« | Home | »

The Purpose Of Life

May 6, 2010

The past two months I’ve been watching a lot of David Attenborough films, reading anthropology textbooks, and studying genetics and biology.  After examining life on this planet and watching how different species on this planet behave and live their lives, I began to wonder about meaning and purpose in our lives as humans.

So what do the species on this planet do with themselves?  What do their lives consist of?  Well, I can pretty much summarize their lives with the following:

1.  Arrival
Some are born in eggs, while others are mammals coming out of their mother’s womb, yet all share a common plight of being born.  We all seem to enter this life in a different way but all make it here nonetheless.

2.  Eating and Finding Food
Most species lives consist and revolve around finding food.  There’s rarely an abundance, and even when there is they have to store it away as fat, or bury it in the ground saving it for the winter ahead.

3. Trying to stay alive
Most all life on this planet depends on plants because they can take the sunlight, soil, and water, and produce leaves and edible fruits which most all life depends.  Insects and animals of all kinds try to eat the plants but this poses an immediate problem.  Animals will reproduce and grow in population exponentially if their numbers are not kept in check.  If you unleashed some plant eating insect on an island which had no natural predators, the insect would multiply exponentially.  They would eat everything until they completely outstripped their food supply and everything would die, both the insect and the plants.

In order to keep this all in check plants have evolved to produce toxins of all kinds.  Some produce poisons, other produce milky latex substances which gum up the jaws of insects, others such as bamboo literally contain cyanide and will make any animal that eats it sick.   But the insects and animal life have evolved to counteract these poisons and trends as well.  Pandas can eat the bamboo because their digestive system contains special chemicals which neutralize the poison.  Plague beetles attack a plant in large numbers so that the poison is distributed among all of them to help nullify the effects.   Other insects have learned how to stab the veins of plant leaves so the milky latex oozes out; then they crawl further down the leaf and eat with no problems.

Then we have predators who eat other species to survive.  Birds eat insects.  Lions kill the antelope.  Ant-eaters eat the termites.  This leads to an all out war between species to survive.  Every sort of tactic imaginable has been devised to survive in this harsh world.  Some camouflage themselves and hide, some build protective homes, some have shells, some hide in shells, some dig deep holes, others run quickly, some can fly, and the list goes on.  Every species that is alive on the planet today has devised strategies to keep themselves alive.

Nature really is a delicate balance of species and if you throw off any member of the chain you can screw everything up.

4.  Navigation and Migration

The Earth’s climate changes from season to season and many species have to leave one place and go to another from time to time.  Some birds use the North star to navigate during their long migrations across continents.  Ants and bees use the sun to locate where they are, where the nest is, and communicate to others where a potential food source is located.  Others, such as sea turtles, contain iron oxides in their heads which react to the Earth’s magnetic fields, and they use this to navigate the endless expanse of oceans.

5. Finding a mate and reproducing

In this area every species seems to have its own way of doing things.  Over long periods of sexual selection, male peacocks have developed elaborate feathers to attract a mate.  The little guy clears an area in the forest, gives out a call and a female comes up to him.  He shows his feathers and does his dance.  She stares at him, and if she’s sufficiently impressed they mate, otherwise she looks elsewhere.

Other birds have to build elaborate nests and the female judges whether to mate with a male based on the quality of his nest.  One particular bird, I forget the name, cuts long pieces of grass and weaves them into an elaborate hut-like structure which hangs from tree branches.  After he’s half-way done with his hut he stands beside it and flaps his wings, calling out to females.  Then, if the female likes his little grass hut, they mate and nest there.

Rams grow great horns and fight other males in front of the females.  Whoever shows themselves as the alpha-ram mates with all the women, and all the other males wait until next time.  This sounds pretty harsh, but our own species has a similar past.  It’s not an accident that males tend to be bigger than females in humans, and that women tend to prefer muscular males over skinny or fat men.  Men used to fight it out over women, and evolution selected larger males over smaller ones.  Women find muscular men attractive because in the past, muscular men could hunt food for them much better than out of shape, or weak men.

6.  Raising their children

Not every species raises their children.  In fact, there’s a lot of species that simply hatch and go their way.  Pot-wasps are born in a little mud jar with a dead caterpillar stuffed inside.  They eat that while they’re growing and then bust out and go live their short life.

I don’t know about all turtles, but I know a lot of turtles just hatch out of their egg and then swim for the ocean.  They just instinctively know where they need to go and what they need to do.

But a lot of species raise their young.  It’s a big part of their life.  Elephants are really involved when raising children.  Not only are their parents involved, but also aunts, uncles, and grandparents.  Female chimpanzees raise their young, and eventually when the male chimps become old enough they start hanging around the older males, who show them how to get around in life.  A lot of baby fish follow their mother and father around, feeding on a slimy ooze which permeates out of the parents’ skin.

Now what does all of this have to do with meaning and purpose in human life?  Well, when you read anthropology texts you soon see that we’re not much different.  We’re a hairless great ape, with a slightly more developed brain, highly skilled in copying and mimicry, with a decent memory for remembering things.

I got to thinking about modern society and how it’s dehumanizing us.  Just take a look at the 6 point list, and then think about modern culture.

Take eating and finding food.  Finding food really isn’t part of our lives anymore.  Nowadays it’s all about getting money so we can buy groceries from the store, but we don’t actually go out and gather food directly.

We also aren’t threatened by any predators other than ourselves.  That being the case we don’t really have to worry about being hunted.  Unemployment is the new threat, which in many ways is worse considering that if you lose your job it’s not like you can go out and gather food.  It’s also interesting to me how no matter what economic policies we employ, the economic system makes it harder and harder on people to live, with minimum wage not even being enough to pay for the rent and groceries in an impoverished lifestyle.  Also, without going to college for years, burying yourself in huge debts, you’re not going to be able to earn any decent money either.  You’ll really scrape to get by, and unless you want to starve, you’ll have to keep slaving away for the corporations.

How did the world get like this?  Other species don’t live anything like this.  Well, our “civilization” began when we started domesticating animals and farming.  This was all done to gain the additional security of a guaranteed meal.   We found out we could throw seeds on the ground and the plants come up.  We scattered the seeds around, found out what causes them to grow, and then chopped down the forests to make room for our farms.  As we mastered these things we had a lot more free time on our hands, so we started building better homes, and began to produce things above and beyond our survival needs.

As we progressed, learning better farming techniques and how to domesticate animals far more effectively, something amazing happened – we had an abundance!  What a rare and spectacular thing.  Different people began to trade and barter these excess things, and this bartering eventually led to cities and money – money being an intermediary of exchange which everyone accepts.

Now what’s particularly fascinating about this whole play of events is that as the economic system developed, we eventually ended up with capitalism, which has the nasty effect of little to no security at all.  Trade and barter came into being because we had an abundance of food, so we started doing extra things and trading them.  Now to a large extent we’re back to struggling to survive, even though we have fields of grain and the technology to produce so much food it’s unbelievable.

But even so, we always worry about losing our job.  It only takes missing a few payments before you could literally lose everything you’ve been working for your entire life.  And the reason you lost your job may have nothing to do with you.

There’s all kinds of reason why you may lose your job.  Maybe it’s changing times, change in consumer taste, corporate mismanagement, over-production, under-production, your company’s bought out and they no longer need you… and the list goes on.  But whatever the case may be, you no longer have an income source, no way to make your bank payments, and no way to buy groceries and provide for your family.

Unless you work for a corporation, in order to make money under capitalism, you have to create something brand new which the established corporations don’t already produce.  It’s not like you can go out and start farming some wheat in your backyard.  You won’t earn enough money to survive.  You can’t farm tomatoes or cabbage.  Well you COULD, but you’d need a large farm in order to compete, and then you’d need tractors and lots of land, and lots of money to buy all that.

You can’t start weaving t-shirts and sweaters.  You can’t produce shoes, or really much of anything.  There’s a corporation(s) who already produce that very same thing, and they’ve mastered the art, producing it all super cheaply and in mass quantities.  Is that a bad thing?  No, not at all.  But if you don’t OWN the corporation, none of that money goes to you, and if you can’t earn any money, it doesn’t matter how cheap the shoes are.  And in the modern world you can’t go out and gather supplies to make your own shoddy shoes.  You also can’t go out, chop down some trees with a hand-made stone implement, and build yourself a mud and timber home either; there’s all kinds of laws and if you build such a structure it will be bulldozed down and you’ll be hauled off to jail as a vagabond.

So we have to earn money to provide for our families.  Most jobs are boring factory jobs, paper pushing, or stocking shelves at the supermarket.  Tedious and monotonous.   However, in the unlikely event that you do produce a new successful product and release it to the market you run into this next cycle.

Economic studies have shown that every industry tends to start off anarchic, with lots of different producers.  Infant industries are this way.  But eventually the more industrious businesses gobble up the weaker ones, and each begins to expand until you’re left with two or three major players.  Ownership is primarily consolidated to Wall Street finance tycoons, the entrepreneurs who started the company get rich when they sell off the company’s shares in a stock-market offering (IPO), and then the consumers benefit from the cheap prices.  And so we have a society where almost all the money is controlled by very few people.  Small windows of opportunity open and close here and there.

You know, this same type of thing happens in the rainforest.  When a big tree dies, sunlight starts to strike the forest floor for the first time in ages.  It’s a race to the top!  So all kinds of plants begin to sprout and grow, and whoever grows the fastest ends up controlling that area of forest canopy.  Eventually the leaves of this mega tree block all the sunlight again, and all the other plants die.  The analogy isn’t perfect though.  In an economy, new “ground” gets created when someone thinks up an idea, but the same process applies.

So unless you have such an opportunity and win the race to the top, you’ll be working for one of these corporations, who are always cutting your benefits and wages and mismanaging your retirement plans.  Oh yeah, and don’t forget, inflation is going to eat you alive, rising each year faster than your wages!  Woohoo!

One thing is decisively clear — we are completely at the mercy of money.  Our initial material abundance has led us to, well, this.  All I can say, thinking on it all, is…wow.

This is why economics is so fascinating to me.  What we initially constructed for our greater security and prosperity, hoping for material ease, has led a very scary world filled with races to the top and infighting, with no security at all.  Granted, it also has some nice benefits.  I’m typing this entry on this computer, which is a marvel of engineering.

But do we all become communists and hold everything in common?  That really doesn’t play out well either.  So much to discuss, but I’m getting a bit off track.  I’ll have to leave all the talks about communism and capitalism to other entries.

Ok, so why did I say all that?  I find it all very dehumanizing.  A lot of us work in factories where we do the same mundane task over and over.  Not only do we earn horrible wages, but it’s boring.  We used to spend our days hunting and gathering, and despite its cruelties and uncertainties it was at least exciting.  You have your girl waiting back at the camp and you come in lugging some giant animal, blood all over your body.  You and the guys are in high spirits, giving each other high fives, and reminiscing at how crazy it was when that buffalo almost killed your buddy, and you saved him just in the nick of time.  Your girl kisses you on the cheek and tends to your wounds. That’s much more appealing to me than sitting behind a desk of an insurance company stamping paperwork.

When the white man took over America the Indians were very angry with how everything turned out.  They told us that the white man ruined everything.  How?  They complained that all they had to do in the past was hunt, fish, and have sex.  Now they had to do all kinds of other boring things which nobody liked.

That’s really interesting.  Take my grandpa for instance.  Now that he’s retired, after spending years at the power plant, what does he do?  He hunts and fishes.  People are finally free and what do they do?  Hunt and fish.

I can see a lot of people who are like, “Ugh, I’d never want to hunt and fish.  That’s so hillbilly.”  Then they load up World of Warcraft on their laptops, and just do it in a virtual world.  I remember when Zelda on Nintendo 64 offered a fishing side quest.  Everyone was freaking out.  “How awesome!  I want to fish!”  And don’t tell me that’s a minority of people because it’s not.  There’s MILLIONS playing World of Warcraft alone.  MILLIONS, and there’s tons of games out there just like it.

Of all the things in the world you could do, and all the games that could be programmed, the most popular video game is one where you’re a caveman, with some magical abilities, running around smashing animals’ heads, slashing each other with swords, and fighting wars against each others’ factions.   That’s what college kids are skipping class to stay in their dorms to play.  They want to be cavemen.

Though we’ve only recently discovered this fact, our origins are the forests of Africa, where we evolved from monkeys and apes.   Our instincts are wired up in such a way that we’d live happy lives hunting, fishing, protecting our families from wild animals, raising our children, and gathering food.  Ethnologists tell us that primitive cultures are just as happy as us living in our big city penthouses.

When people go to the movie theater and watch James Bond save the damsel in distress, and all the woman are woo’d, and the men daydreaming that they were him, they’re all dreaming of going back to the life we ALL used to live everyday.  There’s the big tiger about to devour the girl.  You and the guys grab the spears and charge at it.  Then after it’s dead she grabs you, hugs you, and you have sex.  That was your life circa 20,000 B.C.  Then again, sometimes the tiger killed us or ate our girlfriend, which sucked pretty bad.  Other times we got sick, or were wounded and died from a nasty infection, or starved to death.  Well, pre-history times had its problems too I guess.

You know what sucks about the modern world?  You can’t save a girl in distress.  Sure you can learn martial arts, but if you use it you’ll probably be thrown in jail.  That really sucks.  I think secretly we all entertain daydreams of cute girls in distress and then we rush to her side yelling, “Hey punk!  Leave her alone!”  Then you whack the guy in the nose, he falls over, then you taunt him, he runs out whimpering, and the girl is like, “Oh thank you!”  Then you ask her to join you for dinner, and life is good.

I’ve never ONCE had anything remotely exciting like that happen to me.  Not even once!

Unless you’re a god at guitar it’s unlikely you’ll get such a reaction from most women.  Such exciting events don’t happen in reality.  Instead you’re a structural engineer who examines the soil before buildings are constructed, testing the soundness of building foundations.  You’re overweight because you have no time to exercise, the job is boring but it pays well, and you got debts to pay.  Girls find your boring because really, your life is boring, but then again, so is everyone else’s.

Then you, the fat engineer, come and visit me, the eccentric philosopher/scientist, who hates having to earn money as well.  “Hey Jason, how do you earn money?  What do girls think of it?”  I pause, sigh, then talk about computer programming and business ventures, writing software which runs internet service provider helpdesks, and banking software.  You cringe, I cringe, then we both laugh at how boring modern life is, we load up World of Warcraft on our laptops and pwn some noobs.  “Yeah baby, want to party with my paladin?  Look at my tier 3 gear! /dance”

Modern society is slowly taking away all the things we’re instinctively wired to enjoy, and I’m wondering if the security and material prosperity we’re gaining is really what we want.  Everything that is human, and that we’ve done for millions of years, modern society is saying, “No.  You can’t do that anymore.”

In the modern world we barely get to raise our children.  Some political philosophers, including Karl Marx, don’t even believe in family.  The child should be raised by the state, and educated by the state.  Everything is about the state and some huge unity of humanity.  So the motherly instinct of raising and protecting her child is near gone now too.  After all, children have to be educated and indoctrinated into all the technicals of upkeeping this massive system we’ve constructed.

Going down the list I see Navigation and migration.  That isn’t really an issue these days.  Now we have GPS devices which use satellites, telling us exactly where we are and everything around us.

We still search for and find mates, though the only real thing we can provide for a mate these days is our love and a paycheck.  In prehistory days we protected our mates and children from invaders and dangerous foreign species.  Nowadays the only way you can do that is through the military, and the invaders are other human beings.  Unfortunately when you study history, military men are rarely defending anyone.  More often they’re pawns of the big corporations and fat cats – cannon fodder in their domination agendas.  Either way, being a military service man is still branded as “protecting your country and loved ones”, which has an instinctive appeal to it.  Policemen protect and defend, and sometimes the military does as well, but far too often our politicians rush our men in uniform off to foreign lands for other things entirely.  I should make it clear though, I don’t disparage military men and women.  I don’t think they’re the ones to blame, it’s the politicians and their greed.

How about child birth?  Certainly we can at least give birth to our children.  Well, I don’t think that’ll be the case much longer.  Already genetics books are talking about artificially growing our children, so that they can be monitored and born without any defects.  As science progresses mothers won’t even give birth to their children.  The mother will donate an egg and the male some sperm, and it’ll be grown from there.  And with time, will even the DNA be completely artificially created so that everyone is “perfect”?

The state will raise the child, and we’ll go off to our mundane jobs.  Then with time, I think our lives will become even more meaningless than they are already.

I wonder what men in the future will even do.  Imagine when food is produced by machines like that in Star Trek.  You tell the computer what you want and it compresses energy into food.  Nobody will even cook.  Food gathering and feeding your young is made into something trivial.

What happens when artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence?  That AI will be implanted into robotic bodies, and every task of life will be done for us.

The only thing that will be left for humans to do will be science research, but what if the AI can do research better than humans?

Our desire for security will eventually have led to complete security, with our own computer created inventions protecting and doing everything for us, but in the process our lives will be completely meaningless and empty.  They’ll be no zest, and nothing for us to do.

I wonder if we’ve all been lost in economics, politics, and the madness of modern life, and have forgotten why we formed our first civilizations to begin with.   These fictional entities have taken on a life of their own, and humanity has been left on the sidelines.

Our humanity is to a large extent embodied in those six points made earlier.  We wish to gather and prepare food for our families, raise our children, build a home, find a mate, and reproduce.  That’s the primary ambitions of human beings.  Once we forget that and make life into something different, I think we’ll just make our lives meaningless and empty.  If we do try to change that, in order to make being human something different, we’ll have to rewire our brains and reward systems to enjoy other things.  At that point, I don’t think we’re even human any more.  We’re something new.  We should call ourselves “Civil-sapiens”, born of civilization, no longer of Earth.  We certainly won’t resemble anything on this planet.

Already modern civilization is diverging from nature so far that forests and environments are in the way of our progress.  We need more room for office buildings and skyscrapers.  We need to run more power-lines and install more satellite dishes.

Earlier I mentioned insects being unleashed on an island with no predators and how they’d outstrip the food supply and kill themselves in the process.  We’re not too different; but with us we’ve found out how to control the food supply, and even in some degree the climate.  But we’re killing off everything around us nonetheless, only allowing select species of the planet to survive.

But if society keeps going in its current direction, I’d say “humanity” has already died.  For good or ill, when the Mayans predicted the end of the world in 2012, maybe they were right.  This is the birth of a new sort of era.  Life on Earth will never be the same.

Topics: Philosophy | 6 Comments »

6 Responses to “The Purpose Of Life”

Leave A Reply