Meaning is an Illusion
[ Published: Dec 26, 2008 ]
A and B are exactly the same shade of gray.
This essay is about the meaning of life, and how realizing there is none is the beginning rather than the end. If you’re a smart and/or educated person the beginning will be familiar. Stick with it.
The Basic Argument
Meaning << Emotion << Chemistry << Physics
The “meaning” of life comes purely from emotional experience, which is chemically based. We know that emotion, and even spiritual experiences, are chemical in nature. It is already possible, using current science, to use drugs and/or direct manipulation of the brain in order to induce “spiritual” experiences.
Of course, it’s possible that these modifications simply make us receptive to signals from an actual spirit world, but I find that possibility remote enough to be dismissed with little discussion. This is the same way I dismiss the possibility that a “floor demon” used telekinesis to pull a cup of coffee to its bosom when I accidently let it slip from my grasp and it falls to the ground. In short, when there’s a transparent, scientific explanation for something there’s little reason to buy into another one that requires the supernatural.
My assertion is that all goals and aspirations, regardless of how lofty or “selfless” they may be, are little more than ultimately equal illusions based in biology, which is based in chemistry, which is based in physics.
In short, meaning is contrived by humans as an explanation for why we do what we do. We build this illusion because the alternative is too unbearable.
All of my goals, and all anyone else’s goals I’ve ever encountered in person or via extended experience, are based on emotions. Let’s take me for example, since I can speak to that authoritatively. Speaking very honestly, here are the primary things I desire in life (not necessarily in order):
To feel in control of my life and my destiny
To be respected by those around me, both at work and away from it
To have love and romance with one woman, but be sought by others
To be knowledgeable and wise enough to understand the world
To use said knowledge to help improve the lives of others
To share beautiful experiences with smart, interesting people
The first ones are pretty standard, and most agree they have these to some degree. The latter ones are generally considered “higher” goals, reserved for those who are more selfless in nature.
But they aren’t.
We’ve all heard the concept of altruism being selfish because it brings pleasure to the person doing the giving. Well, this is a model that explains that observation. Just as the desire to be powerful is natural and emotion-based, so is the desire to help others. In both cases the result is a chemical squirt of pleasure into the brain of the person who accomplishes their goal.
The only difference in selfish and selfless desires is whether the outcome of the desire is positive for others in addition to you, not whether or not it’s positive for you at all. Desires are always for you. Even when you desperately want to sacrifice yourself for someone you love you are still doing so because not doing so would cause you even more pain. This is not a selfless act; it’s the result of being compelled to do something-just like being compelled to seek food, shelter, or a mate.
Animals have desires too. They desire to control their territory and kill competitors, to mate, to reproduce, etc. Many animals even like to masturbate, and mourn the loss of loved ones. Our desires are no different, really; we’ve just conned ourselves into believing they are through elaborate self-deception.
As an example, go and ask the average parent why he or she had kids. You’ll get the same answer as if you asked an ape why it threw poop at someone. “Um, because you’re supposed to?” And if you’re lucky and get a “higher” thinker he/she will respond that kids give them a strong feeling of accomplishment, or even that they provide a way to live after they’re dead. In all cases it’s for the parent’s benefit.
But if you think about it there’s really no other option. Unborn kids care very little about the fact that they aren’t born. People have children for themselves, not for their unborn children. People have children because chemicals tell them to, which manifests as emotion, i.e. “I just really want children…” Yes, of course you do.
And we call this our identity?
Higher vs. Lower Goals
So let’s be more forward with this. I believe that all human goals–whether they are base and overtly selfish (to have enough money to be able to have sex whenever a person wants to), or are higher-order such as (I want to help Africa, even if it means my career…)–are fundamentally the same. They are all chemically-based and offer chemical rewards.
The desires of a 45-year-old accountant with a paid off house, a beautiful wife, two children, and a healthy 401K are no different than the desires of a 17-year-old drug dealer who still lives at home and is trying to get his ex-girlfriend back.
Let’s evaluate the desires:
Be a good father
Be respected at work and at home
Make the wife happy
Get the next promotion
Keep bad guys away from his family (he votes Republican)
Get his kids in good colleges
Get that summer home
Make enough to get my own place
Get a nicer car so I can impress my ex
Get a gun so people will know not to mess with me
Get some nicer clothes
Go to the gym more so I’ll be more attractive/menacing
Ok, so now for the real fun. Let’s do a gopher (yeah, a real gopher):
Get more sticks for a better house
Find more food
Attract that female
Protect the babies
Get more sticks for…
Now let’s do a Buddhist Monk.
Abandon meaningless connections to the material
Learn to let go of a sense of self
Focus on the immediate moment, not before, not after
What do all these things have in common? They all result in the same thing if they are attained.
That’s the sound of pleasurable chemicals being injected into your brain. It’s pretty much the same chemicals for the banker, the drug dealer, and the monk. And it’s being received by pretty much the same hardware within the brain. That squirt is the source of happiness.
Everything else, e.g. spirituality, meaning, purpose, etc., is added to the mix after the fact. Animals don’t have meaning in their lives because they aren’t complex enough to create it as an explanation for what they do. We are, therefore we have it.
I’ve written before about my belief that free will does not exist. Interestingly enough, the concepts of “meaning” and “free will” are identical in one crucial sense: neither of them really exist, yet we desperately need them in order to maintain a healthy society.
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So What Do We Do With This Knowledge?
Once you are awake, and you realize that all of your desires and pleasures ultimately reduce to chemical interactions, there are a few different ways you can go.
Realize how depressing that is and immediately cast it from your mind and go on pretending that meaning is real. Go back to sleep, essentially.
Realize how central emotion is and abandon all “higher” aspirations. Dedicate your life to seeking pleasure, since it’s the only source of meaning anyway.
Maintain dual awareness. Realize that this is an illusion, but participate in it for your own sanity. Pursue a path in life that allows more people to experience happiness, and fewer people to experience suffering.
I’ve chosen three. I’ve chosen with meaning, just as I have with free will, to accept that it doesn’t really exist, but to operate as if it does because there is no practical alternative given my limitations as a human being (or as a society).
An interesting question rises to the surface here: how many other people who are asleep have simply chosen option one?
The most staggering realization that comes from this knowledge is that the ignorant and deluded in life are fundamentally no different than I am. The fact that I’m awake doesn’t change the fact that I derive meaning from chemicals. So when I’m in an elevator full of Bush-supporting Christians, and I’m looking down at them for being so foolish, I’m really not much different.
Yes, I’m aware of my own limitations, but this doesn’t make them go away. I received pleasure from realizing how superior I was, right? Like knowing I’m in on a secret that they don’t get. Well, how different is that from them receiving pleasure in church on Sunday? Or from eating a nice bowl of ice cream. It’s no different.
A squirt is a squirt. It’s all the same.
I can tell you that this realization gives me a different outlook on the religious. Religion and spirituality is the ultimate manifestation of the illusion because they create alternate worlds where meaning comes from. Again, I wonder how many have done so because they’ve seen through the illusion, and it was too much to bear.
Another interesting point is that being a non-spiritual atheist who believes in intrinsic meaning is even more absurd than being religious. At least a religious person has a backing to their claim–even if it’s a false one; an atheist who believes in intrinsic meaning has no such support. The only atheists with any solid ground to stand on in terms of meaning are those who create it within the context of the illusion.
And when the CEO gets in the elevator with us, and then a monk on the next floor, the same sorts of things are going on in each of our heads. I say the monk doesn’t get it because he’s abandoned too much that is pleasurable in the this material world. The CEO doesn’t think any of us get it because we don’t have two vacation homes and a yacht. And the Christian looks down at us because they know that Jesus is the answer.
We’re all subscribed to our own little fantasies, and they all result in squirts of pleasure. We like knowing that we’re part of a small group that “gets it”.
Still, I say I’m better of because I get that none of it’s real, which brings me to my next point.
There are only two types of people: those who know they are participating in an illusion, and those who still believe in intrinsic meaning. These are the two fundamental classifications of animal. Animals and 99% of the world are on one side, and people who are awake are on the other.
The question of “why?” is simple: we are chemical machines being driven by evolution. We desire power and attractiveness and happiness all because those who achieve those things are successful at propagating themselves. Perhaps meaning itself is a meme “employed” by evolution to coax us into doing its bidding. It’s a method of obscuring the tedium of day-to-day life. Meaning is a necessary illusion.
So the question isn’t whether you can shed your worldly, selfish desires. You can’t. No matter what you desire, regardless of how selfless it is, fulfilling it will still result in happiness for yourself. That’s the nature of an animal, and that’s what makes them your desires. The real question is whether or not you can evolve your goals into being helpful to others while they fulfill you as well.
This is morality in this new world of awareness. Increasing happiness and reducing suffering isn’t something to do for another world; it’s something to do just because we know what both feel like, and we should try and make others feel happiness just as we would like to.
This is also the definition of an advanced society. An advanced society is one that works from within the illusion and strives to attain linkage between the world’s happiness and suffering. In other words, when one person suffers the world suffers, and when people are happy the world is happy.
Awareness of the illusion also makes the concept of virtual worlds quite a bit more interesting. Once you embrace this illusion it becomes significantly less weird to seek pleasure from within alternate worlds of fantasy. Those other worlds are ultimately achieving for us the same thing as we get in the “real” world, i.e. a squirt. What’s the fundamental difference in where that squirt came from?
In summary, I don’t see this awareness as completely depressing, which I know will be the main complaint (and hence the reason to reject it). But instead of seeing this as evidence of a complete lack of meaning in our lives, let’s make the distinction between intrinsic meaning and meaning we can make for ourselves. Let’s use it to create our own.