There are three parts to this. Part I lays the ground work. Part II comes at the issue from a rational and logical perspective. Part III comes at it from a human (romantic?) standpoint. In the last paragraph I tried to bring it all together.
Part I : Making Sense of it All
Can we make sense of this world? Like good philosophers we must first ask…what “world”? We’ve all seen “The Matrix”, and the scene where Morpheus asks Neo to choose between the blue and red pill. What if our reality is not real? What if we’re jacked into a Matrix?
I think the question is moot. If you were indeed in the Matrix, then the Matrix is your reality for all practical purposes and you are bound up in it. And it is entirely reasonable to base your reasoning on the reality you experience.
Thus we have a reality and a desire to find meaning in it. How do you go about making sense of something? When you’re asked to make sense of something, you need to understand the system/thing you’re talking about. In Part II, I hope to follow the standard “philosophy of science” approach and show that the scientific method is a starting point. In Part III, using conclusions from science, I hope to get a fix on how we might find meaning.
Part II: How do we know?
Undoubtedly, any graduate student in Philosophy could blow holes in my reasoning, but here goes my hack at the philosophy of science.
Reality: A system which contains everything we experience. All sensory input comes from reality.
Truth: The greater the correspondence of a theory with reality, the greater the truth of that statement.
Correspondence with reality: To correspond with reality means the theory makes predictions about the reality around us and these predictions are confirmed to a certain degree of accuracy. The higher the degree of accuracy, the greater the correspondence with reality.
Objective: That which does not change with respect to the consciousness thinking it, or with change in dimension.
Objective reality: A reality whose properties/laws do not depend on the consciousness observing it or on dimension; that it exists independent of the observer and is the same for all observers.
Note: Someone will object that in Quantum Mechanics the system depends on the observer. Here, I refer to the laws of the system, not what’s happening in the system.
Objective Truth: A truth which holds under all circumstances, which cannot be dis-proven; for which there is no possibility that it is wrong.
Axiom: An axiom is a statement/theory that is assumed to be an Objective Truth.
Purpose: Here, defined as an aim towards which we work, such that this aim is derived from objective truth thus making the purpose objective.
- We exist in an Objective Reality. Now, many philosophers take issue with this. Many people, not just philosophers, are radical subjectivists, and do not believe anything Objective exists. Let alone that the best explanation for what we observe is the existence of an Objective Reality; if you do not have something Objective then you have no standard. Any and everything goes. You can say anything you want and it will be valid. There is no basis for any structure or framework, and any theory will be unsatisfactory by default. For any satisfactory theory you need an Objective standard on which you can base your theory, and to which you may refer to, to judge the validity of what you say, and Objective reality is what I start with. A start that, to me, is entirely reasonable. The nature of Reality does not appear to change based on the circumstances or the person. The laws of physics are the same for me on Earth and for you on Betelguese. Hence this is taken to be axiomatic.
- We are part of Reality. We cannot remove ourselves from reality or observe it from outside. Thus we are always part of it. Even if we could remove ourselves from reality, we would still be dimensionally contained in “something”. That something is Reality.
- This objective reality can be described by rules. So far the reality we observe can be predicted by certain rules. to a certain degree of accuracy. These rules are the forces: gravity, electromagnetic, weak, and strong.
- Our goal is to ascertain if there is a purpose towards which we can aim. We want to know if there is something we can aim or work towards, i.e. we want an “objective purpose”. An “objective purpose” was defined above. Thus, at the moment, our objective purpose is to find an objective purpose. That sounds silly, doesn’t it?
- To ascertain if there is a purpose towards which we can aim, we first need to understand what we are and what surrounds us. In other words, to draw conclusions you first need to know what you’re drawing conclusions about.
- From 1 & 2, if we are part of that reality, we can interact with it.
- From A & 3, our interactions must follow the objective rules of said objective reality.
- From B & 3, from observing our interactions, we can record the rules that govern the reality. This is done using the scientific process. The scientific process involves,
- Coming up with a possible rule that describes reality (called hypothesis)
- Designing a scenario to test whether this hypothesis does indeed describe reality (experiment).
- Performing the experiment to observe and collate the results. Check the results to see if hypothesis describes reality and apply Occam’s Razor to see whether the hypothesis is the simplest explanation for observed reality. If it does, retain hypothesis. If not, try and improve hypothesis and repeat from step (i). If improving hypothesis is not possible, discard hypothesis.
- Repeat from step (i) to ensure the hypothesis is re-tested whenever technology’s progress allows a jump in the accuracy to which the hypothesis can be tested.
- From 4 & 5, to ascertain if there is a purpose, we first need to understand what surrounds us.
- From D & 2, we must understand the reality around us.
- From C & E, thus we must follow the scientific process to understand the reality around us. From this understanding might we discern if there is indeed any purpose or not.
- Just connecting dots here. If you’ve read my “The Case for Agnosticism” you know that finding a purpose behind the laws of reality would imply that there was a designer or an intelligence behind the laws. Thus, the existence of a purpose means there is a higher intelligence lurking somewhere *looks around*. According to the most precocious 6-year old I know (Calvin), “Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.”
Case Study: Gravity Probe B – A little elucidation on what we just went through.
Einstein’s theory of relativity has already been used to describe reality. Hence his theory is our best approximation to Objective Truth. Recent advances in technology have allowed his theory to be tested to a much greater degree of accuracy. This was done with Gravity Probe B and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was found to describe Reality with an extremely high degree of accuracy.
HENCE, the general theory of relativity is a theory that comes closer to objective truth than other theories do because of its high degree of correspondence with reality. It describes an objective reality because the results of the experiment will not vary depending on the consciousness performing the experiment or the location of the experiment in all 4 dimensions. Additionally, it is the simplest working explanation we have. However, the understanding this theory provides has not pointed us towards any ‘purpose’.
CAVEAT: The General Theory of Relativity is not an objective truth because we do not have any way of determining when we have reached objective truth. Hence, only the relative truths of statements can be determined. This relative truth can be determined in a rigorous manner by comparing the number of significant figures to which a theory can describe reality accurately.
CONCLUSION: Now the question is, is there anything in science that gives life an iota of meaning? Yes there is! We now know that all information about us is encoded in our genes. And half of those genes go to each of our children. And half of their genes go to each of their children and so on. In other words, we live on through our children. Though it may seem that the number of our genes being passed down is halved every generation, they go to all of your children and your children’s children. So your genes are slowly “spread” across society. In that sense a little tiny nugget of you will always be alive somewhere.
Second, and this is not a result of science but an artifact of scientific progress. Due to the advances in data storage and retrieval, any effect you have on this world will be preserved for much much longer than it originally would’ve. For example, very few books before the advent of the printing press survive, in comparison to books today which can be stored forever on digital media at negligible cost. Thus, the “record” of your work has a much greater chance of being preserved for posterity and influencing the world after you are long gone, lending your life’s work that much more meaning.
Part III: Meaning of Life
If we use science to understand reality, then science tells us that:
- There is no objective purpose we know of.
- In fact, reality is completely agnostic to our existence.
- Our emotions are governed by chemicals in us, such as neurotransmitters, that react to us and our environment.
- We can influence our mental state. Very simply, eating sugar produces dopamine, which is pleasurable.
These points raise the question of whether we can influence our mental state and accept that life has no objective purpose? Can we find our own meaning in life?
I argue that when we find meaning is precisely when we cease to care if life has objective purpose or not. It’s that state of mind when we simply exist and want nothing more. It could be at your favourite band’s show, or at the end of a long hike in the Sierra Nevadas, or during a long, involved conversation with your best friends; whatever works for you. It’s upto you to understand your emotions and realize what gives you meaning. You have to discover your own meaning and reach for meaningful experiences.
I further argue that if we treat nature as art then nature has all the meaning we want. Our world is wonderful and offers such experiences so beautiful that the question of “objective meaning” is rendered pointless. It’s the feeling of transcendence you get when looking at Denali or at the Milky Way from the Bolivian Altiplano. But perhaps you find transcendence at Burning Man. Or you find when listening to Bach, or when visiting ancient heritage monuments. It’s up to us to find experiences that make us feel alive and make us realize that the question of an objective, overarching ‘meaning’ does not matter. Only experience and existence matter.
Besides transcendent experiences, it’s important to recognize that we are social animals. It’s essential for all of us to have good friends, whether we are introverts of extroverts. Invest in people and develop lifelong friendships. Ensure you maintain those friendships. They will fulfill you and see you through life. In my non-expert opinion, relationships come down to respect and communication, and can be greatly improved by understanding where people come from and why they behave that way. What I’m pointing out here is that we all need understanding and companionship. Ensure you develop the friendships necessary to get that understanding and companionship. Perhaps study basic psychology and sociology. Introspect and try understand the reasons behind your actions, the actions of others around you and how you influence the behaviour of those around you and are in turn influenced by it.
Being social animals also means that we look for a sense of identity and belonging. Without a sense of identity, one feels unmoored and adrift. You must decide if you need a sense of identity. Think about what values appeal to you and which culture or sub-culture possesses those values. Everyone has experimented with different identities and selves before becoming the people they are. What’s important is to have the right friends, to introspect, and to critically examine the culture around you.
Friendships help with good psychological health. But good health has to come from within too. For good self-esteem, you need to find work that you like and are good at, and work hard at it. This is easier said than done. It takes some introspection to understand what you’re good at and what your emotions make you suited to. But you can’t answer this question with introspection alone. You need to talk to as many people as possible who have more experience than you, and you need to explore different options. A question that might help is: “What would I do if I was just given the chance to do it with no pay?”. Of course, your goals have to incorporate a healthy dose of pragmatism. Not everyone can be the best or be a millionaire.
Taken together, these actions create meaning and provide fulfillment:
- Meaningful, transcendent experiences
- Good relationships
- A strong sense of identity
- Self-esteem from fulfilling work
Our world has meaning enough if you seek it.