AlexaLiving on another continent from my family, means that often months go by without any quality conversations with anyone, so I was surprised by a text from my goddaughter shortly before 3 am this morning, and touched by its contents. I spent the morning crafting a response to her questions because I felt how important the opportunity was to share with her how I feel, without imposing my ideas on her. I thought I would memorialize my answer by posting it here, because it’s the same answer I would give any young person. I hope you find some value in reading it.

Alexa 2:45 am:

Hi ton ton I have a question for you, 1) In your opinion what is the meaning of life and 2) Do you subscribe to Descartes’ Philosophy… To me life is just what you make of it, but I was curious to see another’s point of view and thought about you 😘😊 I’d love to get your opinion.


Hi Alexa! I’m really happy to discuss these questions with you. Partially because I am a philosopher, but mostly because I love you!

It’s true, what you said, the meaning of life is what we make of it, but if you really think about that answer, you’ll see that it doesn’t really say anything at all about how we would go about judging what that meaning, in the end, was. Are you a good person? A bad person? Have you spent your life enjoying yourself while being rude, nasty, and hurtful to others? Have you spent your time wisely? Or just wasted you time? How would you judge? What standard would you compare your life to?

So really, the right question is “can life have a meaning?” and to that I would answer “Yes, if you take the opportunity to benefit others” because to me the only real value in life is to be kind to others, compassionate to those who are suffering in some way, and to make it possible for others to have the same opportunity to live, by taking care of our world, not destroying it or abusing it or being selfish about what it provides us, and to allow other species to live without hurting them for stupid or unnecessary or selfish reasons.

I call this “living a good life” and if I succeed in being kind and compassionate and not selfish towards others whether they are human or non-human, then my life will have had a good meaning, because I will have been a good person.

Many people believe there is a purpose for their having been born, many other people believe that is nonsense. The way this comes about is that many people believe there is God (and there are many different understandings of what/who God is) and they believe that God has an intent for creating us and that gives us a purpose in life that we are supposed to figure out.

Many other people do not believe there is God, and they usually just believe that, as Science tells us, there is nothing other than matter and energy, the basic forces like gravity and electromagnetism, and chaotic interactions between the matter and energy under the effects of the basic forces. Because this is all there is, there is no intent behind our being born, and so, no purpose to our lives other than propagating our own species of life.

But there is a third understanding that is different than either of those. It is based on the idea that rather than just believing anything, like in God as religions teach us, or in the vision of reality that Science teaches us, we should instead figure it out ourselves and see what is real and what is just belief. But as you can imagine, this is the hardest path of all because you have to be always aware of where your thoughts and feelings are coming from. Are they just arising from beliefs that you hold because you were told this is the way it is, or have you actually made the effort to see for yourself what is true, and what is merely a belief that someone told you, or that you fell into?

Learning how to do this is called “mind training” and it starts with the practice of meditation, which is often called “mindfulness” because you will find, after you meditate for a while, that most of the time we are very unmindful of why we act or think or feel as we do. When you become mindful about these things, you start to understand a great deal about how fights between people occur, and why we hurt each other’s feelings without meaning to, or even why we might want to hurt someone’s feelings, and how our unmindful way of being is almost like being asleep through our entire life. Mind training is like weight training in a gym, only instead of building muscle tissue, it develops our ability to be awake and aware of everything. This is the path I have followed. And the results of my mind training are in many ways the parts of my character that make you love me the most. Think about that.

Here is an example: you asked about Descartes. If you really pay attention to what he said and how his thoughts were structured, you might see something troubling. He is most famous for saying “I think, therefore I am.” But reflect on that word “think” for a moment. Have you ever said “I think so” to someone? Were you expressing something that was absolutely true, or were you expressing a level of assurance that wasn’t 100%, leaving a possibility of doubt about what you were responding to? And are your thoughts always correct? Or are they sometimes incorrect? I find that on many occasions, thoughts are incorrect, or only partially correct, and rarely totally correct. So if that is true (and this applies even to what I am saying—this is an example of mindfulness of my own thinking as I write to you!) then, the correct understanding of Descartes statement is “He is thinking, so he thinks he is” and that isn’t very convincing at all!

Descartes also did some very unkind and uncompassionate things in his philosophy too. For example, since he was only aware of his own thinking and not that of others, he said he couldn’t be sure that they actually were truly existing or not. This presented him with a difficulty. If he met someone, he didn’t know if they were actually thinking, so he could either assume they were like him and therefore could think, or that they weren’t like him at all and therefore were just some kind of zombie. What was unkind in his philosophy, was that he decided that he would be kind to people and assume that since they were like him, he would believe that they were thinking beings also, but he chose not to see any likeness between himself and non-humans, even though we share so much in how our bodies are structured, like having eyes for instance, and in how we behave, like whimpering or crying  when we are hurt. Since he felt non-human animals were not like us at all he said that their behavior and their expressions of happiness and suffering were the result of purely mechanical actions, so it was ok to hurt animals and make them suffer. I find this incredibly stupid and mean, even for the time when Descartes lived when we knew much less about how our bodies, and those of other animals are formed. So, no, I don’t subscribe to Descartes philosophy.

And by the way, if you meditate, you can notice that in-between thinking, in the pauses between thoughts, you still are there! And that is a very interesting thing to discover.

I’m sorry for the length of this response, Alexa, but what you asked me was really important, and I wanted to explain why it was.

I love you so much. I’ll see you soon!


Prose One Response so far

%d bloggers like this: