I fancy myself a reasonably well-informed, autodidactic armchair philosopher. Over the course of several years, in a quest to try and make sense of this world, and the pain it often yields (specifically the pain my son experienced enduring two bone marrow transplants), I studied philosophers ancient and near. From Socrates to Plato to Aristotle to Augustine to Spinoza to Hume to Kant to Sartre, I tried to understand and internalize the ideas of the greats, brilliant people who were tarrying after the same prey as was I: What is the nature of reality? Is there a God? Is there a purpose and meaning for the universe? Is there a purpose and meaning for human life?
But I didn’t limit my inquiries to just philosophy. I also studied and tried to get a working understanding of physics, particularly in the theoretical realms, and of biology, particularly focused on how life might have arisen and evolved. In essence, however, I was a historian. I sought to understand the history of thought; the processes through which ideas evolved. And once I had taken all that about as far as I was able, I zeroed in on neuroscience, to answer some of the epistemological questions nagging at my soul. How is it that our minds create reality for us? I perhaps should have started there first, but stumbling around on my own, instead came upon it last.
But I would never have thought to construct a philosophy of existence just out of the ideas of philosophers. What do philosophers know? Science tells what we know, or what we think we know. Philosophers can, sometimes, tell us what it all means.
Out of all this inquiry I crafted a philosophy of existence that, sketching it on a thumbnail, greatly simplified, looks something like this: Yes, there is a God, but no, he (actually “It”) is not amenable to human manipulations. Praying to the God of the universe is like throwing stones at a massive, impassive temple. It takes no more notice of a prayer than the temple takes of a stone bouncing off its edifice. This God of the universe is the One; the thing suffused in and connecting all of everything—matter and energy, animate and inanimate. It is, more or less, the Buddhist conception of God; the “One Love” Bob Marley sings about. The God of Christian and Jewish worship is partly this God, but is also believed by them to exist to bestow, with its powers, special favors on the faithful—a sort of Superman version of God. I don’t believe that sort of God exists, except as fantasy in the minds of believers.
The universe, and everything in it, exists because it can, the root principle from which evolutionary theory and descent by natural selection arise. The only purpose of the universe’s existence (along with the purpose of everything, including life, in it) clearly discernible from the finite and limited perspective afforded human beings is existence. Things exist for so long as they are able, and then cease to exist, but the constituents of their existence remain, if in different form, and the fact of their existence is eternally unalterable.
There is no such thing as an objective reality, or at least there is no such thing as an objective reality graspable by human intuition, insight and perception. Einstein’s Relativity teaches that all perception is subjective, and so it is (even if he claimed the speed of light as an objective reality from which subjective perception might be measure, which is arguable, but the principle of subjectivity is not). The human mind creates reality for the purpose of survival and propagation, i.e., for the purpose of continuing to exist. The path to blessedness, i.e., to understanding and more closely emulating the God of the universe, is to, so far as is possible, account for and calibrate one’s perception for innate biases due to its inherently subjective viewpoint and the purpose for which it is designed. And while the purpose of life is always and forever to continue to live, the closer one can come to seeing the universe as God sees it—infinite, timeless and interconnected—the more satisfying is the continuation of existence.
As for ethics, a Jewish peasant some two thousand years ago clarified what his forebears were already well aware, and formulated a rule applicable to all of human relationships: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Following the Golden Rule is at least as difficult as stripping away the biases of perception. In both instances, doing so is hard, but fruitful, and is imperative as enhancing the ability to survive and propagate, which is ever and always the ultimate purpose of existence.
And that’s about it: The purpose of being is being, and the path to understanding is abandoning one’s particular point of view. I got some of my ideas from philosophers, but only after the raw material was mined by scientists. So, I tend to agree with Wittgenstein, as he is explained by Paul Horwich in the Opinionator:
Wittgenstein claims that there are no realms of phenomena whose study is the special business of a philosopher, and about which he or she should devise profound a priori theories and sophisticated supporting arguments. There are no startling discoveries to be made of facts, not open to the methods of science, yet accessible “from the armchair” through some blend of intuition, pure reason and conceptual analysis. Indeed the whole idea of a subject that could yield such results is based on confusion and wishful thinking.
Everyone has a personal philosophy of existence. The trick is to ensure that it is not based on confusion and wishful thinking—to ensure that the philosophy of one’s existence is based on things as they are, so far as things are knowable. In so far as the ideas of philosophers aid in the quest of discovery and understanding, they are usefully studied. But studying philosophy alone could never yield a philosophy of existence sufficiently robust and viable to weather the storms of life. And that’s the whole point behind the exercise, really. Wittgenstein was right.