a writer's journal - politics, music, american culture, esoteric aspects of life, and stories

Saturday

Metaphysical Anarchy

Between 7 and 8 am this morning I was lying in the tub (post jog) thinking mostly about a hypothetical world where individuals had much better articulated views about the meaning of life.  Perhaps they did this instead of discussing religion, perhaps they did this as a result of a mainstreaming of psychiatric therapy into everyone's lives (say, the various types of depression currently on the rise in developed countries are traced to an HIV-like virus which mutates too rapidly to be contained by traditional prozac-like pills, and this disease reaches an epidemic level).  Perhaps the fascination with the meaning of life metastasizes from some bestsellers to a cultural fashion for a short time; it could even be limited to or define an American subculture and still be quite interesting.
 
In general, I think it's quite uncomfortable to discuss the meaning of life.  Maybe because admitting you're a hedonist who tempers that with strong feelings for family is A) probably the nearly universal honest answer, thus embarrassingly mundane, B) pretty clearly derives from basic concepts of evolutionary biology, thus dishearteningly mechanical, C) generally assumed to be somewhat inadequate, or shameful, or something...
 
It'd be hilarious if e.g. a democratic presidential candidate countered her republican opponent's fraudulent use of Christianity by requesting a "national debate about the meaning of life itself," because the natural responses to this would range from bewildered scoffing to smug floundering (which is not such a wide range).    But it would be breathtakingly audacious.  She might say, "A good example of why I want to have this discussion is that it may be possible now that America is so rich, powerful, and technologically advanced that we could expect more out of this club of people than simply ensuring its members enjoy their Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Happiness.  Maybe it's time to add some things to that?  What about charity to other nations and people, should we consider that a fundamental goal of our nation?  Can we afford that, and do we want that, why or why not?  Perhaps that's just something we do to make ourselves happier, but perhaps it isn't, so let's discuss that.  Also, what about our legacy?  Should'nt we Americans be striving a bit harder to make the lives of future Americans better?  For a start, we could be focusing on building much more durable housing structures, that would in the long run result in nearly free housing for those that want it..." etc.
 
Consider for a moment what it would be like if you were asked to analyze the meaning of your parent's lives.  Wittgenstein says meaning is derived from use, and we can apply that to the concept of hedonistic pleasure + interaction with family/friends.  You might make a list of all human beings (or begin with a few) starting with one of your parents and proceeding to the left in order of how much their lives were improved by the influence of that initial person.  (assume that, had they not existed, you and your siblings would've been born to an absolutely average person, thus your life would've been approximately so much worse).  This list is the x-axis, and the y-axis is how useful the initial person was in improving everyone else's happiness, giving us a downward slope starting with how effectively the person maximized their own happiness, followed by their influence on family and close friends.  Depending on how influential someone is, at some point the slope gets close enough to zero that you can ignore it, but of course there's a dip below zero that counts all the people one hurts inadvertantly or maliciously in one's life without giving them enough counteractive help.  The area under the slope is a crude measure of someone's worth - not the same as meaning, of course.
 
Ah, but it's a theoretical start.  To account for meaning, that's illuminated by a third dimension on the graph, which measures what kind of usefulness we're talking about.  The curious thing is, what we seek in life is a variety of types of assistance and interaction from other people.  We want material support in various ways, education and life lessons, pleasant company, scientific and cultural advances, etc.  We are looking for a good mix - there are things important to us that are off the scale for someone in the middle ages, and yet more of what we need is off the scale for animals.  My parents were strong in certain areas of teaching me life lessons, weak in others perhaps; I eventually pick up elsewhere some of the things they didn't manage to help me with.  So if I'm, say, 6th in line of people positively influenced by my father, amongst my mother, siblings, uncles, grandparents, etc., and I make a rough sketch of all the ways he's made my life better (and worse), and lay this out on the spectrum of all the possible ways a person can affect me, that's another complex line graph.  You could stack it on top of the first graph, person by person, and this time the measure of my father's influence would be a volume, not an area.  Ultimately this z-axis is derived in complex ways from our personal take on the first half of what the meaning of life is - the half having to do with pleasure.  What exactly gives me pleasure?  The second half of the meaning of life - how we relate to others - dictates the nature of this 3-d graph (must its x-axis involve all human beings, or only close relatives and friends, or only myself?  how heavily weighted towards my own pleasure is it, really? etc.)
 
The upshot of this view is that the meaning of a person's life depends on what they do for other people, and whether their effect is relatively uniform or diverse.  I'm not proposing that one actually make such a graph of course, but what's interesting is that one could, though it would be hideously subjective / feel-good.  You must admit that in a weird way we all mentally construct such a graph for everyone we know, and fill in the blind spots with reasonable estimates.  So this is not such a specious thought exercise after all - I feel that thinking about it will help us make a slightly more objective ideation of how we value others and assign them meaning in our world.
 
Naturally, once one is finished with people, one can move on to animals, objects and ideas, and consider how they also give meaning to life.  It gets sticky with that last category.
 
Perhaps I am wrong, and it is not the case that the majority of human beings have roughly congruent views on the meaning of life.  Perhaps there is a "fundamental" difference between the view of an atheist and a fundamentalist, though I do not think so - it seems to me that most so-called fundamentalists live their lives in very similar ways to non-fundamentalists, so that for example turning a typical young radical Muslim into a suicide bomber is a difficult piece of brainwashing involving many months' work, resulting in someone who can be called mentally impaired and deluded, i.e. in some ways insane, as most suicidal people can be so viewed.  For all their talk of god, the day to day life of a fundamentalist can be understood in terms of pursuing pleasure and trying to achieve positive credit status in their family-/friend-relationships.
 
Well, that was a bit long-winded.
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