What I learned on MLK day

My wife continues to ask her question. Sometimes from the positive side: “why are we here, doing all these things?”. Sometimes from the negative side: “if we’re going to be extinct in a few hundred thousand years, why are we doing all this. No one’s going to be around to care or remember.” Of course, she’s just reformulating the simpler old cliché, “what is the meaning of life?” She keeps coming at this from different angles because she’s trying to get a different answer from me. But my response is always the same. I tell her that question turns on a category error.. Life is not the sort of thing to which meaning applies. Existence is not instrumental, nor does it represent anything. I have tried to present a convincing argument for my position, but she has rejected every version outright. Her tone leads me to believe that she may simply doubt my authority on the matter. That’s a reasonable position to take. I’m a amateur philosopher at best.

So, I’ve tried to hit her with statements on the matter from authorities in the field. I’ve tried Nietzsche.

“Physiologists should think before putting down the instinct of self-preservation as the cardinal instinct of an organic being. A living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength–life itself is will to power; self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent results.”

She just shook her head.
Then I went to the Hagakure:
“Live being true to the single-purpose of the present moment. Ae man’s whole life is a series of moments. If you can do this, there will be nothing else to do and nothing else to pursue.”
It bounced off, not even a mark.

I even trotted out the old favorite:
Existence precedes essence”.
Mere sophistry, she says.
Recently, I got my best chance at validation. I got to pose her question to a real philosopher. As it turns out, he was sympathetic to the question, but he reformulated it a bit. He split her more complicated notion of meaning into 2, distinct concepts. The minor portion is the equivalent of Telos-the idea that existence is instrumental, or in other words, that life has a purpose. This idea, he felt, could be easily rejected. It’s true, the idea that there’s some purpose served by existence falls apart almost as soon as it’s formulated. For instance, if we assume that we exist to make widgets, the question of why we exist simply devolves to the question of why widgets exist. Maybe we’ve got an easy answer for that question. Maybe it’s plain to all that widgets are needed to make a widgetron. And obviously, a widgetron exists because God needs a widgetron. But then we have to ask why God needs a widgetron. Maybe we can sneak by this question by insisting that only God knows why God needs a widgetron. But, if we are going to preserve Telos for the widgets and therefore for the widget makers, then we need an account of God’s use for the widgetron, and all we get from making the knowledge of that use private is a shift in responsibility. God must carry on the investigation. What we end up with, is a set of complications without a change in the structure of the problem. Wherever you choose to stop, you’re forced to admit that this is just how things are. Existence really does precedes essence.

If Telos is unsalvageable, another sense of meaning may yet stand. Heidegger observed that we are thrown in to our circumstances. We don’t come with an instruction manual, map, compass, or storybook. We are confronted with puzzling out our best narrative. Though there is still a brute fact at work here, it doesn’t have the crushing gravity of given purpose. We are stuck with our task, but the work of charting our course remains self consistent. Here is the meaning that the questioner is after: a sort of self representation,. It is a smaller revelation than expected from a definitive answer to the question of life’s meaning. But it doesn’t overreach by trying to explain brute facts, and it is more substantial than “42”. It is the Goldilocks answer, and should satisfy everybody. But my wife cannot accept it. Knowing that it all ends in a “great rip” which destroys space and time, or alternatively, that the universe quietly evaporates in a “heat death”, makes all the stories the same. There may be some variations on the typical strutting and fretting along the way, but everyone’s book ends with the same billions of blank pages. By the time the reader has flipped through them all, he or she will scarcely recall the printed contents, and the stories might as well all be the same for as much as they differ in light of that mass of emptiness. For her, if there is no permanence, there is no possibility of constructing a good story.

At this point, I was out of arguments. I wasn’t quite ready to admit defeat,, but I couldn’t think of another convincing way to state my position.

And then Dr. King came to my rescue. I’m not sure how I got to the video, but it was Martin Luther King Day, so there was plenty of high profile MLK material floating around the Internet. He was giving an interview in 1966 and he said something that I never would’ve imagined a pastor and activist saying.

“If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, in a sense he is not fit to live.”

Such a person labors under the mistaken notion that existence itself has some token value. Life has representational meaning in that case, and it’s role as a token makes life worth something, just like money has value because it represents debt. If you hold this position, then some permanence really is critical. If the bank is not an eternal bank, then we all must become Roman coins someday. As the debts which we represent are forgotten and our value gets washed away by time. For meaning to be sustainable, the treasury upon which it draws must be permanent, and sustainability is an essential part of representational meaning. Our narratives represent to something, at least in principle, or we really are just sound and fury.

Attribution of representational meaning to existence is sketchy enough, but It is a particular consequence of the attribution which renders its claimant, in a sense, unfit to live.. The monetary analogy serves here as well. Like a bill or coin, we are inert. That is not to say that we cannot do things. A banknote ,after all, can mark one’s place in a book, and a coin of the proper size can be used as a screwdriver. But what they really must do as currency to be currency, is to remain a recognizable token. Self-preservation is paramount, and, in a sense, any action beyond that scope is meaningless.

But, we do act, and only rarely with the primary intention of preserving ourselves. As Nietzsche pointed out survival is just a very common, happy side effect of our motives and their associated actions.. To take things to the most basic level, we eat because we are hungry, and drink because we are thirsty. We don’t eat or drink to carry forward the tale of our Personality.

If representational meaning in a narrative can’t quite face up to those blank pages stretching to eternity, can anything? .Here is where Dr. King comes to the rescue, with the first part of his statement. An explanation lies in the implication of what it means to discover something that one will die for. One might reasonably ask: what won’t people die for? People die for money, shame, vanity, and every other stupid thing, every day. But I don’t think that those transactions are what King means to reference. I think he means something more like things worth dying for. I think he means exactly the thing so expressive of the individual’s personality that its persistence renders that person’s independent existence moot. That class of things doesn’t demand extinction as the price of admission, they just render the separate persistence of one’s identity irrelevant.

To take Dr. King as an example: he advocated nonviolence, but only secondarily. He was nonviolent primarily. He spoke out on civil rights, but not in order to play a role in the story of civil rights. His words were a seamless expression of those rights, and inextricable from the marches, sit ins, jail time, and even the bullet. All those things were not elements of autobiography, they were the man himself.

Rather than weaving a tale, we are aimed at discovering a destiny. Destiny is the closest word for what I think motivates us. Because place is the best metaphor for our hearts desire. It is the place where our feet fit perfectly, and where we are completely oriented. That is Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s “single purpose of the present moment”. It is not a moment to live for, or in, it is a place from which any movement is self-expression, and from which no movement alters the circumstances.

Destiny’s viewpoint reveals self-preservation’s constraining nature and exposes extinction’s irrelevance. Self-preservation and extinction represent aspects of a person. They have the weaknesses of any representation and have no more role in the discovery of destiny than a Roman coin (as a Roman coin) has in loosening a screw.

I think destiny answers my wife’s objections. It is self-contained in a way that narrative meaning is not, and so stands up to eternity’s vacuum. I think it is a better way to understand the single purpose of the present moment. I can tell that she has some sympathy for the idea, but she can’t quite get past its insinuation that transience is what we seek.

I will run this argument by her. I don’t have any great expectation that it will fare better than the ones that have failed before it. After all, her objections are at least partially noncognitive. She has a good understanding of the endless empty pages, and it frightens her. There may not be any getting past that feeling. But she is also suspicious of samurai and German philosophers. With Dr. King on board, maybe there is a chance for a breakthrough.

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