The skewed search for life’s meaning

2016-08-14_11-09-11When sentient beings search for meaning it often leads to gibberish. Markets and newspapers burgeon with spirituality columns, self-help books and religious cults that claim to tell you the meaning of life. Closer home, your own mainstream religious books claim to have an all-access pass to special meaning found nowhere else.

Extrapolating from religions, caste groups and race identities, individual humans will also find ways to explain whatever they do in the light of their own imagined virtue. Pattern-finding, an innate human faculty, can be employed in the cause of personal gain. We will extract seeming meaning from what appears to us as chaos. Ever watch a television show in a language you didn’t understand? Unable to translate as days pass you become familiar with the characters and a vague plot develops in your head. You find a way to understand what you really don’t mostly through inference. No proof is sought, most of any understanding arrived at is intuited. Literature has a kindred function with its allowance for interpretations, criticism and readings. Sometimes even a single line in a text of art can undergo myriad elucidations.

That’s life in a nutshell – interpreting the unknown or the abstruse as best as we can. We make up meaning as we go along trying to frame the world for our egos and our tribe. Informational nonsense begins to masquerade as genuine information, which can be spun into high literary truth, later transmogrifying into holy song or economic sacrament that benefits only a few. Gibberish repackaged is rationalised to shore up tribal identity, and people put to war over it. This is happening in real time around the world. The flaws in our informational worlds and the systems we created are there before us, chinks in the sensory armour, if we ever decide to wake up and explore. But it’s easier to leave these flaws aside unexamined due to the difficulty in separating the good from the bad, the useful from the harmful, sense from nonsense, also because the loss of a tribe that holds fast to any individual set of ego-driven gibberish codes, aka religion/caste, will be too hard to bear.

Most  life is about filling vacuum with meaning, any kind of meaning to abate the emptiness. We reach for many things to fill it: religion, gastronomy, riches, authority, power, other people, ideology. These things are then replaced with symbols and tacked on to identity.

But perhaps the lesson is in quantum physics. There really isn’t any empty space. It is darkened with unseen bits of matter and energy, particles continually falling in and out of existence. There is information to grapple with yet that we do not know how to decipher. To put it simply, information is about getting to the truth. But getting to the truth and having faith are dipoles. The first is when you never stop asking questions, you seek proof and the second requires you to stop questioning self-proclaimed informational monoliths like religion, left/right economic doctrine, accept what authority tells you without checking for yourself. If questioning happens, it is only to question those who dare to dispute monolithic thinking of any kind.

Why then do we struggle to distinguish between sense and nonsense? Our amygdalaic emotions are usually bound up with nonsensical rationalisations. Many years ago I had a friend who was a crafty bully. On the surface, it was difficult to delineate the exact nature of this subtle bullying, as she was mostly nice, sometimes cruel. But her general behaviour towards me was self-aggrandising and her comments designed to put me in my place as subservient to her. Years later, when I confronted her with this she seemed to apologise. She said carefully, trying very hard to rationalise her behaviour, “if I did those things then I am sorry”. Foolishly, I accepted it and we moved on. Much later, she said she never did any of those things. How many times have we heard rationalisations like “it didn’t happen that way” or “I was emotional”? Especially, from bullies high and low who want us to move on from the past without showing remorse for past cruelties. Without genuine remorse, as opposed to disingenuous apologies given by people who need you to buck up and continue playing your part in their facades. Genuine remorse is not just crucial, it is compelling. But in life, we make do without the closure effect of remorse.

On the nightly news, Indian experts are baffled by why seemingly educated people have prejudiced ideas about caste, promote extreme religion, kill their wives and daughters-in-law for dowry or are just generally mean. Education for a majority of the population is a means to an end. That end is a safe income, and if any  intellectual mastery accrues from education it is useful in competition. While at the same time decrying the Indian caste system, which is really racial inequality, many among the lettered upper castes and classes espouse casual racism and they still believe there is no need to give opportunities to the suppressed masses: people who have been repressed for centuries into socially immobile ghettoes, with no access to libraries or books, or hope for their children’s futures. The ‘educated’ argue that affirmative action doesn’t help these people and benefits only the influential or corrupt among them. If the system is rigged they don’t want to fix it, instead they want to throw it out altogether to benefit their own entitled and meritorious children, who enjoy caste privilege, have had access to education, books etc, fattened off caste entitlement for centuries, and hence have an unfair systemic advantage over the repressed masses. The cultural ‘system’ in this country has been rigged for aeons in favour of a few, but when anyone attempts to fix it, the ones who enjoy this epic privilege will inevitably cry foul. If anything, this has to be the opposite of reason.

Clever men throughout history have exploited this general tendency towards emotional unreason spawned from amygdalaic emotions. They have given us many versions of ‘the truth’. As a people, we latch on to these and will not let go once we develop a sentimental bond to this one idea of ‘truth’. The human brain has evolved to allow for this confusion. As a follower in a crazy mob your chance of survival is greater than if you are an individual that thinks for itself. On the face of it we are not rational or reasonable beings. A gander online at all the racist ranting, and here in my country the flourishing existence of caste prejudices, the belligerent exaltation of the one true ruminant, the reverencing of the feminine head veil, is evidence that the brain is not a reasonable organ. The brain will find ways to rationalise the unreasonable usually in the service of a group’s cultural prejudice or under the mistaken liberal belief that we should make allowances for everyone and their incongruous notions in a democracy.

The brain, however, can learn to be both rational and reasonable. But even in learning, you can either go all the way, or learn for appearance sake, that is when erudition is limited to competition or elevating a threatened ego for the purpose of trumping a perceived rival. Wisdom should not be a weapon, to be wielded as if life were a quiz show. If engaged in this second type of knowledge-gathering, it’s the advantages that come from learning, not the learning itself, that contributes a meaning boost to our lives. Imagine for a moment, the meaning of life as a Vulcan version of nirvana shorn of mysticism and spirituality. Arrived at if an individual is willing to shed its self-serving nature and overcome its own brain’s neuro-biologic proclivity towards blind bias and unreason.

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