I was raised Catholic, but left the church some time around 7th grade. I remember the week where I accepted that I didn’t believe anymore, and then sat stunned, confronting my own mortality.
I’ve never recovered.
That moment of loss and grief started me on my journey of trying to see the world as it is, and life for what it can be. This essay is an attempt to capture a sense of the holistic perspective I’ve developed, and to share some of the teachers who’ve helped me on my way.
The Nature of Reality
It’s certainly weird. And weird enough that anyone who thinks they have it figured out is just not thinking hard enough. Consciousness is very strange, it’s unclear why there’s something rather than nothing, and why this particular universe with all of its contingencies?
But there’s so far no good reason to believe that there’s anything else beyond the material world—no God, no souls, no ghosts. And as far as we can tell, the universe lacks intentionality—it’s indifferent to our existence, and it makes no promises beyond the continuation of the mechanical processes of physics.
On the other hand, there is good reason to believe we understand how humans came to be—we evolved. We’re a highly complex form of self-replicating matter, and tuned for our environment, or at least an approximation of it.
Taking the physicality of humans seriously means believing that “the mind is what the body does”. That is to say, believing that all of our mental states have corresponding physical manifestations.
And further, that those mental states were shaped by the same forces that the rest of our bodies were: evolutionary fitness. That’s not a simple, or even a single process,1 and it’s certainly not the only force that’s shaped us so I don’t mean to overly reduce.
I mention it to draw out a key implication: that ideas of morality, meaning, purpose or other “oughts” and “shoulds” don’t exist somehow outside of us. There are no right answers; there isn’t an experiment you can run, a tradition you can consult, any data you can collect that will tell you what’s right. 2 3
Meaning and Morality
There’s really only one path forward from accepting that point: we have to make it up.
Theoretically this is a nihilistic perspective, but pragmatically, it’s an existentialist one. We make our own meaning, and make our own judgments about how we wish to live our lives.
There may not be right answers, but there are still wrong ones: you can be out of alignment with yourself. The task then is to take one’s ideas, and hold each one up in the light of the others, and somehow bring them into equilibrium.
And further, we don’t make it up out of nothing—it would be impossible for a typical human to avoid drawing on cultural ideas and evolutionary drives in fashioning meaning for themselves. The task is to build a house out of the materials we find around us.
Values and Utility
Others might diverge from me more substantially here. I find myself sympathetic to a broadly utilitarian or consequentialist understanding of morality. Suffering is bad, and whatever its opposite, let’s call it wellbeing, is good.
Pragmatically though, I believe we’re in a very poor position to make judgments about what’s best for the wellbeing of others, and only slightly better suited to make judgments about what’s best for ourselves. Traditional dietary prohibitions are a fine example: “don’t eat that bush; it’ll kill you” is a lot more efficiently learned through culture than experience or reasoning from first-principles.
Fortunately, we’ve been prepared with a baseline set of norms, expectations, and practices that we know work decently: those provided by evolution, and by our culture.
So we start with what’s in our environment, and then make a set of edits to it that try and move it in a better direction, or just a direction better suited to our own idiosyncratic self. And we do it with an appropriate modesty—recognizing that long-held traditions and evolutionary forces may have a lot of wisdom compared to our ability to reason from first principles.
I choose to think about those edits in terms of values. I have a set of values I’ve selected, because they make sense to me and for me. And when I’m faced with an ethical decision, I consult them and weigh them heavily in my judgments.
I have less of a clear sense of how to think about meaning in life. At least for now, meaning mostly consists of manifesting my values, but I have a sense that there might be a bit more to it for me than just that.
There are some related views that I connect with the perspective a bit more loosely that I’ll sketch out below.
Human nature, being shaped by evolution, is self-interested. Most of ordinary life is appropriately taken up by the individual striving to meet their basic needs. In addition, to be self-interested is often to be pro-social. We have a lots of collaborative and friendly intuitions, drives, and strategies that benefit us, individually and collectively.
I believe we’ve created a tremendous amount of social and cultural technology to try and draw out and emphasize this pro-social side of our nature. Most societies, for example, have some controls or restrictions on the use of violence, and some form of resource sharing.
I take this to mean that economics is fairly good at predicting our behavior in the aggregate. The naive critique of economics that humans are irrational is neatly dodged by conceptualizing economics on a more modest assumption: that people respond predictably, if not consistently, to prices.
I also take this to mean that humans are not a caricature of a rational self-interested agent. The tools of psychology and sociology are often a better fit for understanding the subtleties of decision making, culture, personality, and emotions. Though even here, often applying economic analysis to such goods as “respect”, “status” or “attention” may be insightful.
We are, of course, “clannish” and tend to essentialize others in a variety of ways.4 This is a great source of suffering in the world. Most forms of identity are contingent, and arbitrary, and certainly don’t carry any sort of moral weight.
One great project for humanity is to overcome this innate tribalism, and embrace a more cosmopolitan vision for ourselves and the world. Whether the lines of division are cultural, racial, gender, religious, or species, we ought to strive to see others as equally deserving of concern and respect.
That’s not to say that identities are useless or bad—they’re highly functional. They can bring us together, convince us that it’s worth working together, and help us negotiate social relations. Indeed, understanding and navigating identity in some situations can be a matter of life and death. The mistake is in thinking of identities too rigidly, or in ascribing moral weight to identities where that doesn’t belong.
Relatedly, cultural differences may be vast, and communicating or coordinating across them may be difficult. Our history is full of stories where people on both sides are doing the best they can in terms of their own cultural understanding, and things go horribly awry. 5 It is therefore a virtue to be aware of one’s own culture, and of the cultures of others we may encounter.
Finally, cultural interchange leads to a richer experience for all of humanity. That’s true in art, food, music, and relationships of all sorts. It is similarly a virtue to be open to and curious about the lives of those who fall outside of our experience. 6 7
One core idea I have is that humans will grow in a positive direction in a supportive environment. If a person has a relationship in their life that is accepting, understanding, positive, and authentic, they can use that relationship like a ladder to move in a direction where they become more fully themselves and in better harmony with others. 8
In practice, these ideas lead me to strive to listen more than I talk, and ask questions, or raise possibilities more than I give instruction or advice.
Separately, I believe it is very difficult for us to know or understand the minds or experience of others. We don’t have direct access to their thoughts, but we do have the ability to hallucinate within our own minds what they might be. That process is fraught.
Through language, we might come to know an approximation, but we rarely get it exactly. So I strive for a communication style where I stick to my own cognitive “home” as much as possible—my own thoughts and feelings. I believe this leads to a greater feeling of understanding, and room for each person to be more fully themselves.
More than anything else, this makes compassion one of my core values.
Some people believe that the self does not exist, or that the idea is incoherent. They’re wrong. The fact that the boundary between self and non-self isn’t always clear, or that the line is arbitrarily drawn no more means the self does not exist than it means that “red” does not exist because we can identify “maroon” or “vermillion” or “reddish blue”.
As with our identities, the mistake is in being overly rigid, or overly simplistic. Our minds are influenced by our environment, our bodies, our history, our gut flora, and a million other things. Anyone who’s experienced “hanger”, a serious crush, or therapy intuitively understands some of the complexity here.
Likewise, our notions of self are more directly under our cognitive influence than, say, the sensations of redness or hunger. Remaining open and expansive in one’s self-conception, especially where it concerns one’s future, is likely to help avoid a bunch of needless suffering.
Self-awareness is not easily earned. Because of our fundamental inability to understand others, we can’t compare ourselves to others and know how we differ. Knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses, or one’s hurt spots, ticklish spots, and overall quirks will make us better able to live our own lives, and live in harmony with others.
Everybody has their stuff, good and bad, and we do ourselves no favor by ignoring or denying the existence of any thought, feeling, impulse inside of us. We’re typically not alone in feeling the ways we feel, especially in the areas we may feel that way the most. And anyway, we’re not obligated to do anything in particular with any of those thoughts or feelings or impulses, so they’re not in themselves any threat to us.
In fact, much of the task of living for all of us is in synthesizing some kind of whole out of the great jumble inside. Not a whole made of crystal, uniform and unchanging throughout, but an organism with many parts working in relative harmony, and reforming over time.
That process can only take place if we accept what is there. I’ve found that for me, that self-acceptance requires a certain degree of positive thinking; I am constrained to like myself. That’s not always easy, and might require really understanding what each part of ourselves needs, or is motivated by.
To the point in the previous section about an accepting, positive environment, for many of us it will be easier to like and accept ourselves if we can experience the genuine care and compassion of another person. Therapy is great for this.
Limits of Culture and Evolution
While we owe our evolutionary and cultural inheritance gratitude and a broad deference, there are exceptions.
Death is a tragedy. It is possible, in the long run, for beings like us to be immortal. We are under a mass delusion that death is good because the alternative is unimaginable, or too painful to confront. 9
There are predictable ways that evolution may fail us. Cases where different tradeoffs may be appropriate for our environment today compared to the past, cases where our values and evolution’s diverge, and cases where we can do things that evolution simply could not. 10
We’re limited by our culture, too. Freud had a theory that “hysteria” in women was caused by sexual assault. His peers couldn’t accept that theory, because it would imply that women were sexually assaulted at far greater rates than they could psychologically accept. Freud recanted, but of course we know today that he was right. 11
There are likely many other injustices happening in the world today that we lack awareness of for similar reasons. I believe that mass imprisonment, racial violence, global inequality, environmental damage, and animal suffering are all examples. I’m sure there are more.
Reality has an incredibly complex and interconnected causal graph. Simple stories about how things happen, or why things are the way they are are likely wrong, or misleading. 12
That doesn’t mean it’s hopeless to try and understand: properly applied statistics,13 qualitative research, and careful thinking can all help us move towards truth, but reality will remain in all of its irreducible complexity.
Overall, to me, this perspective is optimistic. It gives me hope for humanity—I believe we can overcome many of the sources of human and non-human suffering in the long term.14 And I believe it is within each of our power to live and enjoy and make meaning out of our one wild and precious life.15
Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon ↩︎