IS LIFE MEANINGFUL?
Conscience and intelligence as malediction and cause of misfortune and unhappiness
In his Essays, Montaigne tells us a curious story. Pyrrhus, an ancient philosopher of the sceptic school, and several men and a pig were in a boat facing a storm at sea. Because of the storm the men felt anguish and fear and lost their manners, whilst the pig showed superior indifference and serenity.
The moral of Montaigne’s story: our conscience and intelligence are often a malediction. To meditate and be conscious of our weakness and misfortunes is often a cause of fear, grief and unhappiness. Our conscience destroys or diminishes life’s meaning – expressed in harmonious feelings, well-being, satisfaction, happiness...
In the Bible, there are verses pointing to an analogous conclusion: «In much wisdom is much grief; and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow». «Do not want to be too just or too sage: what for ruin yourself?» (Ecclesiastes)
These are verses we may refuse, finding them too excessive or unlucky. And yet they point out the damned side of our memory and intelligence. The conscience of the brevity of life and death - largely ignored by other species -, may indeed create negative thoughts and reflexions, and, consequently, unhappiness.
But… we can’t deny our thought, or our memories. To deny our thought is to deny our dignity. Our dignity follows the direction of our thought, says Blaise Pascal. To take too close heed of Ecclesiastes words, or the moralist conclusion of Montaigne’s story about the pig, is to fall down to an inferior threshold of life.
John Stuart Mill responds directly to Montaigne’s pig story, with a famous statement:
«It is better to be an unsatisfied human being than a satisfied pig; better to be Socrates unsatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool or the pig is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other, to make the comparison, understands both sides».
Dropping our intelligence and moral senses lowers us to a mechanical world, a zombie one, where the meaning of life would be lost, without evil or good, suffering or happiness. As Robert Wright says in his magnificent Nonzero:
«In an imaginary planet of zombies, devoid of meaning, the Pol Pots and Hitlers and Stalins of the world would be incapable of evil; however destructive, they could inflict no suffering, prevent no happiness, affront no dignity».
Be that as it may, we aren’t these kind of acephalous beings. We are beings endowed with intelligence and memory, and, therefore, beings oscillating between happiness and unhappiness. The meaning of our lives is also dependent on our conscience, intelligence and freedom. Or in other words, on our choices, our values, our options, or our creeds.
And there is also a deterministic element that we shouldn’t minimize – one that plunges into our core and into the equilibriums of our bodies, and that can overcome our rationality, our conscience and our will. The meaning of our lives depends a lot on it: life loses or gains meaning through the chemical transmitters beating in our minds…
Our «psychological states of exaltation are linked to our optimism, our depressive states to pessimism, and when we pass from one to the other, our world becomes either a world of misery, failure and tragedy, or a world of well-being, plenitude and happiness» (Edgar Morin).
In a sense, these transmitters depend on us, or more exactly, depend on the ambient we create and where we live; they are switched on and off by our philosophies of life and by the values we choose, and by the positive or negative thoughts we have. That’s why the friendship and the love we are able to create and share, or our religious beliefs, or the way we live music or other forms of art, can give a meaning to life – by switching on or off the cerebral transmitters that allow our happiness feelings.
And yet these transmitters can also surpass the ambient we share or which we create, thus overcoming our will. And they can do this in a positive sense by giving us satisfaction, plenitude and harmony, independently to what is closer to our impulses and instincts.
But they may also acquire a negative sense through their connection to some ills and chemical brain imbalances, causing psychoses, depressive states, or, more simply, distress or anxiety. From this perspective, life loses or gains a meaning through the chemical transmitters that beat in our brains, independently of our will, our values, our philosophies of life, our creeds…
See also: Quotations on Is life Meaningful?