Torchwood and the Meaning of Life

Resurrection gauntletThe first episode of Torchwood has finally aired on Australia television! This contemporary Doctor Who spin-off is more than just another way to cash in on the popular science fiction series. Torchwood is more violent and daring than the series that spawned it, but underneath the sex and violence the stories deal with philosophical issues, some of which deserve exploration beyond the screen narrative.

The Torchwood team has a metallic gauntlet by which they can revive the dead for a short period. Several people are killed by the same method and knife. When John Tucker, one of the victims, is revived, Jack Harkness asks him:

What was it like when you died? … Nothing, I saw nothing. Oh my God, there is nothing.

John is clearly disturbed by this prospect, specially because he knows that he will die again soon. The idea of total blackness and nothing seems to scare him profoundly.

This fear of nothingness is a fascinating aspect of the human condition. When analysing the problem it is clear that this fear is not rational because when there is nothing, there is also no threat. A state of not-being is not something to fear because it is not rational (not justified) to fear something that does not exist. So why are people not content with a prospect of an absolute end to life?

Leo Tolstoy thought that if there was no life after death, then life would be meaningless. This approach is, however, not satisfactory because it relocates the problem of whether there is meaning to a life after death. If there is life after death, then what is the meaning of that life? Is there a life after life-after-death to provide meaning? Ad infinitum …

The Epicureans did not agree with this line of thought and were right in arguing that death is inconsequential to the question whether life has meaning or not. Although death may be final and could make all our efforts futile from a perspective of eternity, we can only judge life from the internal perspective. The idea that death only removes meaning is forced upon us when we look upon life from the eternal perspective.

We can, however, not view life from an external perspective, because we are bound by our internal point of view. Any attempt to take an external perspective, such as religion, can not provide a final answer to the quest for a meaning of life.

The meaning of life is embedded in life itself and we should not hope, nor fear for anything after death.

Red Dwarf and the Meaning of Life

Red Dwarf and the Meaning of Life

Red Dwarf and the Meaning of Life

The answer to the question of meaning of life is for many the ultimate quest. I have found an answer by watching the delightfully silly science fiction series Red Dwarf.

The second episode of the fifth season is very different to most story lines, as it deals with the ultimate question: the meaning if life. The Inquisitor is on a journey through time, seeking out the worthless and erasing them from existence, allowing a different person to exist in their place:

Well, the legend tells of a droid – a self-repairing simulant, who survives till the end of eternity; to the end of time itself. After millions of years alone, he finally reaches the conclusion that there is no god, no afterlife, and the only purpose of existence is to lead a worthwhile life. And so the droid constructs a time machine and roams eternity, visiting every single soul in history, assessing each one. He erases all those who have wasted their lives and replaces them with those who never had a chance of life – the unfertilised eggs, the sperms that never made it. THAT is the Inquisitor – he prunes away the wastrels, expunges the wretched, and deletes the worthless!

After hearing this story, Lister asks how to determine who is worthless, which is a profoundly philosophical question. Not so much the question who is worthless and who is not, but the question whether there actually can be rational demarcation criteria to separate the ‘wastrels, wretched and the worthless’.

Dealing with these issues is seen by some as philosophical Russian roulette because the answer might lead to a totally different view of the world – some pointing directly to the Nazi eugenics projects. But this question is not about that – it is a meta question. Can we find rational means to determine which lives are worth living and which are not. The question whether a life that is found not worth living can be expunged is an ethical question and a whole different matter all together.

Is, as Rimmer eloquently puts it “eating sugar puff sandwiches for eight hours every day” more or less valuable than writing symphonies or painting the Sistine Chapel? The immediate gut feel answer is that the latter is more valuable than the former. The silent premise in this line of reasoning is that something has to have external value, e.g. value to something outside the person themselves in order to be worthwhile.

Kryten clearly follows this external view when he argues that: “you don’t have to be a great philanthropist, or a missionary worker, you simply have to seize the gift of life! … Make a contribution!”

If this would be the case, if a life was only worth living if it has external value, then all animals are leading worthless lives. Looking at our cats, I see totally egocentric beings, who do not care about anything else but their own please. To them, eating tuna, the feline equivalent of sugar puff sandwiches, is a perfectly good life and most certainly worth living.

In Religion as a Vehicle for Meaning I have already argued that there are no rational means to determine which life is worth living. Religion provides no philosophical justification and philosophical reasoning often leads to concluding that there is no meaning of life, outside life itself.

In Red Dwarf, the Inquisitor determines whether somebody’s life is worth living by letting people judging themselves: “a bit metaphysical … but it is the only fair way”. The Inquisitor thus judges each life on internal values. It is indeed the only fair way. Not very rational or scientifically justified and theologically surely not satisfactory, but it is the only thing we got!

The limits of Dawkinism: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent

I have been reading Richard Dawkins‘ book, The God Delusion. Although I largely agree with his atheist point of view, I think he stretches his argument a bit too far as he does not seem to acknowledge that there is a limit to what we can achieve with reason, a horizon across which rational thinking can not take us.

His view can be summarised by Wittgenstein’s famous proposition: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. Dawkins places the limits of knowledge at the limits of reason. His view of religion, which lies largely outside the limits of reason, is directly derived to this assumption. I would, however, like to argue that the limits of knowledge are not formed by the limits of reason.

One of his arguments is that there is a negative correlation between religiosity and intelligence, e.g. the higher the IQ, the less likely somebody is religious. This seems to give the impression that religious people are generally less smart than atheists, thereby labelling most of the world population as dumb.

The reason for this correlation is, however, that measurement of IQ is totally biased towards rational thinking. Tendencies towards religion or spirituality in general are not part of an IQ test. This does not explain the correlation, but shows the limitations of comparing religiosity and intelligence.

Religion should be considered as a Vehicle for Meaning. Rational thinking can not provide us with meaning to life and religion is for a lot of people a way to deal with the vacuum.

Religion is not my preferred way if providing meaning to life; I choose an existentialist point of view—flying in a metaphysical hot air balloon. This attitude is, however, only possible after deep and complex rational thinking. Most people do, however, not have the energy or capability to live this way and religion is an ‘easy’ way out.

Dawkins does not seem to consider the provision of an answer to meaning to life questions. He places a very high burden on the rational abilities of people. The creation versus evolution question is an example of this.

Dawkins might reply that this is all very well, but the provision of truth has primacy over providing meaning. This is philosophically very slippery ground. Science is based on presuppositions, as much as religion is. Science is only confirmed by its own rules, it is a self fulfilling prophecy—the same can be said for religion.

I think truth is not important, if absolute truth does exists, we will not be able to find it. Knowledge is more important than truth and knowledge is nothing more than that which is able to provide the outcomes we desire. Both religion and science are very capable of doing this.

Living Without Free Will: The Collapse of Morality

Free willAssume you have been charged with a crime. In court you are able to conclusively prove that free will does not exist and therefore you can not be held responsible for this act.

Although this seems more to be a legal than a philosophical problem, some core issues of philosophy are embedded in this scenario.

From a pragmatic point of view, if I was the judge in this case I would simply argue that I am forced to sentence you for the crime, as also I have no free will in this matter.

The idea that it would be scientifically provable (the only type of evidence that would be acceptable in court) comes from the reasoning that since we are made of material components and that since those components follow the ‘laws of physics’, our behaviour is a result of predictable interactions between atoms.

This idea is contrasted with the view that, although we have physical bodies, we also have something non physical, which does not follow the laws of physics, allowing for free will.

I don’t want to delve into the discussion between the materialist and idealist points of view in this article, as this is a philosophical minefield. For the purpose of this thought experiment, we need to assume that it has been proven that our minds and therefore our behaviour follows causal relationships and is therefore, assuming we can know the starting conditions and have full access to the laws of physics, fully predictable. Free will does in this context not exist and what we perceive as free will is to be considered an illusion.

The philosophical question that this thought experiment poses is what would the world be like if there was overall agreement that we are biological without free will. The consequences for our culture, our societies and our psychologies could be devastating. The philosophical problem is thus an existential one.

Some would argue that being deprived of a free will removes all morality and meaning from life because without will there can be no humanity—all our triumphs and digressions can be simply be blamed on causality. The person in our imaginary court case would argue that it wasn’t him or her that perpetrated the crime, but the laws of physics.

My position in the materialist/idealist discussion is towards the materialist. Although, this does not mean that I think we would ever be able to conclusively prove that either is the case. Also, I think our so called ‘laws of physics’ are based on a logical error, as shown by David Hume, but that is food for thought for another time.

In the hypothetical situation of this thought experiment I think that society would not come to an end. In some ways it would be great for society because it would bring philosophical thinking to the foreground. Everybody would have to take position in this situation.

If humanity would be without free will, meaning and morality would most certainly not collapse. In some ways it would be very good for those who try to provide morality with a rational foundation—because if our minds are based on pure causality, than it would be possible to construct moral algorithms.

As for the question whether lie has meaning or not, I don’t think that having no free will makes any difference. But for that question I refer back to the tireless Sisyphus, rolling the boulder up the hill till eternity.

Heraclitus and Freud

It dawned me a little while ago that the human condition is one of ongoing tension between the way the world is (ontology) and the way our mind works (psychology). The world is inherently unpredictable—even our best attempts to make it predictable ultimately fail. We have trouble predicting the weather more than a few days ahead and predicting earthquakes and volcano eruptions are even more unpredictable. Heraclitus had a great insight when he proclaimed that:

“You cannot step twice into the same rivers; for fresh waters are flowing in upon you.”

Heraclitus understood that the world is ever-changing and nothing is ever the same. Our human psychology, however, has difficulties accepting this eternal change. Sigmund Freud thought that we are not as free as we think we are, but are ultimately creatures of habit. Our minds are designed to find regularity, even where there is none. Hume’s sceptical argument of inductive inferences is a great illustration of how this works.

In this respect we also need to jump into the abyss, as argued in my earlier post. This does not imply that we should just accept the chaos and not use our mind to attempt to understand the world. We should, however, accept that all our attempts to grasp the world around us in neatly packaged theories will never succeed. All knowledge is practical knowledge and can only be judged in its ability to produce the desired effects.

Don’t Stare into the Abyss: The Philosophy of the Void

abyssAbout fifteen years ago my friends and I discussed one of Nietzsche’s famous aphorisms in from Beyond Good and Evil:

He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.

This almost mystical utterance has kept me thinking for years—until recent. The solution came to me from reading a book about the boundaries of thinking by Dutch philosopher Jan Bor. He quoted Chinese Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi:

Leap into the boundless and make it your home!

Jan Bor also mentioned Dutch poet Lucebert who wrote:

… who falls into the abyss becomes an airman—free and floating.

It dawned to me that the only way to stop staring into the abyss is to jump into it. The staring seems to refer to trying to locate firm ground down in the dark depths of the chasm. This is what philosophy has been doing for most of the 2500 years it has been around as we know it. Many philosophers have attempted to find some solid foundation for knowledge. Descartes’ thought experiment in his Meditations is a great example of somebody jumping into the abyss, or as he put it, into deep water. This leap takes great philosophical courage and Descartes tries hard to: “either to plant [his] feet firmly on the bottom or sustain [himself] by swimming on the surface”. As I argued previously, I don’t think that Descartes has succeeded in planting his feet firmly on the bottom and should be content with simply floating in the water.

The solution to Nietzsche’s aphorism is to take the same leap of faith, just like Descartes did, but not to hitherto find firm ground, but to make the void your home, or in the words of Lucebert, become an airman—free and floating.

This comes close to the concept of the metaphysical hot air balloon I have theorised about some time ago. Jumping into the abyss and accepting there will be no firm ground removes the fear of falling to your death. The eternal free fall, a state of blissful weightlessness, will be the result of taking this leap into the abyss. The warning signs should be removed—be brave and practice some philosophical base-jumping!

Does God have a sense of humour?

Does God have a sense of humour?This photo arrived in my mailbox with the subject line: “FW: Someone’s going to hell for this!!!“.

I found this statement a bit strong because, I figured that if God is by definition a perfect being and we are made is his or her image, then God would most certainly have a great sense of humour. He would be rolling on the floor with laughter when receiving this photo in his mailbox!

There is, however, not much in the Bible – or any other religious book for that matter, which would indicate that God, the gods, or whichever way you might swing, has a sense of humour. One story in the Bible that comes in mind though is the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11), were Jesus provided the booze when they ran out of wine.

“… and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine.”

Jesus and his disciples were invited for this wedding and it only seems logical that they were drinking and dancing. Following the text, it seems that they already had been drinking when the wine ran out. I love this passage because it shows how human Jesus was — and in a roundabout way that he had a sense of humour.

Therefore, in my humble theological opinion I do not believe that the guys in this photo will go to hell because they have a great sense of humour which will be appreciated by whichever divine being looks upon them.

Immanuel Kant the Mystic?

Immanuel Kant the Mystic?I recently bought an English translation of the Critique of Pure Reason, which has this picture on the front page.

The interesting thing about this engraving is that Kant is surrounded by the mythical snake Ouroboros. I have yet to find out exactly what is meant with this etching, as the combination of Immanuel Kant and mysticism is a bit puzzling.

According to the book, it is an engraving by J. Chapman. There is an American artists named John Gadsby Chapman (1808–1889) who was a Freemason, judging by his painting The Masters Carpet in the George Washington Masonic National Memorial.

I would love to know more about this portrait of Kant and what the idea is between the combination of him and the mystical snake. Any suggestions?

Post Mortem: The Importance of Funerals

Paleolithic burial in sleeping position.

Palaeolithic burial in sleeping position. Source: Journal of Cosmology.

Dealing with death through funerals is one of the oldest signs of human culture, some anthropologists even define the onset of culture by the fact whether the dead were buried or not.

Our fascination with and fear of death relates directly to our ability to think about the future. We are the only animal that seems to have the ability to ponder life and conclude that there is only one certainty: we will all die. That insight creates a whole lot of existential anxiety, which is the defining factor of the human condition. This anxiety is mitigated by developing vehicles for meaning, such as religion.

Funerals are an amazing ritual. It is our way to pay respect to the memory of the deceased and their family. It is also a form of catharsis for the emotions that have built up since the death occurred. The announcement of somebody’s death is surreal. The funeral brings reality to the death, helping to anchor the irreversibility into our psyche.

Funerals make us ponder our own mortality and provoke good intentions that we should make the most of the time available to us. The funeral ritual is the end of one life, but provides new beginnings for al those who attend.

Christian funeral rites are, however, unsatisfying. The empty promise of eternal life and the hope that we will meet the deceased again after we have fallen to the same fate lead us astray. The promise of a life after death diverts our focus from life itself to the afterlife. One could argue that it doesn’t really matter and it is better to believe, it is better to play it safe, just in case religion is true. Religion is founded on metaphysical sky-hooks—there is no justification for the idea of life after death, besides our existential anxiety.

I choose to accept that there is no metaphysical foundation. My philosophy is not based on a sky-hook, but a metaphysical hot-air balloon, floating over the cultural landscape. Accepting that there is no certainty, no absolute truth is a very liberating experience. It forces one to choose life over death!

Postmodernism and Language Games: The limits of abslute truth

Language gamesWhen I studied philosophy in the Netherlands, postmodernist thought was an important part of the curriculum. Now that I am studying in Australia, I am more exposed to the analytical philosophy tradition. (See also my previous article Schools of Thought). I have been reading some analytical criticisms of postmodern thought and think some are missing the point.

Thinkers of the analytical tradition have a big issue with the postmodern idea that truth is not absolute. A very common counter argument is that this is by itself presented as an absolute truth and therefore a logical contradiction. Most criticisms are, however, missing the point.

The answer to the problem lies in the work by Richard Rorty whose interpretation of Wittgensteinian Language Games provides a very powerful way of dealing with relativism.

Within a Language Game (closely related to Khun’s ‘paradigm’ and Foucault’s ‘episteme’) there is absolute truth. Rorty argues, however, that there is no almighty Language Game that can provide a universal truth. Human culture has produced many different language games across time and cultures and none of these provide a final answer to any problem, nor will any future products of the human mind be able to do so.

This thought is quite disturbing as we are psychologically wired to favour certainty. Our oversized brains give us the possibility to contemplate the future. This amazing feature enables us to develop science and philosophy because we can think about an answer to the question “What if?”. This causes a great deal of grief because with an uncertain future comes fundamental existential uncertainty. Science, philosophy and the arts are merely psychological band-aids to help us deal with this uncertainty and prevent anxiety.

Postmodern philosophy is, in a way, an attempt to create a universal language game. The quest for universality comes at a great price, because the only universal claim we have been able to find is that all knowledge is relative and only valid within a certain Language Game. The issue that many analytical commentators, and also many postmodern thinkers, do not seem to understand is that postmodernism—as a universal language game—can not be used for any practical purposes. It is a Language Game about Language Games—not a Language Game by itself.

Postmodernism is therefore only useful to be able to talk about language games in general. The problem is that postmodern mankind is by definition detached from the possibility of finding truth with the inherent risk of falling into nihilistic despair. Postmodernism is a Venom Crystal, a beautiful wisdom which is poisonous to the mind. From an existential point of view, postmodernism is a view that can only be maintained by those who are able to float in a metaphysical hot air balloon above the landscape of Language Games.