was in the context of the video and comments (esp. Sylvia’s striking reference to a withering houseplant) that I wrote my previous comment.

    “super longevity with continual health resulting from new technologies”

    To go on a tangent, there is uploading, involving another substrate. BTW, I was told ca. 15 years ago that “uploading has already begun”. But no further details were given. Hush hush.

  10. With all that has been presented to me, I see only one purpose (or point), and that is to perpetuate the species. I know it’s not very sexy, but hard for me to deny. I believe that without realizing, Dr. Fingarette had the answer—he lived the answer. He seems to resign to the conclusion that “there is no point, it’s a foolish question”, but perhaps existence is nothing more than a string of events—or habits as he says—aggregated in what we suspect is some loosely linear timeline. It may seem a bit jejune, but it does merit discussion. He sought knowledge and passed some to others. He sought love, a worthy quest if ever there was one. He was brave enough to admit his own doubt and uncertainty—is this not the primary catalyst to seek knowledge? And he never reverted to fairy tales to fill in the gaps. I for one revere those who have such an existence and hope to possess, if even just a little, of those qualities. These qualities are just a few that supplemented his purpose—some would say offered “meaning’. This is why crops became cultivated, and in few more generations we might be standing on another planet looking back at the “Old World”. This was a lovely story, and well worth the tears. It definitely added to my appreciation for the “blip” in the historical timeline that I call life, and I am grateful to have that if nothing else.

  11. This moving video provides a sobering glimpse of what the human body is like at the age of 97 years old. The ability to perform simple tasks such as rising from bed and dressing becomes diminished or lost entirely. Professor Fingarette was remarkable in his clarity of thought, but most others at that age will suffer from severe cognitive decline or dementia. Add in loneliness and the loss of loved ones and one can see how easy it would be for anyone to become depressed in very old age. Consequently, this video is a reminder that one needs to be prepared for “being 97” years old. Preparedness includes both personal psychological strategies (such as those employed by individuals suffering from chronic disease) and also having and accepting the social connections of family, friends and caregivers.

  12. Though the point of it all is that there is no point to it all, the default is to perpetuate the species.
    Best to accept it– not become overly melodramatic and say “woe is me”, fly airplanes into skyscrapers or bomb abortion clinics.

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