The purpose of life – deconstruction & reconstruction

What is the purpose of life? Why are we here? What is life’s meaning?

These are the questions that have occupied contemplatives of all sorts for millennia. From the wealthiest to the lowliest of people we ponder on these grand questions. I’ve always found these questions compelling – from a young age I continually sought out answers to them. I still do.

In this article I’ll “have a crack at” answering these questions. It’s important to say upfront that these are the kinds of questions that can occupy you for a lifetime, so while we can attempt to get close to answers, they are questions that in some sense we are continually answering and continually asking.

While I think the answers can’t all be written in one article, we can at least approach the subject somewhat with a few angles and draw a few conclusions.

Approaching deep questions

The thing about deep questions is that if we just answer them straight away without context then the answers won’t necessarily make sense. An analogy might be helpful here. Let’s say you want to get from your house to the local city centre. You first have to leave your house and navigate a complex route to arrive at your desired destination. Deep questions in some sense are the same; you first have to leave your house (set the context), then navigate the route (discuss the deep question from multiple angles), eventually arriving at the city (final or sort-of final answers).

So in this article I will first approach, then attempt to present answers to these significant questions. It’s important to approach the concepts systematically.

(That’s why philosophers use essays!)

The Mormon background

Readers of my blog will know I was raised a Mormon. When it came to significant questions like these I had ready-made, “off the shelf” answers. The answers to these questions had been put into a neat, coherent package for my consumption. I loved it. The universe made sense and my life had a deep and profound context.

I was a son of God. I had been sent to this earth to be tested. The goal was to obey the laws and ordinances of the Gospel, such that I could, in the next life, obtain my eternal exaltation in the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom. “Men are that they might have joy”. It all made so much sense.

However, unfortunately I discovered (much to my dismay) that these ready-made answers had very poor foundations. They relied heavily on faith – belief in the absence of objective evidence (and in many instances contrary to objective evidence), and when I examined both the objective evidence and the philosophical foundations of faith, I found them to be severely lacking. I had a “faith crisis”, and realised the church’s truth claims are false.

It was a harrowing journey, but emerging on the other side breathed fresh vigour into these big, profound questions. Now I could contemplate these grand questions with complete openness – and no assumptions! I could question absolutely everything right down to the very foundations of my reality, and build my worldview from the ground up – it was and is an exhilarating project!

Unpacking the questions

Beginning the journey of “leaving the house”, before we can systematically tackle grand questions like the purpose of life, we first have to unpack them somewhat.

In other words, we should first ask questions about the questions. Questions like:

  1. What do these questions really mean?
  2. What do these questions reveal about human nature?
  3. What kinds of answers would satisfy us?
  4. How would we know if an answer is the right answer?
  5. What kinds of answers would we view as absurd? Why?

There are many pathways of thought that these answers can lead to, I want to first examine some of these as we begin our journey.

#1 Where does “purpose” lead us?

When we ask the question “What is the purpose of life?”, what do we really mean by this? Breaking down these words into simpler words can help unpack their meaning further.

I want to focus on the word purpose. Purpose means: “the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists”. Another way to phrase it could be “the intent behind some action or object’s existence”.

But who or what is it that forms this intent?

We see a few chairs and table in the backyard of our neighbor’s house. We can ask “what is their purpose?” – by this question, we assert that some being capable of having intent placed them there for a predetermined reason (to be sat on). There is no purpose without someone having intent.

Hence, when we ask what the purpose of life is, we are seeking out a story about the intent of someone – presumably the one who created life, us and the universe. 

This is why the concept of God is so compelling to us – we can invoke some grander being capable of having this intent, who then created the universe and everything in it for his own intentions with his own design and reasons. Thus, we are simply asking -what are those intentions?

It makes perfect sense. 

But… (and here’s where the philosophy comes in) the problem with this line of thinking is that it simply escalates the philosophical question of purpose up the chain by one level. It doesn’t actually answer the question of the purpose of life rather it escalates the question to some other “higher” form of life. It merely defers this problem to someone else to solve.

To illustrate a philosophical problem with this approach, let’s ask a few different questions:

  1. Is God alive? Supposedly yes, then: what is the purpose of God’s life?

Now we have a major problem. Either we need to invoke a God of the God (and then a God of that God, and another, and another, etc. ad infinitum (infinitely) – this is called infinite regression), OR, we might just – simply – admit that God is capable of producing the purpose we seek without needing another being above him?

By this I am approaching a simple fact: purpose is created by beings developing intent and then telling themselves stories about their work.

In other words, for those believing in God, the question “What is the purpose of life” is a essentially asking what story God told himself while creating us.

Now, if God is capable of producing the purpose (by telling himself a story about his creation), then we have admitted that some conscious being (and self) is capable of manufacturing Purpose and Meaning by thinking and telling stories to themselves and others. 

Do you agree? If so, that’s all I need for now. I just want to plant the seed that a conscious being is capable of producing purpose and meaning by thinking and telling themselves stories.

(You too are a conscious being…)

Good, let’s take a detour down another side-road.

#2 Does this make sense to YOU?

Let’s say that some crazy person approaches you on the street and claims that the human race was created by aliens as a huge science experiment.

You respond:

“Nah, that doesn’t make sense to me, you’re crazy, where’s the evidence?”

By this statement you mean that your intuitions and knowledge do not line up with the new claim made by this person. You find their claim nonsensical, absurd!

But there’s also something deeper going on.

When you say “I think this is true” or “this makes sense to me”, you are taking authority for determining the truth into yourself – you are utilising your feelings, thoughts, logic and intuitions to determine what’s true (what else would you do? – these are the only real tools you have access to).

Let’s say for the sake of argument you’re a Mormon. You believe the standard Mormon narrative regarding the purpose of life.

Why do you believe it?

Because it feels true. It makes sense to you. You’ve had spiritual experiences confirming these truths to you. 

But I want to unpack what that means more deeply. When you believe your feelings originate from God, you’re not actually giving authority to God, but to your feelings. Thus, the ultimate authority in determining the purpose of life is not God as you suppose it is, but it is your feelings, intuitions and sense of logic (which you may suppose or claim originate from a God).

So how do you determine the purpose of life?

Well, when candidate “purposes of life” (options, stories about the purpose of life) are presented to you for your consideration, how do you determine which ones are true?

Well, you might pray and ask God – a believed in “superior being” to tell you which ones are true, and how do you listen for the answer? With your thoughts, feelings and impressions (which you assume come from God, why? Because you feel that way). Thus, how you determine what you think the purpose of life is is not actually God, but how candidate purposes resonate with your thoughts, feelings and impressions. 

Thus, if you are self-aware enough, you will recognise that your thoughts, feelings, impressions and logic are where the purpose of life comes from, by being the gatekeepers of what you are willing to believe is true.

Now, let’s change gears and take a left turn…

#3 What’s the purpose of Venus?

Venus is the second planet from the sun. it orbits the sun at a distance of 108.2 million km, has a crushingly thick atmosphere and is very hot. It’s a beautiful planet.

So, I’d like to ask: What’s the purpose of Venus?

Well, it’s really hard to answer that question. Venus is a massive rock in the sky! There’s nothing living on there, and it just spins around the sun. Most of the time we don’t even think about it (unless you’re an astronomer).

Must Venus have a purpose? 

Some people believe that “everything happens for a reason” (and the corollary, “everything exists for a reason”). So what’s the grand reason that Venus exists? What about Jupiter? What about Mars? What about the globular cluster Messier 13?

What’s the purpose of the M13 Globular Cluster?

Is it possible that these planets simply formed from pre-existing elements and have no purpose? (No being with an intention created them?) I mean, we’d really struggle to come up with explanations about the purposes of these planets that make sense or are compelling.

Now if you’re a Mormon and you know your temple ceremony, you might think: “Well, maybe God made these to “beautify and add variety to the universe” so that we humans could ponder in these grand things and be inspired. I’m certainly all good with that notion, BTW – seeing as myself I find these things very awe inspiring, but then what about the purpose of ugly things – what’s the purpose of mosquitoes, cockroaches, and frogs? What’s the purpose of dirt under your nails?

When answering the question about the purpose of life, we have to leave room for some things to not have any purpose. Surely, there are many things that exist that are merely coincidental? The specific shape of a cloud in the sky, the exact number of stars in the milky way, or those five rocks in your backyard: do the all have grand stories and purposes behind them?

And then what about the purpose of other forms of life? What’s the purpose of a wolf? A bat? A Kangaroo? If you’re Mormon, you’d probably refer to the temple ceremony where it says they “fill the measure of (their) creation and have joy therein”. I find that a very interesting candidate purpose, and I think that purpose would indeed be approaching the city centre, but it doesn’t need a God, it’s a story that can be told directly by us.

I’ll explain in the next section. Take a right!

#4 What’s the purpose of Chocolate?

There’s a bar of chocolate in front of you. What’s its purpose?

The question seems unnecessary. Isn’t it obvious? Chocolate tastes good! Duh!

There’s an entire worldwide industry dedicated to the creation of chocolate, all for what? Merely to help us experience the taste of it. 

Because we like it. 

The intent behind chocolate is to create a particular kind of experience. 

But then, wouldn’t that apply to pretty much everything we make? Why do you go to a movie? Why do you study a university degree? Why do you buy a house? Why do you make love?

Because the real value of all of these choices is your attempts to create and maintain specific conscious experiences. For example, you buy a house so that every day you can keep enjoying the safety, warmth, security, and personal space it offers to you and your family. You watch a movie to enjoy many moments of viewing pleasure. You study a university degree to have a successful career and all of the emotions that this creates over the long term.

Extrapolating this idea to a larger context, enter a quote from Sam Harris:

Everything we do is for the purpose of altering consciousness. We form friendships so that we can feel certain emotions, like love, and avoid others, like loneliness. We eat specific foods to enjoy their fleeting presence on our tongues. We read for the pleasure of thinking another person’s thoughts. Every waking moment—and even in our dreams—we struggle to direct the flow of sensation, emotion, and cognition toward states of consciousness that we value.

Interestingly enough, this is true even if you believe in God and Mormonism. For example, why do you seek to go to heaven? Why do you want to go to the Celestial kingdom? Isn’t it because you want to have the experience of being there in the fulness of joy with your family for eternity? In your efforts to “obey God and His commandments” “follow His ways” “live the Gospel” etc. etc. are you not merely attempting to alter future states of consciousness based on acquiring knowledge of how your actions impact them? 

Indeed, are not all of your stories for that very purpose? What story do we tell that does not attempt to make sense of the world and our interaction with it, with the final aim of altering our conscious experience further?

Straight ahead now, in high gear…

#5 Our hunger for meaning

Very young children (under the age of 2) do not have a sense of self. They have consciousness, but they don’t recognise that there’s someone (me) here within the consciousness. This sense develops slowly and is much more solid by age 3.

Part of the development of the sense of self is the creation of an elaborate set of stories. These stories start from the absolute basics, for example, that “I” am a body that can bump into objects and that can hurt. Certain experiences have a positive or negative character, and we, as we develop, begin to identify which actions lead to which kinds of experiences.

In other words, the self exists to maximise positive experiences, and minimise negative ones, and this is done through pattern recognition and storytelling. We begin to learn that storytelling is actually highly effective. If we feel this rumbling in our tummy, and then we eat, the rumbling goes away. If we feel a pressure in our bowels and we go to the toilet, the negative feeling goes away. If mummy is over there and we lie on her lap, we feel comfortable and warm.

As we grow the stories become infinitely more elaborate and complex. We seek a job because employment and security feel better than unemployment and insecurity. We seek a spouse because the feeling of love and companionship feel better than the feelings of loneliness.

Stories become so powerful that they weave a fabric that subsumes us. We can’t see the world without our conceptual overlay – without our stories. This is why the statement by Steve Covey “we see the world not as it is but as we are” rings true.

We develop an insatiable hunger for stories, meaning, and purpose. Everything that happens is analysed by the self, categorised and integrated into the massive whole.

But by so doing, we can also create false positives. Our talent for pattern recognition can create false patterns, and these patterns can become so strong that they themselves can alter our experience itself.

The grilled cheese sandwich

Many years ago someone grilled a cheese sandwich, and it came out like this:

Pattern recognition: for Catholics

This sandwitch was later on sold for $28 000. Who would pay $28 000 for a grilled cheese sandwitch with a facial pattern on it? Someone who believes it’s Mother Mary. “We believe that everyone should be able to see it and learn of its mystical power for themselves.”

Enter Neil DeGrasse Tyson:

“We hunger for significance, for signs that our personal existence is of special meaning to the universe. To that end, we’re all too eager to deceive ourselves and others, to discern a sacred image in a grilled cheese sandwich or find a divine warning in a comet”

We are, ourselves, deeply drunk on pattern recognition. We see patterns everywhere. But that doesn’t mean they’re true. And I believe in our deep yearning and hunger for meaning, we invent many many stories to fill the void. They may feel true to us, but it does not make them true in some objective sense.

Slowing down, entering the central business district:

What is the purpose of life?

With all of the above as context, we have arrived in the city. Let’s take a look around here, it’s a strange place!

Looking around, I summarise my thesis on the purpose of life thus: some statements will be deconstructive: (taking apart other supposed purposes), while others will be reconstructive; (putting something else in its place).

Deconstructive elements

  1. We are addicted to storytelling and pattern-recognition. As such, we have erected massive complexes of made-up stories, fully fledged with Heavens (ideal conscious states), and Gods (grand creator beings with intent), but these stories are conspicuously revealing of our own minds when you dig beneath the surface.
    1. We invented God in our own image to fill the void of purpose. But the God we invented has no objective evidence to support it, and he is conspicuously like us; for a Mormon he is a white male with ten fingers and ten toes who has opinions and cultural preferences strikingly similar to the powerful men in Utah. For a Hindi one of the gods is like an beautiful elephant in India. For an ancient Norseman, a  powerful Norse warrior.
    2. We invented Heaven to match our own ideal conscious states. For a Mormon, heaven is much like a permanent Sunday afternoon spent with family, basking in the summer sunlight. For a Muslim, heaven is described as “gardens in paradise beneath which rivers flow.” (Gardens? Rivers? Make sense for a religion originating in a desert?)
  2. We need to make room for things to exist without purpose: does every little event and object need a grand story bathed in significance?

Reconstructive elements

  1. Our storytelling and pattern-recognition form the very fabric of our self. Our self is the grand set of stories about our life – our attempts to make sense. So we not only create stories, we are stories.
  2. As such, we are, our selves, Meaning and Purpose producing machines. We make meaning all the time. We make purpose all the time. In every moment that we are thinking, we are overlaying the universe and our conscious experience with meaning and purpose.
    1. So while the deconstructive element of our storytelling is the recognition that many of our stories are fictions, the reconstructive element is the recognition that you are the very fountain of meaning of your life.
    2. Hence, the self is the solution to nihilism – and always was. It is after all and ironically, the self telling the stories about nihilism in an effort to make sense.
  3. The purpose of life is to increase well being. We don’t need a God to tell us this. Why? – because chocolate tastes good without invoking a grand creator (translation: consciousness has the characters that it does, some states are pleasant and others unpleasant. Well being is the very definition of “good” experiences averaged over the long term, and as such this argument can be bootstrapped without needing anything to support it. See Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape for a deeper dive into this topic)
    1. Simpler version: Happiness is good, you don’t need a supreme being to tell you that. Well-being is good.
    2. All of our efforts ultimately have this aim. No matter who you are or what you believe, you are continually trying to create happiness and well-being, however feebly. Hence, if you believe the creation of well-being is the purpose of life, this belief supersedes any other beliefs (E.G religious ones), and we all inherently believe this – it’s in the very fabric of all of our efforts.

Wrapping up: the present moment

There have been moments where I find myself standing in an open field, gazing up at the beautiful stars at night, observing the immensity of space, speechless in awe.

Does this experience require a purpose? Do I need to tell myself a story about this moment in order to validate or complete it?

Do you?

12 Comments

  1. Karen

    Wow – loads of interesting insights.

    Far too many for my small brain.

    I think I search for a story/ explanation which gives me meaning/ purpose so that my ego feels secure.

    Reply
    1. shawn (Post author)

      Thanks for reading!

      I should add this to my summary here. Another way of summarising this article is: The purpose of life is to tell and live stories that we find compelling.

      Reply
  2. Guy Spillers

    I appreciate the thought you put into this. This is interesting to me, as I find epistemology and ontology to be extremely important subjects that most people think very little about. To that end, I had some questions. First, the quotes in question:

    “However, unfortunately I discovered (much to my dismay) that these ready-made answers had very poor foundations. They relied heavily on faith – belief in the absence of objective evidence (and in many instances contrary to objective evidence), and when I examined both the objective evidence and the philosophical foundations of faith, I found them to be severely lacking. I had a ‘faith crisis’, and realised the church’s truth claims are false.”

    “By this I am approaching a simple fact: purpose is created by beings developing intent and then telling themselves stories about their work.”

    The entire thrust of your argument here seems to be (correct me if I am wrong) that purpose/meaning are grounded not primarily in any perception of objective reality per se, but rather within the subjective self, ie, the consciousness of the conscious being. You cite your prior commitment to the Mormon religion as evidence of this phenomenon, and your subsequent exodus as due to the lack of “objective” evidence for it. As far as I can tell, you believe Mormonism’s credentials (and perhaps those of religion in general) to be lacking because they are among the purpose/meaning stories conscious creatures tell themselves.

    Thus my question: do you not also include the concepts of truth and falsehood, right and wrong, objective and subjective, to be under the umbrella of purpose/meaning stories conscious creatures tell themselves to manufacture meaning? If not, on what basis are they excluded?

    You left mormonism for lack of empirical, or “objective”, evidence, implying that one of the purpose/meaning stories you tell yourself is that you have access to a psychological state or “tool” (science, most likely) that allows your conscious self to discern between what is “true” and what is “false” concerning realties outside of that conscious self.

    What could you possibly mean by this? If meaning and purpose are simply the compelling stories conscious beings have evolved to tell themselves, then the concepts of objective truth and falsehood, “lack of evidence”, or any other concept that falls under the blanket of a Western empirical epistemology, are the same: purpose/meaning stories (or more fundamentally, physiologically and biologically mediated states) the brains of conscious beings have evolved to manufacture in order to create another psychological state, the one your refer to as meaning/purpose.

    On what rational, objective, empirical basis do you make the rather astounding assumption that these psychological states (purpose/meaning stories) conscious selves create have any real intuitive correspondence with a reality outside of those brains?

    In other words, embracing such a definition of purpose/meaning, I am confused by what you mean by the implication that Mormonism is “false.” Truth and falsehood themselves are a purpose/meaning story. “Empirical evidence” is a purpose/meaning story. The “objective truth” you claim to use as the basis for your beliefs: purpose/meaning story. Science itself is a purpose/meaning story. Specifically, these are the purpose meaning stories that the conscious being called “you” has evolved to tell itself to create the purpose/meaning psychological state in your brain.

    Why work so hard to convince others that your purpose/meaning story is right, and theirs is wrong?

    (FYI, If you plan to take the “some purpose/meaning stories lead to human flourishing more than others, and human flourishing is ‘good’, so some purpose/meaning stories are ‘better’ than others” tact in answering this question, I am simply going to point out that the concept of “human flourishing” and “good/bad” are yet simply more instances of the evolved brain of conscious creatures manufacturing bio-physiological “purpose/meaning” states. There is no purpose/meaning construct that is not ultimately reducible to bio-physiological phenomena occurring in the brain, with no objective criteria (meaning outside the brain) for the assertion that they have any more correspondence with a reality outside the self than the purpose/meaning story of Mormonism or the purpose/meaning story of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. All are reducible ultimately to bio-physiological phenomena.

    And, of course, we can’t say, “I know my purpose/meaning story is true because it uses science as its basis,” because reducing this sentence to the real phenomena at play yields “I know that the purpose/meaning story my brain has created is objectively true because I have told myself the purpose/meaning story that human reason is reliable, and, utilizing that purpose/meaning story of the reliability of human reason, my brain has created a further purpose/meaning story called science that tells me that my purpose/meaning story is true.” In short, “I know the thoughts in my brain are true because my brain has determined that the thoughts it thinks are true.” It is as as circular an argument as “We know the The Book of Mormon is true because it says it’s true, and it’s true.”)

    Reply
    1. shawn (Post author)

      Hi Guy! Thanks for stopping by and commenting! I didn’t realise anyone was even reading this article! Thanks for your question. Definitely had to read that a few times to grasp it all.

      Here’s a sort of shorter answer… hope it suits

      1. “By this I am approaching a simple fact: purpose is created by beings developing intent and then telling themselves stories about their work.”: this was referring to how we project purpose onto objects like a table or chair, and how that relates to the stories we might tell about “the purpose of the chair”, which then relates to “the purpose of life” – it was not referring to how we manufacture meaning generally – which is a deeper topic.

      2. “The entire thrust of your argument here seems to be (correct me if I am wrong) that purpose/meaning are grounded not primarily in any perception of objective reality per se, but rather within the subjective self” I think meaning is manufactured from our subjective experience of the objective world. For example a young child who is just learning reality bumps his head a few times against a low-hanging object, and constructs a story about needing to avoid such objects – which relates to pattern recognition – and then the rest of meaning and the entire architecture of logic/reason is ultimately very advanced pattern recognition abstracted upwards many times. The experience of bumping the head against the object is a subjective experience yes – but it relates to the objective world (barring scenarios like the Matrix, which don’t really affect the argument anyway as that just adds a caveat like “duck your head when passing a low hanging object within the Matrix”). Does that make sense?

      I think from #2 that perhaps covers the rest of your question? We are constructing stories about the purpose of life that relate to our experiences in life – they’re just abstracted a lot away from the raw material of experience. Thus they do relate to the objective “truth” of things. It’s just that religious stories get us lost in the abstraction and, in some sense, distance us from the actual raw experience – to their fault – where well-being and suffering are far more connected to the raw experience.

      We’re having a subjective experience of what we assume to be an objective world.

      Reply
      1. Guy Spillers

        Thank you for your interaction and this answer.

        “It’s just that religious stories get us lost in the abstraction and, in some sense, distance us from the actual raw experience — to their fault — where well-being and suffering are far more connected to the raw experience.”

        I would challenge you on the point that a world-view rooted in the concepts of well-being and suffering is more connected to the “raw experience” of objective reality than religious belief. In truth, the assumptions that either worldview makes are pretty astounding.

        You claim that your definition of purpose provides rational grounds for abandoning religious belief. Specifically, because purpose is a psychological state derivative from the brains of conscious beings — “selves” — there is no need to invoke a higher-order conscious being (God) from whom to derive purpose. Within this framework, a higher-order, purpose-producing being is almost a magical addition, a logically circular interlocutor who requires a yet higher-order being for purpose creation, who will need yet another higher-order being, ad infinitum. The theist has based his worldview on assumptions he can’t prove, and on circular logic.

        My criticism is that your position seems to make a similar type of error you accuse theists of making.

        In centering purpose in the ego, and considering the “self” an entity, you end up with a rational foundation no less magical and circular. Descartes made this error 400 years ago with the Cogito: “I think, therefore I am”, wherein he grounded the proof of his existence in the very assumption that he did indeed exist. “I know I exist because I think” is the same kind of claim as “I know he tells the truth because he never lies.”

        You seem to have created an entire mythology centered on a bio-physiological phenomenon you label “self”, founded upon another bio-physiological phenomenon you label “thought”. Upon these two specters you appear to have produced a cacophony of subsequent myths you believe to be related or derivative: human creatures as “people”, “good”, “evil”, “human flourishing”, “objective truth”, and “science.” On one of these myths in particular, namely consciousness, you have decided to base a definition of yet another myth: purpose. (E.g., purpose = stories conscious beings tell themselves…)

        In reality, these bio-physiological phenomena you refer to as “purposeful” are no less automatic, no less predetermined (see Harris’ Free Will), and no more “meaningful” than a snake slithering from a shady spot to a sunny spot, a bacterium engulfing a healthy human cell, or even indeed than a stone breaking loose from a crag and careening down a mountainside. You may as soon say that a rock is capable of purpose as a man, from the perspective of the actual “meaning” of physical event that takes place concerning one entity composed of matter as compared with another. Does one rock differ from another in actual value? Why the deference you pay to the natural phenomenon you label “consciousness”? How can an entity devoid of meaning produce it? The assumption suspiciously resembles religious belief.

        Further, you seem to make the incredible leap that stacking one bio-physiological phenomena on top of another in a series you intuit as related (what you would perhaps refer to as logic — yet another myth) has a chance of bringing them in closer proximity with “reality,” when, in fact, your conception of reality itself is simply yet another of those phenomena, with no objective basis for the assertion of intuitive correlation with any event outside of the phenomenon itself.

        This is why I am truly curious at your insistence that religious belief is irrational because it is disconnected from raw experience. As is easily demonstrated, your worldview can only be reached by speculations, assumptions, and faith leaps so remote, so divorced from the “raw experiences of objective reality” in any verifiable sense, that the very consideration of them is as likely to be hindered as helped by those experiences.

        Why prefer one mythology to the other? Why convince others to do the same?

        “…barring scenarios like the Matrix, which don’t really affect the argument anyway as that just adds a caveat like “duck your head when passing a low hanging object within the Matrix…”

        Here I would respectfully give you some pushback, as you have referenced one of my favorite movies. I find it fascinating that you invoke the Matrix while arguing that the question of whether perception corresponds with reality is inconsequential when considering the potential value of the perception. The entire film is a refutation of this perspective. Dropping humans into the Matrix added far more caveats than simply suffixing “…while in the Matrix” after every instruction. The entire theme of the Matrix was the concept of the value of real vs. illusion, with the obvious conclusion that a life lived within the Matrix was a wasted and meaningless life, not because it didn’t create pleasant mental sensations (what you might call “human flourishing”?), but because it wasn’t real.

        The protagonists of the film were willing to live in the comparative squalor and blandness of the real world for this reason: it was the real world. This was brought into even starker relief by the fact that the worst antagonist in the first film was neither anyone within the Matrix, nor one of the robots, nor even Agent Smith. Instead, the worst antagonist in the film, the most evil and treacherous, was Cypher, who, even after learning the truth and being rescued from the Matrix, was willing to betray his friends to be inserted back into the illusion. He was willing to trade the real for the pleasant. For that, he was evil and despicable.

        The importance of our perceptions is rooted, not in the question of whether they are produced in conscious beings (as though the relationship of a stimulus to a bio-physiological event within the brain of an animal without intrinsic value can somehow confer value on the stimulus), but rather in whether they correspond to an actual reality.

        Reply
  3. Guy Spillers

    Maybe I can simplify my question a bit.

    You say you believe Mormonism (and I assume religion in general) to be “false” because it relies on faith, which you define as belief without objective (by this I assume you mean empirical) evidence.

    I infer from this that you set a pretty strict bar for what you consider true, namely, truth claims must be well-established by objective evidence.

    However, after this assertion, you then proceed to write an essay about “purpose stories” told by “conscious creatures” to give their lives “meaning.” You reference concepts like “well-being”, “suffering”, “good and bad,” “true and false.” You talk about these things with the language “I believe” and “I think.” This is mythology and blind belief akin with any of the great religions.

    The existence of none of these concepts as objectively real entities, despite your artful descriptions and obvious devotion, can be empirically established. If they could be said to exist discreetly at all, then it is as no more than bio-physiologically mediated, naturally predetermined events occurring within our brains in accordance within the relentless, indefatigable, and unchangeable rush of the river of time and evolution. They are no different, in a “deeper meaning” or “value” sense, than the howling of apes, the cooing of birds, the screech of cicadas on a summer night, or the blot of excrement dropped by a field mouse in the sand. They are configurations of matter, nothing more.

    When you say, “Conscious beings tell themselves purpose stories to give their lives meaning,” you are saying the same as “evolution continues.” Yet you project onto it value, meaning, faith language, and mythological significance synonymous with nearly all of the religious expressions of awe and devotion inspired by deities for millennia.

    So my question is, simply, why do you believe all of this without any empirical evidence?

    Reply
    1. shawn (Post author)

      I think the missing link here is that our conscious experience of the world has some kind of inherent interrogability and an identifiable consistency (which is the closest thing we can use to assert that it is an “objective reality”) – our minds seem capable of identifying patterns and those patterns appear to be consistent through time – for example a young child learns from firsthand experience the day-night cycle by observing that the sun sets and rises every day. The meaning of “day” and “night” is constructed from the raw firsthand experience of seeing the sun set and rise. This is the “empirical evidence” – for “scientific truths” – and the foundations of the meaning we construct – in short, meaning is constructed and layered on top of raw conscious experience, and the raw conscious experience appears to have consistency, it’s not pure chaos, it can be interrogated and ideas/concepts built around it.

      As for subjective claims about well-being and suffering – those need no complex philosophical foundations – simply put your hand on a hot stove and you’ll have all the evidence you need about the nature of the experience (pleasant or unpleasant). Is that a “good” experience? – I don’t need a complex philosophical argument to get that off the ground?

      Reply
      1. Guy

        I appreciate your interaction. I enjoy hearing other people’s perspectives.

        “I think the missing link here is that our conscious experience…”

        You have begged the question by invoking consciousness to prove it. I asked you to provide an empirical basis for projecting mythological significance onto predetermined (see Harris’ Free Will) bio-physiological phenomena such as consciousness. Your answer has taken the form of, “We know consciousness is a real thing because we are conscious.” This is circular logic. Making different arrangements of sounds with your vocal chords or letters with your keyboard (for example, saying consciousness = pattern significance) is not evidence; it is only renaming the phenomenon. All animals with make many different sounds. All are simple brain chemistry. The projection of metaphysical “value” onto those sounds, as though a mosquito’s buzz could be “true” or “false”, is mythology.

        “Well-being and suffering…need no complex philosophical foundations…”

        Once again, theists talk this way about God: “The cosmic reality of good and evil.” “Well-being” and “suffering” are reducible to slightly different arrangements of atoms. Yet you have projected mythological value into them, saying we “ought” to pursue one and avoid the other.

        If a murderer kills someone with a knife, you say he has “murdered” a “person.” In fact, all has actually done is produced a slight phase shift in a bundle of atoms (atomically, the difference between a “live” “person” and “dead” “person” is negligible). You are overlaying mythological significance on top of the natural phenomenon, without any empirical evidence that that significance is real or objective.

        Your stove story is a perfect example. If all you had said is “There is a sensation that causes young humans to withdraw their hands when they experience it,” you would have remained in bounds of what is actually going on. But you didn’t (perhaps couldn’t?) stop. You had to project onto the phenomenon a value system (calling it “suffering”) and then imply we “ought” to avoid it. The fact that some creatures have evolved to avoid certain things could never produce the metaphysical reality that they ought to avoid them. We may try to stop dogs from fighting, but we would never tell them they “ought” not fight, as though natural phenomena had moral significance. To add the “ought” is to invoke religious imagery.

        Reply
        1. shawn (Post author)

          You too mate!

          You mention Sam Harris – have you read his book the Moral Landscape?

          In essence – if you can’t get behind an “ought” that seems to instinctively arise when you place your hand on a hot stove and experience high amounts of pain, then it’s very difficult to make an argument about the source of “oughts”!

          Reply
  4. Guy Spillers

    “simply put your hand on a hot stove and you’ll have all the evidence you need about the nature of the experience (pleasant or unpleasant). Is that a “good” experience?”

    No, the pleasant/unpleasant dichotomy is philosophically wholly distinct from the morally good/morally bad dichotomy.

    The experience of placing one’s hand on a hot stove is certainly unpleasant, but it is the experience of an animal doing what it has evolved to do. It has the moral significance of a snake choking and swallowing a small animal.

    To make the wholly irrational leap from “The experience is pleasant” to “The experience is good” (e.g., projecting moral value that is not intrinsically present) is to make humans more than animals. In other words, it is to project a mythological interpretive overlay onto the raw data, and without any empirical basis for doing so.

    Just so I am not confused, are you saying that humans are somehow more significant in some absolute sense than animals?

    Reply
  5. Guy Spillers

    Sorry, the format of the commenting system on your blog makes it difficult for me to keep track of what I have sent and what I haven’t as I’ve thought through this. Here is my 10,000-mile-high question. I won’t ask any more questions, and I appreciate your interaction on this topic.

    This essay (beautifully written, I must say) is essentially an attempt by you to describe certain processes that you believe take place in human brains. You could have titled this article “One aspect of how the human animal generally appears to have evolved to function” and been technically correct.

    From there, you have made the massive logical leap: “Because humans have evolved to function this way, humans ought to function this way.”

    It is the empirical or rational basis for this leap in logic I am trying to derive. How does “An animal appears to behave this way” become “It is right for an animal to behave this way”? How can you jump from a descriptive observation of evolutionary biology to a system of moral imperatives, and call the process rational, objective, or empirical?

    You wouldn’t (I presume) write an essay on “how dogs’ minds seems to work” and then attempt to build a moral system around it, though the same stimuli (nature, environment) and the same basic neurological responses (pleasure and pain) are at work in both animals. (The respective complexity of the neural networks confers no value; they are simply physical features of two species. You may just as well say dogs are a source of morality because they are covered in fur. Does the spider’s eight legs give it moral authority over the squirrel, who only has four? Nonsense! Then why choose complexity of thought, which is no more than a descriptive feature, like the number of appendages?)

    You wouldn’t do this with any other animal. Why do this arbitrarily with the human animal? It is essentially speciesism. At the very least, it appears to me, is the opposite of rational or empirical.

    Reply
    1. Guy Spillers

      I said I won’t ask any more questions, and I won’t, but I did want to amend the previous comment. Not only is it arbitrary within this framework to distinguish between animals and humans for building moral systems around instinctive behaviors, it is also arbitrary to discern between living and non-living things. As you have artfully expressed, there is no “true” purpose or meaning behind anything the universe. Therefore, the instinct of a human animal to withdraw from pain (or to manufacture the sensation you call “purpose”), the instinct of an earthworm to seek the surface of a ground when it rains, and even the compulsion of a rock to the ground by the force of gravity, have equal ultimate significance (that is to say, none). Further, as there is no metaphysically significant distinction between the “living” and the “dead” (they are, like the elements, merely different arrangements of atoms), you may as well say it is morally right for an apple to fall from the branch to the ground when its stem has broken as it is to say it is morally right for humans to do what they have evolved to do. As I have stated previously, this does not look anything like empiricism to me.

      Harris makes essentially the same error, grounding his vision for the construction of an objective morality in The Moral Landscape on the fulcrum of consciousness (as did you for the construction of purpose above). However, consciousness is also an arbitrary distinction, as it is merely an evolved function of the more complex neural networks of human beings. As I demonstrated previously, hinging morality on a physical feature of an animal is capriciousness, not reason; you may as well base morality on the behavior of elephants because they have trunks.

      Reply

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