My Philosophy of Life

Tonight I will attend a party where each person will get the mic for 5 minutes to answer the question, What is your philosophy of life? This is my answer; what’s yours?

* * * * *

What can we aim for if not to be as deeply happy as possible?

Of course, finding happiness is not simple. Doing whatever feels good at the moment is probably the surest way to long-term unhappiness. If you always get what you want right away, you’ll learn why no child is as miserable as the spoiled child. I know I’m happiest when I’m striving for something, not when I’ve got it. I suppose that’s why we never give up striving.

Also, most of us can’t be happy if the people we love are not happy too, so that complicates matters further. The more socially conscious of us are also happiest when we know we have done our part to make society better, even if that involves personal sacrifice.

So things are pretty tangled up. When a string is tangled, it can be helpful to see how it got that way. Same for happiness. How did it come to be so complicated?

I would answer that question with two related ideas: evolution and emergence. I’ve found that those twin concepts are at the root of just about everything. Evolution explains how things developed and emergence explains why they mean what they do.

Evolution

Evolution is itself built on two ideas: descent with modification and survival of the fittest. In other words, things are always changing and whatever variants work best are the ones that create the next generation. We’ve all heard of evolution as it pertains to living things, but when it comes to a philosophy of life I think the evolution of ideas is even more important.

We humans think we’re smart, but consider for how many millenia we were stumbling around in the dark. People were trying out various ideas and, in hindsight, they weren’t doing much better than trying things at random, each idea a modification of the last. The Earth is the center of the cosmos, it’s flat and the Sun is a god. And let’s kill everyone who disagrees. No, wait — the Earth is a sphere and at the center. Hold on — the Sun is the center of it all. And it’s not a god. But let’s still kill people who believe there are other worlds with life on them. Oh — we just realized that the universe has no center. Or maybe it does. And maybe it goes on forever. Or not. And hey! We now think there are a couple billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy alone. So chances are good that life has developed elsewhere after all. And maybe there are 10 dimensions, not 3. Or maybe 11…

One idea descends from the next. We’re always pushing the boundaries in one direction or another.

What makes all this randomness converge on something that can contribute to a meaningful philosophy of life? It’s the second component of evolution: survival of the fittest. The closer an idea matches reality, the more firmly lodged it is. It persists to inform the next generation of thinkers. That’s how we got to the scientific method: not because we were smart enough to know that it’s the best way to sniff out the difference between truth and error, but because we were so clueless that we tried just about everything else first.

Emergence

After all, we are but recycled dust. Recycled star dust, to be sure, but still dust.

And that leads to the second thing that explains everything: emergence. Emergence is when one phenomenon gives rise to a phenomenon at what is in some sense a “higher” level. In most cases, you could study the lower-level phenomenon at a detailed level for a thousand years and never guess what would arise from it.

Who would guess, by studying brain cells, that they are the woof and warp of the very thought you are applying to them?  Who would guess, by studying color or sound as a phenomenon of physics, that it has anything to do with personal pleasure? Who would guess that an economy whose very cornerstone is personal freedom and no central planning, would end up with more of every imaginable good and service, and better apparent planning, than every centrally planned economy that has ever been tried?

These counter-intuitive results pale in comparison to the greatest emergent phenomenon ever: that¬†unconscious genes would “selfishly” maximize their own chance for replication by chemically motivating their hosts to behaviors that are the exact opposite of selfishness, such as altruism and eusociality. The mechanism is a delicious, hundred-layer cake of one emergence on top of another.

And that’s why happiness is so complicated. It arises counter-intuitively from emergent phenomena that, in turn, are the product of random evolution — both biological and philosophical — that isn’t even done yet. Once we understand that, we can relax and enjoy the wonders that are playing out every day.

For those of us who enjoy philosophy, contemplating such mysteries is a large part of what makes life worth living.

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5 responses to “My Philosophy of Life

  1. I’m atheist, and my philosophy of life was strongly impacted by Buddhism, which I learned when I was 30 years old.

    The Buddhist philosophy is summarized by the Four Noble Truths:

    1) Life (sometimes) sucks
    2) The reason why it sucks is because we become too attached to things
    3) There is a way to fix that
    4) The way is…

    Do good, avoid evil, and purify your mind. That’s the essence of Buddhism.

    But you can learn a lot more here:

    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bullitt/theravada.html

    • I think a better description about Buddhist philosophy of life is the noble eight fold path, which is the gradual improvement of your virtue, concentration and discernment.

      Right speech, action, and livelihood come under the aggregate of virtue. Right effort, mindfulness, and concentration come under the aggregate of concentration. Right and resolve come under the aggregate of discernment.

      Although this is called a “path”, that doesn’t mean you should do one step after the other: on the contrary, all the factors should be developed simultaneously, because one supports the other.

      For instance: the aggregate of virtue gives us peace of mind to improve our concentration; and concentration helps us to improve our discernment; and discernment leads to virtue; and so on.

      More information:

      http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/waytoend.html

  2. Pingback: Reading The Stars « Poems That Dance

  3. Happiness isn’t that complicated; it’s relitave to a person’s attitude. The key is living in the moment and drawing enjoying from everything for what it is. Life is meaningless; we all die. Happiness comes from within, not without. While our enviornment can influence our happiness, our attitude or response to our enviornment makes the diffence as to if we are happy or not.

  4. Pingback: What If Everyone Will Go to Heaven? | Path of the Beagle

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