Saturday, June 11, 2016

Musings on the meaning of meaning and the pursuit of happiness

This afternoon I intended to write a post about the phrase "be compassionate", which I think is the essence of morality. The intended title for the post was "Be compassionate: Morality in simplest terms".

It just so happened that my extremely thoughtful cousin wrote something about the meaning of "true happiness" on his Facebook wall, which prompted me to respond with the following 1000 word essay, which is kind of related to what was on my mind this morning.

So... this isn't quite the post I was meaning to write today, if you're looking for an in-depth analysis of the phrase "be compassionate" you'll have to wait for another week. If you're really into moral/existential meta-philosophy, this post may yet be worth reading for you. If you're a Christian (particularly one who isn't some kind of universalist) and have thought about these things more carefully than I have, leave a comment.

I don't know whether there is such a thing as eternity. The miracle of conscious experience (the fact that a phenomenon so fantastic and wonderful even exists) makes the possibility of eternal life at least plausible. The demonstrable physical basis of consciousness (the fact that drugs and brain damage alter conscious experience) makes it plausible that consciousness is a (fantastic and wonderful) byproduct of chemistry that ends when the chemistry ends. I am sure that the assignment of probabilities to these two options is beyond the scope of modern science, and I suspect that it is also beyond the scope of any existing school of philosophy. Perhaps that will change in the future.

In the meantime, it is incumbent on us to find a conception of "happiness" that is consistent with all plausible realities. In fact, I don't think that a rational human mind will ever be completely comfortable with a conception of happiness that isn't compatible with both possibilities (or whatever other possibilities it deems to be reasonable). That's one reason (there are others) why selfish hedonism seems so vacuous (even to the selfish hedonists!). At the same time, it's one reason why so many thoughtful people "struggle" with religion.

I wholly agree with you when you emphasize the process of discovery. Most adult humans are capable of abstract reasoning. The problem of finding "happiness" and "meaning" only exists as a product of our capacity for abstract reasoning. Animals probably don't have existential crises, and plants certainly don't. Any solution to the problem of "happiness" and "meaning" must necessarily also come as a product of abstract thought. For an answer to the question of happiness and meaning to be at all satisfying for someone, a person must be convinced that the answer is as consistent as possible with their observations and rational conclusions about their own internal condition and the condition of the universe around them. It's not enough for someone to be told "this is the way to happiness" or "this is the meaning of life". They have to test it, think about it, and prove it to themself. This is why the "journey" is so important. There really aren't any short cuts. It's hard work.

One reason belief in the existence of Hell is such a hindrance to the pursuit of happiness and meaning is that belief in Hell is a powerful barrier to certain lines of reasoning about happiness. When someone believes in Hell, they are afraid to seriously consider the possibility that Hell does not exist (because they are afraid that if they somehow convince themself that it doesn't exist, that might be sufficient to damn them). If they can't reason about a possibility, then they can't reason about whether their conception of happiness is consistent with it. This is probably why so many (but certainly not all) of the most thoughtful Christians eventually become universalist Christians. Universalism allows them to reason freely, which in turn allows them to progress on their rational journey to an understanding of happiness and meaning.

Where has my personal journey taken me (currently, on June 11 2016 at 3:52 PST)? To the somewhat simplistic answer that happiness and meaning lie wholly in gratefulness (just a little of this) and compassion (a LOT of this). And nowhere else. It's a position which many many other people have come to in the past, and which is backed by mountains of logic and personal experience. I suspect that anyone who reasons carefully enough and for long enough will come to a similar conclusion, but I don't know. I do know, however, that it won't do anybody much good to take my word for it without going on that journey for themself. And it won't do me much good to just sit on my laurels and stop thinking about it. If I stop thinking about it, the edifice of reason will erode with time, and I'll forget the reasons behind why I think how I think, and without the reasons, it will cease to be satisfying. And I'll be lost again.

I listened to the Tim Keller audio, and I think he's being too vague. It's not at all clear what, in a practical sense, he means for people to do. What does he mean when he asks us to "serve God"? Does he mean we should build monuments to God (I can hardly believe that's what he means)? Does he mean that we should avoid consensual homosexual relations (I suspect that this is partly what he means)? Or does he mean that in every situation, in situations that seem good and situations that seem bad, we should be grateful that we have such a wonderful gift as conscious experience, and that we should do our utmost to be compassionate to other consciousnesses (I am sure that this is at least partly what he means).

I think only the last case is important, but I don't see why it has to be associated with any particular religion or deity. And I don't see why it has to be linked to a concept of eternal life. An anonymous or impersonal gift can be just as meaningful as a personal gift. For example, the receipt of a heart or lungs from an anonymous organ donor is an incredibly meaningful gift (and it would still be meaningful if the heart were grown on a tree or was dug up from the ground, rather than coming from someone who made the conscious decision to give it). Why can't the receipt of consciousness from an impersonal universe be just as worthy of gratefulness as it would be from a personal God? Why is not the mere existence of other consciousnesses sufficient criteria for those consciousnesses to merit our compassion? Why does Tim Keller say that we should "serve God" when he could just as easily tell us what he really means, which is that we should be grateful and compassionate? To be fair, I've watched some other videos by him, and it seems that he does occasionally say this, I'm just not sure why he bothers saying anything else.

Why does knowledge of Jesus make the people in Guatemala (or you) happy? What exactly was the hope that Jesus brought to the world? Hope for eternal euphoria? Hope for eternal serenity? At the very least, hope for eternal non-painful conscious experience? Is life on Earth really so bad that the only way to make it tolerable is to imagine something else? I don't think I really know what people mean when they say their "hope is in heaven". At first glance, it sounds a little bit selfish, but my conception of it may be a primitive one. What exactly do people mean when they say that their hope is in heaven?

1 comment:

  1. I later had a discussion about these points with a Christian who I respect, who questioned whether I had ever seriously considered the possibility of a traditional Christian/Biblical cosmology. Here is my response to that query, which I think is also a concise summary and clarification of the ideas in this post. I regret not ending this e-mail with the question, "Why should anyone believe in Hell?", because I was hoping for a response clarifying that point, but received no response at all.

    "As far as not considering the possibility that the God of the Bible exists. I don't presume to be able to know whether He exists or not. The most I can say is that I desperately hope that He doesn't. It seems to me that the part of Christian cosmology that most demands attention is not a loving God, but an eternal Hell. Without a Hell, what is the point of a savior-God?

    So there are three possibilities:

    God does not exist: Then I ought to appreciate what a spectacular experience it is to have life, and I ought to be good to other people and animals.

    God exists, but Hell does not: Same as above.

    God exists, and so does a place where some people experience eternal pain: This possibility is horrifying and repugnant, so for the sake of my own sanity, I choose not to think too deeply about it anymore. In the past when I did take this possibility seriously, it led to some pretty bizarre conclusions about morality.

    So, whether or not heaven exists does not seem to me to be such an important question. If I cease to exist 5 minutes from now, then my life will still have been a fantastic miracle, even though it has been imperfect. Spending very much time thinking about the possibility of heaven would make it harder to appreciate the life I already have, and distract from the task of being good to people in this life. It would be like how it is unhealthy for a married person to fantasize about the perfect spouse. Much better to learn to appreciate the actual spouse and work towards harmony in the actual marriage."