In Search of Greatness

 

“Self-trust is the first secret of success, the belief that if you are here the authorities of the universe put you here, and for cause, or with some task strictly appointed you in your constitution, and so long as you work at that you are well and successful.”

—  Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Society and Solitude’

 

For all that is sublime with philosophy, for all its splendour in decoding the wonders of the universe, there remains one key issue with the process of transcribing these wonders. Life and all its experiences vary so wildly from one another that universal maxims do not translate effectively enough through space and time, language and experience to give suitable advice for making specific life choices. In a world thought to be devoid of objective morality, here I will propose one solution to this problem along with the apparently meaningless and futile nature of existence itself:

Each person, at all times, should live as though by the end of their lifetime they were the greatest person who ever existed.

This deceptively simple looking criterion provides an objectively agreeable foundation for living the best life possible. Whenever there is a major or minor life decision to be made this is the first axiom one should turn to. Although, the foremost challenge here is defining ‘greatness’ in the context of these wildly varying individual lives.

 

The chances that even one of us living right now actually becomes the greatest person who ever lived, by any common metric, is statistically marginal¹. But the individual result is not the point, it’s about the striving towards worthy ideals. Plus there is no way of determining whether you will become great in the future. Every great person who ever existed likewise may have sensed the importance of their role in key events but had no sure way of knowing their life was remarkable.

Now let’s tackle the obvious uncertainty here: the definition of ‘greatness’. A standard Oxford dictionary definition is approximately: The quality of being great; eminence or distinction”. This is probably the most vague definition we could conceive of. Take note that greatness is thus more of a collective term for a selection of positive qualities which, in my opinion, allow a person to (1) have a consistently impactful lifestyle and (2) perform monumental acts during their time on Earth.

 

“But practically I know men and recognize them by their behavior, by the totality of their deeds, by the consequences caused in life by their presence.”

—  Albert Camus, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’

 

What we can also do is begin outlining the attributes of greatness² and perhaps relate them with individual and societal conditions where greatness is likely to appear. For instance, greatness is probably more likely to appear in times of strife and hardship where there are evident obstacles to overcome than in comfortable conditions which leave few opportunities for individual growth. It is probably also more likely to appear, or at least be identified in relation to actions which change the course of human history. Alexander’s conquest of the Persian Empire and beyond, Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation of slavery, Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts in eradicating racial discrimination; each of these men could not have performed their influential deeds alone but have become representative of the ideological struggles of their time.

 

Looking forward then, our personal quest should be to identify the major obstacles of our time and do everything we can in order to overcome them. Complications arise when we factor in the idea that not all of us can be great. We don’t yet have the technological means to allow each person to dedicate the majority of their time to finding solutions to humanitarian crises. Therefore even someone who spends the majority of their time working an ‘ordinary’ occupation is great in the sense that they are performing a vital function in the maintenance of civilised society. I would however argue that true, everlasting greatness is associated with improving rather than simply maintaining the status quo.

So how do we define improvement then? Mass production has enabled us to live luxurious lives of increased efficiency but at a number of costs such as the potential ill effects of global warming. It is generally up to politicians, a group of individuals with the heightened power and therefore capacity to become great, to analyse the costs and benefits of implementing these sorts of programs with the hope that the result will be societal progression rather than stagnation or regression. But those will less power should not be dissuaded that their efforts are in vain. We have monetary and status rewards (e.g. the Nobel Prize) as an additional incentive with the hope individuals will dedicate their lives to others rather than their own welfare³.

 

“An individual has not started living fully until they can rise above the narrow confines of individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of humanity. Every person must decide at some point, whether they will walk in light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgment: Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’”

–  Martin Luther King Jr., ‘Sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church  (August 11th, 1957)’

 

The final step for us to take is to logically reconcile our original axiom (each person, at all times, should live as though by the end of their lifetime they were the greatest person who ever existed) with the attempt to find a means of conveying life experience or subjective truths. The circumstances for greatness are always in flux so the attempt to create maxims which endure through every context may initially seem to be borderline impossible. The maxim would have to be so universal, as though bordering on objective truth itself, that upon hearing it our path would be made immediately clear. Very rarely does this happen in reality. Instead we have a moral conception of greatness to follow, a set of attributes and avenues of action which society deems endemic of a valuable life.

 

 

 


¹Approximately just over 100 billion people have ever lived compared to only 7.6 billion living now.(http://www.prb.org/Publications/Articles/2002/HowManyPeopleHaveEverLivedonEarth.aspx)

²Check out this post for a constantly updated list of traits associated with greatness.

³As an aside, this why I believe the capitalist model should be overturned. Individuals are incentivised to put their own welfare first.

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The Interdependence of Philosophy and Science

 

“A philosopher, which is what I am supposed to be, is a sort of intellectual yokel who gapes and stares at what sensible people take for granted, a person who cannot get rid of the feeling that the barest facts of life are unbelievably odd. As Aristotle put it, the beginning of philosophy is wonder. I am simply amazed to find myself living on a ball of rock that swings around an immense spherical fire.”

—  Alan Watts, ‘Does it Matter?’

 

“The heart of the scientific method is the reduction of perceived phenomena to fundamental, testable principles. The elegance, we can fairly say the beauty, of any particular scientific generalization is measured by its simplicity relative to the number of phenomena it can explain.”

—  E. O. Wilson, ‘On Human Nature’

 

Why do we insist on maintaining a distance between philosophy and science? One day we claim philosophy is more valuable, the next science is the better method for understanding the universe. In fact we recognise that there is no clear distinction between the two. There is a philosophy of science and a science of philosophy, yet the popular public perception is that a degree in a scientific field is useful while a philosophy degree is close to useless! How can this be?

 

The very simple answer lies in the way philosophers and scientists go about improving our foundations of knowledge. While this is not strictly accurate, we could say that scientists are empiricists and philosophers are rationalists. By analogy we absorb a new piece of sensory experience (science), attempt to analyse it through either scientific or philosophic methods, then advance our understanding through studying the causes and consequences of this new information (philosophy). The obvious reason why science has displaced philosophy is arguably the mirror of empiricism vs. rationalism. It is more difficult to prove truth in the abstract. Science is ‘social’ in that it reduces phenomena to facts and figures which can be objectively interpreted, while philosophy is at times the war of ideas through argumentation. Neither discipline is outright superior to the other but both have their respective strengths and weaknesses.

 

“Knowledge of the fact differs from knowledge of the reason for the fact.”

—  Aristotle, ‘Posterior Analytics’

 

There is another popular way of distinguishing science from philosophy: science responds to the ‘how’ of our metaphysical questions and philosophy tackles the ‘why’. In this way we can see how both disciplines are limited and in need of the other for supplementation.

On the one hand science is a reliable, effective method for determining base principles, but on the flip-side its means of falsification fail to go beyond the data and cannot be used to engage presently unknowable problems when the data is lacking. It shares this fundamental problem with empiricism: assuming anything which is not testable is untruthful. For instance, we may be able to say with 99% certainty that no deities exist but in no circumstance can we claim 100% certainty when our knowledge base remains perpetually incomplete.

Philosophy has not only the subjectivity problem mentioned above, but as with rationalism, at times it fails to hold on to tangible truth. How useful is it to end up with an answer like: it is more than 50% likely that _______ (conclusion) as evidenced by _______ (premise 1+2+3)? Philosophy’s version of the scientific method, the branch named logic, is reliable but can be painstaking and limited in its applications.

 

Thus the obvious answer to our conundrum is to use the scientific method to collect data, use a combination of science and philosophy to form principles, and then allow philosophy to determine their truthfulness. If science is inherently more empirical and philosophy more abstract, what is there to gain by allowing one of the disciplines complete control over the process of identifying truths? Doing so would leave humanity in the precarious position of interpreting but not speculating further. To lose that childlike sense of wonder and imagination would entail the death of philosophy, and perhaps even the eventual demise of high-functioning original thought.

 

 

“With what scientific stoicism he walks through the land of wonders, unwondering.”

—  Thomas Carlyle, ‘Signs of the Times’

The Variation Principle

 

“It is intolerable when an office engrosses a man with fixed hours and a settled routine. Those are better that leave a man free to follow his own devices, combining variety with importance, for the change refreshes the mind.”

—  Baltasar Gracián, ‘The Art of Worldly Wisdom’

 

“Beneath such outward appearances, there is a clear change of values: rich experiences are more to be desired than property and bank accounts, and plans for the future are of use only to those who can fully live in the present.”

—  Alan Watts, ‘Does It Matter?’

 

“But mere extension of the life span, and even improved health and efficiency, are not important in themselves. We all know people who have done more in forty years than others have done in eighty. What is really significant is richness and diversity of experience, and the use to which that is put by men and the societies they constitute.”

—  Arthur C. Clarke, ‘Report on Planet Three’

 

Again and again and again we find that success in any manner of activity can be attributed to what I will term the Variation Principle, the idea that the ideal method for maximising a person’s happiness and rounding their character is to maximise the quantity of fresh practical experiences they have. Another way to look at it is that due to the limited nature of our lifespans often it is counter-intuitively the quantitative rather than the qualitative aspects of our lives which define our development and thus should be emphasised. In many cases increasing the quantity of our inputs will improve the scope of our output!

Of course this is only the beginning. All we have really done here is identify and then correlate certain factors of well-being and success to produce an abstract theory which must be rigorously tested. However, if proved correct the product will be divine: one of the great universal maxims for human flourishing.

 

So how shall we analyse the Variation Principle? Here are some fundamental questions to start us off:

  1. Firstly, what does a life which adheres to the Variation Principle look like in its most stringent form?
  2. Is it possible, practicable and worthwhile to live a life of constant variation? If so how can we best maximise the breadth of individual experience?
  3. Could it in any way be detrimental to the sustenance and development of modern society if each of us resolved to live by the Variation Principle? If this was altogether advantageous for us how then could society best be redesigned to implement the change?
  4. How exactly do we distinguish ‘fresh’ experiences from old ones? Also, what would be the ideal medley of primary and secondary (roughly practical vs. theoretical) experiences?
  5. And finally, is there a clear and reliable way of determining whether an activity which is no longer new to us should be either maintained or abandoned?

 

Many of these will be answered below. But first, let’s proceed to the basic reasons in favour of the Variation Principle.

Take the analogy of a regular 24-hour day. Now ideally an adherent of the Variation Principle has no ‘regular’ days, each day presents fresh opportunities along with fresh obstacles to be overcome. But this is for now unrealistic in a world where responsibility is often equated with constancy. Let’s say your routine mirrors some variant of the ‘9 to 5’ workday. You get up at a regular 5, 6, 7; transport to a workplace until 8, 9; work until lunch, 12, 1; work until home-time 4, 5, 6; transport home for dinner at 6, 7; exercise or other various activities until bed-time at 9, 10, 11; sleep to 5, 6, 7 again. The first thing you may notice about this imaginary schedule is that the person has very little ‘free’ time and very little time to experiment. While this is not to declare that this life is necessarily unfulfilling. Fresh opportunities and obstacles can still appear throughout the day in various forms.

This is also not yet the time to comprehensively critique the modern working model. It should be immediately obvious that no matter how stimulating the person’s occupation is, this life is in almost complete opposition to the Variation Principle. The person will eventually wear out of doing the same activities and being a participant of the same experiences again and again. But this is mostly out of our control in the short-term. What we can do is control the hours spent before and after work. Different clubs, sports, gyms; dates and parties; new routes to work; different methods of transport; walking and feeding pets; reading and writing; movies and games; the occasional holiday etc. Life could be a fantastic experience if not for imaginary restrictions of time and money.

 

“The tragedy of life is not so much what men suffer, but rather what they miss.”

—  Thomas Carlyle (Source Unknown)

 

The message here is not only coded in these separate experiences, but also in what I like to call non-experiences. Of course there is no such thing as a non-experience, every event within a life is an experience. A non-experience is simply a term for an activity or event a person has not yet experienced but would like to at some point in the future. Non-experiences usually result, I would argue, by following stringent routines with rigid habits, or living in locations where opportunities to pick up new hobbies are rarely available. In the field of economics we would refer to a non-experience as the opportunity cost of another experience. Every single decision (or non-decision) we make has an infinite number of opportunity costs resulting from it.

Time to use another analogy. Let’s pretend one of your infinite non-experiences, remembering a non-experience is roughly defined as an experience you desire but haven’t had, is to visit the Amazon Jungle. Now you have no real conception of what the Amazon is like. Your conception is merely idealistic or theoretical. You’ve probably seen it depicted in films and documentaries, read about it in encyclopedias, heard about some notable expeditions there. There could even theoretically be no such location as the Amazon Jungle, it could be nothing more than a cover-up. The only way to transform your conception of the Amazon to a practical or pragmatic reality is to go there and find out for yourself. When you come back you can tell everyone about your fascinating and frightening adventures and possibly convince your friends to visit the Amazon themselves. This is what the Variation Principle aims to achieve. It claims that this practical knowledge is one of the highest goods imaginable. An experience is one thing a person can never take away from you¹.

However, this doesn’t mean we should underestimate the value of theoretical knowledge either. We could even make the claim that our imagination acts as the catalyst for every human endeavour transcending basic human needs. The balance between practical and theoretical knowledge is then one of the foremost challenges within the Variation Principle for good reason. My current stance is that the ideal life would consist of a balance of 70% primary, 30% secondary experience. But obviously these figures are arbitrary and unscientific, so the testing continues.

 

But there are some strong counter-arguments to the Variation Principle, one of them being the range of effects variation can have on human happiness. For instance, many successful people are perfectly happy having rigid lifestyles (Immanuel Kant was one notorious example), so why should they change them? A second argument maintains that ‘experience’ is too broad of a term to nail down and attempt to maximise. It also supposes certain paradoxes like this one: the principle would theoretically advocate a person doing everything they can to maximise the length of their lifespan, however focusing on length rather than the quality of one’s lifespan could lead to an obsessive and unhappy life.

In response I will add another term to the principle: new activities should be attempted and new ways of living found until we find those which continue to keep us happy. The moment a hobby loses our utmost interest we should begin seeking a fresh one. And so on with every other aspect of our lives; people, places and assorted desires.

 

The Variation Principle is presently no more than a maxim, an attempt to ascertain and unify an underlying truth. Its ultimate use is to create a utilitarian society with some objective moral starting point. Whether this maxim will continue to hold or eventually be falsified, only time will tell. For now it is up to you whether you decide to adopt the Variation Principle and live the life of maximum trial and error.

 

 

Don’t wait for a miracle to tumble from the sky
To part the seas around you or turn water into wine
Don’t wait for a miracle, the world is passing by
The walls that all surround you are only in your mind

—  Rise Against, ‘Miracle’

 

 

 


¹Aside from altering your memory maybe. But they would also have to alter the collective memories of every other member of the expedition, and every person you’ve told about it. See 1984.

Comprehending the Incomprehensible

 

Each of us leads a blind existence. We are thrown into a universe even the greatest genius stands little chance of understanding, then spat back out into some other fabrication we cannot conceive of. All we can hope for is to come up with a series of revelations about our personal experience of life (and express them before we die!) which (1) guide present and future generations in a positive direction, (2) includes a general explanation for our activities in this universe and (3) unifies our experience with each other person’s experience. But even this is insufficient. For instance, how do we account for the other forms of life on Planet Earth, fauna and flora, when obviously none of us have a thorough conception of their experience? As long as our existence is limited and transitory each of us is a stranger to truth, and really a stranger to reality.

 

It is our capacity and willingness to express our experiences which interests me. A unique idea left unexpressed could be viewed as lost potential, but how would we know it was unique and worth expressing anyway? Better share everything of importance in the hope at least one of our ideas is true; at worst is the loss of our personal time, at best is an expansion to our comprehension of the universe. But again there lurks another question: who is going to verify our genius? The only valid judge we have is the confirmation of ‘experts’ and the confirmation of the majority. The situation is dire in a nihilistic/existential universe. On one hand “everything is permitted” while on the other nothing is extraordinary.

 

So that is what we know: that there is very little we do know. In which case what is the case for our optimism?

Well one theory is that we can be content in our naivety. For example, it could be the case that we are each no more than a ‘brain in a vat’ like in the film The Matrix, but if that was true most of us wouldn’t want to know. We follow this rule in real life too. Those of us who eat meat will try and ignore the fact we are consuming the carcass of an innocent animal as we just want to enjoy the taste of the meat. In this way perhaps we are better off not knowing the meaning of life.

Another theory suggests that our optimism is rooted in the rapidity of scientific progress. This is the idea that as we begin to comprehend the intricacies of life we are one step closer to reaching a concrete truth. Assuming there is a concrete truth which explains every facet of existence, and assuming humanity survives long enough to find it, it is only a matter of time and action before the ultimate ‘discovery’ is made. However, on the other hand the more we know the more we discover we do not know. We we are treading water here with no way to tell whether we are heading forward, stagnating or heading backwards. As I said this is a blind existence.

 

“Is one to die voluntarily or to hope in spite of everything?”

—  Albert Camus, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’

 

Hope: “A feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen.” Thus to hope in spite of everything is a blatant contradiction, the blatant contradiction we are forced to make in a universe devoid of ubiquitous meaning. We each have different methods of dealing with the assumption that each of us only has one life to live with no clear way of knowing when our experience will end. Some of us turn to hedonism, others to achievement collecting, while many of us ‘escape’ through literature and television in an attempt to live other people’s lives as well as our own. The confusing part is that none of these are right or wrong answers. There is no galactic police declaring we may only participate in certain activities. There is only the ideal of our collective consciousness.

The next question is this: what then compose the ideals of the collective consciousness and to what degree should we follow them? We could almost claim that the preservation of humanity, animals and the environment encompasses every other ideal (see theories like Social Darwinism). But the reality is probably more complex than that. There are plenty of activities we undertake regularly which serve little concrete end (with internal rather than external value¹) which very few of us would like to live without. Even the personal quest for knowledge has both individual and collective value to society. Collective ideals may differ culturally and temporally but appear to be unified in notions such as the fulfillment of human desires and the establishment of social order. Now, based on the subjective nature of reality (that not only is our experience of life ‘blind’ but our experience of others more so) I would argue it is better to err on the side of following personal values than those of the collective, assuming of course you respect common courtesies and social boundaries. There will be inevitable conflict between the self and society however that may be a necessary risk to take in order to achieve everlasting greatness.

 

I will conclude with a possible solution for several of the questions posed above (how can we better deal with the absence of objective meaning, the finitude of life, the limitations of experience?). In the face of a futile existence we should advocate the maximisation of varied positive practical experiences. If knowledge is power than the acceleration of our actions will accelerate our understanding, which in turn could increase our chances of comprehending the incomprehensible. We don’t have much to go on in the search for objective truth, but it is certainly better to hope in spite of everything than to die voluntarily.

 

 

 


¹These are generally regarded as less valuable than those with external value. Perhaps the prevalence of this single belief of the collective is largely responsible for the emergence of materialist culture.

Reimagining the Employment and Education System

 

There is and will always be a blatant disharmony between the way the society does operate, and the way society should operate.

In this case I will address the disparity between the way our employment system works now, and the way it could and should function. Later I’ll assess the current state of the education system and suggest ways it could be improved.

 

Most countries today operate under a free market economy. Very, very basically the Government allows private companies to fill the niches we have in the goods and services being produced. If you can find a niche where there is demand for a good or service not currently being produced your company may well be successful.

This is mirrored by the employment system. Applicants are chosen primarily for niches in their skill sets which match the areas of expertise a company is lacking in. Thus the demand and supply for people functions very similarly to the demand and supply for resources. This is the first misstep we’ve taken. By treating living organisms in the same way we treat many inanimate objects, and going on to assign value to people in a way which dehumanises them, we have inadvertently created a system which values efficiency over happiness, money over time, stability over improvement. The result is not always horrific, it is actually fully functional, but the system is nowhere near a Utopian ideal.

 

One dominant reason why this particular employment system is functional and has been successful for such a long period of time is the relationship it shares with the monetary system. The prevailing (but false) mindset is that the resources a person gains over time through employment (money turned into assets) is a correct measurement of that person’s individual value. The reasons why this is not entirely true are (1) the wage gap between different occupations (two people spend the same amount of time working each day but one is given more money for it, is that fair?), (2) the way work is acquired (it is intended to be like a meritocracy but because people are filling in niches in demand working opportunities are not equally available to everyone) and (3) the futility of our attempt to compare individuals and assign them value (people are so different from each other, their lives take on an infinite number of permutations, so we cannot compare two people directly with a simple metric like money).

The basic idea can be summarised as follows: The artificial system we have created does not coincide with the reality of the natural world, thus we need to take action to rectify it.

 

“The human race is a monotonous affair. Most people spend the greatest part of their time working in order to live, and what little freedom remains so fills them with fear that they seek out any and every means to be rid of it.”

—  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’

 

So what can we do about our problem? Below are two propositions of many we could use to reinvigorate society with a sense of purpose, something severely lacking as the decades roll by.

  1. We retain the present system whereby each person commits to doing one job, or a set of loosely related jobs for the duration of their lifetime. This should be maintained if and only if each person believes that occupation is the optimal use of their time and their skill set in order to maintain or improve the present state of society¹. Thus there would need to be an interim period between primary-secondary education (approximately ages 5-18) and the commencement of working life/tertiary education (approximately 20+) which allows people to experiment with different occupations until their ideal job is found.
  2. We introduce a new system whereby each person works a series of jobs throughout the working week. This variation would keep people satisfied with what they are achieving and would benefit society in terms of a consistent gain in knowledge and skills acquired throughout our working lives².

Either of these cases are as close as we could imagine to a practical utopia. Where a person has the freedom but also the drive to use their time to improve society, and is rarely dissatisfied.

 

Though the education system is inextricably linked to the employment system it can be treated as a separate entity for the purpose of deciding how it should be structured. Fortunately our education system is not in a state of disrepair (in the majority of countries at least, ensuring children have access to education is a different matter which can’t be solved only theoretically). The difference between present day schools/universities and the original lyceums has not changed all that much over the centuries. Subjects have broadened and diversified, but core rote learning has endured. Of course, the major difference has been the introduction and development of science which has taken the reigns over from philosophy as our primary source of gaining knowledge. Mathematics has advanced, but remains. The Language most of us use has changed (generally English replacing Latin), but the teaching of it in schools remains. Even Physical Education has its place in the modern system. These are all promising signs.

 

“We bring up our children in a mist of vague imitations, in a confusion of warring voices, perplexed as to what they must do, uncertain as to what they may do, doomed to lives of compromise and fluctuating and inoperative opinion.”

 —  H.G. Wells, ‘An Englishman Looks at the World’

 

However, the advent of capitalism, systemisation, whatever you want to call it, has warped our institutions into places where learning is not always in focus. There are times where more value has been placed on the idea of education, not the teaching itself in order to try and prepare our children for the employment system (which often consists of doing the same or similar activities approximately eight hours a day every single day) in later life. This is not an accurate reflection of reality. What we fail to tell them is that life can be much more freeing and fulfilling, more varied and interesting, if they abandon the attempt to fit themselves into the system and instead structure the system around themselves (“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”  –  George Bernard Shaw). But this would require doing precisely the opposite of what we have been teaching them throughout their early years! This is probably a leading cause of anxiety and depression among young men and woman. They realise their ambitions don’t align with the system, which they unfortunately equate with the ambitions of every member of society, so they enter a period of existential confusion. Future pain can be prevented with wise decisions implemented today. So what are some positive changes we can begin making now?

As I said before, it’s not all doom and gloom. Most schools give students unique opportunities to experience activities they can’t always have at home. Music, Cooking, Woodworking, Electronics, Dancing, Drama, you name it. Isn’t it interesting how these activities are labelled ‘hobbies’ unless they make you money? The hidden implication is that the primary value of the activity is not only its capacity to provide happiness to the child, and for us to witness the beauty of naive experimentation, but also its long term capacity to make them money. But of course we would never that to the children.

 

“Youth should not be slandered. Boy nature and girl nature are less repressed and therefore more wholesome today than before. If they at times seem unimpressed by their elders, it is probably because we make a matter of authority what should be a matter of conference. These young people are new people sent to this scene by Destiny to take our places. They come with new visions to fulfill, new powers to exploit.”

—  Henry Ford, ‘Ford News (1924)’

 

In fact we can raise a society of happy, altruistic, intelligent, ambitious, magnanimous people; and we’re well on our way. What we can’t do is step back and hope they’ll work these things out themselves. The education system isn’t yet at the point where it provides a sturdy bridge from ‘child’ to ‘adult’ life. There are a few planks missing: they are rarely formally taught how to handle personal finances, they aren’t shown the depressing reality of subsistence living and the dreadful outcomes of various humanitarian problems (rightfully or unrightfully so), there is little explication of the link between actions taken in an academic or commercial context and the impact they can have on the real world.

 

Each of us has infinite potential, we are the sum of past decisions combined with future potentialities, but we are vastly limited by many of the systems we have put in place in order to unite and protect us. The best way to increase our potential is to remove the limiting systems and replace them with delicately constructed systems which allow us to live with freedom within constraints. But the constraints themselves must be malleable to align with gradual changes in public opinion, otherwise we’ve taken a step backwards to a society which stagnates with little or no advancement.

 

So what are you going to do about it?

 

 

The tension is here
The tension is here
Between who you are and who you could be
Between how it is and how it should be
I dare you to move…
—  Switchfoot, ‘Dare You to Move’

 

 

 


¹This is presently not the case. Millions of people see their job as no more than their means to survival and maintain a detachment between themselves and their job. Assuming a person is working that job full-time this is entirely nonsensical. If you are spending over half of every waking day, almost every day, performing one activity it is inane to suggest that activity plays little part in the formation of your character.

²Here is a pretend example of what a week (10 days rather than the arbitrary 7 days) under this system might look like:

Day 1 – Job 1

Day 2 – Job 2

Day 3 – Rest Day

Day 4 – Job 3

Day 5 – Job 2

Day 6 – Job 1

Day 7 – Rest Day

Day 8 – Job 3

Day 9 – Job 1

Day 10 – Rest Day

Etcetera…

The Meaningless Search for Objective Meaning

 

“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”

—  Albert Camus, ‘Youthful Writings’

 

Why do we have an innate tendency to suppose life has some sort of meaning beyond that which we make it? Is it really that easy to give up the search for an underlying purpose to life and reluctantly accept existentialism or nihilism¹ like the rest of the population?

 

Many of us, existentialists and absurdists alike, are addicted to truth and cannot readily accept that some questions are ultimately unanswerable. For these foolhardy souls sincerely devoted to the search for objective meaning, to die not one step closer to discovering the principles of existence (being able to connect the ‘how’ of science with the ‘why’ of philosophy) would be nothing less than a failed life. Under this view no matter how ‘successful’ a person appears to be during their lifetime, if they haven’t achieved some basic understanding of why they or anyone else existed, or had some conception of the significance of their role in the universe that person was no more successful than anybody else. However harsh it may seem, maintaining this sort of strict dedication to truth is necessary if a person is to come close to solving the abstruse metaphysical questions of the cosmos within just one human lifetime.

 

“The man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life.”

—  Albert Einstein, ‘The World As I See It’

 

If all we have experientially is our own biased subjective viewpoint this is no simple task. Fortunately for each of us, we have the culmination of every publicly available thought at hand ready to advance the understanding of the human hive-mind. Centuries of refined opinion, led by rigorous research, allows us that one precious opportunity to discover something incredible about our universe.

 

However, there are a number of sound reasons why finding a single interconnected reason for existence has been deemed an impossible task:

  1. We can’t conceive of the very thing we’re looking for! The information we are using can only be generated from our current base of knowledge. Thus like every other theory the only way forward is to propose a nearly untestable hypothesis which obeys our present scientific understanding and surmounts any attempt to falsify it.
  2. The reasons supporting the claim are relatively weak. As will be explained further on, our doubts about existentialism or nihilism arise primarily from the absurdity of nature and our ability to pose an infinite number of questions about our universe (our capacity to reason at a high level). But ultimately there is no tangible evidence in favour of objective meaning².
  3. The very nature of perception. The fact that our viewpoint is entirely subjective (allowing us to communicate with one another only indirectly) forms the basis of existentialism. In this vein, existentialists have argued that it is impossible to designate something as meaningful when it lies outside of our subjective desires.
  4. It’s actually not in a person’s individual interest to find an objective purpose to life. This one might be difficult to explain. Let’s say you discovered a previously unknown connection between the elements of the universe which revealed to you a single ‘reason’ for existence. Every human activity would then lose some of its appeal to you as you would see it as little more than a stepping stone to this greater purpose. In this way our ignorance is not always a burden to us.

 

Now that the opposition has been clearly defined is there any platform left to suggest there is anything more to our world than what we perceive directly? Does the possibility remain that there could be some sort of God or group of Gods silently engineering our destinies? Could there be an underlying ‘reason’ behind the phenomena we know of but don’t understand? Ultimately, is the search for objective meaning anything more than lofty idealism?

Question after question after question. And the only answer is to question our propensity to ask so many questions! If we were ‘designed’ to reason with ever-advancing capabilities it follows (assuming our experimentation doesn’t cause our extinction) that we will eventually reach a comprehension of the universe which enables us to fully control our destinies, by making moral decisions which are empirically founded and therefore less controvertible (possibly transforming us into the ultimate hive mind). Thus the key tool of reason, causality, must not be understated.

 

“But now I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.”

—  Umberto Eco, ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’

 

One thing which constantly perplexes me is a lack of frequent surprise at the frank absurdity of our universe. Yes, it is so often repeated that the Earth her inhabitants are cosmic miracles; considering the intricate subatomic improbabilities involved in creating the perfect conditions for life. But this is not the real absurdity we should be focusing on. There’s a serious lack of well thought out postulations, using our logical abilities to connect the enigmatic aspects of the universe with valid theories attempting to confirm or deny reasons for existence. Conclusions drawn on topics such as singularities and the expansion of our universe are convenient for historical data collection, but just like any other bit of data this information is close to useless unless we can apply it by using it to prove or disprove hypotheses of reality³.

This rather optimistic claim that life does necessarily have a meaning or purpose we don’t yet understand I will for now call Neo-absurdism. Alongside existentialism, nihilism and absurdism this philosophy regards life as primarily absurd, but reaches the conclusion that this implies life must have objective meaning we haven’t found yet but will eventually discover, instead of the conclusion that finding objective meaning is an impossible task.

 

There we have it. We have outlined a logical process of formalising the abstract questions we have to conform with the scientific method, listed the strongest reasons for and against neo-absurdism, and come up with a host of prudent questions which may last us over a hundred human lifetimes.

 

Now to begin the process of solving them…

 

 

“Life is a mystery…where is the goal of this fitful and fretful and feverish existence? Man knoweth not. The untutored savage, and the most highly cultivated intellect of all the ages stand equally mute in the presence of this ever-inviting, this ever-recurring question, What is life? Plato has reasoned, Darwin has investigated, Tyndall has experimented; yet the answer that comes back to our inquiry is but the faintest reverberation of the echo, What is life?”

—  William H. Crogman, ‘Speech delivered at Clark University (May 19th, 1895)’

 

 

 


¹The three categories explained: https://danielmiessler.com/blog/difference-existentialism-nihilism-absurdism/#gs.Vcj46Iw (note that all three stances deny the existence of meaning outside of the individual)

²Without sufficient empirical evidence we have no logical reason to accept it, just as a person might be an atheist without the necessary empirical evidence for theism.

³A few popular theories for you to mull on:

  • Monotheism   The idea that there is no more than one God (using the information we have we generally assume they would look like an Earthly organism) who interferes with our universe. This theory is usually accompanied by a karma-like system whereby ‘good’ actions are rewarded and ‘bad’ actions reproved by an omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent deity.
  • Darwinism   The remarkably simple yet cogent theory that life is nothing more than self-replication on a grand scale. Darwinism has substantially contributed to the popularity of nihilism.
  • The Simulation Hypothesis   The postmodern idea that we are living in a computer simulation. Attributed to Nick Bostrom, this seemingly wild theory is basically grounded on the premise that any civilisation which develops computer technologies is more than likely to create at least one simulation which replicates their own universe. Therefore, it is more than likely this has already occurred and we are no more than the result of this simulation. You could also argue this is a form of theism (the ‘deities’ being people from a separate universe).

I challenge you to research upstanding theories such as these and form your own theory on the meaning of life! There are unlimited possibilities but only one true answer.

 

Happy Yet Dissatisfied

 

“Content makes the world more comfortable for the individual, but it is the death-knell of progress. Man should be content with each step of progress merely as a station, discontented with it as a destination; contented with it as a step; discontented with it as a finality. There are times when a man should be content with what he has, but never with what he is.”

 —  William George Jordan, ‘The Majesty of Calmness’

 

Believe it or not, it is not absurd to suppose the best path to personal success is for an individual¹ to be, near paradoxically, both happy and discontented with their present circumstances.

 

“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

So ends Albert Camus’ analysis of the myth of the Greek king sentenced by the Gods to a lifetime of pushing a single boulder up the same hill over and over again.

Perhaps this sounds like your vision of hell, however it would be difficult to argue Sisyphus’ arduous and ultimately futile existence is any different from many of our own. With no clear sense of objective meaning, once our means of survival are secure we embark on an endless striving to complete either (1) goals directly related to the perpetuation of the species (e.g. having children and providing for them), (2) temporally definite arbitrary goals (e.g. wanting to climb Mt. Everest) or (3) temporally indefinite goals we usually have only a slim hope of achieving (e.g. finding and solving a scientific ‘Theory of Everything’). While it would be relatively easy to argue that goals in the third category are broadly more fulfilling and worthwhile than the others, (1) and (2) have their individual merits. A host of metaphysical questions arise when we reflect on the three categories:

  • Firstly, is it possible to enjoy this endless striving to achieve ‘meaningless’ goals?
  • In which case, is it the journey to achievement or the destination, the satisfaction from having completed a task, which matters most?
  • Does the eudaimonic viewpoint (in this case that endless striving represents human flourishing) adequately describe human success?
  • It is unreasonable to believe there may exist some unanimous objective meaning to the universe, or is this nothing more than an idealistic human construct?

And finally, back to the original assertion:

  • Is Sisyphus a paragon of contentment? What would be difference, if any, between his life and that of another who is less content, but has achieved more?

 

Before we address any of these rather vague questions it is important we establish the difference between our ideas of ‘happiness’ and ‘contentment’.

 

John Stuart Mill, one of the key figures in the Utilitarian movement, implied a relatively abstract difference between the two concepts:

 

“It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify.

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.”

 

This is the distinction Mill is getting at:

While both happiness and contentment are transitory states, contentment can be achieved more easily than happiness (contentment being possible through the exclusive enjoyment of lower pleasures). Thus happiness is seen as the higher good of the two.

 

Our modern day definitions are even less diverse. Happiness in popular usage has become an umbrella term for joy, pleasure, satisfaction and contentment! Let me instead propose a more concrete definition for both happiness and contentment.

While happiness could be defined as the result of persistent human flourishing with perceived righteousness, contentment is the position of having no strong desire to change one’s circumstances. Yes, both definitions remain vague. This is simply because each concept is innately subjective. Let’s move on to the claims and counter claims to the idea that it is best to be happy but not content in day-to-day life.

 

Arguing that happiness is in the interest of every human being is nigh incontrovertible². Despite this, here is Mill again on happiness as the ultimate good:

 

“It results from the preceding considerations, that there is in reality nothing desired except happiness. Whatever is desired otherwise than as a means to some end beyond itself, and ultimately to happiness, is desired as itself a part of happiness, and is not desired for itself until it has become so. Those who desire virtue for its own sake, desire it either because the consciousness of it is a pleasure, or because the consciousness of being without it is a pain…If the opinion which I have now stated is psychologically true- if human nature is so constituted as to desire nothing which is not either a part of happiness or a means of happiness, we can have no other proof, and we require no other, that these are the only things desirable”

 

The argument for the minimisation of contentment is much more contentious. There is a dichotomy which acts as a relevant analogy in this case: Conservatism vs. Liberalism. The argument against contentment inextricably parallels the argument against Conservatism. This is because the auxiliary assumption holding up our theory is effectively: ‘It is better to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all’. To be discontent is to motivate oneself to make a change which could turn out ‘better’ or ‘worse’ for an individual than their current position. So which of the two cases is stronger, risk or no risk? Is there an objective criterion to determine when to take a risk and when to refrain? It’s time to find out.

 

We could start by attempting to delineate (from the steady stream of events in a person’s life) the very point where contentment becomes discontentment, and the point where a person’s discontentment forces them to make a significant change in their life. For either case there will usually be a single negative experience which brings about the desire to change, a realisation that present circumstances are inferior to where they could be, or an alternation between being content and discontent which tends to the side of discontentment³. Whether or not discontentment is a real psychological state, it can have real psychological effects. Being discontent for a long period of time can result in procrastination, depression, existential crises, and even the onset of insanity. Much like physical pain, a sensation which demands to be alleviated if not entirely avoided, the onset of mental pain can be relentless.

It is therefore inferred that working out how to change unwanted circumstances will become a person’s chief occupation for as long as they are discontent.

 

However, what if a person becomes truly content with the limitations of their circumstances? What if they possess the knowledge that their life could be better in an infinite number of ways but are made happy by the thought it is not necessary for them to change it? There are two trains of thought here.

 

We could acknowledge the validity of happiness being achieved by limiting the number of sources a person is dependent on:

 

“Limitations always make for happiness. We are happy in proportion as our range of vision, our sphere of work, our points of contact with the world, are restricted and circumscribed. We are more likely to feel worried and anxious if these limits are wide; for it means that our cares, desires and terrors are increased and intensified. That is why the blind are not so unhappy as we might be inclined to suppose; otherwise there would not be that gentle and almost serene expression of peace in their faces.”

—  Arthur Schopenhauer, ‘Counsels and Maxims’

 

Alternatively we could question whether ‘ignorant bliss’ is a true form of happiness. Even a ‘fool satisfied’ may have an inkling there is an entire world of unexplored wonders and opportunities for progress, along with unmentioned suffering and the opportunity to reduce it. To consciously ignore these things does not seem conducive to a virtuous life.

 

While we have barely scraped the surface of the subject, with many questions left unanswered, it is time for the final argument in favour of being happy yet dissatisfied in every moment of life. If the result of discontentment is more often than not a change in circumstances, this will usually lead to an increase in the likelihood of encountering and overcoming new experiences. The ideal life will have amassed a variety of experiences in a variety of situations, and will eventually reach the position of being able to improve the happiness of others without sacrificing their own.

To be able to combine persistent human flourishing with perceived righteousness with the position of having no strong desire to change one’s circumstances may in fact be the pathway towards everlasting success. Once, and if, personal happiness is achieved it may be expedient to immortalise that happiness in actions which benefit present and future civilisations. But that is all up to you.

 

 

“Leave something to wish for, so as not to be miserable from very happiness. The body must respire and the soul aspire. If one possessed all, all would be disillusion and discontent. Even in knowledge there should always be something left to know in order to arouse curiosity and excite hope. Surfeits of happiness are fatal.”

 —  Baltasar Gracián, ‘The Art of Worldly Wisdom’

 

 

 


¹It logically follows that, if true, this would also be the ideal for the whole of society.

²It is only to go one step further and argue that maximising happiness should become the overarching goal of society which requires complete justification.

³This third case can be damning for a person as they may seek change but constantly question that decision, a cycle which may result in indefinite unhappiness.