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.
You ask tough questions kid.
Well, before we talk about good and bad, we need to answer the questions: Good and bad for whom? Good and bad for what?
That’s easy. Good for me. Good for the world.
Well, those could be two very different things. And besides, who’s the world exactly?
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with good for you. What is good for you?
So think about when you were a baby. You were crying when you felt something bad and smiling when it was good. In your early days, good was just a comfortable feeling of being well fed, not being sick, hot, cold or in pain. Those are the basics. Pain, for instance, is a biological mechanism through which reality lets us know if something is bad for you. Stress, fear, depression are cognitive mechanisms that do the same.
So how did you know as a baby to decide what is good and what is bad? You had some kind of criteria. That criteria is LIFE. You have an automatic mechanism that is programmed to sustain your life. So life is the VALUE you are trying to keep and is the standard of what is good and what is bad, when to cry and when to smile.
So my life is what determines good from bad?
Yes, without that value, there is no meaning to good or bad. Without life there is no good or bad. The need for good and bad decision, or in its formal name, morality – is only for living things. Only living things have values. The universe is not good or bad – it is just there.
But as you grow up, the same thing that happened with concepts and the development of your knowledge, happens with values as they become more complex and abstract. You’re looking to be happy, to be satisfied, to be passionate about the things you do, to pursue a goal, to get that girl you adore, to work in a field you love, and get that car of your dreams (in my case). It is not just about staying alive anymore.
Suddenly, your values become more complex and challenging. They require long range planning, prioritization, and a lot of hard work. You realize that you want to pursue long-range goals. You understand that a flu shot and a dental procedure that hurt a little are actually good for you and that you have to save money in order to pay for school, buy a house or a car.
So if I do something to achieve my values it is good?
If your values are rational, then yes. Some people choose irrational values and hurt themselves.
So I can do anything I want to achieve my goals? What if you could steal money from a bank without being caught or steal the car you want?
We need to check if stealing is good or bad for me. So what does it mean to steal? It means taking someone’s property without deserving or earning it. Taking it by force, coercion or deception. So first, there is the chance of getting caught and going to prison – that is surly bad for my life. But that doesn’t cut it because I know there are ways to steal and get away with it.
So why is it still bad for me?
Well, first, I will have to lie every time someone asks me about the cat and how I got it. I will have to evade people wanting to learn more about the car and I will always be anxious when a police car drives by.
Besides, I will not be able to be truly honest about other things in life because I will be forced to choose to either give up on principles in general, or know that I am not a principled man. I couldn’t justify morally why it will be wrong to do it again. I couldn’t explain to my kid why not to steal something from a grocery store.
Practically, if you decide to steal some more and become a professional thief – it means that you will be in a constant state of anxiety, short term, whimsical, pleasure seeking mentality because you gave up on reason and thought and chose force and deception as a way of life. Your life will not be productive but more like hit and run, you’ll become superstitious, develop contempt for other people because they are suckers that you can always forcefully manipulate.
Your life will be potentially reduced to physical sex, food, pillow and drugs. You will lose your capacity for happiness, because happiness is a result of a long range action. Living by force is anti-mind and we are mind-driven beings – it just doesn’t work.
Any way you look at it, robbing a bank or stealing a car it is bad for me. It is much worse than not having the car or just saving for a couple more years to buy it.
This is a rational analysis of the situation. This is why thieves live miserable lives. They don’t save, they are not good spouses or parents, and they steal more till they get caught.
Remember when I told you that reality always strikes you back when you evade it? This is a good example.
But wait Dad, what if I do it only once and forget about it? Is that possible?
Well, let’s think about it. Can you forget about stealing the car? No. Can you push that thought aside? Yes. But then there are consequences. You must continue your life in a very unprincipled manner. But reality is principled. That means that you’ll become a pragmatist – whatever I think is right as of now, is right and good. And then, there is nothing to guide your life, you’ll just do whatever comes to you at that moment.
Stealing a car in return for subverting the entirety of your moral life is not comparable. The same goes for lying or being dishonest.
Oh, so what about lying to a criminal about where your family is? Shouldn’t you be honest and tell him where they are?
Again, let’s break it down. Good is what promotes my life. So is it good to lie to that criminal? Yes. Will it hurt my capacity to lead a moral life? No. I am protecting my values any way I can and also, everything has a context – you can’t judge something without context.
For example, you can see someone jumping in front of a train and decide he is a suicidal lunatic, but if you understand the wider context of him trying to rescue his child who was in front of that train and managed to push him away from the tracks, you suddenly realize he is a rational, moral person because he was protecting his highest value. So you have to conclude that context is very important and that there are always edges cases where acting in a way that will not make sense in other contexts, sometimes is necessary.
Wow, Dad. This is more complex than I thought.
It is kid. Life is not simple, and it is great that it isn’t. Otherwise it will be boring and automatic.
So I will go to sleep now. It is good for me.
It is definitely good for you kid. Sweet dreams.