Saturday, 3 December 2016


Are any human actions inherently worthwhile, rather than being worthwhile because of their impact on some other person or animal?

Maybe knowledge creation.

But can knowledge stand alone?

The universe is full of information that stands alone; knowledge is the conversion of information into a useful form.

If someone counted the number of grains of sand in the Sahara, they could choose to express their knowledge of that information by, say, writing one sentence for every grain. But that wouldn't be very useful: someone else would have to count all of those sentences to gain that knowledge. It would be more useful to write merely an order of magnitude. Every attempt to express knowledge of something also increases the amount of information in the world; the key to being useful is to minimise that increase as much as possible.

Which actually has nothing to do with the reason I started writing, so I'm failing my own usefulness test here - sorry.

I started writing because I'm wondering: how many things are worthwhile if they go unperceived by someone else?

Exercising is worthwhile if it makes you healthier and happier, even if it has no effect on anybody else.

But can a life be worthwhile if its effects are entirely self-contained? I think not.

So if you want your life to be worthwhile, does that mean your main pursuits should be outward-looking?

In The Photographer's Playbook, Ed Kashi advises aspiring photographers to "be passionate" about their subjects. He's photographed Northern Irish Protestants, Kurds and Syrian refugees. Worthwhile activities, no doubt.

But what were the Protestants, Kurds and Syrians doing while he was photographing them? They probably weren't photographing him back. They probably weren't photographing each other.

But maybe the happiest among them were making each other food. Telling each other stories or listening to them. Helping and healing.

So, does worth demand the existence of pain? And if so, is there enough pain to go around? And if not, what does that mean?

Today, the average person has to spend most of their life working. In the future that may not be the case - it maybe wasn't the case in the past, when we were tribal, for example - but today it is.

Are there enough jobs that directly salve pain for everyone to have one? No. So should we therefore create more pains?

Consumer capitalism creates pain in order to salve it for profit - ideally temporarily and repeatedly. This is bad if its overall impact is negative, for example because of impact on the environment, or if the pain grows through repeated invocation. But is that always the case? And does the involvement of profit necessarily negate good feeling?

We could instead slice these jobs more thinly among ourselves, but then would they be too thin to satisfy?

Or we could forget about manufacturing pain and instead try harder to slice genuine pain more thinly, through more effective redistribution.

But then what would we do with ourselves? What did tribal man do with himself?

Again, as Yuval Noah Harari asks in Sapiens: what do we want to want?

Everything is relative. Without real pain, would our boredom become the pain that we'd salve for each other through clowning? Would the meaning of life be to play the fool for others?

The wealthiest among us already have lives like this. Maybe I already have a life like this: what is my Facebook activity if not clowning for your amusement?

If it works, why am I writing this?

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