“Dad, what’s the meaning of life?”

42.

What?? 

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?

meaning-of-life

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?

Eat. Drink.

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?

Yes.

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.

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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?

I guess.

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.


“Dad, why is school so boring?”

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.

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What method?

Let me explain. You are learning about World War II history these days – right?

Yes.

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.

Probably.

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.

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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.

What??

Just kidding, kid. You gave me something to think about.

You did too Dad.

Good night little thinker.

Good night big thinker.

Ken Robinson’s view on Education