I think all of philosophy (not just the impulse for it but the concepts it finds interesting) can be traced to one perennial question. Following Camus, I take the most important question to be, “Is life worth living?”
Well, is it? What does the question mean?
And what kind of person is kept up all night asking such a question? Certainly not the person who thinks life is quite obviously worth living (of COURSE it is, I have a trip planned to Tahoe next month!), but I am certainly not talking about these people. This post is meant to address those who actually think this question is worth asking, because it is a question that can be asked and because it is intrinsically interesting to curious people (people who think thinking is worth doing).
There are 9 ways of answering this question using the concepts of ontology (the nature of existence) and epistemology (the nature of knowledge). Here’s how I answer this question.
There are 3 relevant, important, and possible answers to the question of ontology.
A) God exists and has a plan for you (or will take care of you/guide you/show you the way). I am assuming a benevolent monotheistic god for the sake of simplicity. A malevolent God would, presumably, not be worth considering in this context. If God exists and hates us and wants to torture us then, I hope it is clear, life is most certainly not worth living.
B) God exists but His/Her/Its will cannot be known. God works in ‘mysterious’ ways. The mind of God cannot be known. God is too ‘special’ for us lowly humans to comprehend.
C) God does not exist. Humans have brains that structure experience. We seek patterns and purpose to our actions. We engage in post-hoc reflections when thinking about our accomplishments and failures and generally like to structure such reflections in terms of their ‘importance’ because ‘everything happens for a reason’. Humans look out on a meaningless, absurd world and desparately scramble to construct a narrative that makes sense. “God” is the easiest, most obvious narrative. This is why people believe He exists, not because He does, but because the concept of God, interwoven into everyday excitement/tragedy makes life more explicable.
There are also 3 relevant, important, and possible answers to the question of epistemology.
D) True knowledge exists. With enough effort, one can come to understand the world in some coherent way. This can occur either by understanding ‘God’s word’ or by understanding the laws of matter as discovered by science. Humans, though built with inexact and emotionally-driven brains, can overcome (possibly with the assistance of others) such design flaws of the human mind and begin to collect accurate, true, knowledge.
E) True knowledge does not exist. The only things we can ‘know’ are opinions and our own feelings. Knowledge, of necessity, is relative. We each live only inside of our heads, attempting to make connections, form viable beliefs and draw conclusions and opinions out of essentially subjective experiences. I might THINK I understand the world, but this understanding is specific to my experiences and to my predilections. Institutions like science and religion, both of which claim to represent the truth in one form or another are just different forms of totalitarianism. Yes, yes, I know that science tends to recoil around discussion of ‘Absolute Truth’, whereas religion tends to insist you pull out your wallet at the sound of it. Science, we are told, is simply provisional truth, nothing more than closer approximations to an ‘ultimate truth’. Such qualifications come just because scientists are better educated, on average, about the nature of reality than religious leaders. Talk to an educated religious leader and he, too, will concede that his interpretation of the Bible/Koran/Torah is honest and earnest, but ultimately, possibly flawed. But suppose both the scientists and religionists are wrong. No truth exists, all is opinion. This was Nietzsche’s defiant perspectivism and Foucault’s impassioned subjectivism. Power is knowledge. The purpose of education is to force you to believe what I do, for no other reason than to have control over your mind and your will. Nothing more.
F) Nothing can be known. Knowledge of any kind is an illusion. Our emotions and our opinions are not even “ours”; all emotions and opinions are just thoughtlessly automatic, arbitrary physiological responses to stimuli. The logical structure of “I am a boy, I like to vote republican, I hate mean people” is equivalent to “jsdfnof dfoasnfodsds odfsindsfbue weiouewouwb ewouinewo”. This is consistent with emotivism or non-cognitivism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotivism .
So, now we can begin to answer our question.
1) Suppose that (A,D) is true. Suppose that God exists and true knowledge exists. This position usually assumes (and generally, given the attributes of God, MUST assume) that such knowledge DERIVES directly from God. The purpose of existence is to know God and to understand why He does what He does. If this were true, and God was benevolent, then I would have to say that life was worth living. Others think the idea that a God exists and will protect us and guide us is a suffocating form of dictatorship. I am of the persuasion that such ultimate structure would do far more good than bad.
Such structure would provide answers and purpose to death, sorrow and suffering. Even if this structure is ultimately circular (bad things happen because God has a plan), the very IDEA that something beyond me and more powerful than me is overseeing all of the horrors of existence and plans to, in the end, ameliorate them is an emotionally comforting (but intellectually nonsensical) position.
Why intellectually nonsensical? Because if there was a God that was kind, loving and benevolent, children would not be born with AIDS. Period. This knock-down argument has been slaying the delusions of the faithful for generations. It still works, and there is no answer to the ‘problem of evil’. God must have had some interesting reasoning to ‘allow’ (because he IS all-knowing and all-powerful meaning he COULD have intervened) the murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. Either he doesn’t give a shit or he doesn’t exist. And even if the reader is now inclined to trudge out the tired, wheezing “He gave us free will” trope, remember, this will not explain the baby born with syphilis, or with an addiction to cocaine (happens frequently) or, worse yet, the baby born only to die of starvation because she happened to be born in a war-torn country (through no fault of her own). Perhaps God is sending us a ‘message’ by torturing, every day and without exception, defenseless children, mentally retarded people and those who fall victim to crimes like rape and genocide. What is more likely, that these events are ‘messages’ from God? Or that we are all we have and that we are animals, oftentimes scared and uncertain ones, with inborn pre-dispositions for tribalism and in-group protection/intolerance, drug use, and human folly?
So, under this conception, life WOULD be worth living. But this conception is not logically possible or inductively reasonable. Not logically possible because an all-knowing God could not give us a free will (how could we choose to do whatever we want if He already knows what we’ll choose?) and not inductively reasonable because of the extreme and aimless suffering of obviously innocent people and children.
2) Suppose (A,E) is true, or (A,F) is true. God exists, but we can only understand the world as our subjective experience, or not at all. No ‘laws’ of nature can be found and no ultimate, unerring religious truth can be grasped. This is the sort of God that many educated people defend. Sure, God exists, they say (for emotional reasons), but they hesitate before insisting that their interpretation of God’s will is the absolutely right one. Thankfully, this prevents such people from standing outside of grocery stores and insisting that you hear the ‘good word’.
But, for reasons mentioned above (and literally hundreds more, all of which I can provide), the existence of a benevolent God is not tenable or, at least, is not reasonable or likely. So this position, as well, cannot be maintained. Even if this position was coherent, since the mind of God could not be known for sure, all of existence would appear to be capricious, random or arbitrary. So, life would probably not be worth living if, like me, you would desire some explanation from an all-knowing, all-powerful God.
3) Let’s now take (B, D). Under this conception, God exists, but His nature cannot be known. On the other hand, the mechanical operations of the natural world can be known, perhaps through science. So, while we might not have answers to the biggest questions (meaning of life, purpose of existence, ultimate nature of reality), we can still glean answers to the smaller, and no less important, ones. If some sort of real knowledge is possible (but knowledge of God’s will is not), than medical advance is still possible, technological advance is possible, and explanations for things like natural disasters and economic calamities are possible. They may or may not describe the mind of God, but who cares? Such knowledge appears to describe and predict reality, so isn’t this good enough?
Then, is life worth living? It depends. In my opinion, it matters whether or not I am doing what I ought to be doing, given the kind of person I am and the sort of life that will make me happy. This, is , at its core, a concern or preoccupation with purpose. My father was a mailman his whole life. He hated it, but felt he could do no better. Presumably, there IS an answer to this question. WAS he too good for the post office? WOULD he have been happier somewhere else? WOULD I have turned out differently? WOULD he have turned out differently had he dedicated his life to something else? Would it matter? These sorts of questions are only answerable by a God, because these sorts of questions contain more variables than human beings can comprehend. If these questions matter to you, than this sort of life (B,D) is probably not worth living. Though you can understand the little questions (at what temperature does water boil? What reproductive strategies are common among mammals in resource-restricted ecologies?) the broader, more complicated questions of function, meaning and purpose, must go unanswered, though you, if you believe in God, know He has the answers. He just won’t tell you. He’s too mysterious, too special. You must content yourself with ignorance and uncertainty. This life is probably not worth living.
4) What about (B,E) or (B,F)? This is a sort of religious nihilism. God might exist, but there is no way that you could know it. Indeed, here, the phrase ‘to know’ is ultimately empty and either arbitrary and solipsistic or, literally, meaningless. Nothing can be known; not ultimate questions of meaning/purpose nor the more ‘proximate’ questions of science. This is the worst of all possible worlds. Life, in this conception, is absurd. Life, under this conception, is not only not worth living, it is deeply cruel and torturous. This is the worse species of hell and, certiainly, not worth living through.
5) What of (C, E) and (C,F)? God does not exist and knowledge is impossible. This position is only slightly better than the position mentioned above (position 4). I’d suggest that (C,E) and (C,F) are distinctly less depressing than (B,E) or (B,F). At least, here, no God exists so, though knowledge is either arbitray or not possible, at least this is the nature of existence. In essence, it is what it is. By contrast, following (B,E) or (B,F), if there WAS an all-knowing, all-good, all-powerful God and life was STILL inexplicable, knowledge STILL impossible, than this means either that God himself could not make meaning of existence, or simply doesn’t care enough to clearly share it with us. Regardless, (C,E) and (C,F) are only VERY, VERY slight improvements on (B,E) and (B,F). Experientially, it wouldn’t matter (we wouldn’t know, since knowledge wouldn’t be possible), but philosophically, there is a slight distinction.
At any rate, (C,E) and (C,F) are certainly not enjoyable scenarios and certainly forms of existence not worth living through.
6) What of the last available option (C,D)? This position holds that God is a fairy tale, but that true knowledge of reality (collected via our human senses through the methods of science) is still possible. The universe, for wonderful but inexplicable reasons, is intelligible to us and to the instruments we create to understand it.
Under this conception, ultimate-level questions of meaning and purpose are literally meaningless. The question, “What is the purpose of life?” or “Am I on the right life course?” or “Does my life matter?” or “Is my life important enough?” and even, “Is life worth living?” are not conducive to exact, or even satisfying, answers. Sure, they are questions we can vocalize and ask each other, but this does not necessarily mean that they make sense. I can also ask questions like “Do mountains like Jersey Shore?” or “Was ice cream offended by Reagan’s presidency?” or “Does my cat love me?”. But these questions, just because they can be asked, may not have answers. We humans have an incredible developed ability for language. We can not only represent the world through words, we can imagine different worlds (the realm of fiction), and, even, ask questions that have no answers. If no God exists, and no ultimate explanations possible, than we must content ourselves with the understanding that our evolved brains have so capably equipped us with language that we can actually drive ourselves crazy asking meaningless questions and engaging in non-sensical or ultimately unanswerable reflection.
But, knowledge can still be gleaned. And, if this is true, perhaps the most important questions of all are answerable: how should I expect to be treated and what should others expect of me?
Understanding the human being as an animal with certain propensities and certain demonstrable expectations for treatment is no different, in principle, than the zoological understanding of ants, bees, bears or dolphins.
Doesn’t human ‘morality’ only really mean ’empirical generalizations regarding expectations for treatment and the social/political/religious ways in which these expectations can be frustrated’? Then why is there no possibility for an objective morality no different in principle than physics? The laws of physics are, as well, empirical generalizations RELATIVE to the set conditions of our universe. If Stephen Hawking is right with M-theory, there are (in principal) numerous different physical empirical generalizations that could be made in any number of possible universes.
Human morality is nothing more than the evolved tendencies (following from ecological selection pressure) of an animal. Shark morality is different than dog morality which is different than parrot morality. In principle, all have evolved expectations for treatment and all of these expectations can be frustrated by social and environmental circumstances (though sharks aren’t terribly social).
Sure, some people enjoy being tortured and enjoy raping and slaughtering people. We need not worry about these folks anymore than we worry about the shark that enjoys cuddling with humans or the dog that absolutely disdains human companionship. Certainly, both scenarios are possible but represent statistically absurd outliers – more importantly, both would make each animal distinctly UN-shark like or UN-dog like as the case may be.
– Humans enjoy autonomy, freedom of association, freedom of expression, basic health and safety, freedom from ignorance and fear etc. The degree to which our social/political/religious policies FRUSTRATE these desires, is the degree to which they are immoral. That’s it. At this point we can just operationalize moral claims in terms of interdisciplinary attempts at facts, for example, we could say that the moral claim ‘gays are gross’ is equivalent to some attempt to say, “homosexual behavior is associated with basic psychological dysfunction/crime/child molestation/natural disasters”. Once operationalized, we can test this claim. We’ll find, slowly, that this moral claim, for example, is false or unsubstantiated. Granted the operationalization of moral claims can be difficult, but it’s no easier to operationalize behemoths like “religion” or “conservative” or “happy” in the social sciences.
– And since there is no God it is up to US to find out how to live and how to treat each other. Up to US to decide which moral claims to listen to and which to ignore.
If, at the end of the day, we can understand, through science, how to treat each other and how to treat ourselves, and we can understand this ON OUR OWN, without the condescending fatherly guidance of a God that both knows more and is more important than us, then perhaps, just perhaps, life is worth living.
Certainly much of existence is suffering. Perhaps even most of existence is suffering – I’ve found moments of happiness to be vastly more fleeting than moments of extreme despair, uncertainty, or pensiveness. But if our ability to understand this suffering and ameliorate it is, in principal, possible, than what other good reason for living could there be?