The Meaning of Life: How Shall We Live?

June 20th, 2005 by Steve Pavlina

How shall we live? What shall we live for, if anything? How we can decide right from wrong? Is there any reasonable way to answer these questions that doesn’t require us to fall back on blind faith?

Let’s Ask the Old Greeks About It

People have been striving to answer these questions literally for thousands of years. One who attempted it was Socrates (469-399 BC). One of his most powerful breakthroughs was the idea of scrutinizing one’s beliefs through a type of cross-examination which became known as the dialectic. This involved asking and answering probing questions in order to arrive at something that could be considered true. Essentially he played devil’s advocate and challenged people to justify what they claimed to know.

For example, there’s a story where Socrates met a young man who was going to court to charge his father with impiety. When Socrates learned of this, he acknowledged the man as a presumed expert in piety, stating that one must be an expert in piety in order to charge his own father with impiety. Then Socrates humbly asked the man to define piety for him, a concept of which Socrates claimed ignorance. The man repeatedly tried in vain to define it, with Socrates offering a simple and undeniable explanation why each answer offered couldn’t be valid. It’s easy to see that Socrates would ultimately piss off the establishment and get himself sentenced to death. He could have escaped, but he chose to stay in Athens and take the poison. Socrates had tremendous respect for the law, even when it meant sacrificing his life to remain true to his principles. As I read about his life, I couldn’t help but develop a tremendous respect for him and his philosophy of life.

Another philosopher who made a significant dent in the question of how to live was Aristotle (384-322 BC), who studied under Plato (Plato studied under Socrates). A young Aristotle expanded on Plato’s ideas regarding the nature of reality (the world of forms), but eventually Aristotle began moving in a new direction and tackled the problem of how one should live.

Aristotle’s best answer for how one should live was the concept of eudaimonia. Unfortunately this word has been tough to translate to English, so there are two favored translations I’m aware of. The first is “happiness,” and the second is “human flourishing.” Most other translations I’ve seen are variations on one of these. Personally I might translate this term as “fulfillment,” although that’s not perfectly accurate either. Eudaimonia is a process of living virtuously, not a fixed state of being. It’s not really an emotion like “happiness” suggests. Aristotle came up with this answer because he found that eudaimonia was the only potential goal of life that could be considered an end in itself rather than a means to another end. I think this is the reason that happiness is perhaps the most popular translation because happiness is an end in itself, not a means to anything else.

Aristotle was interested in finding a right way to live, if such a thing could be said to exist. His answer of eudaimonia consists of two main components: virtuous action and contemplation. The main problem is that the means to discover the virtues was to look at people who seemed to be flourishing and living virtuously and take note of how they lived. As it turned out, such people would usually behave with some degree of integrity, honor, courage, honesty, rationality, fairness, etc. This is not merely an internal observation that one assesses in oneself — such values can be witnessed from the outside in, so Aristotle makes some progress here in attempting to create a semi-objective standard for right living. Like Socrates, Aristotle was also sentenced to death, but he chose to flee Athens and live in exile. (I tell you I’m immensely grateful to live in a society where philosophizing doesn’t currently carry the death penalty.)

The main problem I see in Aristotle’s insightful attempt to answer this question is that his solution is somewhat circular. In order to live well, we need to live virtuously and spend time on self-reflection and study, but how do we know what criteria to use in selecting the virtues or in choosing what to study? We basically have to find people that seem to be living well and flourishing — or in Aristotle’s time, it was suggested that we might also strive to emulate the gods, since they certainly seemed to be doing well. This isn’t unlike certain religions today that provide a model of virtue to attempt to emulate. Aristotle doesn’t answer one key question though: What is the best life one could possibly live? Eudaimonia suggests a way to go about finding the answer to this question, but it still leaves some gaping holes.

After Aristotle many others addressed the question of how to live. Every religion has its own answer. Some people say there’s no answer, that the answer doesn’t matter, that the answer is impossible for us to know, or that the answer is purely a matter of personal choice. The worst answer of all though is what most people do — to ignore the question entirely.

Choosing Your Own Context

What should you live for? Wealth? Power? Service? Longevity? Reason? Love? Faith? Family? God? Virtue? Happiness? Fulfillment? Comfort? Contentment? Integrity? Take a look at this list of values. There are hundreds to choose from.

It is important to make a global choice about how to live our lives, since this decision sets the context for everything else we do. If you don’t choose your context, you get the default/average context, which means you’re essentially letting others dictate your context. To make a gross generalization, in the USA this is a largely commercial/materialist context. It says to get a job, have a family, save some money, and retire. Be a good citizen and don’t get into too much trouble. But don’t really matter either. Be a good cog. Other cultures have their own default contexts. Most people simply subscribe to the default context of their culture with minor individual variations.

Sticking to your culture’s default context is among the worst of your options. Let’s consider the simple cases of a democracy vs. a dictatorship. In a democracy no one is really in charge of the cultural context as a whole, so the most common contexts end up as a mish-mash of bits and pieces that lack overall congruency. This will generally lead to confusion and mediocrity. Such a society will only provide a very fuzzy notion of how you should live, like getting a job, having a family, staying out of trouble, and retiring quietly. Ask an American what it means to live the best possible life, and you’ll get a lot of different answers, and most of them will be fairly fuzzy and unfocused — the kinds of answers that Socrates would shoot full of holes.

Now if you happen to live under a culture where the context is consciously directed, then you have to worry about who’s directing it and what their motives are and whether or not you can trust them. Where you find a strong dictatorship, you’ll usually see a more focused context than in a democracy. If you were to have asked someone from Nazi Germany what it means to live the best possible life, I’d bet the answers would have been more homogeneous and focused. But the problem of course is that such contexts are often designed to keep the context maintainers in power. There’s more pressure to conform to such a context. In the long run this type of context will usually lead to disillusionment, numbness, or fanaticism.

So if you let society dictate your context (which is what will happen by default in the absence of conscious choice), you’ll most likely wind up with a very fuzzy and unfocused context or one that’s focused on the wrong spot. Not a great choice either way. Certainly not the optimal choice. Such a context won’t provide you with enough guidance for how to live properly. You’ll spend a lot of time guessing your way through life or making a lot of mistakes that come back to haunt you later.

Ultimately if you want to get closer to the “best possible life” for you, you have to pick your own context. You can’t merely inherit the default context of your society and live up to what others expect of you. If you try to conform, you’re going to waste your life compared to what you might have done with it if you chose a better context.

So how the heck are we supposed to figure out how to live? Do we simply guess and hope for the best? Is there any rational, sane way to make such a hefty decision?

I can’t make this decision for you, but I can explain how I made this decision for myself, ultimately providing me with an answer that I found very satisfying. I think part of my answer is personal, but I also see part of it as being universal to all of us.

Living the Virtues

After I reached adulthood and began seriously pondering the question of how to live, the first major stopping point was essentially where Aristotle left off. In my early and mid-20s, I spent a lot of time working on living virtuously. I saw living the best possible life as becoming a person of virtue: to live with honor, integrity, courage, compassion, etc. I listed out the virtues I wanted to attain and even set about inventing exercises to help myself develop them. Benjamin Franklin did something very similar, as I read in his autobiography, and each week he chose to focus on one particular virtue in order to develop his character.

Oddly, there was a particular computer game I absolutely fell in love with during this time — Ultima IV. To date I would have to say it is still my favorite game of all time. In this role-playing game you are the Avatar, a seeker of truth, and your goal is not to destroy some enemy but rather to attain what is called the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom. In order to achieve this goal, you must develop your character in the eight virtues. All of these virtues derive from the eight possible combinations of truth, love, and courage as follows:

Truth = Honesty
Love = Compassion
Courage = Valor
Truth + Love = Justice
Truth + Courage = Honor
Love + Courage = Sacrifice
Truth + Love + Courage = Spirituality
The absence of Truth, Love, and Courage is Pride, the opposite of which is Humility.

I found this system of virtues absolutely brilliant, especially coming from a game. Years later when I finally met Richard Garriott, designer of the Ultima series, at the Electronics Entertainment Expo (E3), I asked him how he came up with this system and how he ended up choosing these virtues. He told me it started with brainstorming a long list and noticing patterns in how the virtues related to each other.

As strange as it is that I got these insights from a game, I still think of living virtuously in much the same way today, where these eight virtues come about through the overlapping sets of truth, love, and courage. For the combination of all three virtues though, I feel that “integrity” is a better fit than “spirituality.” Ultima V went on to explore the opposite of these, the vices which can be derived from falsehood, hatred, and cowardice. Unfortunately I feel the Ultima series really went downhill since then and completely lost its soul — I would have loved to have seen the virtue idea taken even farther.

I was thinking heavily in these terms when I started Dexterity Software in 1994. I did my best to hold true to living these virtues and integrated them into the company as much as I could. For example, in the roughly six years Dexterity has been sending out monthly royalty payments (many hundreds of payments total), not once has a single check ever gone out late, not even a day late. I don’t know of any other game publisher who can claim the same, certainly none I’ve worked with. The commitment to do this was a matter of personal honor for me, and my personal concept of virtue was integrated into how I ran the business. Honor was always more important to me than profit… and still is.

The downside to attempting to live virtuously was that I got tossed around a lot by people who were clearly not living virtuously. Unfortunately the gaming industry is rife with such people, especially where large sums of money are concerned. I was well prepared to deal with other people who valued honor highly, but I was saddened to have the opportunity to do business with so few. Too many people placed money as a higher value than personal honor. So I was swimming against the tide. Even so, I still prefer this choice compared to the alternative.

I also began having a lot of internal conflicts while attempting to live virtuously. I don’t blame the virtues for this though but rather my limited capacity for living in the fullest accordance with them. I was living my day-to-day life fairly virtuously, but what about the big picture? What about the very notion of running a game company for the purpose of entertaining people? Was that virtuous enough? I started pressing myself to do more, to push towards a higher ideal. I volunteered to serve as an officer in the Association of Shareware Professionals for two years (zero pay). I wrote a lot of articles for free. I gave away a lot of advice and coached a lot of people for free. I spoke at conferences for free. I pushed myself to sacrifice more for the benefit of others. I bypassed some opportunities to make more money and instead pursued opportunities to provide more service.

I could sense this was an improvement for me, but still it didn’t seem enough. I still didn’t feel like I was close to optimal in terms of my ability to live virtuously. At first I figured this was just the nature of life, that this was to be a lifelong struggle. But I soon began feeling unsettled, perceiving that something wasn’t quite right. For years I couldn’t figure out what it was, so by default I stuck with what I knew. I had run into the same roadblock Aristotle may have hit, the one that prevented him from getting to the point of answering the question, “What is the best possible life?” I knew it was somewhere different than where I was, but I didn’t know where to look.

What Is the Best Possible Life?

Eventually I came upon another way of approaching this problem of how to live. I asked myself, “Why is this such a difficult question anyway? What’s so hard about it?” That started me along a new line of thinking which soon led me to this question: What would have to change in order for this question to be easier to answer?

Bingo.

It suddenly became clear why this question was so tough to answer. In order to answer it accurately, I’d have to know everything. I’d have to be God.

Let’s face it. Our human intelligence is limited. Our technology is proof of that. My PC is better at arithmetic than I am. That tiny CPU can do a wide variety of tasks that my much larger brain cannot. My hard drive contains more data than I could memorize in a lifetime. Of course my brain has the CPU beat in many areas, but the point is that there are clearly intellectual limits to what our squishware can do.

I asked myself a lot of interesting questions to try to gain a new perspective on this. Can the mind comprehend its own limits? What if a superintelligent alien species came to earth — what would they see as the limits of human intelligence, and where would they perceive our boundaries? What can my brain clearly NOT do?

What if I were more intelligent than I am now? How might I live differently? What parts of my life would a more intelligent being consider foolish, unnecessary, or harmful? If a more intelligent being were to attempt to optimize my life, being able to clearly perceive my intellectual limits, what would it change? How would I optimize the life of a gorilla or a mouse if I could communicate with it? What do I perceive as their intellectual limits? What would the best possible life be for various other species?

And many, many more questions of this nature.

What eventually happened was that my context shifted. For the first time I felt I was actually running up against the limits of my own intelligence. I could begin to perceive where the walls were. Some of these limits were obvious, like the limits on my number crunching ability, memory, and speed. But I began to test other limits too. How many distinct concepts can I hold in my head at once? How accurately can I perceive time or temperature or weight without a measuring device? How many problem-solving techniques do I really know, and what are their strengths and weaknesses?

I started studying the brain in a little more detail and comparing my perceived mental limits to what was known about the physical structure of the brain. The most current research in this area is absolutely fascinating. By drugging the brain, you can rob someone of consciousness. By electrically stimulating a cluster of neurons, you can induce an experience the subject would describe as spiritual (pushbutton spirituality?). You can surgically remove a person’s ability to play the piano.

As I developed a greater understanding of human intelligence, I realized that the biggest problem with the question of how to live is that it requires a higher intelligence than we now possess in order to answer it. In order to know what the best possible life is, which is mathematically an optimization problem, you have to know what all the possible lives are. And that requires an amount of data which is currently impossible for us to manage.

Imagine that there are only a million different variations on how you could live your life. In order to choose the best one, you have to look at all one million, apply some kind of criteria to evaluate them, and then pick the one with the highest score. There are three big problems with this. The first problem is that there are too many options to reasonably consider. The second problem is that you’d have to be able to accurately predict the future to know how each life would turn out. And the third problem is that you’d have to come up with the evaluation criteria. The first two are clearly impossible right now, but what about the third?

The third problem is basically what Aristotle attempted to tackle — the evaluation criteria. Living virtuously is one possible answer, but it’s still a bit fuzzy.

So we’ve got some serious problems here. First, we have a search space of possible solutions that’s too big to fully explore. It’s so big we can’t even really comprehend the whole thing. And secondly, we need to figure out the evaluation criteria to intelligently compare one option to another, criteria that don’t depend too heavily on the unknowable future.

Searching…

Let’s tackle the first problem — that of the gigantic search space. First of all, finding a provably optimal solution is impossible. So the truest answer to the best way to live is that it’s unknowable. We aren’t smart enough to figure it out yet. That’s not very satisfying, but it actually helps us a little. Now we’re left with this question: How can we get close to the optimal solution?

Fortunately mathematics has an answer to this question: heuristics. An heuristic is a rule for exploring a search space that can help you get close to an optimal solution when you cannot explore the entire search space. An example heuristic would be hill-climbing. Imagine that you have a big 3D map to explore and you want to find the highest point. With hill-climbing, you’d start at a random point on the map and just make sure that every step you take is uphill. When you can’t go uphill anymore, you’ve hit a peak — a local maximum. Without exploring more of the map, you can’t be too sure your last hill was the highest one on the map, so you may continue to explore by starting at different points on the map and using the same hill-climbing heuristic. Unless you explore the entire map, you can never be certain that you’ve found the global maximum, but the more you explore, the more confidence you gain.

So what does this mean for human living? It suggests a hill-climbing approach to life. You try one way of living for a while, and then you keep trying to improve upon it by taking it “uphill.” You tweak some of the parameters to make it better. For example, you might try to lose weight, make more money, or improve your relationships — any or all of these might be considered a step uphill. And you just keep going uphill until you can’t go any higher.

Of course the problem with this approach is due to the nature of heuristics — you may get stuck in a local maximum that is far below the possible global maximum. The peak you’re striving to reach may only be a molehill in the grand scheme of things. Another problem is that it could take you more than a lifetime just to climb a single hill. You might die before you get very far with this approach.

Ah, but as human beings we have a powerful asset on our side that makes this problem a bit more manageable — imagination. We don’t have to test these permutations physically. We can test them in our minds. But this is only going to work well if our mental map of reality is a close approximation of real reality. In other words our simulation had better be very close to the real thing, or our approximations will be way off, and our results will be worthless. Remember Self-Discipline: Acceptance? In order to have a chance at succeeding at this, we have to accept reality as it truly is — all of it, no matter what we must face about ourselves and how unwilling we are to face it. Otherwise our simulation will be full of glitches. Things that seem to work in our imaginations won’t work in the real world.

The more accurate your mental model of reality, the greater your ability to intelligently assess possible ways of living. This means you must know yourself in all your nakedness, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. You must develop a deep understanding of your own nature as you truly are. This relates to yesterday’s post about bringing your beliefs into alignment with your actions. You must be internally congruent, or your simulations will only spew out garbage that you won’t be able to trust.

I am not certain that everyone has the capacity to do this very well. It requires a high degree of intelligence and concentration to imagine what it would be like to live an alternative life and to assess it objectively. But it’s all we have to deal with. We can only do our best.

I think the optimal solution would be to consider various ways you might live your life, vividly imagine each one in your imagination, and assess its strengths and weaknesses. Once you’ve covered a certain number of these (and I don’t have a good way to know how many is enough — the more, the better), then you pick one and start living that way. Meanwhile, you continue to remain open to imagining other possibilities, and if you ever perceive one that is better than your current manner of living, you switch to the new “higher” life.

How Do You Compare One Life to Another?

Now we have to consider the evaluation criteria. What is uphill? How do we compare one life to another?

Many people have attempted to provide an answer to this question. One of the most popular answers in self-help today is happiness. We’re told to do what makes us most happy. Seek pleasure. Avoid pain. Almost everything I’ve read about personal development uses some variation of happiness as the ultimate goal of life.

But I think happiness is a cop-out answer. Happiness is just an emotion. And placing my entire life in the service of achieving and maintaining a particular emotional state is clearly suboptimal. For one, I’m very emotionally resilient, and it doesn’t take much to make me happy and content. Happiness and well-being can be maintained largely with a very healthy diet and lots of exercise. I’m already good at managing my emotions and being happy, so I’m certain I can do better than this.

Even if we extend happiness into the realm of fulfillment or flourishing, it’s still a cop-out. By giving such an answer to the question of how to live, all we’re doing is tossing the question over to our emotional intelligence. We’re saying that the answer to how to live is whatever our emotions say is the answer. The assumption is that if we feel fulfilled, that we must be living optimally. I see no logical reason this answer would be correct, given what I know about how emotions work. Not good enough.

For these reasons I rejected any answers that suggested the optimal manner of living was to be found in some kind of emotional state or feeling. I can consciously chose to feel whatever I want just by changing my focus. There isn’t any particular course of action that will induce a feeling in me I can’t achieve just by directing my imagination. I can self-emote. :)

And then we have a whole host of other self-help gurus who seem to define the goal of life in terms of being successful, becoming wealthy, having fulfilling relationships, etc. Well, as you probably suspect, that’s just marketing fluff with no real substance behind it. Most of these books are aimed at trying to show you how to achieve optimal results within the pre-existing social context, but as we’ve already seen, even if you can manage to hit the supposed peak there, you’ll still going to be living suboptimally. You’ll only spend your whole life trying to climb a molehill and will leave most of your potential greatness untapped.

The way I chose to tackle this question was to look at my life in the context of the big picture of my clearest understanding of reality. This meant looking at the history of life to the degree we understand it, the possible future of life and where it might lead, and the present condition of life. I felt that a consideration of the best possible human life would have to be placed within the framework of all of life, past, present, and projected future. When I look at how life has evolved on earth, I see this force of evolution as something much greater than my own personal existence. I see that life has been continuing to upgrade its complexity, its intelligence, and its overall chances of survival. When I place myself within this context, I see that I have three basic options. I can work to cooperate with evolution, I can work against it, or I can ignore it. My human awareness gives me the ability to make this choice consciously.

As Close to Optimal As I Can Get

I decided that the best possible life would have to lie within the realm of cooperating with evolution rather than working against it. So for me this implies two things: 1) Working to evolve myself as an individual to the highest degree possible, and 2) Working to help life itself evolve to the highest degree possible. It turns out these goals are highly compatible, since there’s a positive feedback loop between evolving yourself and evolving your environment. If you only work on yourself, your environment will ultimately hold you back. You’ll be like Tarzan living among the apes. And if you only work to help others, that would also be suboptimal because you’ll only be able to teach them what you know right now, but you’ll never upgrade your knowledge and grow in your capacity to teach. So a balance of both is required.

For me this boils down to working on my own personal growth and helping others to grow. This became my means of assessing the best possible life I could hope to live.

So what does it mean to grow? To me it means to continually strive to upgrade my most powerful evolutionary assets, which I perceive as my intelligence, my consciousness, and my knowledge of reality. And in order to help others grow as well, I must consequently continue to upgrade my communication skills.

I see the main purpose of my life as serving the process of evolution. This is more important to me than anything else. Everything else in my life is secondary compared to this and must justify its fitness for this agenda. Who cares about getting a job and making money when you have the opportunity to consciously participate in the evolution of life itself? For me all other potential ways of living are nothing but pale shadows compared to this.

Let’s tie this back in with the concept of heuristics now. This yields the following overall strategy:

  1. Attempt to imagine the best possible life you can live with the evaluation criteria of serving the process of evolution itself.
  2. Live it — experience it.
  3. Whenever you ever become convinced that there is a better way for you to serve the process of evolution than what you’re doing now, transition to it.

This is my answer to the question of how to live: to invest the bulk of my life in the pursuit of growth. To me this makes perfect sense. If we cannot fathom how to live optimally, then the best solution would be to develop a greater capacity to do so. If your computer is incapable of doing what you need it to do, then you should invest your time working to upgrade the computer.

I find this answer also combines well with Aristotle’s concept of virtue. Intelligence suggests a direction, and virtue helps mold the path. I believe both are essential for living the best possible life. Of the two though, I think intelligence is the more powerful, since the virtues themselves were derived from our human intelligence. One way of thinking of the virtues is as intellectual shortcuts. If there is too much data to make a truly intelligent decision, you can fall back on the virtues and trust that they are at least not likely to be stupid choices. When in doubt, be honest, be honorable, be brave.

Squishware 2.0

If you suddenly found yourself living as an ape, you could accept the life of an ape and devote yourself to eating bananas all day and try to be a good ape, or you could attempt to become more than an ape and evolve into a human. Once you did that, all your ape goals and accomplishments would seem utterly meaningless compared to your new human capabilities. How silly will goals like building a business or becoming good at marketing appear to a more evolved species?

On the evolutionary ladder, we’re just a bunch of apes right now. But if we keep growing, we will soon be much more. It’s likely that computer technology will more closely merge with our own squishware to make us ever smarter and more capable. But even before that happens, we can continue learning more about our squishware and push it to its limits. Let’s stop living on 3% of our brainpower and crank it closer to 100%.

There are many ways to consciously assist the process of evolution, and our ability to do this right now is of course limited (although more of these limits are collapsing each year). Over the course of a lifetime, I think one person living today who devotes his/her life to assisting the evolution of our species can have a dramatic effect. We still remember Aristotle for his contribution. What more could we accomplish if thousands of us living today devoted our lives to a similar purpose?

I have no way to prove this to you, but I seem to be discovering that the more I work to align my life with the process of evolution, the more my life flows almost effortlessly, as if I’m being magnetically pulled along. For the past year my life has been working extremely well, and I feel like I’m able to think more clearly than ever. This was a recent context switch for me, just within the past year, but I feel as if it’s growing stronger each month. It’s a feeling of clarity that this is just what I’m meant to do with my life. Self-discipline is still required, but I’m stronger and more able to apply it consistently. I think the reason is that I finally feel I am indeed living the best possible life I’m capable of, given what I know right now. When I try to imagine something better, it’s only an increase in my capacity to do the same thing, not a change in the essence of what I’m doing. Getting to this point, however, was not remotely easy, and I’m certain that more change lies ahead. That is the nature of growth — old goals are constantly in the process of becoming obsolete.

Tomorrow we’ll explore how to translate this high-level notion of how to live into a personal purpose that is actually achievable. And then the following day, we’ll cover how to break that purpose down into goals, projects, and actions and get moving on it.


This post is part two of a six-part series on the meaning of life:
Part 1: Intro
Part 2: How Shall We Live?
Part 3: Discover Your Purpose
Part 4: From Purpose to Action
Part 5: Transitioning
Part 6: Conscious Evolution



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