Monday, March 01, 2021

Humans are animals - get over it. Let go of 'the purpose and meaning of it all'

Philosophy professor Crispin Sartwell does a piece discussing how relentlessly Western philosophy has strained to prove we are not squirrels:
...It’s almost as though the existence of animals, and their various similarities to humans, constituted insults. Like a squirrel, I have eyes and ears, scurry about on the ground and occasionally climb a tree...Our shared qualities — the fact that we are both hairy or that we have eyes or we poop, for example — are disconcerting if I am an immortal being created in the image of God and the squirrel just a physical organism, a bundle of instincts.
“The moral law reveals to me a life independent of animality,” writes Immanuel Kant in “Critique of Practical Reason.” In this assertion, at least, the Western intellectual tradition has been remarkably consistent...The connection of such ideas to the way we treat animals — for example, in our food chain — is too obvious to need repeating...Further trouble is caused when the distinctions between humans and animals are then used to draw distinctions among human beings...Some of us, in short, are animals — and some of us are better than that. This, it turns out, is a useful justification for colonialism, slavery and racism.
When we restrain or control ourselves, Plato argues, a rational being restrains an animal...In this view, each of us is both a beast and a person — and the point of human life is to constrain our desires with rationality and purify ourselves of animality. These sorts of systematic self-divisions come to be refigured in Cartesian dualism, which separates the mind from the body, or in Sigmund Freud’s distinction between id and ego, or in the neurological contrast between the functions of the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.
This dualistic view is a disaster, as was noted in my series of posts on Barrett's book on emotions. I like very much the views of Sam Harris' on the great questions of religion and philosophy (which animals can't ask) that seek to establish the purpose and meanign of our lives. Here are some fragments and edits from the "Mindfulness and meaning" lecture in his "Waking Up" app, in which he argues for abandoning the philosopher's search:
What does it all mean, what is the meaning of life? What is our purpose here? These are the great pseudo questions of religion and philosophy. We need not ask them. There is assumption of a massive void in our lives that must be filled by something if we do no have answers to these questions, as from myths, superstition, religion. This is an illusion, an imaginary problem, a pure confection of thought...image the cosmos, evolution of life, DNA, consciousness as it exists in wolves and eagles, but no humans. What you don’t have are all the existential doubts to wonder what does it all mean? No temptation towards teleological thinking, purpose driven thinking. You wouldn’t say a wolf is so important that the universe must have had a higher purpose in producing it. Nor would its beauty be diminished once you acknowledged there is no higher purpose that brought it into the world. The same is true in a world filled with anatomically modern human beings, 10,000 years ago before the advent of language or complex material culture, and conversations like we now have, before anyone could articulate a concern about what does it all mean. Imagine a world with those people. Where would the temptation to wonder about the purpose of it all come from? You, standing outside, wouldn't say 'there must be a higher purpose here'... the world is what it is. Everything is simply appearing on the basis of prior causes.
The meaning of life comes from finding good enough reasons to be deeply immersed in the present moment and people around you, not brooding over past and future. What there is to notice is the intrinsic freedom and openness of consciousness in each moment. Everything is simply appearing and you are the condition in which these things appear...The question of how to live a meaningful life is fairly simple to each moment we have an opportunity to connect with the contents of consciousness, with the sights, sounds, sensations, and ideas that constitute the actual character of our lives, or we can be lost in thought, that is, thinking without knowing that we are thinking, then we are fully at the mercy of whatever thoughts arise, and as you know, the character of so much of our thinking is unhappy, the mind becomes a sort of theater of doubts and anxiety and regret, and it only in this theater that one can get concerned about what it all means, and to get lost in the false questions of philosophy or religion. This moment does not, can not, and need not mean anything or have any purpose, one can only "think" otherwise. And, thinking seems to introduce a crisis of meaning. Mindfulness is the capacity to break this spell and actually connect with experience in the present moment. But it doesn't come naturally, as you may have noticed. So.... that's why we practice it


  1. That mindfulness doesn't come naturally to us is an interesting admission that we are in fact different from the animals around us who, presumably, do always exist in the present moment.

    What happened to us? :S

  2. Like a squirrel, I love nuts.

    When we were in college, we were taught that "Man the toolmaker" was unique. I wonder how many other generalizations will be shown to be false as well.