Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Life, the universe and everthing

Why is this image at a jaunty angle?
Most of us at some time in our lives have reflected on the deep mystery concerning the 'meaning of life’. Those of a religious persuasion are generally sure in their conclusions. This life is a mere preparation for the next ethereal and eternal existence in paradise or life is part of an endless cycle of growth and rebirth. Thus there is solace and meaning for religious folk. The reason why we are born at all or why we require a testing corporeal interlude is rarely addressed.  As an atheist, by default, I cannot think or gain consolation from these doctrines. And in a way I feel a grudging envy for those whose minds find satisfaction and stillness in religious belief. But the distraction is fleeting. Gaining any degree of cheer or comfort from something fantastic and patently false is a wondrous diversion and a sweet lie.

As a biologist living in a post Darwin/Dawkins intellectual paradigm it is hard to consider life in the sense of purposeful direction. Life I suspect, in the universe, is relatively common, 'life' as is understood by a professional biologist anyways. Complex life, however, I suspect is a rare beast indeed. Mayhap we are lucky that conditions on earth fostered complex life that eventually evolved into sentient intelligent life capable of self awareness and self contemplation. Indeed, evolution is not progressive in any sense. Any organism which survives its environment and passes on its genes is an evolutionary success. I suspect that the evolutionary line resulting in increasing brain capacity and ultimately intelligence has proved a successful strategy, for now. Remember, that some of the most prolific organisms on earth are bacteria- creatures without a nervous system and hence consciousness. Evolution does not favour the brave or the smart, just the reproductively successful and on occasion, the lucky; evolution can be capricious.    

Classical Greek philosophers tended to consider the ‘meaning of life’ in terms of living a good and virtuous life without malice and evil. There is a down play of the pleasures of the flesh to be replaced with the attainment of knowledge and mental development. However, Aristippus, a pupil of Socrates, emphasised life’s pleasures of wine, food and sex. Although not as morally uplifting as some of the other classical notions, it is probably more in tune with reality, at least for most of us. Even the lofty distracted intellectual must climb down from his/her ivory tower for a belt of single malt and a gentle caress once in a while, unless their aesthetic is rigid and severe. Aristippus certainly bucks the main philosophical trend. For Aristippus, hedonism is the way to go and physical gratification is more intense than mental pleasure. Later Christian philosophy was subsumed to devotion to the one true God and the meaning of life was meaningless. Life itself a mere passport to heaven or if you failed to gain the entry stamp, hell.

So if there is no God, heaven or eternal paradise how can life have meaning? Surely a disbelief in a redemptive God leads to nihilism? And I agree nihilism can be an attractive alternative for the non-believer. On dark winter nights, whilst alone in my unlit study, the state of nihilism can be alluring, like a perfumed whore. However, in my rational and lucid moments, depending on medication cycle, I realise that nihilism is not a real concept as such; just a negation of life and therefore an epistemological dead end. Nihilism is not a new concept and certainly the Ancient Greeks articulated something akin to metaphysical nihilism. Nihilism has never left us and paradoxically raises it’s truncated and muddled head in times of relative comfort among contemplative folk who really should know better. 

With the coming of the Enlightenment in the West, secular philosophers by their very designation discarded much of the religious focus and swerved to a consideration of ‘life’s meaning’ according to the individual and social interaction. Lofty ideals came to the fore without a consideration of mundane humdrum human nature and reality. Surely there is nothing new under the sun.

Nietzsche is sometimes associated with nihilism. Undoubtedly Nietzsche wrote about nihilism but I see little evidence that the man was a nihilist himself. In fact his attitude to the meaning of life was one of subjectivity. Each can find an answer which is valid for the individual. This is a sound pragmatic viewpoint not overly dressed up in philosophical finery but Nietzsche, towards the end of his life, was completely barking mad. Make of his philosophy what you will.

There you have it: no great insight from the golden haired one and I confess that I side with Nietzsche on this one. The meaning of life is not an objective or empirical question. Each individual must make up their own answer. The subjective conclusion, if there is one, is in the eye of the beholder. Of course, I could be writing total, utter and complete pretentious bollocks. I have a tendency to do this, especially when drunk. Arse. 

1 comment:

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