- Botár András, Budaörsi Illyés Gyula Gimnázium, Hungary
- Tuomas Ansio, Tiirismaan lukio, Finland
- Claudia Glaos, Elvebakken vgs, Norway
- Vizi Laura, Milestone Institute, Hungary
Botár András, Budaörsi Illyés Gyula Gimnázium, Hungary
“Let us then conclude boldly that man is a machine, and that in the whole universe there is but a single substance [matter] variously modified.”
Julian Offray de la Mettrie: Man a Machine (1747)
Trans. Gertrude Carman Bussey, The Open Court Publishing co., 1912, p. 148
Only one substance? Man, a machine? Boldly being able to conclude these? What madness is he talking about? I certainly remember enough from chemistry class to tell that there is definitely more than 1 substance in the universe, and I’d quite like to differ about me being a thoughtless machine! Has he gone crazy talking things like this?
Well not precisely. What Julian Offray is referring to here is called “materialism”, the idea (very simplified) that nothing beside ordinary matter and space is required to explain the world. That in the universe nothing transcendental or supernatural is necessary to make the world function the way it does. And here I’d like to write a little bit about why I believe this is indeed the correct or at least the least overcomplicated position. Let us consider a storm or a tornado first. What is it? Well it’s a big pile of hot and cold air moving up and down, spinning, and forming clouds. If we wish to define or reference it, then we cannot use the simple parts that it’s made of, if we only point to a set of particle and state that that is the tornado then that will very quickly become a quite useless definition since the storm is constantly gaining and losing specific atoms of air through wind, it is by nature dynamic and not just a collection of specific particles. Okay, but what if we wish to describe e.g. to our neighbour to watch out for a tree that might fall in the storm. Well we might state stress could be placed the tree by that wind that came swept down the hillside after combining together from a number of smaller gusts that came from those specific clouds above that came from… But this would be a huge amount of useless information, we likely wouldn’t even know which specific subprocess of the storm felled the tree, and it would take so long to describe that we would likely be crushed under the tree before we could finish. So instead we simply state that this vaguely defined pile of atmospheric processes going on about here shall be called a “storm” and hence we will be able to communicate effectively about it. The storm still wouldn’t be a single monolithic entity, but this label of “storm” for the collection of processes that we could all mostly agree on would be good enough for most uses.
This process of many simple elements interacting through a set of basic rules to create something more intricate with more complex behaviour, like air molecules making a storm, is called emergence. Imagine for example a flat board covered by a single layer of billiard balls packed tightly. Now imagine removing a single billiard ball from the middle. Interesting this weird thing called a “hole” has appeared. Now tilt the board to one side, of course all the balls will roll downwards, but because of this the “hole” will appear to move upwards! Have we discovered anti-gravity? Will we be able to patent this magical, so called “hole”?!?…Well of course not, the hole doesn’t really exist. It is literally, truly nothing. It is just an emergent phenomenon, an “illusion” the billiard balls created through the simple rules of gravity and not being able to pass through each other and the board. Like these very words you may be reading on your screen or a video you could watch on it. The objects in a video on your screen aren’t in any way physical, just some pixels working in concert to produce the appearance of a single, physical object.
And we can apply the same kind of thinking to other things, like humans as well. For example, a quite famous philosophical thought experiment called the “Chinese room” goes like this: Imagine you have someone who by themselves doesn’t know Chinese, let’s call them Joe, locked in a room with a book. He is handed slips of paper under the door that have Chinese characters written on them, he can look up these characters in the book, which tells him which Chinese characters to write down on paper and slip back under the door. Joe doesn’t know Chinese, he merely checks the paper handed to him against the book which contains all possible sequences of Chinese characters that can fit on a slip like that, and the characters he should write down in response, either by actually listing all possible combination-response pairs or with some algorithm to produce these that Joe doesn’t understand [Kolmogorov complexity]. But from the outside, if we are the ones slipping in and receiving slips of paper then it seems that someone in there is able to speak Chinese, yet no one actually can! So, what the hell is going on here?
Well if Joe would have learned the contents of the book (essentially just copy pasted it into his brain in a different encoding) then any sane person would consider Joe someone who knows Chinese. Here instead of these facts and rules about Chinese being encoded in his head in certain neurons responsible for long term memory and being accessed by other thought processed through some other connecting neurons, here the knowledge merely happens to be encoded in a different way which isn’t physically stored inside his head, but which he can still access and use in essentially the same way(although a bit slower) through his eyes e.g. instead of the memory connection forming and relaying neurons inside his head. The “program” responsible for parsing the Chinese, selecting responses and parsing an answer is still running inside Joe’s head, but the instructions for the program are simply written on a different “hard-drive”(the paper), and this program uses/defines it’s own set of rules and doesn’t rely on other mental programmes running in Joes head , therefore leaving those other programs (including the ones responsible for monitoring his physical functions, the ones for monitoring his senses and the ones responsible for monitoring his mental activities and other mental programmes, memes running in his head, his consciousness essentially) unable to interface with it and therefore unable to comprehend it’s internal workings. So, in my opinion we can think of this as the system of Joe plus the book knowing Chinese in total, no souls or special planes of existence required. And if one were to object that still, neither Joe or the book knows Chinese, hence their combination can’t either, Then from that person I’d like to ask whether his occipital lobe would know English or have consciousness if we were to remove it now, clearly not, but neither would his basal ganglia, or his visuosensoral cortex or the twentythreethousand-sevenhundred-eighty-second neuron in his hypothalamus, therefore clearly this person asking me this, clearly doesn’t know English, isn’t actually asking me this question and doesn’t even exist!
So, as we can see here, it’s all about the patterns in our heads. But the interesting thing is that these patterns are often similar between people. Consider for example walking or the ability to speak and understand English. Whatever else may be in our heads, the same nerves connect our legs and mouths to our brains, and the actions that we perform while doing these are extremely similar in all of us. We might have accents or the “KGB-walk” (habit where one doesn’t swing his arms while walking as to keep hand near weapon, taught to and most often observable in ex-kgb agents). But the basic pathways that encode these actions must be very similar in between people because of the biological and physical circumstances imposed by our bodies. English comprehension though is a special “program” that we have, because it allows us to communicate, signal, warn each other,… and other things that were very useful in evolutionary terms, but it also allows us to do something even more impressive: To convey, to share, to “upload” other “programs” to other humans! So, using the power of English, and other pre-existing mental processes, programs that he has e.g. recognising objects on road, fine motor control, reading street signs…. I might be able to teach someone how to drive, and with some practice they could also develop this routine in their brain of driving. Hence, I have effectively “copied” this “program” from my head into his. And this is the exact process of passing “programs” to each other which exponentially build upon each other and through which people and especially children develop, these patterns of thought and ideas are passed down from one generation to another and are spread in and within populations, sometimes they are transmitted incorrectly or deliberately changed or fuse with another one, and they mutate, and the ones that mutate may sometimes be more useful, or mere lend themselves more effectively to being transmitted again, thereby evolving and spreading further. To convey the similarity between how genes and these ideas/patterns/thoughts get passed down generations, the way the they spread and evolve, they have been name “memes”, and they can explain many questions regarding these topics.
For example, we have names, since that helps one anchor this undefined, hazy concept of a (self)identity to a single well-defined label and therefore a single small set of well-defined neurons, making it much easier for it to get reinforced and for other clusters of neurons to work with it. But what is actually so different between our individual conscious minds that isn’t just one of these automated patterns in action? Our abilities and skills? They are mostly a matter of automatic behaviour after sufficient practice. Our tastes and preferences? They are different yes, but certainly not a decision of your consciousness, just a matter of environmental and cultural influences, since if you could choose what to enjoy you’d just obviously chose to enjoy everything! Neither are your reflex responses, your vegetative processes, your flight or fight response, or even higher-level perception like language, for example just try to look at these letters without trying to understand them.
You are, of course, able to temporarily “take control” and “manually”, consciously control certain aspects of your behaviour, e.g.: when deliberately practicing a skill, or for example during most of the day you might not have been aware of you breathing in or out, or blinking, or how your tongue is sitting in your mouth, but thanks to this text you are now. And yes, it might be annoying that I have brought these to yourattention and now you have to control these manually, but this will only last for a few minutes and these processes will go back to automatic (until you remember it again of course).
So, does this mean that Humans are merely flesh-machines simply executing some random programs, memes, neural patterns in their heads? No, of course not! Humans ARE these everchanging patterns flashing through the brain cells of our bodies! If we were to remove the brain then the rest would simply be just a body, basically a corpse. And even if we were to put into it the same amount of brain cells as we have, the likely that would just be a random pile of fleshy brain cells, or depending on where we get the braincells from it might be let’s say a monkey or bear brain. Which in macro structure and number of neurons is quite similar. But of course, that could certainly not be considered a true human. No, an actual human, his “soul” so to say, is defined by the connections these neurons make and the signals they pass along and process. It is merely a label for the emergent processes going on in our body, anything more can be shaved away by a swipe of Ockham’s razor. Even if some body parts are missing, or even a part of the brain, the emergent processes created by our neurons is what makes us who we are and, dare I say, even what gives us consciousness. This View of humans being just a collection of memes running on some meat-based computers does also raise a couple of other interesting questions. For example, if we are just a collection of chemical processes then with a sufficiently good physical simulation would we be able to exactly copy a human mind, and if yes would that thing be conscious and have a “soul” (from the perspective presented here, yes). And if we are just a collection of generic, widely copied memes and thoughts (disregarding deliberately specific things like names that help this “illusion of self”) then does this mean that in a sense most humans are “” immortal”” as long as the memes and thought that make us live on? (The specific combination of memes and connections of these to their emotions is unique, but for a specific thought process only a few memes are actively in use, hence that specific train of thought might have been replicated many times before in the exact same way, and maybe will be replicated many times in the future as well)
Whatever the case, we might still have to face the option that “man is merely machine” and only one substance exists. But I believe these are still very useful abstractions, but just abstractions by Ockham’s razor. And anyone who believes these must be true, quite underestimates the awesome complexity, greatness and beauty a single substance or a machine can produce.
Tuomas Ansio, Tiirismaan lukio, Finland
”Perhaps you have thought that nothing really matters, because in two hundred years we’ll all be dead.”
Thomas Nagel: What does it all mean?
Oxford University Press, p.95
In this citation, the philosopher Thomas Nagel presents us with a staggeringly nihilistic thesis: our life is essentially meaningless. In the West, after the enlightenment and secularization project the nihilistic arguments have gained popularity. Is our life essentially meaningless? What does it mean to have meaning in life? Does the abscence of objective meaning mean that there can be no meaning? These are the main questions I will focus on.
The nihilistic argument against the meaning of life lies on these very basic premises: nothing that a human being does, matters, because there’s no objective meaning and self-created meaning is superficial. Death is not in itself sufficient to make life meaningless. For example in Christianity the immanent life is only a temporary section in a bigger whole, and after death one reaches into eternity. Thus only the abscence of God (or anything that you want to call it) would for the user of this argument imply, that there’s nothing in life that is worth doing. On the favor of this, one could say that it is the most logical conclusion, if it is the case that there’s no meaning given from outside. For what is then a human being but just a small, accidental creature, ”winner” of the cosmic lottery miserably floating in the silent universe?
For meaning to exist, does it need to be objectively given? In the 20th century, the existentialists with the likes of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre thought, that there’s no God, and thus no objective meaning and goal in life. According to Camus life was utterly absurd, and Sartre denied an all-mighty being completely. Did these guys just affirm nihilistically that there is no meaning? No. In his book The myth of Sisyphos, Camus used the hero of Greek mythology, Sisyphos as an example of the basic architechture of the human condition. Sisyphos was condemned to roll a big rock uphill into all eternity. He had no final aim, no rescue, just the rock and his own thoughts. Even though Sisyphos’ task seems to imply a nihilistic viewpoint, Camus thought otherwise. ”One must imagine Sisyphos happy”, Camus said. In the absurdity of life, one can either think nihilistically, or accept the absurdity, and still act as if one is living a meaningful life. The existentialist view of Camus offers not a ready answer for the objective meaninglessness, but rather recommends acceptance of the paradox of life. Imagining human existence as a Sisyphonean constitution offers an alternative standpoint for the problem of meaning.
Nagel’s nihilistic argument is idealist and it is not as logical and coherent as it first may seem. For it, the idea is more real than concretion. That is because the nihilist concludes that nothing matters, but does not act according to her/his own thoughts. If nothing really matters why do anything in the first place? An action is a signal that what is done, means something. That is because humans, like all life on this planet, have a tendency to stay alive, and minimize suffering. More or less the aim of every action concentrates on these two. If the nihilist thinks that there’s no meaning, and still goes to school/work, eats, sleeps, thinks, reads, communicates etc. means that she/he contradicts her/himself. If this is the case, which one tells us more about the real conviction of the nihilist: the thoughts or the actions? We could ask the same question from a
moral framework: if I say that murder is bad, and then go and murder ten people, completely conscious of what I’m doing, is my real conviction that murder is bad (that I should not do it)? I don’t think so. Same goes with the nihilist. Anything can be thought, but as long as one keeps on living and doing anything, on the fundamental level the actions are found, to some degree, meaningful.
Human life is existence, that means, it is subjective. For an action to mean something, it doesn’t need any outer supporter. Even if it were so that there existed that kind of supporter, it would not change anything. Human existence would still stay as a subjective phenomenon. And because existence is a subjective phenomenon, it means that objectively existing things do not actually matter, unless the existing subject is in some kind of relation to such things, whether it is a work of art, a sport or a individual of another species. The more objective a certain aspect of reality is, the more indifferent it is. This being said, if there then was an objective meaning, it would be meaning only to the degree that existing subjects have relations to it. To say otherwise is contradiction in terms. The 19th century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard even said that subjectivity is the ultimate truth. For him, not what is, but how one is in relation to existing beings, is what is true. Kierkegaard, even though he accepted the uncertainty of everything, did not fall in to the trap of nihilistic thinking.
We have seen that the idealistical-rational argument of nihilism is not at all very convincing. Human beings are always in relation to the world and do things that they find meaningful. This fact is in itself enough to show the paradox of nihilism. There needs to be no objectively given cosmic meaning, and if there’s no such meaning, it has or at least it should have no effect on existence. ”The silence of the universe terrifies me”, said the philosopher Blaise Pascal. That very silence must be filled with sounds that are created by every existing individual.
Claudia Glaos, Elvebakken vgs, Norway
“Perhaps you have had the thought that nothing really matters, because in two hundred years we`ll all be dead.”
Thomas Nagel: What does it all mean?
Oxford University Press, 1987: p. 95
The Fact that “nothing really matters” is the Meaning of Life
What is the meaning of life? This is the classical and what seems to be the eternally unanswered question of mankind. What is the point of it all, if after all “in two hundred years we`ll all be dead”?
This logical conclusion has for sure haunted almost all of us at some point in our lives and perhaps, just as the author of the quote found in What does it all mean? (1987), Thomas Nagel, made us think of that nothing really matters. The path from this conclusion and to a negative form of nihilism is not far. However, as with everything else in life, the question of whether this pointlessness of life is positive or negative (meaning here whether it makes it easier for us to live our lives or not) is a more complex question than one ought to think. The mere fact that we will all be dead and thereby nothing matters, is not necessarily as negative and limiting as one may think at first glance.
However, before we start our argument it is important to know why this question has occurred in today’s times. As the psychologist and philosopher Carl Gustav Jung pointed out in his ingenious quote on how the earth seems different to the medieval man, life has lost its meaning only recently.
In medieval times, and all the times before, one may argue that pointlessness of life was not a heated discussion as it is now. The strong religious belief in deities reassured humans of their eternal place in the universe and thereby brought them comfort. However, upon the many revolutions followed by the new thinking of the 1700-hundred’s enlightenment philosophers, changed it all, and combined with the first and second world wars, took away from us the belief in an eternal god and made us more than ever aware of the fact that our lives are not as important as we would like to think. “God is dead”, and as the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche further elaborated, we are the ones to blame, and do also have to pay the price for this murder as there is no longer any up or down, and the earth got unchained from the sun.
This does immediately lead us to the topic of nihilism, as a feeling of deep purposelessness caused by the fact that we will all die combined with a possible disbelief in metanarratives, may leave us in a state of stagnation and even paralysis. This form for nihilism, the destructive realization of the void of one ́s existence, is indeed negative. However, there is also a more positive form of this term purposed by Friedrich Nietzsche, that, if applied with a correct mindset, preferably that one of the Ubermench, can serve us to great advantage. The mere fact that nothing is set in stone as life has no objectives, and more importantly that we all are indeed going to perish from this planet in a couple of hundred years, can give us more calm than any belief system. The positive nihilism presented here gives us more freedom to pursue what we truly desire as even though something goes wrong, we still have nothing to lose because all our mistakes and downfalls will die together with us all. It seems quite morbid; however, it also changes everything. To put it differently, we can be who we want to be and have no regrets since thy will disappear with us. Yet, as mentioned earlier, to obtain this a correct mindset is needed.
It is important to take to consideration that the ideas presented in Thomas Nagel ́s quote, were produced through the lens of the western civilization. The western thought has a long history of logical and empirical based philosophy, which does obviously lead to such conclusions regarding the meaning of life. Our western linear view on time can be argued to have caused the followingsequence of arguments: “I am born and I came from nothing. For each day that passes I get closedto my death which is the ultimate end, in the same way the earth ́s time will also end as the sun becomes a red giant and swallows it. All of this means that my life is pointless for everything is going to completely end”. In contrast to this, the eastern thought presents a cyclic interpretation oftime as according to for instance Hindu believes the earth and everything in it will never end, only be reborn repeatedly. One may say that Nietzsche was inspired by this thought as he developed the idea of the eternal recurrence, which may seem to be the right kind of mindset needed for pursuing the positive kind of nihilism mention in the paragraph above. Despite the purposelessness thatseems to be the case for our human lives, one ought to live life in a way that the thought of living itover and over again is not a nightmare. In other words, the combination of eastern and western thought seems to solve the problem of many existentialists.
Lastly, why not simply commit suicide if nothing matters after all? Humans have a drive towards life, as Sigmund Freud noticed, meaning that even though our intellect tells us that there is no point, we still do whatever it takes to keep our hearts beating. To help us in the fulfillment of our human need that may be embedded in our DNA, belief systems that could be are nothing more than mere illusions, may simply help us on the way. A Canadian professor called Jordan Peterson did in his lecture series called “Maps of Meaning” demonstrate in an excellent way how our beliefs, not only religious but also political etc., are helping us organize the chaos of life. The Greeks made mythsand all the great heroes to understand the world and to teach each other correct behavior, and Christians tried to explain the reason for evil in the world thought the creation of Satan.
To take this even further, in the book “Phantoms in the Brain” by Dr. Ramachandran, one may observe that even our brains are unconsciously creating belief systems to deal with this mess that the outside world seems to be. It is especially the example of “filling in processes” related to the blind spot on our retina (the place where there are no sensory cells as that is where the optic nerve is located) that illustrates how our own brain is predicting us into existence. The light falling onto that spot is not registered, and by that the brain is making an educated guess at what might be there based on the surrounding so that we are still capable of seeing an undisturbed whole image. My point is that it may be that our lives are indeed meaningless and nothing matters, but as we each day choose to live it may be that life is all about creating illusions and by that getting caught up instatements like nothing matters are simply pointless.
The quote by Thomas Negel is perhaps true, but what purpose does it serve as we are still willing to live anyway, and life itself may revolve around this meaninglessness? The realization of this fact, does not mean that we are supposed to through our lives away, and stop making illusion that help us continue living. There is yet another term by Nietzsche that I would like to end with, and that is Amor Fati, the love of fate. Our collective human fate may be that we do not matter, but the positive nihilism this statement may cause gives us a huge playground for creating all sorts of belief-systems that can benefit our present stay on earth. We need to simply learn to love this fate of ours and keep in mind the possible truth of what the British author Virginia Woolf said in her book Orlando: “Illusions are for the soul, what the atmosphere is for the earth”. The meanings of life we create are protecting us against the void that seems to lie at the core of our existence, the same way the atmosphere protects the earth from the dangers of the universe ́s void. Nothing matters, “in two hundred years we ́ll all be dead”, and that is why we need to pursue Amor Fati and continue with creating a life that is best suited our human needs so that the drive to live does not become a burden, but a joy. This joy will perhaps be short and insignificant, but again, we have nothing to lose, only to gain as we will all perish into the vast void of the universe anyway.
Vizi Laura, Milestone Institute, Hungary
“Perhaps you have had the thought that nothing really matters, because in two hundred years we`ll all be dead.”
Thomas Nagel: What does it all mean?
Oxford University Press, 1987: p. 95
Among the challenges of understanding human existence, the pursue of meaning has long persisted as an unanswered question. What is the meaning of life? What’s the point of anything? Is there a point at all? And if there isn’t, then why are we alive? In a mundane way, at an individual level, this “meaning” can take shape in various ways: goals, dreams, ideals, or simply materialistic things, like money. For many people, more abstact things, such as personal achievements, relationships, and opportunities also count when difining it. But if the goal is to give an ultimate, universal answer to this question, such subjectivities lose weight.
One of the traditional solutions would be religion. At the end of our lives, all of our actions will be evaluated, and if they are in accordance with the principles of God, than we go to Heaven, if they are not, we suffer for eternity. The point of our lives, therefore, is to do everything we can to ensure we stay in God’s favour, and like that, everything we do matters. But since there can be no evidence found for this belief, for many it is not a sufficient explanation.
As most religious theories have long been regarded as false or unprovable in scientific circles, philosophers have provided other approaches to the issue over the years. Existentialism, for example, is one of these. Deriving from the assumption, that there is no actual meaning in life, or at least it is not detectable by us, existentialists would conclude that everyone creates meaning in their own life, in their own way. As there is no meaning, there is no expectation,no judgement, no criteria. The exact meaning is that there is no predetermined goal or point of one’s whole life, it is rather our own task – and also, our opportunity – to decide, what to do with the (as far as we know) single life that we have. On the one hand, this belief provide humans with a great amount of freedom and chance of self-determination. While on the other hand, it carries serious implications. According to existentialist thought, we are completely on our own in creating the value of our lives, and similarly, we are in complete responsibility for it. In other words, if one does not create meaning, then there will be no meaning.
Resembling the approach of existentialism, another type of philosophical explanation is nihilism. Originating from the word nothing (“nihil”), this belief is also based on the idea that their is no given meaning in life, however, the conclusion is different. A nihilist would state, that since there is no meaning, there is neither a point in creating it. If nothing matters, than whether people create their own meaning or not, also doesn’t matter. Moreover, a nihilist would argue that there is no point or use of doing anything at all, but that isn’t neccessarily a problem. This way of thinking relieves the depressing implication of existentialist theory, since there is no chance of “wasting” life without finding meaning, if there really isn’t any in the world.
“Perhaps you have had the thought that nothing really matters, because in two hundred years we’ll all be dead”, said Nagel. He refers to the fact, that two hundred years from now, none of us will be here to witness the results of our actions. If so, why should anyone care about anything? And even if we would somehow be able to know what the world is going to be like such a long time from now, what are the chances that our present actions will have any kind of effect? We cannot be absolutely sure, but as far as we know it, nothing is permanent. Statistically, it is more likely that one’s decisions will not matter significantly in the future, than it is that they will. So why should people care about the effects of their actions? And why should they find meaning?
After spending a great amount of time in human existence, thinking about the meaning of life, we still don’t know if there is one, or what it is. In lack of the answer it is one way, to assume that there isn’t meaning and the common assumption of existentialists and nihilists is true. Since the right of self-determination is given by society, whether we search for and create meaning for ourselves at all or not, is a decision perhaps even more primary than what the meaning is. In my opinion, as long as one is able to rise to the challenge of determining the meaning of their own life, something that for them is worth to live by, then their life already holds value. After all, if we were to ever find the “meaning of life”, it would likely to be used as an indicator of the value of life. If there is a meaning, a goal, a purpose for existence, the value of a life is defined in accordance with the extent to which it has contributed to that purpose. For now however, this value must be determined without knowledge about the meaning of life, without something to compare to, therefore, it is up to us. And because of this, being able to make our lives valuable from our own strenght, and consider it valuable by our own terms, might just be more important than finding the meaning of life.