Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Religion for athiests, or: how to decide what to do with your life

The problem

What should I do with my life?

It's a question a lot of people struggle to answer, and one I've been thinking about intensely for about a year now.

My thinking usually goes something like this:

1. What should I do with my life?
2. What do I want to do with it?
3. I don't know. I don't seem to want anything much specifically.
4. How can I make myself want things?

Reading Yuval Noah Harari's book Sapiens catalysed this struggle for me, because it caused me to change the way I thought about a lot of things, as I wrote hereSapiens culminates in a question - one intended for everyone but particularly pertinent to those struggling with what to do with their lives: "What do we want to want?"

I've just now finished reading Harari's follow-up, Homo Deus. I was hoping it would tell me what I should want to want...

Introduction to ideologies

It didn't. But like Sapiens, Homo Deus did disavow me of certain notions and provide me with certain other notions. And as I wrote here, I've come to think that notions might be useful for reasoning. So maybe now I can answer my question...

"What should I do with my life?" is a values-based question, Harari says in Homo Deus. As such, it can't be answered by science, because the scientific method is not values-based.

Values are the province of religions, Harari says.

I think of myself as an atheist. But Harari doesn't use the word 'religion' the way most people do. For him, ideologies like capitalism and communism are religions, because their adherents "believe in some system of moral laws that wasn't invented by humans, but which humans must obey" - in these cases, respectively, that free markets are the best means of solving the problems of supply and demand, and that capitalism necessarily creates class conflict.

Liberal humanism, which says that people should do what they want to do, has been the predominant religion of the western world for the past couple of centuries, Harari says. This seems uncontroversial, except in his preferred terminology, so let's just use the term ideology instead.

So how does this help me?

Growing up liberal

Looking back at my four-step thought process, it's now clear that step 2 is a liberal humanist question: it presupposes that the best way of determining what I should do with my life is to ask myself what I feel. This is not a given: Christianity would respond to the question "What should I do with my life" with the answer "Follow the bible and serve god".

I've been raised in the liberal humanist modern west, and so I tend to think along liberal humanist lines - it's just that I've never thought of it in those terms until now. So let's see whether a more self-aware, deliberate use of the liberal humanist ideology can help me with my question...

Happiness is...

Liberal humanism says that I should do with my life whatever I want to do with it. But I don't seem to want to do much. Is that the end of it? Maybe not, because I do want some things: I want to deeply want something, for example. That isn't very useful, but what else do I want, even if only weakly?

Well, what makes me happy? A few things. Here are 50, in a list I made earlier. Fifty things seems like a lot, and yet I'm dissatisfied. Why?

Items 1 and 3 on my list are sex and love, and I'm single, and have been for a while. And I do want to not be...

Has liberal humanism has presented me with my solution? Should I just stop being single?

Not so fast. Stopping being single isn't easy. It takes a second person, for one thing. And as I said, I've been trying not to be single for a while now - almost as long as my last relationship, if you don't count a few brief exceptions. Plus I have had relationships, and they didn't stop me wondering what I should do with my life.

What does this mean? Should I forget about items 1 and 3 and try to get more out of other things lower down the list instead? Maybe... plus, women often say they like a man who knows what he wants out of life, so doing this might even help me find a relationship...

Problem solved?

Well, here I have to make a confession: although I haven't thought about all of this in terms of ideologies before, I have nevertheless had pretty much these exact thoughts before - hence the existence of the list. It's not rocket science, after all.

And yet I'm still unsatisfied. So what's going wrong?

In Sapiens, Harari says that happiness comprises pleasure and satisfaction, which seems about right to me. Looking at my list, two things strike me: first, the items on it aren't very varied; and second, it's pretty heavily weighted towards pleasure, rather than satisfaction.

This suggests I might need to to expand my sources of happiness by trying out some potentially pleasurable and/or satisfying things I've never done before - such as, say, knitting, skiing and taking heroin, off the top of my head; or, to gain satisfaction, knitting an entire onesie, winning a skiing competition and establishing a heroin-dealing empire.

Job done?

The limits of liberal humanism

Hold your horses. How should I choose which new things to try out? Liberal humanism says I should do what I feel like doing, but that hasn't worked very well so far: I've developed only a narrow list of likes.

Now what?

Liberal humanism has been the dominant ideology of the west for the past couple of centuries, and I'm a product of it. But other ideologies also exist, so maybe one of those would be more helpful?

Ideology soup

What other ideologies are there? Loads.

Another ideology that has been popular in the west for the past few decades revolves around the instruction "just say yes". The sports brand Nike, for example, has adopted essentially this ideology as its advertising slogan: "Just do it".

Whereas liberal humanism advocates carefully searching your feelings to determine what you should do, the "just say yes" ideology says you should first do something and then examine how you feel about it.

So should I ditch liberal humanism and adopt this ideology instead?

Well, "just say yes" presupposes the presentation of simple choices, like "Would you like a free Lamborghini?" And maybe choices like these are presented to some people quite a lot, but most of us are usually presented with either no choice at all or far too many options to make a simple yes/no response.

What else have you got?

A similar one to "just say yes" is the ideology that says you should do things randomly or semi-randomly. This isn't a common ideology, but it was explored to brilliant effect in the novel The Dice Man, in which the hero and his followers live their lives according to the roll of dice. In the novel it works pretty well to begin with, but sadly its adherents don't tend to stay out of prison or alive for very long.

Other ideologies that spring to mind are the "be a good son or daughter" ideology, which is quite common but doesn't seem to make many people very happy; the "be excellent to each other" ideology from the Bill and Ted films, which sounds good in theory but seems somewhat limited in instruction; and the "greed is good" ideology from the film Wall Street, which has been adopted by the UK's Conservative Party and is therefore too partial for me, as a journalist (wink).

Let's get serious. What if, rather than asking myself what I want, I should instead ask other people for advice? We could call this the "wisdom of crowds" ideology or the "mentor" ideology. This seems more promising. But who should I ask? And could I really bother them every time I need to make a decision?

It's not all about you, you prick

In the last sentence of the previous section, I expressed a concern for the welbeing of another person. And - flawed liberal humanist that I am - it has occurred to me previously that maybe what's important to me shouldn't be the only factor in my decision-making. Shocking, I know.

So should I ask other people not only what I should do for my benefit, but also for theirs?

Quite possibly. But - damn you, liberal humanist upbringing! - I don't seem to want to ask other people what I can do for them. I don't like other people very much, you see.

So am I stuck with a choice between the limbo of liberal humanism, some half-arsed mentor plan, or gritting my teeth and being altruistic?

Why people?

Liberal humanism has other faults than merely not being very good at making me happy. As Harari points out in Homo Deus, and as everyone except Donald Trump knows, liberal humanism has put planet Earth on a path to catastrophic climate change. People don't want this, but they don't want to forego long-distance flights and SUVs more than they don't want catastrophe. So unfortunately, what people want might drive us extinct.

At this point we should consider what makes for a good ideology. A few thoughts: it should ideally be relatively simple and memorable, so that you can adhere to it easily under pressure; it should be broadly applicable, so that it's as helpful as possible; it should be robust to attack from competing ideologies; and, if it is to be successful, it should probably enable its adherents to survive and reproduce so that it can propagate.

Liberal humanism has been very successful for quite a while, but it's now in serious danger of failing in this last regard. So what ideology would be best for preserving our species?

Well, hang on a second. Why should we care only about our species? Liberal humanism is causing not only catastrophic climate change, but also catastrophic biodiversity loss. If we're abandoning liberal humanism, why don't we reconsider the human part as well as the liberal part?

Failures everywhere

There's already a name for adherents of the ideology that does exactly that. They're called "goddamn hippies".

I kid, I kid. But seriously, it's not that simple. An Earth-centric ideology might be able to tell me lots of important things, like what holidays, modes of transport and foods I should choose, but it wouldn't be very good at telling me whether I should go to the pub or for a run on a Friday night, buy the blue shirt or the red, or learn French instead of German, etc etc. Earth-centric ideologies fail the breadth test.

And while it might not matter to the Earth whether I go to the pub or for a run, it might matter to my reproductive chances, so it should matter to me and my ideology.

So what if every ideology is flawed? Should I look for the least flawed, and make do?

An answer, at last?

Crucially, ideologies are not necessarily mutually exclusive, Harari tells us. Liberalism and communism are, for example - the former says people should do what they feel like doing, whereas the latter says they should do what their party tells them to - but both liberalism and communism are also humanist, in that they both aim to do what's best for people above all else (in communism's case, the collective of people, or the party - a party without people ceases to exist).

So rather than seeking the best single ideology, maybe I should seek the best combination of ideologies? What would that be?

That should probably be the subject of another post, because this one is already much too long. So I'll just put down an initial thought here.

Liberalism and communism both seem to be entirely compatible with humanism, which is possible because humanism is so generic - its only real tenet is that people should come first, which leaves lots of scope for sub-ideologies with more specific rules.

By contrast, the ideology most ingrained in me, liberal humanism, and the ideology that seems to have perhaps an equal or greater claim to prominence, Earth-centrism, are often incompatible. Any time I have a preference for an option that is the most damaging for the environment, my liberal humanism is going to be in conflict with my Earth-centrism.

That doesn't mean I can't incorporate both into a personal mix of ideologies, it seems to me. But it does mean that I'm going to have to choose which one should take precedence. This could be either through a cast-iron ruling that one ideology always defeats the other, or on a case-by-case basis, depending on the depth of my feeling and the contribution to catastrophe.

So far, so blah, you're probably thinking - "I already do that when I decide whether to order the burger or the falafel".

True, but I at least have never thought about life as a whole in such systematic terms before. And the construction of a personal hierarchy of ideologies, I'm fairly confident, could actually be a really useful way of deciding how to live...

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