What is the purpose of our life here on Earth? As we reflect on our circumstances here, we come to recognize that the authentic answer to this question must be to utilize our resources for the pursuit of truth so as to achieve an understanding of the reality in which we find ourselves. This task requires us to evaluate what we observe, to distinguish between those elements which move us closer to this goal by containing aspects of truth, which we accordingly decide to accept, and those which move us further away, leading us to decide they are false and to reject them. Moreover, recognizing the absolute nature of truth, it is also possible to achieve an understanding of the other 3 absolutes that are manifestations of truth, namely truth and justice, which concerns individuals’ relationship to society’s legal system; truth and beauty, which sheds light on the degree of purity in appearances; and truth and love, which evaluates the extent of selflessness in our emotional responses to particular stimuli.
Despite the universal tendency toward this motivation of striving for truth, though, we still observe a great deal of deviation from it in individual behavior. The most likely explanation for these departures is that people can be distracted by other priorities such as the desire for material comforts or physical pleasures and wind up devoting their lives to the pursuit of these other, inauthentic agendas. In contrast, the pursuit of truth proceeds through the application of what has come to be known as the Scientific Method. This methodology proceeds to draw inferences about the truth or falseness of phenomena through the application of a 5-step procedure:
- Observe the phenomenon
- Derive an explanatory theory consistent with the observations
- Construct a testable hypothesis to evaluate the theory
- Collect the relevant data
- Perform empirical tests of the hypothesis, chiefly through statistical analysis of the data.
Although the scientific method is designed to facilitate the determination of the truth of observed phenomena, it is still vulnerable to 2 types of errors: it can accept a hypothesis as true when it is in fact false, or it can reject a hypothesis as false when it is really true. As a result, it is possible for people to live their lives striving for truth but still not achieve such an understanding, either because of a misapplication of the scientific method itself (e.g., by conducting a fishing expedition for empirical results without an adequate theoretical foundation) or committing one or both of these types of errors.
Because of these methodological vulnerabilities, despite all the effort expended on these issues over the course of human history, it remains nonetheless the case that progress on expanding our understanding of reality remains uncomfortably slow, and the number of important questions resolved by human endeavor is still small relative to the number about which we remain in ignorance. Our rudimentary understanding of the nature of life rests on the contrast we observe between inanimate objects that are immobile and unresponsive to external stimuli and the beings that comprise the hierarchy of life:
Plants are alive because they ingest nutrients and produce waste material, but they lack mobility and cognition. Animals are higher beings than plants because they possess mobility and a consciousness of their environment that permits them to respond to external stimuli; Humans are more advanced still because of their ability to reason, to communicate to others through the use of language, and potentially to possess an inner knowledge or consciousness of themselves and their place in the world.
But it is worthwhile to weigh the adequacy of this perfectly plausible conceptual framework against the important questions that it doesn’t address. These fall into the following 5 categories: the inner life of others, the extent of life elsewhere, the extent of life later, the source of exceptional life, and the source of memorable life.
1. During the course of their interactions with other human beings, it is natural for individuals to perceive their own utterances subjectively as they make the most persuasive arguments they can think of to advance their point of view. Accordingly, the understanding of their effectiveness must be based on their own interpretation of the other’s response. But from the perspective of the other person, this individual is the other person and they are undoubtedly approaching the interaction in the same way. This pattern, in which each person understands his or her own position clearly but must infer the other’s reaction from the available evidence is the source of all misunderstanding.
The implication for the ensuing state of communication is not hopeful. Each person possesses the potential to misread the other’s signals even when each is responding honestly to the other. And when the possibility that one or both may deliberately misrepresent his or her position intentionally to influence the result, the resulting outcome requires a game theoretic analysis to evaluate all the possibilities.
The underlying problem endemic to all communication is the uncertainty associated with the asymmetric advantage of the other in being able to keep secret his or her true inner thoughts. And since all parties to communication find themselves in this role of the other, this conundrum remains a problem without a solution.
2. Another question about which there is much interest but no resolution is whether the human beings that populate the Earth are the only living creatures in the Universe, or could there be other forms of life elsewhere, possibly in our own solar system, and if so, how similar are they to human beings and would their environment be hospitable to human beings from Earth?
Our interest in this matter may have begun as simple curiosity but the recent evidence of the growing threat of climate change on Earth may now be lending it more urgency, as the possibility of the future uninhabitability of the Earth would leave the colonization of other locations in space necessary for the continuation of the species.
The earliest efforts to shed light on the question of the potential for life outside the Earth came from astronomers, who have catalogued other celestial bodies using high-powered telescopes with the goal of trying to determine if there are any other places which might appear to possess the necessary ingredients to support life (e.g., the presence of water and moderate temperatures), but so far they have discovered no possible candidates.
The first step in this direction would be the development of the capability for travel to distant locations, but the first efforts toward this goal were not taken until the 20thcentury with the early invention of the airplane and followed by transatlantic flight and the space program, culminating with the landing of a man on the moon at the end of the 1960’s.
When we consider the massive financial cost of these efforts as well as the dedication of resources in the scientific community to produce the necessary technology and train the individuals to acquire the specialized expertise to carry out this work, there is no other conclusion other than that we began to address the problem too late and the ensuing progress has been too slow and ensures that the prospect of ever achieving this goal is all but impossible. Compared to the concentration of effort and the progress made in other endeavors (e.g., entertainment), it is clear that the fault lies not so much in this slowness per se. but in the lack of priority the society assigns to it.
3. One of the regularities of life is that it is limited by time; we are born at a particular point in time not of our own choosing, we come to adulthood developing the particular personality or spirit that others recognize as us (being aware that that personality is fluid, so that what others recognize as our spirit at one point in time can be different at another point due to our maturation with the passage of time) and spend our time pursuing some set of goals. Over that span of time, our physical bodies undergo a certain amount of wear and tear, and at some later point in time, from any one of a variety of causes, the spark of life that sustained our physical bodies departs, and we are declared dead.
But what about that spirit by which others knew us, does it die with the physical body, or does it have a life of its own? This question is perhaps the central subject of every religion, with each one expressing its own theory on this matter. The philosopher Marcel Proust hypothesized that there are 3 stages of existence: First we each have a pre-birth existence before we are born into our physical bodies, where we learn ethical principles to live by; After this training period, we are born and are free to make our own decisions during the time of our lives on Earth; Finally, we experience a post-death existence where our consciousness is made to try to reconcile what was learned in the pre-birth stage with how post-birth stage was actually lived.
This important question of whether the spirit that characterizes each individual’s unique personality is separable from the physical body, permitting people to experience life after death, is, not surprisingly, impossible to verify, since there are very few examples of people claiming to have personally experienced this phenomenon, and these accounts are never verified by an independent, third party, leaving open the distinct possibility that the person making the claim may well be lying. With no reliable first-hand witnesses, the issue becomes a matter of faith: people either believe that their spirit has a life apart from their physical body or they don’t.
4. Whether they like it or not and regardless of how actively they choose to participate, people are born into a competitive world, with worldly success and rewards unevenly divided between a few successful individuals and a mass of billions of average people who are undistinguished. Ironically, in their own immediate circle of friends and family, it can easily be the case that those who the larger society views as average can be enjoying fulfilling lives, and some of those few success cases may be personally unhappy, but this observation does not change the reality of this one-sided competition.
What causes this small group of distinguished people to stand out from the crowd? Certainly, part of the answer must lie in the advantage of birth. A white person born in the United States possesses a greater chance of success than a poor person from India. But there are examples of Black people born in the United States or people who became rich in India that suggest that the accident of someone’s circumstances at birth cannot be the whole story.
The role of individual effort lies at the heart of the issue. The fact that there are a very large number or circumstances in which someone can make a mark in society certainly facilitates the opportunity for an individual to succeed at one of those endeavors, Many of these people are inventors, geniuses whose imaginations lead them to see existing product functions from a new perspective and dream up an efficient means of fulfilling those functions. Examples are the inventor of the I-phone, which replaced wall telephones and information storage facilities, with portable devices that perform those functions, and the developer of the market for financial interest rate swap contracts, which offered investors the capability to hedge or speculate on market interest rate movements with instruments that are more flexible than futures contacts.
But the underlying source of the genius’s imagination is a subject of dispute: some observers attribute it to hard work applied to intellectual superiority, while others cite luck in developing the invention at the right time and place in history, when the world happened to be ready to recognize its value. Framed in these terms, the issue does not seem to lend itself to resolution, in that there is no logical or empirical method to advance the problem beyond the realm of personal opinion.
5. Closely related to the question of why so few people develop into geniuses is the question of how the lives of a small number of individuals become significant, in the sense that their names are recognized for their achievements long after their physical deaths by large numbers of people who did not know them personally. The reason for the overlap is that, if we don’t count the nefarious political leaders of their countries that are remembered only for their notoriety, it is the geniuses that society chooses to remember in history as significant.
So, who are these memorable individuals? They seem to fall into 2 distinct categories: Discoverers of Truth and Creators of Beauty. Discoverers of Truth, as the name implies, are those individuals who observe reality as it presents itself but who possess the rare insight to apply the scientific method in a novel manner and reveal a previously unimagined way of understanding a less visible reality. They are mostly scientists skilled in the use of research methods, with the most prominent example being the physicist Albert Einstein.
Creators of Beauty possess insight that enables them to imagine a previously invisible reality that they then endeavor to bring forth and express in aesthetic form. They consist principally of artists of all milieus – painters, sculptors, musicians and poets – of which there are a number of notable examples from the painter Vincent Van Gogh to the composer Giacamo Puccini.
An important difference between these 2 types of memorable geniuses lies in the extent to which their significance is dependent on the internal feelings their work arouses in their audience. The output of discoverers of truth can be evaluated objectively and unemotionally on the basis of the persuasiveness with which they can convince others of the validity of their work.
The efforts of creators of beauty, on the other hand, affect each member of their audience subjectively. As a consequence, everyone capable of understanding the effort of a discoverer of truth can reach only one conclusion: it is either correct or it isn’t. In contrast, creators of beauty are judgable on a more flexible standard: the same work can be found moving and inspiring to some, but boring to others. In many ways, and unlike what discoverers of truth produce, audience members’ reactions to artistic stimuli are a function of their own personal experience and history.
It should be pointed out that there exists a school of critical thought that argues for the existence of absolute standards in aesthetics, based on a rigid set of rules that stress traditional conceptions for the use of shape and color By these standards, which would misguidedly attempt to judge creators of beauty by the same criteria as discoverers of truth, many of the most innovative artistic contributions ever made would be condemned as unworthy of anyone’s attention.
More importantly perhaps, such an approach would deny the absolute character of truth, transforming its absolute nature in justice, beauty, and love into a series of relative judgments: justice would no longer need to be the result of the guilty being punished for their misdeeds and the innocent acquitted, but would be influenced and rationalized by the influence of wealth and privilege; beauty would no longer reflect the purity of a person’s or painting’s appearance but the ugliness of worldly corruption; and love would no longer reflect the selflessness of the relevant parties, but the dishonest display of passion disguised by tender endearments.
In short, our search for truth reveals our ignorance and the unlikelihood of overcoming it.