Thursday, 7 March 2013

Swimming pools and nihilism

These days as an AS Philosophy student, it doesn't take much to get me thinking about the ultimate meaning of life, the universe and everything. But for a long time I've been unable to get away from the view that there is... well, no meaning. No purpose. We live, our parents teach us how to speak an arbitrary language (unless we're raised by wolves, in which case the whole linguistic upbringing is a lot more exciting,) we learn the arbitrary rules of morality in our particular arbitrary society based on our arbitrary location, we decide on an arbitrary career that has some questionable usefulness in terms of the whole society (or at least, we like to think it does,) we go about a significant portion of our lives filling out that career in order to perpetuate a cycle of earning money, eating food and doing any other arbitrary things in between that we think might entertain us. And then we die.

It doesn't surprise me that nihilism isn't a very popular viewpoint.

One of the distinct joys of going through Philosophy lessons over the past few months has been having everything I thought I knew questioned and ultimately scrapped. It's fascinating watching other people go through the same process - you can plot our collective credulity on a graph. We've breached four units now, and in each unit - and often at the start of a sub-unit - we'll start with a question that we think should be obvious. "Which of the following are persons?" or "Do we have free will?" And then we start to learn why Turing thought a computer could be a person, and that's where our credulity hits a high "Oh yeah, that makes complete sense, I really like that idea, yeah, I'm totally convinced that a computer is a person now." But then it reaches a low when we go and learn about how Searle thought that that was bullshit and computers can't be persons. "Oh, right, yeah, I see what he's saying, I can't really believe that a computer is a person now." You could compare the graphs for every section and we'd come out essentially the same for every section. We really don't know how much we don't know.

One of the views in particular that was a big high on the credulity graph was Sartre's existentialism (philosophy has a habit of producing zombie nouns with more syllables than are comfortable like nobody's business.) Essentially, the people at the time were saying that we have a soul. That's your personality, and that's it. You're a shopkeeper/pianist/crazy-axe-murderer because that was the kind of soul that God bestowed upon you. And Sartre said "Well, that's bullshit" (in politer words that would have most likely been French.) He told the people of the world: "Be what you want to be, it's not your soul that makes you what you are, YOU make you what you are. Go out and punch a dolphin or learn the euphonium or do whatever the fuck you want, because you are a free spirit and there ain't nobody gonna tell you what to do." Ever-so-slight paraphrasing here.

Naturally, this was a popular view. Existentialism is a nice idea. If you're not one for Christian theology, go you! Screw becoming the children of God and spreading the message of Jesus: the meaning of life is what you make it. You choose the path. There's no one "direction" for your life that's written in to the stars, carved in the ground, coded into your DNA. It's all you. So of course, this was high on our credulity graph.

But at the end of the day, I can't come to see this as anything more than what it is: a nice perspective. When you get down to the nitty-gritty, the meaning of life is just what the universe tells you: nothing. There is nothing written in the stars or the ground or your genes. Sartre and I are agreed on this. But the decision to carve a meaning out of it is ultimately your arbitrary (you see a theme here,) human decision to do so, to make you feel happier and get you through life without a crushing sense of meaninglessness. (Of course, that's if you're not a determinist and believe we have free decisions in the first place, but that's possibly even more depressing, so I won't get into that here.)

I was thinking about this while swimming earlier. Obviously I have a very narrow and uninformed perspective as a poorly traveled 17 year old college student couched in the safety of a protective Western capitalist meritocracy, so I haven't done much more than what people living in protective Western capitalist meritocracies do, which is maximise your own happiness. For some reason, swimming is a frequent contender on the list of things that we like to do to have a pleasurable day. And you can derive pleasure out of anything if you like - it's certainly a lot easier when you've got a chance to travel fast down a watery slide or release a few happy hormones pumping your arms travelling from one end of the pool to the other. But ultimately, that's all you're doing. Falling down water slides. Swimming from one end of the pool to the other. Or in most cases, stagnating in a lukewarm pool of water that usually serves to make the other pool colder.

They're a real testament to nihilism. We pay money (and don't get me started on the pointlessness of money,) to a group of people who happen to own and clean a body of water so that we can spend an hour or two getting ourselves wet, moving around in an environment slightly different from the standard mix of oxygen and nitrogen that we'd get walking around otherwise. And then we get out, shiver from the cold, try not to expose our nudity to the world while we change into clothes more suitable for outside, and go home.

I mean obviously, some people go there to exercise: to develop their muscles or aid their breathing, or train to be a professional water acrobat or Olympic diver or what-have-you. And that'll extend their lifetime for a bit, maybe, but at the end of the day they're moving from one end of the pool to another. Some just happen to be entering the pool from one, five or ten metres height.

Nihilism is not an attractive view, and I may grow out of it yet, so I don't try to force it on people. But everywhere I go I see people who want their lives to be meaningful and I think "That's all good but... you really are pointless." I am pointless. Human society is pointless. I just prefer existing to not existing, because it's more than troublesome to kill myself and I get a lot of pleasure out of living. And pleasure is the root of it all, I believe. We exist to be happy. It's just nice to believe that we're here for a bit more than to stuff ourselves with food or sit in an office fulfilling a questionable function from 9 to 5.

So religion probably has the right idea. It's no surprise, considering the universe from a nihilistic perspective, that religion became as popular as it did. When you live in a universe with no inherent meaning and someone comes along to tell you "You're going to a place of eternal bliss after you die! All you have to do is live a productive and morally beneficial life and pledge your support to this particular deity, and don't listen to any of those foul pretenders!" then you'd naturally expect people to follow, build that deity into a human form that we can relate to (Jesus,) establish a moral code that generally leads to a beneficient lifestyle (Bible), and proclaim everything you say to be the gospel truth (church). It worked for Ricky Gervais, and it sure beats "You are a creature born of a long chain of evolution with no intrinsic purpose who lives, eats, breeds and dies."

Yet I can't bring myself to believe in God any more than I can believe we have a deep-seated reason for existing. Sartre had the right idea, too. Nobody wants to face a life of pointless hedonism, punctuated by frequent suffering. Far better to at least make some purpose out of your life than to wallow in nihilistic despair as I do now and then.

Besides, if I die without having fulfilled any particular purpose, that will have been a lot of money I wasted on swimming pools.

~Love Leonidas

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