What is the purpose of human existence?

Katherine Bolin 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 Peter Jones

You chose a tough question. If I had to pick holes in your answer I’d mention various points.

1. You say your thesis is presented ‘from a secular standpoint’. What difference does this make to anything? The truth does not depend on your standpoint. I can see no justification for adopting any standpoint. If the question has an answer it will be same for everybody, regardless of their standpoint.

2. You say ‘from a secular standpoint there is no true purpose of human existence’. In this case human existence has no true purpose. Your standpoint is irrelevant. But how would you go about proving human existence has no purpose? It is not enough just to bluntly state it.

3. You say ‘we should affect others in a positive way’. Why? You’re arguing that there’s no ‘true purpose’ in such behaviour. The question is not asking you to proscribe how we should behave IF our existence has no purpose. This would be a follow up question.

4. By ‘true purpose I imagine you mean ‘metaphysical’ or ‘ultimate’ purpose. For a philosophical essay the word ‘true’ would be redundant.

5. You are addressing a metaphysical question but you mention no metaphysical arguments. You seem to assume existence has no purpose. Do you make an argument somewhere?

6. I would suggest examining the question more closely. If you argue that human existence has no purpose then you may have to argue that nothing has any purpose. But what do you mean by ‘purpose’? I feel this is not an easy thing to define. Whose purpose would it be? How can Reality have a purpose? In metaphysics the whole idea of purpose is fraught with problems but you do not seem to examine this issue.

7. As presented your approach seems to be to assume there is no purpose and move on to prescribing how we should behave under the circumstances. This is not what the question asks. I feel you would need to spend some time exploring the idea of ‘purpose’ and what it could mean. For instance, the idea that God has a purpose makes no sense since he is complete and perfect, and this is not an assumption but an argument.

8. There are only two ways of answering the question. One would be to attempt a metaphysical proof and the other would be to investigate the fundamental knowledge claimed by the mystics. There would be no third option. Yet you do not seem to examine either of these ways forward. Rather, you assume that a secular standpoint must reject the idea of purpose. It is not clear to me you’re right about this and even if you were you’d have to go on to show that a ‘secular standpoint’ is the correct one.

You’ve chosen a very tough question. As usual for philosophical questions half the battle is picking apart the question. I suspect that you’ll find a better argument against cosmic purpose just by analysing what the word ‘purpose’ could mean at the level of the ‘world-as-a-whole’. Then you may be able to debunk the idea of purpose on the grounds that in respect of the Totality the idea of purpose is nonsensical.

You would also need to debunk the idea that the sentient life is for consciousness to revel in its powers and experience ‘lila’, the play of dependent existence, and the idea that exist so God (or consciousness) can be known to Himself. These ideas do not require ‘purpose’ in the sense of intention but they would need to be disposed in an essay arguing for an absence of purpose.

Good luck. I would have chosen a different question.

The philosophical quest

Hubertus asked:

What could be the nature of the quest in the cases of the Buddha, of Socrates, of Dante, of Don Quixote, of Dr. Faust? What were they looking for, what insatiable longing was driving them? Does modern philosophy take note of this longing? Does it offer any answers? Do we need a re-enchantment of our world to understand the problem?

Answer By Peter Jones

By ‘modern philosophy’ I assume you mean the philosophy of the modern university. As you will know it offers no answers. It is not obvious that it is looking for any. Pardon my cynicism but from here it seems justified.

The world is no more a less enchanted than it ever was, but much of philosophy seems to have become an attempt to disenchant it. I suppose this is some sort of science-envy. It’s easy to see that that the attempt is hopeless and leads to stagnation and confusion. A different approach is clearly required. If Yoga and self-enquiry represent a ‘re-enchantment’ of our world then we can note these methods worked just fine for the Buddha, not to mention a few million other people.

So a ‘re-enchantment of the world’ seems the only way forward. Or, rather, a recognition of its enchantment. It remains to be shown that the world is not enchanted in precisely the way the Buddha describes, and the ongoing failure of philosophers to find a workable but less enchanted description is surely a glaring clue to the futility of the search.

I would say we do not need a deliberate ‘re-enchantment’ for before we start we don’t know what we mean by this word, but just an open mind and a willingness to follow logic and reason. Examining this idea would need a long discussion.

-=-

Emmanuel asked:

Why are philosophers more interested in questions than answers?

Answer by Peter Jones

From your question I assume you are familiar with academic philosophy but not the whole field. Academic philosophers usually assume philosophical questions cannot be answered. This is because they do not study all of philosophy and tend to be ignorant of the answers given in the Perennial tradition. They find that no other answers work, so are forced to assume there are no answers.

Meanwhile, philosophers in the Perennial tradition are interested only in answers and expect to find them. This philosophy provides answers to questions, albeit that understanding them takes some work. This is ‘non-dualism’, which is a solution for all philosophical problems.

So, your question is only relevant in an academic or professional context. Quite why the mainstream profession is disinclined to seek answers and contents itself with questions is a mystery and I have no explanation, but this is only one limited area of philosophy. It would be a mistake to extrapolate from this to the whole of philosophy.

The problem is that philosophical problems only have one correct answer. IF the answers given by non-dualism are correct then for as long as academic thinkers reject, ignore or are unaware of them they will have to content themselves with asking questions for which they have ruled out the answers. This will lead them to the idea there are no answers.

I would suggest ignoring this narrow scholastic approach. A philosopher should seek answers and expect to find them. This can be achieved only by studying philosophers who claim to know them, and this means ignoring the artificial limitations academic researchers usually place on themselves and studying the whole field. Then you’ll see it is only a sub-set of philosophers who see philosophy as a collection of questions with no answers.

Philosophy Solved

Jose asked:

How likely is it that someone will solve philosophy as a whole within our lifetime?

Answer by Peter Jones

Philosophy as a whole is metaphysics and this was solved long ago. The solution is discussed  at great length in the literature of the Perennial philosophy. You won’t believe this, of course, and not many do since few study these things.

I’m bored with explaining the solution since almost nobody wants to hear, but if you’re interested I explain most of the issues in the essays on my blog. I have not posted there for a long time but will pick up any messages. – https://theworldknot.wordpress.com/

The solution is non-dualism. This is rejected by most philosophers and this is the reason why they find philosophy impossible. It is not easy to understand so expect to spend some time studying, perhaps a year or two, before you can decide what it’s all about.  A proper understanding would require meditative practice but not necessarily any great skill or insight. A decent grasp of the issues can be acquired by scholarship alone, but putting flesh on the bones of the theoretical calculations would require an examination of consciousness.

If you have any sense you’ll be sceptical of this answer but you should also notice that nobody can gainsay it. You’ll have to plough your own furrow if you want to ‘grok’ this solution for philosophy since you won’t get any help from the profession.  As far as I can tell philosophers are not interested in solving problems but only in acquiring prestige and paying the mortgage.

Metaphysics is not the whole of philosophy but because it is the foundations once it is solved so is the whole sorry mess. The explanation is simple but the list of ‘matters arising’ is endless.   If you are seriously interested in the solution then feel free to message me. I’m always keen to discuss these things with anyone who is interested, but this is a very small sub-set of philosophers. Most believe dogmatically and a priori that philosophy is incomprehensible and steer well clear of any hint of mysticism.

If you detect some annoyance and frustration in this answer then well spotted. The situation in philosophy is ridiculous. Very few philosophers take the trouble to study the whole field and few deserve their salary. Given their current approach they’ll still be pottering about a thousand years from now. Academic philosophy is a lucrative industry and nobody wants to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. The idea that ordinary people are usually perfectly capable of understanding philosophy would not benefit the working professional.

So, your question is based on a misapprehension. Philosophy has been solved within my lifetime to my satisfaction and it was solved long before this. It’s just that the philosophy department has not noticed.  They are happy tootling about in Kant’s ‘arena for mock fights’ and teaching their students that nobody understands philosophy on the evidential basis that they don’t. You have the opportunity to do better should you choose to do so. I’d be happy to help if you’re serious, but only on this condition. I’ve given up on the idea that people are interested in solving philosophical problems. Most seem happier to be free to form their own opinions and believe whatever suits them.

The two truths of solipsism

Samuel asked:

To what extent is solipsism a relevant philosophical theory in modern society?

I have determined it to be irrelevant in an ethical sense but not in a philosophical one.

Answer by Peter Jones

The subtleties and complexities of these issues would normally prevent me from attempting an answer but by explaining them so clearly.in his answer Dr. Klempner has made life relatively easy. I would endorse his criticisms of the various views he mentions.

While the theory of Solipsism as commonly defined and formulated is of no use to man or beast, most forms of it being blatantly absurd, the unfalsifiability of Solipsism is of vital importance in philosophy and consequently of vital importance to all of us. It means that we cannot falsify the Perennial explanation of Solipsism and of why it is unfalsifiable. This would be consistent with the truth of its explanation.

If we reject the various forms of Solipsism noted by Dr. Klempner then there is just one remaining. This would be form of Solipsism described by the Buddhist philosopher-monk Noble Nagarjuna in the second-century CE. This is both an ontological and ethical theory as for him these two areas of knowledge cannot be separated.

The idea that we cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ is peculiarly scholastic or ‘Western’ idea and the opposite of the truth. There would be no other way to derive an ‘ought’ except from an ‘is’ and it is as a consequence of this, as you will note from looking around you, that when we do not know what ‘is’ we are left with a choice between believing in some sort of highly judgemental monotheistic Leviathan or just doing what we feel like doing.

Nagarjuna explains ‘what is’ and in so doing explains the unfalsifiability of Solipsism. This is his famous ‘Two Truths’ doctrine, a didactic device explaining why not just Solipsism but all metaphysical questions are undecidable. It would be because the multiplicity of individual sentient beings would be contingent, not fundamental. For a fundamental analysis nothing would really exist or ever really happen. The fundamental nature of Reality would be beyond conceptualisation due to the nature of what it is. Lao Tsu tells us everything follows from what the Tao is and if Tao is fundamental then this is inevitable. The fundamental nature of Reality would be undifferentiated, the ‘Unity’ or ‘Unicity’ spoken of by the mystics. This would be all that is truly real and it is denoted in the literature as the ‘Real’.

This ‘Unity’ would encompass all of us and award us our reality as individual instances of ‘me’ and ‘my world’. There is no suggestion that nothing exists, only that contrary to our usual idea Existence is not fundamental. We tend to imagine Existence is fundamental but mysticism says it is mental and reduces to a prior state. This would be the reason why Solipsism is unfalsifiable.

At a conventional level of analysis for which ‘me’ and ‘my world’ seem to be truly real Solipsism is clearly false. If we endorse naive realism then it will appear to be absurd and its unfalsififiabilty will seem just another ‘barrier to knowledge’. For a fundamental analysis, however, Solipsism would be true. There would just one real phenomenon and it would be Me. Not just me but you and every instance of ‘me’ there could ever be.

So, on this view  Solipsism would be true and false. We cannot rigorously state it is either without denying the dual-aspect nature of Reality.  It would not be rigorous to say Solipsism is true or false and this would be why it is unfalsifiable. It cannot be formulated is such a way that it is true or false. Scholastic philosophers can easily formulate various versions of Solipsism and work out none of them make sense, but they cannot work out why logic and experience cannot finally falsify it. As far as we can tell from our own experience and our own logical analysis it might be true. Nagarjuna and the Perennial philosophy explain why this is.  It would be because it is not exactly false.

This would be what Heidegger proposes when he explains altruistic behaviour, a phenomenon biologists are still trying to explain, as ‘the breakthrough of a metaphysical truth’. He is saying that the true nature of Reality is such that we can derive an ethical scheme from ‘what is’, and this is because at the level of what truly is ‘we’ are in fact ‘One’. It would be an intuition of our common identity, an experience of empathy with the other, that generates truly altruistic behaviour. Altruism would be motivated by an intuition that Solipsism is in some sense true. Thus when we help others we help ourselves. The distinction between selfishness and altruism breaks down.

Nagarjuna’s explanatory doctrine of ‘Two Truths’  or ‘Worlds’ explains why metaphysical problems are undecidable. It is a difficult doctrine to understand but profoundly simple in its application. When you find yourself confronted by a metaphysical dilemma such as Solipsism you just endorse Compatibilism, This is not quite what Nagarjuna suggests but it would be a first approximation and it works. All you would be doing is rejecting all the extreme theories that are known not to work. The difficulty is not applying this idea but making sense of it. It is said that it would be impossible to do this merely by thinking about it, but this is not to say there would be no point in doing so.

A general name for this view is ‘non-dualism’. It is the rejection of all extreme metaphysical views. It is the proposal that all ‘oughts’ derive from the same ‘is’ and that we are It. Reality would be ‘advaita’ or ‘not-two’. It would follow that sentient beings should be nice to each other and help each other out, just as they nice and helpful to themselves. The reason we behave differently would be that it is not an easy task to learn who we really are and thus know that Solipsism is not entirely false. A complete realisation is called ‘Enlightenment’.  Philosophers everywhere at least generally agree that all other ideas are unworkable, for this is why they generally agree that metaphysical questions are undecidable.

The good news is that if Nagarjuna is right then once you begin to understand the unfalsifiability of Solipsism you will begin to understand the unfalsifiability of all such problems. Thus while his view is not easy to get to grips with you may find it considerably simplifies philosophy.

Christopher Hitchens and religion

Jamie asked:

I watch a lot of online debates and discussions with Atheists and theists I watched many with the late Christopher Hitchens who was one of the first people to interest me in the subject. In the opening of one of his debates he made the point that if we knew at the infancy of of species what we know now religion would never have had the chance to really take off.

He said that we have much better explanations to our questions now and religion even though it may have benefited us in the past has been made redundant. He said that the chances of any religion being true was in the highest degree improbable but how does one measure those odds? Is it because there are many other different religions and Christianity is only one of them or is it because the actual concept of a god is unlikely? What is the method or tool he used to determine the probability? Thank you.

Answer by Peter Jones

Christopher Hitchens knows very little about religion. I would advise you to read people who know more. It a strange world we live in where such an ill-informed person is considered to have a worthwhile opinion.

His comment about the ‘infancy of our species’ is blatantly idiotic. Philosophers should not get personal but when a person is guilty of poor scholarship and sloppy thinking on the scale of Hitchens there seems no other choice. If you look around you’ll see that thanks to the internet the human race is beginning to realise the true meaning of religion and any interested layman can quickly exceed Hitchens’ level of expertise.

Do you see today’s scientists and philosophers sitting around  patting themselves on the back for having disposed of religion? Of course not. Hitchens seems to equate religion with some sort of naive monotheism so of course it looks daft to him. It’s his idea of religion that is daft, not religion. This will become obvious to you if you continue to study the subject.

The atheistic academic establishment does not have better explanations for metaphysical problems than it had two thousand years ago. Sure, we’ve learned some science, but all the important problems fall outside of the natural sciences. This hardly needs saying.

He said that the chances of any religion being true was in the highest degree improbable but how does one measure those odds?

I see no purpose in measuring the odds. The fact that Hitchens mentions the chance of a religion being true tells us that he cannot prove it is not. We need not measure the odds, we need to establish truth of falsity or at least logical consistency and coherence.

Is it because there are many other different religions and Christianity is only one of them or is it because the actual concept of a god is unlikely?

The multiplicity of religions is often used as an argument against the truth of any one of them, and on the surface it’s a powerful argument. However, it only works if we take a superficial view. There is a profound interpretation by which all significant religious traditions arise from the same underlying truth. I would recommend Frithjoff Schuon’s wonderful book The Transcendent Unity of Religion, or perhaps Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy. These two authors actually know something about religion.

The concept of a God is not necessary to religion. This is the catastrophic flaw in many arguments against religion, that they argue against some naive anthropomorhpic idea of God. The best arguments against such naive ideas are found in religion. Meister Eckhart would dismiss Hitchens’ writings as meaningless prattle.

It is very easy to interpret the teachings of Jesus as endorsing the ‘non-dual’ view shared by all traditions within the Perennial philosophy. If you visit the home page for the publishers of the Christian book A Course in Miracles and read the explanation and summary you’ll  notice that this is an explicitly ‘non-dual’ presentation and explanation of the teachings by which ‘God’ is nothing at all like the straw-man Hitchens’ and most atheists argue against. This is the sort of literature Hitchens seems never to have read despite the vast quantity of it. Opponents of religion rarely take the trouble to read the literature and mostly tend to argue against the Sunday-school ideas they grew up with and never allowed to evolve.  Sometimes it seems like they’re arguing against the theory that babies grow under gooseberry bushes.

What is the method or tool he used to determine the probability? Thank you.

He appears to have no method or tools.  To a large extent logic can establish the plausibility of a theory, and generally where a theory causes contradictions we reject it. But logic cannot establish the truth of a theory of Reality unless we know Reality obeys the rules, and to speak of its probability is probably meaningless. In this context probability would be just a measure of our ignorance for a religious doctrine must be true or false.

This answer is something of a rant, admittedly, but it agitates me to think anyone would consider Hitchens worth reading on religion. He has no more understanding of metaphysics than Carnap, Russell, Rand or Dennett. He is baffled and waiving his arms around. You should note his poor scholarship, lack of metaphysical understanding and temperamental approach and be very suspicious.

If you’re asking this question as a wavering Christian I’d recommend the writings of Paul Ferrini for the simplicity of his approach, with A Course in Miracles as the post-grad version of the same message.  If you do some research and are averagely intelligent you’ll soon know a lot more about this topic than Hitchens.

Is separation an illusion?

Robin asked:

Hi, before asking my question, I just wanted to say that I’m 17 years old and this question just came into my mind.So excuse me if it sounds somewhat strange.

A few days ago, I read an article that proposed that separation is an illusion. I personally think this thesis can be expressed in multiple ways. For instance, scientifically speaking everything is made of stardust. Therefore, everything in the universe is actually one and the same. Even though we do not perceive it this way. Another way this thesis can be read, is on a more ‘down to earth’ way: pretty much all humans live with the idea of separation. People from Africa for instance, feel more connected and can identify themselves more with other Africans, than with let’s say Asians. Even though, we are all humans and share the same ancestors. But (most) humans see themselves as separate from each other instead of one with each other.

Thinking about this, I thought ‘If more people would be aware of this, this would put an end to racism, sexism etc.’ However, would it really? Would it really change anything? Is this statement convincing enough to stop all of these problems?

Answer by Peter Jones

The idea that separation is illusory is not about connectivity. If two things are not separated then they are not two things and cannot be connected.

The idea is deeper. It is the claim that the Universe is a Unity such that there are not two things. In Indian religion the word advaita (not-two) is used to refer to this view. If you search for this word you’ll be overwhelmed with information. This idea of the Unity of All is basic to the Perennial philosophy or ‘mysticism’ and the literature is vast.  A doctrine of Unity is ‘non-dual’.

The idea is not that we are all made out of stardust since even two specks of stardust are separate phenomena.  They would be two instances of separate phenomena.

The idea would be that we are not made out of anything but are living in something like a dream, a creation of Mind, a little like Neo in the Matrix. Extension in space and time would be a self-deception and metaphysically-speaking all points in space and time would be the same point. You are always here and the time is always now.

A short explanation is not possible but there are many non-duality teachers on YouTube and more books than you could ever read.

You’re right about Unity putting an end to racism, prejudice and so forth. But this is not the case where non-separation is only a theory.  If it is an experienced reality, as it is for the realised meditator or mystic, then no fundamental separation is experienced and none of the negative results of feelings of separation occur. To get to grips with this idea as a theory you’d need to study Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism, Advaita and so forth. To really get to grips with it you’d have to follow the advice of the Oracle at Delphi and ‘Know Thyself’.

It’s a big topic but well worth pursuing. Good luck.

On the Avoidance of Becoming Victor Meldrew

David asked:

As a middle aged man. Wondering what life is really about. Reading about stoicism and being reminded that… ‘well what ever happens you pop your clogs like everybody does anyway’ doesn’t energise me much. Is there a philosopher that can provide meaning and cheer me up? I don’t want to turn into a Victor Meldrew!

Answer by Peter Jones

Stoicism has a lot going for it and it comforts many people, but it is not an explanatory theory and perhaps this is why it does not energise you. You have to take it on trust and it provides no answer for philosophical problems. It teaches the Unity of All but only as an article of faith and there is no developed metaphysical theory to ground this faith.  It appeals to those who do not wish to venture into religion and mysticism yet would like to have some system of ethics and some life-style advice even if it is speculative and philosophically ungrounded.

You will not find a philosopher who can ‘provide meaning’ in the European tradition. Every attempt fails because no fundamental theory is possible within dualism. From your question it seems you have already noticed this.

For something more useful and hopeful you’d have to look elsewhere. I would suggest a study of the literature of the perennial philosophical tradition, for which speculation is supported by empiricism and dualism is banished.

If you know Stoicism then it is a small step to the philosophy of Middle Way Buddhism and to the idea that life is learning experience which in the long-term cannot go wrong. We can only learn faster or slower. There is a vast literature from which to take pot-luck. In the perennial tradition there is only one method and this is self-enquiry. The entire idea would be to follow the Oracle’s advice to Know Thyself. Only this would be a full cure for the sufferings of temporal existence. Nevertheless, there is a fully developed explanatory theory that explains how the world works and which allows us approach philosophy as an intellectual investigation.

It is said that once we know ourselves for what we truly are the question of meaning and purpose is answered. Thus the pessimism of Russell’s ‘Western’ philosophical approach is not found in the philosophy of non-dualism, where philosophers tend to be filled with excitement and joy by the astonishing wonders of life and death and the possibility, open to all of us, of transcending them for a knowledge of what the word ‘Unity’ really means.

There’s no predicting what you might enjoy reading since everyone starts from a different place. For a flavour of this other more helpful and hopeful philosophical view you could check out Rupert Spira, Mooji, Osho or Sadhguru on YouTube   For an analytical approach explaining the metaphysics of this view the obvious name to mention is the Buddhist master Nagarjuna. Then there is Francis Bradley, George Spencer Brown, Hermann Weyl,  Erwin Schrodinger, Douglas Harding and others who come at the issues from various intellectual directions, one of whom might appeal and perhaps even energise you. If you are coming from a Christian background I’d recommend Paul Ferrini and if he doesn’t cheer you up I’d be surprised, or perhaps Keith Ward or David Bentley Hart.

Ferrini and teachers like him such as Wei Wu Wei, the Buddha and Ramana Maharshi rarely deal with the metaphysical details, leaving them to others, and so if you are a philosopher you’ll want to get to grips with Nagarjuna and his proof of the Unity of All. For an introduction to this tricky topic I always recommend The Sun of Wisdom by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso. Books on Nagarjuna by Western philosophers tend to be over-long and unnecessarily complex even where they’re trustworthy.

In short, I would suggest opening the window and letting in the whole of philosophy before giving up on the discipline and becoming Victor Meldrew.  No amount of footnotes to Plato is going to help. For a survey of the perennial teachings on the meaning and purpose of life and death some search-terms would be ‘non-duality’, ‘advaita’, ‘neutral metaphysical position’, ‘Unity’, ‘Emptiness’.  This may lead you out of the terminal pessimism of our failed academic philosophy and into something a lot more intellectually plausible, hopeful, helpful, systematic and organised.

It’s a drastic solution but afaik the only one available. The alternative is the doom and gloom of our modern university philosophy which self-avowedly understands nothing and is not even as useful as Stoicism. For any optimism an explanation of death would be required and mysticism is the only discipline that studies this issue as an empirical matter rather than merely speculate. A theory of death is never going to dispel our worries, but a taste of it is known to do away with them entirely.

Reassuringly, according to the perennial view of Buddhism. Taoism. advaita Vedanta, Sufism and so forth it would be impossible for the real you to ‘pop your clogs’, but this could only be known by discovering who one really is.