Category Archives: philosophy

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.

Freedom

Orwell wrote in 1984 that “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.” In the context of the story, it’s clear what this means: The Party wants people to follow the principles of doublethink and believe whatever the Party proclaims, regardless of actual truth; thus, the ability to say that two plus two make four represents freedom of thought.

We can look at this quotation differently, however. The vast majority of people believe that two plus two equals four, and anyone who seriously believes that two plus two equals five is considered uneducated or even insane. Therefore, in our society, we are often not free to say whatever we want. Though our thoughts cannot be monitored and are still held private, there are limits on what we can express to the outside world. Indeed, in order to be accepted in society, we have to abandon some of the ideals of freedom of expression. It’s all part of the mob mentality that holds society together.

Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make five.

Truth

Orwell’s 1984:

In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable—what then?

This leads to some interesting questions that I haven’t yet been able to resolve. Orwell suggests that we can’t know if two plus two is actually four or five or pi, and he never gives any explanation or indication for why we might know such a thing. So that’s left as an open question to ponder: How can we be sure that two plus two equals anything at all? From that perspective, how can we be sure of anything? Is there any truth at all? I’m not sure, but I haven’t seen any reason to believe that truth might exist.

I’ll write more when I have time to organize my thoughts.