On Action and the Meaning of Life
Thus far in these essays, I have argued from my metaphilosophy to my general philosophy of commensurablism, which is any philosophy that is neither dogmatic nor cynical, and neither transcendent nor relativist.
Then I explored the implications of commensurablism on the philosophy of language, including both logic and rhetoric; its implications concerning reality and knowledge, including ontology, mind, epistemology, and education; and its implications concerning morality and justice, including axiology, will, deontology, and governance.
Having since explored the implications of all of that on enlightenment and empowerment, I will now explore the implications of all of the above on action and the meaning of life.
To recap the argument for the general philosophy of commensurablism, in the context of which this essay will be operating:
- The task of philosophy is to find a way of discerning correct answers from incorrect answers to questions of any kind, whether about what is real or true or existent, or about what is moral or good or valuable.
- The position that there is such a thing as a correct opinion, in a sense beyond mere subjective agreement, is to be called "universalism", and its negation "relativism".
- If we assume relativism rather than universalism, then in case there does happen to be such a thing as the correct opinion after all, we will never find it, because we never even attempt to answer what it might be, and we will remain incorrect forever.
- Therefore to successfully do philosophy at all we must at least tacitly assume universalism, rejecting relativism.
- The position that there is always a question as to which opinion, and whether or to what extent any opinion, is correct, is to be called "criticism", and its negation "dogmatism".
- If we assume dogmatism rather than criticism, then in case our opinions do happen to be incorrect after all, we will never find out, because we never question them, and we will remain incorrect forever.
- Therefore to successfully do philosophy at all we must at least tacitly assume criticism, rejecting dogmatism.
- The position that the initial state of inquiry is one of several opinions competing as equal candidates, none either winning or losing out by default, but each remaining a live possibility until it is shown to be worse than the others, is to be called "liberalism", and its negation "cynicism".
- Liberalism is entailed by universalism: if we are going to hold that such a thing as a correct opinion is possible, we have to give every opinion the benefit of the doubt that that one might possibly be it, otherwise we would be forced to dismiss all opinions as equally incorrect out of hand.
- Therefore, since to successfully do philosophy at all we must at least tacitly assume universalism, rejecting relativism, we must likewise at least tacitly assume liberalism, rejecting cynicism.
- The position that any contest of opinion is to be settled by comparing and measuring the candidates against the common scale of the experiential phenomena accessible by everyone, and opinions that cannot be thus tested are thereby disqualified, is to be called "phenomenalism", and its negation "transcendentalism".
- Phenomenalism is entailed by criticism: if we are going to hold every opinion open to question, we have to consider only opinions that would make some experiential, phenomenal difference, where we could somehow tell if they were correct or incorrect.
- Therefore, since to successfully do philosophy at all we must at least tacitly assume criticism, rejecting dogmatism, we must likewise at least tacitly assume phenomenalism, rejecting transcendentalism.
- Therefore to successfully do philosophy at all we must at least tacitly assume universalism, criticism, liberalism, and phenomenalism; rejecting relativism, dogmatism, cynicism, and transcendentalism.
- Universalism about reality or existence is to be called "realism": holding that some things are actually really existent, not just merely perceived or believed.
- Phenomenalism about reality or existence is to be called "empiricism": appealing to sense experiences for descriptive justification.
- Therefore to successfully do philosophy of reality or existence (ontology) we must at least tacitly assume empirical realism.
- Universalism about morality or value is to be called "moralism": holding that some things are actually morally valuable, not just merely desired or intended.
- Phenomenalism about morality or value is to be called "hedonism": appealing to appetitive experiences for prescriptive justification.
- Therefore to successfully do philosophy of morality or value (axiology) we must at least tacitly assume hedonic moralism.
- A combination of the principles of criticism and liberalism to investigations of descriptive questions, questions of knowledge, is to be called a "critical" theory of knowledge.
- Therefore to successfully do philosophy of knowledge (epistemology) we must at least tacitly assume a critical epistemology.
- A combination of the principles of criticism and liberalism to investigations of prescriptive questions, questions of justice, is to be called a "liberal" theory of justice.
- Therefore to successfully do philosophy of justice (deontology) we must at least tacitly assume a liberal deontology.
- Therefore to successfully do philosophy at all we must at least tacitly assume an empirical realist ontology, a hedonic moralist axiology, a critical epistemology, and a liberal deontology.
In the rest of this essay I will first briefly discuss some abstract technical matters concerning the philosophy of action, about how those systems of knowledge and justice converge to guide our behavior. And then, for the rest of this essay, I will discuss what the point of such action is, concerning the question of what is colloquially called "the meaning of life".
The philosophy of action is concerned with differentiating a subset of our behaviors, called "actions", from all other behaviors. Actions are those behaviors that we mean to do, on purpose, intentionally, voluntarily, for example writing some carefully chosen words as I am doing now; as opposed to other, involuntary behavior, like beating my heart, or the reflexive jerking of my leg when a doctor strikes the patellar tendon of my knee.
Between these extremes lies a spectrum of intermediary types of behavior that are less physiological than those examples of involuntary behavior but may nevertheless fail to rise to the level of purposeful, intentional action, such as many idle or habitual behaviors that we would colloquially describe as being done "without thinking about it", like drumming one's fingers with impatience or boredom, or walking a familiar route by rote. It is precisely that threshold of "thinking about it" that I hold to define action, which differentiates my philosophy of action only slightly from the traditional one.
Traditionally, actions are held to be caused by a combination of a belief and a desire: holding a desire for something and a belief that a certain behavior will bring that something about constitutes, in the traditional model, the intention to behave that way, which if unimpeded by outside forces will result in acting in that way. I agree emphatically with this analysis of actions into two parts, loosely speaking a prescriptive one and a descriptive one: I hold that much of behavior, most of it besides those most basic physiological kind described above, is driven by (consciously or not) comparing a mental image of how the world is with a mental image of how the world ought to be and acting in such a way as to make the former like the latter.
But as detailed in my earlier essay on language, I differentiate between not only desires and beliefs, but also other opinions similar to but importantly different from them. Specifically, I hold that the descriptive analogue of a desire, which is a kind of feeling rather than a kind of thought, is not a belief but a mere perception; and that the prescriptive analogue of a belief, which is a kind of thought rather than a kind of feeling, is not a mere desire but what I term an intention.
So I hold that while combinations of perceptions and desires, feelings about what is true and what is good, can and do lead to some of the kinds of unthinking behaviors I described above, it is combinations of belief and intention, reflective thoughts about what is true and what is good, that underlie actions per se.
In this way, the pragmatism underlying this entire system ph philosophy is realized, as for the most part, "true" and "good" are both subspecies of "useful". For as elaborated in my earlier essays on existence and value, the only intrinsic truths or goods are the experiential ones: some things just look true, some things just feel good. Every other thing we posit as true is a useful explanation of the things that look true, and every other thing we posit as good is a useful means to the things that feel good. And it is the combinations of those two kinds of usefulness that drives all of our deliberate actions.
Also calling back to my earlier essay on language, wherein I discussed the concept of speech-acts, or the way that every instance of speech is also a form of behavior, doing something: I differentiate all behavior, actions and otherwise, into two components, that we might call "communication" and "manipulation", or more shortly and casually, "words" and "deeds". Not only is every instance of speech a form of behavior, but every behavior also carries with it some communicative content: everything we do says something, both in that it demonstrates something about our state of mind and about whatever prior causes may have lead to that, and also in that the consequences of our actions leave a lasting historical impact on the world as surely as a purposefully written record does.
As the world consists fundamentally of a network of interactions, as detailed in my essay on reality, each of these interactions can be viewed as a signal from one thing to another, some form of information encoded as a pattern in some form of energy transferring from one thing to another. Sound is a pattern of air pressure waves; radio broadcasts and visual signals are patterns in electromagnetic waves; words on a printed page are patterns of chemicals arranged in space, read by the different ways they reflect light shone upon them.
This differentiation I make here between "words" and "deeds" can be analyzed as the differentiation between the information content of such a signal and the energy content of such a signal. This differentiation is important because it is the information content that is the object of descriptive consideration, but the energy content that is the object of prescriptive consideration.
For example, the exact words that you speak aloud are important to pay attention to when we are communicating information or knowledge, but the volume at which you speak them does not matter for those purposes; whereas the volume at which you speak may present a moral issue, if for example you amplify your voice so much that it hurts my ears, but the exact words that you said do not matter for those purposes. For a more crude example, it makes a moral difference whether I gently hand you a book or throw a book at your head, but what is written in that book does not matter for those purposes; whereas for communicative purposes the content of the book is all that matters, and the way the book is passed from me to you is irrelevant to that informational content.
Furthermore, just as "words", communication, speech-acts, can be divided into impressive and expressive types, so too "deeds", manipulation, can be similarly divided into analogous types, roughly those deeds for which the person who committed them is to be held morally responsible, and those for which they are not even though the deeds may have been causally influential in bringing about some harm to someone.
The dividing line between impressive and expressive speech-acts is that impressions push some state of mind onto the listener, trying to make them adopt that state of mind, while expressions merely show the state of mind of the speaker, leaving it up to the listener to do what they will with that. The moral implications of such a difference can be most clearly seen in the case of imperative speech-acts, where it constitutes the difference between expressing a desire that someone be harmed (e.g. "I wish he was dead"), and ordering someone to cause that harm (e.g. "kill him!").
When it comes to "deeds", manipulation, there is likewise a difference between an act that does not itself cause harm but without which someone else may not have been able or willing to cause harm (e.g. a baseball-player leaving his bat somewhere such that someone else was able to use it to assault someone), and an act that is itself harmful (e.g. assaulting someone with a baseball bat).
In general, I hold that if the causal chain leading to harm involves another person's decisions later in the chain than yours, such that your actions merely caused the opportunity or inspiration for them to cause harm but were not in themselves harmful, then your actions are of a blameless "expressive" type; whereas if your actions are directly responsible for harm, without the mediation of another person's decisions, that is an "impressive" type of action for which you can be held morally responsible.
The way that all of the preceding philosophizing feeds down ultimately into this philosophy of action is why I consider my overall philosophy to fall within the school of thought called pragmatism. Charles Sanders Peirce founded that school of thought with what he called the Pragmatic Maxim:
Consider the practical effects of the objects of your conception. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object.
To illustrate this maxim, he once gave the example of a man standing next to a tree, with a squirrel clinging to the other side of the tree, where as the man walks around the tree the squirrel climbs around it to stay opposite the man. The man walks a larger circle around the tree than the circle the squirrel climbs around the surface of the tree, so the squirrel remains always within the circle that the man walks. But the relationship between the man, tree, and squirrel remains always the same. The question is then posed as to whether or not the man is actually walking around the squirrel, to which different answers could be given with different arguments supporting them.
But Peirce held that the apparent disagreement between those answers is in fact illusory, and which answer is "correct" depends on what you need to know the answer for: the practical effects of the question you're trying to answer determine what exactly you mean by the question and so what its correct answer is. I have tried to adhere to something like that maxim to guide my inquiries into all of the philosophical topics I have covered, framing each philosophical question in terms of the practical effects that an answer to it will have on how we are to live our lives.
On the Meaning of Life
Now on to a different and much heavier sense of "meaning" than the linguistic one discussed in the aforementioned essay on language. The word "meaning" itself has a variety of meanings, in the linguistic sense. The broadest common theme to them is some sense of significance. This can mean significance as in literally signifying something, as when we say that clouds mean rain or smoke means fire, we mean that clouds or smoke signify the approach or presence of rain or fire; and it is that sense of signifying that gives the linguistic meaning of "meaning", with the sounds, markings, gestures, etc, used in communication signifying the propositions or other opinions meant to be communicated.
But "significance" can also mean "importance", and in that sense asking for the meaning or significance of something is asking what is important about it, why does it matter. So when people ask "what is the meaning of life?", they're not asking for a definition of the word "life", but rather asking why does it matter that anyone lives, what is the purpose of life, what to live for, or why to live.
The very question often implies a view that without such a purpose, life ought not be lived; that if it were conclusively shown that there was no purpose to life, that everyone might as well just up and die right away. That implication is, I think, trivially defeated, because if it were true that nothing mattered, then it would not matter that nothing mattered, and meaninglessness would not mean anything. Lack of purpose would not imply that anyone ought to die; at most it would undermine any obligation to live, but that would say nothing about permission to live, leaving the default state that people are free to live or not as they choose. This is a broader application of the same principle underling my position against cynicism.
On Feelings of Meaning
Nevertheless, many people still find it extremely troubling to think that life is "meaningless". This conflict between the apparently inescapable human need for meaning in an apparent meaningless universe is called "the Absurd" by authors in the philosophical traditions called absurdism, existentialism, and (existential) nihilism.
For much of my life I found this search for "meaning" in this sense incomprehensible. I understood the quests for truth, and for goodness, for knowledge and justice, and for means of pursuing those ends. But even in the kind of empirical, hedonic worldview that I have long since held – which many writers on the Absurd find to be the prompt for their feelings of meaninglessness, in contrast to transcendent, dogmatic, religious worldviews – I saw the obvious potential for answering those kinds of questions about reality and morality, yet I couldn't comprehend what more besides that anybody wanted. "Meaning", in this sense, was meaningless to me.
Meanwhile however, throughout my life, I had experienced now and then times of intense positive emotion, feelings of inspiration, of enlightenment and empowerment, understanding and acceptance, awe, of a kind of oneness and connection to the universe, where it seemed to me that the whole world was eminently reasonable, that it was all so perfectly understandable even with its yet-unanswered questions and it was all beautiful and acceptable even with its many flaws. I greatly enjoyed these states of mind, and I did find that they were also practically useful both in motivating me to get things done, even just mundane chores and tasks, and also in filling me with creative thoughts, novel ideas and new solutions to problems.
But although I eventually learned that these were the kinds of mental states often called "mystical" or "religious" experiences, I never took them to be in any way magical or mysterious. I saw them as just a kind of emotional high, with both experiential and behavioral benefits. Friends who had experience with drugs like LSD would even describe my recounting of such experiences as sounding like a "really good trip", further enforcing my view that these were just biochemical states of my brain (even while some of those friends conversely took their own LSD trips and such to be of genuinely mystical significance).
While in such states, some things would sometimes seem "meaningful", in the sense of "important", even when I could see no rational reason why, and I always just dismissed this as a pleasantly bizarre mental artifact of the emotional high I was on. It never occurred to me to connect that sense of abstract emotional "meaning" with the thing that writers on the Absurd were seeking.
It wasn't until decades into my adult life that I first experienced clearly identifiable existential angst like had prompted the many writers on the Absurd for so long. I had long suffered with depression and anxiety, but always fixated on mundane problems in my life (though in retrospect I wonder if it wasn't those problems prompting the feelings, but rather the feelings finding those problems to dwell upon), and I had already philosophized a way to tackle such mundane problems despite that emotional overwhelm, which will be detailed by the end of this essay.
But after many years of working extremely hard to get my life to a point where such practical problems weren't constantly besieging me, I found myself suddenly beset with what at first I thought was a physical illness, noticing first problems with my digestion, side-effects from that on my sinuses, then numbness in my face and limbs, lightheadedness, cold sweats, rapid heartbeat and breathing, and eventually total sleeplessness. Thinking I was dying of something, I saw a doctor, who told me that those are all symptoms of anxiety, nothing more. But it was an anxiety unlike any I had ever suffered before, and I had nothing going on in my life to feel anxious about at that point.
Because of that, at first I dismissed the anxiety diagnosis and tried to physically alleviate my symptoms various ways, but as it wore on for many months, I found things to feel anxious about, facts about the universe I had already known for decades (many of which I detail later in this essay) but never emotionally worried about, which I found suddenly filling me with an existential horror or dread, a sense that any sentient being ever existing at all was like condemning it to being born already in freefall into a great cosmic meat grinder, and that reality could not possibly have been any different.
Mortified, I searched in desperation for some kind of philosophical solution to that problem, something to think about that would make me stop feeling that, even trying unsuccessfully to abandon my philosophical principles and turn to religion just for the emotional relief, growing much more sympathetic to the many people who turn to religions for such relief, even as I continued to see the claims thereof as false and many of their practices as bad.
As a year of that wore on, brief moments of respite from that existential angst, dread, or horror grew mercifully longer and more frequent, often being prompted by a smaller more practical problem in my life springing up and then being resolved, distracting me from these intractable cosmic problems, at least for a time. In those moments of respite, I would often feel like I had figured out a philosophical solution to the problem: I saw my patterns of thinking while experiencing that dread as having been flawed, and the patterns of thinking I now had in this clearer state of mind as more correct.
But when the dread returned, I felt like I could not remember what it was that I had thought of to solve the problem, and any attempt to get out of that state of mind, simply to not feel like that any more, felt like hiding from an important problem that I ought to keep dwelling on until I figured out a solution to it, even though it seemed equally clear that no solution to it was even theoretically possible.
It wasn't until nearly a year of this vacillating between normalcy and existential dread had passed that the insight finally stuck me: the existential dread was just the opposite of the kind of "mystical experiences" I had occasionally had and attached no rational significance too for my entire life. Just as, during those experiences, some things sometimes seemed non-rationally meaningful, just an ordinary experience of some scene of ordinary life with a profound feeling of "this is meaningful" attached to it, so too this feeling of existential dread was just my experience of ordinary life with a non-rational feeling of profound meaninglessness attached to it.
The problem that I found myself futilely struggling to solve, I realized, was entirely illusory, and it was not irrational cowardice to hide from the "problem", but rather entirely the rational thing to do to ignore the illusory sense that there was a problem, and do whatever I could to pull my mind out of that crippling state of dread, wherein I had painfully little clarity of thought or motivational energy, and get myself back into a clearer, more productive state of mind.
I have since dubbed that feeling of existential angst, dread, or horror "ontophobia", Greek for the fear of being, where "being" here means both the existence of the whole world generally, and one's own personal existence; and its opposite, that experience of cosmic oneness, understanding, and acceptance, "ontophilia", Greek for the love of being, in the same sense as above. I am now of the opinion that many if not all of the writers on the Absurd, and generally anyone suffering from a feeling of meaningless in life, are not confronting a genuine philosophical problem, but merely an illusory philosophical problem stemming from a very real emotional one.
Ontophobia generates the feeling of needing to find meaning in life, not the other way around. Conversely, ontophilia generates a feeling of inherent meaningfulness. Meaning, in this sense, is like love: to ask whether "love is real" in any sense deeper than "do people feel love" is a malformed question, because there is nothing more to love that could be real or not than the feeling of it; love just is the feeling of loving or being loved. Likewise, to ask whether there is "really meaning" in any sense deeper than "do things feel meaningful to people" is also a malformed question, because there is nothing more to meaning that could be real or not besides the feeling of meaningfulness, ontophilia, or meaninglessness, ontophobia.
I like to visualize these different feelings as the difference in water flow through a pipe connecting to a basin. The basin is one's emotional being, and the water in it is emotional wellness. Things outside the basin can remove water from it or add water to it, but there is also that pipe inside of it through which water can flow. If that pipe is draining water from the basin, then no amount of filling it from the outside will ever suffice, leading to what Blaise Pascal described as an "inability to sit quietly in a room alone" – the need for something external to oneself to keep one emotionally well. But if the pipe is instead pumping water into the basin, then it will always be full, or even overflowing, and not only will one be content to sit quietly in a room alone, but one will be eager to pour their overflowing wellness out on everything around oneself.
Neither feeling is rationally correct or incorrect about any actual philosophical question about meaningfulness, but ontophilia is clearly the better state of mind, both for its intrinsic experiential enjoyability, but also for the practical benefits it confers of enlightening the mind and empowering the will, in the ways discussed in my previous essays on enlightenment and empowerment.
Ontophobia's illusory demand for meaning is essentially a craving for validation, for a sense that one is important and matters in some way. I realize in retrospect that so much of what I thought were mere practical concerns in my life were probably actually manifestations of this ontophobic craving for validation.
My youthful longing for romance was all about feeling worthy of a partner; stress about performance at my job was all about feeling worthy as an employee; longing for an appreciative audience for my various private creative works was all about feeling worthy as an author, artist, etc. It was only once those were mostly all satisfied that the bare emotional motive behind them all truly showed itself, the true existential dread being all about craving to feel like it matters whether or not I, or anyone or anything, even exist at all.
Ontophilia, on the other hand, can produce equally illusory feelings that nevertheless seem overwhelmingly real and undeniable. Being the quintessential "mystical experience" or "religious experience", it is the supposed source of "revealed" knowledge held to be divinely inspired and infallibly true by many religions.
I am of the opinion that ontophilia is the proper referent of the term "God" as used by theological noncognitivists. Those are people that use religious terminology not for describing reality per se, but more for its emotional affect. Most theological noncognitivists do not identify as such and are not aware of this philosophical technicality in their use of language, but it is evident in expressions such as "God is love", whereby "believing in God" does not seem to mean so much a claim about the ontological existence of a particular being, but an expression of good will toward the world and of an expectation that the world generally reciprocates such goodness.
As such, ontophilia still needs to be tempered by more sober reflection; although I have had many seemingly great creative ideas when in such states of mind, not all of them have held up to later scrutiny, though some still have, so not all ideas produced in such states of mind should be dismissed out of hand. Actions motivated by ontophilia can also be manic in their passion and dedication, which if misguided can be dangerous, either to oneself or to others.
I compare ontophilia to mania there deliberately, and likewise I compare ontophobia to depression and of course to anxiety. I consider them to be extremes of one axis of a two-dimensional spectrum of emotions that I devised introspectively to help make sense of my own mental health. I name the four extreme moods of this spectrum after the classical Greek four temperaments, which in turn were named after the four bodily fluids or "humors" that ancient Greek physicians held to be responsible for such temperaments:
- phlegmatic (after phlegm of course)
- sanguine (after blood)
- choleric (after yellow bile)
- and melancholic (after black bile).
Of course I don't subscribe to the long-outdated medical theory of these four humors, but the names of the temperaments are useful labels for my purposes here.
The model of four temperaments usually casts them as personality types, with an individually being generally more one or the other, but I mean them here as moods, between all of which any one individual may vacillate. I place these four moods in the corners of a two-dimensional axis of emotional energy and emotional affect:
- Phlegmatic moods are those of low energy and positive affect, a kind of relaxed happiness, what we might call peace.
- Sanguine moods are those of high energy and positive affect, a kind of excited happiness, what we might call joy.
- Choleric moods are those of high energy and negative affect, a kind of unhappiness coupled with a sense of powerfulness, what we might call rage.
- And melancholic moods are those of low energy and negative affect, a kind of unhappiness coupled with a sense of powerlessness, what we might call despair.
And as joy and despair are paired with love and fear (Greek philia and phobia), so too rage and peace pair with hatred and tolerance respectively: love and tolerance breed joy and peace and vice versa, while hatred and fear breed rage and despair and vice versa.
I observe in myself that pressure to act increases my energy, while boredom decreases it; and progress in my actions makes my affect more positive, while obstacles make it more negative. I hold that ontophilia is simply an extremely sanguine, high-energy, positive-affect, joyous mood, while ontophobia is likewise an extremely melancholic, low-energy, negative affect, despairing mood.
And just as an ontophilic or generally sanguine mood leads to seeing the world as reasonable, understandable and acceptable, while an ontophobic or generally melancholic mood leads to seeing it as unreasonable, incomprehensible, and terrifying, I likewise observe that other people in the world generally find people in phlegmatic moods to seem reasonable, sane, and safe, while people in choleric moods seem to them as unreasonable, crazy, and dangerous.
So just as an ecstatic, sanguine, joyous mood – ontophilia – is the best to color our experiences, so too a sober, phlegmatic, peaceful mood is the best to temper our behaviors, and keep an ontophilic state from becoming unrestrained mania. Experiences should be had with love and passion, able to get us started doing things, and that sanguine joy is just the feeling we need to start doing things, or even get out of bed in the morning. But behaviors should be enacted with tolerance and patience, able stop when need be, and that phlegmatic peace is just the feeling we need to stop ourselves from doing things, or even settle down for bed at night. Sanguine joy helps to enhance our awareness, including self-awareness, while phlegmatic peace helps to enhance our control, including self-control.
This even bears a passing resemblance to the Scholastic philosophers' view of the relation between revelation and reason: they held revelation (which I equate to ontophilic inspiration) to be sufficient to know what was true, with reason (which I associate with a phlegmatic mood) there to later investigate further why it was true. I disagree with that on the important point that I don't hold ontophilic inspiration to be infallible, and the role of sober phlegmatic reason is then to critique the inspired ideas rather than rationalizing justification for them, but I see a resemblance still.
On Cultivating Meaning
Aside from all of the preceding matter of the experience of meaningfulness or meaninglessness, there is still a more practical question of meaning as in purpose. But as I have already written an entire essay on value addressing that, I consider that formulation of the question effectively answered already. Something having purpose does not mean having been created by some greater being for some greater ends, it means only serving some ends for some being, doing some good for someone, being good for something; a thing's purpose is whatever it's good for.
Asking what is the purpose of life thus means simply asking what good can be done in life, which is really just asking what is good to do, as in what ends are good to aim for, which I have answered in the aforementioned essay but can summarize here: it is good to fulfill appetites, and subsequently to bring pleasure and enjoyment and alleviate pain and suffering, both for yourself and for others. That is "the meaning of life", in the conventional sense of the question; that's what life is good for, what to live for: the enjoyment of it.
Interestingly, as the ontophilic mood described above brings with it both an immensely greater enjoyment and alleviated suffering, and also, more practically, increases the power of the mind and the will and consequently aids the pursuit of both knowledge and justice, it could reasonably be said that pursuing, achieving, maintaining, and spreading that "meaning of life" feeling, ontophilia, is itself the practical meaning of life.
I find that, aside from simply allowing myself to ignore the meaningless craving for meaning that ontophobia brings on, the way to cultivate ontophilia is to practice the very same behaviors that it in turn inspires more of. Doing good things, either for others or just for oneself, and learning or teaching new truths, both seem to generate feelings of empowerment and enlightenment, respectively, and as those ramp up in a positive feedback loop, inspiring further such practices, an ontophilic state of mind can be cultivated.
In this sense, it could be poetically said that the meaning of life is to achieve and to help, to learn and to teach. Learning truths about the universe, and being the recipient of its goods, shows one how everything in the universe matters, how they fit together into the big picture; and doing goods for the rest of the universe, as well as being a font of truths, makes one matter to the rest of the universe. Learning many great truths and doing many great goods places one in a crucial position in the overall function of the universe, being influenced by as much of the universe as possible through one's experience, filtering true beliefs and good intentions out of it, and then influencing as much of the universe as possible through one's resultant behavior.
I also find that it helps to remain at peace and alleviate feelings of anxiety and unworthiness by not only doing all the positive things that I reasonable can do, as above, but also excusing or forgiving myself from blame for not doing things that I reasonably can't do.
Meditative practices are essentially practice at allowing oneself to do nothing and simply be, to help cultivate this state of mind. A popular prayer (that I will revisit again later in this essay) also asks for precisely such serenity to accept things one cannot change and courage to change the things one can. And the modern cognitive-behavioral therapy technique called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is also entirely about committing to doing the things that one can do and accepting the things that one cannot do anything about.
It is of course very hard to do this sometimes, so it helps also to cultivate a social network of like-minded people who will gently encourage you to do the things you reasonably can, and remind you that it's okay to not do things that you reasonably can't, between the two of which you can hopefully find a restful peace of mind where you feel that you have done all that you can do and nothing more is required of you, allowing you to enjoy simply being.
Simply connecting with other people in itself helps to cultivate feelings of meaningfulness, as it is precisely that connectedness that constitutes meaning in any sense. The linguistic sense of meaning, too, hinges on the connection between signifier and signified, and between speaker and listener. In artistic works, the meaningfulness of creativity comes from illustrating the connections between what previously seemed like unrelated possibilities, as detailed at the end of my essay on the arts. Mathematics is all about exploring the relations, or connections, between things in that same abstract space of possibilities, as detailed in my essay on mathematics.
Even the ontology I have put forward earlier posits that the world itself is constituted by a network of interactions, those connections between things forming the very fabric of reality. The axiology I have put forward takes a prescriptive view of that same network of interactions to form the fabric of morality. My take on mind and will are in one sense of each just a different perspective on that same network. Knowledge and justice, on my account, are about connecting to things as described above. And my philosophies of education and governance hinge entirely on connected networks of people to constitute those respective social institutions. Even the connectedness of philosophy itself, to every other endeavor, is why I find it to be the most meaningful area of study.
Much else has already been written by others about how to respond to the Absurd, and though with my earlier resolution I don't think there is technically actually any meaninglessness of life to be addressed, I do think there is a similar and far more vexing problem to be addressed in a similar vein: not a problem of apparent meaninglessness, but a problem of apparent futility. There may be an obvious purpose, to bring pleasure and enjoyment and alleviate pain and suffering, for ourselves and for everyone, but it is not obvious that that purpose can be fulfilled.
Life is full of many grave horrors, the likes of which can easily inspire ontophobia or at least give it something to fixate on:
- The immense difficulty most people face in living a life of enjoyment rather than suffering, much less bringing others, never mind the rest of humanity, never mind all sentient beings on Earth, and possibly elsewhere, along for the ride.
- The apparent inevitability of death bringing even a good, enjoyable life to a premature end, where any end at all to such enjoyment would be premature.
- The threat of any projects and organizations, whole civilizations, maybe even one's entire species coming to an end, and so any good one might have done before death, any legacy left behind that maybe made even a hard and short life count toward some greater good that outlasted it, still being lost to time.
- The threat of the entire planet being destroyed by the natural aging of the sun, should any legacy of anyone or anything that exists now even manage to survive until then.
- Even if we manage to cure all of life's ills for everyone, even stopping death by aging, and survive all the threats to civilization and the planet itself by becoming a technologically advanced starfaring civilization, there is still the threat of the entire universe itself winding down to uniform lukewarm nothingness over cosmological timescales, as all available energy sources are used up, life of any kind becomes impossible, and all signs that any life ever existed are lost forever, not that anyone could be around afterward to appreciate them anyway.
- And should we somehow avoid even that, the very prospect of eternal life itself can be overwhelming, for while solving all the foregoing problems would leave us with nothing that we have to do, and we naturally want not to have to do things, we also naturally want to have things to do, and having nothing to do can be as unpleasant as having to do things, as one faces literally infinite amounts of time one has to to fill with possibly only finite amounts of interesting things, or else face a tortuous everlasting and inescapable boredom.
So even if we do have something clear to aim for, a clear purpose to pursue, the apparent impossibility of ever attaining it still overshadows the whole endeavor with a horrific, dreadful sense of hopelessness, pointlessness, meaninglessness.
Albert Camus, the founder of absurdism, suggested that there were three categories of response to the Absurd. As described above I technically deny that the Absurd is an actual problem at all, but the apparent futility in fulfilling the purpose that dissolves that problem presents an equally dreadful problem in its place, and I find that Camus' three categories of response to the Absurd apply equally well to the latter problem in its stead.
The first response is simply giving up. Camus equated this with suicide (and wrote that
There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide), but I find that more responses than only suicide fall into the category of "giving up", and will elaborate upon them momentarily. I consider the common thread to all of the members of this category to be relativism about morality, broadly construed as meaning all prescriptive topics – the denial that there is any objective good in any sense to pursue – and I reject it on those grounds as part of my general stance against relativism, just as Camus rejected suicide.
The second response I characterize as a "happy fantasy", but Camus called it a "leap of faith": this is the category into which most common responses fall, including most western religious views about the meaning of life stemming from some kind of god, and Camus included existentialism (as he understood the term, to mean knowingly inventing a meaning of life to pursue) to fall within this category as well. I consider the common thread to all of the members of this category to be dogmatism about reality – taking some comforting story to be true just because it sounds nice, placing it as beyond criticism because to question it would be to question one's reason to live – and I reject it on those grounds as part of my general stance against dogmatism, just as Camus rejected it as "philosophical suicide".
The third category of response Camus characterized as "recognition" of the Absurd, and I think of as "going on anyway" despite the apparent futility. This category of responses is the only one I find consistent with maintaining universalist criticism, or commensurablism, about both reality and morality; and the principles of this kind of response, that I will elucidate at the end of this essay, are the more general versions of the very principles that underly the rejections of both dogmatism and relativism, which rejections together constitute the core of my philosophy of commensurablism. But before I get to that, I think that there are still useful things to be taken away from responses in both of the other two categories, which deserve examination first.
The response of "giving up" is essentially pessimism. It takes the stance that there is no good to be had – maybe "good" can be identified, but still it cannot be obtained – and that there is therefore no point to trying to chase after it. As mentioned before, I don't think suicide is the only thing that falls into this category. Rather than actively killing oneself, just passively letting oneself die would count as well. Similar to that is anti-natalism, the position that it is better to not be born, and that while people who are already alive shouldn't necessarily die right away, no new life should ever be created and we should all just go extinct in due time.
Less extreme than even that, emotionally giving up on the pursuit of good things and just living through life indifferently until it at some point it stops of its own accord counts as well. That is effectively the psychological condition of depression, which is widely regarded as a bad thing by those who suffer through it. And there are philosophies that effectively advocate for that (though they wouldn't frame it as such), and so to the extent that I reject this category of responses I also reject those philosophies.
These philosophies include both Buddhism and the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism, both of which teach that the cause of suffering is unfulfilled desire, and that the way to avoid suffering is therefore to stop desiring things. I agree more or less with that analysis of suffering, modulo the distinctions I make between appetites, desires, and intentions (which I will not dwell upon here, henceforth using instead the conventional "desire" for that entire category of opinions). But I find that there is a flip side to it which makes the maxim to give up desires (to the extent that such is even possible to do) not so clearly optimal.
The flip side is that while suffering comes from unfulfilled desires, enjoyment comes from fulfilled desires – not merely the absence of unfulfilled desires, for fulfilling a desire one has and having none to go unfulfilled are different states – and so in giving up on desiring things, one does not only avoid all suffering, but also all enjoyment; just like dying would not only end all suffering but also all enjoyment. So there is some practical wisdom to be found in such philosophies, but it must be taken in moderation (something that cannot be done with more extreme responses in this category such as suicide, ruling them out entirely).
It is prudent, yes, to the extent that it is possible, not to want things that are unattainable, and so to avoid suffering for having those desires unfulfilled, and so minimize the bad that occurs. But it is also prudent to want all things that are attainable, and so to find enjoyment in having those desires fulfilled, and so maximize the good that occurs. It seems that in practice, this is what adherents of both of these philosophies actually do, as they do allow themselves small pleasures when they are attainable; but strictly speaking, it runs contrary to the maxim of eliminating desires, and that is all I am arguing against here.
All in all, these kinds of response can be part of a useful strategy for suffering less in the present moment as one passes through hard times, but they do little in themselves to inspire the kind of work needed to build a better future and escape from those hard times into better ones. For that, one needs hope.
Hope is exactly what the second kind of response offers; the "happy fantasy", as I characterize it, being essentially optimism. But though that kind of hope is a valuable thing that can be taken from this kind of response, as with the pessimistic responses above it can be harmful if taken too far.
It is good to find some possibility, however remote, to hope for, some light at the end of whatever tunnel one finds oneself in to help guide and motivate one to keep moving on through the darkness toward a brighter future. But it is important that those hopes still remain responsive to reality, such that when new information is found that dashes those hopes, shows those remote possibilities to in fact be impossible, one does not cling to them against all reason but instead moves on to find new hopes that still remain in the realm of possibility, even if they are still so very remote.
And though I do not disdain those who turn to their private religious beliefs as a source of hope amidst all the many struggles of life, I find that there is not hope to be found in them for me, and could not be for anyone sufficiently versed in the philosophy and science of today, unless they are clinging to them irrationally. Though I hesitate to dash the hopes of anyone not so versed, I feel I have to explain what has dashed them for me; and to make up for it, I will afterward offer what hope I now turn to instead.
The usual cornerstone of western religious belief, and the source of the hope that it brings, is belief in a god that is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good, who therefore could and would right all wrongs and make everything okay; a very comforting idea that I sincerely wish was true. (I would slightly reinterpret these criteria, in the framework of my preceding philosophy, as such a god having: total awareness, or perfectly accurate experience of the universe, which "all-knowing" approximates; perfect processing of those experiences into true beliefs and good intentions to drive its subsequent behaviors, which "all-good" approximates; and total control, or perfectly effective behavior upon the universe, which "all-powerful" approximates.)
As my position against transcendentalism rules out the possibility of a truly supernatural god, the closest thing to that traditional idea that could possibly exist would have to be a natural being in the universe, not something beyond it, which I expect most would say would not truly count as a god: that would be, in effect, an alien. And a being in the universe could not be all-knowing or all-powerful about that universe, but they could in principle be all-good, and they could be very knowledgeable and very powerful, enough for that to still be something to hope for.
There does not at present appear to be any evidence of alien life at all (though it seems statistically probable that there is some of it somewhere), much less alien life that has interacted with our world, but the existence of a very knowledgeable, very powerful, all-good alien being is strictly a possibility one could hope for. It is even strictly possible that what we think of as the universe is something like a simulation set within a larger universe, and that such an alien being resides out there in the larger universe, and is in fact all-knowing and all-powerful over the smaller part of it that we presently think is the whole thing. Such a being could even have created that smaller part that we think is the whole universe.
That would be the closest thing to the traditional conception of a god that would actually be possible, and though I don't myself believe there really is such a being, because there is no evidence I have seen to suggest such a thing, I don't deny that it is technically possible.
But I cannot find hope in that possibility, because such a powerful and knowledgeable being must not be all good, or else an all-good alien being must not be sufficiently knowledgeable or powerful even if it is very knowledgeable and powerful, because if there were a sufficiently knowledgeable, sufficiently powerful, and sufficiently good being, there would be no excuse for the continued presence of bad things in the world, for it would have fixed them already. If it does not know that they need fixing, that would explain why they continue to occur; likewise if it is not able to fix them, or simply is not inclined to do so.
This is a very old philosophical issue called the "Problem of Evil": the existence of "evil" (taken to mean bad things generally) in the world implies that anything like a god that exists must be ignorant, impotent, or apathetic (at best, malicious at worst), because if it were not then the "evil" would have been eradicated. Various excuses, called theodicies, have been offered for why an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good being could allow "evil" to exist anyway. The most popular of them is called the free will theodicy, which argues that a god could not guarantee the elimination of all evil without eliminating free will, which would itself be evil, making it logically impossible for such a god to do any better than what we have now.
But I think that that argument fails on technical grounds because it rests on an incompatibilist conception of what free will is, which I have already argued against in my essay on the will. On my conception of will, freedom of the will consists in your moral judgement being causally effective on your actions, so that when you judge that something is the right course of action, when you think you ought to do something, thinking so causes you to do that, in contrast with cases where something else causes you to do something that you judge is not the best thing for you to do.
On that conception of free will, if a god had created people with greater free will, that would have made them behave more morally, so there is no contradiction between creating people who would always behave morally and also have free will, making the existence of free will no excuse for the existence of "evil".
And even if any of those theodicies were true, if any of those excuses held water, still such a being would be no source of hope, even if it were positively known to exist, because the existence of such a being would then not necessarily have any impact on whatever hardships one might hope to escape by means of it. For some reason or another, it could still let them happen, as evidenced by all the hardship, the horrific pain and suffering and death, that does happen all the time. It doesn't really matter, for the purposes of something to hope for, whether or not any god exists, if for whatever reason or another it still allows genocides to occur and children to be sold into sex slavery.
One could argue that that is only allowed in the mortal life that we think is the entirety of the universe, and that we could all hope to move on after our apparent deaths to a better world somewhere in some larger true universe. But if that place is run by the same being we suppose is all-powerful over this universe, where for some reason or another he can't or won't stop all the horrific things that happen here, that leaves me with little confidence that he will be willing and able to do better somewhere else.
We could, I suppose, imagine that there is some all-good alien being in some larger universe within which what we know of the universe is something like a simulation, who is not actually all-powerful over this universe and cannot stop all the horrors that happen here, but does have the power to take people from here upon their apparent deaths and bring them somewhere that he does have the power to ensure that they get to live happily ever after. That is, I admit, a technical possibility. But it no longer resembles much the usual religious conceptions that real people actually look to for hope, and it seems to be more far-fetched than we really need to look, at least those of us who are not facing imminent death before more realistic possibilities might come to pass.
That more realistic possibility that I hope for is that the closest things to gods that we know of, the most knowledgeable, powerful, and good beings that actually exist so far as we are aware, can continue to progress in their knowledge, power, and morality, and eventually fulfill the role hoped for in traditional conceptions of gods. Those beings I speak of are us, people.
The hope I hold on to personally is that I can continue to make progress in my struggle to find enjoyment and avoid suffering in my life and to prolong that life, and that I can contribute somehow to aiding other people to do so, and to encouraging them to aid me and others likewise. I hope that together we can hold out long enough to see medical technology advance far enough to make prolonging our enjoyable lives an indefinite process, eventually curing all the causes of the seeming inevitability of individual death.
I hope that we can preserve our civilizations and all the things greater than ourselves that we build together, and that among those things that we might build together are artificial intelligences to augment our own, increasing our knowledge, power, and morality even more exponentially. I hope that with all that, we can ameliorate all sources of suffering and death for all sentient beings on the entire planet, not just humans but all animals as well. I hope that we can preserve our planet against everything that might threaten that utopia, including man-made scenarios like climate change or nuclear war, and natural ones like meteoric impacts or super-volcanoes.
I hope that we can in time harness all the energy from the sun that reaches our world and control its effects on the world to maximize the good we are able to do. That after that we can build structures like Dyson swarms to capture all the energy of the sun currently lost to deep space, many many times greater than that which reaches Earth, and with that do even more. That with that enormous energy we can use processes like star-lifting to control the speed at which our sun burns its energy, and thereby increase the length of its life and so of our civilization many-fold.
And that we can do all that, being mindful of any alien life we might find to exist, for all of the stars in all of the galaxies we could possibly reach, rapidly with the aid of our artificial intelligence, to prolong the life of our utopian civilization even longer. I hope that as even that vast supply of energy runs out over incomprehensibly long time scales, that we find other sources of energy to supplant them, such as tapping the rotational energy of the supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies, or eventually, as the universe cools below the temperature of those black holes, the Hawking radiation that they give off.
And in the end, I hope that there is no end, despite the threat of ever-increasing entropy winding down the universe to a uniform lukewarm nothingness, because that fate is only guaranteed for closed systems into which no new energy comes, and on our best understanding of the universe today, it is not strictly closed. For the accelerating expansion of the universe creates new energy estimated to be some twenty times greater than the energy of all the ordinary matter in all the stars in all the galaxies, so if there is some way to harness even a small fraction of that, we would have the literal power with which to recreate the whole universe-as-we-know-it as we pleased, and to sustain it as we like indefinitely.
There may not be any omnipotent god or eternal bliss now, but I hope that someday we can create it, and become it, and that maybe there is an outside chance I might live to be part of that, or at least that something I leave behind will survive to do so.
Or at the very least, if I don't survive to become part of that, if my civilization or even my species doesn't, that something somewhere will, and that some legacy of me or of us will be found and remembered and matter to them. And I have great hope for the prospects that someone somewhere eventually will achieve that, because of the meaning of "life" – the linguistic meaning, the definition of the word.
What constitutes life is an open question in the philosophy of biology, struggling to include all of the things that we ordinarily think of as being alive, but to exclude things that we don't ordinarily think of as being alive, like crystals or fire, that are too easily included in some attempted definitions. The definition that I find best suits this purpose hinges on the physics concept of a "machine", which is any physical system that transforms energy from one form to another, which is to say it does "work" in the language of physics. I propose the definition of a property of such physical work, called "productivity", which is the property of reducing the entropy of the system upon which the work is done.
With that established, I then define "life" as "self-productive machinery": a physical system that uses a flow of energy to do productive work upon itself, which is to say, to reduce its own internal entropy (necessarily at the expense of increasing the overall entropy of the environment it is a part of). The universal increase of entropy dictated by the second law of thermodynamics is the essence of death and decay – and also, if you recall my discussion of time and possible worlds in my earlier essay on reality, the essence of time itself – and life is anything that fights against that.
No particular form of life is guaranteed to win that fight, but given enough chances, if it is possible to keep winning, some form of life will go on forever – and if the universe is infinite, there are guaranteed to be enough chances, so in that case it is guaranteed that something, somewhere out there, will eventually achieve that. If there is any possible way, some form of life will find it.
And if we should be fortunate enough to find ourselves among the life that gets to survive for eternity, I have hope that it will not be an infinity of mind-numbing, tortuous boredom. There is first and foremost the potential that there genuinely are an infinite number of interesting things to do, infinite minutia in which one can take increasing interest over unfathomable amounts of time as other things get old. All the experiences every human could possibly have, and the potential of experiences no ordinary human could ever have had, experiencing life as other kinds of creatures, real or invented, in other circumstances, real or invented.
Even if all of that somehow is finite, it needn't mean we are doomed to an eternity of boredom, if by the time we have cycled through all the things to do, the thing it has been the longest since we did it once again seems fresh and interesting because we haven't done it for so long. And even if repetition of such an unfathomably long cycle of such unfathomably various activities and experiences did eventually become tiresome after unfathomably many iterations, that itself is a mere feature of the mind as we know it, and the mind itself could be altered so that even if there is only a finite (if unfathomably large) amount of stuff to fill time with, we would never get bored with it.
We could even alter the mind so that just remembering an enjoyable experience brings with it the same feelings as when it was first experienced, so repeating experiences is not even necessary to derive continued enjoyment them. And ultimately, altering the mind to experience constant ontophilia would alleviate all possibility of suffering.
Under ontophobia one feels bad by default, when nothing in particular is happening to affect one's emotions either way; and one then finds things to feel bad about (even if just bad memories or worries), unless something external pushes one into feeling good instead. So under ontophobia, once one ran out of problems to fix and feel temporarily better about, once everything was just fine forever, one would just continue on feeling bad, about nothing in particular, forever.
But conversely, under ontophilia one feels good by default, when nothing in particular is happening to affect one's emotions either way; and one then finds things to feel good about (even if just good memories or dreams), unless something external pushes one into feeling bad instead. So under ontophilia, once one ran out of problems to fix, if everything was just fine forever, one would just continue on feeling good, about nothing in particular, forever.
It's also possible that all individual persons could in a sense cease to exist as such, yet without anyone ever dying, if with such mind alteration and the associated information technology it becomes possible for people to share memories and mental functions in the same way that we share data and programs for our computers today. So in time more and more of what defines each person may come to be shared in common between all people, every person having access to the same complete knowledge of the entire collective universal society, and all of the same optimal mental functions.
With bodies, by such a point, being entirely optional "peripherals" for such minds to use and discard as they like, the only differentiating parts of each individual person would gradually become which part of that shared information is "their story", the "character" in the history of the universe that is their personal identity. If there ever really comes a time when there is nothing new or interesting for that "character" to do, their "story" can just be ended with "...and they lived happily ever after" – an eternity of ontophilia, as above – everything else about the individual besides that personal narrative having long since dissolved into the same singular, pantheistic-god-like, universal being as everyone else.
And with unlimited time and energy, it may even be possible to recover the actual information of everything and everyone that was once lost, and restore them to their former glory in this hyper-utopian future. For it is thought by our best theories of physics today that no information is ever truly destroyed, it is merely lost to entropy, so with enough time and energy it could in principle always be recovered. So it may not only be those fortunate enough to survive into the glorious eternity of the unimaginably distant future, but everyone who ever lived and died before it came about might still get a chance as well.
Which brings us to the third and final category of response, "going on anyway" despite any apparent futility, which is essentially just pragmatism in the sense of a compromise between optimism and pessimism; neither assuming that failure is guaranteed nor that success is, both of which give us an excuse not to even try, but instead assuming that either is possible, and then trying, even if it seems probably impossible, because not trying only guarantees that it's impossible.
This was the principle with which I supported the core two principles of my general philosophy of commensurablism, back at the very start of these essays: against relativism, because relativism is just giving up (on trying to understand reality and morality); and against dogmatism, because dogmatism is just a happy fantasy (that you already understand reality and morality). In that case I was applying it specifically to the endeavor of philosophy, but here I apply it more generally to every endeavor ever.
And just as I argued against cynicism, specifically justificationism, on the grounds that it inevitably leads to relativism, so too in the more general case we cannot carry on as though everything is pointless unless we can justify it in terms of some infinitely far-away future goal. Nor, as I argued against transcendentalism on the grounds that it inevitably leads to dogmatism, can we just make up something beyond all experience to pull us along.
Metaphorically, it is as though we are on the surface of an infinitely deep ocean, and we can neither fly into the sky, for human flight is impossible, nor can we stand on the bottom, for there is no bottom. If we try to reach our feet to the bottom and hold ourselves up that way, we will only sink. If we reach our hands up to the sky and hope to fly out of the water, we will only sink. What we must do is swim, tread water, be comfortable remaining on the surface, with nothing below to support us and nothing above to lift us out, just our own hands and feet, pressing against the water surrounding us from every side, keeping our heads above water. And, just like in actual swimming, it's much easier to do if we don't panic about the fact that we have to swim, and can neither fly nor stand, but instead just relax and do it.
The elements of each of the first two categories of response that I found worth salvaging are the elements that help to counteract the worst elements of the other, and it is those two salvageable parts together that comprise this third, pragmatic category of response. The first two categories of response I categorized broadly as pessimism and optimism, but the parts of them that I rejected were only narrower senses of optimism and pessimism.
I embrace what we might call "broad optimism" in the sense of assuming always that a solution is somehow possible; and that broad optimism is the negation of the narrower sense of pessimism that I reject. But I reject what we might call "narrow optimism" in the sense of assuming that a solution is in any way guaranteed. That very rejection of narrow optimism is itself the embrace of what we might call "broad pessimism", in the sense of assuming always that a solution is not guaranteed. But I still also reject what we might call "narrow pessimism" in the sense of ever assuming that a solution is impossible.
These different senses of broad and narrow optimism and pessimism are just the four basic logical modalities (possibility, necessity, contingency, and impossibility) applied to the solvability of a problem, and embracing the broad senses of each (and equivalently rejecting the narrow senses of each) is to always assume that a solution is merely possible: possible but contingent, neither necessary nor impossible. And, to sum up, I reject the narrow senses of each because either narrow optimism or narrow pessimism is an excuse not to act, and only if we act might a solution be possible, although even if we do act it is still not guaranteed.
There is a popular prayer that I think quite nicely encapsulates the balance of actions urged by the salvageable parts of both broadly pessimistic and optimistic approaches. It prays for
the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
The serenity that is salvageable from the first, broadly pessimistic, category of response gives us the capacity to accept facts when they are presented and not live willfully ignorant in a happy fantasy. The hope that is salvageable from the second, broadly optimistic category of response gives the kind of courage to go on fighting and not give up.
I think there are also important moral aspects to those virtues: the serenity to accept things that we should not change, and the courage to change the things we should; not just concerning descriptive possibility or necessity, but prescriptive permission and obligation.
In addition to serenity and courage, there are two other virtues that complement those two, which are common to many ancient philosophies and religions. One of them is temperance, which was characterized by Aristotle as the opposite virtue of courage, both being about one's reason taming one's more irrational impulses: what we might call loves, the feelings that attract one toward something, in the case of temperance; or fears, the feelings that repel one from something, in the case of courage. As courage helps counteract melancholy moods, temperance likewise helps tame the excesses of sanguine moods, keeping ontophilia from becoming mania.
The virtue similarly opposite of serenity might be called conscientiousness. Just as serenity bears some resemblance to courage, both overcoming negativity, as well as to temperance, both being a kind of calming restraint from action, so too this conscientiousness bears some resemblance to both. Like temperance, it is a kind of tamping back on too much of a good thing, and like courage, it is a motivation to action. For this conscientiousness as I mean it is the virtue of turning away from the opportunity to not care about anything and so escape from the suffering that those cares might threaten, to instead continue concerning oneself with doing good by the outside world, not just one's own inner feelings. In Mahayana Buddhism, those who do this are called bodhisattvas: those who have the opportunity to attain nirvana, but delay it out of compassion for those who still do not.
I think there are also epistemic versions of all four of these virtues, in addition to these usual deontic versions: concerning the pursuit of truth and knowledge, rather than goodness and justice. Comparable to courage, which pursues goodness even in the face of fear, is curiosity, which pursues truth even in the face of doubt. Likewise, comparable to serenity is impartiality, accepting truths whenever they are found and not fallaciously arguing against them just because we don't like them. Comparable to temperance is corrigibility, a willingness to admit the possibility of one's own beliefs being wrong. And comparable to conscientiousness is what we might call candor, a willingness to try to figure something out, even at risk of being wrong, instead of witholding all judgement entirely to remain safely immune from criticism.
Back to the prayer for courage and serenity, however: it asks also asks for wisdom, and I think that that is the trickiest of them all to master. I can only speak from my own experience, but it seems to me that when I am certain that I cannot or must not do something, it is easy to find the serenity not to do it, to accept that as something I cannot or must not change; and likewise, when I am certain that I can and must do something, it is easy to find the courage to do it, to change something I know I can and must.
It is when I don't completely know the difference that it becomes difficult. When I fear that I might fail, or that I might be doing the wrong thing, my courage to do it begins to falter. When I am tempted by the possibility that maybe I really can change something, and maybe it's okay if I do, then my serenity to accept things as they are begins to falter as well. That wisdom to know the difference is the hardest part; and such wisdom is exactly what philosophy, being literally "the love of wisdom" in Greek, is all about attaining.
But there is also a down side to such wisdom. "Ignorance is bliss" is a popular idiom for a good reason. Learning about reality and morality, as already detailed in my previous essay against cynicism, is all about narrowing down the available options about what might be true and what might be good, reducing the range of what is thought to be possible and permissible.
When we are completely ignorant early in life, so far as we have any reason to think, life is full of almost limitless possibilities and almost anything is okay. But as we learn more and more, we discover that more and more things are either ethically forbidden, or physically impossible; and as those sets get smaller and smaller, so does their intersection, and we find ourselves facing narrower and narrower ranges of permissible options that are actually possible to attain, and so life feels more and more hopeless, and we struggle more and more to find our way through the darkness, searching desperately for some dim, distant light to guide us.
Thankfully, there is no dearth of ignorance, for (as again laid out in my previous essay against cynicism) the process of learning is never-ending, there are always things about both reality and morality that we don't know, and so even if given all that we know everything seems hopeless, we can never be absolutely certain that it is, because we might always be wrong. And that possibility of error is, ironically, the last inextinguishable glimmer of hope.
I cannot say with any reliability that this was the intended meaning, but I think a plausible interpretation of the moral of the Abrahamic story of "original sin", where the progenitors of humanity Adam and Eve lived in paradise and "did not know death" until they ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, is not that they were immortal and faced no other hardships, but that they literally did not know about death, or any of the other horrors of reality, and so lived in blissful ignorance; and that by gaining knowledge, being able to differentiate good from evil, to recognize evil when they saw it coming instead of being ignorant of it, they lost the bliss of their former ignorance and so were metaphorically ejected from their previous state of paradise.
That is to say, that story may be a metaphor for how the origin of suffering is not just having desires, as the Buddhists teach, but also realizing that they might not be fulfilled; for wanting for things and ignorantly assuming that they are coming to you eventually is no suffering compared to the realization that you may never have them. In this story, the state of the protagonists before gaining knowledge of good and evil is described not as ignorance, but rather as innocence, so perhaps the popular idiom would be better and less controversially phrased as "innocence is bliss".
It would be ideal if somehow we could have the behavioral guidance of extensive wisdom, but the blissful experience of innocence: to behave pessimistically, in the sense of always taking every precaution and carefully calculating the probabilities of every risk and benefit so as to maximize the good we are able to do, to best bring reality into alignment with morality; but to experience life optimistically, in the sense of being carefree, worry-free. This seems to be the sentiment underlying the popular religious exhortation to "give your worries up to God": to live a happier life by letting someone else deal with the problems so you don't have to worry about them.
Unfortunately, as detailed above, it does not seem likely that there really is anyone we could delegate that responsibility to (at least not as a civilization or a species; some individuals may be so fortunate as to have reliable others to care for them like that).
There is however a fringe theory of psychology, called bicameralism, that holds that in prehistoric times, human brains may have functioned in a way not unlike that, each of us having a separate part of ourselves to which we could entrust the worrying while the part we think of as our self gets to live in innocence. According to that theory, the left hemisphere of the brain, which controls our speech, was responsible for moment-to-moment tasks and piece-by-piece reasoning; meanwhile the right hemisphere of the brain was responsible for big-picture, long-term thinking, and rather than controlling external speech, manifested itself as internal auditory hallucinations, a voice in the mind of the individual.
Such people would then, according to that theory, not have the experience of an internal dialog as we do today, thinking to ourselves and working things out, but instead experience their own big-picture, long-term thoughts as commandments from an invisible but seemingly external source – like the voice of a god – and so long as they just obeyed those commandments, they would find things in their lives working out well (at least better than they would be if they just continued thinking moment-to-moment), without the individual being consciously aware of worrying about the big picture and the long term.
I cannot speak to the empirical truth of this theory as a description of how real human minds actually work, but it sounds like an excellent model of how they should work, ideally: allowing us to coast through life innocently without conscious worry, only having to pay attention when our metaphorical internal navigation system tells us to "turn here", without us needing to know exactly why, just trusting that it has the best route for our lives mapped out. Maybe, with advancements in technology, we may some day be able to modify the human mind to function in such a way, or at least be increasingly able to offload the task of worrying about the future to some automated artificial intelligence system, freeing us to live worry-free lives but also to reap the benefits of extensive knowledge.
But until then, if we want to have that best of both worlds, the mystically optimistic experience of ontophilia, but the rationally pessimistic behavior it takes to continue surviving to have that experience, all we can do is try to optimistically hope for the best, in matters where we lack control and certainty; to pessimistically plan for the worst, in matters where we have such; and to pragmatically expect nothing in particular, just wait and see how it turns out.
That was actually my personal motto when I was a child, long before I had any idea what philosophy was, just my usual answer to the idiomatic question of optimism or pessimism, "is the glass half full or half empty", whether I expected the best or the worst of things: "hope for the best, plan for the worst, expect nothing".
I had mostly forgotten that old motto until, shortly after graduating university, soon after beginning this project, I began to find my way out of hopelessness and despair about difficult circumstances in my life by realizing the importance of trying in creating the possibility of success, and in the process coined a new motto, which in turn inspired the fundamental principle that finally grounded this system of philosophy that I had been haphazardly building toward for many years prior.
That new motto, which I translated into Latin just to sound fancy, was
id sim desperatum, sed conor nihilominus. But in English, that means
it may be hopeless, but I'm trying anyway.
Continue to the Summary of my Philosophy.