In IT we talk about something called a stack, which is basically the set of technologies that a given solution is built upon.
I was just thinking about something similar for meaning. In other words, figuring out what layer, or level, of physical reality we value as authoritative for human meaning in life.
As an example, if you ask people what gives them meaning they can usually only abstract a couple of times:
What gives you meaning? My kids? But you know that’s just hormones and other chemicals in your brain, right? Sure. So why not just take a drug that does the same thing? It wouldn’t be the same?
Ah. But why?
Why wouldn’t it be the same? What are we ultimately claiming is “real” meaning while a pill giving the same feelings (and perhaps even more-so) would be considered artificial.
I think the simple and uncomfortable answer is that one is familiar to us and the other is not. One is “natural” and the other is not. One is native to our bodies and how humans work, and the other is not.
But the universe doesn’t care about such things. The chemicals don’t care about such things. And the receptors in our brains that those chemicals fit into don’t care about such things.
So the question becomes, “Why not simply chart all of our desires and find a way to artificially satisfy them?”
This isn’t a new idea. It’s been explored thousands of times. But it’s good to have on hand when you’re evaluating your own life. It’s good to know where in the stack of human experience that you place value.
Why value one thing more than another? Does a laugh with a friend matter more or less if aided by a few beers? What about some MDMA? What about a happy pill from the future?
Do these things diminish the experiences, and why?
As I said above, the answer seems to simply be that whatever we’re used to is “normal”, and anything beyond that is strange and artificial. And that’s likely to remain the case for a great period of time.
But it’s artificial.
Now, let me try.
I place value on experiences that increase happiness and/or reduce suffering. I like to laugh and cry and get excited and such. Those things feel good because they’re designed to by evolution.
I know that. I know they don’t have intrinsic meaning, and I’m ok with that.
So I know the reason that I enjoy things (for evolution’s benefit), and I know the mechanism that makes it so (chemistry).
I also know what makes chemistry possible (physics), and I know that physics is outside our control (we don’t have free will).
In other words, my stack takes me all the way to the bottom with no sign of meaning.
So when someone asks me what the meaning of life is, I respond by asking many more questions about what they’re asking. Usually they don’t want to talk about it. Not really.
But when they do I tell them that I knowingly sit within an illusion of consciousness, of self, and of personal will. And that I act, in most cases, as if these things are real because they usually seem real to me—especially when I am not paying attention or thinking about how they’re not real.
And further, I use my knowledge that they are an illusion to help shape how I behave towards myself and others, which I also know is an illusion (since I don’t have free will).
When they get confused and say that it’s hopeless I ask a simple question:
Do you have a superior alternative?
They never do. But I await the day when someone does.
So, my stack is a material one that goes all the way down, revealing no sign of meaning. Then, in order to function as the moist robot I am, I come back afterwards and add a false stack on top of the real one.
I add on “pursuit of the well-being of conscious creatures”, and “increasing happiness and reducing suffering”. But I do so knowing that 1) it doesn’t ultimately matter since the things happening are happening despite our wishes, and 2) these rules would only be best if we did have that freedom.
I suppose that’s one interesting takeaway from this.
I am promoting a system of living that is only superior in a world where systems of living mattered. In other words, if nothing I say or teach or learn or transfer to others can ever make a difference because it was either going to happen or not happen despite my “effort” then it doesn’t matter what I say.
It doesn’t matter what I say or what I do. My life project (this site), my goal of reading and understanding as much as possible so as to distill it and share it with others. All that. None of it matters.
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Of course I knew that already, but put in this way it seems all the more peculiar. If you don’t believe in free will and you have two people, one wants to produce suffering and reduce happiness, and the other wants to increase happiness and produce suffering, what is the true difference between them?
In a world without free will there is none.
So why do I personally care if someone is one of these rather than the other?
Because I live in the illusion, and I am not capable of maintaining two minds simultaneously. I see from these eyes. I feel my own consciousness. I am this thing. I cannot stop being it simply because I see it as illusory and devoid of meaning.
Everything that I am is made of shadow and trickery.
But I like ice cream. And my girl. And music. And laughter. And life.
I like life. Life is extraordinary.
So I build an ideal system that would be ideal in a world where it mattered. I do this because I know not what else to do.
I do this because no matter how advanced we are, our meaning stack has to stop eventually at our experiences. We can use truth (outside our experience) to shape that experience to some degree (or at least it will seem so to us), but it too is illusory since we cannot actually affect outcomes.
But that’s ok, because it’s all we have.
I suppose what we’re left with is trying to experience as much joy and as little pain as possible in this life. Even if it’s illusory. Even if it lacks intrinsic meaning.
The problem is that even that describes a path. A goal. A way to improve things.
But since we cannot affect outcomes we cannot pursue such goals.
So we’re really just bystanders. Bystanders with the illusion of control. Bystanders who cannot help but try to steer away from the deer in the road to avoid hitting it.
We can’t help but try to make things better, even those of us who know we cannot.
My stack, alas, is a virtual one. It is illusion based on illusion.
But it’s the best I have.
Who’s got a better one?