Strap yourself in peeps. Shit’s about to get real. Real philosophical. I’ve become a real Philisophisimiser.
Today’s rant is slightly interactive. At the end of the rant I set you a challenge that, if you are successful, will negate everything that I write below and you’ll receive all the adulation you deserve. You will also win a machete, two bags of rice and immunity at the next tribal council… There is a small chance I have been watching too much Survivor.
I had a conversation a few weeks ago with a friend about the meaning or purpose of life. Yes, we’d consumed a few beverages. To me, the meaning of life is a spiritual question, as a meaning implies some pre-determined or fatalistic reason. Purpose, however, is a much more practical question. Some people may argue they are one and the same, but then how could so many people define their purpose for life as the pursuit to understand the meaning of life? A purpose is more forward looking, an action or set of actions with an end result in focus. Meaning is more reflective, less material and, for many people, more metaphysical.
It got me to thinking: supposing a universal theory of meaning would be damned near impossible- it’s such a subjective question and depends on your spiritual views. However, could one suppose a universal theory of purpose? After at least 37 minutes of thought, I believe I’ve come up with a contender.
A suitable explanation for the purpose of life must meet the requirements of all people: religious, spiritual, indifferent, non-spiritual and non-religious. It must be true to all people in that the explanation, if they choose, can rationally be understood as a purpose in their life, even if spiritual beliefs require something else- an addition to their purpose, which allows their spiritual sense of meaning, but is not negated or contradicted by it.
It must also be applicable to non-spiritual people. Non-spiritual are most likely to hold the notion that there is no meaning, or at least no pre-determined meaning, in that the meaning of one’s life is decided by oneself. An explanation for purpose that is applicable to all people must also not negate or contradict this notion of “self-determination as meaning” either.
Further, it must meet the requirement of all organisms that exist, for why should we as humans be solely entitled to having a purpose? If we have a purpose, then everything must have a purpose. If a German Shepherd (or a bacterium, or an octopus) does not require a purpose, then logically we do not require one either.
If possible it should further explain the purpose of non-organic matter, such as rocks and stars and atoms . Again, if we have a purpose, everything must have a purpose.
I’m not stating that we necessarily need a purpose in the first place. I have just been pondering if there is one explanation that covers all the requirements above and has the potential to be understood by all people of differing beliefs.
I will begin with non-organic matter, followed by organic matter and animals. I will finish with how the concept is applicable to humans in ways that are separate from less conscious animals. The concept itself is both simple and obvious – pleasure. Let’s break it down.
Non-organic matter exists because elements prefer to form combinations that are more stable than other combinations. Dioxygen (the oxygen we breathe) exists because two oxygen atoms are stable when bound together. Ozone, on the other hand, has three oxygen atoms bound together and is highly unstable. Given the chance, ozone will cast off its third oxygen atom and become dioxygen. It is pleasurable for oxygen atoms to bind together to form dioxygen, in that it is a pleasurable outcome- stability. The same is true of all the elements. They bind themselves, whenever possible, into more stable, “pleasurable” states.
I am using pleasure in this context as if the elements had a consciousness to understand what it is that they find pleasurable, which they of course do not. It’s almost a shame dioxygen has no idea how much pleasure it’s experiencing by being itself and not being its temperamental cousin, ozone.
Organic matter operates in a similar manner. All organic matter (ourselves included) is cell based, the reason for our existence being the unrelenting division and grouping of cells that form all organic matter. Richard Dawkins argued in his book The Selfish Gene that the sole “desire” of a gene is to replicate itself and, thus, continue its existence. Hence, all cells pursue what to them is their pleasurable outcome. Organisms are the end of result of this un-ending replication and division.
Cells group together in ways that are pleasurable, in a similar way that elements do: stable combinations. Think of a tree. It appears perfectly created. However, it is not created to appear any way. It is that way because it is multiple stable combinations of its smaller parts. Its structure is harmonious. Harmony is essential for longevity and longevity is a pleasurable outcome for cells whose only “desire” is to continue being in existence.
Again, I’m personifying. Cells don’t have “desires”, as evidenced by the fact that I’ve not once seen a cell with a boner.
Next let’s move onto animals. Animals are guided primarily by instinct, the desire for self-preservation. Pleasure to an animal is both the experience of sensory pleasure and the attainment of pleasurable outcomes. Food, water, warmth & procreation are all pleasure in that they satisfy a sensory need. The instinct for self-preservation involves making decisions and undertaking actions that result in pleasurable outcomes. All animals instinctually know that death is an undesirable outcome.* Every decision made by any animal is made to either attain a pleasurable sensation or the most pleasurable outcome.
We humans, as animals, are no exception. We too base all our decisions on attaining pleasurable sensations or the most pleasurable outcomes. However, having substantially more complicated lives we have a substantially more complicated pleasure attainment system.
To explain how pleasure controls our life I will simply explain the decisions I made myself today:
I woke up at 5.30am (most definitely not a pleasurable feeling, but a pleasurable outcome. I got to work, and I must work to obtain money life to obtain more pleasure. In our society, no money means less pleasure). I showered (pleasurable feeling AND pleasurable outcome). I dressed to keep warm (pleasurable feeling). I decided to take a taxi (I was too tired to walk- pleasurable feeling). I ate breakfast (pleasurable feeling). I did various tasks at work to maintain the job (as explained above- pleasurable outcome). I walked homed (I can’t spend all my money on cabs or I’ll have no money left for other things- pleasurable outcome). I texted my mother to say hello (pleasurable feeling). I watched a few episodes of Judge Judy (ultimate pleasure). I snuggled up to my beloved under a doona (Ok, ok… slightly better than Judge Judy). I decided to take a break from writing this and get to bed at an early hour so I could function at work tomorrow (pleasurable outcome).
I know what you’re thinking: That dude has one interesting life.
My point is that if you break down every single decision you make, your decision will be based on maximising the amount pleasure or, conversely, minimising the amount of dis-pleasure, which is itself an act maximising pleasure.
We love people because it is pleasurable. We eat because it is pleasurable. We avoid pain because it not pleasurable. We dress however we experience it to be pleasurable (and I don’t mean comfortable- wearing high heels is, I hear, most certainly not comfortable. However, it is pleasurable or provides a pleasurable outcome otherwise no-one in their right mind would do it). We surround ourselves with pleasurable people, pleasurable food to taste, pleasurable things to look at, pleasurable music to listen to and ridiculously over-priced pleasurable furniture to sit on. On an instinctual level we pursue sensory pleasure, on a material level we pursue pleasurable outcomes.
To conclude, the theory is that we are organic robots whose purpose in life is to perpetually seek pleasure. We’re Pleasurebots!
So here is the challenge: take a note of all the decisions you make today and find one that is not guided by your desire for a pleasurable sensation or pleasurable outcome. If you find one, let me know, and let’s discuss.
Arrogantly assuming that you won’t discover one, I then request you ask yourself: Is it possible that the purpose to our existence, to the existence of everything, is simply the pursuit of pleasure? Can it meet the requirements of all people, religious and non-religious alike? And is this at all satisfying?
And should I finish every article I write with some pseudo-philosophical question just like Sarah Jessica Parker’s character does in every episode of Sex and the City?
No, Sarah Jessica Parker. I don’t think so. Pleasurebot says no.
* Don’t get me started on that. Why does everything from uncomplicated cells to complicated humans instinctively view non-existence as undesirable? It seems given that non-existence is not preferable, both instinctively and in our society in general. But where is the evidence that it’s universally any better or worse? Clearly it’s subjective.
It follows from everything written above that if we are predestined to pursue pleasure and our life is devoid of pleasure (or we have even forgotten what pleasure is), then non-existence will naturally be preferable. Attractive, even. Where am I going with this? That the automatic assumption that all people who have ended their own lives have made the wrong decision (for them) is merely a construct of our instincts.