Jump to content
Dean Pomerleau

The Ultimate Purpose of Life

Recommended Posts

Words of wisdom from my favorite living philosopher, Peter Singer, from a Q&A session he did on Quora.

 

main-thumb-19440173-50-O7QEwF5vzXoiGxclo 
Peter SingerPhilosopher, Author
745 Views
 
The definition of life is tricky, but you all know the most important cases - we are alive, animals are alive, and plants are alive.  Rocks and rivers are not alive.
 
Because the universe was not designed or created by anyone, there is no ultimate purpose to our lives, in the sense of a reason why we exist.  We just do exist. We evolved. Here we are.  Now it is up to us to find out what is the best thing we can do with our lives.  My view is that the best thing we can do is try to make the world a better place, using our resources and our capacity to reason and evaluate evidence to find out how best to do that.

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Words of wisdom from my favorite living philosopher, Peter Singer, from a Q&A session he did on Quora.

 

Because the universe was not designed or created by anyone, there is no ultimate purpose to our lives, in the sense of a reason why we exist.  We just do exist. We evolved. Here we are.

OK.

 

Now it is up to us to find out what is the best thing we can do with our lives.

If there is no purpose, I see little meaning in "the best thing we can do".

 

My view is that the best thing we can do is try to make the world a better place, using our resources and our capacity to reason and evaluate evidence to find out how best to do that.

This sounds totally arbitrary, a mere personal preference.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

There is the story - not apocryphal I believe - of a woman who for decades had wanted to get an audience with the Dalai Lama, and finally did - a year or two ago. 

 

She felt, she said to him, this great need to understand the purpose of life.

 

It is said his reply was:  "Ahhh.  That one is easy.  Happiness is the purpose of life.  But the much more difficult question is:  How does one obtain it?"

 

More will be found here:  http://www.dalailama.com/messages/compassion, and plenty of other similar references will turn up in Google.

 

Rodney.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

There is the story - not apocryphal I believe - of a woman who for decades had wanted to get an audience with the Dalai Lama, and finally did - a year or two ago. 

 

She felt, she said to him, this great need to understand the purpose of life.

 

It is said his reply was:  "Ahhh.  That one is easy.  Happiness is the purpose of life.

 

Another arbitrary assertion ("Happiness is the purpose of life.")

 

But the much more difficult question is:  How does one obtain it?"

 

I see nothing wrong with setting goals or pursuits. One has to pass the time somehow.

 

Yet the feverish "pursuit of happiness" seems to cause more misery to the pursuers than if they would just relax and enjoy life.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

"Yet the feverish "pursuit of happiness" seems to cause more misery to the pursuers than if they would just relax and enjoy life."

 

Exactly.

 

Hence, the Dalai Lama's:  "  ........  the much more difficult question is:  How does one obtain it?"

 

If you wanted to seek it out - via Google for example - you can find him elaborating on this question.  But I seem to have found it without the Dalai Lama's assistance. 

 

Don't ask me how, but I (a one-mouse experiment) am fairly sure it has a lot to do with my mother's conduct when I was a fetus.

 

Rodney.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Greg,

Now it is up to us to find out what is the best thing we can do with our lives.


If there is no purpose, I see little meaning in "the best thing we can do".
 

My view is that the best thing we can do is try to make the world a better place, using our resources and our capacity to reason and evaluate evidence to find out how best to do that.


This sounds totally arbitrary, a mere personal preference.

 

Yes, it does, and is. In his terrific recent book, The Point of View of the Universe, Singer follows Sidgwick in acknowledging that there is ultimately no way for a utilitarian (like himself or Sidgwick) to definitively argue with an egoist who sees no reason why he should try to make the world a better place for anyone but himself.

 

Both Singer and Sidgwick ultimately say we must rely on either:

  • Our natural instinct/inclination to promote the social good, bred into us by a long history of ancestors who survived by being part of a functional group.
  • Our capacity for reason, by which we recognize that from the point of view of the universe the well-being of one individual is no more important than that of another. To reason that I want happiness for myself, but so does everyone, and I have no more right to it than they do, so I shouldn't promote my own well-being at the expense of the well-being of others.

I personally consider both of these arguments for universal benevolence (i.e. from instinct and rationality) to be fairly weak and not especially convincing. But I also don't see any ethical framework that is any more convincing or ennobling, despite several millennia of philosophers and theologians trying find such a framework.

 

So I was happy to see Singer acknowledge that there is no ultimate purpose, not even "maximize the greatest good for the greatest number" which one might expect a utilitarian like Singer to promote. Instead, like the existentialists I admire (Sartre, Camus) he seems to be saying that we have the freedom (within limits) to pick our own purpose (yes somewhat arbitrarily) and pursue them to the best of our ability. As Sartre put it, our "existence" precedes our "essence" - we are thrust into the world without a predetermined purpose and each of us must struggle to find one for ourselves. That seems to me like about the best we can do, and Singers' suggestion of universal benevolence seems like a better purpose than most.

 

Greg, do you have a better, less arbitrary solution to the big question of the ultimate propose/meaning of life which can be rationally defended?

 

--Dean

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Both Singer and Sidgwick ultimately say we must rely on either:

  • Our natural instinct/inclination to promote the social good, bred into us by a long history of ancestors who survived by being part of a functional group.
  • Our capacity for reason, by which we recognize that from the point of view of the universe the well-being of one individual is no more important than that of another. To reason that I want happiness for myself, but so does everyone, and I have no more right to it than they do, so I shouldn't promote my own well-being at the expense of the well-being of others.
I personally consider both of these arguments for universal benevolence (i.e. from instinct and rationality) to be fairly weak and not especially convincing.

 

 

My feeling exactly (that such arguments are "fairly weak and not especially convincing".

 

But I also don't see any ethical framework that is any more convincing or ennobling, despite several millennia of philosophers and theologians trying find such a framework.

 

I don't believe there is any amount of ratiocination that could produce defensible "theorems" about purpose in life. It all boils down to preference. Saying that preferences are inherited, based on eons of selection (i.e. they have survival value) doesn't justify the preferences. They might be useful for propagating genes, but survival itself is pointless in a universe devoid of purpose (or at least a universe in which animal life has no purpose (in a philosophical, teleological sense) other than proliferation or continuance of genetic factors).

 

...we have the freedom (within limits) to pick our own purpose (yes somewhat arbitrarily) and pursue them to the best of our ability.

 

I find most instances of "life purpose" to be *very* arbitrary, rather than merely *somewhat* arbitrary.

 

But we all need to pass our time somehow, so I applaud anyone who latches on to some "purpose" that provides self-justification or gratification and doesn't hurt anyone else.

 

...we are thrust into the world without a predetermined purpose and each of us must struggle to find one for ourselves.

 

I like that way of putting it, and concur.

 

That seems to me like about the best we can do, and Singers' suggestion of universal benevolence seems like a better purpose than most.

 

However pointless and arbitrary the adoption of his principle might appear, it is certainly admirable.

 

Greg, do you have a better, less arbitrary solution to the big question of the ultimate propose/meaning of life which can be rationally defended?

 

My "take" is probably clear from the foregoing remarks, but I'll elaborate anyhow.

 

I have an esthetic approach to this issue. [it seems the quaint spelling aesthetic might still be predominant, but I'm all for spelling reform]

 

There are behaviors that appear ugly, including selfish or hurtful attitudes and actions.

 

They appear so to me, no matter what anyone says.

 

However, I am not a unique machine, so I expect many other humans to think just as I do.

 

You made a comment earlier about a framework being "convincing or ennobling", and that nails it. The "convincing" part covers the need we have for rational notions, and the "ennobling" part covers what I call the esthetic approach.

 

Attitudes and behaviors that we would call noble attract us. Their opposites (ignoble, selfish, heinous,... whatever expressions of distaste or disapprobation we use) are repellant, ugly, offensive to our delicate esthetic sensibilities.

 

The ugly reality is that there are people who don't share our esthetic values.

 

That compels us to do a cost/benefit analysis of confrontation with them. In some cases we defend our arbitrary values by attempting to obliterate the enemy. The outcome doesn't matter to anyone but us, here and now.

 

Nothing matters really. But we do have our predispositions and preferences, and each of us can have a grand time, for it seems to me we live on an interesting little planet.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Are people who aren't depressed searching for meaning? Do happy, contented people search? It's not a rhetorical question; I'd like to know. Because it seems to me that people who are generally at ease in their own bodies and minds, and people who find peace with their chosen goals and lifestyles, these fortunate people do not seem to wonder much about the meaning of their lives. Or do they? Are you content and happy, yet still searching? Is the act of searching just a game or an intellectual pursuit? Is it genuine?

 

Up above in your text, Greg, you advised to just relax and enjoy life. Nothing matters, you write. We live a short time on a beautiful planet. Choose a path: go. But how do we to relax and enjoy when we know that no path we choose matters?

 

The quest for a longer life feels like a deep denial that there can't just be -- no meaning. There must be meaning, my mind keeps saying. Yet there isn't, I keep finding. So I want more time -- CR or SENS or whatever rejuvenation therapy may emerge in the coming decades -- in order to find meaning. Yet that feels wrong, too. Both to search for meaning and to not search for it -- to just give up -- relax, enjoy life, we were thrust here purposelessly, there is no meaning. Somehow both feel wrong to me. Does this make sense? Probably not.

Edited by Sthira

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

"But how do we to relax and enjoy when we know that no path we choose matters?"

 

Don't worry, be happy, Sthira.  Assuming you can find a way to be.

 

Rodney.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

"But how do we to relax and enjoy when we know that no path we choose matters?"

 

Don't worry, be happy, Sthira. Assuming you can find a way to be.

 

Rodney.

Some of that don't worry be happy vibe may be in the oxytocin receptor gene, we read. Probably not all of it, but some. I mean I know people with absolutely shitty lives and horrific childhoods who say and behave as if they are very content and happy and not searching for a lofty life meaning. And I think wow. And that's some added pressure -- be happy, damn it, you have so much, they have so little, you've got it made, you don't know how lucky you are... Added pressure doesn't seem to get at it. So I keep asking my doctor for oxytocin, and she keeps saying no, and I keep asking and she keeps saying no.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Sthira,

Are people who aren't depressed searching for meaning? Do happy, contented people search? It's not a rhetorical question; I'd like to know. Because it seems to me that people who are generally at ease in their own bodies and minds, and people who find peace with their chosen goals and lifestyles, these fortunate people do not seem to wonder much about the meaning of their lives. Or do they? Are you content and happy, yet still searching? Is the act of searching just a game or an intellectual pursuit? Is it genuine?

 

Wow, really good questions. My general answer would be - everyone's different. It appears that some people are genuinely happy and content to live a simple (or sometimes rather complicated) life relating solely to the concrete, material world, without questioning the big picture, or at least very rarely questioning the big picture. I think my wife is in general one of those people. She's content to focus her life on raising and befriending our daughter, volunteering in her school, tutoring math to high school kids, getting together for coffee with friends, where they talk about their kids, Downton Abbey the TV show, politics, and who knows what else.

 

Unless I bring them up, I'm pretty sure she doesn't think about the really Big questions like:

  • Why is there something rather than nothing?
  • Why this universe and not another?  
  • Who, or what process created it and why (if that question even makes sense)?
  • What role (if any) do humans, and do I personally have to play in the grand scheme of things?

On the other hand, I consider myself a happy and contented person, yet I very frequently (sometimes obsessively) think about these and other Big questions. It's a tricky balance to maintain though. Not knowing the answers, and realizing one will probably never know the answers with anything close to rational certainty, and realizing there may not even be answers that we humans could comprehend, sometimes seems enough to ruin one's buzz :)xyz . That is, it makes it hard to live a happy and contented life realizing we're ignorant of the really big picture now, and in all probability will always remain that way - not to mention how small and meaningless our lives are in such a model.

 

And if one embraces the notion that "we can't know the answers", it's a small step from there to "there probably aren't any right answers", so why do anything, especially anything socially constructive? What's the point - when it's all meaningless, or at least beyond our pay-grade, anyway?

 

It is at this point that I try to step back and take stock of what we do (or seem to) know:

  1. The universe exists and appears to be evolving. Yes - like Descartes and solipsists, you could deny even this, but then you're in a world of hurt trying to find meaning. So ignore that possibility...
  2. It may not be evolving towards any particular end, but there does appear to be a force for change, what Schopenhauer simply called "The Will" and what Nietzsche called "The Will to Power".
  3. From empirical observation, it appears this Will is engaged in a perpetual, iterative exploration and expansion into what Stuart Kauffman calls the "Adjacent Possible" - those things that can be created in one step (hence 'adjacent') by combining together things that already exist. It's almost like osmotic pressure - the universe oozes into what's next (what's adjacent in possibility space) via the path of least resistance and according to the laws of physics. Put simply, the universe throws things together to see what sticks.
  4. This Will appears to be a force that favors entities (material objects and ideas) that favor themselves and their kind. Entities that succeed in coming into existence, persevering and proliferating themselves in opposition to the force of entropy that would tend to tear things down (in short -things that are able to stick around), are rewarded. Rewarded with what? With continued existence and the resources they require to continue their expansion. It's basically a tautology, and that's what gives it its force. That which persists and proliferate is rewarded. With what? With the resources needed to persist and proliferate. It's basically evolution by natural selection, and it's hard to imagine how things could work in any other way but this one, in a universe governed by immutable physical laws -which I presume we're all on the same page in assuming.
  5. So as far as I can tell, that's the really Big picture - the universe is exploring the adjacent possible to see and expand on what works, which equates to what persists and proliferates.
  6. As far as I can tell, there's ultimately nothing good or bad, right or wrong about this. Those are just figments of our collective imaginations. This inexorable process of exploring the adjacent possible to discover and promote what works is just the way things are set up. No shoulds or shouldn'ts. No ifs, ands or buts about it. Them's the facts, like it or not.

But if this is the Big picture, what does it mean for us tiny humans?

  1. From observation of our little corner of the universe, life, sentient life, and especially human life, is the pinnacle of expression of this WIll, at least for now, until/unless we kill ourselves or create our super-AI successors. At this time in history we humans (or perhaps our genes according to Dawkins) and our "super-selves" (i.e. our big ideas and institutions, like our various religions, market capitalism, consumer culture, etc.) are the entities that are the most effective expressions of this Will to garner & exploit resources in order to persist and proliferate themselves in the competitive marketplace of entities and ideas. For better or worse, we're top dog on this tiny planet, and the fate of every other living creature on it rests in our hands. It's a big responsibility, but a big opportunity as well, compared with the meager opportunities afforded to all the other non- and less-sentient life forms on the planet, not to mention inanimate stuff like rocks...
  2. Given we've been thrown into this crazy world as top dog on this little planet, what are we supposed to do it about it?
  3. It seems to me the best we can do is go along with the project. After all, why fight it when it is what is, and their isn't anything ultimately we can do to change the general structure or the direction the universe is headed.
  4. So what does it mean to go along? It means to actively contribute in whatever way seems reasonable (and enjoyable) to this active process of exploring the adjacent possible - to find new and better ways to persist and proliferate ourselves and our ideas. In short, it means to further the Will's project by exploring and experiencing the nooks and crannies in the space of human possibility.
  5. How this process of exploration will actually manifest itself will vary greatly from individual to individual and from culture to culture. But in a nutshell, like I explained on this other thread, we're all little experiments of one, and we're also each part of a number of other, bigger experiments - e.g. like it or not we are both part of an experiment happening right now to see if a progressive western materialist/secular culture is a 'better' (read - 'more stable, powerful and prolific') way to organize human society than a conservative, islamic religious culture.
  6. It seems to me the best we can do is fill the role we've selected (or been thrust into, if you're a determinist) in these experiments to the best of our ability, with determination, integrity and transparency, so that other individuals, and humanity as a whole, can learn the most from these experiments, and adjust their/its course accordingly based on the outcomes.
  7. Of course we should base our choices of what experiments to participate in on our observation of what has worked for others in the past. As I said over there on the other thread, we don't want to needlessly shoot ourselves in the foot by making choices that have already been shown to not work out well.
  8. But in order to maximize the amount of knowledge gained for the collective, we should also endeavor to explore a part of human possibility space that hasn't been explored to death already. That way, the marginal information gained from us having lived will be greater than it would be if we lived the same old life as everyone else. In that way, the apparent project of the universe to thoroughly explore the adjacent possible to discover what works, will have been best served by our having lived. In short, if anything is worthwhile according to this model, "it is better to live a life less ordinary, rather than a lifeless ordinary."

There you have it. My current, provisional model of how the universe works, what its purpose (read 'direction') appears to be, and how best to live based on this big picture. It is not an endorsement of egoism, individualism, altruism, utilitarianism, capitalism, calorie restrictionism, or any other specific 'ism'. It's a metaphysics, and a meta-ethics. The universe is engaged in exploration to see what works (metaphysics) and so we might as well go along (meta-ethics) - pick one or several of the 'isms' that appeal to us, live by them and see how it works out.

 

It is undoubtedly incomplete, hopelessly naive and melodramatic  :unsure:, but it gets me through the day, and in the end, perhaps that's all that really counts, at least if you listen to pragmatists like William James.

 

In the end, as Camus said, "we must imagine Sisyphus happy"...

 

sisyphus.jpg

 

--Dean

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Dean,

 

This sounds like a contrast between an ordinary person and a genius.

 

No contempt is intended in my use of the term "ordinary person".

 

It also brings to mind this quotation:

 

"Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people."

 

It could be that the inspiration for this quotation Is Henry Buckle:

 

Background is on p.32, the gist of the quotation is on p.33:

 

Haud Immemor (Not Unmindful) by Charles Stewart.

 

Here is the quotation for the click-averse:

 

"Buckle said, in his dogmatic way: "Men and women range themselves into three classes or orders of intelligence ; you can tell the lowest class by their habit of always talking about persons ; the next by the fact that their habit is always to converse about things; the highest, by their preference for the discussion of ideas" The epigram, for an epigram, is, I think, unusually true; but the modifications it requires for practical life are too obvious to dwell on. The fact, of course, is that any of one's friends who was incapable of a little intermingling of these condiments would soon be consigned to the home for dull dogs."

 

For more on Buckle: Wikipedia: Henry Buckle.

 

Here is another excerpt you might like from "Haud Immemor" (p.158):

 

" The best years of life are after fifty or sixty, when you know what the world really is and what it has to offer. One knows more, and can do more for others; has more experience, and is free from illusions about wealth or rank or love ; or even about religion, for one begins to see what is really valuable in it, and what is half physical and half emotional."

Edited by Greg Scott

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Greg,

This sounds like a contrast between an ordinary person and a genius.
 
No contempt is intended in my use of the term "ordinary person".

 

It definitely takes a certain type of personality to focus on ideas rather than people or things. And it definitely takes a certain amount of leisure time, and therefore material abundance, to make such contemplation and exploration even possible. I see now that what I wrote has somewhat of a Nietzschean elitist tone to it, especially the part about it being better to live a life distinct from "the same old life as everyone else".

 

In part I meant it that way - for those with the discipline and resources to explore new territory, it seems to me like the right thing to do relative to slacking off, if right has any meaning - which admittedly it probably doesn't in any ultimate sense of the word... And I'm the first to acknowledge that there is certainly no obligation (moral or otherwise) for someone to go out on a limb for a worthy cause, even if they have it in them.

 

For those who don't have the resources, personality, or inclination to live a life of distinction, it seems to me there is still value (in the sense of contributing usefully to the ongoing set of human experiments) in living as part of the majority, by helping to refine our understanding of the degree to which the "majority lifestyle" works or doesn't, and what range of personality parameters and life circumstances it works (best) for. There is power in numbers, both for getting things done and statistically speaking. What I mean by the latter is the following. If I died of cancer tomorrow, would that mean that my unusual way of living was definitively a bad idea? Of course not. An experiment with an N of 1 has no statistical power. Cruel flukes happen, particularly when it comes to cancer, which I'm all too aware of... So having many people exploring a  narrow but very promising region of the space of human possibility (an 'ordinary life') allows sufficient statistical power to draw valid conclusions about what works and what doesn't. But at the same time some folks have to be the pioneers, willing to strike out in new directions and take risks by exploring new territories if a society is to progress, and the Will to Power maximally expressed. In short, it takes all kinds.

 

Moreover, quite independent of the "explorer / settler" metaphor, so-called "ordinary people" can and do provide value to the flourishing of the society in which they contentedly reside by contributing to the smooth operation of that society, by doing their job, raising good kids, helping one's neighbors,voting in elections, donating to worthy causes, etc. That's what was meant by "getting things done" in the paragraph above.

 

And finally, simply by living, one contributes to the expression of the universal Will to Power, even if not its further exploration or expansionOnly a nearly infinitesimally-small fraction of matter in the universe exhibits any structure whatsoever. Each of us is therefore incredible precious in the grand scheme of things. By simply existing we're contributing to the universe's project of building complexity out of simpler parts.

 

There is an analogy in beauty and art. A one-of-a-kind painting by an amateur artist contributes to the sum total of beauty that exists in the universe. So does the millionth copy of a great work of art like the Mona Lisa. The relative contribution of each depends on just how amateurish is the former, and just how many copies exist of the latter.

 

--Dean

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Wow, Dean, I love you. But I get hung up on the universe (the Will) having what appears a conscious-like aspect. As if the Will is actually planning, say, this molecule goes here, that star shall orbit this black hole. Why isn't it just the Will random? Once upon a time there was a nothingness so nothing that it exploded so ferociously that its nothing-matter became something (this sounds like total stoner-nonsense) and that bang keeps expanding until some unimaginable time when all matter becomes nothing again. Then it explodes again. Like breathing. In, out. But why does it matter? Why does it have purpose? Why isn't it completely random? Shit flies everywhere, space expands between it, until it's nothing again, then explodes again ex nihil or whatever the fuck's going on.

 

Another thing grinding me down is how are these stupid ape brains supposed to figure this crap out? We create tools when we can't do stuff. So now we're creating tools to help us understand the wild complications of human metabolism so we can end aging, and we're creating tools to help us better understand what the hell is going on in this universe space we're all so concerned about. In other words, our bonobo brains ain't never gonna solve this stuff. But our tools will. When I don't feel like digging a hole in the dirt with my hands, I break out the shovel. Attempting to understand the universe with my silly ape brain just doesn't do it. History proves that. We're still arguing footnotes to Plato, man. Humph. Where's my jet pack? Where's my longevity? Where's my understanding of why I'm here? I'm a whining chimpanzee.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

... (this sounds like total stoner nonsense)

Agreed.

 

... Humph. Where's my jet pack? Where's my longevity? Where's my understanding of why I'm here? I'm a whining chimpanzee.

Now that's good stuff Sthira. You've got talent, sonny.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Sthira,

... I get hung up on the universe (the Will) having what appears a conscious-like aspect. ... Why isn't it just the Will random? ... Why isn't it completely random? Shit flies everywhere, space expands between it, until it's nothing again, then explodes again ex nihil or whatever the fuck's going on. Why does it have purpose? [slightly rearranged for clarity]

 

In my perspective, the Will is completely random. Sh*t goes flying every which way, some it sticks together, and then after a long time some of it sticks together in a way that is self-replicating, then self-replicating with slight variations, and a long time later, here we are, sentient creatures with the drive to build a model of the world in order garner the resources we need to survive and proliferate, wondering what the heck is going on, and what's the point of it all.

 

In all likelihood there is no pre-ordained purpose or outcome that any conscious entity had in mind when the universe exploded into existence (unless we're living in a simulation or cosmic petri dish, which I still consider a possibility), and almost certainly no purpose that we can know with any certainty.

 

Rather than a purpose (which seems to imply a intentional agent behind it all), it appears from observation that the universe has a direction, which emerges from the underlying tension between the force that would break things down (entropy) and the force that would build things up (call it extropy or negentropy). For some mysterious reason the laws of physics are configured in such a way as to repeatedly throw things together in different configurations, and then challenge them with forces & events that would break them down again. Those conglomerations of things that are best able to withstand these repeated challenges and thereby persist and proliferate, become more prevalent.  No conscious agent or intention involved, at least until life emerges from the process billions of years after it was kicked off. It just happens that way.

 

But why does it matter?

 

Now that's the real question. Put another way - even if this model of order evolving from nothing into sentient life like us through a series of random "sticky" events is true, who cares? We're thrown into this world without our choosing. And there would seem to be no imperative (moral or otherwise) to go along with this project by helping to build up new stuff (and new ways of living) from combinations of old stuff. Why go along?

 

I guess my answer is fourfold:

  • Paying it forward - Given how complex we are, we're clearly on the side of extropy. We wouldn't be here and be as complex and sophisticated as we are if it weren't for a long line of entities in the past (our ancestors) that went along with this constructivist project. So perhaps we feel some obligation to rout for or play for our 'team', and to 'pay it forward' to those who'll come after us by contributing to the furthering of the project ourselves. This is consistent with the way we're (generally) wired to feel obligated to repay our debt, since ancestors who did benefitted from reciprocal altruism and survived better than those that didn't, so we've inherited this tendency from them. I know, it is a pretty weak argument, but it brings me to a related one:
  • We're wired that way - In addition to feeling obliged to further the universe's project out of respect for the past entities that worked hard to get us here, we're also wired to engage in the struggle to survive and flourish. This is Nietzsche's Will to Power as manifested in the individual. Those potential ancestors who were completely satisfied with the status quo became complacent and lost out in the struggle for resources to the "go getters" who were willing to work hard. We are descendents of the "go getters", so we share this "go getter" attitude, and hence feel compelled to struggle and to contribute. Why fight it? Admittedly, this isn't an ironclad argument either. Which brings me to:
  • Life will go better if we do - We live in an environment where "go getters" get ahead and "early birds" get the worms. The universe rewards those who help themselves, and in a social species like humans this often involves helping others in mutually beneficial reciprocal relationships.  So if we want to a life that goes better and smoother, and that is more pleasant to live, we might as well go along. But you might play the ultimate nihilist trump card, asking "what if I don't even really care about life enough to wish it would go smoother or be more pleasant? Why then should I go along?"
  • Why not? - In the end, it comes down to the simple question of 'why not?' There is no compelling reason to go along with the constructivist project the universe appears to be engaged in (at least in our little corner of it), and you're free to chose not to. And if you think you've got something better to do, go for it. From the point of view of the universe (if it were to have one), it doesn't care. Complacency on the part of some of the entities that get thrown together in the process of exploring the adjacent possible is to be expected - it is a random process after all. Such a complacent entity becomes just another of the failed experiments, discarded in favor of more effective "go getters" who garner more resources through their engagement with life. And the universe will just churn on without the complacent one... But given this, why not play along? It seems like a pretty interesting game the universe is engaged in, and it gets more interesting around here with every year that goes by. Why not stick around for as long as possible to see how it turns out, contributing in some small way if you can in order to 'earn your keep' and remain in the game?

Another thing grinding me down is how are these stupid ape brains supposed to figure this crap out? ... Attempting to understand the universe with my silly ape brain just doesn't do it. History proves that. We're still arguing footnotes to Plato, man. Humph. Where's my jet pack? Where's my longevity? Where's my understanding of why I'm here? I'm a whining chimpanzee.

 

Jetpacks are here, if you've got the cash (see below). They are just not evenly distributed. Longevity - we'll figure that one out eventually. Unfortunately probably not in our lifetime, or at least mine (don't know how old you are). Perhaps cryonics will come along soon enough to serve as my ticket to the future. But maybe not. 

 

But as for the really big questions, like this one: "Where's my understanding of why I'm here?" You're sh*t out of luck if you're looking for a definitive answer from outside yourself.

 

Moreover, for all the really big questions like the one's I listed in this previous post, there are no ultimate answers, at least that our stupid ape brains can figure out. I like this analogy. We are like the bacteria in our gut. Our gut bacteria are forever isolated from, and therefore oblivious to, the wider context in which their little microcosm is embedded, as a result of their physical constraints (i.e. stuck in our colon) and cognitive limitations (i.e. no sensory apparatus or capacity for cognition). And yet everyday they benefit from, and contribute to, the proper functioning of the wider context in which they are embedded by simply going about their little lives - converting fiber into butyrate to fuel our body. The material, perceivable universe is the equivalent for us of the colon wall in this analogy, a barrier beyond which we cannot see or comprehend, despite what physicists like Lawrence Krauss or Stephen Hawking like to claim.

 

Unlike the bacteria in our gut however, we are cursed (and blessed) with the capacity to sense more than we can touch (through our tools and instruments), and to contemplate the really big questions. This capacity is a curse because it compels us to want to figure stuff out, without ultimately giving us the tools sufficient to do so, leaving us frustrated when we can't. And I think it is clearly not possible to figure everything out, when it comes to the biggest questions, like "why is there something rather than nothing?" Even if a superintelligent AI determines we live in a simulation created by another superintelligent AI, and its simulations (not turtles) all the way down - that still doesn't come close to answering the question of where did the original simulation come from, and why are things set up so that its simulations all the way down, and not baby universes instead?

 

In short, this seems to prove that we're forever doomed to be in the dark about at least some of the really big questions. We can take this as a cue to stop asking those really big questions, to keep asking them and being frustrated by an unfillable desire to know the unknowable, or to embrace the absurdity of continuing to ask questions we know we can't answer. Your choice. The universe doesn't care which you pick.

 

--Dean

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

For some mysterious reason the laws of physics are configured in such a way as to repeatedly throw things together in different configurations, and then challenge them with forces & events that would break them down again.

 

A variation on the Tibetan Buddhist Sand mandala.

 

Those conglomerations of things that are best able to withstand these repeated challenges and thereby persist and proliferate

 

The sand fights back...

Edited by Greg Scott

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Cognitive function and depression seemed to make the big difference in mortality risk from not having hobbies or purpose in life.
 
 
Relationship of Having Hobbies and a Purpose in Life With Mortality, Activities of Daily Living, and Instrumental Activities of Daily Living Among Community-Dwelling Elderly Adults.
Tomioka K, Kurumatani N, Hosoi H.
J Epidemiol. 2016 Mar 5. [Epub ahead of print]
PMID: 26947954
https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/jea/advpub/0/advpub_JE20150153/_pdf
 
Abstract
 
BACKGROUND:
 
This study's aim was to clarify the relationship of having hobbies and a purpose in life (PIL; in Japanese, ikigai) with mortality and a decline in the activities of daily living (ADL) and instrumental ADL (IADL) among the community-dwelling elderly.
 
METHODS:
 
Prospective observational data from residents aged =/>65 years who were at increased risk for death (n = 1853) and developing a decline in ADL (n = 1254) and IADL (n = 1162) were analyzed. Cox proportional hazard models were used for mortality analysis of data from February 2011 to November 2014. ADL and IADL were evaluated using the Barthel Index and the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology Index of Competence, respectively. ADL and IADL were assessed at baseline and follow-up and were evaluated using logistic regression models. Fully adjusted models included terms for age, gender, BMI, income, alcohol intake, smoking history, number of chronic diseases, cognitive function, and depression.
 
RESULTS:
 
During the follow-up of eligible participants, 248 had died, 119 saw a decline in ADL, and 178 saw a decline in IADL. In fully adjusted models, having neither hobbies nor PIL was significantly associated with an increased risk of mortality (hazard ratio 2.08; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.47-2.94), decline in ADL (odds ratio 2.74; 95% CI, 1.44-5.21), and decline in IADL (odds ratio 1.89; 95% CI, 1.01-3.55) compared to having both hobbies and PIL.
 
CONCLUSIONS:
 
Although effect modifications by cognitive functioning and depression cannot be ruled out, our findings suggest that having hobbies and PIL may extend not only longevity, but also healthy life expectancy among community-dwelling older adults.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Thanks Al!

 

From the full text of the study (PMID 26947954), it looks like having hobbies is quite a bit more important than having a "purpose in life" when it comes to reducing mortality risk:

 

eNgVmHs.png

 

As the highlight shows, relative to having both having a purpose and hobbies, having hobbies but no purpose only raised a person's mortality risk by 14%. In contrast, having a purpose but no hobbies resulted in a 66% increase in mortality risk. Having neither hobbies nor a purpose doubled one's mortality risk. 

 

This result reminds of a quote that someone (the original source is disputed) once said: "The three grand essentials of happiness are: Something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for."

 

--Dean

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

All, but especially my friend Sthira,

 

I've just been reading and learning about a relatively obscure and underappreciated early 20th century philosopher/mathematician named Frank Ramsey, who died tragically at age 26 from complications after a surgery he had as a result of chronic liver problems & jaundice.

 

He presents a particularly moving and I think convincing way of seeing life as meaningful, despite its ultimate futility and absurdity, in the closing passage of the Epilogue to his 1925 book The Foundations of Mathematics and other Logical Essays, written just a couple years before his death:

 
Where I seem to differ from some of my friends is in attaching little importance to physical size. I don't feel the least humble before the vastness of the heavens. The stars may be large, but they cannot think or love; and these are qualities which impress me far more than size does. I take no credit for weighing nearly seventeen stone [238 lbs; he was a big man]
 
My picture of the world is drawn in perspective, and not like a model to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings and the stars are all as small as threepenny bits. I don't really believe in astronomy, except as a complicated description of part of the course of human and possibly animal sensation. I apply my perspective not merely to space but also to time. In time the world will cool and everything will die; but that is a long time off still, and its present value at compound discount is almost nothing. Nor is the present less valuable because the future will be blank. Humanity, which fills the foreground of my picture, I find interesting and on the whole admirable. I find, just now at least, the world a pleasant and exciting place. You may find it depressing; I am sorry for you, and you despise me. But I have reason and you have none; you would only have a reason for despising me if your feeling corresponded to the fact in a way mine didn't. But neither can correspond to the fact. The fact is not in itself good or bad; it is just that it thrills me but depresses you. On the other hand, I pity you with reason, because it is pleasanter to be thrilled than to be depressed, and not merely pleasanter but better for all one's activities.
 
Scholars say he had an alternative way to end the last sentence, which he crossed out. The original was supposed to have read:
 
 On the other hand, I pity you with reason, because it is pleasanter to be thrilled than to be depressed and because one's activities will go more smoothly. 
 
Perhaps Ramsey, who had suffered chronic liver problems and so didn't have a smooth or easy life, realized what Nietzsche realized - that a life doesn't have to go smoothly to be well-lived. In fact, sometimes quite the opposite. People require challenges to push against in order to achieve their potential and to flourish. Sometimes a life that goes smoothly is antithetical to that. 
 
In a sense, Ramsey was a sort of Pragmatist. According to Ramsey the facts are the facts - the sun is going to burn out and cool eventually. But our perspective on the facts, our evaluation of them, is up to us. We have the ability to chose our perspective on the facts (rather than chose the truth or falsity of the facts themselves, as the popularizer of pragmatism, William James, nonsensically suggested), based on which perspective will bring the most value to our live, where 'value' must be interpreted perspectivally as well - i.e. value = value from our perspective.
 
Here is a really good talk about Ramsey's philosophy, with discussion of the above passage starting around 35:00.
 
--Dean
 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

First point humans have only a partial, very partial view of reality. We are lost in a vast thing that none of us even comes close to understanding.

 

Second point: Why something and not nothing. Science likes to demystify of course but if the Big Bang seems pretty mystifying and miraculous as anything imaginable. So everything is miraculous but don't apply logic and too much thought to it all as the Zen folks would say. And why? Simply because reality, whatever it is, appears not to be at all dependent on the conceptual or the language oriented position of analysis. It is-and experiencing without thought or conceptualization is pretty cool and, at least seeming, highly significant and extremely satisfying. The bare actuality of present experiencing is immediate and impossible to doubt. What we can doubt and argue about are all the ideas, interpretations and explanations of this living reality—the abstract maps and models drawn by conceptual thought. Maps are useful, but when we mistake them for the territory they describe, we suffer. The living reality is both ungraspable and inescapable.

 

Enough said!!!

Edited by mikeccolella

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

[Admin Note: This is a followup to this post that Mike Colella made on another thread, long after the one he posted above, but nevertheless closely related.]

 

Mike,

 

At the risk of sounding like a bragger I came to this conclusion [presumably, that serious CR won't beat a healthy obesity-avoiding diet and lifestyle] a long time ago, posted my reservations about it, and drifted away. 

 

Congratulations Mike. You were far ahead of many of the rest of us. I'm glad you've stuck around, even though I picked on you (somewhat unfairly, since you redacted it from your post) as well as Saul for your omnivorous ways. 

 

...even the vegans here are self absorbed and petty. I include myself in this criticism.

 

There is a difference between self-interested, selfish, and "self-absorbed and petty". As you point out, being self-interested is inevitable - it's baked into our nature by evolution. I'm as self-interested as the next guy (or gal). IMO such an attitude becomes selfish and "self-absorbed and petty" when we chose to put our own trivial self-interests ahead of the welfare of other sentient creatures.  That is what makes eating meat unconscionable from my perspective.

 

However I like to think and hope that there may be something we are missing and that scientific determinism will not prevail.

 

In a weird synchronicity, the book I just started reading yesterday might offer an answer to this hope - Stewart Kauffman's latest called Humanity in a Creative UniverseI haven't got far into it yet, but as I understand it from reviews and from reading his previous books, it offers a scientifically-grounded way to resist scientific determinism. Kauffman believes we live in a universe that is "un-prestatable" - the way things are unfolding into the "Adjacent Possible" is not only unpredictable, but unimaginable. He even gives an interpretation of quantum physics that supports his perspective. Below is the best review of the book I saw on Amazon. Based on reviews like this, and the previous Kauffman books I've read, I highly recommend it for thoughtful people who are tired of hearing scientists like Hawking and Dawkins telling us we live in a clockwork universe with just enough randomness thrown in to shake things up a bit.

 

My point is this, rather than devoting all of this energy to surviving for an extra year or so, maybe it would be better spent on dare I say it-the meaning of living or life.

 

Oooh. That's a toughy. Meaning is where each of us finds it. For example, these days, I'm finding my meaning by obsessively posting what I hope is interesting content to these forums, and exploring a part of Kauffman's "Adjacent Possible" that few people have visited before, at least on a regular basis, in hopes of helping myself and others in some small way through sharing what I learn and discover.

 

How does it help me to share? The obvious answer is that by sharing I get beneficial feedback and criticism from smart people, enabling me to refine my approach to living. But it's more than that. Which brings me to the second book I just started reading, which I highly recommend from what I've read so far. It's called The Opacity of Mind: An Integrated Theory of Self Knowledge by Peter Carruthers. From what I understand, it is an extended argument based on a combination of psychology, cognitive science and philosophy in favor of an idea I've long held, which can best be summarized as follows:

 

I don't know what I think til I hear what I say, and see what I do.

 

We are forced to refine and clarify our ideas in our own mind by expressing and demonstrating them - both to others and to ourselves. Without expressing and demonstrating them, our thoughts and ideas remain largely unconscious and ill-formed. We don't have any sort of privileged or direct access to the inner workings of our mind - most of whose activity remains unconscious. Thoughts, words and actions just seem to bubble up - they are there when we need them. We build a model of ourselves in the same way we build models of others - through sensory observations. I have a richer sensory data stream telling me things about myself than I do about others, but fundamentally I use the same cognitive machinery to build my self-model as I use for building my models of others. In fact, I think Carruthers argues that the cognitive machinery for agent-modeling evolved first to model others, and only later, as self-awareness arose in our primate ancestors, did the machinery get commandeered to also help us build a rich model of self. That is perhaps why in other animal species, individuals often seem to have about as good, or perhaps an even better model of others in their immediate circle than they do about themselves.

 

I'm not sure if others have this sense, but I often feel that the words flowing from my mouth and my fingertips, and sometimes even my actions, aren't entirely my own. Instead, I'm discovering what I know and what I think along with everyone else, as I hear/see what I say/write/do. Weird and counterintuitive, I know. Conventional wisdom and our own intuition seem to tell that of course we have immediate, unmediated and privileged access to our own inner thoughts and beliefs.  But that seems to me what it's like, and it appears Carruthers thinks there is something to it too.

 

--Dean

 

-------------

Amazon Review of Stewart Kauffman's book called Humanity in a Creative Universe.

 

A Joy Ride Through the Universe.
 
By Stanley Palomboon May 17, 2016
 
Stuart Kauffman, one of our greatest scientists, is a passionate humanist. "Humanity in a Creative Universe" expands on and elaborates his long-held view of the universe as a wonderfullly unpredictable system that creates novelty and complexity at a furious pace. Kauffman's universe is not a lot of empty space with a little bit of stuff scattered through it, as some physicists argue it is. Nor are human beings insignificant fragments of that stuff, but exceptional and fascinating products of the its creativity. For Kauffman this is a joyous realization, and he makes no effort to conceal his delight in this view of life and the world.
 
Kauffman knows that we are all aware of our thinking, feeling and choosing selves, despite what the physicists may say. He wants to eliminate the gap between what we know and feel intuitively and the scientific dogmas that tell us everything that happens was already determined when the Big Bang was so mysteriously initiated, driven by just a few simple physical laws. Kauffman explains that the laws of physics alone cannot account for the biological universe, just as the laws of biology cannot account for what we think and feel. The laws must evolve along with the phenomena they govern. Each individual E. coli of the millions in the physicist's gut is more complex, more interconnected, more interactive and more energy efficient than the entire non-biotic universe.
 
A good place to begin in understanding Kauffman's thinking, is with the concept of "the adjacent possible". In earlier books, describing the evolutionary process, Kauffman has referred to the set of all the possible evolutionary outcomes from a single mutation in any one of the thousands of genes an organism possesses, as "the adjacent possible" into which the organism can evolve. Natural selection winnows these possibilities to a very few that can be actualized in a viable organism. But the number of the adjacent possibilities is so vast, and the circumstances that might favor one over the others so complex. that the outcome of the evolutionary process cannot be known in advance. He illustrates this idea with the homely example of a screwdriver. He asks the reader to specify all the possible uses for a screwdriver. It can't be done. Someone will always be able to come up with a new one.
 
In "Humanity", Kauffman draws out the implications of the idea of the adjacent possible, beginning with its undermining of the scientific dogmas of reductionism and determinism. This project leads Kauffman and "Humanity" in many directions, which I can't begin to describe here, although quantum mechanics and consciousness, and the possible links between them appear prominently. Some of his explorations lead to conclusions that seem both brilliant and obvious, all are imaginative and fascinating, a few perhaps too far a stretch to be completely convincing. Each reader will have his own assessment of this mix. But the process of sorting out Kauffman's ideas for oneself is an exciting adventure I can recommend to everyone.
 
Kauffman's writing is not always easy to follow. "Humanity" is not written in a linear style, like a textbook. Kauffman keeps returning to old material in new contexts, making new connections, seeing more deeply into the issues. Sometimes it seems as if a whirlwind has just passed through. But you don't have to worry. There's no examination. "Humanity in a Creative Universe", as enlightening as it may be, is a pleasure trip.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Hi Dean, Thanks for the references. Kaufman's book if it is both pleasurable and enlightening will be an experience I would welcome. Keep us posted on your thoughts after u finish it please!

 

As for "The Opacity of Mind" I have long noticed the effect you describe especially when speaking and getting caught up in a conversation. It just comes out and at that point one catches on to what they are actually thinking. It is bizarre and mysterious to say the least. Reading your post reminded me of a long held fascination that I have held for the idea of ultimate selflessness. I think Aldous Huxley nailed down our dilemma and it is our inherited brain and it's capacities for perception, perception as experiencing. Science and so called progress are not leading us out of suffering. There is terrible suffering going on throughout the world and thought is not resolving this. So I wonder if the contemplative traditions are the route to higher consciousness. Those traditions which eschew thought and promote nothingness. No thoughts or feelings or images which leads to an experience of intense love and compassion.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Mike,

 

I'll let you know how I like by Kauffman's Humanity in a Creative Universe and Carruther's The Opacity of Mind

 

Science and so called progress are not leading us out of suffering. There is terrible suffering going on throughout the world and thought is not resolving this. So I wonder if the contemplative traditions are the route to higher consciousness. Those traditions which eschew thought and promote nothingness. No thoughts or feelings or images which leads to an experience of intense love and compassion. 

 

I too have long thought that contemplative practices and traditions have much to offer for solving (as well as coping with) the ills of this world. I also believe science dismisses such traditions/practices far too quick, except for a few neuroscientists who study meditating Buddhist monks. Even those efforts (the scientists' that is, not the monks') I consider to be pretty much of a joke - it's like trying to understand the meaning of a book using bomb calorimetry ☺.

 

Coincidently (or perhaps not), in the last couple days I've had several insights that I believe might help bridge the gap (really a chasm) between the models of metaphysics provided by spiritual/religious traditions and the model of metaphysics on offer from scientific materialism. I hope to flesh out these ideas first in my own head, and then on this thread soon, in order to overcome the opacity of mind...

 

How's that for a Fermat's Last Theorem sorta margin note! Now if Michael would just stop pestering me, perhaps I could get to it. ☺

 

I will say now that these new ideas fills in the rather large holes and extends the model of Life, the Universe and Everything I floated earlier in this previous post in this thread.

 

--Dean

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Humanity i love you

because you would rather black the boots of

success than enquire whose soul dangles from his

watch-chain which would be embarrassing for both

 

parties and because you

unflinchingly applaud all

songs containing the words country home and

mother when sung at the old howard

 

Humanity i love you because

when you’re hard up you pawn your

intelligence to buy a drink and when

you’re flush pride keeps

 

you from the pawn shop and

because you are continually committing

nuisances but more

especially in your own house

 

Humanity i love you because you

are perpetually putting the secret of

life in your pants and forgetting

it’s there and sitting down

 

on it

and because you are

forever making poems in the lap

of death Humanity

 

i hate you

 

EE Cummings (who also capitalized his name)

 

https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/12/11/e-e-cummings-a-life-susan-cheever/

 

Cummings’s name itself provides tragicomic evidence of our modern hubris in flaunting half-understood, partially correct “facts” — while many people believe, and some would adamantly insist, that the only acceptable spelling of the poet’s name is lowercase, he himself used both lowercase and capitalized versions in signing his work; in fact, he capitalized more frequently than not.

Edited by Sthira

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

×