Five Things I Expect My Core Belief To Do For Me

I want a core belief that does the following things for me. It should help me feel a little less terrified of death. It should point me towards a meaningful purpose in living. It should clarify the foundations of right and wrong. It ought to shed some light on the perpetual mix of joys and sorrows that make up daily life. And I want it to help get me through my darker hours.

For many people, a belief in god achieves these ends. For others, a focus on nature, on feeling at home in the cosmos, provides some answers. But for me, a heightened awareness of being a living thing and of the long story of life on earth best meets these criteria.

I’ve written about how the characteristics and history of biological life have helped me think about dying, purposefulness, and right and wrong. To recap, while I know that death is intrinsically repugnant to living organisms, I’m somewhat consoled by knowing that I’m a link in the mind-boggingly long chain of living things. Second, I believe that, though they may seem crude and irrelevant to humans, the biological drives to survive and reproduce are the roots of human purposes, even the lofty ones. And as for an understanding of right and wrong, I believe they have their roots in the cooperation and competition that mark all organic life. (I explain these point more fully in Finding Spirituality in Biology, tabbed at the top of the page.)

(mitchellkphotos.com)

(mitchellkphotos.com)

But I’m thinking here about the two other points mentioned in the first paragraph: that my core belief in livingness helps me make sense of the flux of daily joys and sorrows and that it guides me through the times when I feel lost or doubtful.

Daily life is a parade of negatives and positives, obstacles and low moods on the one hand, smooth sailing and good feelings on the other. The fluctuation never ceases. It can be wearying and puzzling. Is life no easier, no steadier? I think the dilemma is built deeply into being alive. There can’t be just joys, because joys result from overcoming difficulties. And there can’t be just difficulties because, if we never overcame them, we would be either numb or dead. Living things encounter the environment endlessly, and if we’re alive we’ve encountered most of them successfully, but they keep coming.

Finally, my core belief comes to my aid in those gloomy hours when I need a compass in front of me. At such moments, my belief in the value of life in and of itself reminds me that, first, my own being alive is enjoyable and good and I had better not take it for granted. And second, on a par with caring for myself is caring for and connecting with other lives—helping my wife, phoning a friend, making calls for Hillary, feeding the birds, checking the plants. Such activity is, of course, much of what I and many others do on any ordinary day . But putting my own well-being and that of others on the same plane changes how I feel about such actions. They all become service in the larger cause of life itself as a bounteous wonder.

7 thoughts on “Five Things I Expect My Core Belief To Do For Me

  1. I have to say “Yes” to all of this. And then as I pull back even further and feel called to serve Life as a whole, I come to believe that Life’s desire as a whole, is to spread and flower and that my goal becomes to help it survive and thrive until it can reach for the stars. Elon Musk is right. The greatest dream, not just of humanity, but of Life as a whole, is to become multiplanetary and eventually multistellar so that Life as a whole (not individuals or even individual species) can cheat death and live for something approaching forever.

    • Thanks for this, Eric. It’s a strong vision. I myself am reluctant, though, to personify Life that way. Instead, I would say, it is living things big and small that want to survive and reproduce, and, with a few exceptions, they aren’t thinking about the stars. Still, the drive to not die is not only a goal but actually constitutes the process itself of being alive, and who knows where that will take us.
      Thanks again.
      Brock

      • True, I always have trouble with the personification of Life in terms of not going too far. The drive to not die and the drive to explore new territory (especially when the territory you are in is overcrowded and highly competitive) are nearly universal.

        I think of Life as a whole as a kind of very poorly (very very poorly) connected hive mind. In essence, I don’t think of it as a true mind at all that thinks coherent thoughts anymore than a hive of bees has a overall mind that thinks coherent thoughts. I think of it as a hive mind that is less of true mind than a hive of bees. Never-the-less I think of it as a mind and we are part of that mind. And so as we express the over-all mind’s desire to explore and spread, we give that overall mind the attribute of thinking about space.

        In fact, even the above, I think of as a poetic way of saying that a) because of my own desire to see Life survive in space, and b) because I am part of Life and c) because my desire (a) is aligned with the desires of many organisms to explore and spread their offspring, I can call reaching for that goal, “serving Life.”

  2. Hi Brock. I thought you’d like to know that I just quoted this fine post in a blog of my own. http://www.evphil.com/blog/response-to-thought-experiment-76-net-head

    As for Eric’s excellent comments above, I published a philosophy paper in 2015 about Bridging the Is-Ought divide where I relied on the fact that passions drive reasons. I say: Life is. Life wants to remain an is. Life ought to act to remain so. Of course, most of life’s individuals don’t know this, and so aren’t to be held morally blameworthy or praiseworthy as the case may be, but we human individuals can expand our areas of moral concern as far as possible, and really *ought* to do so since, in a universe without gods, moral rules are really just rules for survival. The way I think about this personification of life was in this footnote to the paper:

    When I talk about “life” here, I recognize that it is not a singular entity with conscious desires. Looking at the specifics of life though, I believe we can generalize this larger rule. I think we can look at a sunflower and say that it “wants” to face the sun. Does it have agency and free will to do so? Most probably not. But there are those who say we humans don’t have agency and free will either, yet we still use the word “want” for our motives. To me, the word “want” does not imply agency, it just implies a chemical / emotional pull. Objectively speaking, we see that living things act to remain alive. We therefore say they “want” to remain alive, even if they are not aware of that fact themselves, and the “wants” are hard coded in their genes.

  3. Ed, I appreciate and agree with what you say here very much. It difficult for us to see this “being alive” business in the mirror, so to speak, as the thorough survival drive that operates from our cells all the way up to our conscious “wants.”

    I’m still taking in your post, but this sentence struck me, about meditation: “our thoughts about the world bubble in and out of our consciousness all the time, perhaps as vague notions of threats or opportunities arise from the depths of our unconscious passions, which are then put together by the brain into reasons for action.” I agree and I’m trying to square this view with the desire of Buddhist friends to escape from the “attachments” that they view as a source of fear. I think I understand approximately what they mean, along with the idea that the here-and-now is the true reality and a wordless consciousness is to be sought. It seems to me we have two complementary, very human views here. One is that survival is never assured and we are always processing the past to cope with the future, and the other is that survival seems assured for the moment and we can find it in the wordless present. Certainly the second view is calmer, perhaps happier; I can see why it comes with the Buddha’s smile.

    Thanks again, Ed. Lots to discuss.

    • Ah, that’s a really interesting take on some Buddhist practice: “survival seems assured for the moment and we can find it in the wordless present.” In fact, that’s almost what I regularly repeat to myself when I’m doing a meditation to just focus on the breath. I’ll remind myself something like “now is not the time for worries or plans, there will be time for that later, now is the time for clearing and relaxing the mind.” Next time I will probably tell myself something about being safe (which might trigger some planning thoughts…..but oh well, more practice needed). One of the reasons I didn’t settle on Buddhism in my 20’s when I was seeking a replacement for the Catholicism of my childhood was that I deemed its lack of attachments as incompatible with the progress necessary for long-term survival. But I still value the ability to “let go” of the world when I need to. It’s like another aid for stoicism about “accepting the things we cannot change.”

      Happy holidays, Brock. All the best.

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