On the importance of meaning and purpose in my life…

Saturday afternoon I went through a short and yet intense moment of experiencing the sense of loss over a past relationship, contemplating what exactly it was this relationship represents, and why it seemingly meant and still means so much to me. An intriguing possibility occurred to me, one I hadn’t really thought of before as clearly, but that at least at the moment seems to be fairly plausible: When I initially developed feelings for this person, I distinctly remember having a fresh sense of “this is what I want and need”, something that has been diminishing for quite a while. However, my subsequent decisions and the outcomes I observed didn’t make sense to me. So, what I have been and partly still am attracted to and obsessed about may be the idea that this relationship could give my life meaning and purpose, together with the enhanced experiences of agency and self-efficacy. And I want to flesh out each term a bit more.

My experience of agency, which, briefly put, is perceiving that actions I’m taking are self-determined, allowing me to actually take charge of my life. A typical example from psychology is that by making a decision I can bring about a specific outcome, and I would argue that spending time with someone I feel close and attracted to, interacting with that person, and observing the feedback I’m getting clearly constitutes a situation with a heightened sense of agency.

Closely related but not identical is the concept of self-efficacy. While agency can be experienced in good and bad outcomes alike–as long as it has been my actions that bring the outcome about–self-efficacy is specifically linked to positive outcomes that are congruent with my goals. As such, being with someone and observing that person’s increased sense of well-being as a direct consequence of my actions creates a higher sense of self-efficacy.

The experience of meaning or meaningful outcomes–and I think it is important to distinguish meaning from the other concepts–is something I can more or less attribute to a situation. To some degree, it is both guided by and subsequently guides future goals I have in life. As an example, even an initially negative experience I make, such as the person I feel for not returning those feelings, can be seen as meaningful if I end up with a thought that, one way or another, this experience helped me in reaching one of my goals. As such, it is highly independent from agency, as even outcomes that are seemingly caused by others or maybe even random events can be perceived as meaningful.

Semantically overlapping with the concept of meaning, I would yet separately name my sense of purpose. I would argue this sense is an expression of how I translate my appreciation of life as a whole into what I intend to do for seeking meaningful experiences. In short, it is the one highest-level goal I have in life. Obviously I can’t look into the future, but I guess that if I could, a very good reason would probably be that I’d want to verify that I will reach this high-level goal. In that sense it is like the hypothesis and synthesis of future meaning, and whenever I manage to move closer toward this goal I’m experiencing an increased sense of meaning. And for me, being with someone in an intimate way is clearly part of the purpose and meaningful.

Finally, I would add the experience of things making sense. And I think it is important to also distinguish this from both meaning and purpose. In a situation where I made a mistake and incur some form of punishment or cost, the painful part of the experience at least makes sense–which is different from a situation where I experience pain without understanding why it happened. I would say that my implicit belief in cause and effect has very little room for randomness, and I often have a fairly strong need to understand what exactly caused the things happening to me, particularly the painful ones, which is why in a situation where outcomes do not make sense they at least must be meaningful to be bearable.

More generally speaking and related to what I see as the preliminary thoughts on a neuro-computational model for human experience as a whole, I would argue that once the more basic needs we experience as human beings are satisfied–those that guarantee our physical well-being and survival–we are left with the challenge to look after those still requiring satisfaction, which I speculate could be one of the reasons why people in positions of great power might at some point become incredibly dissatisfied with part of their experience.

Coming back to my own situation in life: working in the field of psychology, albeit not as an academic in the strictest sense, has always been a continuous source of meaning. The way in which I came to the job, however, did not entail the experience of agency and purpose, at least I would argue that how I ended up working in this field came about more as a coincidence. And I somehow sense that a slow but noticeable decline in perceived meaning may very well have contributed to the intensity with which I have attached myself to the idea of finding meaning elsewhere, say in this relationship turned to obsession.

Consequently, I am now wondering to what extent my sense of loss is, to a considerable degree at least, the expression of the needs for meaning and purpose, and that if I were to find those two by other means, especially if I were to experience them with agency and self-efficacy, the sense of loss would be highly diminished. Naturally, it seems tempting to simply go for another relationship–that would afford me with a renewed sense of “that’s what I want and need.” However, I have to ask myself how stable this experience would really be, given that I have witnessed how easy it can also break apart…

Accept or React?

Working in a psychology lab focused on social cognitive neuroscience at Columbia University has allowed me to keep an eye out for answers to some very profound questions I have been asking myself for a long time, and even I don’t remember how long. One of these questions is, “how do you react to fear?” Incidentally, in one of the studies run at our lab, subjects were instructed to either react naturally to scary and pain inducing images or, alternatively, to try and put themselves into an accepting mindset, one in which the fear they were to experience simply would be allowed to exist. But more on that later…

Naturally, there are fears that better be reacted to, such as when an immediate threat enters our consciousness, and probably shortly before that it enters our subconscious, and our bodies are, almost automatically, set in motion to either avoid the threat, like dodging an oncoming car when we step onto a street we erroneously thought was empty, or to try and neutralize the threat, like taking aim and trying to thwart an insect we assume has the capacity to inflict pain or spread disease.

This kind of instinctive program, the fight-or-flight response, is still very strong and powerful in our species, and, at least in the here and now, for good reason. But humans have also evolved quite a bit further, and something else is by now “added to the program”, something that I believe is at the center of the human condition: we know that no matter how much we struggle for life, and no matter how well we adapt this fight-or-flight response, in the end we cannot win. We are, one could say, doomed to die. Obviously, I am not the only one talking about this: for instance, in a 2003  documentary, “Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality”, something I can recommend as worth watching, for instance at Netflix, film makers explore this question together with psychologist and anthropologists.

The paradoxical condition we find ourselves in can, I think, be characterized by those two elements and a twist: our instincts and intuitive responses, almost immutably, compel us to react to threatening cues in the environment such as to preserve our lives. But at the same time we have foreknowledge, and this is one of the very few things I would say most people agree we know with the highest degree of certainty, that one day must come when we will die. If the two layers in our minds–the subconscious effort to preserve life and the conscious knowledge that we must, eventually, fail–were separate entities, operating side by side, maybe we didn’t have to suffer. And here is where the twist comes in: conscious thought has the ability to generate subconscious states. And this is also true for future events, even if the details of these events aren’t yet available. Thinking about or being reminded of our mortality generates, even unbeknownst to us, a state in which we are more likely to pick up the fight. Which is also why we can be excited in light of anticipating a positive event.

So, if this reaction of fear is in the subconscious whenever we think about death, is there any hope of ever finding peace? Well, here is where I would want to add to the movie by presenting some, admittedly preliminary and not yet published evidence from the study in our lab: being accepting of one’s fear, that is to say allowing oneself to experience fear but doing so not with the intention of reacting, that is to say taking a path outside of fight-or-flight, seems to have the effect of lowering the actual impact of that fear. In other words, by consciously deciding not to react to a threatening cue in the environment, but rather acceptingly experiencing its impact, we are, at least partially, able to mitigate its emotional consequences and, possibly, lower its “call for action”, something that still needs to be studies in depth…

I recently posted on this blog about why I love living in the U.S.A. And there isn’t really anything I feel I have to take back about this post. But… The instinct of preserving life has become something that, as an outsider, I would almost call ever-present, all-trumping, an obsession. The debate on abortion, something I also posted on already, is one example. Good people are fighting one another over when life begins, probably driven by, on the pro-life side, the fear of their own mortality. Another and potentially much more dangerous example is the American notion of protecting life world-wide. The reason why conservatives want to stock-pile weapons and bombs is not to destroy life but to protect it–how could you, without a good ace up your sleeve should life become threatened, right? But, as the documentary movie so aptly puts: the desire to protect one’s life has the subconscious effect of increasing the impulse to fight, and then of course fight those who seem to have a different world view, as that is what threatens our way of life. In short, this is a vicious circle, one that evolution unfortunately didn’t see coming… And I must admit it would be very unfortunate if the human condition is one where the instinct to preserve life is, in the end, what destroys it.

My own vision? If we could just all accept some realities, such as that people have different religions and world views, and that we all will die, then, maybe, we can all share this reality and have wonderful experiences together, and at least reduce the suffering caused by this truly and ultimately useless fight.

There is yet little scientific basis for my vision, but I am hopeful that someone out there might feel this is worth exploring: can accepting the fear that comes with the foreknowledge of death reduce the impulse to fight? And if the impulse is reduced, what are the consequences practically.

Outside of science, in thoughts people post online as well as in revered literature, there is of course ample “evidence” that others have thought of this before, and that I am not the only one with this vision. I want to share two examples:

One of my very dear friends, Jeffyi Lu, put it this way in a recent Facebook post of his:

Midnight Reflection: If life was the ultimate game, I would rather prefer to loose. Because winning dehumanizes my true ethical being. In other words, being the king of the world also means losing everything else. And that “everything else” is what makes me a compassionate human being.

And I take the liberty to copy and paraphrase from the comment I made to that post… Aren’t we all losers? Then again, can’t we also be champions? At least potentially? This much we know: we are guaranteed to die! Unfortunately, for most people it seems that life is about fighting death, fighting mortality, which is to say they simply react to their emotion of fear, although this fear is entirely caused by imagining the future, a future in which they no longer exist.

This struggle causes so much pain and suffering, and for as long as we literally suffer from the illusion we could ever win this fight, I do believe we cannot be truly human. So, to be a champion, one must accept that, in the very end, the fight must be lost–but, equally, fight we must, as life preserves itself through instinct!

To borrow another image from someone whose books have been read by millions, I want to quote J.K. Rowling, who has her title character Harry Potter think and experience the following (J.K. Rowling. “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”, p. 512):

But he understood at last what Dumbledore had been trying to tell him. It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high. Some people, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew – and so do I, thought Harry, with a rush of fierce pride, and so did my parents – that there was all the difference in the world.

So, yes, the true champion walks into the arena of life, knowing the fight will be lost, but with his head held high, accepting the inevitable but not despairing. And, to extend on that image a bit, that championship is exactly what Harry achieves, when he walks through the Forbidden Forest to meet his own death: you know what’s coming, death, but you still face it with dignity and humanity!

If we just, in our own lives, were accepting a bit more of the fact that, one day, we will no longer exist, and take it with a bit more “Buddhism” in our hearts and minds, not fighting it, but enjoying life while it lasts, maybe we would discover that the differences between cultures and ways of life are not reason enough to die for…

The relationship between money and entitlement

Personal friends of mine may very well groan… (this topic? again?) — yes, I feel I have to… In fact, I woke up a couple minutes ago and somehow feel that without getting a few words out now, going back to sleep will be difficult…

To begin with, I have a very strong feeling (and could probably find some scientific evidence, although I am happy to leave that for a later discussion) that most people (maybe even all people) have a strong desire (need) for safety and assurance that “things will be alright” in the future. Naturally, no-one can ever truly guarantee that the future will be “good”, but having someone say so (and trusting that it will), gives a sense of safety (assurance).

As a consequence, people are often willing to give up on other needs and desires (including but not limited to the need of acting morally, the desire to be happy in the moment, the overall need of satisfaction and fulfillment) in exchange for that assurance. For instance, if someone were to offer me the assurance that, for the rest of my life, I would not go hungry, that I would not go without medical assistance (should I require it), and that at least all physical requirements my body might have would be taken care of, I think there is a strong “temptation” to accept a relatively high price-tag in the moment for that guarantee. I might even compromise on some very important values that I hold…

And in a society where all of these things (food, health care as well as general provision for bodily needs) can be bought with money, one way of guaranteeing that those needs will be met is by offering me (a lot of!) money

That is, in short, I believe the reason why even relatively wealthy people still have a strong desire to increase their wealth; although it would, in the here and now, seem to be relatively unimportant: all their current needs are already taken care of, and any additional wealth is unlikely to have an impact on their current situation other than adding a number to their sense of virtual safety.

I’ve used the term virtual on purpose. Why? Well, here is where the relationship between money and entitlement comes into play. Money, in large quantities, represents the idea that, in some future economy, I will be able (allowed) to participate (consume) goods and services (which in my mind truly equated to the sense of entitlement). Don’t get me wrong: for many examples (such as my ability to save money for a while to then buy something I couldn’t afford with a single pay check, such as a car or even a house) this actually seems like (and probably is) a wonderful concept. However, when money is used (or abused?) to generate this “all-purpose” feeling of owning a card blanche (entitlement!) that, in the future, I will be able to simply “use up” goods and services (which still need to be produced for me or be made available to me by someone!), I think that this no longer represents an aspect that was originally meant to be linked to currency (an all-purpose means of exchanging goods and services in the present). And a strong inequality in the distribution of wealth might even be considered a form of slavery (those with little to no money would be forced to produce goods and services for those with more of it, simply to partake in the economy at all, even if they cannot even meet their basic needs with the outcome!).

The major reason for this discrepancy is that, through the market (where goods are priced based on supply and demand as well as the overall amount of wealth and debt in existence, which truly are two sides of one and the same coin), the amount of money required to buy any given good changes over time, and thus the amount of goods and services I am able to obtain with whatever wealth I have accumulated is not fixed (which, if that were true, would then indeed represent some entitlement!) but variable. So, as much as having (a lot of) money might seem like giving a wealthy person a sense of safety, this sense will only be experienced for as long as money doesn’t lose (much of) its value.

Two major problems now combine into a mix which, unless either problem is at least lessened in its impact, I would argue make it almost inevitable that any economy based on a free market and a monetary system where making money available (central bank lending) comes at a cost (interest), will eventually experience a near-fatal episode:

First, those people who “collect” money as a means of safety will never feel they have enough (and rightly so! once the money starts losing its value, all the entitlement they have collected thus far begins to melt for not to say evaporate). And while, deep down, most people probably sense that to be true, they will still deny that truth and attempt to increase their wealth (perceived safety) through collecting more (and more, and more).

The second problem is that once enough wealth has been accumulated (in few enough hands), the “real economy” (that is to say the part of the economy where money is used to actually buy means of production, such as labor and resources) is satisfied when it comes to liquidity, and the surplus of money (in the hands of the wealthy) requires (and irresistibly generates) new forms of “investment opportunities” (to increase the numeric value via interest rates).

From the outside (such as from the perspective of an alien, maybe — told you this is a crazy blog), it might possibly be even quite amusing to see what kind of “products” the engineers (economists) of the financial markets come up with to allow people who “own” large amounts of money (who have earned or received this entitlement in the past) to increase its (numeric, not actual, future-related) value by “investing” it in various way: my favorite so far is still the ability to buy credit default swaps (that is a bit like an insurance, in case some other, actually tangible good loses part or all of its value) without either having to own the actual good (compare it to being able to insure a house that you don’t own, but still having to option to cash in on should it get damaged or destroyed) or some system of transparency (such as a register to at least have a sense of how many of these insurances have been sold, by whom, and to whom).

The real problem is that for every unit of currency that is owned by someone (and considered wealth, let’s say a thousand dollars I have in my bank account), someone else must be owing the same amount of debt (each and every monetary system controlled by a central bank works that way, or otherwise: what good is wealth and entitlement if no-one owes me anything). And given that the amount of overall money seems to be increasing faster and faster (usually leading to price inflation), because the only true gain in wealth is of course growth above the nominal inflation rate, any such system must, in the end, collapse. I would almost go as far as to say that any currency system that does not “reign in” excessive interest rates as well as the ability to accumulate wealth without a specific purpose is to some degree, by virtue of how money works, destined to be unsustainable; unfortunately, in the end, no-one “wins” (not even the rich folks!)…

Do solutions exist? I think so! But the one crucial component to each and every solution I can think of is that people (which means everyone!) must be willing to give up on their sense of safety and entitlement (assurance). This can be done by accepting (much) higher taxation (but also giving up on the idea of a guaranteed retirement payment!) followed by truly reducing wealth and debt, or by hyper-inflation, or by some other means of neutralizing both wealth and debt (haircut on debts by disowning creditors). Why? It’s simply unrealistic to believe that by whatever means in the present anyone could ever guarantee that the wealth I own (effort that was put into the economy by me or in my name in the past without taking it out again immediately or shortly thereafter) will be able to buy me anything in the future (in essence: just as fiscally conservatives are talking about cutting back the social welfare state to end entitlement on the side of the relatively poor, they should also accept that “storing” wealth for a rainy day by the relatively rich is nothing but the same idea, only in form of currency instead of a provision in some law). This is, I think, exactly why an economic contraction (recession) is such a potentially disastrous event: people all over suddenly realize that their future is, inevitably, unsafe, and instead of keeping up the expenditure, they stop using currency in the market place. The reality simply is that no-one knows the exact state of the economy in the future. So it is simply a (partially false) promise if someone says: your needs will be met! (and that is, of course, also true for any other form of entitlement, including social security or Medicare/Medicaid…)

Only if people are willing to ease up on their (need for a) sense of entitlement can an economy run smoothly. What do I think is the best way to achieve this? By having faith in the future, by believing that, as long as humans with a sense of morality and fairness are “in charge”, I will not be “forgotten”. Then I am willing to accept that as good and useful money is for the purpose of exchanging goods and services in the here and now (and near future), I am much better off putting my faith and trust in the people of the future than the money (numeric wealth) I may or may not own by then.

The case of abortion after rape…

OK, this is a tough one, but, hey, aren’t philosophers (even spare time ones) supposed to tackle tough questions every once in a while…? At least the issue is still on my mind after several days have passed since Todd Akin, a U.S. Representative for the state of Missouri made some truly “outlier comments” on August 19 (quote):

“Well you know, people always want to try to make that as one of those things, well how do you, how do you slice this particularly tough sort of ethical question. First of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”

To begin with, let me begin with that I believe that rape is one of the most violent and possibly destructive experiences anyone can go through. I count myself fortunate as not having such a memory to look back on.

Also, while I am as little or much of a medical expert as I am a professional philosopher (not at all!), I would simply argue there is little hard (or hard enough) evidence to support the conclusion that a woman’s body would have the ability to “shut that whole thing down.” (here is an article at least looking at some of the evidence, but it seems obvious that this is a topic that could never be studied under controlled conditions so long as ethical review boards do their job, so maybe the best we can say is that we better don’t assume anything…)

Now, if I start with those two base assumptions:

  • Women who are raped go through a most terrible experience and it is a natural reaction to try to remove any evidence associated with it.
  • Pregnancies following rape cannot be construed as some way of saying, “this wasn’t rape” (because otherwise the pregnancy would not have occurred).

where does this lead? I would hope that even the most “pro-life” arguing person would agree that there is a potential value in allowing the mother to terminate the pregnancy (hoping that the process of healing and recovery will not be aggravated by the constant reminder of the experience itself, which seems inevitable during the pregnancy).

Do I believe that this automatically means a woman “should” choose an abortion or that no-one shall raise an objection? No, I don’t. Here’s why:

Regardless of how a child is conceived, a “life-in-the-making” is created. One of the real issues with this question might be seen as whether or not an embryo in its early developmental stages can or even must be considered “human life” (with all rights and privileges usually given to it). And as much as I am willing to tackle that question, I want to concentrate, at the moment, on why this debate hasn’t left my thoughts.

Most importantly, I agree with and emotionally relate to the “pro-life” sentiment that, regardless of whether the embryo can be considered human life at the time when a mother is (or isn’t) given the choice to terminate the pregnancy, this “life-to-be” is worth protecting. For one, it cannot protect itself (if no-one is speaking on its behalf, whatever good and valuable exists might be overlooked and irrevocably destroyed). For another, as much as this life was conceived in an act of violence, I do not think that the “human it could become” should be held accountable or responsible (which, naturally, is not at all what a “pro-choice” position postulates!).

In short: women who are pregnant after having been raped are faced with a tough decision (so long as they have it, that is) between their own emotional healing and well-being on the one side and allowing a new life to be created by their bodies on the other. Given that the life-in-the-making doesn’t yet have a voice to speak for itself, other people feel the need to do so. I think the dilemma arises when those people speaking for the unborn (and unfinished) life want to take “matters into their hands”. How could anyone ever say they “know” what is best for the mother? Or what is best for the unborn child? Or which of the two is more valuable? What those people are trying to do is to protect the value of an unborn child (and I believe that is a good thing!), but the way they choose to do so seems to forget about the value of the life of the mother.

Do I have a solution? Well, I would like to propose a position that is both, pro-life (acknowledging that the embryo, regardless of whether or not it can “already” be considered human life, is worth protecting) and pro-choice (the life of the mother is, in its entirety, worth protecting as well). This may sound like not a solution at all (anything that is even a little pro-choice is, in the end, pro-choice!), but I think that what pro-life proponents are most infuriated about is the seemingly callous way in which people on the pro-choice side of the argument say that abortion is “OK”.

In an “ideal world” (well, as long as rape happens, clearly not ideal, maybe call it crazy if you want), I would hope that good people would talk to those women who, after being raped and finding out they are pregnant, are put in a position where just after having to deal with an extremely traumatic experience they must make a most difficult decision (possibly leading to yet another traumatic experience either way). If those women could experience the support and care, both for their emotional needs as well as for the unborn and yet to be created life, maybe their decision would become at least a little less difficult. Is it possible, maybe even likely that, in any given case, a woman chooses to terminate the pregnancy? Absolutely yes. But should someone else be able to force her to carry to term (and in a way rape her again, by taking away her choice)? Personally, I don’t think so. By taking the decision out of her hands and forcing something upon her which she has no control over (the core elements of any rape), I think it is likely that whatever emotional healing has to occur cannot occur.

Comments welcome!