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The Struggle Is the Story: A Philosophical Note on Mankind’s Mission

The Truth, Nothing More

In cosmology, which is the study of the origin and nature of the universe, there is a theory known as the anthropic principle. There is both a strong and a weak version of the anthropic principle. The weak version states that based on the very obvious evidence of our own existence, the universe we live in must be one where the physical laws and other properties of the universe are conducive to the existence of life. Stated thus, the weak anthropic principle sounds like the most redundant statement anyone ever made, for after all, where else do you expect to find life but in a universe that is capable of supporting life?

Less trivially though, the weak anthropic principle allows us to speculate about the possibility of other universes which may be very different from our own and where the conditions necessary for life to develop are not present. One way to illustrate this idea is with the analogy favored by the physicist Paul Davies based on the popular children’s story, Goldilocks and the Three Bears. For the benefit of those who may not know the story, here’s how it goes.

Once upon a time, a little girl named Goldilocks went for a walk in the woods. Deep in the woods she came upon a cottage in a clearing. Unbeknown to her, the cottage was home to three bears: Papa bear, Mama bear and Baby bear. Goldilocks knocked on the door, but no one answered, so she invited herself in. Sitting on a table were three bowls of porridge. Now, all that walking through the woods had made Goldilocks quite hungry and without wasting a moment she pounced on the porridge. But Papa bear’s porridge was too hot and Mama bear’s was too cold. Baby bear’s porridge though was just right, and never did a little girl enjoy a bowl of porridge more than Goldilocks that day! Goldilocks then proceeded to make herself at home in Baby bear’s chair (which she broke) and Baby bear’s bed, but she had to leave in a big hurry when she woke up to find three angry and hungry-looking bears glaring down at her!

Coming back to our discussion on the weak anthropic principle, you could say that we happen to live in a Goldilocks universe that is “just right” for life. But we can also conceive of other universes alongside our own, which are either too “hot” or too “cold” for life.

The strong anthropic principle, as the name suggests, makes stronger claims than the weak anthropic principle. According to the strong anthropic principle, not only do we live in a universe that provides the kind of conditions that make life possible, but given the very exacting conditions necessary for life to exist at all, the universe must be fine-tuned for life. In other words, rather than being just congenial to the existence of life, the universe we live in may actually be compelled to produce life. Some proponents of the strong anthropic principle then go on to make the even bolder claim that based on the evidence of human existence the universe must be designed not just for life, but for intelligent life. Now, since we do not know of any other intelligent life forms in the universe apart from ourselves, therefore we humans are in some way special, maybe even the end for which the universe was made! And thus, it is with such heroic leaps of logic that man’s primacy in the universe is established.

If you happen to be human, the thought that we might be the end for which the universe was made is a comforting one. But given the evidence, one suspects that it is nothing more than a pious wish. Take the dinosaurs for example. Having dominated the earth for nearly 200 million years, one could forgive them for imagining that the universe was tailored for their existence. But the only place you’re going to find dinosaurs today is in a museum. 66 million years ago, a fireball the size of a small city ploughed into the earth with the force of a billion atom bombs and ended the dinosaurs’ long reign!

Given the fact that we are the last remaining members of the hominid family and that we ourselves have come perilously close to extinction at least once, it is a very sobering thought to realize that Nature has no favorites. Or as the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume bluntly put it, “The life of a man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.”

We thus find ourselves in a crisis. For what could be more upsetting to a conscious, sensitive, thinking being than the realization that its existence is fundamentally contingent and precarious, and that its position in the universe is no more privileged than that of the dinosaurs or a humble shellfish? If one is looking for comforting platitudes in the face of such concerns then the last place to look would be amongst that group of people known as the existentialists.

In the popular imagination, existentialists are viewed as a gloomy and angst-ridden lot, like Woody Allen without the jokes. But perhaps it would be more correct, and no doubt more flattering to existentialists, to compare them to Morpheus, the coolly confident, leather-clad rebel commander in the classic science fiction thriller The Matrix. A key scene in the movie is the red pill-blue pill scene where Neo, the reluctant cyber-Messiah, is about to discover the true, sinister nature of the Matrix, the computer network that is in control of the world. Morpheus shows him two pills: a blue pill and a red pill. The blue pill, Morpheus explains, would cause Neo to forget this meeting and he could resume his life of blissful ignorance in the simulated reality created by the Matrix. If Neo were to take the red pill, however, the true nature of the Matrix would be revealed to him and there would be no turning back. “All I am offering is the truth, nothing more,” Morpheus says to Neo. And that could well be the motto of the existentialist philosophers: “the truth, nothing more.” Which leads us to the question, what would we do in Neo’s position? Would we take the blue pill and continue to live in a pleasant illusion or would we take the red pill and face the real world even if we suspected that what we would find might not be to our liking?

At first, the answer to the question seems like a no-brainer. The red pill of course! Why would anyone want to live in a fabricated reality, no matter how pleasant? John Stuart Mill, the English philosopher and economist, would certainly have had no trouble making the choice. “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied,” he wrote, “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” Or to put it another way, the philosopher does not envy the fool even though the fool seems contented. The fool for his part might think that he is happier than the philosopher, but that is because he knows only his side of things. But were he given even a taste of the life of the mind, so to speak, Mill is convinced that the fool would no longer wish to live a life of mindlessness! But is Mill guilty of holding too high an opinion of the human race when he asserts that no right-minded person would reject knowledge of the truth to be swaddled in an illusion, no matter how comforting?

In The Matrix, the character Cypher ends up betraying Morpheus and his crew to the machines for a chance to be “plugged” back into the Matrix. In Homer’s Odyssey we learn of the Lotus-eaters who subsisted on the fruit of the lotus, and, as a consequence, lived a life of blissful, carefree indolence. According to Homer, Odysseus wishing to learn more about the Lotus-eaters sends three of his men to mingle with them. Here the men are given some lotus fruit to eat and as a result they too become like the Lotus-eaters, forgetting all about their mission and losing all desire to go back home.

Perhaps a real life parallel to the Lotus-eaters are the “opium eaters” who haunted the opium dens that proliferated in China and other parts of the world in the 19th century. So serious was the problem of opium addiction in China that one high-ranking official of the imperial government warned that if nothing was done, China faced the threat of economic and military collapse within a generation.

Mill is confident that no intelligent human being would consent to be changed into a lower being even “for the promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures.” But given Mill’s own admission that the “being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy” and “is capable probably of more acute suffering,” can we really judge anyone for wanting to be a fool or a lotus or opium eater?

The Most Urgent Question

There is one question in particular which puts a severe test to Mill’s claim that it is better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. It is a question that is perhaps as old as mankind. It is the question that a young Siddhartha (the future Buddha) grappled with when, as legend has it, he encountered for the first time in his life a decrepit old man, a severely ill man, and a corpse being carried to the funeral pyre. It is the question that the ancient authors of the The Epic of Gilgamesh and the book of Ecclesiastes grappled with, and it is the question that a young French-Algerian writer named Albert Camus was to present in very stark and unforgettable terms that are worth repeating here: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy … I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions.”

Birds do not lie awake at night wondering about the meaning of life. Man, on the other hand, by the very fact that he is a conscious, thinking being literally has the question forced upon him and he cannot evade it. Scarce wonder Walt Whitman longed to “turn and live with the animals … so placid and self contained, they do not sweat and whine about their condition, they do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.” Jean-Paul Sartre, that other famous French existentialist writer and thinker, pondering the question of the meaning of life would have offered little to comfort Whitman. For Sartre, it was futile to pin one’s hopes on the possibility of finding some simple, unequivocal answer to the question of the meaning of life that was valid for all time and would provide certain ground on which to base our lives. Sartre insists that there is nothing that can absolve man of his responsibility to find his own path. For Sartre, it wouldn’t even matter if God himself came down. “[T]he real problem,” said Sartre, “is not that of [God’s] existence; what man needs is to find himself again and to understand that nothing can save him from himself, not even a valid proof of the existence of God.”

So how does man go about “finding himself,” one might ask. Sartre’s response to this question is delivered over several works, both scholarly and popular. In the next section, we will attempt to be much more concise.

Mankind’s Mission

Let’s start at the end: death. For some, death is a feature, for others it is a bug. The pharaohs of ancient Egypt certainly thought of death as a bug and hoping to defy death they spent enormous resources on the construction of gigantic tombs where their mummified remains and various treasures would be kept safe in readiness for an afterlife where they would continue to lord it over their unlucky lackeys. Meanwhile, in many African societies it has long been the custom to pour a little of one’s drink on the ground as a libation to the ancestors. The problem of death is thus resolved by blurring the lines between the living and the dead. And then there is Paul of Tarsus, one of the people most responsible for turning a harmless, little sect within Judaism into what one notorious critic might have called the supreme opiate of the masses. For Paul, death was a bug brought into the world by the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, through an ill-defined act of transgression, until Jesus came to atone on out behalf giving us another chance at everlasting life. Finally, in more recent times, we have the transhumanists and the singularitarians who believe that death, illness and the ravages of old age can be kept at bay almost indefinitely, not through magic but through technology.

For those who see death as a feature rather than a bug, such as the Carvakas of ancient India or the Greek Stoics, the inevitability and finality of death is simply something we must accept in the same way we accept the passing of the seasons. A quote by the Spanish poet and philosopher probably sums up this position best: a man does not die of a broken heart or his liver or even of old age; he dies of being a man. Though there is traditionally an impression that existentialists are obsessed with death, for existentialists death is not the enemy. Rather existentialists are more concerned with the problem of nihilism, that is the belief that nothing has any meaning or importance, that all is vanity. Nihilism is the product of what existentialists call the “groundlessness” of our existence, that is, the apparent lack of a fundamental or ontological purpose to life, something philosophers such as Nietzsche warned would be felt more acutely now that God had ceased to be our main point of reference. Death in a way simply adds insult to injury fueling the nihilistic impulse.

A potent metaphor that the existentialist thinker Albert Camus uses to illustrate man’s battle with nihilism is the myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus, of course, is the king of Corinth who as a punishment for tricking the gods was forced to roll a huge boulder up a hill and each time the boulder neared the top it would roll back down, forcing him to start again. In mankind’s case, the rock would be a combination of the seemingly gratuitous suffering we must endure in life and the search for the purpose of life which even though an answer seems impossible we cannot give up. For good measure, Camus also throws in Oedipus who even before he is born is condemned to slay his father and marry his own mother and when he eventually realizes what he has done, he blinds himself. However, we find these to be rather bleak metaphors for the human condition not only because they are so tragic but also because the fates of both the characters are in a way unalterably set in stone. Instead, we feel that if one must draw one’s metaphors from Greek mythology, Odysseus is a more fitting metaphor for the human condition than Sisyphus or Oedipus.

Odysseus is the legendary king of Ithaca in Homer’s poem the Odyssey. Odysseus is dragged into a war (the Trojan War) he has tried his best to avoid (he even feigns madness). Odysseus has been warned by an oracle that should he join the war the gods will see to it that it will be many years before he can set foot back in Ithaca again. After the war, however, Odysseus does not spend his time lamenting the fact that it will be many years before he can see his beloved Ithaca again. Instead he embarks on an epic journey where, among other things, he defeats Polyphemus the cyclops, survives the wrath of Zeus and Poseidon, visits Hades as well as the land of the Lotus-eaters, listens to the Sirens whose singing is as enchanting as it is deadly, and wins the heart of the man-hating sorceress Circe. Odysseus does finally arrive home many years later, battle-scared, no longer a young man, but wiser.

One of the consequences of the Sisyphean view of man is that history has no importance and therefore one may say of history as Macbeth said of life: that it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. In the Odyssean view, on the other hand, history does have meaning. An odyssey is a journey. It is not the same thing being repeated over and over again towards no end. One may encounter difficulties and setbacks but one can also encounter new and undreamt of possibilities that lead to the expansion of one’s consciousness and the attainment of a greater life.

Obviously, there are many for whom the thought that there might be no divine plan for mankind would be unbearable. But fundamentally, there is no evidence of any kind of plan for mankind. Or rather, nowhere do we find it inscribed outside religious and quasi-religious (Hegel, Teilhard de Chardin) texts which we no longer find convincing. This leads us to the conclusion that for mankind the struggle itself is the story. But it needn’t be an aimless struggle for in the absence of a divine plan, mankind can be guided by man-made goals. For us, there is no question about which man-made goal we ought to rank the highest. It is the goal of enlightenment (in the Western Enlightenment sense and not the mystical religious sense) for it is the goal that is most likely to lead to the greatest expansion of human consciousness and the greatest fulfillment of human possibilities.

Ultimately, as Sartre would say, existence precedes essence. In simple terms, this means that it is man who bears the power and the responsibility to define himself and the mission of his life. On one hand, this may seem like a terrible burden. On the other, by bringing to bear his creativity and intelligence, mankind can open up new horizons, expanding his awareness and the range of experiences available to him. In the end, this may be as good as it gets and we must learn to look to the gods less and to ourselves more.