How can life have meaning in a mechanical universe?

Discussion in 'General Philosophy' started by Magical Realist, Mar 2, 2013.

  1. spidergoat pubic diorama Valued Senior Member

    Yeah, and you can find it by just leading a humble life and doing your job... or picking cherries. There is nowhere the Tao isn't. I'm not nihilistic in that I think nothing has meaning. I've been explaining that one needs a context for anything to make sense, a frame of reference, otherwise it's meaningless.
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  3. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

    Oh I see. So first you're like "there is no objective meaning to life".."no universal or cosmic meaning"..and NOW suddenly you're a Taoist. I don't think you know what you are frankly. Welcome to the quest for meaning.
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  5. spidergoat pubic diorama Valued Senior Member

    I've been a Taoist for decades. But that doesn't mean anything.

    What if life is the opposite of meaningful? What if it's just a horrible, painful accident?
    Last edited: Mar 7, 2013
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  7. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

    What if what if..If that's what you've concluded go with it. You're a free thinking human being. Personally I don't live my life around "what ifs".

    “Stop thinking, and end your problems.
    What difference between yes and no?
    What difference between success and failure?
    Must you value what others value,
    avoid what others avoid?
    How ridiculous!

    Other people are excited,
    as though they were at a parade.
    I alone don't care,
    I alone am expressionless,
    like an infant before it can smile.

    Other people have what they need;
    I alone possess nothing.
    I alone drift about,
    like someone without a home.
    I am like an idiot, my mind is so empty.

    Other people are bright;
    I alone am dark.
    Other people are sharp;
    I alone am dull.
    Other people have purpose;
    I alone don't know.
    I drift like a wave on the ocean,
    I blow as aimless as the wind.

    I am different from ordinary people.
    I drink from the Great Mother's breasts.”
    ― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
  8. spidergoat pubic diorama Valued Senior Member

    Really? "What if life has some cosmic meaning and we just haven't discovered it yet?" That's not you?
  9. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

    I'd certainly LIKE to think that it's that simple. Just live each day in the moment, being with whatever arises like a child greeting every scene with wide-eyed wonder. The unbearable lightness of being. The beautiful superficiality of sense and image. No thoughts about what it's all about. But then you suffer too. You see the innocent perish and the vile flourish. And you can't help but wonder is this really IT? Are we really no better than the animals surviving in the wilderness? It's hard to go back after that. A hole has opened inside up you that wants to be filled. If there was no suffering we COULD live meaninglessly. But few us get off that unscathed.
  10. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

    Just find your own meaning and quit trying to attack people. Or maybe that IS your meaning. I don't know..Whatever gets you off dude..
  11. spidergoat pubic diorama Valued Senior Member

    That wasn't an attack my friend. My overall argument is that universal meaning only makes sense within the context of a god, and since there is no evidence for god, there is most likely no universal meaning to life. It's just a thing that happens sometimes to matter.
    Last edited: Mar 7, 2013
  12. Yazata Valued Senior Member

    That's the thing... I don't really see a whole lot of distinction between 'God' on one hand, and 'ultimate meaning in the cosmos' on the other. They both seem to me to refer to pretty much the same idea, except that the former is sometimes imagined in a more personal way. In both cases, the seeker is looking for some giant cosmic scale... something... that gives direction to their life and ensures that everything's going to be worthwhile.

    That's why I've said before that despite all the atheism and anti-religious sentiment that you wear on your sleeve, you seem to me to be perhaps the most deeply religious person on any of these boards. Religious in a good way. You're the most passionate seeker, the person least willing to take the easy way out by merely believing whatever everyone else around you believes. You're searching for the real deal. I definitely don't intend to insult you by saying that, because I respect it. I see a little of myself in you, perhaps.

    Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, depending on how we look at it) I don't really believe that there is any God, or any ultimate meaning in the cosmos. Certainly nothing that would make any real difference to me, down here on the human scale. Even if the universe is headed towards some grand teleological end, I'd still have to learn about it, embrace it somehow, and then incorporate the cosmic motion towards that destination into how I conceive of my own life. At one time I thought that I might find it, but I've come to the point where I don't anticipate it ever happening in my lifetime.

    Which leaves the unrequited desire hanging. Maybe that's one of the things that's attracted me towards Buddhism.

    Anyway, there are certainly plenty of more local goals and purposes to fill up my days. Everything from little pleasures like food to big life purposes like learning and understanding. I'm just not convinced that the cosmos as a whole is striving towards the same sort of ends that I find myself seeking in my own life.
  13. gmilam Valued Senior Member


    No offense, but you appear to be the king of "what if". :bugeye:
  14. Grumpy Curmudgeon of Lucidity Valued Senior Member

    "That about which nothing greater can be conceived."

    A theist sophist once used this as an attribute for god. Instead it is an attribute of the Universe, itself. There is no purpose for it(unless you count making Black Holes), yet it is extremely complex and interesting anyway. There is no purpose to our existence except what we ourselves choose. Philosophy may help you choose wisely(or not)but philosophy is the science we invented to give us purpose, to answer the mysteries, to guide our behavior, to organize our society. It has no secret knowledge handed down from on high(if it claims such)it was invented by men out of whole cloth and cannot be a source of knowledge as to universal purposes. And examining the Universe we find lots of interesting things, many so violent that if we were anywhere near them we would die, but we see no hint that the Universe was designed to house humans, quite the opposite. It certainly would not require an aware, purposeful Universe to wipe us out tomorrow, just a slightly bigger dumb rock like exploded over Russia as a 60 mile "Dinosaur Killer" breezed by below our satellites(also two comets coming in, but one is likely to come near hitting Mars, not Earth). While thinking that a deity has a purpose for you(and therefore will not kill all of us)may be comforting, knowing it's just physics and probability will make you more vigilant and likely to do something about it. All life has one purpose, reproduction to insure the survival of the species, wouldn't doing something about big dumb rocks that have extinguished life almost to extinction several times throughout the history of life on Earth be a purpose in line with that?. We don't need a universal purpose for our existence to have purpose. And the Universe being "mechanical" has no effect on those purposes. At least it follows laws(which we can learn), is very predictable, it behaves consistently and we have proven we can mold it's substance to suit our purposes. You could say that intelligent life is what gives the Universe a purpose(other than creating all those Black Holes, that is), one it did not have until we created it.


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  15. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

    Would you also say that an individual person can have a purposeful life in a purposeless universe?

    If a person is a part of the universe and functions by the same principles as the universe, how would it be possible for the person to have a purposeful life in a purposeless universe?

    But if in that scheme of things, we belong to God, then there's no problem with that purpose being God's and not specifically of our invention.

    This is an issue that would arise if whom we presume to be God, would actually be merely a demigod.


    It follows that if one is part of the universe, then one functions by the same principles as the universe. What precisely those principles are is open to inquiry, although some people have concluded on one extreme or the other (usually with materialistic impersonalist reductionsm on the one hand, and anthropomorphic idealism on the other hand).

    Be that as it may, the idea that one's own purpose and the cosmic purpose are intimately related is based on the idea that one, ie., a human, is part of the universe. This is hardly a controversial idea.

    Arguably, if such a teleological end exists, and you are part of the universe, then you are already working toward that end, inevitably, and don't really have to do anything in particular about it. Ie. simply in "minding your own business", you are working toward that end, there being no need to learn about it or embrace it etc.

    IOW, it seems that the problem may be somewhere else, and that the question may have to be put differently.

    Desires arise and pass away.

    As with many true nature arguments, one usually shoots oneself in the foot with them.

    That is, to give some examples, if we posit that man's true nature is good, we end up with one set of problems (such as why do bad things happen to us, if we're innately good); if we posit that man's true nature is bad, we end up with another set of problems (why bother with anything?); if we posit that the purpose of life is to procreate, then what about those people who don't procreate, are they doomed to live a meaningless life; if we posit that the purpose of life is to learn and understand, then how do we explain the life of those who die as infants, or who never seem to learn and understand ... etc. etc.

    IOW, it tends to happen that the moment we posit that the true nature of something, or that the true purpose of something is such and such, we either posit it as something so vague that it is useless, or limit it in such a way that we end up unhappy with our proposition or its applications and implications.

    Which is why it is pragmatic to put true nature/true purpose arguments aside for the time being. Not because such a true purpose or true nature wouldn't exist, but because we simply don't know them and can only speculate about them. And there are some things which, if we speculate about, are bound to make us go mad, so it's best not to speculate about them.

    Warmly recommend:
    Freedom From Buddha Nature
    What is Wrong with Buddha Nature
  16. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

    There is even a branch of psychology, Logotheraphy, that works out of the idea of the need for meaning.

    Yeah, for a self-styled Aspie, perhaps.

    If one is a robot, perhaps.
  17. Cyperium I'm always me Valued Senior Member

    I think that's a far too simplistic view of it, many people without religious conditioning asks themselves if there is meaning to life in a universal sense. Existential questions have a place in society and aren't cut-off from it in any way. These questions come naturally and doesn't require any outside enforcement. I know for a fact that many atheist friends asks themselves these questions and I have discussed it with them many times.
  18. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

    The source of meaning need not be "gigantic" exactly. Remember, the oracles of science now assure us that the universe poofed out of "nothing" when it was the size of a magic pea. I'm thinking the poofing hasn't really stopped. That the same emergent power that unfolded itself as the universe, and life, and consciousness, and even science, is still thunderously percolating underneath it all as the source of infinite possibility. And we are part of this. We are not just composites of inanimate matter living in self-created illusions of purpose and drama. We are still connected to this unknown source of all possibility.

    Let me ask you: if man survives to evolve another million years, what do you think wouldn't be possible for him? Manipulation of space and time? Interdimensional travel? Quantum computer enhanced brains? The very possibility of an infinite advancement in science and intelligence suggests we DO have a cosmic meaning here. That there IS purpose to our being here that is parallel to and equal to the purpose of our emergent universe.

    Experience has taught me to NOT get caught up in conceptualizing the transcendental too much. "The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao." What is more important is to have a living experience of it's presence in your life. God? The Force? Brahman? The Omega Point? Just more attempts to objectify the essentially UNobjectifiable. When you SEE the miraculousness of everyday events all around, of THIS hot pink sunset, or THIS ancient tree, or THESE radiant stars burning in the depths of cold space, and you realize this all comes from a place that is inside you, you can't help but feel meaningful. Cuz we are part of all this. And in an even more astounding sense, we stand outside of it, making it conscious of itself.

    I don't think you've completely given up looking for it. You and I and CC have been hanging around groups like these for about 14 years now, and we play with possibilities like fiddling with a rubic's cube hoping some solution will just happen. And some solutions HAVE surfaced. But maybe it's more about the creative play of possibilities instead of an answer. Always opening new doors expecting an answer, and then LEAVING them open to whatever may come along.

    Yes..the Buddhists definitely have a grasp of the transcendental. I just get frustrated with the meditation part. I prefer to take their ideas as just one more piece in the big puzzle.

    Many possibilities. The Zen of being in the here and now. Or the gnosis of some final incandescent apotheosis. Each to his own, and each in its own time. Everything's going to be just fine.. I think.
  19. Yazata Valued Senior Member

    From an individual perspective, yes. In other words, individuals can believe that their lives have purpose and experience their lives as being purposeful. A mother might see her purpose in caring for her children. An adolescent might find his purpose in getting laid. A business executive might find purpose in striving to rise to the top. A scientist might find purpose in trying to unlock the secrets of nature. A Buddhist might find purpose in striving for enlightenment.

    That's the 'local' view, in which people find it possible to be satisfied with human-scale purposes. Most secular individuals have little trouble living this way most of the time. (Maybe occasionally at night, when they are laying in bed...they worry. Then they roll over and go to sleep.) Even religious people spend most of their time in this mode.

    If somebody's sense of individual purpose somehow becomes dependent on their ability to grasp onto and ally themselves with what they imagine to be some grand cosmic-scale purpose, and if no such purpose (whether divine or natural) is either believed to exist or to be discoverable by humans, then that individual is apt to experience a certain kind of existential suffering, and is apt to feel as if they are empty, rudderless and cast adrift.

    I think that might be what Magical Realist was referring to. And I suggested that the problem that's causing him his distress might be his inability to satisfy himself with the local purposes in his life. That inability isn't entirely a bad thing. It's also a good thing. He's a natural philosopher, a born seeker, and even after he rejected his childhood Christianity he's still searching with all of his heart for the cosmic answers. I respect that and I identify with it. But perhaps that special kind of personality is prone to experiencing its own special kind of existential suffering.

    Sure, but I don't think that's precisely the point.

    Our seeker who is experiencing existential suffering would already accept that he or she is part of the bigger universe. It's kind of implicit in the "mechanical universe" phrase. Human beings are subject to the laws of physics along with everything else.

    The problem is that the laws of physics aren't perceived as being meaningful. The laws of physics don't provide the seeker with whatever kind of satisfaction that he or she seeks from believing that he or she is one with the universe.

    There's often some kind of poorly defined idea that the whole cosmic process of which we are a part needs to be headed somewhere. (It needs to be teleological.) That somewhere needs to be desirable. (It needs to be eschatological.) And it has to be possible to imagine our own lives as participating in that cosmic goal-directed movement in such a way that its destination will bring closure and completion to our individual human lives, perhaps by returning us to the One. (It has to offer us something that's analogous to salvation.)

    The thing is, while I have no problem at all in imagining myself as part of the universe and subject to the laws of physics, I'm highly doubtful about the rest of it. Even if it's true that the universe has some grand purpose, and even if it's true that the universe's grand purpose will deliver my personal self to wherever it desires to be, I know of no way that I could ever know that down here on the human scale. (That kind of knowledge is way above my pay-grade.) So even if it's true, it still won't make my personal life seem any more meaningful to me. I'll still experience existential suffering.


    So... perhaps this existential suffering problem is best addressed by approaching it from an entirely different direction. Perhaps the path doesn't pass through religious faith or through desperately trying to locate and then identify with some cosmic principle of salvation. Perhaps it's more effective to look into ourselves and to inquire into why we believe ourselves to be in need of salvation in the first place.

    Thanks. I have the greatest respect for Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
  20. Balerion Banned Banned

    So one has to be a robot to be helped by therapy?
  21. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member


    That's uncalled for. Why do you want to hurt somebody?
  22. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

    One question: if the universe has no inherent purpose, and so by extention neither do any of the events that happen inside of it, then from where do humans get this ability to create purpose, by which I mean REAL purpose and not just some illusion of purpose? And doesn't science sort of already assume a purpose and a progress of mankind towards some goal? Evolution doesn't necessarily equate to progress, and yet here we have one species that seems to assume it has the sole ability to improve itself and the world it is part of thru the power of science. Isn't science itself already a meaningful narrative of the underdog ascending from the mists of antiquity and becoming like a god who knows the secrets of creation and has the technological power to eliminate the vicissitudes of fate and misfortune? I swear Spielburg couldn't come up with a better movie script than that one! It's the perfect hero myth. Or more histrionically, a Faustian tragedy about an over-ambitious doctor who sells his very soul to obtain the secrets and pleasures of the universe. We fool ourselves to think that the scientific quest isn't laden with subjective needs for power and control and a special destiny. Ofcourse it is.
    Last edited: Mar 8, 2013
  23. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

    Science And The Meaningful Life

    by Adam Frank

    January 31, 201211:15 AM

    "What makes a life meaningful? When that eventual moment comes and we prepare to slough off this mortal coil, will we be able to look at our years on the planet and feel that we created real meaning for ourselves and those around us? Umair Haque, a blogger for the Harvard Business Review, thinks we aren't reaching our potential:

    "Maybe the real depression we've got to contend with isn't merely one of how much economic output we're generating — but what we're putting out there, and why. Call it a depression of human potential, a tale of human significance being willfully squandered (on, for example, stuff like this)."

    Looking at much of our cultural output, Haque asks:

    "If that's the best we can do, no wonder our economy is falling short of its potential — and no wonder our lives occasionally feel empty, even meaningless. (Even star quarterbacks married to Brazilian supermodels occasionally say to themselves, there's got to be more than this.)"

    Haque's essay raises a number of thoughtful points about our overheated culture, its legacy and our own roles within it. In response I wanted to reflect on what science brings to the table. Some of what I have to say relates to the practice of science. I also think it's important to consider what science asks of us, and what it gives back as an approach to life.

    Science certainly provides a powerful sense of meaning as an activity. Will my scientific papers be read 100 years from now? I hope so, but doubt it (sigh). Either way, the process of trying to honestly enter into a dialogue with the world establishes a context for my own life that sometimes allows me to rise above the petty day-to-day squabbles of broken washing machines and general knuckle-headedness. By entering into that dialogue with great effort and earnestness, the world ceases to be something merely "at-hand," something merely there for distraction or entertainment.

    Instead, it's fully alive and fully present. The ever-opening sky, the wheeling stars and even the nightly stream of crows I watch heading to their evening roosts all become poignant mysteries that speak of greater powers than I will ever fully understand. They surround me, whispering that there is more, so much more, to the world than my small concerns. Practicing science keeps my feet on the ground and my ear to the wind. It keeps me alert so that I might still hear that quiet call.

    You don't have to be a practicing scientist to know any of that. You don't have to write papers to carry out your own research, your own fervent investigation into the texture of your own being.

    The questions are always there.

    They are waiting for you everyday when you open your eyes to yet another strange day in this strange world. The practice of science is just a codification of something that has always been possible for human beings. With integrity and honesty in our own investigations of what it means to be alive for these briefest of moments, we can all enrich our work, be it nursing, building, teaching or cooking.

    Science always asks for excellence. In reality, life always asks for excellence, too. It asks us to give our best, to be attentive, to awake to the everyday miracle that is every day.

    Nothing is more full of meaning and nothing holds out a greater hope for us all. As individuals in a culture we are forever re-inventing, this collaboration of investigation with the universe is the very essence of a meaningful life."----

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