By Basil E. Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
For me and for all humans, a critical question is: “What am I to do with the rest of my life?” I want to live virtuously and effectively for the long run, not for my temporary ease or transient pleasure.
What motivates living things to act in the ways they do? The necessity for survival shapes the behavior of all living things. Most values and virtues help us survive as individuals, families, societies, species, and biospheres in concentric circles with the individual in the center.
As an individual I depend on surviving long enough to acquire knowledge and training, to work, to mate, to raise a family, and serve my community. What should I do after I have secured my survival? Work for the continuing survival of my own body and other bodies in the concentric circles.
The cells making up my body are sister cells with the same genes, which have differentiated to perform various functions for my body; some cells, such as hair and nails are expendable, others, such as neurons, more valuable. Similarly, I and my family serve the community or tribe. The tribe serves the species and that serves the web of life on earth to enable its survival. In case of conflict, the larger living entity prevails.
If biospheres on different planets communicate by some esoteric means, then our biosphere serves living entities in this universe or in multiple universes. How do we do that? We transmit useful information for their survival from our experiences on earth.
Is survival the whole game? Survival has no meaning without the experience of living. Experience is the payoff for survival: adventures, challenges, sensations, impressions, love, pain, passion, pleasure, excitement, enthusiasm, curiosity, laughter, and crying.
You want to be fully aware of every moment and absorb fully the meaning of the moment as a child does. Pay close attention and take in every object and event you encounter. Make every one of your activities for survival also a work of meditation. Job, family, social duties, cooking, eating, writing, waking, washing, and walking should be activities of joyous meditation and prayer.
But pleasures follow functions for survival. I aspire to create beauty or discover truth, not to fill my belly or to pleasure my skin.
The pursuit of pleasure, even the pursuit of happiness, is not a sound value. Pleasure should tread after purpose. Pleasure as a goal in life is a dead end, leading only to addictions and deterioration. Those who stay on Pleasure Island too long soon grow a tail, long ears, and bray.
If I’m sure of what’s right, I do it even if it’s painful and avoid it if it’s pleasurable. Although happiness is a much broader and more responsible feeling of contentment and tranquility, it is not enough in life without survival.
It is not enough also that I survive; I need to appreciate and relish whatever the struggle for survival may bring to my life. I do those things that promote survival, and enjoy experiences following my actions for survival, sweet or sour.
Martyrs and heroes appreciate the experience of dying for an important cause. A Russian woman jumps out of the troika to save her children from pursuing wolves. A soldier throws himself on a grenade to save his buddies in the foxhole. We don’t act this way after careful thought, but instinctively. I’m not sure how far I would go as a martyr, but I’m pretty sure I would sacrifice my life to save my family.
We humans host altruistic genes besides selfish ones. Now we must express our altruistic genes to save the world from nuclear holocaust or planetary pollution. We can even put our tremendous ingenuity to work to save earth from natural disasters: asteroids, comets, extreme volcanic eruptions, or planet-wide glaciation.
The selfish genes also operate, as with the Donner party of pioneers stalled by a blizzard in the Sierra Nevada on the way to California, as with people on a lifeboat running out of food before a rescue, or as with frogs in a drying pond.
Living things compete strongly for survival. Males compete for females, siblings for dominance and survival in the nest, troops and tribes fight over territory and resources, nations build empires by prevailing over their neighbors and getting tribute or land. Generally, competition serves the species by propagating the strong and eliminating the weak.
Evolutionary studies show that when living things are severely stressed by environmental disasters some individuals and species squeeze through the survival bottleneck by adapting well enough to the changes; then these survivors multiply, and radiate new species. Adaptability is a core virtue.
Just as important for survival is cooperation, symbiosis, among individuals, tribes, and species. With cooperation (and diplomatic or military persuasion) nations emerged from tribes. Now nations must cooperate to save our biosphere.
The relationship between the individual predator and prey is competitive and gory, but between the species the relationship is cooperative. The wolf culls the herd of deer and the hawk the rabbit warren, keeping their populations healthy. Competition exists among the herds and among the warrens for grassland. American Indian tribes constantly fought each other for territory. In earlier times, that was the case for all humans around the earth.
In free societies, companies compete with other companies selling a product or service to the public for profit. Those companies, barring monopolies, which best serve the public prevail and survive with profits; others go bankrupt. Companies also cooperate, supplying capital goods to others, merging, and forming associations to protect and promote industry interests.
Workers strike to earn higher wages or benefits and the managers or owners fight back with strike breakers; they must, given business competition. Carl Marx, an ethicist not an economist, issued his manifesto with Engels in favor of the oppressed workers. Without a proper balance between the bosses and the wage earners society stalls and stagnates or descends into revolution and anarchy. Strikes should be settled to favor neither owners nor workers but consumers; laborers, managers, retirees, and owners all are consumers of goods.
Conflict and competition is everywhere in society and I cannot avoid them, although I prefer peace and cooperation. Conflict is interesting, even exciting, forming the basis of stories, drama, and sports. I will rouse up my courage and my will to engage in conflict if it is necessary. My main conflict, however, is against my defects, weaknesses, and addictions.
The application of my will can overcome my character defects and give me and those who depend on me a better chance of survival. I can attest to the existence of the will from personal experience, although neuroscience has not discovered its locus in the brain as yet.
I know that my will, like other faculties, gets stronger if I exercise it and weaker if I don’t regularly stress it with challenges. My will gets stronger when I undertake a difficult or painful task and I persist until the task is done; or, when I refrain from doing something very pleasant, but harmful to my goals.
If I could activate my will under all challenging circumstances, I would have immense power to change my ways and potentially change my world. We may admire the will; we may respect ideas. Like Schopenhauer, we may see the world as will and idea. Thinkers produce ideas inside their heads, which become, with the exertion of the will, arrangements of the world outside to support our survival.
The will has a utilitarian value because, if used properly, the will can prolong living and delay dying.
I subscribe to a utilitarian philosophy of life: what is useful is true. Bertrand Russell objected to accepting as true what is useful in religious thought for human conduct, that is, the morality that holds a society together. He said that arguing for religion because of its utility was intellectually dishonest—something was true or false, and if false we should reject it for our store of knowledge.
I say, much of what we do and think in science (especially medicine) is based on pragmatic or practical reasons, because it is useful and it works. What works is often linked to what is real but not apparent to our reason or common sense, such as the quantum mechanics of particles and waves.
Any device or idea that helps us make useful predictions about human behavior is worthwhile, even though we may not understand how it works exactly, such as meditation, yoga, or prayer.
Besides our faculty of the will, we humans are endowed with the supreme faculty of reason. Reason saved our species from extinction when we were small in numbers and vulnerable in drought ridden East Africa about two hundred thousand years ago. We used our reason to organize effective hunting bands, to fashion better stone tools to kill and butcher prey, and to cook the meat well on open fires killing parasites and toxic bacteria.
Reason is the ultimate arbiter of everything. What is reason? It is that faculty that allows me to see the folly of some of my excessive passions. Reason tells me what is the utility of a value I pursue; how it will affect me or others, and what is a value’s intrinsic worth.
When I’m inclined to assume a particular value in my living I examine this value carefully and using my reason to determine whether it’s worth pursuing, to want extent, and for how long. Reason is judgment of what is best in what I can do and what is second best, and so forth.
Reason guides me to choose values according to their importance. I can then apply my faculty of the will to execute my resolutions. Reason tells me to moderate any interest or passion to keep it in proportion to other things I value.
Reason dictates that I take each of my interests, passions, and other values in the right proportion to my overall system of guidance. I am a logical machine deciding how to act and how to feel, with due regard for my natural sentiments, such as love or antipathy arising spontaneously, but I keep these emotions under control at all times so that I and my clan may survive longer than other clans and propagate.
Nothing then is worthwhile unless it contributes to survival? What about beauty, the arts, knowledge from the sciences, love, God, and religion, are they not valuable in themselves?
Consider God and religion. God represents the great creative force of the universe, the evolution of matter and life into complex forms from simple elements and eventually the formation of us thinking primates.
God also embodies those qualities we need to survive for long or forever as individuals and as a society: beauty, wisdom, might, mobility to other worlds, indestructibility, vast knowledge, and compassion.
Of the Ten Commandments, the first five demand respect for God, the Nature which created us, and honor for our parents who were the conduits of our birth. We cannot long survive without awareness of the processes of Nature, especially the process of evolution.
The second five commandments admonish us to be useful members of our society, not to harm anyone, but have compassion for the unfortunate or weak members in our tribe, such as widows, orphans and the handicapped. Such commandments make up ethics, the major content of all religions.
Religious symbols, rites, practices, and ceremonies reinforce ethics and respect for the God of Nature. By and large, religious ethics are values which enhance the chances of survival for an individual and society in the face of enemies and challenges from the natural environment. A society held together with a firm but moderate faith in God is likely to survive and prosper.
Can a religion lead to destructive practices? Certainly, religious superstition and fanaticism have led to bloody wars, and still do.
Over time, religions have become more tolerant, less cruel and more peaceful. Child sacrifice is much less common today, and so is the burning of heretics or atheists. We tend to pray to God less often for relief from plagues, volcanic eruptions, and tempests, but rather trust our scientific and technological knowledge for our safety. We don’t plead to Zeus to protect us from lightning, but install Benjamin Franklin’s rod instead.
Yet, we can still find religion to be of inestimable value as an organized collection of ethics and values useful for our survival. The holy scriptures of every major faith were laid down by very wise and inspired mystics who could see what was good for me, you, and for society. These teachings are passed on to the young from parents, ministers, concerned relatives, godfathers, and godmothers.
You will not find moral teachings in science, wondrous as science may be in collecting data and devising theories about the workings of outer nature. Religion and mysticism deal with our inner nature, replete with demons and angels. Some scientists make fools of themselves when they attack religion.
Scientific findings can be useful in debunking some values and ideals, but cannot create them. A science, such as behavioral psychology, observes, theorizes, predicts, and explains animal behavior but does not provide motivations.
Scientists may apply measurement and mathematical reasoning to human motivation, taste, ethics, and aspirations; quantitative methods are used in economics, biology, politics, and psychology. Surveys of human behavior, questionnaires, and polling combined with statistics can tell us a great deal about human preferences and religious experiences. These methods cannot supply motivations for anything.
We don’t get much help in understanding sentiments and motivations from scientific measurements, numbers, or abstract mathematics. We can survey opinions and apply statistics to the observations, but the statistics do not guide us how to choose values or adopt sentiments. Scientific findings are neither good nor evil. Scientists themselves may turn out to be mad or evil like any other human, but less likely to be so because scientists tend to be objective and impassive.
Scientific experiments are the result of curiosity, wonder, awe, pleasure, enthusiasm, excitement and love, but do not produce these emotions. A scientist may be motivated by curiosity about a phenomenon, but curiosity is not a part of science unless it is an object of study. Looking at the night sky I may be filled with wonder or awe, but wonder is not scientific. The scientific method says nothing about good emotions, but speaks only of objectivity, keen observation, and impartiality towards the facts.
Anthropology illuminates what are our hereditary tendencies and propensities, what we enjoy doing best. Since hunting and gathering are activities our ancestors did for millions of years, it’s not surprising that many people today love hunting, fishing and gathering foods from the wild, if they have the opportunity.
We evolved to survive in social groups, hunting bands, tribes, and villages in the last ten thousand years or so with the advent of agriculture and the domestication of animals. People still appreciate the community of close neighbors and friends in church, club, workplace, or farming areas.
With hunting and gathering essential to the survival of the tribe, humans evolved as territorial animals, defending their habitat against competitors, other humans or animals, such as the wolf, tiger, or lion.
Farming for grains and beans for thousands of years, we humans developed our intense dislike for crows, rodents, and insects, which would appropriate the food we produced with our labor on our territory.
Today, however, we live and survive in an industrialized world in cities and on the land, largely shaped by advanced technology and science; but we should maintain a fallback position with animals and crops on land in case our technological system collapses.
Science examines the universe outside my eyes; introspection examines my inner self, a universe of feeling, imagination, and motivation–the province of religion, philosophy, and literature. Yet, science with technology has been a basic tool for survival since ancient times. The culture with the best science prevailed in tribal conflicts.
Scientific or technological work is a viable value provided it continues to be a means to survival; if not, we should set it aside at least until religion has evolved to a higher level, consistent with the survival of our species and of the biosphere.
The biosphere on earth is permeated with beauty. Beauty and the arts, are they valuable for survival? Many great artists sacrificed their lives in attics to produce the masterpieces we enjoy today. Did they waste their lives for our mere enjoyment?
Things which are beautiful, pleasant, sweet, and interesting are usually beneficial, unless our instinctive tastes have been corrupted; something beautiful tends to be healthful and wholesome; ugly, repulsive, and bitter things are harmful, even dangerous. Medicines and Venus flytraps are exceptions.
I appreciate beauty, the experience of ordered forms, colors, sounds, tastes, aromas, tactile sensations, and movements. Beauty to be enjoyed may be found in natural objects or human art. I am able to create something beautiful or simply to appreciate it passively. When I’m producing an artistic object I enjoy beauty more intensely in the work of others.
The beauty of flowers, birds, star constellations, musical compositions, sculptures, or paintings possess survival values, and the enjoyment of this beauty makes me feel better about my world; beauty also alerts me to what is good and beneficial for my survival and the survival of other living things.
The displays of birds with colorful feathers and dances serve their mating and reproduction, as do the majestic antlers and manes of other animals. Neurologists believe that fine music improves our minds by actually rewiring brain neurons to operate more efficiently; cows and plants do less well when exposed to noise or acid rock music.
Great works of art expand human consciousness and raise it to a higher level: values, sentiments, and ethics all improve in us with new fine works of art and literature. We take a different look at child labor, the treatment of orphans and the poor after reading the novels of Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, Victor Hugo, or Leo Tolstoy; our empathy and emotional intelligence grows stronger, improving our social ties and the survivability of the species.
The beauties we perceive and love in Nature, stars, mountains, waterfalls, lakes, clouds, seas, sunsets, even deserts inspire us to take better care of our home planet so that we and our biosphere may survive on it for the next five billion years. Theologians say that natural marvels were created by God, our ideal of sublime beauty. Scientists say we have adapted to these environmental factors and they support our lives through the eons, thus we appreciate them.
Finally, beautiful things possess order or negative entropy expressed in their structure; ugly things tend to be disorderly or noisy and are inimical to life. For all these reasons I invite beauty and order in my life, creating a measure of these in my work.