Purpose of existence?

Katherine asked:

For my senior thesis we are asked to answer a variety of questions, I chose “what is the purpose of human existence?” My thesis is basically: from a secular standpoint there is no true purpose of human existence however, in order for one to feel that their life has purpose the must do the best they can with what they have under the condition that it affects others in a positive way. I know that there is a lot there that I have to define but I need people to destroy my thesis so that I’m ready when the time comes… what’s the problems with my statement? Any suggestions on how to make it stronger?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I’m sorry that I have to spread a wet blanket over your enthusiasm, but you asked for it, and unfortunately your thesis is all too easily falsified. Therefore your choice was not a good one — it is not a question that a human being can legitimately ask or expect an answer to.

Look at its grammatical form: “purpose” implies a conscious act targeting an end and enacting some performance in that behest. But “existence” is not a conscious entity and cannot have a purpose. Only the creatures who live can have a purpose. But their purpose is not existence, as they already have it. Accordingly their purposes can only be described in terms of matters which affect their well-being or ill-being in the state of existence in which they find themselves. And they found themselves in this state (of existence) without asking for it. It just happened, presumably on account of some purposeful act of their parents.

So you see you picked the wrong subject of the sentence. What presumably you meant to say is, “what is the purpose of humans in their existence?” In this question, the word ‘existence’ is superfluous. For the first answer would be, to have offspring. Thereafter you might wish to add any number of other criteria, such as living a good life, achieving something, fulfilling your potential etc. etc.

However, it happens to be the case that your question, in much the same form, has been asked millions of times by millions of people; and now it is precisely by reason of its inner self-contradiction that it has mostly been answered by sleight of hand — namely by assertions that human existence is of value to certain metaphysical entities for purposes of their own, which are not human purposes. We may be beneficiaries of those purposes, i.e. going to paradise after death; but this is no longer human existence.

If, therefore, we ignore such belief systems (which indeed you did not mention), we are born without knowing anything of ends and purposes, and we die without knowing anything of an end that we lived for, other than reproducing and living for the sake of living. Which leaves us, finally, with an altogether different slant of meaning to the question you asked. Not “what is the purpose of human existence”, but “how can we do something with our consciously aware apprehension of existing in a living state so as to add value to it?” In other words: “How can we humans devise a purpose for life that confers sense and meaning on it?

But it stands to reason that this cannot be a single purpose, not even for a single person. It is a multitude of purposes, from individuals, to families, clubs and associations, tribes and clans, towns and cities, nations and empires — a veritable criss-crossing of purposes that in fact we all live with relatively comfortably, and mostly without interrogating them, since at bottom we all know that they are human creations.

In sum: The relevant way of approaching this issue is not to ask for the purpose of life, but the purpose of living a life; and likewise for the related meaning of life and the meaning of living a life. Yet the answer in both of the italicised cases is the same: The purpose and the meaning of both are what we put in. They do not inhere in existence per se and they do not fall out of the sky.

Heidegger and the grid of meaning

Olivia asked:

Hello. I see that the natural and constructed world around us offers us meaning. I find myself constructing a grid of meaning that uses abstract nouns e.g. peace, hope, love, excitement, beauty, belonging, freedom, creativity. All things offer up the possibility of ‘meaning’ which will vary according to the situation, the person and the particularities (social, religious, etc) of that person. Is there a philosopher, or philosophical understanding that can articulate this ‘grid of meaning’ that I’m speaking of?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

There have always been writers of what used to be called “edifying literature”; and there are many still around today. But as you asked for the name of a philosopher, the obvious candidate would be Martin Heidegger.

But now I’m going to say something that I would not normally offer as a suggestion — because a philosopher should be read, not just talked about. Nevertheless, reading Heidegger is not the same as picking up any book, not even a philosophy book.

So here goes: You would probably be much better off reading an account by a sympathetic Heidegger scholar first.

The reason I make this recommendation is, that Heidegger is inordinately difficult to read. He wraps up all his “easy” ideas in a tortuous diction full of endlessly long sentences, recondite terminology and neologisms. He is also up to his eyeballs involved in existentialism and phenomenology, as well as all the metaphysical, ontological and epistemological problems of the German thinkers from Kant to Husserl. None of this is ‘edifying’ in the least, nor easy bedtime reading.

There happens to be a good and readily comprehensible book by Stephen Mulhull, “Heidegger’s Being and Time”, published by Routledge in their series “Routledge Guides to Philosophy”. If you find this appealing, then you can go a little further under your own steam, as Heidegger also wrote several shorter texts on other subjects of interest to your context. You might also find George Steiner’s book on Heidegger useful, which is part biography and part assessment, and perfectly readable.

Can it ever be right to hate?

John asked:

What are the moral implications of hate?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I have already given a partial answer to this — or taken the first steps towards an answer — in my response to Chris’s question, ‘What would drive a person to hurt another intentionally?‘. Hatred is a very effective motivator in this respect.

You could ask whether it could ever be ethically right to hate another human being. Or there’s the more general question what we should do about the hatred there is in the world, that splashes across TV screens most nights of the week. Both assume that hatred is somehow wrong, on principle.

A few years back I had a student, Thomas Bartlett Whitaker, who was on death row at the Polunsky Unit, Texas, for the murders of his mother and brother. He had arranged for a hitman to kill his parents and younger brother, but the father survived. Lying injured in hospital, he made the decision to forgive — as a good Christian — whoever had been responsible for this terrible deed. Later, he wrote a book about it. The story was so good it made the Oprah Winfrey show. In 2018, Whitaker’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment after his father pleaded that he would be ‘victimized a second time’ if his son was executed.

It was Whitaker’s father, now remarried, who arranged the Pathways course — on Moral Philosophy, would you believe — on behalf of his errant son. (I’ve written about this in my article, ‘Philosophy, Ethics and Dialogue‘ Journal of Dialogue Studies Vol. 2 No. 2 2014.)

Would you have forgiven the person who did this, if it was your family? Would you, could you make the existential decision not to hate?

In my previous answer, I made a distinction between acts of punishment and actions motivated by malice. One could say that whereas punishment invokes a sense of justice, acts of revenge are motivated by hatred. Yet often, these can coincide. When opponents of the death penalty assert that it reduces justice to revenge, that is not strictly true. Justice can only be rightly meted out on the guilty, whereas revenge can be carried out on the innocent, and has been many times.

It doesn’t follow from the belief that revenge — or revenge carried out on the innocent — is wrong, that hatred is wrong. I acknowledge that a Christian can be sincere, when he or she says, ‘I love every human being, even Hitler.’ But what kind of ‘love’ is this? If you tell me that you love me, and in the next breath tell me that you also love Hitler, I think I could reasonably question what value your attitude has, for me or anyone else. It is ultimately demeaning, in my view.

I believe it can be right to hate another human being, when they deserve it. However, supposing that were true, it does not follow from that that it is necessarily wrong to love someone who doesn’t deserve it. There’s an interesting asymmetry there that deserves further ethical exploration.

How many beans make five?

Geoffrey asked:

How many beans make five?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I’m cheating slightly because I asked this question. I realized only last night that there is a non-tautological answer which is incredibly simple. (And it’s not abitrary, like the number of beans in five ounces of beans — What type of beans? British or US ounces? And why ounces, not grams?)

Bear with me.

Here’s an example of a series that you might find in an IQ test: m, t, w, t, f, s, s… What’s the next letter? The answer? It’s m. You expend endless mental energy assigning numbers, counting the gaps between the letters but the answer has nothing to do with calculation. The letters stand for days in the week.

Here’s another one. How high is a Chinaman? (It’s supposedly not politically correct to tell a joke or even a riddle about race or nationality but at the present moment in time one can forgive a joke or riddle at the expense of the Chinese.) The answer in this case: That wasn’t a question. Hao Hi is a Chinaman. Or, to be politically correct, Hao Hi is a ‘Chinese Man’. Hao Hi is his name, and that wasn’t a question either. (Maybe you were thinking, ‘The Chinese are not that tall,’ etc. etc.)

This is about Philosophy. I said, ‘bear with me.’

How many beans make five? The answer is five, but as I said that answer is in fact not tautological. (Googling one finds the same thing over and over, that ‘He/ she knows how many beans make five’ means ‘He/ she knows his/ her stuff’, or ‘A bean, another bean, another bean, another bean, half a bean, and half a bean.’ Rubbish!)

Think LCDs. Well, you might say that question was asked long before LCDs but the principle is the same. Here’s a clue: Two beans make one, five beans make two, five beans make three, four beans make four… Et cetera. Get it now? Answer: There are seven cells in each digit in the LCD display on your Casio watch. How many beans or LCD cells does it take to make the numeral five? Yes, five. It takes five to make six, three to make seven, seven to make eight, five to make nine.

Crucially, five is tne minimum number of beans required to write a mark recognizable as the numeral ‘5’. That’s why the answer is not arbitrary. (You can if you want make ‘1’ out of one bean, ‘7’ out of two beans, etc. which look like the numerals they were intended to represent. )

Here’s one more example, from TV this time. There was a series on British TV around the 90s called ‘Jonathan Creek’. Locked room mysteries. (I talked about this in one of my recent videos.) In one episode an empty wardrobe was carried up three flights of stairs. Seconds later, when the wardrobe door was opened, the dead body of a woman fell out. How on earth did it get there? I won’t spoil your enjoyment by telling you the answer but it was brilliant, although in this case the script writer had more than one solution to choose from. The challenge in this case was to find any solution that wasn’t completely ridiculous.

In Philosophy one gets stuck on ‘problems’ and ‘questions’. And the problems are not solved, the questions are not answered because went looking in all the wrong places. You made a wrong assumption somewhere. And the answer was hidden in plain sight all along. If you’ve never had that experience then you haven’t finished your education in Philosophy however much you think you may know.

There’s no subject in the curriculum where lateral thinking is more important. Questioning our assumptions. I’m sceptical about the idea that you can do a course in lateral thinking (Edward De Bono, etc.) but he was most definitely on to something. Get off your doggy track. Think different. (That was an Apple advert.)

Here’s what I wrote in 1997:

Much has been made of the contrast between logical and creative approaches to problem solving, between ‘vertical’ and ‘lateral’ thinking. One of the most significant features of philosophical problem solving is the way that both approaches are closely integrated… The philosopher prizes equally the faculties of logic and vision, yet also learns to appreciate the completely unexpected move, the gift of serendipity.

(‘Why Study Philosophy?’ https://isfp.co.uk/international_society_6.html)

In just about every answer I’ve written recently I’ve talked about my riddle, which I call the ‘idiotic conundrum’. I might not have existed but someone exactly like me might have existed in my place. A lot of people don’t get this, and many of the rest either think they know the answer (I think they are wrong!) or they are not gripped, as I am. But then again, I could be the one who is in the wrong, but I just can’t see it. Can you?

One of the things that make a good philosopher is not getting stuck on idiotic conundrums. Do something else. Look at a different problem, anything. Think different. The answer to your conundrum may still come, when you are lying in bed, or brushing your teeth, or waiting at a red light. — I tell myself this, over and over, but as often happens one doesn’t heed one’s own advice…

What is philosophy?

Jabr asked:

What is Philosophy?

I want to come up with a definition of philosophy as succinct as the definition of physics as the study of the nature of matter and energy at the most fundamental levels using rational thinking, observations and experimentation.

If I would venture to arrive at an equally concise definition of philosophy, I would say it is using logic and critical thinking to study articulated thoughts and questions about anything plus the construction of good arguments to answer fundamental questions not dealt with by any other field of expertise.

What do you think?

Answer by Hubertus Fremerey

Start from the most obvious difference of sciences and humanities: The sciences have an ideal object : To understand the true nature of nature as contained in the as yet unknown complete set of natural laws in the right mathematical formulation.

There is no comparable objective truth in the humanities. There is logic, but as the word says, logic is just the way we use words and arguments in the correct way, not the value of the content. To put it bluntly: You can utter complete nonsense in perfectly consistent and logically meaningful sentences. You can write great books of deep thoughts in hundreds of pages describing the nature and workings of God — even if God does not exist.

So, the first problem is to get form and content apart. In the sciences you try to re-construct “the” truth that is “out there”. But in the humanities you try to con-struct “a” truth that is only in the mind of the beholder.

Thinking means “to be free”. Thinking is a way of “world-making”! Mere facts are meaningless. We have to construct some frame of reference that gives meaning to the facts. In the case of Sherlock Holmes we assume that there has been a real crime, since there is a body. Thus what Sherlock does is: re-construct a deed in the way a scientist does. But in the case of the theologian it is not even clear whether there has been a crime and a body. So, what does a theologian try to show? He has not only to show us “how it happened”, he even has to show that there has happened anything at all.

In this way, the philosopher may try to show us that a certain state of human affairs is “un-just”. But to do that, the philosopher has first to define a concept of justice. Another philosopher may disagree and reject the definition of the first philosopher. There is no way to tell who is right.

You see the problem here: There are no objective criteria of justice. Justice is in the eye of the beholder. People may struggle for a “more just world”, but they need not agree on what this comes to. The same applies with progress, human dignity, mental sanity etc.. Philosophers are always trying to convince each other and themselves that a certain answer is good and meaningful, but they cannot prove it. It is just a matter of intellectual honesty, never more.

Philosophers try to build houses for humans to live in. There is no such thing a “the right house”. But there is “good craftsmanship” and “sloppiness” in building a house.

Logic does not help. You always need content. To know everything about good craftsmanship as a buildings-engineer does not get you a house. To be a good logician does not make you a good philosopher. To be good with colours does not make you a great painter. You cannot reduce philosophy to logic and methodologies. Those are technical preconditions only, not the work to be done. To be good at the piano does not make you a Beethoven.

Thus your question should be: What is expected of me as a philosopher? You should become able to counsel people on the many aspects of a problem to be solved. You should become an expert on good arguments and on the many faces of concepts. But you will never be able to tell anybody “the truth”. There is no such thing in philosophy. But there is ignorance and awareness, naivety and seasoned wisdom.

Philosophy is not science — and never will be. Socrates was right on this. Wittgenstein did not think otherwise. Philosophy belongs among the humanities.

Theory vs practice

Mia asked:

Why do some things work in theory but not in practice? Do some factors that practice include not accepted or included when forming a theory? Put simply, does putting a theory in practice always require values to be implemented, and if so, is this what can be a source of error in a theory, thus causing the disconnect?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

A look at the words ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ already tells you a little about the disconnect. Theory contains the notion of ‘god’ (theos) and could be rendered in English as “through the eyes of God”. This implies a perfection of vision which we humans don’t have, but aspire to — i.e. to some truths that are immutable and forever. Whereas ‘practice’ refers to activity, things being done. It reflects the real world, of course, namely the world of randomness and chances and intrinsic uncertainty; whereas theory is the view of a world that is law-abiding, bound to cycles and causes and wholly determined.

It is among others the idea that the universe evolved from a single point-like locus of expanding energy in the midst of nothing and followed a strict and ‘in principle’ calculable chain of events to attain its present state and its eventual return to nothingness (cf. Paul Davies, About Time). However, mapping the stars, galaxies and other visible features reveals no signs at all that the present state can (‘in principle’) be reversed, so that we would watch a movie in which all this matter and energy runs back to the so-called Big Bang and just disappears.

Maybe a simpler example can illustrate this discrepancy. You can draw a perfect circle with a compass and have it touching a perpendicular at an arbitrary point. Can we express this point as a simple number? No; it cannot be done. We cannot decompose the circular and straight lines into points, so that they meet at the juncture where each line has a point in common, Indeed, that’s where the problems lies.

I have just exemplified what reality is like. Innumerable features and processes resist our notion of an exact causality or exact definition. Reality is messy; it is only the similarity between one mess and another that makes it possible for creatures to adapt, cope with and anticipate a likely outcome.

Now the point of theory: We can easily square the circle with an algebraic formula. But formulae are concepts, mental things, not things we find in the world outside of our heads. The moment we put numbers into the formula, reality bites us again!

Let me quote another typical specimen: weather prediction. Even if we could trace the trajectory of every atom in the clouds there is insufficient information to project their paths into the future with certainty, because of the complexity of their interactions. Computers add to this uncertainty with their rounding off problem (i.e. rounding up or down necessarily gives us two divergent paths at an infinitude of instants). If you attend to the weather watch you will know that you rarely read “rain coming”, but mostly “x% chance of rain”.

One could multiply examples like this from all walks of life which teach us that practical reality is full of motions and features which we can mostly grasp only in terms of probability. Our own evolutionary growth has bestowed such ‘probability instincts’ on us, enabling us to survive unpleasant surprises. But this is not theory. Theory seeks certainty; it tries to catch the eternal momentary stillness in the welter of motions and changes. Even my explanations above can do no more than convey hints. But the gist of it, I hope, comes through, that theory is important for us to understand and articulate propositions of what we are up against in the empirical world we live in. That’s excellent in terms of technological progress. But in practice we rely mostly on experience and intuition, which are not quantifiable to such exactitude that every value in our theories can be called correct. In a word, your surmise that the source of error causes the disconnect is spot on. Which assumes, of course, as in the above specimens, that error is unavoidable: Humanum errare est.

The concept of malice

Chris asked:

What would drive a person to hurt another intentionally?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

On the face of this, it seems a rather odd question. People hurt other people all the time, for a variety of reasons. One example would be if two people are competing for a resource. It might be food. That can be a zero sum game. If one person gets the food the other starves. Knowing this, and facing the prospect of starvation yourself, you might well act in your own self-interest, with the inevitable consequence that someone else suffers.

Of course, you might say, ‘Why not share’, and that’s a perfectly good question. But many people don’t, or won’t. Because they are selfish. The question to ask here is not, ‘Why be selfish’ but rather ‘Why be unselfish’. How does altruism arise? What is its motivation?

However, your question is different. There is a critical difference between doing an act, for whatever reason, that you know will result in hurt — your ‘second intention’ — and intentionally causing hurt. In the latter case, the reason is deliberately to cause harm, or hurt. But why would anyone want to do this?

One possible explanation would be along the lines proposed by the biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene (1976). We hurt others in order to punish, and we punish as a means of adjusting the behaviour of the other person, a strategy that is built into our genes. He argues that between pure self-interest and pure altruism there is a more effective strategy in evolutionary terms, which he calls ‘the grudger’. If you don’t reciprocate my generous action towards you — for example, scratching your back — then I will look for a means to punish, pay you back for your selfishness.

Somehow, this leaves me cold. When you think of acts of terrible revenge, deliberately done to innocents, the rationale of ‘punishing’ somehow doesn’t cover it. Like the bombing of Dresden, the 75th anniversary of which occurred yesterday. Many people who had endured the Blitz cheered, despite knowing that thousands upon thousands of innocent children would have been amongst the dead, burned to a crisp in the fire storm.

— The horror of it.

An analytic psychotherapist that I know once recommeded a book to me, The Tyranny of Malice by Joseph Berke (1988). The author makes the case that there are deep reasons, accounted for by Kleinian psychoanalytic theory, why human beings like to hurt, why we sometimes act with malice. I don’t know whether the theory is true. I’m not a psychotherapist or a follower of Klein. But the very fact that a theory is needed here shows something: what it shows is simply that you have asked a very good question, the answer to which is very far from clear.

Another work which has had a considerable impact on psychoanalytic theory is Ian D. Suttie The Origins of Love and Hate published in 1935, after his death that same year. Over the years following the Great War, Suttie was involved in an ongoing debate with Freud, rejecting the latter’s theory of the ‘death drive’.

It may very well be the case that we need to look elsewhere than philosophy, to an empirically based theory of human nature. The philosophical point is in recognizing that gritty fact.