Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Flight from Meaning

The Flight from Meaning
And the Pursuit of Happiness

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum....”
-Noam Chomsky, “The Common Good”, 1998

In 1841, the physicist Julius Robert Mayer postulated the laws of conservation of energy. In simple terms, this meant that the total quantity of energy in the world around us was a fixed value… and that was the accepted rule, or natural law, which laid the foundation for the accelerated development of science in the next century. Although this statement appears a remote concern for most of us, with the exceptions of those directly involved in the scientific domain, it has had many profound effects on the thought process of people. Consider the statement in the light of an economic revolution that occurred around the same time in Western Europe as result of all that science: the Industrial Revolution. This principle of conservation of energy is tailor-made to the needs of economics: that we possess this finite amount of raw material on earth that can now be processed via machines and distributed, transformed from one form to the other. Although Mayer’s ideas can be called “theoretical”, no one can consider the Industrial Revolution a mere theory, and it is in fact, the result of the same principle put into action. One can call the principle of conservation of energy the “seed”, with the resulting “tree” being the Industrial Age.

While the Industrial juggernaut ploughed on, a change in thinking, a change in questioning, was simultaneously going on, where all the searches for the meaning of man’s life altered their range. For instance, let us take the question asked relentlessly by 5-year-olds: “Why?” It is perfectly possible to carry on a straightforward conversation about why a particular piece of metal has a specific response to the magnetic field, or why certain software is better in its utility. One can easily imagine such a dialogue progressing enthusiastically, and even animatedly. Very definite reasons are given, and debated upon. However, imagine that following the question “Why did you buy your headset from company X?” one asks “Why are you so fond this song?” It is easily seen that it is not that straightforward to answer such questions in words clearly, as the answers generally end with personal likes and dislikes. “I just like it”, and then… a dead end. The “why” cannot pursue far along this path without ending up with “That’s just how it is!” At this point, one has already reached a level where people not only have to dig deeper to answer, but the immediate answer itself is seldom complete or satisfactory. There is a doubt if that question can even be answered. Let us now pursue the “why” another step ahead, and ask in all seriousness, “All right, why are you alive?” If any of you are up to risking it in a conversation, you would soon see that it is not really a question that one can even begin to answer. That is one “why” that pulls us up short, a “why” that appears to take a lifetime to adequately answer. 

In other words, in the first stage where the question “why”, the question of meaning, is about finite quantities, there is an ease of interaction, followed by a certain resistance, a difficulty in carrying it over into the arena of art, and then nearly hitting the wall when it comes to the question of life itself. These are three phases of the question why, that one can observe quite clearly in daily conversations. In addition, this last phase, of life experience itself, is also the most important one of all, as it includes the other “why’s”. Just in passing we can notice that the latter two questions cannot be quantified, so the difficulty in quantifying them runs parallel with the difficulty in answering them. 

Hence, focusing on this third question, let us now go over to the opposite end, and instead of the questions, look at the efforts and expenditure of energy, the “answers” that are actually being lived out around us. How have we, in reality and not as a hypothetical abstract answer, responded to the question of the meaning of life? Please note that I am not trying to determine what the answer actually is, but merely trying to find the pulse, so to speak, of what is seen as the answer to this. We can here leave aside the answers “to survive”, since that is a requirement for us to even ask this question. Similarly, we can also leave aside “to do my duty”, as in this case the meaning is outsourced to a higher authority. The most common answer to this question, as determined by individuals themselves, is generally the phrase “to be happy” or for the “Pursuit of happiness”.  This phrase, which gained additional importance in the New World due to its presence in the US constitution, states roughly: “do that which makes you happy, brings you the greatest feeling of well-being, as long as you do not harm other people”. This innocent and oft-repeated phrase, actually packs a whopper… it has an enormous amount of power in real life. Just think back on how many decisions taken today have this answer lying behind them. Imagine speaking to people from various backgrounds, about an activity that they enjoy doing, and pursue enthusiastically. Actually speak to a person about it… and you would find soon enough, that this answer lurks in the background of most of the replies.

If you look closer at this phrase, you would notice that it appears very similar to the second issue we had concerned ourselves with - the realm of personal likes and dislikes. The question of which music, food, or clothes we like, the question of taste, belongs to the realm of the feeling of happiness. In other words, pursuit of happiness is answering a different question; it does not even refer to the actual question posed, of why we must live at all, and what therefore is the meaning of a life. It does not answer the question “Why?”, but diverts the question in a subtle way… to the effects of actions, instead of the meaning or motives for them. Happiness is a by-product, a result, of doing something meaningful, and as such cannot play the only part in giving meaning to an action. Since it cannot give meaning to an action, it cannot give meaning to a life, and consequently, the pursuit of happiness gets unraveled into an empty phrase. A meaningful activity will go a step forward in answering the question posed, while this pursuit does not look for meaning.

Let us look at the second important part of the same answer, which dwells on “… as long as you do not harm other people”. On what basis can one decide whether something is harmful for one person or another? The only possible basis for that is once more, that which gives a meaning to a human life, so that one can say: That which is in harmony with meaning, this value of human life, is beneficial, and that which opposes it, is harmful. Without that, the above phrase has no weight. And since, the pursuit of happiness in a person’s life is dependent on one’s not harming others; it loses its weight as well. In other words, a meaning to life, a direction, is simply assumed with this phrase of the pursuit of happiness, and not clarified. It is swept under the rug, as this motive for life - that of achieving individual happiness without harming the other - is heavily dependent on there already being a good, harmless motive for life!

Hence, to start with, one finds increasing difficulty in looking for the meaning behind our daily lives, as we progress from intellectual debates, to tastes, to the “goodness” or meaning in life. And as a response to this difficulty, in real life, the actions are based upon a feeling of happiness, with the issue of meaning staying in the background. And where should we look, in order to find this pursuit of happiness, and the masking of meaning? It is one thing to talk in general and over-arching terms about happiness, meaning, action and so on. What are the real-life manifestations of this idea, in its full range of effects?

For that, we must look for the “seed”, the idea in a concentrated form. Consider, a mature adult doing something completely neutral, like moving a pebble from one part of the yard to another, for no specific reason whatsoever. One cannot then ask “Why?” as it is accepted that the action in itself is meaningless. Now, if that action is tied up with feelings of pleasure and achievement, we have the right soil for the seed to sprout, the combination creating a pursuit of happiness. What can be the source of achievement in this case? Surely not the meaningless fact that an object is transported from one point to another, but rather how it is transported, how fast, how skillfully, etc… the actual mode of doing the action. And then we see one of the species that grows from this: sport! For when we combine the movement of an object from one place to another, for example a ball, and add an intellectual framework to it, we have created a vessel, into which all the feelings of pleasure and achievement can then pour themselves, but when we actually push for the meaning of the action itself, it comes to naught. What difference does it make if a ball stays here, or 100 meters away? What difference does it make if the ball is taken there quicker or slower, more or less skillfully? As far as meaning is concerned, there is no difference.

So in all the sporting events in the world, as pursued by mature adults (the question of meaning changes entirely in developmental stages i.e. children), the activity in itself is meaningless. All the development of skill and energy in a sporting activity, and the pleasure in its achievement, if directed nowhere are equivalent to pouring a very carefully prepared drink down the drain. True, it takes enormous skill to make it, and might be a good achievement as far as the maker is concerned, but unless it is drunk, unless it nourishes someone or something, unless it provides meaning to a human life, it is meaningless.

Another offshoot from the same soil is the seed with a different combination. Instead of transporting a physical object from one place to another, if one were to transfer an emotional state from one to the other, and do that with great skill… we have the origins of “entertainment”. As we traverse pleasure, pain, and the rich variety of human emotions, while watching or taking part in an entertainment activity, be it movies, television, or even reading books, so long as we go through those emotions without it unfolding a new meaning in our life, it will remain geared towards meaninglessness.

A third offshoot is where an intellectual state is transferred from one to the other, as that of solving a puzzle or creating a technical device. An example of this is the world of video games, where there is little physical exertion but mainly a lot of technical skill being poured into the activity. There are words in the vernacular that clearly indicate the presence of these three offshoots: that of fun, cool, and awesome. It is hard to associate any real meaning to a “fun” activity, which is designed only for fun. Similarly, observe the rampant use of the word “cool” and even “like”, and on pondering the activities to which they often refer to, you will get an idea of their belonging to the world of fun and games.

Just to contrast it with real life situations, imbued through and through with meaning and genuineness, let us take an example. Imagine a parent rushing his injured child to the hospital, in busy traffic. Consider the pleasure the man would feel in overtaking another car, and the disappointment when stuck in traffic, the terror imposed by a sudden swerving of the neighboring vehicle. Consider the way in which every emotion is tinged by the context. Consider the mental calculations necessary, especially if the roads are complex, of the correct route to take to reach in the minimum time. Consider the motivation of love behind the entire activity. Consider also, the genuine pleasure and relief he would experience in reaching his goal and being told that his child’s life is not in danger. Now, would you call his experience of racing the other cars, a fun activity? Would his driving across the city be a “pursuit of happiness”? Is he getting his kid to the hospital, because the main objective in his mind is the happiness he would obtain on getting the kid to safety? Would his speed be awesome, and his swerves cool, and if his speed was a record for that country, would you give him a medal? The context clearly shows how much those words depend on the lack of meaning and purpose.

Now assume, in the same situation, that the traffic is jam-packed with folks going to the local stadium for a game. All of them are “pursuing happiness”, following all the rules of the road, “having fun”, cheering and so on. In this instant, would the parent still support the team, even if they belonged to his country or locality? Would he even care? The proximity of these two situations on the road, a reasonably realistic situation, is a metaphor for life on earth, a life that we all share, with resources we all share. And it is an emergency that we are collectively facing. A medical emergency in this example might be circumvented by taking a helicopter, but in case of the metaphor for earth, there is nowhere else to go, the entire globe is the “road”. Even if to start with, an activity is pursued only for fun or happiness, with no desire to harm, it inevitably leads there because of its inherent lack of meaning. In addition, the situation is very clear in case of a car stuck in traffic, but it is not so clear how an excess of resources poured into an activity in one part of world leads to starvation in the other. Still, it is true, and it would remain true even if we pick an example where love is expressed in a spontaneous way instead of under pressure.

Please note that this is not to deny fun and pleasure in the world, but only that it is not an end in itself. If it is an end in itself, then the value set for the meaning or the question “why” is zero, and any value multiplied by zero annihilates all value. When there is some loving purpose to the action, only then it takes some steps towards meaning, and then the fun and enjoyment is multiplied, in a healthy fashion.

An important fact to keep in mind is that the pursuit of happiness has gathered steam mostly in the past century, due to the effect of the philosophy of science. It is easy to see how this happened… the answer, at its very foundation, that science provides for these questions is “random chance”, in other words, meaninglessness. And as science gained strength, the dogma of meaninglessness gained ground, and the sport and entertainment industries were the natural offshoots. And as long as the old religious traditions continue to stay in their dogmatic form, a pre-determined static meaning for life, they increase meaninglessness in real life as well, as real life is, surprisingly, alive, and not static. Hence both science and religion have together cut off the sources of meaning. As we saw earlier, it is increasingly difficult to answer the question “why”, in case of real life, and science, like the proverbial fox which could not reach the grapes, has abandoned the search for meaning rather than confessing its impotence in addressing that need. Fundamental religion, on the other hand, has decreed that it has to be taken on faith that the grapes are “sweet” (whatever that may mean to those who have never tasted sweet) and none can question it.

This is one of the profound problems of today’s life, where there is a virtual flight from meaning, from all sides. Anyone who would insist upon questioning “why”, even where it is uncomfortable, would soon reach the extremes of the consensus spectrum, one side by science and the other side by religion, and would become “uncool” quite rapidly. I hope this is a pointer to those extremes.