Written at a time shortly after I discovered that very few traditional reasons for existence could be rationally justified. Two years on and having built a more robust existential foundation, my thoughts on this subject have evolved somewhat, though this essay continues to represent an important point in the progression of my philosophical views.
The Path to Enlightenment
The unexamined life is not worth living.
Many things separate man from his neighbouring constituents in the animal kingdom, and most people have their own interpretations as to what it is that precisely makes us so different, but the answer I’d like to suggest here is that it’s only man that can be characterised by his quest to conquer nature, and that our progress towards that frontier has been extraordinary. Homo sapiens have roamed the lands for over 100,000 years,1 yet it’s only during the last 6,000 to 10,000 years2 that we’ve seemingly awakened our propensity for building civilisations, cultivating the sciences and searching for the meaning behind our existence.
As we struggled, little by little did we ebb away at the natural world. It was in the beginning that we destroyed — we expunged from our home entire species; our instincts led us to each others’ destruction as we put our sword to fellow man in bloody conflict. We conquered unrelentingly and sought only self-empowerment; we let our instincts rule us in chains, shackled in cuffs of xenophobia and primal desires. We were wild dogs, savage and ruthless, with no master to tame us — and so, over time, we instead learnt to tame ourselves. Unlike other animals, we became our own masters — overriding instinct through reason, left alone to navigate our way across the pitfalls of our experience.
The quest for enlightenment has been long and arduous, and many have suffered where its influence failed and still fails to reach. The path of enlightenment represents the parallel of the path of submission to instinct — the path of enlightenment, just like the path of instinct, has always been one of conquering, but the conquering of ourselves rather than that of others. Our progress has been truly remarkable as we continue to stamp out bigotry and prejudice — it’s sobering to think just how short a time ago it was when women couldn’t vote. It was even less long ago since Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and their fellow Afro-Americans were able to abolish the state-sponsored racism that had for so long gripped the U.S. The struggles are still on-going and there are still causes to be fought for, oppression to resist and regimes to overthrow, but, through education, understanding and empathy, humanity will inevitably win out; it’s only without the virtue of enlightenment that our natural instincts are left able to roam free. It’s human instinct to be inhuman, but it’s human nature to allow reason to overcome our instinct.
The path of enlightenment, interestingly, also represents a set of its own chains. It’s common to view enlightenment as the embodiment of the liberation of the self, but it is itself its own captor of will and decision. By becoming educated as to the dangers inherent in the pursuit of the gratification of the Id, we necessarily transfer the reins to the gratification of the Superego; the consequence of enlightenment is variously a sense of confusion, shame or distaste towards the contemplation of acts that lie in accordance with basic instinct, and when this enlightenment is pursued to its natural ends, we’re thusly left in a state of incapacity, having identified all our desires as equally trivial. The outcome is to realise we’re just as bound as if we’d never put forth any effort at all; the pleasures and pains of Earth are all to be rejected as the remnants of superficial bestial fervour.
The pursuit of enlightenment can’t even be said to be a product of reason itself, but simply the gratification of its own instinct. Humanity is curious by design; we seek the rational not because it’s rational to do so,3 but because we’re innately driven to. When we seek enlightenment, we’re surrendering ourselves once more to the desire of the ancient within us who naturally yearns for that enlightenment. The result of this behaviour manifests itself two-fold: whilst the enlightened become less able to harm others, the enlightened also become less able to indulge themselves in the instincts that can be recognised to be those of our uninformed inner desires. No matter the will, humanity can only remain tethered, trading itself between supposedly distinct thraldoms, but still thraldoms nonetheless.
The Guises of Hedonism
All of man’s actions are a result of his instincts — all that man has ever done or ever will do may appear to be the result of free decision, but there’s no reason to believe that this is the case; on the contrary, the biggest decisions of our lives are those that are dictated to us wholly by our inner desires: we fall in love not out of choice, but through innate feelings of attraction and random circumstance; we look for careers that satisfy us, but we don’t control what it is that provides us satisfaction; we search for meaning not because meaning is objectively important, but because we simply feel that it should be important. Humanity searches forever for happiness and contentedness, looking for whatever it may be that will grant those feelings to us, but what these things are is not for us to decide. All of humanity treads its path, guided by muted hedonism — the path of instinct.
Hedonism is the indulgence in pleasure and the gratification of one’s senses, yet all we do is in pursuit of the gratification of these senses; we submit to our instincts because submission is pleasant. We seek happiness for the sole reason that it ‘feels nice’ and avoid suffering precisely because it doesn’t. Admitting the degree to which we’re all slaves to the fulfilment of these desires is to admit the degree to which we’re all natural hedonists. Just as we seek the sexual companionship of others because it feels pleasant, so too can we say that we answer questions because it too feels good to do so; so do we eat fatty foods, attend social gatherings, learn instruments and develop skills, smoke cigarettes, drink coffee and watch television.
Even seemingly unpleasant experiences, such as working bad jobs, writing reports for academic courses or avoiding pleasant experiences in favour of a perceived more moral action — each of these can equally be explained as either working towards a future gratification (e.g. writing a report works towards gaining a qualification), the active avoidance of a more painful experience (e.g. working a bad job avoids falling into poverty), or a desire in disguise (e.g. the substitution of one desire for a pleasant experience in favour of a perceived higher desire such as moral virtue). When adequately reflected upon, no conscious decision can accurately be attributed purely to abstract reasoning independent of the body’s desires, and therefore none of these actions can be considered to truly have ever invoked ‘free will’.
We can see that hedonism incorporates humanity’s perpetual quest for the gratification of the self, and this would appear to necessarily advocate the legitimacy of hedonism as a philosophy, but I’d like to submit my thoughts as to why this isn’t the case. Hedonism, in a traditional sense, can be noted as being a reaction to the mundanity of living — its purpose lies in the distraction of oneself from the purposelessness of the world around us. In the case of those who’d unwittingly apply themselves to the gratification of instinct, it’s not a reaction but rather it represents man’s default behaviour; separately, in the case of the self-identified hedonist, a person’s actions are the result of the lack of a clearly defined purpose. In both cases, however, the individuals are engaging in wilful distraction — either from a discovered sense of purposelessness, or, indeed, from the inability to recognise that purposelessness. Simply, these behaviours are what’s left in the absence of a true ‘higher calling’. Hedonism isn’t a means to an end, but rather it’s intended as the end itself. Individuals often accept the importance of the pleasure and happiness in others as equally as important as the individual’s own, and this thinking is perhaps the origin of secular humanism.4
In a way, secular humanism can be described as mankind’s penultimate destiny. It’s the use of science and reasoning to erase from man the natural instincts5 that condemn him to tyranny and suffering; humanism seeks world peace by quashing these ‘negative’ instincts so that everyone might live a life of pleasure and satisfaction — it seeks to allow us the freedom to fulfil our more ‘noble’ desires. These nobler desires of ours, however, are instincts nonetheless, and so, in essence, humanism is itself an extrapolation of hedonism — it simply allows us to submit ourselves to these desires more readily. I say that humanism doesn’t go far enough. Humanism might allow us to live contentedly in the face of the void, but once again only because it serves to distract us; if hedonism is the distraction of the individual, humanism is the distraction of humanity.
In a humanist utopia, I believe man would inevitably be forced to finally confront his own nature — once all man’s problems have been solved, there would remain no obstacles left to obscure his vision. When there’s nothing left to strive for, there’ll be motivation to strive. Man might live contentedly, but he’d do so without sense of meaning, because it was the striving itself which gave man his meaning.
Many would inevitably see the emptiness in a life of meaningless pursuit of the satisfaction of instinct. Humans will always abhor the notion of existing as a “brain in a vat”,6 or a creature plugged into the Matrix — we loathe the idea of “simply existing” with no reason or purpose. If it’s man’s penultimate destiny to achieve a humanist utopia, then it’d be man’s ultimate destiny conquer all his primitive instincts, recognising that even the ‘positive’ ones were as superficial and irrational as the ‘negative’. All guises of hedonism could be rejected as the indifferent hand of nature bullying us into whatsoever happened to be evolutionarily successful behaviour, and it can only be so long before humankind begins to recognise this and affords it due contemplation.
Having achieved the humanist utopian vision, I can identify only two eventual outcomes. The first was foreseen in the 19th century by the English science fiction author H.G. Wells. In The Time Machine,7 Wells described the devolution of humanity into the Eloi, the supple and child-like race that did nothing but frolic and make love. Once humanity has solved all its problems, having created a utopia where none need work and where none are subject to the rigours of natural selection, humanity will steadily but inexorably lose its intelligence, its strength and, most importantly, its humanity.
The second outcome is that of what could be termed ‘rational suicide’. When an individual has applied rational introspection to its fullest degree, they must inevitably confront the ideas that I’ve expressed here. Where commonly suicide is a result of environmental or subjective factors such as the inability to cope with pain or sadness, ‘rational suicide’ represents the idea of suicide as the result of such a rational introspection, occurring when an individual has recognised that seeking happiness and pleasure is itself a reaction to the purposelessness of existence, and that to seek it is therefore an attempt at the rejection of reality itself; when one recognises that the will to live is also a product of innate bias for the fear of death; when one sees that the satisfaction of instinct holds no other purpose other than to justify existence. All forms of hedonism become unveiled to be a distraction of oneself from this purposelessness, and one may realise that the removal of that towards which we distract ourselves necessarily negates the very purposefulness of that distraction, hence the pursuit of life for life’s sake must be denied.8 Without reason to exist, the transition into non-existence can’t be said to be important. There can be said to be no reason to do anything, and for that reason we’re left to do nothing.
Marching alongside the footsteps of time has been man’s steady refusal to be ruled over by nature’s irrational biases, and this trend is likely to continue to its natural end: the acceptance that the will to live represents nature’s final choke-hold over mankind. The myth that existence is justifiably better than non-existence is the most pervasive bias man holds, penetrating the hearts and minds of people everywhere and in every culture, but, eventually, the nature of man will corner nature itself, and the conclusion of the path of enlightenment would be realised. Just as the path of instinct led us to conquer others, so too does the path of enlightenment lead us to conquer ourselves. The conquering of this last bias could only constitute the greatest, and final, achievement of man. Through the unscrupulous pursuit of reason, we will inevitably reach the bottom of the rabbit hole. In the endgame, humanity can only accept a stalemate.
The figure of 100,000 years is a compromise; physiologically, homo sapiens have been around for around 200,000 years, though behaviourally we date to only around 50,000 years. Source: McHenry, H.M (2009). “Human Evolution”. In Michael Ruse & Joseph Travis. Evolution: The First Four Billion Years. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. p. 265. ISBN 978-0-674-03175-3. ↩
This figure of course depending on one’s definition of civilisation. Sedentism is thought to have began around 12,000 BCE, with societies entering into the Neolithic period (and the Agricultural Revolution) between the years 8,000 and 5,000 BCE. Source: “Origin of agriculture and domestication of plants and animals linked to early Holocene climate amelioration”, Anil K. Gupta*, Current Science, Vol. 87, No. 1, 10 July 2004 ↩
Whether it’s rational to prefer rationality to irrationality seems to be unanswerable, though it might be easy to get confused in a game of semantics. ↩
I wouldn’t advocate the view that early secular humanists thought this explicitly, only that secular humanism is the attempt to maximise the well-being of mankind in the absence of divine purpose, essentially driving us towards a communal hedonism of the sort to be explained in the following paragraph. ↩
Not only this, of course; humanism also concerns itself for example with the abolition of environmental factors affecting human problems, for example by promoting healthcare or climate change research. The principal way humanism seeks to change attitudes and behaviours is similar to these: by promoting education. ↩
My favourite of his books; short and well recommended. ↩
Or, at least, continued living would be inelegant in exactly the same way as is an unsimplified equation — both sides could better be cancelled out. ↩