Erudite Primitivism

Rebel without a cause

We now stand at a precipice, and it's time to answer the most important question: is life really worth it?

Before we leap, let's look at the road behind us, and see how we got to this point.

Either we'll be judged when we die, or we won't. The idea of a judgmental death has so many problems, paradoxes, and unanswerable questions that it cannot be the rational option we choose to live our lives by. Since we conclude that there will be no judgment at death, there are no external rules in life. This means, among other moral conclusions, that there is no meaning of life. Moreover, the actions we take in life will have no effect on our outcome at death, so life is self-contained unit that cannot affect the non-existence succeeding it. In a meaningless, self-contained life, there is no reward but the pleasure derived from living itself. Therefore, we should live to maximize happiness.

Now, we set out to answer many of the questions we laid out at the end of our last entry. We'll start with the idea of happiness: What does it mean to be happy? Too often, our claim is interpreted as a support for the hedonistic enjoyment of great debauchery in life. This isn't true, however. Referring back to the entry on the Two Selves, what is meant by happiness is the happiness of the remembered self. This remembered self would not lead a satisfied life if it spent every moment of the day engaged in the most tempting pleasurable activities it can find, because truly satisfying the remembered self involves working toward goals and achievements. This is well-trodden ground, and I won't spend too much time rehashing the points made from that entry. A balance must be struck between the lived self finding pleasure at certain instances, and sacrifices being made so that the remembered self can be fulfilled. The remembered self contains some of the happiness of the lived self in it, anyway, and the two are only in conflict when short-term temptations get in the way of long-term goals. The lived self, of course, seems much easier to satisfy than the remembered self. If you listen to all your temptations and what your brain says will make you happy at each moment, the lived self will be satisfied. It's much more difficult to find fulfillment for the remembered self, however, for a key reason: the remembered self requires meaning.

To see this, think about what it means for the remembered self to require work and achievement to be satisfied. If any work could suffice, then the mathematician who finds pleasure in complicated research on elliptic curves should be just as happy chopping firewood for the coming winter. Of course, we know that he'd probably be quite angry if we dragged him out of his office and replaced his pencil with an ax. After spending two hours chopping a tree, he'd grumble his way back inside, annoyed that we wasted his time with such meaningless work. Now, consider the lumberjack, who we put in the opposite situation. We force him to sit at a desk and grind away mathematical research problems for several hours. He, too, will be angry at his time having been wasted. Both mathematical research and chopping firewood are hard work. They're things that the lived self may not enjoy, but the remembered self enjoys a great deal. The remembered self will only enjoy it, however, if it can attach meaning to the work. Let's look again at our example. Neither the lived self of the mathematician or the lumberjack find great pleasure in sitting at a desk, working on problems; it's hard work, and it would be far more pleasurable at each instant to stand up from the desk, go eat a chocolate bar, and waste time with colleagues. At the end of the two hours of working, however, the mathematician will feel very satisfied that he has spent his time on his research, avoiding temptations in order to commit time to something that he finds meaning in: solving complicated problems. The lumberjack, however, will not look back at the work with such fondness. He resents sitting at the desk at each instant, and he resents having been made to sit at the desk. His remembered self views the math as pointless and meaningless, and therefore not something he can derive pleasure from having done. The remembered self needs work to be satisfied, but this work must be meaningful to the self.

So here lies an issue. We've established that we need meaning to satisfy us. But how can we find meaning in an inherently meaningless world? Evidently, we must construct our own artificial meaning. We use artificial to distinguish this meaning from true meaning, which would come from external rules.

Can artificial meaning ever provide satisfaction like true meaning would? In a way, this is unanswerable, since true meaning does not exist, and thus we have no idea what it would look like from a satisfaction point of view. Instead of true meaning, perhaps we can look at original meaning. This would be basic survival, which was the goal of humanity for hundreds of thousands of years. Survival nowadays, of course, is quite easy, so we have to come up with other meaning to fill our time. Our idea of artificial meaning skates close to Kaczynski's idea of 'surrogate activities'. In Kaczynski's eyes, surrogate activities can never be as satisfying as the fulfillment derived from meeting biological needs through hard work. Since we no longer have to track and hunt deer for dinner, but rather can go to the grocery store, people busy themselves with fitness, careers, scientific pursuits, etc. all in an attempt to reach the same satisfaction that individually achieving survival needs would bring. As evidence of the fact that surrogate activities are less fulfilling, Kaczynski points to the fact that they are never ending - a distance runner always wants to run farther, a worker always wants to move higher on the corporate ladder, a scientist always wants to do new research. I would argue with Kaczynski through two points. One, perhaps the reason there is a never ending push to further these surrogate activities is not because they are inherently less fulfilling than humanity's true state, but because humans are wired to never stop needing work to do and goals to achieve. After all, the primitive man is not satisfied after killing just one deer - for him, meeting his goals is a daily process, not to mention necessary for his survival. This primitive man's work and achievement cycle will never end, so why should those of people engaged in surrogate activities end? Second, Kaczynski may be placing the blame for this never ending push upwards at the feet of surrogate activities, when it should actually be blamed on a capitalist system that manipulates society into a mindset of materialism. To always get the new car, the prettier woman, the bigger house, etc. requires always pushing beyond the limits of your previous goals.

Our defense of surrogate activities roughly qualifies as a defense of artificial meaning, since the concepts are so related. Perhaps artificial meaning can never quite satisfy us like true meaning would, but, since true meaning is non-existent, artificial meaning is the best we have. In any case, original meaning is an artificial meaning, since it is not true meaning (even though this original meaning was necessary to survive, and thus not a choice). So I can conclude that artificial meaning can be just as satisfying as original meaning, since they're the same thing.

Now that we've established that creating an artificial meaning is necessary to a happy life, we are still left to construct this artificial meaning. This is a personal process, but there are guiding principles that apply to all individuals. It's important to remember that building this artificial meaning is only part of the way to live that we are outlining. To be explicit: part of being happy is satisfying the remembered self. This remembered self needs to work on projects that the self finds meaningful. Since there is no true meaning, artificial meaning must be created to guide work so that it is satisfying to that individual. This process says nothing about the lived self, which is a huge component of the remembered self, and thus, happiness. For example, one can imagine a man who realizes that programming computers to find patterns in large data sets is something satisfying and meaningful to him. On a particular night, he has a burning desire to watch the film "Lawrence of Arabia". He has a choice between watching the film or completing a project (although there is no deadline, and he has done satisfactory work for the day anyway). The fool says that the man should skip the movie and keep working on his programs, since the programming is his meaning. The wise man realizes that satisfying the lived self is vitally important, and chooses to watch the movie. Constructing artificial meaning is not an excuse to dedicate your life to solely satisfying that meaning; it is only there to guide your remembered self, and ensure the work you do is satisfying. The primary goal is always happiness.

We still have not answered the first question of this entry. We will do so in the future. In the next entry, we will start the process of constructing artificial meaning. In doing so, we will find that it is vitally important to assert our freedom in the face of society. Without recognizing how radically free you truly are, it is all too likely that the currents of society will define your own meaning. If this happens, it won't truly be your own meaning, and thus is unfulfilling.

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