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What is the Meaning of Life and Are We Conscious?
My takes on some very meta-questions and a possible answer for people finding meaning or suffering nihilistic dread.
What is the meaning of life? A young man inquires of the Psychiatrist. For a full fortnight, he has laid on his bed, floundering in a lengthy episode of depression with no sign of an end. His arms twitched, but he could not find the strength to get up from bed. Why should he get up anyhow? What purpose would that serve? The young man is drowning in existential dread. So, one day, he went to the Psychiatrist, hoping to acquire an antidote to the despairing poison of nihilism.
The Psychiatrist: I’ve seen a patient like you, and I know the right antidote for your disease, but first you must answer me a few question.
Young Man: God bless! Ask away.
The Psychiatrist: By what do you mean “meaning of life”?
Young Man: Oh, by “meaning of life” I just mean some kind of “purpose in life…”
The Psychiatrist interrupted: Purpose? The word “purpose” has many connotations. For one, a “purpose” is usually given to you by someone, like a “mission” or a “task” to be completed by you. If you wish to know your “purpose in life”, you ought to first identify for me a person or entity with the authority to bestow such a “purpose” upon you.
Young Man: Okay okay, maybe “purpose” isn’t a great word.
The Psychiatrist: Then, my question remains. By what do you mean “meaning of life”?
Young Man: I suppose it just means something in this universe that is an end in of itself, instead of a means to an end.
The Psychiatrist: You speak in opaque language. What do you mean by “end in of itself”? Please define it for me.
Young Man: It just means what it means! Why can’t you just prescribe the antidote for me?
The Psychiatrist: How is it possible for me to prescribe an antidote for you, without understanding precisely the details of your disease?
Young Man: Okay, fine. I would define “an end” as something with intrinsic value in the universe. A thing that has intrinsic value is a thing that is valuable in of itself. “A means” on the other hand, is something with instrumental values. A matter that has instrumental value is a matter that is valuable because it can be used to obtain another thing with intrinsic value either directly or indirectly. I surely hope this is precise enough a definition for you to prescribe my antidote?
The Psychiatrist: That surely seems precise!
Young Man: So, can you prescribe an antidote to my disease for me?
The Psychiatrist: Not so fast.
Young Man: What else do you want from me?
The Psychiatrist: I’m still confused.
Young Man: Well, let me explain again. There’re two types of values in the universe: intrinsic value and instrumental value. A thing with intrinsic value is a thing that is sought for as an end in of itself. A thing with instrumental value is a thing that is sought for as an intermediatary step to obtain another thing.
The Psychiatrist: That makes more sense, could you give an example.
Young Man: You don’t seem terribly helpful, nor informed about what you are dealing with…
The Psychiatrist: Trust me, I know what I’m doing. Plus, you probably came to me as a last resort, after seeking for help from all other places already.
Young Man: That is unfortunately true.
The Psychiatrist: So, could you provide an example of something with an “intrinsic value”?
Young Man: Okay, fine. For example, one could say, “happiness has intrinsic value.” Then, I want happiness for the sake of happiness. In this case, watching movies has “instrumental value.” I want to watch movies because it brings me happiness not because I want to stare at a projector screen for two hours.
The Psychiatrist: I see, that clears up a lot of confusions. So, you believe “happiness has intrinsic value”?
Young Man: NOO! I was just giving you an example. In fact, the reason I’m here is because I want to know what, if anything in the universe has intrinsic value.
The Psychiatrist: So, you don’t believe that happiness has intrinsic value?
Young Man: No I don’t.
The Psychiatrist: Why is that?
Young Man: Well, isn’t happiness just a bunch of hormones like oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin and what not floating around in your brain?
The Psychiatrist: I guess that’s a crude way to put it.
Young Man: So, if I believed that happiness has intrinsic value, which I do not, then the most obvious thing for me to do is to take a bunch of drugs that produce those chemicals in my brain, right?
The Psychiatrist: It surely seems so.
Young Man: Well, it then validates my point. Happiness cannot be The Thing with instrinsic value.
The Psychiatrist: Why does it validate your point?
Young Man: Seriously!! I mean, can’t you see. It feels absurd. If I believe that happiness has intrinsic value, then I should therefore take a bunch of drugs. That feels wrong doesn’t it?
The Psychiatrist: “feels absurd,” “feels wrong,” okay I will note that down.
Young Man: Why are you noting it down?
The Psychiatrist: Oh, never mind. Let’s return to the original question, “what, if anything has intrinsic value in the universe?”
Young Man: I don’t know, I was meaning to ask you.
The Psychiatrist: Right. Right. Almost forgot about that. I will answer your question and offer you an antidote to your disease, but before that…
Young Man: Now what?
The Psychiatrist: I need to ask you another question.
Young Man: …
The Psychiatrist: By what do you mean “value”?
Young Man: Oh God. “Value” is just something that is meaningful.
The Psychiatrist: But you defined “meaning in life” using the word “value.” You surely cannot circle back and define “value” using the word “meaningful”?
Young Man: Umm, that is a fair point. Let me think of another definition of the word “value.” … “Value” is just goodness. Something that has value is just something that is broadly good.
The Psychiatrist: I see, but perhaps you could already anticipate my next question. Can you define “goodness” or “good” for me?
Young Man: I don’t think I can do that.
The Psychiatrist: Why not?
Young Man: Because whenever I define a word using another word, you would just pursue me and ask me to provide a definition of that word.
The Psychiatrist: Indeed I would.
Young Man: Well, there are only that many words in the dictionary. If I kept defining a word using another word, eventually I would run into circular definitions.
The Psychiatrist: Indeed you would.
Young Man: So, I have to start somewhere. Some words must have a definition that is understood and not dependent on other words.
The Psychiatrist: Indeed you would need to.
Young Man: So, I’m going to stop at the word “good.”
The Psychiatrist: Then, what is the definition of the word “good”?
Young Man: It has no definition! As I said, I would have to start somewh…
The Psychiatrist interrupted: Then what gives the word “good” its meaning?
Young Man: Human intuition. “Good” is something you feel. If you cannot feel what is “good,” you are certainly not a human.
The Psychiatrist: Indeed that seems true.
Young Man: Now, this is all fun and dandy. It’s a very nice trap of word-play you set me up for. But I’m still stuck with my question, what is the meaning of life? You still haven’t done anything to answer that question for me!
The Psychiatrist: Let me rephrase your question more precisely. You want to know what, if there is anything in this universe that is broadly good in of itself?
Young Man: Okay, fine. I wish to know what, if there is anything in this universe that is broadly good in of itself. Now, what’s your answer for me and your antidote to my disease?
The Psychiatrist: I can’t possibly answer that question for you.
Young Man: Why not?
The Psychiatrist: As you said it yourself, “good” is whatever feels good to you. It is your intuition.
Young Man: Right.
The Psychiatrist: And I am not you. I don’t know what feels good to you. I don’t possess the same intuitions about the concept of “good” as you do.
Young Man: Umm, I think I’m beginning to see your point…
The Psychiatrist: So, I can’t possibly answer the question for you. I don’t know what in this universe feels or seems to be broadly good to you.
Young Man: I see. So, you are saying, there is no objective answer to the question, What is the meaning of life?
The Psychiatrist: Of course not. “Meaning of life” is a human construct. Being a human construct, it is based on our individually different biological and cultural instincts. If the subject of the question itself is defined differently for different people, there is surely no universal answer to the question.
Young Man: Interesting point, but I’m still stuck with my question, What is the meaning of my life? And I am deeply troubled by it.
The Psychiatrist: Why are you troubled by it?
Young Man: I cannot find an answer to the question.
The Psychiatrist: Here’s an answer. The meaning of your life is to be happy.
Young Man: Happiness certainly feels meaningful, but that is not a right answer.
The Psychiatrist: Why is it not a right answer?
Young Man: Well, as I explained, if I believed that the meaning of my life is to be happy, that logically leads me to the conclusion that I should take a lot of drugs to increase the oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin levels in my brain.
The Psychiatrist: Right.
Young Man: And that is wrong.
The Psychiatrist: Why is that wrong?
Young Man: Taking drugs to mess with my brain chemistry is wrong! What do you mean? It feels wrong.
The Psychiatrist: Curious that you used the word “feel” here. I wonder where that “feeling” comes from. Isn’t this feeling of “taking drug is bad” another one of your human intuitions? Isn’t it just another result of your cultural and biological instincts?
Young Man: Umm, interesting. That sounds right.
The Psychiatrist: So, if I understand you correctly, you feel that “happiness” is a meaningful and good thing. However, “happiness” is logically linked to “taking drugs to mess with your brain chemistry” which feels wrong. So, you conclude that “happiness” cannot be meaningful or good.
Young Man: That sounds about right, although the way you phrased it makes it sounds a little bit weird.
The Psychiatrist: As if your feelings are logically at odds with each other? You think happiness is meaningful but, at the same time, believe that happiness is not meaningful based on your logical deductions?
Young Man: Yeah, exactly. That is unsettling.
The Psychiatrist: What is so unsettling about it? You can’t expect human intuitions to be 100% logically consistent right? After all, they are just cultural and biological instincts obtained through numerous years of evolution.
Young Man: I see your point. I guess it does make sense that human intuitions or feelings are not always logically consistent.
The Psychiatrist: If human feelings and intuitions are not always logically consistent, and questions like “what is the meaning of life” is inherently based upon these feelings and intuitions, why are you so insistent on using logic and reasoning to answer these sorts of questions?
Young Man: Are you saying that I should not reason about “what is the meaning of life,” but instead should rely on my feelings to determine what is the meaning of life?
The Psychiatrist: Well, since the subject of your question, “meaning of life”, is a concept whose definition is wholely dependent upon your own feelings and intuitions, is it not natural to answer the question, “what is the meaning of life,” primarily based on your feelings and intuitions?
Young Man: That is a very intriguing perspective. So, what is the meaning of my life…
The Psychiatrist: Well, what do you feel is meaningful in life?
Young Man: I feel that it’s quite meaningful for me that I’m happy and the people I care about are happy.
The Psychiatrist: There’s your answer then. Now go back home and take some rest. Don’t give it too much thoughts. Once you start reasoning about why you should care about being happy, your logics will inevitably lead you into contradictory scenarios, where your goal of “being happy” conflicts with other social and biological instincts you have.
Young Man: So, what should I do in those contradictory scenarios? Should I follow my reasoning or my intuitions?
The Psychiatrist: What is your reasoning based upon?
Young Man: My intuitions.
The Psychiatrist: So, should you follow your intuitions or the logical consequences of some of your other intuitions?
Young Man: I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking you!
The Psychiatrist: You should follow your intuitions of course. Human intuitions are not always logical, so logic is not necessarily the best tool for answering questions whose subjects are human constructs, such as the “meaning of life,” because those human constructs are defined purely based on your intuitions. To put it more simply, logic and human intuitions are, at the most basic level, irrelevant. Human constructs are based upon human intuitions, so to answer questions about human constructs, we should value intuitions over logic.
Young Man: That is very helpful.
Young Man: I have one final question. I recently got very troubled by the seemingly deterministic nature of the universe.
The Psychiatrist: Okay, how so?
Young Man: You see, there’re these physicist going around the town and yelling that the universe it more or less deterministic. They say that they can predict what will happen next if they know the position and velocity of every atom in the universe in this current moment.
The Psychiatrist: I’ve heard about those people. Why does it trouble you?
Young Man: It makes me question, Is consciousness real? Are we even conscious beings.
The Psychiatrist: Define “consciousness” for me.
Young Man: Okay, I see where you are leading this conversation. I don’t want to dive down to that rabbit hole again.
The Psychiatrist: Very well then, just answer me this question, Is consciousness a human construct?
Young Man: That seems to be the case, as far as we know.
The Psychiatrist: So, is there any point in reasoning about whether or not we are conscious beings?
Young Man: Based on what you said earlier, no.
The Psychiatrist: Very well then. Do you feel like you are conscious?
Young Man: I certainly feel like I’m conscious. Okay, I see your point. My heart now feels relieved.
The Psychiatrist: Great! Feel free to return the next time you have an existential breakdown.