Just kidding. Just make sure to read Douglas Adams one day.
That is the question of all questions, kid. I hope you’re not too tired – this requires a lot of thinking. And because it is such an important question, we’ll have to go about this slowly and thoroughly. Don’t fall asleep, you promise?
I’m fine Dad. So what is it?
Let’s start from the beginning. What is life?
Life is something that living things have.
True. But what exactly is it? What defines a living thing?
Hmm… They can move.
Right, living things can move, but what defines living things is that they move by themselves. What happens when a living thing dies?
It stops moving.
And it becomes inanimate like any other indestructible materials.
Like a rock?
Yes. And note that the ability of a living thing to move is conditional and temporary as they can die and become inanimate. An inanimate thing’s existence is unconditional and eternal. So what do living organisms have to do to stay alive?
Yes, they need outside fuel to get energy. But also look at the way they are structured. They have organs that are designed to sustain their lives like a heart, kidneys, blood and so on. Living things act to achieve something very specific – to achieve a goal.
You mean a goal to stay alive?
Exactly. Only living things have a goal they are trying to keep themselves alive. Life is the value they are trying to achieve and sustain. Now, is a life of an ameba looks like the one of a tiger?
No, they are very different.
Every organism has a proper way of action. That is its nature. A human being has a specific nature and a proper way of action to keep and enhance his or her life. Now here comes an important concept:
Life is the standard of value.
Not sure I got it Dad. What do you mean by standard of value?
Life is the ultimate goal and it defines the standard by which we judge any action. If you do something that supports your life, it is a proper action, like breathing, eating and thinking. Those are necessary to you as a human being. A bird needs to eat worms and learn how to fly, that is what is proper for it. Now nature made it a little easier for us to judge what is proper or improper for us. Every organism has a mechanism to tell it if it is doing well or not. It is the pleasure and pain mechanism. Pain tells you that something is wrong and you are failing in sustaining your life, pleasure tells you are succeeding.
So when I fall and hurt myself, that means nature is telling me that I just did something wrong?
Basically, yes. Hurting yourself is not good for you.
But what about putting that medicine that burns on a scratch? It hurts, but it is actually good for you.
You mean an antiseptic. Yes, this is the unique thing about humans, we have something even more sophisticated that pleasure and pain – we have a reason. We know that putting that antiseptic will hurt, but also that it is good for us in the long run.
That is pretty simple so far, but when you asked the question “what’s the meaning of life?” you meant to ask what is the meaning of a human life, your life. Right?
So what do you think is so different about humans?
We think. We talk.
Right. We can think and so our action is not automatic. Nature didn’t program us to instinctively know how to lead our lives like a bug or an elephant. We have awareness, choice and free will. So because man is a creature of free will, it has another mechanism other than pleasure and pain.
It has the happiness or suffering mechanism. That is the pleasure and pain mechanism of your mind. It is the mechanism telling you if your decisions are going in the right or wrong direction.
So if I do the right things to make life better, I will be happy?
Yes. And here’s your answer – Pursuing happiness is the meaning of life. Happiness is a long lasting state where your mind and body are doing well, are flourishing, and are healthy. Now, understanding what are the “right things” that will make you happy – that’s the more complicated question, but as long as you remember that life is the standard, it will be much easier.
So how can I know what are the “right things” that will make me happy?
You’ll have to evaluate every action according to the standard – is it enhancing your life? is it good for you in the long term? does it contradict any other action?
And here is the hard part – Our mind is a very sophisticated organ but it has a specific nature. The way it perceives, analyzes and understands reality is through concepts and if you understand how concepts are formed, you’ll understand what is the right way to form those concepts. This will allow you to understand, cope with and master reality that is all around you.
Our mind’s nature defines what makes us happy. It will take too long to explain why, but for now, I can just tell you that if follow the following principles, you’re more likely to be happy. Ready?
You should think rationally about everything. Experience and enjoy your emotions, but don’t make decisions using them.
Be productive and creative. Express yourself and allow yourself to experience success in mastering something.
Be independent. Learn how to take care of yourself. Learn from and enjoy other people, but don’t become dependent on anyone.
Be principled and have the integrity to always act according to your principles.
be honest and never fake reality. Evading reality will always hurt you eventually.
Treat your fellow men with justice. Judge them according to their value to you and always respect their rights.
Be proud and respect yourself.
There you go. I told you what the meaning of life. Now you can go to sleep.
That’s not enough, Dad. How do I do all of that?
That is another big question. How about we talk about it tomorrow?
Okay. Are you happy Dad?
Yes I am kid. My life is on the right track. Are you?
Yes Dad. I am.
Happy dreams kid.
Is it that bad, kid?
Yes Dad, it’s awful. I can’t wait for schooldays to be over.
Why is that, kiddo?
The subjects are just not interesting. I sit in class trying to keep myself awake most of the time.
That’s not good. I don’t envy you. But I don’t think that the real reason is the choice of subjects.
I think it is the METHOD that is wrong.
Let me explain. You are learning about World War II history these days – right?
And they ask you to remember so many details about it.
Yes, it takes forever to memorize all of it.
And I bet you’ll forget almost everything the day after the test.
So, I think that the real reason you are not interested in this fascinating period in history is because of the WAY it is presented to you. If your teacher presented you the sequence of events as a story with one event leading to another and with logical explanations of the reasons and causes that led them to happen – memorizing it will be a much easier task.
For example, if you really understood WHY and HOW Hitler got to power in Germany and what kind of ideas transformed a whole nation to a group of mass murderers, you would never forget it and potentially draw important conclusions about man’s nature.
I think you’re right. It is easier for me to remember stuff I understand.
I also think that if the teacher would ask you to guess what happened next and then analyze what really happened and why, you could develop a deeper understanding of what shapes history and maybe what will shape the future.
So you see kid, it is a matter of METHOD. Unfortunately, the method they use in your school doesn’t make you truly understand and doesn’t keep you motivated.
Why is that, Dad?
It is how our minds work. Your mind is striving to think, to understand and to integrate many events into underlying concepts or principles. This is called INDUCTION or INTEGRATION.
You cannot hold hundreds of disjoint events in your mind without reducing them into an integrated sequence that makes sense.
This is true for other subjects like math – it would be more effective focusing on understanding the PRINCIPLES better rather than giving you 100 exercises of the same subject, thinking you’ll learn by repetition.
I agree. It is just a waste of time, yet I get those kind of exercises for homework almost every day.
Did I tell you that I don’t envy you?
Yes you did… So why don’t they improve it and make it more interesting?
Sadly, most of the school system today is run by the government. It is a monopoly that stifles competition and thus innovation.
Maybe Mom and I should start saving and move you to a private school next year.
Maybe you should.
Maybe. I just need to decide if your education is more important than this new car I want to buy.
Just kidding, kid. You gave me something to think about.
You did too Dad.
Good night little thinker.
Good night big thinker.
Emotions, emotions, emotions… They such are a beautiful thing if we understand them.
Let’s think about what emotions are. A human being is born with biological mechanisms:
A physical pleasure-pain mechanism that protects you when your finger touches a hot pan and that makes you feel good when you eat something delicious or that someone you love kisses you softly – and yes, I mean mom… This mechanism is geared to protect your life and is working through your nerve system and lightning-fast instincts.
You also have a mental happy-sad mechanism that tells you if you’re doing good or not, if the girl of your dreams just said “yes” or “no”. Note that this mechanism does not work through instincts, but it is still fast and automatic. It takes some quick evaluation and decision making to determine if what just happened is good or bad for you. To quickly determine what is the context and what you should feel and do about it.
So you are saying I can decide what to feel?
No, I am saying that your feelings depend on a specific context and your evaluation of the situation.
Let’s say that someone just insulted you – you can decide to start crying, insult him back angrily, walk away indifferently or just start laughing joyfully – it depends on your judgment. But this is unique kind of judgment, a subconscious, emotional judgment.
Emotions are the AUTOMATIC REACTION to that judgment processed by your subconscious. They are an effect, not a cause. You cannot love someone for no reason, you are not depressed for no reason, there is a cause and you should try to understand exactly what you are feeling and most importantly, why you are feeling the way you do.
So how does my subconscious decide how to judge a specific event?
Good question. You are born with empty conscious and subconscious mechanisms. Your conscious mind programs the subconscious with values that are used to decide your emotional reactions.
Where do those values come from? A human being doesn’t get them automatically like your physical instincts. Values come either from your conscious thinking, acceptance of someone else’s or socially-accepted ideas, faith, or any automatic integration you decided knowingly or unknowingly. Those become the basis for your emotional value judgment.
If you consciously thought about your values, about what is good, bad, important, meaningful or not – then, you will understand your emotions. They will make sense to you and your mind and emotions will feel integrated. You will enjoy them profoundly or use them to drive yourself to correct what is wrong in your life. Otherwise, and sadly this is the case with many people, emotions do not always align with your rational evaluation of a situation which means there is a conflict that needs to be resolved psychologically. It is a simple rule – random values produce random emotions.
Another important thing – Emotions will give you no clue about what to do in a given situation because they are a subconscious reaction. They are NOT a function of organizing data, draw conclusions and analyze things – this requires reason and awareness – not emotions.
So make sure you do NOT act on your intuition or unexplained feelings. Use observation, integration, concepts and logic to determine what is your best course of action. Don’t just “feel like it”. It will mess you up.
Lastly, emotions are essential to your life. They give you love, desire, motivation and enjoyment from life. Nourish your emotions and relish in them.
So I should “connect with my emotions” as they say?
If that means understand your emotions, then yes. If it means, let them lead the way, then no.
Remember – Reason first, emotions later.
Dad, I feel tiered
So connect with your emotion and go to sleep dude.
Good night. I love you so much.
Me too Dad
Simple. If it is consistent with reality it is true. If it is not, then it is false.
But seriously, it is a complex issue.
First, you have to look at reality and observe its laws, causes and effects. You have to think logically about what you are trying to understand and validate it with reality. The older you get, the more sophisticated you’ll become. That means that you will deal with things that are abstract and complex, but if you learn how to tie it back to reality, then you’ll know you are making the right conclusions.
Sounds very complex. But what about things we can’t understand? My friend told me we can’t understand God.
It is true we don’t understand everything but it doesn’t mean we can’t understand anything. Believing in things that are not part of reality can be a very dangerous thing.
Why? What’s wrong with believing in things that don’t exist?
Let me give you an example:
So a friend tells you about god for the first time. When you ask where they live they say in the sky and that you can’t see or hear them. You’re confused, but the people around you are so confident that you take it as truth.
But then something feels wrong. Suddenly reality doesn’t seem so clear anymore. You think that there are things beyond reality that you can’t see, feel or even understand. You and reality are not communicating so clearly anymore. It is like it betrayed you and you are separated from it in some way. You feel small, unintelligent and incompetent versus the almighty god that knows and controls everything. You rely on your feelings and not your thought, you take anything that your religious friend tells you as truth instead of asking for proof.
Oh. That’s sounds bad.
But you are a thinker. You are brave. You know that the fact that many people say something is true doesn’t make it so. Reality is the ultimate judge – not them.
So you think about the concept of a supernatural, of something outside of reality and you come to the conclusion that it is fiction. That those are false, detached ideas in some people’s brains.
So they are all lying?
No, they are not lying, they truly believe in it, but it has an enormous cost that comes with it. You see, our mind is such a powerful tool that it is very easy do drift with ideas and detach yourself from reality. But reality will always strike back. This is why it is dangerous, because you can’t evade reality and its laws and if you’ll try to ignore it, you will have to deal with the consequences.
So you have to see it to believe it?
Not necessarily. Blind people understand the world just fine.
Think hard about what you learned as a baby to be true and try to induce the common denominator between all the things that turned out to be true. What made them true?
Reality. You saw proof with your own eyes. That is perception and that is the basis.
But can you always trust your eyes? What happens when they fool you? Remember that time when you saw your finger in a glass of water? It looked as if it’s crooked. But then I gave you the explanation about light traveling slower through water changing the angle of light that hits your eyes. It had a logical explanation that didn’t contradict anything that you knew to be true. It just explains everything better.
You know that you can trust your eyes, ears and the other senses. But you also realize that there is something more than just your senses – there is your mind and its ability to conceptualize and understand reality. You realize that when thinking about things in the right, logical way, you can make even more sense of reality with the power of your mind and far beyond our senses.
You never saw a 100 miles with your own eyes, but the powerful concept of numbers and mathematics makes it easy to imagine a 100 mile road.
I never thought about it. That’s cool.
It is. Every time you learn something new, you basically generalize and integrate more knowledge into new concepts. You learn about great concepts other smart people made and start connecting all of your concepts into a big, consistent knowledge base. It is like a skyscraper of concepts.
I like skyscrapers. But what if you learn something that is wrong? What happens then?
Reality will tell you it is wrong if you’ll keep an open, rational mind, you’ll be quick to identify and correct it.
How will it tell me that?
You will see unexpected effects from the same causes. You will notice inconsistencies, contradictions and things that are not fully clarified yet.
Do you think reality is consistent?
Yes Dad, it is.
And so should be your knowledge about it. Nothing in your skyscraper of knowledge can contradict itself. If it does, then something is wrong and you need to fix it because you remember that an apple always falls to the ground. And if there is something foggy in your mind, you know it is not because reality is foggy or unknowledgeable, but rather that you didn’t clarify it in your head yet and you need to do some more thinking.
And as you grow older and wiser you build a skyscraper of knowledge where one concept is based on another like floors are built one on top of the other. And sometimes, you make an error. Sometimes, what you thought was true and exact, turned out to be incorrect or inaccurate. Maybe you didn’t see the full picture; maybe something was distorted or misunderstood on the way.
So you fix it.
You realize that it is wrong, you go the lowest floor of knowledge that is incorrect and replace it with something else that will support a better, more accurate concept. In most cases you’ll be fine-tuning your concepts, adding more clarity and accuracy. The same as Einstein fine-tuned Newton’s physics. This is how knowledge is aggregated through the ages.
So thinking right is quite important, ha Dad?
If you want to lead a full flourishing life, achieving happiness and prosperity, you need to think. You can’t survive in reality with tools you don’t have – a bear would kill you if you used only muscle force, a lion will chase and catch you if you rely on your speed. Your only chance to survive is by concepts and ideas that enable you to develop traps, agriculture, control fire and this way get a competitive edge on other species. Your mind is what makes you human. This is why ideas are crucial for your survival. Your ability to conceptualize and integrate will determine your ability to survive and flourish as a human being.
So in other words, you’re telling me I should take that chess class, right?
No. I am telling you should do what you’re passionate about. Take up chess only if it truly interests you. But what I wish for you is that you’ll love thinking and love life because of it.
So, I’ll think about it.
That a boy. Now go to sleep, I talked to much as usual and it is getting late.
Good night Dad.
Good night my little thinker.