Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Meaning of Life

A few days ago, a reader sent me an email and asked, “as a fellow atheist, I've been struggling with a super cheesy but important question: what is the meaning of life?”

This is possibly one of the most difficult questions that has been posed by humanity since we have been capable of thought; and people are still seeking answers to this question. By tackling this question, I am in no way saying that I have the definitive answer to that question that will end the debate once and for all. My answer is mine alone.

However, before I begin, I have to state that I am, indeed, an atheist. Therefore, the answer that I am about to give will not deal with the supernatural or anything else that cannot be scientifically verified.

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As such, I am not entirely sure if the question itself is appropriately phrased. Concepts, the basic ideas that people carry in our minds, can have meaning precisely because we give them meaning. The fact of the matter is that existence exists. What that means is that even if humans were to become extinct some day, and there was no more sentient/teleological/intelligent beings left on the planet, it will not change the fact that existence will still continue to exist. Matter, though changeable, is indestructible; but life, and subsequently thought, is fragile and always caught on the precipice between existence and non-existence.

Whereas concepts can have meanings, I do not think that it is possible for non-concepts, such as life, to possibly have any objective meaning. For instance, can a rock have any meaning? A rock is a rock. True, people can mold a rock into something useful but that is a different thing entirely. To change a rock into a tool or an ornament that people value is the process of our minds being able to conceptualize and taking the necessary actions that are needed in order to transform the rock into something else that is useful to us. However, that does not change the fact that until an intelligent being comes along to change a rock into something else of value to the intelligent being, a rock is nothing more than just a rock.

Therefore, the only answer that I have to the question, “what is the meaning of life,” is this – “Life can have no meaning. It simply is.”

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Of course, I am being very literal with the word “meaning.” I have to be. As I said, I am an atheist. I do not believe that some kind of supernatural being invented life. If it could be objectively proven that life were an invention that was created by some kind of mystical entity, then I could apply the word “meaning” in a more non-literal way and say, “The meaning of life is love” or some such nonsense. However, I cannot and will not do that.

So, I never liked the way the question is phrased. Logically, there can be no answer; at least none that is satisfying. Therefore, in order to have a meatier answer than “it just is,” it is necessary to change the question. I prefer to ask “What is the purpose of life?”

Once asked that way, then the question can be answered with a bit more thought. And my answer to that question is this: “The purpose of life is simply to live.”

However, that answer breeds more questions. Firstly, what then does “to live” mean? Secondly, what is the point of it all? After all, the fact of the matter is that all living organisms inevitably die. It is the ultimate change in condition. To live is complex. There are innumerable things that a person has to do in order to maintain and improve one’s life. Death, on the other hand, is that permanent state of being where one simply ceases to live. With that ultimate goal hanging over all of our heads, what then is the point of it all?

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Wondering what the point of life is when we will all inevitably die, however, lies the assumption that, like death, life is a condition – a state of being. Though it is certainly true that life is, indeed, a state of being, it is an answer that has never satisfied me. That is because life is more than just a state of being. Life is also a process; a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action.

The important word here is “process.”

Life is not merely a state of being people achieve (by pure accident) and simply maintain until the day we meet the proverbial Boatman, but the process of reaching it. Life is action. It’s the things we do. It’s the process of accomplishing goals, not just the end results of the goals. It is the things that we do and accomplish.

For example, everyone needs money. However, none of us, with perhaps the exception of the genuine miser, makes money simply for the sake of making money. We make money in order to be able to better afford the things that we need and want to live comfortably. And living comfortably may be the end goal, but it’s the process of producing goods and services that we wish to buy and sell, the act of loving and being loved, that I would call life. Life is not simply the ends. Contrary to what Machiavellians might think, the means matter.

So, for example, if we are talking about money, it matters a great deal how we make the money we made. Did we earn it? Or did we steal it? Or did we come across it simply by sheer dumb luck? In other words, values matter because the values that we cognitively decide upon as being good are there not just to maintain life, but also to improve our ability to live our lives.

Bernie Madoff
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So what values must we pursue? Life is the end in itself. As such, the values that we must pursue are the values that help to maintain our lives. What is considered good and evil must therefore be measured by how it affects our lives. The most basic way to understand what is good and evil is Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian principles, which recognizes the fundamental role of pain and pleasure in human life, and equates good with pleasure and evil with pain. However, utilitarianism alone is insufficient.

That is because utilitarianism fails to define what “the good” is. When taken to its logical extreme, utilitarianism eventually boils down to majority rule whereby the majority can do whatever it damn well pleases at the expense of the minority. Furthermore, it fails to take into consideration how people reach the conclusion about what is good. Do they use reason, or do they resort to base epicurean whim? Although Bentham’s succesor, John Stuart Mill, later on built upon Bentham’s foundation by dividing pleasure into “higher” and “lower” forms of pleasure, utilitarianism still says nothing about reason.

Beyond pleasure and pain, we also have to take reason into consideration.

A good example of this is farming and storing food. Hunger is certainly painful and the best way to alleviate hunger is, of course, by eating. But how do we get the food?

Why can’t we simply steal the food?” a utilitarian might ask. “After all, as long as our goal is to live, isn’t the willful decision to steal food – the choice made to end pain and promote pleasure – a result of us using our reason?”

No, it is not. Firstly, we must separate reason from logic. When I was in middle school and I first learned about computer programming, a phrase that I came to learn was GIGO – Garbage In, Garbage Out. If our reasoning is faulty, we can still take our faulty reasons to their logical conclusions. That does not change, however, no matter how logical, that the reason (and the most likely outcome) is bad. Secondly, that is because we have to remember that before anything can be stolen, it must first be produced. Furthermore, we have to remember that human action does not take place in a vacuum. For every human action, there tends to be a direct and opposite overreaction. If we resort to violence to steal food (or anything for that matter), there is a very good chance that our actions will come back to haunt us in a myriad of ways.

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After we have reaped and sowed our crops, what then? Do we then eat everything that we produce? It will certainly end hunger. But then what happens next year? If we eat everything now, including the seed stock that is needed for planting next year, yes, we will be full now. But we will not stay full for long.

However, before all that, does anyone imagine that it would even be possible to farm without using reason? If we tried to grow a crop without the necessary knowledge that is required for farming, we would not be able to grow anything. This applies to the production of anything else. That is because our minds are the root of all production and therefore, the root of our survival.

It bears repeating that our minds, our reason, are the root of our survival. As the purpose of life is simply to live and our survival depends on our ability to use our reason, the barometer that is used to gauge our values is measured by how those values, which are defined by reason, help us to live. Values by themselves are not axiomatic. They must be of use to our lives in order to be considered virtuous or vicious.

From here on out, then we must weigh the options that are in front of us in regards to which values that we keep or toss. What are the values necessary to be respected and loved? Which are the ones necessary to become wealthy? Which are the ones needed to be happy? It is only through a process of reason and rational decision making that we can achieve those values that are good so that we may enjoy our lives.

In order to enjoy our lives, then what we need to pursue are the things that make us happy. So what makes us happy? I personally do not like to pose the question that way. That is because when the question is posed that way, it takes us away from the position that life is a process. For example, people assume that if we have a lot of money or if we find someone who will love us it would make us happy. However, my position is that that is not the way to look at it. The better way to look at happiness is to ask ourselves a series of questions such as “Am I excited about my future? Do I love the people in my life? Am I proud of who I am, and what I have done?”

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Essentially, happiness is an emotional response to a rational evaluation of my own life. Friendships and love are not mere ornaments that we collect. They are meant to be enjoyed.

However, seeing how death is inevitable, then what is the point of it all?” some may (and do) ask.

I have often thought that this was a ridiculous way to look at life. Life is “meaningful” precisely because we will all die some day. We have to go back to how we define values.

Our values are the things that we uphold in order for us to live. However, let us assume for the sake of argument that we are immortal; like some kind of omnipotent and omniscient god, we are immune from disease or pain or death. Only then would we be able to honestly say that we have nothing to lose or gain. Any action that we take or thought that we entertain will be meaningless. There would be no need to have values. There would be no need to be reasonable or unreasonable. There simply would be no reason to be. An eternity (itself a terrifying concept if any serious thought is given to it) of meaningless existence is far too evil to wish upon our worst enemies.

None of us can ever achieve immortality and despite Ray Kurzweil’s passionate arguments in defense of immortality in the form of the Singularity, I am disinclined to believe in its supposed merits. However, we can be immortal until the day we die. What I mean here is that we can remain true to our values; to ourselves. With every passing day, people die just a little bit. Try meeting that piss-and-vinegar filled idealist friend whom you had in college after not having met him for ten years. I can guarantee that he/she will not be the same person that you met last.

I don’t mean a change in tastes or the way we look or even the way we think. I mean the way people compromise, deny, and contradict their values – because it is supposedly the adult thing to do – until one day, they can no longer recognize themselves. That is something that we can avoid. That is how we achieve immortality. Not by avoiding death but by remaining true to our values, which are intended for us to enjoy our lives. And that is what the point of it all is – to last forever now.

One of my favorite plays that I have ever read is Goethe’s Faust and at the end of the play, the eponymous character recognizes at the “highest moment” that “the last word of wisdom” is:


          No man deserves his freedom or his life
          Who does not daily win them anew.

Once we understand that, then we can begin to understand what
our purpose in life is and, perhaps, find meaning, too.


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Of course, if this was too long for you to read and you want something funnier, then I suppose you could always just watch Monty Python's The Meaning of Life.


Monday, March 10, 2014

Answering Readers' Comments

After having written several blog posts about the superiority of laissez-faire capitalism, I have seen quite a few comments that ranged from thoughtful responses to shrill insults. I have decided to focus on the comments that were aimed at my arguments than at my person. The following are the most common comments that I have received and my answers to them.


1. The free market, when left alone, does not solve every single problem.

I suppose that it is possible that I have been living under a rock but I have never heard of anyone, at least no one intelligent, on my side of the argument who has ever subscribed to such a caricature of an idea. The free market is merely the function of the free exchanges of goods and services entered into by individuals. How can the free exchange of goods and services “solve” anything other than the immediate needs of the sellers and the buyers to sell or buy the goods? Furthermore, I don’t understand where people get the idea that I think that the market “always knows exactly what to do and when to do it.” If I truly believed that, then I would need to come up with an answer as to how I would account for businesses that go bankrupt.

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2. Capitalism is immoral because the market economy is controlled by humans who are susceptible to greed, corruption, and exploitation.

People who think like this don’t ever seem to consider that government officials and bureaucrats, whom they want to regulate those greedy, corrupt, and exploitative corporations, might be susceptible to the same kind of greed, corruption, and exploitation. When I raise such an objection, they are quick to counter that such people can later be voted out of office, which, though charming, does not really hold much water considering incumbency rates that reach up to 90%. Furthermore, they do not ever seem to think that it is much easier to “vote out” businesses that they do not like simply by refusing to buy their products. As crazy as this may sound, unlike the government, businesses, not even the Almighty Samsung Electronics or the Great Exxon Mobil can force people to buy their products.


3. If free market principles were allowed to rule, what that means is everything would be based on maximizing profits.


And even if they did, this is bad because...?

I simply do not understand why there are so many people in the world who seem to think that profit is synonymous with evil. What is profit? Merriam-Webster defines profit as “the excess of returns over expenditure in a transaction or series of transactions; especially: the excess of the selling price of goods over their cost.”

With all due respect to Merriam-Webster, however, profit is more than that. It is also society’s way of ratifying a business’ past production decisions. To explain, when a business makes a profit (assuming that it makes a profit honestly without having to be bailed out by taxpayers), it is an indication that it is able to make products that consumers want to buy aka something that people think is beneficial enough for them to fork over their hard-earned money.

If a business does not provide goods or services that people feel is worth paying for, the business won’t be in business for very long.

Furthermore, if these people do think that profits are evil, then barring the profit motive, how exactly should resources be allocated? We can either allow consumer preferences to guide production, or let the personal preferences of a monopolist (i.e., government) dictate what should be produced and how. But of course, the question is never posed this way.


4. Maximizing profits would mean that the quality of goods sold would suffer because greedy businesses would do everything to cut corners to make an extra buck.

As I mentioned earlier, no business can force people to buy their goods and services and businesses don’t always attempt to maximize profits. Furthermore, if a business owner were stupid enough to cut corners at every turn to maximize profits, consumers will eventually catch on and will seek alternatives. Goodbye, profits.

Incidentally, does that mean that when businesses are not motivated by profit, i.e. the desire to sell products that consumers want, the quality of goods sold would then improve? Would businesses then start to produce high quality products solely for the benefit of the Proletariat or the Fatherland? I suppose they would. If they were threatened with death but that arrangement will most likely not last for very long.

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5. Profit maximization means that only the rich will be able to afford to buy things like healthcare insurance or a good education, while the poor will have to stay poor.

Do I have to mention again that businesses don’t always attempt to maximize profits?

About halfway through the movie Elysium, I had to force myself to stop rolling my eyes lest they stay that way forever. At the end of the movie (SPOILER ALERT), Matt Damon and his band of merry revolutionaries raid the excess medical beds found on Elysium and then give universal health care to all the suffering masses.

Of course, non-economists who watched this movie did not seem to wonder why these excess beds were being stocked on Elysium when they clearly weren’t being used. It stands to reason that people are more likely to make a profit by making goods widely available to anyone who can afford to pay for them. Initially, prices would be high, just as the first cars or the first mobile phones were ridiculously expensive. However, over time, as more people consume products, the more it becomes mass produced. This means that in the long-run, per/unit cost falls.

But why try to make sense when people can instead make a dumb movie with a straw-man argument about universal healthcare with cyborg-like humans and robots shooting lasers and missiles at each other?

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6. The free market has to be regulated.

The people who make such an argument seem to have either never heard of or simply wish to ignore the vast amounts of literature on regulatory capture. Somehow, all regulation seems to be solely for the public good!


7. Deregulation was what got the world into its current-day economic mess.

Firstly, deregulation is a myth. For one thing, when financial institutions like Goldman Sachs are allowed to make riskier bets while the government still insures their deposits, that’s not deregulation.

Furthermore, people who make these arguments are prone to believe that the world has undergone a revival of laissez-faire economics since the Reagan-Thatcher years. I would like to know what they’re smoking because that seems to be really powerful stuff.

All of that aside, however, can any of those people actually empirically prove that we are indeed living in an era of deregulation? Have the number of regulations increased or decreased? Do governments spend more or less money on regulations? Are there more or less regulators or bureaucrats? What about the number of legislation on the books? What about the number of administrative agencies today versus thirty years ago?


8. Capitalists are all about competition until the government steps in to provide competition.

This fails to take into consideration that in the free market, despite the size of certain businesses, a large business does not, in fact, have the ability to dictate every single transaction the way it wants. If that were indeed possible, Wal-Mart shouldn’t have to pay for anything. However, that is simply not the case. That is because, though some are indeed bigger than others, it does not change the fact that all businesses are “players.”

However, once the government engages in the business side of any given industry, not only would it be the biggest “player” in the business, it would also be the “umpire.” This fact alone should make any sensible person averse to government engaging in business.

Secondly, businesses and the government are motivated by very different things. A business is typically motivated by profit maximization or market share maximization, etc. The governments actions, on the other hand, is motivated by politics.

The government has no rational basis to determine what to produce, or in what quantities. It gets its money not by providing a good that people voluntarily choose to purchase, but by seizing the funds from its subject population. Since it therefore lacks a profit-and-loss feedback mechanism, every single production decision it makes is absolutely arbitrary, and necessarily wastes resources. Case in point, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the Post Office, etc. etc. etc.

Furthermore, private businesses compete for consumers dollars and bear financial risks and absorb financial losses (again, this is assuming that businesses are not bailed out by the government). The government, however, is subsidized by the taxpayers, and the taxpayers would assume the risks and the liabilities for whatever mistakes or losses that the government incurs.

And these were my favorite ones. Perhaps some day I will come up with another list.

If your argument is not here and you’d like to see it addressed, feel free to write it in the comment section.

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