Monthly Archives: December 2014

The meaning of life

Much of my blogging and thinking in 2013 was focussed on workplace and specific economic issues. These are still important to me, but quite often I struggled to justify answers to questions. I lacked satisfactory answers to some of the bigger questions – I lacked the framework that I needed to tackle the specific questions. For example, why should we even be at work in the first place?

So in 2014 I’ve been doing some deeper thinking about the world and our place and purpose in it. Essentially I’m trying to come up with some rules that are useful, that are specific enough to actually improve my decisions and views on more specific questions (so it can’t just be common sense or things that go without saying). And I want to minimise the risk of my rules leading to bad outcomes or needing fundamental changing (though as always, I reserve the right to change my views if I feel the need).

I know it is scientifically and philosophically fashionable to try and tackle these sorts of questions with a blank slate – without making prior assumptions. I’ve tried that approach before without reaching any conclusions. So this time I thought I’d start from where I already was – and at least try to acknowledge the preconceptions that would influence my conclusions.

Firstly, I didn’t want to reach a conclusion that would be socially isolating. I suppose had I come to some socially unacceptable conclusion with absolute certainty, I would have had to believe it, but where there is doubt, I’d prefer to be in good company.

Next, I didn’t want to reach a view that seemed either irrational or wrong in my heart. I know that human knowledge and instinct is limited, and often flawed. It is often evolutionarily optimised or a product of values that we’ve been taught, rather than anything that is objectively proven to be right. But I don’t think I could live a life, no matter how well reasoned or right it felt, that I couldn’t justify in both my head and my heart.

Finally, my prior beliefs and values have served me pretty well (at least the ones I hadn’t already thrown out!). So I had a preference for conclusions that were consistent with those prior beliefs. For example, with my Christian faith, I’d need pretty good evidence of it being untrue or inherently harmful in order to give it up.

Taking all that into account, I believe I’ve ended up somewhere that I’m happy with. I’m comfortable that the rules I come up with are very much a product of my previously mentioned criteria and what I was looking for, that they aren’t absolute or completely objective.

This doesn’t mean I’m a moral relativist. I do believe some outcomes are better than others. And I do believe there is such thing as ultimate truth (I just don’t fully know what it is, and don’t think there’s much point putting life on hold to try and find it). It does mean that when I’m asking people to do things or saying what I want, it shouldn’t be a moral judgement. And it should be tempered by doubt – I might be wrong about things.

Congratulations if you’ve made it this far. You’re now ready to hear what I currently believe the purpose of life is: to live, to love, and to make the world a better place.  Sorry, they may not be completely remarkable, and yes, plenty of people do live by these ideals every day.   But I also know plenty of times when I and others suffer from prioritising lesser goals above these (for example, status or security), so do genuinely believe they are worth keeping firmly in mind.

Finally, I know that these rules still leave a lot of open questions – it isn’t always obvious what the living, loving and world improving decision is in every specific situation – but at least they gives us a framework to ask those other questions.

Ideology vs forming and reforming beliefs

I haven’t published as many posts as usual over the past couple of months. You’ll be glad to know that it isn’t because I’ve stopped thinking – I have been thinking a lot, and reading, but my thoughts have been all over the place – nothing concrete enough to put down on paper. (And I suppose the fact that I’ve been busy with concerts, plays, work, and Christmas parties, not to mention a holiday, probably hasn’t helped.)

But today I’ve got a post that I want to write!

A couple of months ago, on Facebook, a few of my friends were debating the biggest cause of evil. After the usual suspects of money and religion had been raised, someone suggested ideology as the deeper problem.

Since then, I’ve been wrestling (mentally) with the concept of ideology, and fundamentalism. Words like these are both so historically loaded, that I’m inclined to describe the problem as: following any belief or rule more strictly than we should.

I can understand this temptation: to decide on your rules and beliefs (the clearer and less ambiguous the better), and commit to never wavering from them. This satisfies our very human craving to understand the world, to put things and people in their place. If others around you follow the same beliefs, it is really comforting. This works religion, in politics and economics, and in plenty of other areas in life.

But I don’t believe any of the rules and models of the world that people have come up with so far are the complete, unambiguous picture. And where there are gaps between the our rules and beliefs, and what we should do, we’ll cause harm (and potentially massive harm).

Some people are wary of this, and do their best to live without rules and assumptions. This is really difficult. Firstly, trying to work out what to do in every situation without having rules to go by is very unproductive in the majority of cases. Secondly, our society and communities are built around common understanding and rules. Those that don’t sign up to these have a hard time getting along. Thirdly, I think our brains have evolved to naturally spot patterns and form expectations – it is unnatural and takes significant effort to fight this urge. To often, those that try to live without rules end up being just as rigidly idealistic and judgemental as everyone else (after all – to not have rules is just another rule!).

Thankfully, I think most people know deep down that life is a constant struggle of coming up with beliefs and rules, and adjusting them as we go. We’re not perfect at this. Sometimes we are too slow to spot the patterns, and we miss opportunities to improve our world. Sometimes we are too quick to change our mind, from one fad to another, throwing out beliefs and rules that had real value. And sometimes we cling onto our beliefs and rules too long, and in circumstances that they don’t apply.

I grapple with this struggle in most aspects of my life. My job involves building models and systems to automate the analysis and calculations that commodities traders do, incorporating all sorts of assumptions, many of which we’re liable to one day regret. My social life incorporates all sorts of judgements about what my friends are thinking and feeling, and how best to interact and relate to them. My political views are built on assumptions about human nature: what people want and what they will do in different circumstances. And I spend time trying to understand how I should think about the world and act through the lens of my religious beliefs.

Over time, I’ve come to appreciate a few things about this exercise of forming and reforming beliefs and rules.

I’ve learned to accept my need for rules and beliefs, in order to go about my daily life. They don’t have to be perfect for me to find them useful. And I’m allowed to form them and break them and change them. And if that’s true for me, I have to accept that it is true for everyone else.

Stepping outside your beliefs is difficult. It requires a lot of brain acrobatics to simultaneously hold a belief, and think about the what might be the case if the belief was not true. But it is crucial to do this occasionally, otherwise you’ll be stuck applying your beliefs and rules where they’re harmful.

It helps to come up with a higher goal that you can use when assessing your beliefs and rules (trying to minimise the risk that that goal is flawed). For example, I have a higher goal to live life in a genuinely loving manner (I’m not claiming to always, or even mostly achieve this goal!). That’s pretty vague, hence the need for all my working rules and beliefs. But, if I ever find that following one of my other rules or beliefs conflicts my desire to life life in a loving manner, I know I need to break that other rule.

Most of all, I’ve learned to enjoy the struggle. I’m not going to get it right, and I don’t need to. As long as I try, I’ll be better off than sticking to fixed beliefs and rules and ignoring the harm, and maybe even evil, that it causes.