I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading two books recently. ‘How much is enough‘, the first one, is a sensible attack on money for money’s sake and the absurdity of it. The second one, ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance‘ is a classic that I read for the second time. This time it became clear to me that the book on many levels was talking about the an ugly outcome of single-minded urbanization. It also questions the apparent superiority of intellect over aesthetics. Of course, the two books are about much more than what I’m describing here but the underlying thread was common – both books urged considering mankind’s total quality of experience, rather than just material wealth or technological / scientific progress.
The idea of rationality holding supreme power to describe the universe is a very strong one and has actually lead to a lot of progress in recent centuries in terms of increased lifespan and other comforts. However, does this mean that in terms of stacking order Science is the end answer to everything? The two books inspired me to try approaching this from a first principles perspective.
So I asked myself where should all human inquiry begin?
In other words.
What philosophy should be about?
We now know that humans are a type of mammal, organisms evolved just like any other we find on Earth. Every now and then since the recorded history, man (a human) has gradually dethroned himself from being the centre of the universe to now a collection of biological cells capable of thought. Every time a Copernican revolution happened in Science, humans got closer to their primate family.
It’s both scientifically proven and commonly observed that much of our behaviour is animal-like. We eat, we reproduce, we play, we take care of young ones. We do pretty much that all biological creatures exist for – passing on genetic information to the next generation.
However, human nature can be shaped.
The fantastic unique ability of humans for elaborate communication and exchange of thoughts makes us different from the rest of biological creatures. Avoidance of suffering is programmed into us (and all other creatures) through evolution. The drive for survival and food lead a creature into suffering-minimizing mode. The drive for reproduction and sex lead it to happiness-maximizing mode. All creatures including humans are programmed to minimise suffering and maximize happiness.
The only way for all biological creatures apart from humans to maximize survival and reproduction is through unconscious, programmed genetic evolution over generations. Humans are special in that regard. In addition to genetic record, we can record our experiences in oral and written form and teach the same generation on how to minimize suffering and maximize happiness — the drives that evolution wants us to optimize for.
I think this basic drive towards well being (where suffering is minimal and happiness is maximized) is what Pirsig refers to as Quality in his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. We can pass our experiences, experiments and thoughts to others in order to collectively achieve a high Quality life.
I believe that’s what human inquiry should be about – provided that we’re a biological creature, what should we do in order to lead a good life, a life with maximum well-being, a happy and satisfactory life.
The nature of goodness needs elaboration. Goodness for biological creatures relates to their survival and reproduction. Sure, evolution had made our brain seek goodness and rewards it with dopamine whenever it is achieved and punishes it with pain whenever it’s not. However, an argument could be made that if humans succeed in isolating pure consciousness that is unencumbered from biological constraints, what would that consciousness do (or seek)? What would a Philosophy for pure consciousness look like. I doubt we can ever isolate pure consciousness or that it exists but let’s assume it as a thought experiment. This is akin to making a computer which exhibits signs of consciousness. What would such a pure consciousness do?
Suppose there are then multiple such pure consciousness, multiple metaphysical entities. Since we don’t know what such pure consciousness would be bothered about let’s assume that different entities exhibit different behaviours. Some randomly drift. Some dissipate. Some replicate and spread. Interestingly, given multiple varieties of entities, eventually only the entities that replicate and spread will remain and dominate others in the population. In other words, we can hazard a guess that another evolution may kickstart for this hypothetical scenario and that evolution will also lead the dominating consciousness to seek some sort of goodness. The nature of that goodness is uncertain, but in my opinion there’s a tantalising possibility of a universal state that is preferable than other states. In the world of pure consciousness, such metaphysical entities will philosophize on how to achieve that good state.
Hence, given the underlying nature of the beings or entities, Philosophy should really be concerned about maximizing well-being, goodness or whatever else it is called in respective contexts.
Why is there anything at all?
We humans have cognizance of the universe and unlike other creatures we can’t help but wonder why is there a universe in the first place. Why anything exists at all? The fact that there is something rather than nothing and we don’t know why proves that there is a gap in our understanding and experience. Science and rationality cannot be expected to answer the why question. They answer what and how.
No matter how much scientists say that the question of why anything exists is meaningless or impractical, the void always nags and points to limitations of science. Perhaps that void can only be filled with a direct (spiritual?) experience and not through intellectual understanding?
Since the void nags and reduces well being for many (including me), Philosophy should also aim at taking a stab at how such a void can be filled. Perhaps the answer is arts, poetry, morality or beauty. I’m not sure what it is but any valid Philosophy should attempt to provide a total satisfaction – including these nagging questions.
In summary, if you have to begin an inquiry, here’s where you could begin:
Given that human is a biological creature, a product of evolution, what can we do to maximize well being. Bonus points for answering why anything exists at all?
You can then derive answers as to why you sometimes feel enslaved by modern urban life, what is the nature of morality, how much money is enough, is democracy the right form of government and many such questions like that from time to time.