Friday, February 27, 2015

Musings of a Philosophical Bear: Why Ask Why

I’m often thinking about the deeper questions of life, especially in those times when life gets hard. I want to know; what’s the meaning of it all? Why are we here? I was reminded of these questions one day when I was watching an old episode of Desperate Housewives. Susan was recovering from a kidney transplant. She was alive because of a string of events that at once could be considered lucky and tragic. One night, she found herself sitting in a casino at a high stakes poker table. She was up to $20,000 in winnings off of a $100 chip. She clearly had a lucky streak, but instead of being excited, she was crying at the table, bumming out the other players. When a neighbor came to console her, she explained that the chip came from a friend who had just died from the same kidney condition that she had survived. She didn’t understand why she gotten so lucky when her friend just died. She was asking why, as many of us would, when life isn't making any sense. And her neighbor told her of similar miraculous event in his own life. He was much older, maybe not the smartest man, but he had some sound advice. Why ask why? He was trying to get her to acceptance, but she was still stuck. Why do we ask such unanswerable questions? Is there an answer that would ever satisfy?

I think Desperate Housewives is a good show, but no television drama is going to have contained within it the answer to the meaning of life. One of the many things a good drama can do is make us ask ourselves some questions that make us think while being entertained. We've all had those moments in life that have tested us, made us question the order of the universe and shown us to be stronger than we thought we were. When everything seems to make sense, something unexpected can come along to shatter our arrogant notion of reality. Why do we need to know what it all means? Because we think we ought to know. We think if we knew, if we could somehow understand what it all means, the terrible things that happen wouldn't be as terrible in that larger context. But that's not how it works. We don't come to acceptance through understanding. Acceptance comes even while being confused. 

When things get too big, when I can't get out of my own head, I think about my cat Roy. He sits on the highest ledge of the porch window looking out at the yard. I sometimes wonder what he thinks about when he looks out into the world. I can’t read his mind, but I imagine that he lives in an almost constant now. He doesn’t think about what it all means. When he sees something he wants, he goes after it. He remembers when things cause him danger and he avoids them, but he doesn't dread those things when they aren't in front of him. He just cleans himself when he feels dirty, eats when he’s hungry and sleeps when he’s tired. He doesn’t need to know why he exists or what greater purpose in life he might have. We’re not cats, nor would we want to be, but our high cognitive functionality brings with it the dark consequence of doubt. When bad things happen to us, we wonder if anything matters. Notice that you never ask what the meaning of life is when you're joyful, when you're love, when you're so happy you lose track of time? What difference does it make then?

It’s not the question that is ridiculous, it’s the assumption that almost always lies behind it that needs to be examined. That assumption being that there is some sort of answer outside ourselves that would be satisfying. I found myself watching a video that went viral online. It was filmed using a cell phone, and it was of a six-year-old boy asking Neal Degrasse Tyson “what is the meaning of life?” The video was so funny because what would a six-year-old need to know about the meaning of life. At that age, we’re still figuring out how the basic mechanics of life work. At that age, we're mostly asking what things are, not why they are the way they are. I could only assume an adult put him up to it, but regardless it was really cute. What was so remarkable about the video was that Tyson actually took the question seriously, knowing that many other people in the room might have asked the same question had they not been constrained by social pressures to avoid embarrassment. And his answer was remarkably brilliant. You should watch the video for yourself.


My first impression was that meaning doesn’t come from outside of us, ever. Take for instance, the meaning of a photograph. If you don’t know the people in the photo, it has a completely different meaning than if you knew the people being depicted. It would have a completely different meaning again if you were one of the people in the photo. Now imagine an alien from another world who finds this artifact years after human civilization has passed away. Try to imagine what this conscious being would think about the same photograph. It’s hard to know what such a being would think, but one thing is almost certainly clear, it wouldn't be anything like what we would think. It's because each of us creates meaning from the artifacts of the outside world. Every moment of our life is a subjective experience. Meaning is a created thing, not a found thing. So if we’re looking for the meaning of life somewhere outside of ourselves, we’re never going to find it.

Why are we not looking for the meaning of life when we're happy? Joseph Campbell put it this way, “I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.” There is something to be said about living life in the moment. When we're truly happy, we're not thinking about what it all means because we're too busy living. When we are aware of the experience of having experiences, we are not living in the world at all, we're just thinking about living, which only takes us further away from the thing we want the most, meaning. To me, the meaning of life will always be found within the experiences themselves. To be aware, to grow in your understanding of myself and the world, to have learned a little more today than I knew yesterday, to make the people in my life a little happier, to contribute in some small way to the wellbeing of others, that is what brings my life meaning. In my opinion, anyone looking for any deeper explanation of why we exist will always be dissatisfied.

With all the convoluted storylines from the film Prometheus, I took away one solid bit of philosophical gold. When the android David asked Dr Hathaway why humans created androids, he gave the best and most honest answer he could give. He said it was because we could. Could you imagine that being the ultimate answer to the Universe? Could you imagine asking your creator why he made you and his answer was, "because I could"? Can you imagine how dissatisfied you’d be, and still we’d never cease our search for our origins. Even after all the insanity that happened in that movie, we understood why the wife of the late Dr Hathaway continued her journey into the abyss.  She was cursed to always wonder why, to want to know where she came from, to try to understand just for the sake of understanding, something quintessentially human if not just a little insane.

If you’re looking for the meaning of life outside yourself take a moment to recognize that insanity for what it is. Meaning is a subjective experience, and as much as it is shared with other like minded people, even then it’s never found outside of anyone’s consciousness. It’s an idea that starts in the mind and shared with others who wish to take part in that experience. If you’re looking for the meaning of life, instead trying to find it in the world, find ways to make your life meaningful. Pay closer attention to the things that move you. Savor those moments of timeless joy. Do more of what you love, and get better at accepting the incomprehensible nature of reality.

Male Media Mind