Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Meaning of Life

I have procrastinated for too long, but now let me take up the question raised in my previous post: what is the meaning of life?

For those who are interested, a good overview of the philosophical and scientific inquiries into this question can be found at Wikipedia.

It seems to me that there is only one answer to this question from the point of view of what I will call “evolutionary philosophy”, defined as the application of evolutionary theory to persistent philosophical questions. But let me develop the argument.

We can’t do better than to start with Aristotle, who believed “all knowledge and every pursuit aims at some good”, and that the “highest good” was what he called “eudaimonia”.

Eudaimonia was originally translated from the Greek as “happiness”, but in recent years it has been recognised that the English term “happiness” refers to the subjective state of mind of an individual, and is necessarily fleeting, whereas Aristotle’s intention was to describe something more objective and therefore lasting. For this reason, a more accepted translation has come to be the word “flourishing”.

When we speak of “a flourishing business” or of “blackberries flourishing on the slope”, we are not exactly speaking of happiness, but of a state of doing well or even thriving, growing, and reproducing the means of success. Isn’t it the goal of us all to flourish?

In defining the term “eudaimonia”, we encounter the tension between the individual and the collective, for what makes an individual happy is subjective and individualistic, whereas flourishing is externally defined and thus is in some sense objective (or rather “intersubjective”). Defining “eudaimonia” as simple happiness gives it quite a different meaning to that intended by Aristotle, for if the goal of life is no more than a purely subjective and individual state of pleasure and personal satisfaction, a neglect of social well-being will result. Those who are purely concerned with personal pleasure and self-interest to the neglect or even detriment of the common interest are referred to as anti-social, as psychopaths or sociopaths, and in some jurisdictions are regarded as suffering from a dangerous mental disorder.

Humans typically don’t only pursue simple happiness, for personal happiness is fleeting. Ordinary human beings seem to encounter happiness mainly as a by-product of their pursuit of loftier goals. And the phrase “loftier goals” is generally understood to refer to goals which serve the collective interest.

So what are these greater goals, or so-called “higher callings”? Examine them at all closely, and they turn out to be goals that serve the cause of human flourishing, of the flourishing of the arts, of culture, of commerce, of children, families, and communities, of knowledge and science, of humanitarianism and charity, of humanity itself.

We can say without much need for evidence beyond common experience that every living thing seeks not simple happiness, but eudaimonia, in the Aristotelian sense of “flourishing”. And such flourishing is not confined to individuals of any species, but is proper to the species itself. In other words, it is at the level of the species that the term “flourishing” takes on its greatest meaning - individuals strive for the flourishing not only of their mortal selves but primarily for the flourishing of their species.

From the point of view of evolutionary theory, surely the goal of every species is to flourish on this earth, to achieve what Aristotle described as “eudaimonia”.

Why should this be so? For the simple reason that those species who did not seek to flourish died out – and those that were most successful - those that flourished - passed on their innate desire for eudaimonia through their DNA.

As I will argue in future posts, accepting this apparently obvious drive to flourish as the fundamental motivation of human existence has profound implications for our interpretation of traditional philosophy and religion.