If there is a point to being alive, a reason for existing as a self-aware organism in the Universe, it is probably to solve problems. I don’t actually think there is a reason for us or anyone else to exist, nor do I think that the Universe itself provides or requires any inherent meaning or purpose. But if there is any purpose, or if we can impose meaning post hoc, sans propter hoc, then I think the whole point is the solving of problems.
Let’s get this out of the way, just for total clarity: There was no “intent” on the part of the Universe or any other entity that a particular species (or any number of species) should emerge and go about the business of fixing things the Universe couldn’t fix on its own. That’s fantasy stuff. The Universe has no will, nor does it perceive that it possesses imperfections to be repaired. It doesn’t perceive anything, except inasmuch that the beings in it, and therefore of it, perceive things. But the fact that they do perceive anything is accidental, not purposeful.
By problem-solving, I mean something far more mundane, localized to the individual organism. One has the will to maintain one’s own existence because of the impulse, built into a being by natural selection, to seek out opportunities to overcome deficiencies, fulfill needs, create novelties, experience pleasures, and relieve suffering. Examples can range from achieving world peace to fixing a leaky faucet. From creating a great work of art to cleaning up a spilled drink. From being elected President of the United States to sending routine a work email. From filling one’s head with the knowledge gained from the reading of a book to filling one’s belly with a nice breakfast.
So what? Good question. “So what” indeed.
I first encountered this simple idea from a rather unscholarly source, Mark Manson’s book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F✻ck. It was quite revelatory in that it stripped away the various layers of made-up meaning we humans apparently need to heap onto everything. Manson’s point was more specifically about happiness, that rather than being a state, happiness is a process that comes from the solving of problems that a person wants to be solving. The anticipation, planning, and execution of solving those problems are what brings about actual satisfaction with one’s existence. Not glee or joy, per se, but contentment. Purpose.
In Why Buddhism is True, Robert Wright writes that the Buddha already knew this. And while On the Origin of Species was still a good two-and-a-half thousand years after the Buddha’s time, his way of understanding human existence squares pretty well with what natural selection has wrought in us.
“Yes, as [the Buddha] said, pleasure is fleeting, and, yes, this leaves us recurrently dissatisfied,” says Wright. “And the reason is that pleasure is designed by natural selection to evaporate so that the ensuing dissatisfaction will get us to pursue more pleasure. Natural selection doesn’t ‘want’ us to be happy, after all; it just ‘wants’ us to be productive, in its narrow sense of productive. And the way to make us productive is to make the anticipation of pleasure very strong but the pleasure itself not very long-lasting.”
We have evolved to want to solve for x, to take pleasure in attempting to solve for x, and to take more pleasure in having solved x, but not so much pleasure that we feel like we shouldn’t now move on to y and z.
Despair comes from one’s problems being unsolvable or from having no problems that one deems worth solving. It’s always about pursuit of that which we do not yet have, be it material or informational. I was reminded of this again when reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, in a passage from when Genry speaks to the mystic Faxe.
“The unknown,” Faxe tells Genry, “the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion. … But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion… . Tell me, Genry, what is known? What is sure, predictable, inevitable — the one certain thing you know concerning your future, and mine?”
Genry responds, “That we shall die.”
“Yes,” says Faxe. “There’s really only one question that can be answered, Genry, and we already know the answer… . The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”
Purpose, meaning, contentment, all of it comes from the day-to-day, moment-to-moment business of solving for x.
Again: So what? I don’t know. But maybe I can work with that. Maybe you can work with that. At the very least, maybe you can find some purpose in solving for that x.