The meaning of life

Much of this post was originally written to be a comment on Liberal guilt at Categorically Nerdy. I’ve expanded it into a full post.

People are often infected with liberal guilt, which is basically a collective conscience. You might ask yourself: “How can I justify living the way I do when I could spend my time / energy / money into making the world a better place?” Taken to a more extreme level, you might then think: “Due to climate change / economic efficiency / population control, the world might be so much better without me. What right do I have to exist?”

Instead of considering your right to exist, it might be interesting to consider liberal guilt’s right to exist. But then, I’d prefer to claim that “right to exist” is undefined, so it might not be so interesting after all.

What is the meaning behind phrases such as “right to exist” or “should exist”, or even more simply, the words “right” or “should”? Those terms depend on the existence of some objective definition of right or wrong, good or bad, should or should not. Without such objective definitions, the whole idea of “should” degenerates into subjectivity; you might think that you “should” exist based on your idea of “should”, and someone else might have a different definition of “should” that concludes that you “should not”. The argument regarding the “right to exist” becomes entirely vacuous. Just as mathematical arguments cannot be made without proper definitions, philosophical arguments should not be (but too often are) made without proper definitions.

If the “right to exist” were well-defined, there has to be some objective way to determine what is right and what is wrong. But where would such an objective measure of goodness come from? Assuming an entirely physical world (as in a world based only on physical laws), goodness is not meaningful, as the world is simply a collection of particles and particles can make no judgment on right or wrong. So there must therefore be something supernatural, which goes against my world view and drags us inevitably into the realm of religion. I do not believe in the existence of a supernatural being, and for the remainder of this post, I’ll assume the same; if there existed a being that could violate physical laws, liberal guilt and right or wrong would all be well-defined, making this post rather meaningless. In any case, though the existence of a supernatural being might be psychologically comforting, it is not at all intellectually comforting.

Given those considerations, the only reasonable conclusion that I can make is that the “right to exist” is entirely vacuous. Thinking of the world as entirely physical, it seems obvious that a collection of elementary particles and their interactions cannot possibly generate higher meaning. It may seem unethical or immoral for certain people to exist or for certain actions to be done, but that is simply an artifact of interactions in the collection of atoms known as your brain. Indeed, even the potential destruction of the world by human stupidity is neither good or bad; it’s just one state of particles transforming into another. In that sense, liberal guilt has no rational reason to exist.

By the same argument, your existence is also utterly pointless; you came into existence by a coincidence of random interactions of particles, and logically, you can have no purpose in life. Your actions simply transform states of atoms and carry no meaning. Regarding your actions, your thoughts, your existence: Nothing matters.

Now go back to living.

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11 responses to “The meaning of life

  1. coherentsheaf September 6, 2010 at 6:12 am

    When you assert “there is no good or bad,” I believe you are asserting that there is no *absolute* good or bad (as a religious Christian might say that something violating the Ten Commandments is categorically bad). On the other hand, that doesn’t change the fact that *I* (and, probably, you) nevertheless categorize things as good and bad. I am using the latter interpretation. (At the risk of sounding postmodernist, I will argue that good and bad are social constructs. Well, sorta. I think that there does seem to be some sort of progressive improvement in ethics throughout history that is achieved by rational thought and discussion (e.g. ending institutions such as slavery, expanding equal rights, etc.), and I am ok with the hegemony of tolerance. As in, I object when people say “They should be allowed to treat women like cattle; it’s their culture.” But this is another rant.)

    I think I agree that my “right to exist” is meaningless, since I already do exist, which is what I was getting at the end of my post.

    As for pointlessness: I’d say that living a good life is a worthwhile point! Not that I think it’s worthwhile in any *objective* way, just that *I* find it fun for the few decades that I’ll exist, and that I won’t after that. There’s no *outside* point to my existence, but who needs an outside point anyway?

    • Moor Xu September 6, 2010 at 11:27 am

      Yes, I am asserting that there is no absolute good or bad. You might claim that you feel that something is good or bad, but that does not justify making a claim that something is good or bad, as such a claim is vacuous. I object to things like “progressive improvement in ethics”. You might think that ethics have improved over time (partly because you live in the present and not the past), but there is no measurement of objective improvement. It may seem evil, but why should we judge statements like “They should be allowed to treat women like cattle; it’s their culture.” by our ethics instead of theirs? That’s making a claim that our ethics are superior, and they can claim precisely the opposite. There’s no objective reason for us to be superior, despite whatever we would like to think. I suppose that I’m trying to say that arguments from subjective judgments of good or bad are not meaningful except as opinions.

      Regarding life: You’ll be dead in a hundred years, after which you won’t know if you’ve had fun or not. So you’ll find it fun for a few decades, but why should that make a difference? If you’re unhappy, you won’t know it after you die.

      In any case, I do think that the goal of living is to maximize the integral of happiness from current time to death.

      • coherentsheaf September 6, 2010 at 1:06 pm

        No, it’s not objective in any sense of the word–I’m not claiming it is. Rather, I am observing that there does seem to be some sort of trend in how morals evolve, and that I personally would like that trend to continue. I am not claiming that these ethics are objectively right (if such a statement is meaningful), but that *I* strongly support this evolution, and am happy to advocate policies based on it, even if said policies happen to run completely contrary to other’s ethics (which have no less objective significance). The fact that something is subjective clearly does not prevent me from advocating it.

        “In any case, I do think that the goal of living is to maximize the integral of happiness from current time to death.”

        +1 mostly. In that I do not think “happiness” equates to “hedonism”; I think pursuing intellectual topics and doing useful work is a much more important part of maximizing the integral of happiness, as you put it, despite the difficulties of doing so.

      • Moor Xu September 7, 2010 at 1:54 am

        I understand that its not objective, but that bothers me somehow. I also like the evolution of ethics, and until I think about it, I’m perfectly happy to advocate policies based on it. After I think about the lack of objective improvement in ethics, however, I lose confidence in applying those evolved ethics in any way. Maybe I’m just thinking too hard.

        Regarding my statement that the goal of life is to obtain happiness — for me, happiness encompasses things like being productive; we feel happier when we read math books, for example. The statement was actually rather tautological, as I think of happiness more or less as the goal of life.

        Also, it appears that we’ve reached the limit of this blog’s capability for comment threading. I didn’t know that such a limit existed.

  2. coherentsheaf September 6, 2010 at 6:14 am

    P.S. My post had actually very little to do with liberal guilt in the sense of the article I linked to; it was more an existential question. I started by trying to respond to the article, but ended up doing something mostly unrelated.

  3. coherentsheaf September 7, 2010 at 4:42 am

    I don’t think the fact that ethics are inherently subjective makes it impossible to advocate policies based on them. Otherwise, there would be simply no grounds to prefer one to another. Statistics or reasoning can argue “if X is implemented, then Y will happen.” However, one has to establish certain goals at the outset (i.e. “Y is good” or “Y is bad”).

    (Given your preferred policies, maybe this does not apply…)

    It is possible to modify the limit for comment threading, but it is also probably inadvisable, or extremely long, thin comments will appear.

  4. Robin February 14, 2011 at 8:24 pm

    Hello Moor

    I was just reading your blog randomly (because I was procrastinating, not because I have free time. Anyways I would like to pose a question: how are you conscious? Clearly individual atoms aren’t conscious, and you are simply a bunch of atoms. Yet it appears that you somehow are able to think.

    Hence, we must conclude that when matter organizes itself in certain ways, emergent properties arise that cannot be explained by any of the individual particles involved. Consciousness is one of these emergent properties, and I believe objectivitist morality is another.

    • Moor Xu February 14, 2011 at 11:40 pm

      How do you define consciousness? A human is a large collection of atoms with lots of random (but completely physical) interactions. My “consciousness” comes entire as a result of these interactions. Regardless of how you define consciousness, however, it can be explained by the interactions of many individual particles. We rarely actually do this because we currently do not have a good model for these interactions and we currently do not have the technology to measure them, but I believe that it is theoretically feasible to do so in the future. In that sense, “consciousness” may be an emergent property, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be described in terms of interactions of particles through physical laws.

  5. Robin March 2, 2011 at 12:46 am

    (Sorry I didn’t realize you posted a reply a while ago)

    Well yeah my point was that consciousness arises from the interactions of particles through physical laws. The problem is that this phenomenon–this ability to think and to notice yourself thinking and to acknowledge that you’re observing yourself think–is completely crazy. And yet, since it must have arisen from physical laws, we have to conclude that lots of crazy shit can arise from physical laws. One particular crazy thing that we must acknowledge *could possibly* arise is some concept of moral goodness.

    In particular, a utilitarian approach would define the goodness of something as its desirability, which itself is a product of our consciousness, since all of our conscious actions are carried out with some desired end goal in mind. Hence, the socially optimal action (read: the action that people in a society should do (read: moral action)) is the one that maximizes the total satisfaction of all desires–the greatest possible good for the greatest number of people. In short, utilitarianism is completely compatible with materialism because it posits that moral worth stems from human consciousness, without regard to any deity (Pascal’s Wager notwithstanding).

  6. Pingback: On Length and Consciousness | wordassociativity

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