Friday, January 27, 2023

Too Hot to Handle: More Than Me

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

This topic is considerably less incendiary than the current Palestinian situation or the question of whether or not churches should be led by one man, but when posted its list of “ultimate questions” and asked which ones its audience considered most important, this one finished second:

“Why do people insist on looking outside themselves for a reason for their life?”

Tom: Immanuel Can, what do you think about that: is there more than me, and why should I care if there is?

Give Me Reasons

Immanuel Can: My first question would be what is meant by “a reason”? How do we clarify that?

Is it “reason” as in, “The reason I’m going to school is to get a job”, or “The reason I’m alive is to glorify God?” One is an inside meaning for reason, roughly synonymous with “personal intention”, and the other is an outside meaning for reason, roughly corresponding to “a given purpose for life”. So how can we unpack which one is really concerning the question-asker?

Tom: To clarify, this is a question posed by Katinka Hesselink, a blogger who writes about spirituality for Squidoo. What she actually intended to ask is something we have no real way to analyze.

But what interests me is that a large number of people read the question as she wrote it and say, “This is important to me.” These folks necessarily interpreted the question themselves with no further guidance and concluded it matters — that it matters a great deal.

I’d say both of your meanings are worth exploring. Let’s talk about motives first:

1/ Why do people look outside themselves to find a motive for living?

IC: Well, if we’re talking merely about motive, is it not obvious that anything internal is too trivial? I mean, we all instinctively have a motive to survive (at least initially), but that’s just an observation; it’s hardly the kind of thing that lends any meaning or reason to the process.

For example, it might just be the case that we’re all programmed to want survival, and that’s our motive: but that might just be part of our evolutionary programming, and a part which the law of survival of the fittest finds useful — but which it has absolutely no interest in seeing we get to actualize, especially if we’re not “fit”. In that case, our life and death would actually “mean” nothing; they’d just be accidental facts in an unconscious, un-reason-bearing universe. Our motive to live, then, would always be present, but as no more than an evolutionary trick … and the joke would be on us. So then what’s our motive for playing along?

Albert Camus said that the first and deepest problem in philosophy was the question of suicide: why don’t we kill ourselves? When life gets hard, then why not? Especially if our motive for living is only an evolutionary trick?

For No Reason At All

Tom: My observation is that the most intensely motivated people have not reflected much on why they do what they do. To give some examples, poverty may drive people to scramble just to survive, and the “why” of it rarely enters their heads because they live in a state of exhaustion; in other cases children absorb a work ethic from parents or culture, and their answer for putting their heads down and bulling their way through life is no more complicated than the fact that they never considered any other possibility. There may be other reasons, of course. Videogames, the Internet and entertainment generally occupy such a large portion of modern life that many people are too distracted to analyze where they are going or why they are going there at all.

The question of “why don’t we kill ourselves” is most frequently considered in any depth at all by the educated and by those who have the time or inclination for the arts; by those who can afford to indulge it. Or, as you say, by those who’ve had enough hard knocks that “keep on keeping on” no longer seems like an adequate reason.

Proximal and Ultimate Purpose

IC: I think that’s true — most people continue with a proximal rather than an ultimate purpose, meaning that what has to be done next or what we could do next substitutes for the question “What should we be achieving with our lives?” Their lives always feel like catching a train in motion: so motivation is provided by the urgency of the next thing coming. The children must be fed, my boss wants me to get this report in, the car needs to go into the shop, there’s a new cottage for sale … these sorts of thoughts — not deeply philosophical ones like Camus suggests — “motivate” their lives.

Tom: Exactly. If you ask many of these folks what they aspire to or what they are trying to accomplish, you get a story about the next promotion, the new house or the cottage they are buying. Which looks great when you’re young, healthy and things are generally going well.

IC: But how meaningless. A chain of short-term urgencies with no connection to a larger pattern of purpose … and eventually you find yourself old and declining … then everything you have is progressively taken away from you — your looks, your strength, your money, your friends, your freedom, your mind — and then you die. And, as Camus suggests, the very minute you pause in your chain of urgencies long enough to say, “Hey, what’s it all for?” that is the minute you wonder if it’s worth going on at all.

The “Gracious Exit” Option

Tom: I always remember what comics great John Byrne said once about aging:

“Even as far back as 1972 I had been giving serious consideration to making my planned and (hopefully) gracious exit when I was in my 66th year but I’m lately rather liking the ‘symmetry’ of 2020.”

A fan then asked Byrne if he means “retiring completely from the craft”. To which Byrne replied:

“I mean retiring from the planet. I have no interest in withering away.”

I remember Byrne as I knew him when I was a teenager, at the very top of the comics industry. To go from that to planning a suicide by handgun in less than 25 years is a fairly precipitous decline, but Byrne is not alone in his disillusionment.

Small-Minded and Unsatisfactory

IC: I can’t imagine that that answers the question with which we started. It seems too small-minded, and the answer seems too unsatisfactory. For if that’s all, then as soon as you really think about it, you realize there’s no sufficient “reason for life”.

Tom: So as long as we’re trying to find our answer internally, that answer is not very satisfactory. If you really apply yourself to that question, you end up where Solomon ended:

“ ‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Everything is meaningless!’ ”

Let’s consider the question from your other angle then:

2/ Why do people look outside themselves to find a purpose to life?

IC: Well, to look outside of oneself for some meaning is perfectly normal and reasonable. I’m a mortal creature with a limited lifespan. I neither made myself, nor determine the moment of my death. I try, but I can’t even really control my circumstances. The world existed before I arrived, as did a lot of other people; and the world will go on after I’m dead, with a bunch of different people in it. Why it exists — and why I exist — are clearly not matters about which anyone consulted me.

Given all that, why would I look inside myself for some kind of answer? As Graham Parker wrote, “Ain’t no answers in me.”

Trying to Make Some Sense of It

Tom: To look outside yourself for a reason, you say, is normal and reasonable. And I’d agree. But I find it interesting that most people who have realized they need to look outside themselves for a purpose don’t end up looking very far outside. Having failed to find a reason for their life in themselves, they often seek it in other created beings: in family, or in romantic relationships. Or they try to find it in social engineering projects that are the work of other created beings: in politics, social justice, good works, etc.

IC: Yes, that’s true. But of course, “other created beings” are in no better position than we are: the natural world doesn’t care, and other humans are trying to make some sense out of the whole thing, just as we are.

We need to ask ourselves, “Is there anything about my life that will matter five seconds after I’m dead?” If by that question we mean “matter to somebody”, then the answer is, “Perhaps ... if they even remember; but for a very short while and no more, at best.” And if we mean “matter to me”, then the answer is clearly “No”. You will be gone, and have no further interest or involvement in the universe forever. Dead is dead.

So what was it all for? All the joys, loves, pain, growth, beauty, tragedy, learning, struggling, achievements, trials … so what?

Love, Irony, Humor

Tom: Let me quote Christopher Hitchens here, because I think he’s apropos. Asked, as an atheist, how he finds meaning and purpose in life, he says this:

“A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called ‘meaningless’ except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so. It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one's everyday life as if this were so.

Being dead, Hitchens is now very well equipped to field the question of whether his original answer was actually any good, but since we can’t ask him, let me ask you: would that do it for you, IC? A little “love, irony and humor”?

IC: Hitchens is mixing up proximal versus ultimate meaning and using the former to pretend he’s solved the problem of the latter. But they’re two different issues, of course. A person could have present pleasures (“love, irony, humor”) AND ultimate purpose (i.e. glorifying God), or could have no present comforts but ultimate meaning (like Job did), or as in the Hitchens case, have only short term pleasures and no ultimate meaning or purpose at all.

Tom: Quite so.

The Feeling of Meaning

IC: He’s saying, “If I can show you how to have a feeling of meaning, you don’t need to worry that you don’t really have any meaning.” We would say, “Of course you have short term pleasures.” We wouldn’t even deny that Hitchens can, if he wants, anaesthetize himself against the fear of meaninglessness by focusing exclusively on those short term pleasures. Many people do that. But, really, in what sense is his version of “meaning” any more meaningful than that of the alcoholic or drug abuser? They too have found a way to ignore the problem of ultimate meaninglessness. His way might be more socially acceptable and less physically destructive, but in the absence of a larger purpose and pattern for life, why does it ultimately matter which form of anaesthetic one chooses? Whatever works, works.

It’s like his pronouncement about death: “There is nothing more, but I want nothing more.” The second part of that statement was plausibly true; but of course, it didn’t make the first part true.

In any case, if he was right he would never know it; but if he was wrong, he surely knows it now.


  1. Don't know why this question would even have been on the list. Probably because it belongs in the category of looking terribly profound and requiring a profound answer, when it really doesn't.

    The answer could actually consist of several parts of which only the first one, below, is really needed. So, let me remove my amateur philosopher hat and put on my common sense hat for a common sense answer.

    The reason one looks outside of one selves is because that's where the answer quite naturally resides. The fact is of course that your parents reasoned you into life. So, simply, talk to them if you want to get their detailed reasons why you exist.

    This answer should really suffice, yes?

  2. It intrigued me that so many people thought the question important. I have noticed that sometimes things that seem obvious to you or to me are not equally obvious to everyone.

  3. Yes, Tom, I think that's true.

    As you know, I'm in contact with a whole bunch of people and opinions every day. And I constantly run into those who say things like, "Why can't I just make my own meaning for my life?"

    Some like the idea of autonomy so much that they start to believe that *everything* is up to their personal taste...that they can even impart meaning to their own life simply by choosing some terms they like. But on a deep level, they sense they're actually ducking an important question. So they avoid thought as much as they can; but unable to avoid it entirely, they find themselves wavering between the burning desire to be their own boss and the nagging suspicion that they're fooling themselves.

    Others look inside because outside is out of their control. Many also fear that maybe outside there really is no meaning -- at least not one they could ever find. So they choose to believe that making up one's own "meaning" is the same as finding a real meaning.

    It's a much more common malaise than you might imagine, Qman.

  4. Topic for Friday's "Too hot to handle"?

    I am a bit surprised no one picked up on this. If I have to exchange my philosopher hat for a common sense hat to provide a common sense answer to what looks on the surface like a profound question, does that imply that philosophers have no, or just little, common sense :-)?

    1. It all depends on the individual in question, I guess. I've always admired the ability of philosophers like Chesterton and Lewis to have the best of both worlds -- great intelligence, but delivered in the language of common sense. That combo is really ideal.