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Can a belief in God give our life its meaning?

Historically and still today many people feel that humankind was created by a supernatural entity called God, that God had an intelligent purpose in creating humankind, and that this intelligent purpose is the ‘meaning of life’.

Here is not the place to go through the various arguments for and against the existence of God. Suffice to say that many people who believe in God would admit that they do not really know what God’s purpose might be, nor that it would necessarily be particularly meaningful. For example, the second Law of Thermodynamics states that entropy increases up to the point at which equilibrium is reached, and God’s purpose in creating us and, indeed, all of nature, might simply have been to catalyse this process. If our God-given purpose is to act as super-efficient heat dissipaters, then this purpose is almost as bad as no purpose at all.

In fact, one might argue that having no God-given or pre-determined purpose is better than having any sort of pre-determined purpose at all (even a more traditional and uplifting one such as serving the will of God or improving our karma) because it frees us to be the authors of our own purpose or purposes, and so to lead truly dignified and meaningful lives. Thus, even if God exists, and even if God had an intelligent purpose in creating humankind, we do not know what this purpose is and, whatever it is, we would much rather be free to determine our own purpose or purposes.

Some might object that not to have a pre-determined purpose is, really, not to have any purpose at all. However, this is to believe (1) that for something to have a purpose, it must have been created with that purpose in mind, and (2) that something that was created with a purpose in mind must necessarily have that very purpose for which it was created. Last summer, I visited Château-Neuf-du-Pape in the Southern Rhone where I picked up a beautiful rounded stone called a galet from one of the vineyards, took it back to England, and put it to excellent use as a book-end. The purpose of these stones in the vineyard is to absorb the heat from the sun during the daytime and then to release it during the night time. However, galets were not created with this or any other purpose in mind. Even if galets were created with a purpose in mind, then this purpose was almost certainly not (1) to make great wine, (2) to serve as book-ends, or (3) to be beautiful. That same evening over some supper, I had my wine-loving friends to blind-taste a bottle of claret that I had brought along from England. Unfortunately, I did not have a decanter to hand, so I masked the identity of the wine by slipping the bottle into one of my (clean) dark blue socks. Unlike the galet, the sock had been created with a purpose in mind, even if this purpose was a very different one from the one that it eventually found.

Some might also or otherwise object that talk about the purpose of life is neither here nor there because life is merely a prelude to some form of eternal afterlife and this is, if you like, its purpose. But (1) it is not at all clear that there is or even can be some form of eternal afterlife that involves the survival of the personal ego. (2) Even if there is an eternal afterlife, living for ever is not a meaning in itself and so the question arises, what is the meaning of the eternal afterlife? If the eternal afterlife has a predetermined purpose, again, we do not know what this purpose is and, whatever it is, we would much rather be free to determine our own purpose or purposes, which we can just as well do in this life. (3) It is not just that reliance on an eternal afterlife merely postpones the question of life’s purpose, but also that it prevents us from determining a purpose or purposes for what may well be the only life that we do have. (4) If one believes that it is the brevity or finiteness of human life that lends it shape or meaning, then an eternal afterlife cannot, by definition, have any purpose. I do not personally believe that the brevity or finiteness of human life lends it shape or meaning, and rather suspect that this is just another ego defense against death. However, that is quite another debate and I shall put it to one side.

The real point here is that whether or not God exists, whether or not God has a purpose for us, and whether or not there is an afterlife, we should strive to give meaning to our lives. For unless we can be free to determine our own purpose or purposes, our life may, at worse, have no purpose at all, and, at best, only some unfathomable pre-determined purpose that is not of our choosing. The great philosopher Plato once defined a human being as an animal, biped, featherless, and with broad nails, but a much better definition that he gave was simply this, ‘A being in search of meaning.’

Adapted from The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide

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Everything has been figured out, except how to live. - Sartre

Inauthenticity involves pretending to be something other than one is and so, by implication, casting off the freedom to create, express, and fulfil one’s own self. Inauthenticity is often reinforced by sociocultural forces such as peer pressure and advertising, and is motivated by the subconscious desires to fit in, avoid criticism, and minimise or put off the existential anxiety associated with choice and responsibility. Examples include the teenager who acts ‘cool’, the person who takes an interest in something because others do, and the person who gets married because he has arrived at the ripe old age of 30, 35, or 40 years old.

The 20th century philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre calls such inauthenticity mauvaise foie, ‘bad faith’. His paradigmatic example of bad faith is that of a waiter who does his utmost to conform to the archetype of the waiter, that is, to everything that a waiter should or is expected to be. For Sartre, the waiter’s exaggerated behaviour is evidence that he is play-acting at being a waiter, an automaton whose essence is to be a waiter. By sticking with the safe, easy, default ‘choice’ and failing to entertain or even recognise the multitude of other choices that are open to him, the waiter places himself at the mercy of his external circumstances. In this important respect, he is more akin to an object – ‘a waiter’ – than to a conscious human being who is able to transcend his existence to give shape to his essence. As Freud himself commented in his book, Civilization and its Discontents, ‘Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.’

The concept of authenticity does not begin with Sartre or Freud, and stretches at least as far back as Plato. In the Greater Alcibiades, Socrates asks a young and foolish Alcibiades how one is to go about gaining self-knowledge. Socrates maintains that, if one were to say to the eye, ‘See yourself,’ the eye should look into a mirror to see itself. Since the pupil of the eye is just like a mirror, the eye could see itself by looking into an eye. Similarly, the soul can see itself by looking into the soul, and particularly into that part of the soul which has most to do with wisdom and which is therefore most akin to the divine. Self-knowledge, Socrates concludes, is, in fact, no other than wisdom; unless Alcibiades finds wisdom, he will never be able to know his own good and evil, nor that of others, nor the affairs of states. If Alcibiades were to become a statesman – as indeed he intends – without first having found wisdom, he would fall into error and be miserable, and make everybody else miserable too. What is more, he who is not wise cannot be happy, and it is better for such a person to be commanded by a superior in wisdom; since that which is better is also more becoming, slavery is more becoming to such a person. Socrates’ conclusions may seem abhorrent to modern sensitivities, but it does stand to reason that the person who unconsciously defines himself according to the likes and expectations of others and, by extension, of society also condemns himself to by far the most dishonourable kind of slavery, the slavery of the mind.

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

– William Blake, London

As noted by the 20th century psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm, the authentic person does not necessarily need to resemble some kind of freak outsider. If a person engages in a frank and thorough appraisal of the universal and personal implications of the prevailing social norms and then decides to adopt some or most of them en toute connaissance de cause, then he cannot be taxed with inauthenticity. Conversely, it should not be assumed that every eccentric is an authentic. Genuine authenticity lies in the method and not in the madness.

Adapted from Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.

Jean-Paul Sartre on Bad Faith

[The mystical physician to the King of Thrace] said the soul was treated with certain charms, my dear Charmides, and that these charms were beautiful words.

Somatisation involves the transformation or conversion of psychological distress into more tolerable physical symptoms. This might involve a loss of motor function in a particular group of muscles, resulting, for example, in the weakness or paralysis of a limb or a side of the body. This loss of motor function might be accompanied by a corresponding sensory loss. In some cases, sensory loss might be the presenting problem, particularly if it is independent of a motor loss or if it involves one of the special senses such as sight or smell. In other cases, the psychic material is converted into an unusual pattern of motor activity such as a tic or even a seizure (sometimes called a ‘pseudoseizure’ to differentiate it from seizures that have a physical or organic basis, for example, epilepsy or a brain tumour). Pseudoseizures can be very difficult to distinguish from organic seizures. One method is to take a blood sample 10-20 minutes after the event and to measure the serum level of the hormone prolactin, which tends to be raised by an organic seizure but unaffected by a pseudoseizure. More invasive but more reliable is video telemetry, which involves continuous monitoring over a period of several days with both a video camera and an electroencephalograph to record the electrical activity along the skull.

Given that all these different types of somatised symptoms are psychological in origin, are they any less ‘real’? It is quite common for the person with somatised symptoms to deny the impact of any traumatic event and even to display a striking lack of concern for his disability (a phenomenon referred to in the psychiatric jargon as la belle indifference), thereby reinforcing any impression that the somatised symptoms are not quite kosher. Ego defences are by definition subconscious, such that the somatising person is not conscious or, at least, not entirely conscious, of the psychological origins of his physical symptoms. To him, the symptoms are entirely real, and they are also entirely real in the sense that they do in fact exist, that is, the limb cannot move, the eye cannot see, and so on. In fact, some authorities advocate replacing older terms such as ‘pseudoseizures’ or ‘hysterical seizures’ with more neutral terms such as ‘psychogenic non-epileptic seizures’ that do not imply that the somatised symptoms are in some sense false or fraudulent. The reader may recall from the discussion on depression that many people from traditional societies with what may be construed as depression present not with psychological complaints but with physical complaints such as headache or chest pain; like many ego defences, this tendency to somatise or physicalize psychic pain is deeply ingrained in our human nature, and should not be mistaken or misunderstood for a factitious disorder or malingering.

A factitious disorder is defined by physical and psychological symptoms that are manufactured or exaggerated for the purpose of benefitting from the rights associated with what the American psychologist Talcott Parsons called ‘the sick role’ (1951), in particular, to attract attention and sympathy, to be exempted from normal social roles, and, at the same time, to be absolved from any blame for the sickness. A factitious disorder with mostly physical symptoms is sometimes called Münchausen Syndrome, after the 18th century Prussian cavalry officer Baron Münchausen who was one the greatest liars in recorded history. One of his many ‘hair-raising’ claims was to have pulled himself up from a swamp by the hair on his head, or, in an alternative version, by the straps of his boots. Whereas a factitious disorder is defined by symptoms that are manufactured or exaggerated for the purpose of benefitting from the privileges of the sick role, malingering is defined by symptoms that are manufactured or exaggerated for a purpose other than benefitting from the privileges of the sick role. This purpose is usually much more concrete than the secondary gain deriving from the sick role, for instance, evading the police, claiming some form of compensation, or obtaining a bed for the night. It should be absolutely clear that such patterns of behaviour are very different from somatisation – even though, it has to be said, I have often observed cases of overlap.

In recent decades, it has become increasingly clear that psychological stressors can lead to physical symptoms not only by the psychological defence of somatisation but also by physical processes involving the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems. Since Robert Ader’s initial experiments on lab rats in the 1970s, the field of psychoneuroimmunology has taken off spectacularly. The large and ever increasing body of evidence that it has uncovered has led to the mainstream recognition not only of the adverse effects of psychological stress on health, recovery, and ageing, but also of the beneficial effects of positive emotions such as happiness, motivation, and a sense of purpose. Here again, modern science has only just caught up with the wisdom of the Ancients, who were well aware of the link between psychological wellbeing and good health.

In one of Plato’s early dialogues, the Charmides, Socrates tells the young Charmides, who has been suffering from headaches, about a charm for headaches that he had recently learned from one of the mystical physicians to the king of Thrace. According to this physician, however, it is best to cure the soul before curing the body, since health and happiness ultimately depend on the state of the soul. ‘He said the soul was treated with certain charms, my dear Charmides, and that these charms were beautiful words.’ As the virtue of temperance (sophrosyne) is the marker of the health of the soul, Socrates asks Charmides whether he thinks that he is sufficiently temperate. The Charmides takes place in 432 BC, the year of Socrate’s return to Athens from service at the battle of Potidaea, and its subject, as it turns out, is no less than the nature of sophrosyne, a philosophical term loosely translated as ‘temperance’ but with the etymological meaning ‘healthy mindedness’. As is typical with Plato, the dialogue ends in a state of aporia (a state of inconclusive non-knowledge), with Socrates accusing himself of being a worthless inquirer and a ‘babbler’. Charmides concludes that he can hardly be expected to know whether he is sufficiently temperate if not even Socrates is able to define temperance for him.

Whereas Plato associates health with the virtues and in particular with temperance (‘healthy mindedness’), Aristotle associates health with the Supreme Good for man. This Supreme Good, he says, is eudaimonia, a philosophical term that is often translated as ‘happiness’ but is perhaps best translated as ‘human flourishing’. In short, Aristotle argues that to understand the essence of a thing, it is necessary to understand its distinctive function. For example, one cannot understand what it is to be a gardener unless one can understand that the distinctive function of a gardener is ‘to tend to a garden with a certain degree of skill’. Whereas human beings need nourishment like plants and have sentience like animals, their distinctive function, says Aristotle, is their unique capacity to reason. Thus, the Supreme Good, or Happiness, for human beings is to lead a life that enables them to exercise and to develop their reason, and that is in accordance with rational principles. Part of living life according to rational principles is to seek out the right sorts of pleasure, underplaying those brutish pleasures such as food and sex that are only pleasurable incidentally in that they act as restoratives, and privileging those higher pleasures such as contemplation and friendship that are pleasurable by nature and therefore cannot admit of either pain or excess. To pursue the higher pleasures is ‘to stimulate the action of the healthy nature’ (NE, Book VII), and to be healthy is not only to be free from pain and disease, but also and most importantly to flourish according to our essential nature as human beings. So, although Plato associates health with ‘healthy mindedness’ and Aristotle with the Supreme Good, once the Supreme Good is unpacked it becomes very clear that this is merely a difference of emphasis, and that Plato and Aristotle are not in any fundamental disagreement on this issue.

Adapted from Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.

The bringing up of repressed material can lead to anger, a common and potentially destructive feeling that urgently needs to be given more thought. Plato does not discuss anger in any depth, and tends to bring it up only in the context of pleasure and pain. In the Philebus, he says that good people delight in true or good pleasures whereas bad people delight in false or bad pleasures, and that the same goes for pain, fear, anger, and the like – thereby implying that there can be such a thing as true or good anger. Later on, he says that pleasures of the mind may be mixed with pain, as in anger or envy or love, or the mixed feelings of the spectator of tragedy or of the greater drama of life – this time implying that anger can be pleasurable as well as painful. In the Timaeus, he lists five terrible affections of the mortal soul: pleasure, the inciter of evil; pain, which deters from good; rashness and fear, foolish counsellors; anger, hard to appease; and hope, easily led astray. The gods, Plato tells us, mingled these affections with irrational sense and all-daring love, and thereby created man.

Unlike Plato, Aristotle discusses anger at great length. In Book 2 of the Nicomachean Ethics, he appears to agree with Plato by saying that a good-tempered person can sometimes get angry, but only as he ought to. A good-tempered person, he continues, might get angry too soon or not enough, yet still be praised for being good-tempered; it is only if he deviates more widely from the mean with respect to anger that he becomes blameworthy, either ‘irascible’ at one extreme or ‘lacking in spirit’ at the other. He then – famously – tells us,

For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle … anyone can get angry – that is easy – or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.

Aristotle also agrees with Plato that anger involves mixed feelings of pleasure and pain. In Book 2 of the Rhetoric, in discussing the emotions, he defines anger as an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight that has been directed either at the person himself or at his friends; he then adds that anger is also attended by a certain pleasure that arises from the expectation of revenge. A person is slighted out of one of three things, contempt, spite, and insolence; in either case, the slight betrays the offender’s feeling that the slighted person is obviously of no importance. The slighted person may or may not get angry, but he is more likely to get angry if he is in distress – for example, in poverty or in love – or if he feels insecure about the subject of the slight. On the other hand, he is less likely to get angry if the slight is involuntary, unintentional, or itself provoked by anger, or if the offender apologises or humbles himself before him and behaves like his inferior. Even dogs, Aristotle tells us, do not bite sitting people. The slighted person is also less likely to get angry if the offender has done him more kindnesses than he has returned, or reverences him, or is feared and respected by him. Once provoked, anger is calmed by the feeling that the slight is deserved, by the passage of time, by the exaction of revenge, by the suffering of the offender, and/or by being spent on someone or other. Thus, although angrier at Ergophilius than at Callisthenes, the people acquitted Ergophilius because they had already condemned Callisthenes to death. (Footnote: Callisthenes concluded a premature peace with Perdiccas, king of Macedonia, while Ergophilus failed in an attack on Cotys, king of Thrace.)

There is clearly a sense in which Plato and Aristotle are correct in speaking of such a thing as a good or right anger. Anger can serve a number of useful, even vital, functions. It can put an end to a bodily, emotional, or social threat, or – failing that – it can mobilise mental and physical resources for defensive or corrective action. If judiciously exercised, it can enable a person to signal high social status, compete for rank and position, strengthen bargaining positions, ensure that contracts and promises are fulfilled, and even inspire desirable feelings such as respect and sympathy. A person who is able to express or exercise anger judiciously may feel better about himself, more in control, more optimistic, and more prone to the sort of risk-taking that promotes successful outcomes. On the other hand, anger, and in particular uncontrolled anger, can lead to loss of perspective and judgement, impulsive and irrational behaviour that is harmful both to the self and to others, and loss of face, sympathy, and social credibility. Thus, it appears that the sort of anger that is justified, controlled, strategic, and potentially adaptive ought to be demarcated from and contrasted with a second type of anger (let us call it rage) that is inappropriate, unjustified, unprocessed, irrational, undifferentiated, and uncontrolled. It goes without saying that the anger that arises from bringing up repressed material is of this latter, insightless and destructive kind. The function of rage is simply to protect the ego: it causes pain of one kind to detract from pain of another, and is attended by very little pleasure if any at all.

Another, related, idea is this. Anger, and particularly rage, strengthens correspondence bias, that is, the tendency to attribute observed behaviours to dispositional or personality-related factors rather than to situational factors. For instance, if I forgot to do the dishes, I am under the impression that this is because I suddenly felt very tired (situational factor), whereas if Emma forgot to do the dishes, I am under the impression that this is because she is useless (dispositional factor). More fundamentally, anger reinforces the illusion that people exercise a high degree of free will, whereas in actual fact most of a person’s actions and the neurological activity that they correspond to are determined by past events and the cumulative effects of those past events on that person’s patterns of thinking (see The Art of Failure, Chapter 2). It follows that the only person who can truly deserve anger is the one who acted freely, that is, the one who spited us freely and therefore probably rightly! This does not mean that anger is not justified in other cases, as a display of anger – even if undeserved – can still serve a benevolent strategic purpose. But if all that is ever required is a strategic display of anger, then true anger that involves real pain is entirely superfluous, its presence only serving to betray … a certain lack of understanding.