I finished reading Thomas Nagel’s What does it all mean? It is a very short introduction to philosophy which explores nine fundamental questions: How do we know anything?, Other minds, Mind-body problem, the meaning of words, Free Will, Right and Wrong, Justice, Death and the meaning of life.
In the very last chapter, on the very last page of the book, Nagel writes on the meaning of life:
If you every ask yourself the question, “But what’s the point of being alive at all” – leading the particular life of a student or bartender or whatever you happen to be you’ll answer, “There’s no point it wouldn’t matter if I didn’t exist at all, or if I didn’t care about anything. But I do. That’s all there is to it.”
Some people find this attitude perfectly satisfying. Others find it depressing, though unavoidable. Part of the problem is that some of us have an incurable tendency to take ourselves seriously. We want to matter to ourselves “from the outside”. If our lives as a whole seem pointless, then a part of us is dissatisfied – the part that is always looking over our shoulders at what we are doing. Many human efforts, particularly those in the service of serious ambitions rather than just comfort and survival, get some of their energy from the sense of importance – a sense that what you are doing is not just important to you, but important in some larger sense: important, period. If we have to give this up, it may threaten to take the wind out of our sails. If life is not real, life is not earnest, and the grave is its goal, perhaps it’s ridiculous to take ourselves so seriously, perhaps we just have to put up with being ridiculous. Life may be not only meaningless but absurd.
But a friend, Michelle, disagreed and introduced me to a new way of thinking about our own existence. Her philosophy is that
We think or act or feel only to be able to accept our own existence at this very moment.
That is certainly a big claim and definitely worth investigating further. “So what do you exactly mean?” I asked.
M: Ok. So what are you trying to do now?
A: I am trying to understand the meaning of life.
M: Ok. So you are doing this because if you are able to understand the meaning of life then you will feel satisfied or contented of your existence.
A: If very simply put, yes.
M: Then, right now, it is the means of accepting your existence at this very moment.
A: Hmmm…may be. Can you can give one more example?
M: Ok. Think this way, you are working on making this molecule which when developed can prove to be an anti-cancer agent and may help some people over come the disease. When that happens it will make you happy. But at this very moment, you reason that you are doing what you are doing so that you are able to seek that happiness then and it gives you a reason to accept your own existence at this very moment.
A: But that is a cyclical argument. Anything we do can be reasoned that way.
M: Yes, it’s true. I’ve asked this very question very many times and this is the best I could come up with. Isn’t it a neat way of looking at things?
A: Yes. It puts you in a state of mind such that you value the present more than the past or the future.
Ok. Sounds great. It is a cyclical argument and does not give an absolute answer to that question of what is the meaning of life but it gives us a good way of thinking of our own existence. That’s all fine and dandy. It’s a great philosophical thought. Sweet. But does this way of thinking have any practical use? Because, isn’t it very easy to keep saying that I am thinking about the fact that we think about things so that we are able to accept our existence so that I am able to accept my existence.
M: We can use this to help us put things in perspective or to be able to prioritise things that we do at any given moment.
A: Hmm….ok. So how do we do that.
M: Well, think of any moment as a vertical line on a horizontal timeline. Then think of all the things that you can choose to do at the very next moment. (For simplicity we are going to restrict ourselves to doing only one thing at any given moment). Now, you can say that you can do X which is something you have spent a certain amount of time in the past doing (Mx) and doing it now will impact a certain amount of time in the future (Nx). Now you can mark Mx and Nx on the timeline and then draw a slanting line from that point towards the point where your current moment meets the timeline. This gives you a cone.
A: Hmm…ok. What next?
M: So now you can do this for other activities like Y and Z and for that you will have respective points My and Ny and Mz and Nz and they will in turn give you two more cones. Now you priorities X, Y, Z such that the activity which will give you the highest area under the cone is the most important one to do now because it will have to be the most efficient use of your time now.
A: Ah, I see. That’s neat! So like now it’s 1 am and we are standing outside in this cold and talking about these things. At the very next moment I can decide to leave because I need to get some sleep so that I can be in the lab early and do n number of things. But that area under this cone may be less, because even tomorrow I will think about these problems and probably not be as effective in the things I do. Where as I if I stay for sometime longer then we can use this superb conversation to yield us some more effective tools of thinking about the world and the area under this cone certainly seems more to me.
Right. So obviously when we have built on a good base to philosophise and find things to add to our self-manipulation toolbox then we should think about more practical ways of developing these tools.
M: Have you heard of the 21-day rule of habits?
A: What is that?
M: Well, if you do something for 21 days without breaking the cycle and doing it religiously and with the same rigour then you will form any habit you want.
A: Hmm…interesting. You know it took me about three weeks to fully adapt to my polyphasic schedule last year. I wonder where this comes from, may be there is some scientific way of explaining it. It sounds like the 11-gulps of water rule.
A: If you want to get rid of hiccups then have 11 continuous gulps of water, they will go away. Every time. Have you heard of the 10000 hour rule to become an expert?
M: No, what is that?
A: Malcolm Gladwell wrote this in his book called Outliers which was based on some study by a psychologist that if you do anything for enough time (he found the golden number is 10,000 hours) then you will become an expert in that field in definitely succeed.
M: Sweet. So that translates to what 4 years of doing it all the time.
A: Yeah sure! Only if you give up everything and do it but, in general, it is more long-term.
Actually, think of it this way, doing a PhD is 3-4 years of full-time working on solving a handful of problems by using similar sort of tools and thinking about your subject all that time. Seems like a good reason why one should be awarded a PhD if they do it religiously! 🙂
Disclaimer: Such digressions, although intellectually appealing, may have detrimental effects on your work.