On The Meaning Of Life

There is much to be said and much that has been said about the meaning of life. When you peel back all the layers you are left with the primordial combination of eat, drink, reproduce, breath, sleep, and repeat… not necessarily in that order. I think that you’ll find this is the basic life plan for all forms of life on this planet if you allow for some loose definitions of each directive.

The really good question to ask next is what happens when we are trying to accomplish these seemingly simple tasks?

Again, I feel that the rules are fairly simple or can be stated so:

  1. Acquire a foe
  2. Study the foe and find a weakness
  3. Use that weakness to destroy the foe

This is true where foe is one of:

  • something or someone that has what you need or want
  • something or someone that wants or needs what you have
  • something or someone that would prevent you from acquiring the thing(s) that you want or need

Clearly step 1 is easy to do as it can be done without any effort on your part at all. Step 2 is a bit trickier but evolution made cats fast so they could exploit a weakness in gazelles etc. Some species will evolve to exploit a weakness, though this is not a directed action. All predators find and exploit weakness in their prey. Now when it comes to step 3 things get a bit different. If we define ‘destroy’ as genocide it’s not really workable but if we define it as destroy until the foe is not capable of being a foe it becomes more realistic. When our need stops the foe is no longer a foe and so it goes.

There is  nothing unique to any given species in this… it’s a basic plan.

Greed is not part of the basic plan and this is seemingly unique to the hairless ape species called homo sapiens. A misnomer if ever there was one.

Homo sapiens (Latin: “wise man“) is the scientific name for the human species. Homo is the human genus, which also includes Neanderthals and many other extinct species of hominid; H. sapiens is the only surviving species of the genus Homo. Modern humans are the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens, which differentiates them from what has been argued to be their direct ancestor, Homo sapiens idaltu.

Most of our philosophies do not advise material wealth as the meaning of life. This basic nature plan does not advise it. Greed is a disease or something like that. A defect of the human brain.

  1. Have you read Orson Scott Card’s Ender books? They explore some of these themes; at least, they came to mind as I read your post!

    • I have read several OS Card books. Greed is a theme that pops up in many of our social ills. I think it is about ‘my survival over yours’ thinking mixed with a huge volume of insecurity about where tomorrows ‘stuff’ will come from. Greed requires long term planning among other things. If your focus is only on the here and now it is difficult to justify greed in its many forms.

      • Yes … but there’s also a counter-balance to that, in that those of us who try and think about the earth we’re leaving for the next generation are anti-greed: anti-overconsumption, anti-pollution (from overconsumption), and so forth. You’re right, that it may be humans’ capacity to plan over the long term which leads to greed, but it’s that same capacity taken out to the even longer term which can act as its antidote. What do you think?

        • In as much as the ‘cure’ is the same as the ‘disease’ like so many other things, education is the start of the answer but society has to motivate many members via that old stick and carrot: money

          When it is profitable to save a small species of grasshopper then they will be saved. Likewise it is so for the human species. Despite the recursive conundrum that it sounds like, it remains true.

          • Wise words :-) It’s maddening living here in Australia now, as a conservative government undoes all the good work the previous government had done: threatening to axe the carbon tax, get rid of marine parks (safe areas for marine life), and their old chestnut, deregulating work conditions. Argh. Such shortsightedness!

            • It occurs to me that politics is what you get when nobody can decide on the right course of action – an eternal state for any society of considerable size. Consider that even pirates had a form of government – their captains were elected.

              If you consider the political arena to be a big playground it’s easy to visualize various actors as temporary playground bullies.

              • Even bullies can achieve a civilized state (as Card demonstrates in Ender’s Shadow!). Yes, it’s still based on dominance games and thuggery, but the outcomes are much better – in that case, the little kids getting fed at the soup kitchens. What’s disheartening is when the bullies go back to only serving themselves.

                • I am of the opinion that you fix political bullies the same way you fix schoolyard bullies… outnumber them, show strength, and be willing to punch them in the nose if needed… but that’s just me

                  • :-) sounds good to me, except the punching in the nose! Certainly outnumbering is a good way to go. Unfortunately, of course, we don’t actually live in democracies – we live in elected oligarchies, during which our leaders feel, with some justification, that they can do what they like until the next election. Of course we can remonstrate and demonstrate, and this may get their attention and help steer them right, but basically we hand them the keys to our cities (metaphorically) and set them loose for three years.

                    • It is sad that we do not publically verify that the people we hand the keys to won’t burn Rome as it were. I think that is the place to start … pre-election interviews and tough questions. Give them a chance to look like a bully and idiot up front where it can affect their polling powers.

    • I was looking at buying one the other day. Do you recommend it?

      • I think that he wrote well but as I remember it there was a lot of ‘coming of age’ in the plots. I may have remembered wrong but I do know several of his books are in my collection – dusty now.

        • Might wait for the film, then. Am presently reading Fire Upon the Deep… So far, excellent.

      • They’re pretty good. Strong plotlines, complex characters … sometimes the prose flattens out a bit, but if you like a nice dose of philosophy with your speculative fiction, then yes, I’d recommend them.

        • Thanks! I would like to read the book before seeing the film.

          • Oh yes indeed – I haven’t seen the film, but Ender’s Game is a very good read. Perhaps one of his best books. Enjoy!

  2. Greed is interesting…. I haven’t thought of it. I doubt it to be unique to us, though.

    So, I wonder, what purpose does it serve in nature? What terms should we use to discuss it in evolutionary biological terms? Is it really a defect? If so, how does it harm the genes it seeks to propogate? If it’s an unwanted, negative mutation, what steps can we take to weed out? What positive mutations do we wish to encourage…..?

    And… 100s of more questions. This is a good discussion topic, and indeed goes back to the first philosophers (The Republic immediately comes to mind).

    • I think that greed comes with long range forward planning. If we think only of the ‘now’ and our needs for now it is improbable that greed can be justified.

      But it gets more complex – material wealth is also about status not just survival. How does status seeking play into survival? Higher status == better genes to mix your own with and a higher chance of survival. It is a complex dance based on many very old primal values.

      These varied and old drives weave their way into our social interactions in a complex way that we barely know how to detect never mind describe well. We think we see what greed is, but what is it? Is it greedy to want a home? Is it greedy to want a 10 million dollar home? Greed, in the end, is subjective and relative to the general societal good. If you live alone in the mountains, what is greed?

      To get rid of greed I think we need to address the problem of need. When needs are met with assurance, greed is of little value. When we value things of a better nature more than how best to spread our genes, societal values change and greed can become a rarity.

      Life is complex so it is rare that we find a simple answer to any ill that befalls our society

      • Life sure is complex…. Defining our “needs” will just open more questions…

        It’s far too difficult to put what we think, and mean, into words. I know I agree with you on greed, but feel there is a deeper evil and meaning than what is contained in the word “greed”. Yet, it proves difficult to find. Even more difficult to ascertain whether it really is evil, or if I’m just jealous.

        • As far as I can tell, all emotions that have names are completely subjective so giving them an actual definition is context sensitive. We cannot say greed is truly always evil until we define objective evil and so on. We can say that if your greed causes harm to another it is not good… where we define good as causing no harm to others or actually helping others. In the end it’s all about context.

          We assume that we understand the meaning of words yet when given the opportunity to define them we find that all we think we know becomes elusive.

          For me, my world view, if I follow this through to a natural end point it leads to nihilism. I’ve found that the word gets a bad rap that it shouldn’t have. The fact that morality is subjective does not mean there is no morality with which we can live life, it just means that it is not objective or unchanging regardless of circumstance.

          Try this: define good and bad. One should logically be the opposite of the other, right? If you figure out how to define them such that a bad action is never a good action and vice versa I will be wetting myself to hear how you did it.

          • Nihilism isn’t so scary of we keep it contained to our philosophical musings… Although it does seem, at times, that all roads eventually lead there…. Pragmatism has it’s place.

            I wonder, when is a good point to just stop asking questions and delving, then, if doing so leads too easily to nihilism? Sigh.

            I can’t recall where I settled myself amongst the ethical perspectives…. Some strange mix of utilitarianism and hedonism, I think. I do, however, hold strongly to the laws of logic that hold that A is A, and never B. So I’m the case of “good action” and “bad action” being our variables, it must hold true. We simply understand the terms via subjective understandings, becausr ee live in subjectivity. Objectively, if we hold the basic laws of logic to be true, then it is necessarily true.

            And if we do not hold them true…. Then everything falls, including our use of language which we must have accepted these foundational laws to be using at all. Otherwise, our words have no meaning.

            • Nihilism is not a bad thing. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nihilism

              If one is to think from the perspective of nihilism, then build from there, what difference would it be than starting with the presumption of a god and objective morals? One starts with fact, the other with assumptions.

              How can one derive satisfaction in our own actions if they must all be attributed to a presumption of meaning? How can you build real morality if morality is assumed? How can you build honest societies if honesty is presumed in definition against assumed morality.

              In short, if life is to mean something real it should be based on reality not an unprovable assumption. That we’ve been told all these years that the assumption is real skews how we evaluate words like greed and evil, good and bad.

              Nihilism does not say nothing is of value in all its forms, only that nothing has intrinsic objective value and any system based on the assumption of intrinsic objective value is not a system which will produce real value… only perceived value. But wait, isn’t that all you get with nihilism? Yes, but the perceptions are not based on assumptions of truth, rather they are based on known truths.

              Starting with nihilism you can arrive at the value which says not killing people is a good thing. Just look at the reasoning behind arriving at such a moral value.

              • I like your unpacking of nihilism. I don’t think I’ve taken the time to do so in a while. Accepted and assimilated. I withdraw the 1st 2 paragraphs in my previous post. ;)

                • I think that for myself, understanding each day with the maxim that truth does not have to be pretty I’ve been able to accept that life is without spending too much time putting unwarranted constraints on it or my experience of it. That sounds blah blah blah ish, but experiencing the now, as it is rather than how I want it to be allows for far more deep and meaningful truth about the world and my experience of it.

                  I can see the world differently and experience it differently. I’m beginning to see more meaning in what Kurt Vonnegut had to say. The little empire builders at work are simply playground bully emperor wanna be pretenders. If you gave them charge of the school yard they would fall flat on their face and wet themselves with the pressure of the responsibilities. The trick then is not to overpower them but help them see where their real place is and how they can best benefit and contribute. This is a difficult perspective to pull off routinely if you can’t see the world for what it really is… meaningless experience. And with that I’ll leave you with Bill Hicks:

                  Watch this a couple of times if you need… ;)

                  • Best shit ever. Do share more wisdom.

                    I love discourse with thinking people.

                    • Well, you could try looking up monism or mechanical atheism… just for fun

  3. Hoarding of anything is unnatural (and counterproductive) unless one lives in a permanent geographic place. It’s also unnatural (and counterproductive) as it increases anxiety due to worries concerning theft/loss.

    • Agreed. I’m ready for the Star Trek world…

  4. Interesting viewpoints you’ve expressed… Greed. I hadn’t thought of it as you’ve described. Now that you brought it up, greed is not limited to money. Greed manifests itself in power. Look at our Congress and the White House. For instance, if one is greedy, he/she will control the “foe’s” health insurance. I also liked “…not necessarily in that order”. :-)

    • It kind of shook up my day the other day when I thought about greed… I had never seen the picture I used before starting to write the post. I’m apparently not the only person to think this… I found that quite interesting.

    • Thanks for stopping in and commenting

      • Good stuff here… I try to visit the blogs but sometimes life gets in the way. Am I greedy or what? :-)

        • LOL, life is greedy. I want to write much more but life is greedy with my time. sigh

  5. What if greed is part of the basic plan, though? Some biologists would probably argue so. After all, our egos evolved out of the need to survive–one survives better if one believes that one is more important than his or her neighbor, or anyone for that matter. In the same way greed and ambition have evolved culturally, look at the history of Rome for prime example (check out Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History Podcast for some great information in that area). So then it could be stated that greed has evolved with us in order to push the survival of the ones who are most fit to survive in their society by acquiring as much of the surrounding resources as possible and conquering/absorbing his or her’s fiercest competitors. Therefore, it is my belief that philosophy and religion have developed to try to weed out these vices in human personalities, thereby creating a more peace-loving man and woman, but corruption and politics can seep into anything constructed by humans. Maybe the future of science and the philosophies that branch from it can finally unite the people groups of earth and end our desire to be envious of our neighbor’s things and spouses.

    • You might be right in some way, but let’s get some definitions set out. Are you saying that greed is good? Have you considered the consequence resource required for sequestering resources for a singular entity? This is not a sound survival plan. I have trouble seeing greed as a viable survival mechanism. Consider a monkey with a 1000 bananas: it can’t eat them all before they rot, and sharing them brings huge benefits. Greed does not seem a likely candidate for evolutionary terms of survival. Now, being able to gather bananas in a superior manner would be, but hoarding them is not. Religion is about telling individual monkeys how to share their bananas, not whether they should collect them. In fact, most religion says do not hoard bananas, but share them. This is not peace loving, it is saying don’t be a dick. Sharing is cooperation and that IS a survival technique.

      Does that make sense?

      • Definitely makes sense, and thanks for pointing out the flaw. I think greed is just one facet of human nature that has developed in order for survival. A case, admittedly simplified, for this could be summed up like this: if greed was not good for survival, then it should have been weeded out or be in the process of being weeded out by evolution through out time, and perhaps it is being weeded out. Ancient civilizations as far back as Egypt, India, and China hundreds of years before Socrates experimented with communism and social equality; yet, it is capitalism (perhaps the most Darwinistic of all social structures) that is reigning supreme. Still, it could just as easily be argued, but be difficult to impossible to prove, that greed is being eliminated in the nature of us humans, and what a great thing that would be. Sharing is perhaps more of a human trademark. Maybe world peace is possible someday, or a nuclear apocalypse, or technological singularity. We’ll see.

        • Hey, one beer is not a bad thing… but it can lead to bad things. Greed is the bad form of making sure you have enough. In all things, moderation.

          • Ah, yes, moderation will still preach! #Aristotle
            Good stuff, looking forward to reading more from you.

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