What is the Meaning of Life? (Part One)

Meaning of Life

WHAT IS THE MEANING OF LIFE? Is there a bigger question than this? Some will answer that there is none; or, that only God can know the answer; or that it’s whatever you make of it. A philosopher might argue that the word-level in the question is wrong; that we need go deeper to answer the question “What is the meaning of meaning?” before we can say what the meaning of life is. A philosopher like Nietzsche would rephrase it as “What is the value of life?” because all meaning is subject to value judgements. But in order to determine this, as Heidegger knew, we need to get down to the most basic level of questioning and ask, as the pre-Socratic Greeks did, “What is the essence of life?”[i]

Of course, we are talking about Life, with a capital L, although by answering that question one should also be a huge step closer to understanding the meaning of their own individual life; defining the generic does help us understand the specific. The generic form of it makes it, in part, a question for science, and, in another part, a question for logic. Nevertheless, the resolution of the query has been severely soiled and butchered by being taken as a theological one.

“Whatever essential characteristics value has as condition of life depends on the essence of life, on what is distinctive about this essence.”[ii]

What is the distinctiveness of life from non-life? Isn’t it life’s distinctive ability to reproduce itself; its capacity for evolving into forms that are better suited for survival; in its desire for survival itself, which could be seen as a will for an abstract concept of permanence through reproduction.

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WHAT IS THE MEANING OF HUMANITY?

Yet, if the purpose of life is survival, then the evolution of the potentially life-threatening organism that humanity has become, seems like an ultimately failed process rather than a great triumph of world-will.

The reason for this resides in the fact that evolution is blind. It seems to have a purpose (survival) and a creative process capable of learning and relearning things in order to ensure the final success of that purpose (evolution), but there is no hand manipulating that process other than the achievements of the process itself.

Does this then make us a mere accidental product of a random evolution designed to survive certain inhospitable conditions arising at any given moment? If we answer in the affirmative, then we accept that there is no meaning to humanity, a nihilistic view that renders everything to the coincidental, with no footing in any certainty at all.

However, the sceptic must eventually become sceptical of his/her own scepticism. So, sceptical of scepticism we return to the question at hand: Why would life evolve into a life-threatening form like humanity? What can Life gain from humanity?

If we can find a positive answer to that question, then perhaps we can answer the query into the meaning underlying our human existences as well.

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WHAT IS THE MEANING OF HOMO SAPIENS?

A word carries a lot of semantic baggage and ‘humanity’ has a lot of negative connotations for a lot of people that are embedded within our pessimistic notions of ‘human-nature’. In order to imbue our humanity with a less prejudiced vision, we will use the scientific term for our species homo sapiens sapiens. By doing this we also clearly leap beyond the reductionisms of race, religion and nationalities and treat ourselves as members of a species, which is what we ultimately are. So, what does Life gain from our species? What does Life gain from Sapiens that it doesn’t get from other non-sapiens organisms?

Immediately we have an answer: knowledge of Itself.

Through Sapiens organisms, life knows itself. Existence becomes something more than just a thing that flows over one, or that which we float in and react to. Through a Sapiens consciousness existence is grasped as something which has come from somewhere and is moving forward into something different. Knowing gives existence a sense of permanence, and a conscious creative vision that comes from the realisation that all things can change.

Here, a circle of logic closes in on itself: knowing tells us that the essence is permanence through creative evolution. But this conclusion also immediately throws us out of its apparent circle. A circle is a non-evolving cycle – evolution, however, is always a leap beyond the apparent enclosure of the self-reproducing cycle.

Nature creates evolutionary leaps genetically, in a way that is even superior to the species’ own will to survive through carbon-copy reproduction; and also technologically, via the use of tools manipulated by organisms.

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SAPIENS: THE TECHNOLOGICAL SPECIES

Homo sapiens is the technological species par excellence. Sapiens is the knowing, technological animal.

Technology and knowing evolve in a spiral way, and we could probably map their relationship in a form that would very much resemble a DNA helix.

The spiral is a dynamic form of the circle. It winds itself, but in a way that moves forward as well as around. Because it has an elongated form it can advance and change. It can progress through self-change and adapt to changing environments.

Perhaps we could call this creative process ‘enhancement’, as Heidegger did: “Enhancement implies something like a looking ahead and through to the scope of something higher.”[iii]  

(TO BE CONTINUED)

[i] Heidegger, Martin, NIETZSCHE, vol. III + IV, Harper One, p. 16

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid

Pleasure and Spock’s Father

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In his Critique of Judgement, Kant begins by relegating aesthetics to the subjective, or to a condition of being determined by the subjective[i]. That which concerns whatever gives us pleasure or displeasure cannot be objectified[ii].

If we think of the Vulcans in Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek series, we are presented with an advanced hominid race – Vulcans are a completely logical species of Sapiens who have no emotions. But would it be right to assume from this that they don’t experience pleasure. If Kant had been able to watch Star Trek he would have found them intriguing.  If the fictional Vulcans can find a way of surpassing the subjectification demanded by his pleasure principle, then perhaps it is possible for human beings to do so as well. Followed by the subsequent question of – would we ever want to?

According to Star Trek myth, the Vulcans were originally a passionate, emotional race of Sapiens hominids who developed techniques to suppress those passions. Perhaps we could have imagined such a development in humanity if the Stoic school had become a universal institution in human educational programmes. But perhaps, to understand the fictional Vulcans positively then, instead of emphasising their oppression of passions, we could place an emphasis on the fact that they found a way of objectively analysing and drawing logical conclusions from their tastes – that which Kant says is impossible.

For a Vulcan, every sensation is analysed in order to determine and subsequently understand what the physical sensations are telling them when pleasure is felt, and why. This logical process, and the gap it creates between the experience and the understanding of that experience, dampens or cools the intensity of the experience itself. The result is that the pleasure or displeasure dissolves into something else – into understanding.

Star trek’s first officer, Mr Spock, despite the fact that he is actually only half-Vulcan, is often accused of being in-human because of his inability to enjoy the intensity of emotions. Nevertheless, in actual fact, Spock’s, and the Vulcans’, logic is also our most human of qualities.

Science fiction does try to see it otherwise, and it has created an abundance of these hyper-logical, creatures, or robot versions of them, or AI machine like HAL, in order to see how inhuman they are in comparison to us. Nevertheless, the greatest error would be to programme androids with the ability to experience emotions and make subjective their experiences to a sense of pleasure or displeasure – or develop a fear of their own mortality. Such robots would destroy us. It is precisely the judgements we form from the pleasure principle and our subsequent reactions that make us so dangerous for each other. A robot with a sense of personal taste would be one that desires, and a robot that desires will eventually do, or try to do, what it wants. A powerful intelligence combined with a strong, subjective sense of personal tastes would be the most dangerous monster imaginable.

Likewise, as humanity develops technologically, so must our ability to control our emotional side develop. If the homo sapiens is to evolve and not destroy itself, it will have to do so in the same way that the mythical Vulcans were able to do so – by conquering the emotional side through logic.

[i] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, I, i, §₁, p.35

[ii] Ibid

The Revaluation of Value

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Since Nietzsche called for the “Revaluation of all values!” we have, in Western Civilisation, seen certain transvaluations take place in areas such as race, gender, sex and violence, but what we have failed to revaluate is value itself.

A revaluation of value would untie its connection with exchange (money) and align it to needs – a thing’s importance would therefore be gauged according to how necessary it was. But in order to do this we would need to remove the stigma of “price”. Progress doesn’t happen because it’s expensive.

So, in order to make the real advances that our technology-rich culture is capable of, we now have to eradicate the barrier of “expense”.

THE TRULY HUMAN CIVILISATION

In a truly human civilisation, needs should be rights. In a truly fair society, everyone should have the opportunity to start the race from the same line. In our societies, sacrifices created by the monetary exchange system place people behind the starting line.

In a truly human civilisation, a person with disabilities should be allowed access to the technology designed to satisfy his or her needs without concern that sacrifices must be made to obtain the necessary barter. A teacher, or an intellectual, needs access to academic texts and should be granted that access; an artisan needs access to certain tools and materials; a gardener needs access to seeds and gardening tools, as well as a patch of land to garden on … etc.

In a society in which needs are understood and catered for by the society itself, on a wide and universal level, those same needs would seep into wants, but without taking over the space of wants. By planting values on authentic needs, civilisation would evolve into societies rich in purposeful-desires as opposed to our current civilisation that is drowning in pulp-waste-wants.

TECHNOLOGY IN A TRULY HUMAN CIVILSATION

Paradoxically, the truly human civilisation will be defined by the fact that it will not be dependent on human labour in order to function or maintain it. It will be a place that is built and maintained by machines, and in which the goods produced by those machines will be distributed by the same machines. As Einstein preached: “Those instrumental goods which should serve to maintain the life and health of all human beings should be produced by the least possible labour of all”[i].

Of course this implies a loss of jobs, and a loss of menial tasks has tragic consequences in our societies dominated by monetary exchange. There is a vicious circle involved in our conclusion: in order to allow technology to liberate human beings from the drudgery of menial tasks we need to revaluate the value system based on money, and, technological development is the key to transcending the monetary-exchange system.

In order to close this circle, technology needs to be appropriated by the society itself so that it can be removed from the dictatorships of the capitalist corporations.

In our current model of society, the consumer pays repeatedly for goods produced by the money exchange system. Firstly, we pay for the technological research carried out with public money, secondly we pay for the cost of the products created by companies who have appropriated that technology as their own, and thirdly we have to pay each time we want to acquire the updated versions of products that have been deliberately programmed with a short life span. Of course, for the system, the important thing is that we pay, and that the money keeps flowing and moving to the top. It is this assumption that needs a radical revaluation.

In a sense, technology forces us in a direction beyond the monetary exchange. It is the essential function of technology to do what a human being cannot do by himself. To replace humans in terms of labour is to replace our role of being slaves to ourselves. In effect it is our exchange-system culture in its pure, slave-production/slave-maintenance role, that inhibits the development of technology .

While individuals continue to see themselves essentially as  active members of the master-slave, sacrifice-reward exchange system, technology will always be viewed: a) with some suspicion (as an impediment, taking away our own chances of participating successfully in the system); b) as a commodity that can be produced and exchanged for profit, and as such, just another object that enslaves desire rather than liberating humanity.

LEAPING FORWARD

The first leap to a revaluation of technology in a positive way must come about by abandoning the view of technology as commodities to be sold. A revaluation would see machines as something readily available for use without any ultimate aim of making a profit. This attitude places the entire monetary exchange system in question.

Technology can truly liberate us, but it won’t if we need to constantly sacrifice our time and real needs in order to be able to obtain that liberation. The purpose of technology is to liberate us from labour, not to ensure that we are shackled to it.

In order to remove technological development away from the market place and its role as an exchange-value/profit-making tool, we need to control the power of making machines that will be able to make themselves. Which means: a) control of the raw materials needed to make these machines; b) control of universities so that scientists and designers will be encouraged to plan technology in a social direction rather than a profit-making one; and c) control of the use of these machines once they are made.

Of course, these incentives have to come from the grass roots, the demos, the people. The so-called free market cannot be expected to have any inclinations towards implementing a structure which has an aim to abolish the free market.

EPILOGUE

Produce, distribute and maintain itself: there are the three basic functions that a truly human, technological society should be based on. Within production itself there are embedded needs to search for and extract the raw materials needed for that production to be possible. This implies a need for an ecological design for all future technology. A truly human civilisation will need to programme its machines with an ability to recognise excess, to understand the negative idea of over-farming, and to be able to judge the limits of extraction. A truly human civilisation needs, above all, a control of eco-friendly technologies.

[i] See Albert Einstein, OUT OF MY LATER YEARS, chapter 6. ON FREEDOM

The Future System

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All systems are designed to dissuade and impede the adoption of any better system. The system will impede change by blocking the ability to conceptualise or understand the alternatives.

Our global, neo-liberal culture unabashedly announces in its deep cynicism that it is the least worst of systems. An announcement made whilst plundering the natural resources of the planet and blindly damaging the ecosystem that all life on earth depends on. Of course, being the least worst is tantamount to announcing that it is the best. By doing so it warns us not to bother to go looking for vain alternatives. These, it says, cannot exist. There is, of course, no true encouragement of freedom here. Only a fool, it says, would look beyond the best thing for something better.

However, this is all an ideological lie. Systemic change is needed. The bubble idea that it is the economy that sustains us (and not the world) has to be burst. However, that bubble can only be burst by transcending the system of exchange. Our lives are currently subject to restraints on any true democratic access to technology and resources. However, the technological emancipation of humanity will only come about by abandoning our will-to-want-more and adopting a will-to-necessity. And this can only come about by developing this positivist and anti-nihilistic idea of human importance in the universe.

The priority of our capitalist economy is to make money. This is done by selling things. In order to sell things one must have something to sell. In order to have things to sell one must be able to obtain things already produced or produce them yourself. In order to produce things you must have people and/or machines that can do it. Given technological development as it is production can be carried out by either exclusively human labour (although this is hardly ever the case anymore), by a mixture of labourers and machines, or by primarily automated machinery. That production is evolving in the direction of the latter option seems to be the most logical perspective. However, if we ever reach an economy whose manufacturing is based solely on truly automated, self-producing and self-reproducing machinery, then … Do we need an exchange system involving production by human beings anymore? And if the answer is “no”: do we need an economy anymore?

If machines can mine resources and farm food, and can reproduce themselves and manufacture other new machines, the importance of labour in production must obviously be greatly diminished. A move towards such self-automated, self-reproducing, intelligent technologies should therefore see an equal trend towards the diminishing of the need for labour. Nevertheless, this is not the case in most societies. In the globalised economy intensified labour in sweatshop conditions in Third World countries is still a normal practice for large multinational corporations.  Slaves it seems are still more economical than high-tech machines. Developed countries have developed labour markets in services, many of which depend on tourism to hold them up. Unemployment can still have tragic consequences and it is one of the major causes of stress in societies. Our traditional wage-based exchange system depends on the incorporation of human beings into the system in order for them to be able to survive. Most survival still depends on people’s ability to procure salaries according to the sacrifice made through selling their time and skills as labour. If the amount of human labour needed is severely diminished so will the opportunities for survival, and so will the viability of the system of exchange that rewards only according to sacrifice.

For Einstein, one of the fundamental goals of civilisation is to make “those instrumental goods which should serve to maintain the life and health of all human beings … produced by the least possible labour of all.”[i]  In other words, let the machines do the physical work and leave it to our sapiens’ minds to be creative and thoughtful. However, the System seems to be continually pushing us in the opposite direction. Ironically, civilisation is increasingly insensitive to human progress as its technological advances make it more and more automated. Instead of allowing technology to liberate humanity, the economy uses it to create ever cheaper labour in order to produce ever greater profits.

If economists were forward thinking they would have to consider the radical consequences of our post-modernity. Technology is a lot more highly developed than the machines in the market place itself. A real technological revolution that would completely transform the world economy is possible. In order for human progress to actually occur and for all human beings to be liberated to develop themselves as human beings, the whole exchange system could be replaced by a human-maintenance system operated by self-reproducing, autonomous machinery.

In a world in which production and services is handled by machines, money is unnecessary. Labour will no longer need to be a sacrifice exchanged for rewards. Humanity will no longer be the homo economicus.

[i] Albert Einstein, OUT OF MY LATER YEARS; Wisdom, New York, 1950, p.18.

HOW TO FIND YOUR TRUE VOCATION IN LIFE?

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Imagine a future civilisation in which our technologies are so advanced that money has been rendered obsolete. Work, as something that one needs to do to earn an income which will pay for your survival or improve your standard of living, no longer exists. Now think: in such a scenario what would I do with my time now that I have all day to do what I want? Try and imagine something that you could spend most of your time doing without really needing to do it. If something comes immediately to mind that is probably your vocation in life. If nothing does then you’ll have to look harder for it. Or perhaps you can think of many things, in which case you probably have a holistic vocation that does not limit itself to specific areas and you’ve got a Renaissance soul.

What this also gives us is a measure of progress. The standard of living in a society improves when we can all actually do what we really want to do. Only when we have liberated society from the money system will we be able to make it a vocation-driven one.

EINSTEIN’S MESSAGE FOR POSTERITY

 

294733-albert-einstein-seven-things-you-didn-t-knowI’d like to reproduce Einstein’s Message For Posterity.

“Our time is rich in inventive minds, the inventions of which could facilitate our lives considerably. We are crossing the seas by power and utilise power also in order to relieve humanity from all tiring muscular work. We have learned to fly and we are able to send messages and news without any difficulty over the entire world through electric waves.

However, the production and distributuion of commodities is entirely unorgansed so that everybody must live in fear of being eliminated from the economic cycle, in this way suffering for the want of everything. Furhermore, people living in different countries kill each other at irregular time intervals, so that also for this reason any one who thinks about the future must live in fear and terror. This is due to the fact that the intelligence and the character of the masses are incomparably lower than the intelligence and character of the few who produce something valuable for the community.

I trust that posterity will read these statements with a feeling of proud and justified superiority.”1

How deeply we have betrayed that trust. Where is progress?

1 Albert Einstein, OUT OF MY LATER YEARS, Philosophical Library Inc. New York, 1950, p.18

 

THE END OF WORK AND THE DEATH OF MONEY

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Marx estimated that the introduction of power-looms into England reduced the labour required and subsequently labour costs by a half. Technology as it now stands has reduced labour costs in factories and warehouses to minimal levels – in many cases the only costs are those of the energy consumption of the machines and that of human maintenance of machines. It would not be science fiction to imagine that in the near future machines will be designed and programmed to maintain and reproduce themselves and that renewable energy technology will be developed providing a much cheaper, or even free, power source for machines, eliminating the human labour force in manufacturing completely.

Presently the human labour force is being shifted away from manufacturing into services and sales, design, programming, and maintenance. But with the development of robotics there may also be an immanent invasion of android workers coming. Once dexterity issues are overcome, these humanoid-machines, with more efficient information systems that have been programmed so that they work untiringly on specific tasks, could easily also begin to operate on a wide-scale in services, sales, programming and maintenance, and why not even design.

The immediate problem arising from this would be the realisation that human labour could become unnecessary. In a system like ours, in which all reward and satisfaction, even the idea of fulfilment itself, is subject to the individual’s sacrifices in the labour market, the logical evolution of technology towards the abolishing of labour must be impossible. We are faced with a paradoxical situation: we live in an advanced technological society, but the purpose of technology, which is to substitute the tedium of human labour and create a better world, is not allowed to fulfil itself because such a fulfilment would destroy the system of exchange and rewards for labour sacrifice that are the fundamental basis of our money-making system.

Here is the real essence of the System’s crisis. The relationship between production commodities and labour is one in which the latter is constantly shrinking whilst the former is rapidly growing. Eventually this relationship, which is already impossible through its inbuilt contradiction, will become absolutely unbearable. Full employment in modern capitalist society is impossible without making human labour cheaper and more efficient than machine labour. The current system of exchange – of sacrifice and reward via the concept of the production and purchase of commodities and services – is already obsolete. Unemployment is not the result of bad economics and political management, it is a necessary part of the exchange system as we have it.

The only way to remedy our economic absurdity and all the serious problems it creates is by removing one of the conflicting elements in the contradiction. Either technology has to be frozen or the exchange/reward system has to be radically rethought. Of course the most radical way of rethinking the latter would be to ask ourselves how a human society might exist without any exchange system at all, or how a complex technological society might function without money.