Imagine you wake up in a room completely unaware of where you are or how you got there. You have no memory of any events leading up to the present moment, and in fact no knowledge of who you yourself are, where you’re from, or where you’re trying to go. It is as if you are the lead character in a mystery novel or movie trying to remember what took place the previous night that got you to where you are now. Not only do you not know who you are or how you got here, you don’t know why you don’t know. All you have to work with are the mud tracks on the carpet, the broken glass, the still-smoldering cigarette in the ashtray.
It is in this room each of us finds ourselves upon being born into this world and through our subsequent development as human creatures. We are thrust into this reality through no choice of our own, with no understanding of where we’ve come from or who and what we really are. We are each of us immersed in the deepest of mysteries, a mystery we’ve been pondering as a species ever since we first evolved the capacity to do so. Who are we? What does it mean to be a human creature in this universe? Why are we here?
But suppose we answered all these questions. After all, the last two hundred years of scientific inquiry have provided us a philosophically sound framework through which to do so. We’ve analyzed the tracks on the rug, the fingerprints on the revolver, and have come to a conclusion about who we are and how we got here. We are a primate species, a product of evolutionary processes that gradually shaped us over the course of many millions of years. We are living on a blue dot suspended in a vast sea of emptiness, circling a ball of energy on the outskirts of a galaxy that is just one among a hundred billion other galaxies in the observable universe. Each of our lives will end one day or another, and if we fast-forward far enough into the future the entire undertaking that is life will one day be extinguished in the inevitable heat death of our universe. All this we know objectively to be true, or at least provisionally so, giving us answers to many of the mysteries of human existence.
So what now? Crucially, there is one question that has not yet been asked: what do we do with this knowledge? We have successfully deduced what transpired last night, yet how does this inform us of what to do today? Is this not, after all, the question that really matters? The truly important questions are not descriptive questions seeking scientific explanations to the world’s mysteries, but rather prescriptive questions that seek out guidance as to how to act in a chaotic world full of infinite potential.
Perhaps this is why the modern scientific materialist account of human existence is met with so much resistance. A purely objective account of reality removes prescriptive considerations altogether, leaving us in a world altogether void of meaning. And in a world full of suffering and chaos, the last thing we want to hear is that this is all for naught, that none of it is worth anything.
This seeming schism between what one might call, respectively, the scientific and religious worldviews, is the result of each perspective having a distinct way of conceptualizing reality. In the modern scientific view of reality, there exists the objective world that we inhabit and perceive through our five senses. The objective world is the physical world where truth exists as accurate facts, where there exist objects separated by space. The objective world is the descriptive world of what is, governed by its underlying laws of physics.
In the “religious” worldview, however, reality is conceptualized subjectively as a behavioral landscape, where truth equates to a noble aim. It is the world made of goals prioritized by the structure of one’s own value hierarchy. It is the world of tools and obstacles, tools being the good which act to serve one’s goals, and obstacles being the bad which come between oneself and one’s goals. The subjective world is the normative world of what ought to be.
Ultimately, it is the objective or scientific perspective that must bow to the subjective or prescriptive outlook on life. Consider the Darwinian processes that got us here, an analysis that is, after all, a scientific and objective one. Every ability we have to perceive the world has evolved for the purpose of helping us navigate the world, to survive. Everything about who we are as biological creatures is for the purpose of realizing our evolutionary goals.
Emotions evolved first and foremost to provide us with a low-resolution (and thus cheap) representation of the motivational significance of things we encounter in our environment and within our own bodies. The lowest-resolution emotions represent stimuli as either good, bad, or neutral. Over evolutionary time, these emotions became increasingly sophisticated, and collaborated with one another to give a more nuanced and detailed view of the motivational significance of things and events in the world. And then our evolution eventually gave rise to higher-order rational thought that allowed us to perceive the world in a much more objective manner and to use this detailed representation of the objective world to better inform our complex emotional world in order to achieve the goals with which natural selection endowed us.
In other words, all questions serve, however indirectly, to answer the ultimate question of how to orient oneself in the world, a question that scales to all timeframes, and thus permeates every moment of our otherwise seemingly ordinary lives. How do I physically orient myself right now in order to pick up my toothbrush and clean my teeth so that I can better maintain their health over the long term? How do I orient myself relationally to a friend whom I might be interested in as more than just a friend, but who has given no indication that the feelings are mutual? How do I orient myself over the course of my entire life to bring about the most good?
Knowledge of the objective world is only important insofar that it informs us of how to act, aiding us in the pursuit of our goals. It is the question of how to act that every lifeform is ultimately concerned with, that our more primitive ancestors were concerned with, something the scientific mind tends to overlook, something I have overlooked until recently. In our modern world governed by objective empiricism, we tend to think that primitive cultures were just as concerned as we are with understanding the objective nature of reality, that all the stories and rituals and myths were their version of a scientific description of the objective world around them. In assuming this, however, we overlook the fact that the way we now think about reality is extremely new to the human species, a result of our collective cognitive development over time. We have managed in the last several centuries to split reality into two halves, one half comprising the objective nature of reality, the other the subjective.
The scientific mode of thinking isolates the perspective-independent sensory aspects of the objective world—inasmuch as that’s possible—from their affective subjective correlates. Any modern individual can recognize the difference between the darkness of night due to the earth’s rotation obscuring one’s view of the sun and the associated dread we may have felt as children when forced to navigate to the bathroom unaccompanied at night. We know the difference between a venomous snake as a biological creature and the instinctive response it induces in our brains upon encountering such a threat. Seeing reality in this dualistic way has paved the way for the overwhelming scientific advancement we’ve witnessed exponentially consume our world over the last several centuries, leaving little doubt as to the philosophical validity of such a mode of thinking.
But before the scientific revolution and our empirical way of thinking spread throughout Western culture, humans didn’t have any sort of concept of the objective world separate from the subjective. The venomous snake of our primitive human ancestors was indistinguishable from its associated affect. As psychologist Jordan Peterson states, the world of our ancestors wasn’t “made of matter,” but of “what matters.” And what matters is the motivational significance of the things and events going on around us. The material nature of the snake matters only insofar that it contains implications for behavior. The absence of light matters only to the extent that it has any effect on the world of emotion, a world responsible for monitoring the behavioral significance of objects and events.
Mythological stories were never intended to be accurate descriptions of the objective world, but rather a collection of implicitly understood and abstracted wisdom, unconscious and incompletely articulated knowledge of the proper way to orient oneself in the world. Where science gives us a clear picture of objective reality free of value judgements, art serves to orient us properly by abstracting adaptive patterns of behavior out of the surrounding social fabric and representing those abstractions in the form of ritual, drama, storytelling, and myth.
This process of properly orienting oneself requires the proper restructuring of one’s motivational world. After all, I cannot know how to orient myself physically in the present unless I know that my goal is to brush my teeth. And brushing my teeth is typically for the sake of the higher aim of preserving the health of my teeth. Preserving the function of my teeth is for the sake of reducing future costs that might result from losing teeth, and so on. The further we go along this path, the more general the goal becomes.
In other words, our motivations are structured hierarchically, the big-picture long-term goals governing the top of the hierarchy and the fine-detail short-term goals following orders at the bottom. Any tool that aids in the pursuit of a goal is considered good, and is associated with well-being. Any obstacle that impedes the pursuit of a goal is considered bad, and is associated with suffering. The higher the goal to which each tool or obstacle stands in relation, the more profoundly good or bad each is respectively perceived to be.
Yet with every goal comes the reality that the present moment is itself an obstacle to the goal, simply because the goal has not yet been attained. In other words, the existence of a goal necessarily implies an “unsatisfactory” present, a current state which is less than ideal. Any sort of system, whether biological organism or artificial computational system, that was entirely content with its present state would not only lack any goals, but it would remain altogether static and unchanging. In other words, such a system would be utterly lifeless. And we all would recognize this immediately were we to encounter such a system. Having no goals implies experiencing no change, no motion, nothing at all to differentiate oneself from a dead collection of matter.
Since life is characterized in the most general sense by hierarchically structured goals, what this means is that life is always unsatisfactory on some level. There is an ever-impinging obstacle to what it is we are striving to achieve, an eternal sense that the present moment is in some way lacking. Moments of contentment are short-lived before it comes time to strive toward our next goal.
Much of what makes humanity unique from other creatures is that we recognize this fact about the suffering inherent in existence and are tasked with the responsibility of coming to terms with it. The East recognized this with the first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, characterizing life itself as suffering. In the West, this reality was acknowledged by Christ’s death on the cross, a recognition that even those most properly oriented in the world will nevertheless undergo immense tragedy. Both perspectives begin with an acceptance of the fact of suffering.
The East recognized the existence of goals as being the root cause of suffering, and thus concluded that one must transcend our nature as goal-oriented creatures and in doing so rid oneself of all goals, taking on a purely objective existence, a state of enlightenment in which everything simply is at it is, with no concern as to whether or not things ought to be the way they are. The West, on the other hand, stoically embraced our nature as goal-oriented creatures, and sought to solve the associated problem of suffering by pursuing a goal so noble so as to be worth all the hardship experienced as a result of striving toward it.
In the Darwinian landscape, I fail to see how the former prescription, if fully put into practice, might be expected to sustain itself, seeing as it denies any such imperative to do so. Yet it nevertheless serves a more temporally-limited purpose of transcending the motivational world, if only just for a second or two. This is what mindfulness meditation—an Eastern practice that is now sweeping the modern Western world—seeks to do. In transcending the world of emotion, one gains a better understanding of it, and thus one is better able to properly orient oneself in the world.
Ultimately, however, it is the latter prescription—that primarily of the West—that forms what has been up to this point the only acceptable long-term solution to the problem of human suffering, the only prescription with any redemptive power. Logically speaking, all actions must be performed in service to one goal or another. This means that the only proper path forward is a pursuit of an End Goal that is worth the suffering this life entails. That Goal is the subject of a deep and extensive exploration I’ve been on for the past year, and this post serves as one of the many significant discoveries I’ve made along the way.
What matters is not what you believe or claim to know, but how you act. And how you act is determined by the nature and structure of your motivational hierarchy, your hierarchy of value. What lies at the peak of this hierarchy serves as your fundamental moral axiom, the ultimate Goal that governs and directs all other goals. Perhaps this is what we in the West have traditionally personified as God: that whose existence is self-justified, that which you run from at your peril, that which is worthy of following, that which redeems existence within a fallen world.
I will leave you with my favorite ender-of-all-small-talk question: what lies at the peak of your motivational hierarchy?