Guest Reflection

Occasionally I’ll ask someone whose mind I respect to share something they’ve been thinking about for a while. I won’t necessarily agree with their statements, but I think someone once said something positive about being open-minded. In this piece my friend Lu Zhang Gram offers his reflections on that most humble subject, the meaning of life…

The End of Life is Love

Why are we here on Earth? The meaning of Life, the Grand Plan, the explanation of it all has probably tantalized young philosopher men and women since the invention of Language itself. As Russian revolutionary Trotsky put it: “If the end justifies the means, what then justifies the end?”

The Nihilists contend that there is no Grand Plan beyond the necessity of death, survival and reproduction, that the meaning of Life is biological life simpliciter and that Reality is a strangely colourless, odourless, valueless mass of atomic particles. Venerable philosophers from Nietzsche to Sartre and Camus saw existence in this light. The unenviable task of Superman was to somehow weld His own feeble, abstract and ephemeral value predicates onto this unfeeling, dark void through a manly display of sheer willpower and in the process create a habitable space for Mankind.

However, as Heidegger points out, this viewpoint is flatly contradicted by the obvious fact that our daily lived experience is teeming with meaning. Unless we are specialized research academics, we do not navigate an everyday world full of neurotransmitters, line integrals and quarks and muons but rather one of mortgages, telenovellas, industrial strikes, corrupt landlords, get-aways, get-togethers, break-ups, heartbreak and all the rest that quietly passes by, day after day. During 99% of our lives, these experiences form the ground of our reality and the little army of valueless, colourless, charged particles conspiring to make reality appear like it contains such things as Minimum Wage seems better suited for Plato’s realm of Pure Ideas.

On the other hand, we may one day wake up fully realizing the certainty of our own Death, that final end to all conscious experience, and this may lead us to question the ultimate meaningfulness of our everyday pre-occupations. We may ask ourselves like Trotsky, like Heidegger, like countless ones before them. In the face of Death, what is it all for? We work to earn our living, but what is our living for? We save our money for security, but what is our security for? We expend our savings on goods, but what is our consumption for? We struggle for our right to freedom, justice and equality – but is it worth it in the end?

We may despair and declare the question of the meaning of life as itself a meaningless question, as Wittgenstein, the tormented genius of linguistic philosophy, was wont to maintain. But I believe there is pattern in the madness. Life is a chameleon who would rather shift her colours to suit her Perceiver than reveal a glimpse of a core, invariant “essence”. Is it not true that when we find ourselves down in spirits, Life seems empty of any purpose, whereas when we are giddy with joy, Life does not seem to need a purpose after all? Then is it not all the more true that Life only appears as an endless stream of valueless particles in our more Scientific moods, as a chaotic profusion of petty worries, doubts and triumphs in our Everyday moods and as a nagging cacophony of philosophical questions in the mood of Angst?

Philosophers with their ever-enquiring, ever-critical minds have traditionally privileged the mood of Angst as the ultimate arbiter of the meaning of our own existence. This seems to me self-defeating, or as Marx would say, doomed to self-contradiction, for once in the state of Angst, one is bound to ask oneself what getting into that state was really all for in the first place? Therefore I would like to propose an alternative vision, one perhaps marginalized due to the sexual make-up of philosophy faculty throughout history. As Valerie Solanas wrote in her infamous SCUM manifesto: “A woman … knows instinctively that the only wrong is to hurt others, and that the meaning of life is Love.”

What happens in the mood of Love? Here I speak of Love in the broad sense, Love of Humanity, Love of the Other, Love of Growth, Love of Ideas and Causes, Love of Freedom, Justice and Equality (rather than love of possession, power or prestige). Something remarkable. Not the bleak hopelessness of despair or the aimlessness of giddy joy. Not the robotic intellectualism of the Scientific moods, the uncritical, un-reflexive conformity of the Everyday moods, or the philosophical masturbation of the Angst-ridden moods.

With Love comes simply: Trust. Peace. The loss of fear of Death. Openness. Communication. Being plugged into something greater than ourselves. Commitment. Getting off one’s armchair and doing something. Patience. Because we do things for their own sake, not to please people or for the sake of other things. Strength. Being brave and vulnerable and open and respectful all at once – because nothing else ever mattered quite as much.

Lu Zhang Gram

6 thoughts on “Guest Reflection

  1. You are better versed in philosophical writings than I am, but it seems to me that the position ascribed to your “Nihilists” is a bit of a strawman – They may have been unable to find an objective meaning to Life, but that does not mean that their world was devoid of value or pleasure. Nietzsche was scathing towards those who would deny the life we experience here and now, and Camus “[had to] imagine Sisyphus happy” in his endless and meaningless toils.

    Is it necessary that these philosophers be cut down in order to establish a reign of Love? And is it in fact self-evident that this Love is the meaning of life? You refute a meaningless existence by the subjective experience of meaning, but Love as the meaning of life might similarly be contraindicated by the observation that life is just as full of strife, miscommunication and complacency as it is of Peace, Communication and Commitment. Or, more concretely, that she who claimed that ‘A woman … knows instinctively that the only wrong is to hurt others’ went on a murderous shooting spree in Andy Warhol’s Factory.

    This is not to say that the Love you describe is not laudable – it might serve well as an ideal, something to aspire to. But does it explain or affirm Life, any more than does “robotic intellectualism” or “philosophical masturbation”?

    • Hahaha, well said! With pleasure and happiness, we get into the pleasure-happiness distinction and whether it is possible to feel extreme pleasure and be unhappy at the same time or whether they are really one and the same thing. For example, arguably if someone injected morphine into your blood and forced you to watch your wife and children get raped and murdered, you might feel extreme pleasure in your body, but very little happiness. Conversely, meaningful suffering often makes people feel happy, while inflicting extreme pain on their bodies and minds. The somewhat grotesque example that comes to mind are interviews with tribal women in Kenya explaining how the intense physical pain of unsedated female circumcision was accompanied with the happiness of knowing they were successfully transitioning into a new social role as a mature woman. A milder example would be Muslims denying their bodies food and drink during the month of Ramadan. Now can you really experience true happiness, if all subjective meaning is just an arbitrary outcome of biochemical processes? It seems to me such a world could only contain pleasure in an objective sense, but not happiness.

      Reg. Valerie Solanas, let’s be generous and judge her on her words rather than her actions :)

      • I don’t know if her words are uniformly loving either:

        “Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.”

        • A certain kind of satirical, feminist and highly politicized love that you would expect to come from a schizophrenic homeless prostitute but would be a bit off-topic for this post to go into depth about it here. I could have picked a nice safe Martha Nussbaum quote, but at least this caught your attention! 😉

  2. I love this. Both the statement and the reply. And I think, not to belittle your words, Lu, but it sounds hopeful. Love is a choice in perceiving the meaning of life.

    I admired quite a lot of painters when I was in college. I would say that quite a few of them were comparable to philosophers in how ceaseless they were on contemplating life. I admired them most when they were raw, gritty, and all about the masochistic pain involved in creating their work. As often happens, my viewpoints changed a lot after college. When I met one of my professors a couple of years ago, I found myself let down by his perception of life. He was bitter, angry, and what I had mistaken for rawness was a choice to be someone who saw the world in that way. My error, I now believe, was in judging this to be a flaw. If I really saw the world as full of love, I wouldn’t have judged him or his work so sadly. While I made a different choice in how I approach things, he still approached his work with love or else what would be driving him to wake up every morning at 5am, go for a run, and then paint all the rest of the day? And how else did he inspire so much curiosity in me about all the famous painters? He didn’t explain the brush strokes of Picasso or how to stretch a canvas without a certain amount of love.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I would like to find happiness through perceiving the world with love. But in order to do that, I have to open my consciousness to all the bitter, angsty, angry ideas floating out in the world and recognize that they all have their own place in evaluating the world with the same meaning. Optimism/pessimism – maybe that’s a different matter. But love: I believe you can find that more easily than anyone would ever believe.

  3. A couple ideas:

    Asking “what is the meaning of life?” is like asking “what is one divided by zero?” or “what color is 7?” – the answer is undefined because the question is un-real.

    Life is irrational. Or, more accurately, life just *is* and human beings are irrational.

    Asking “What is the meaning of life *from the (biased) perspectives of humans*” will no doubt yield answers as many and varied as there are human minds. I think Lu Zhang Gram touches on this when he mentions how scientists see the interactions of quarks, etc.

    It’s a good thing we are irrational, otherwise we would have died out eons ago.

    I’ve brought up the fictional Star Trek species called “Vulcans” on this site before. I always wondered how a species that only behaved logically could realistically survive — why would a Vulcan get out of bed in the morning? To save the world? Why? Who cares? To procreate? For what purpose? Why does spreading one’s DNA matter, logically? Simply to avoid painful stimuli? Why not euthanize oneself? That will surely avoid all painful stimuli. I think Vulcans could never exist because there is no purely, objectively logical reason to go on living.

    Maybe humans have an innate, deep-seeded irrationality, which we *had* to evolve in order to be an intelligent, sentient species and not go insane when confronted with our own mortality, or die out from apathy.

    Most animals, when they become aware of a certain, imminent threat, will take action to avoid it. This is an expected result of evolution.

    But they are not aware that they will die some day. We are. And we cannot take action to avoid it. Hence we must be able to live in denial. “Yes, I will die some day, but that doesn’t matter because X.” (“Because I will have left a legacy,” “because I made the world a better place,” “because I lived life to the fullest,” “because I came from dust and will return to dust,” because, because, because….)

    I think this model can explain a few odd things about human beings. It can explain how we can knowingly push our support systems beyond their limits, and continue to live in denial of the fact that they will likely fail soon.

    I think it might also explain humor….

    We laugh not only when we hear a good joke, but also when we are confronted with something completely unexpected — things that are so far outside of our mental model of the world that they catch us completely off guard and we don’t know how to react.

    And the jokes that are the funniest ones, that really get to our core, are usually the ones that have something completely unexpected — something that, again, reaches outside of our mental model of what is going on in the world of that joke.

    Maybe humor is our mental adaptation for dealing with paradox and irrationality.

    There’s a kind of computer malware called a “logic bomb” that functions by forcing the computer to “think” about something that is inherently irrational (e.g. “one divided by zero”). Since computers are 100% logical, they cannot deal with such “thoughts” and promptly crash when confronted with them.

    Maybe a really good laugh is the logic center of our brain doing a quick “reboot” in order to deal with the irrational thought and allow us to keep on living, like a microcosm for the way that denial allows us to cope with our mortality.

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