Only eight posts ago, I lamented that the more important our decisions are, the less thought we seem to put into them. We only invest enough thought to find what makes us feel good, I said, and I wished we would apply more rational thought to our big choices.
Maybe I was asking too much.
Philosopher L.A. Paul says that when it comes to truly life-changing decisions — ones that transform the way you think or your mode of being — there’s no way we can be entirely rational, because on the other side of those decisions we will be so profoundly changed that our present selves can have no idea what our future selves will think.
At a recent gathering of the philosophically minded, a friend lamented that she has been troubled by the sense that our lives don’t matter. Some of us around the table suggested that the way we live affects the people we love, which surely matters. “But eventually,” she countered, “the impact of even the best of us dissipates to nothing.”
Our wish to matter for the long term is very strong. Our ancestors who were apathetic on that point … well, they’re not our ancestors because they lost the competition to reproduce.
We also want to be connected to something more consequential than our individual lives: a tribe, a religion, or a Great Cause. This, too, has been bred into us as members of a species whose ecological niche is “animal that is individually weak but is an apex predator by dint of cooperation and intelligence.”
So what happens when that animal becomes so intelligent that it is able to see through the whole game — when it realizes that no tribe is better than another, that its religions are man-made, and its Great Causes will become utterly moot long before a dying Sun vaporizes the planet?
Do you ever feel like you’re working harder and harder just to afford all the stuff that you need because you’re working harder and harder? You work your butt off all week to achieve the American Dream of home ownership and now you must work your butt off on the weekends mowing the lawn in the summer, and wake up early to shovel snow off the driveway in the winter.
Apparently this is nothing new. According to Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, our transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers resulted in just that sort of unintended consequence.
To philosophize is to prepare to die. Or, to truly take your life with the seriousness that philosophy demands, you can’t take your life all that seriously. (Plato at the Googleplex, page 303)
What is that about? If I’m so serious-minded that I’m preparing to die, aren’t I taking life pretty darn seriously?
The universe is on its way to a slow, cold death.
In the meantime, global warming is causing record levels of wildfires.
Worst of all, Donald Trump is still at the top of the polls.
How can a serious-minded beagle keep his head up?
It has been a very public week for victims of horrible crimes. Dzhjokhar Tsarnaev’s victims spoke at his formal death sentencing, and the families of the Charletson Massacre’s victims have been in the national media.
Most noted among the Charleston families was Nadine Collier, who said to killer Dylann Roof, “You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you and I forgive you.”
Rebekah Gregory, who lost a leg to Boston Marathon bomber Tsarnaev, struck a very different tone. Looking defiantly at the murderer, she said, “While your intention was to destroy America, what you have really accomplished is actually quite the opposite – you’ve unified us. We are Boston strong, we are America strong, and choosing to mess with us was a terrible idea. So how’s that for your VICTIM impact statement?”
What if the truth about life were horrible? What if, as the ancient Hebrews believed, we are all destined to spend eternity in a shadowy sheol rather than a glorious heaven? Or what if there is no afterlife at all? What if life is absurd — just a cosmic joke played on us by no-one at all?
If you were to discover that any of these propositions is absolutely, undeniably true, how would you feel?
I’ve been rereading Plato at the Googleplex, in which author Rebecca Goldstein imagines Plato on a book tour in modern America. I’d like to share with you a passage that I find very moving. Ms. Goldstein, synthesizing Plato’s writings, has him say this about those who are fit to be the Guardians of his ideal republic.
[An essential character quality is] an inborn horror of being deceived as to the nature of things, and an inborn desire to know the truth… [It] is something different from intelligence and different from knowledge. Those who have this trait love the truth not because it is like this or like that. They love the truth simply because it is the truth and are prepared to love it no matter what it turns out to be. They will stick to a view just so long as it seems to them the truth and will not be seduced away from that view no matter what others are telling them, or what flashier and more attractive options are dangled before them; but they are also the least reluctant among all people to abandon a formerly loved view, if once they become convinced that it is not true. They are always on the scent of the truth, like dogs, who are the most philosophical of animals.
Do you identify with this? I do. During the years that I was in the evangelical church, nothing “seduced me away from that view” — not money, not social opportunities, not fleshly lusts, not even the common decency to see some of its teachings as horrible. I thought I had found the truth; how could anything else matter?
When I became convinced otherwise, I did not mourn the loss of eternal life, a God who loved me, or a sense of eternal purpose. Instead, I felt anger at having been deceived.
I don’t think life is a joke. I’d say it’s more of a game. But if that is the truth of the matter, I am prepared to love it. Delighted, even. How about you?