Posts Tagged ‘meaning of life’


November 20, 2012

The meaning of life? There’s a Jamesian answer, of course:

The solid meaning of life is always the same eternal thing,— the marriage, namely, of some unhabitual ideal, however special, with some fidelity, courage, and endurance; with some man’s or woman ‘s pains.—And, whatever or wherever life may be, there will always be the chance for that marriage to take place. “What Makes a Life Significant

And a  Deweyan answer too:

“The things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves. They exist by grace of the doings and sufferings of the continuous human community in which we are a link. Ours is the responsibility of conserving, transmitting, rectifying and expanding the heritage of values we have received, that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible and more generously shared than we have received it.”

James and Dewey were both profoundly impressed by the Darwinian-evolutionary account, then still fresh and exciting in its reconstructive possibilities, of life as an unfolding saga whose ultimate meanings hang in the balance of events to which we are privileged to contribute. They were confident that our “doings and sufferings” on behalf of voluntary ideals are meaningful. Their focus was not on our lowly progenitors, but on the prospective progeny who will come after us and be grateful or not for our contributions to the great story of life.

Some say the story’s too big, the scientific and cosmic vistas too vast to accommodate meaningful lives on the human scale. Carl Sagan, who said so many fine things, disagreed.

“In this perspective the idea that our planet is at the center of the universe much less that human purpose is central to the existence of the universe is pathetic. Does life thereby lose all meaning, I think not. I think we make our lives meaningful by the courage of our questions, by the depth of our answers, by how widespread our understanding is of the essential tools for managing our future, for how skeptical we are of those in authority and of our obligation to care for one another.”

Our epic story is a strong candidate for the great unifying meaning of life, drawing together all the separate narratives of our plurality. As Richard Dawkins says: we’re among the lucky few, of all the possible beings  who might have drawn breath in our place but never will, who get a chance to write a few lines of the story.

Our gratitude should know no bounds.

The secret is bright

December 6, 2011

It’s the last day of class in SOL. If we’re going to nail down “the secret of life” we’d better do it now.

Actually I think we’ve identified many secrets, exposed many strategies. Matthieu Ricard’s (& HHDL’s) Buddhist path undoubtedly holds great promise for many. Others will prefer Bertrand Russell’s rational conquest, Jennifer Hecht’s de-mythified pluralism, or even Barbara Ehrenreich’s anti-brightness campaign. We’ve only just begun to scratch the surface.

Next time this course comes up in rotation I’ll try to scratch deeper, with the likes of Sissela Bok’s Exploring Happiness and Owen Flanagan’s Bodhisattva’s Brain. And maybe we’ll go back to originals like Epicurus, Montaigne, Hume, and James. I’m open to suggestion.

But, I still don’t expect ever to get better insight into the way of happiness than that offered by the Pythons. This is no substitute for the full course, not even the full five minutes, but I think you can bank on it. The secret of life?

Well, it’s nothing very special. Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.

Oh, and one more thing (Ms. Ehrenreich notwithstanding): always look on the bright side of life, and have them sing it at your funeral.

Don’t worry. Be happy.

The happy “citizen of the universe”

October 13, 2011

We finish Russell’s Conquest today, even though he already told us the secret of happiness* back in chapter 10 and we talked about it last time.

But there’s more. “Even the dullest work is to most people less painful than idleness.” Not that Lord Russell ever had to turn himself to the dullest work. He flipped no burgers, for sure, and had no electronic diversions to fill idle hours. And there are times when “thinking of nothing and doing nothingare deeply gratifying. But in general, idleness and soul-crushing boredom go hand-in-glove.

Impersonal Interests are those “lying outside the main activities” of your life and work. I’m still taking a very intense impersonal interest in the MLB postseason, for instance. (Cards win!)

The world is full of things that are tragic or comic, heroic or bizarre or surprising, and those who fail to be interested in the spectacle that it offers are forgoing one of the privileges that life has to offer.

Those who do cultivate a wide and varied interest in life’s rich pagaent, though, experience “deep happiness.” Life becomes communion with the ages, personal death pales to insignificance (“a negligible incident”).

That’s a little sketchy, but (speaking for myself) Russell’s cosmic pedagogical perspective– he calls it Spinoza’s, which would also make it Einstein’s– again inspires.

I should seek to make young people vividly aware of the past, vividly realising that the future of man will in all likelihood be immeasurably longer than his past, profoundly conscious of the minuteness of the planet upon which we live and of the fact that life on this planet is only a temporary incident…

Makes you feel sort of small and insignificant, eh Mrs. Brown? But Russell has the antidote to feelings of personal smallness engendered by reflections on the vastness of the cosmos. Just remember

the greatness of which the individual is capable, and the knowledge that throughout all the depths of stellar space nothing of equal value is known to us. 

In other words, just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving and…

Effort and Resignation. This chapter  begins with grudging praise for Aristotelian moderation, the key to balancing personal ambition with fate. The race is not always to the swift etc., so we’d best be prepared not to realize all our dreams… and still be happy. The “golden mean” is key, opening us to insights like:

Health is a blessing which no one can be sure of preserving; marriage is not invariably a source of bliss. [So] happiness must for most be an achievement rather than a gift of the gods.

In a thousand ways the failure of purely personal hopes may by unavoidable, but if personal aims have been part of larger hopes for humanity, there is not the same utter defeat when failure comes.

The man who is working for some much-needed reform may find all his efforts sidetracked by a war, and may be forced to realise that what he has worked for will not come about in his lifetime. But he need not on that account sink into complete despair, provided that he is interested in the future of mankind apart from his own participation in it.

Worry and fret and irritation are emotions which serve no purpose… in the history of the cosmos the event in question has no very great importance.

It’s all about shucking the false skin of isolated selfhood, tribal exclusion, and narrow nationalism. The Happy Man or woman is

a citizen of the universe, enjoying freely the spectacle that it offers and the joys that it affords, untroubled by the thought of death because he feels himself not really separate from those who will come after him. It is in such profound instinctive union with the stream of life that the greatest joy is to be found.

So there you have it. Go find, and enjoy. And enjoy your Fall Break.

Then begin enjoying Jennifer Hecht’s Myth of Happiness for next time.

*The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible , and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.

Well, maybe. But maybe those other Brits were onto something too:

Well, it’s nothing special. Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.

But that’s fundamentally all the same advice, isn’t it?

hard problem

May 15, 2010

There are many hard problems in philosophy– in life– but Owen Flanagan is right to identify the problem of meaning in a material world as among the very hardest. (Here it is at amazon. Monetize me!)

He’s right, too, to say that we can meaningfully differ in our respective solutions.

We can adopt different legitimate attitudes toward the truth about our nature and our predicament. I recommend optimistic realism. Joyful optimistic realism. Life can be precious and funny. And one doesn’t need to embrace fantastical stories– unbecoming to historically mature beings– about our nature and prospects to make it so.

I agree, enthusiastically… but you’ll still have a hard time persuading me of the legitimacy of Sorrowful Pessimistic Irrealism. Hit me with your best shot.

In any case, I’m excited that Flanagan is lined up as the keynote speaker for the next annual Tennessee Philosophical Association conference in the Fall, and motivated to prepare a submission on a consciousness-related theme.

And, to trot out again the “Meaning of Life” course I last taught at Vanderbilt in 2005.  Stay tuned.

WJ 9.1

April 2, 2010

Last time we were with James in Chocorua and Paris, now we’re back on native ground.

In WJ 9 we encountered some of James’s most enduring and inspiring work, in the form of essays addressed explicitly to teachers and students  concerning applied psychology and “some of life’s ideals.” He was very clear: we all have it in us to stand up and be heroes. Consider, for instance, the so-called Little Rock Nine. Their ideal was simply to get an education in the previously-segregated public schools of Little Rock, Arkansas, and to establish that precedent as the new norm. The personal courage and perseverance they had to summon, to achieve that, was impressive. Human beings have an impressive capacity to rise up and do great, good things. For James, that capacity is what makes a life significant“The solid meaning of life is always the same eternal thing,— the marriage, namely, of some unhabitual ideal, however special, with some fidelity, courage, and endurance; with some man’s or woman ‘s pains.”

A few new important and telling points about our philosopher and his work:

Jacques Barzun, author of A Stroll With William James, said Principles of Psychology (1890), like Moby Dick, ought to be read from beginning to end at least once by every person professing to be educated.

“Principles” jolted John Dewey out of his neo-Kantian slumber…

Novelist Rebecca West said one of the James brothers grew up to write fiction as though it were philosophy [psychology?] and the other to write philosphy as though it were fiction.

William had a gift for memorable phrases: the bitch-goddess success,  stream of consciousness, blooming buzzing confusion, moral equivalent of war, healthy-minded, live option…

“Will you or won’t you have it so?” is the most probing question we are ever asked… We answer by consents or non-consents and not by words…

One of his great enthusiasms arises now: “The Gospel of Relaxation“*… capped by the best practical teaching advice I’ve ever heard: “The advice I should give to most teachers would be to prepare yourself in the subject so well that it shall be always on tap: then in the class-room trust your spontaneity and fling away all further care.”

*”If you never wholly give yourself up to the chair you sit in, but always keep your leg- and body-muscles half contracted for a rise; if you breathe eighteen or nineteen instead of sixteen times a minute, and never quite breathe out at that,—what mental mood can you be in but one of inner panting and expectancy, and how can the future and its worries possibly forsake your mind… The American over-tension and jerkiness and breathlessness and intensity and agony of expression are primarily social, and only secondarily physiological, phenomena. They are bad habits, nothing more or less, bred of custom and example, born of the imitation of bad models and the cultivation of false personal ideals… We, here in America, through following a succession of pattern-setters whom it is now impossible to trace, and through influencing each other in a bad direction, have at last settled down collectively into what, for better or worse, is our own characteristic national type…”

I don’t know if this is still a pervasive problem in America, as apparently it was a century ago. I do notice plenty of tense, constricted, contorted faces on my ambles across campus and in town and behind the wheel. I preach my own gospel of relaxation by urging folks to take a hike or a bike-ride, as I did yesterday on my way to school. My reward: the discovery of a wonderful new bike path from Edwin Warner Park that snakes behind the Ensworth High School campus near the Harpeth River, under Hwy 100, all the way to the playing fields where Younger Daughter played in the Babe Ruth League with her team the Dixie Chicks  a few seasons ago. That was relaxing.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: No class today. We’ll stay on track with the syllabus: for Monday finish Passion for Wisdom.


September 22, 2009

The world is flat, & blind. Commenting on the somewhat raucous atmosphere of last Tuesday’s class, I referenced William James’s notion of  “a certain blindness” to which we all periodically succumb when defending our own precious subjective sense of things. We forget that others see things from the alternate angles of their own perspectives, every bit as central to them as ours are to us; and we focus exclusively on how it is for us. In Tigger’s solipsistic self-inflating words: “I’m the only one.”

Jon Haidt has something similar in mind in ch9. Like  the square in Flatland, “we have all encountered something we failed to understand, yet smugly believed we understood because we couldn’t conceive of the dimension to which we were blind.”

Haidt, calling himself a Jewish atheist, nonetheless contends that we can bust out of our blind corners to apprehend something life-quickening and meaningful he somewhat misleadingly calls “divine.”

We can, and we do. Our inherited faith and wisdom traditions are quick to claim and try to assimilate such “vertical” perceptions, but Haidt says they float free of history. The world of spirit or transcendence– other potentially misleading terms, if you have better suggestions please pass ’em to the front– is a huge fount of happiness if we learn to tap it, and don’t over-indulge.

One way to learn to tap it is to leave your home culture for a time, and learn the ways of some other corner of the world. Haidt went to India, and got a fresh angle on things at home in Flatland, Virginia. For instance, “I began to feel disgust for the American practice of marching around one’s own house– even one’s bedroom–wearing the same shoes that, minutes earlier, had walked through city streets.” I had the same feeling after visiting our friends who follow Japanese custom and check shoes at the door.

But let’s cut to the chase. What is the secret of happiness, the meaning of life?

“The final version of the happiness hypothesis is that  happiness comes from between. Happiness is not something that you can find, acquire, or achieve directly. You have to get the conditions right and then wait. Some of those conditions are within you, such as coherence among the parts and levels of your personality. Other conditions require relationships to things beyond you: Just as plants need sun, water, and good soil to thrive, people need love, work, and a connection to something larger. It is worth striving to get the right relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself. If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge.”

In other words, Jon Haidt agrees,

And that’s about it, really. Happiness is the meaning of life.

meanings evolve

September 16, 2009

Our text touches many bases of proposed meaning, especially in the Existentialist and Romantic camps. But it really drops the ball in not mentioning evolution as a source of meaning.  So let’s begin to fix that:

That was serious, but maybe still too silly for everybody’s taste. Here’s an approach to the same kind of feeling about the immensity of cosmic/biological evolution that’s completely different in tone:

Loyal Rue concisely weaves  Everybody’s Story as a grand epic we’re privileged to participate in. Dan Dennett nominates Darwin’s natural selection idea as The Best. Both are good, and persuasive. Richard Dawkins literally shares with us the deepest gratitude for getting to exist at all.

But nobody ever explained evolution as a powerful, “spiritual” candidate for one of the large meanings of life better than  the late Carl Sagan. His deathbed nonconversion was poignant, his Cosmos conclusion eloquent and soaring, his Pale Blue Dot one of the most moving expressions of the improbable human journey  ever . As he says, we have walked far from the east African plains, and from Darwin‘s tangled bank. “There is a grandeur in this view of life… endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

And the beauty of pluralizing the meanings of life is that you don’t have to choose between science and God if you don’t want to. There is such a thing as a Theistic Evolutionist. Many will find that an oxymoronic or flabby conflation, but there’s nothing in the logic of our ultimate cosmic ignorance to rule out an Intelligent Designer.

Occam had a razor that might seek that paring– “Don’t multiply entities beyond necessity” etc.– but that’s achickenrazor separate argument. Simplicity appeals to the logician and to some metaphysicians, and the evolutionary hypothesis really is breathtakingly simple too.

But what it’s spawned is an increasingly complex and layered universe. Simplicity may not ultimately reside in the stars.

To be clear: the preponderance of the scientific evidence for evolution is overwhelming. You can’t really choose God in place of science, but there may still be room for peaceful co-existence.

Just don’t try to make the earth out to be only a few thousand years old, that’s nonsense. The cosmic calendar is much, much larger. On its scale, roughly a billion years a month, we’re just a few seconds old.   Happy Birthday!

Meaning of Life

April 30, 2009

A friend writes:  “I’m having a heavy desire to simplify, to need and want less, to have less, and to try and do some good, to help out my neighbor along the way. Try and make it matter that I was ever here in the first place. ‘Cause there has to be a reason or what’s the point? So I’m wondering where I’m bound, what it matters and what’s the point.”

Well, it’s nothing very special.
Uh, try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.

Also, remember that you’re standing on a planet that evolving