SO WHAT??

  • April 24, 2014 · 7:00 PM

In a recent book by Robert Burton ("On Being Certain", 2012) the author went to his 97 year old mother and asked her what knowledge she had gained from her long life on this planet.  She replied, "So what?"  Not grasping the significance of her response, Burton explained, "I was just wondering what you had learned from your long life."  Mrs. Burton replied, "That's what I've learned: so what?"


Several decades earlier a cadre of philosophers, known collectively as "existentialists", gave similar voice to the human condition.  From the early days of the movement with Soren Kierkegaard and his notion that it was the individual, not society, that was responsible for giving meaning to life and living it passionately and sincerely to the final stages, present in the writings of Sartre and Camus, these writers focused on the "absurd", defined as "man's futile search for meaning, unity and clarity in the face of an unintelligible world devoid of God and eternal truths or values" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Myth_of_Sisyphus).  Their notion of the absurd was perhaps a bit more dramatic than Burton's mother's "So what?", but both seem to be saying that human efforts at locating meaning and value in the human condition is futile.


In 1986 K. Eric Drexler wrote "Engines of Creation" in which he introduced the notion of nanotechnology to the world.  He expressed his opinion that when nanotechnology was a realized, everyday factor in human life, it would transform the material basis of civilization.  Briefly, everything that we manufacture today could be composed in something called a Drexler box, a microwave-like appliance, that would sit on every kitchen counter.  It would provide all the food, clothing, resources, etc. that today occupy much of our daily concerns.  The implications are numerous, including: the end of hunger, poverty, pollution and health and aging concerns.  We could become immortal at whatever age we desired and we would have all the time in the world to do whatever we wanted since there would be no need for employment.  In 2013 Drexler wrote "Radical Abundance" in which he provided an update on the progress of the nanotechnology movement.  In a "Question and Answer" session at a talk on his new book, Drexler was asked for a time scale for the realization of this technology.  He responded somewhat guardedly that it could be realized in 10 to 20 years if the government put its weight behind the effort.


The human condition can be described as the pursuit of sex, sustenance and security, what I call the "survival triad".  If we generalize that our search for meaning and values is a function of this pursuit to fulfill the survival triad, what happens to those meanings and values if (or when) Drexler's vision of nanotechnology becomes a reality?  Drexler emphasized in his latest book that it is time to open the discussion on matters such as this so that we can prepare for and/or guide our transition to the "new" state of the human condition.  Is our search for meaning and value "absurd", as the existentialists would have us believe?  Is it simply futile as in Mrs. Burton's "so what?"  And, if we do realize the condition in which everything we need can be fabricated on our counter tops, does this effect our search, and, if so, how?  For example, will there still be value in searching for a meaning to life?  


Join us Thursday and share your views with us.  I look forward to hearing them.



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  • KarmicBalance

    I'm afraid I probably will not be able to make it either. Moving things due to a pipe burst. Life will one day let me make it there!

    April 24

  • Carolyn

    aaargghh...too much "stuff" today. life is killing me. low possibility of making it today; if not, catch you next time.

    April 24

  • Carolyn

    my favorite is:

    "Your beliefs become your thoughts
    Your thoughts become your words
    Your words become your actions
    Your actions become your habits
    Your habits become your values
    Your values become your destiny"

    Mahatma Gandhi

    1 · April 23

    • Stan

      So, at any point during the day it's always a choice of doing the 'hard right vs. the wrong easy' while keeping this inexorable 'causal' series firmly in mind: IMPULSE → THOUGHT → ACTION → HABIT → CHARACTER → DESTINY ... Karma -- yikes!

      April 23

  • Paula L.

    I'm still not sure I can attend tomorrow, but here is another gem I found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeffrey-bennett/five-science-thoughts-to-blow-your-mind_b_5180761.html

    We Make the Universe Self-Aware

    The vast scale and amazing phenomena of the universe may make us seem small and insignificant, but there's another way to look at it. As far as we know, we are the only piece of the universe that has any idea that the rest of the universe exists. Moreover, a common thread among nearly all philosophies and theologies is that a key purpose of life is to become truly self-aware. So in this sense we may actually be of the utmost significance to the universe, because after nearly 14 billion years of cosmic evolution, it is through our brain power that the universe has finally achieved self-awareness.

    1 · April 23

  • Craig Y.

    internally externally

    1) circle circle
    meaning a person has no true beliefs inside and sly towards others. The politicians that can be bought.
    2) circle square
    meaning a person is wish washy on himself and expect others to follows the rules. Like pointing fingers on other people
    3) square square
    meaning a person ask others to follow the rules he believed in himself. We had countless religious wars and some mass murderers in the 20th century fall into this category.
    4) square circle
    meaning a persons requires himself to be principled and tolerate others who may have different beliefs.

    April 23

  • Craig Y.

    I remember in Shakespeare's Henry the 5th. He was visiting the camps the night before the battle. The soldier ask a question on morality and duty in war. Henry said to the effect:" Your duty belongs to the king and your soul belongs to you." It is interesting this balance of dualism also exist in the Chinese philosophy. This can best described as "Square", which is similar what we call a person "square", implying: principled, inflexible, no cutting corners. The other is "circle", which is slippery, diplomatic, or less principled. Either "Square" or "circle" can apply internally or his soul or externally to his behaviors/duty to others. So there are 4 cases:

    April 23

  • Stan

    When Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, he had 4 possessions: simple white clothing, glasses, sandals and his well-worn copy of the Bhagavad Gita -- "Not doing the right thing when required, is worse than doing the wrong thing" (2/33)

    April 23

  • Stan

    About a week ago (below), I presented 2 views of meaning: The 1st W Churchill and the 2nd from Victor Frankl. Both dealt with finding meaning on this ‘relative’ plane of existence; where all bets are off as to where to put a ‘stake in the ground’. So this morning, here’s a quote from the Bhagavad Gita (2/31), which guides from a deeper, not so apparent level:

    “One’s ‘personal duty’ (ie. meaning) in life should be viewed as one’s responsibility to his/her higher Self, ‘the Atma’. This ultra high level of duty carries with it the requirement that one never does anything that is contrary to this True Self Within. And even if you consider your ‘personal duty’ more narrowly from the standpoint of being true to your profession, you should not hesitate to fight. For a warrior, war against evil, cruelty, hate, greed and jealousy is the highest duty.”

    April 23

  • Carolyn

    Of course," so what", but an improvement to an either insane or inert alternative along with some semblance of freedom to choose what we buy into.

    April 22

  • Paula L.

    Just watched this via my PC and thought of sharing. It shows that birds in a group called corbits "find meaning" in problem-solving using tools - http://video.pbs.org/video/2365218674/

    1 · April 18

    • A former member
      A former member

      How ironic. Last Sunday we discussed Protagoras' bromide "Man is the measure of all things". Now I find out it isn't "man" but dogs that are the measure of all things. So much for human hubris.

      April 22

    • Craig Y.

      At least the dogs are not racist. They would fight other dogs for human owners.

      April 22

    • A former member
      A former member

      That gave me a smile.

      1 · April 21

  • Craig Y.

    Paula: I saw and the video. That is eye-opening. It sure has dispelled the preconceptions I had on animals. The next questions is how would the animals think of us? Over the history if human beings had investigated and thought other ones were no-less human, could we have done others with such cruelty?

    Unfortunately I cannot attend the meeting again. But I like to share the following thoughts:

    I remember a song by Frank Sinatra. "I did it my way." How often we did things in life because we wanted to be somebody else, riches or fame, or adopted a value system that we are not really convinced to be our own?

    1 · April 19

    • Craig Y.

      If "so what" is what will be left behind in this world, this reminds a story a Chinese king asking a Sage what is "immortality",­ since all things decay. The sage answered that in the following ascending importance:
      - Physical accomplishment or work: People remember him by work. George Washington establishing the nation falls into this category or a craftsman like Michelangelo. We can see the physical evidence of his work. This could also apply to technical inventions.
      - Ideas or words: People remember him by the words he has left. Jefferson and Moses are examples. How often we think of or talk about Declaration of Independence or the Ten commandments. Certainly more than Washington.
      - Virtue: Jesus is an example of a "perfect" human being to be learned from and countless others are examples.

      April 19

    • Craig Y.

      I think the reason the sage was putting in that order is because of their usage and remembered by others: The sage was talking to a political leader whose name I can't remember, neither can I remember the persons who invented computers. Those deeds are difficult for anybody to achieve only at the right time and right place, besides having right talent.
      Jesus or other virtuous persons can be guides of how to lead a life for anybody, thus becoming more popular.

      April 19

  • Joel B.

    An interesting book on this topic in modern USA is "What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America" by Tony Schwartz. It's mostly factual, a description of various movements and leading "seekers."

    April 17

    • Stan

      I ordered it from the library - thanks!

      April 17

  • Stan

    On page 115 of “ Man’s Search for Meaning’, Viktor Frankl writes “… we can discover this meaning in life in 3 different ways: 1. By creating work or doing a deed 2. By experiencing something or encountering someone (ie. that being love as a way to grasp another human in the innermost core of his/her personality) 3. By the attitude we take toward UNAVOIDABLE suffering (ie. to transform personal tragedy into triumph - - to turn one’s predicament into human achieving)”

    April 16

  • Stan

    The story reminded me of Winston Churchill’s last words before slipping into a coma:

    “I’m bored with it all.”

    He died nine days later on January 24, 1965

    April 16

  • Joel B.

    and, the "... still be ..." in the question in the final sentence presumes that there is, and/or has been, value in this search for meaning. Maybe; maybe not... It has surely lead to lots of ridiculous speculations. Its refutation certainly helped make the reputations of Epicurus, Lucretius, Nietzsche, Sartre, et. al.

    April 16

    • A former member
      A former member

      (Hopefully, this will allow greater flexibility.) Again, you make a good point, one that I hope can be pursued at some depth in the meeting. Evidently, Mrs. Burton would agree with the "maybe not" option. Unfortunately, Burton doesn't provide us with the criteria she employed to arrive at her evaluation. (And I am not comfortable with this "Reply" procedure. So I shall close.)

      April 16

  • Joel B.

    John, the question you pose (or maybe its relevance) is based on a statement that I find dubious: “The human condition can be described as the pursuit of sex, sustenance and security…” Imho these pursuits characterize all animals, indeed all life that reproduces sexually, indeed all life without qualification, including plants, if one substitutes “reproduction” for “sex.” The [specifically] human condition, i.e. what makes humans different, is a bunch of things that include curiosity in general and a search for meaning in particular. The data does not contradict that this characteristic is genetic. And if it is, then greater abundance of material goods won’t change it – as indeed has been the case so far.

    April 16

    • A former member
      A former member

      Joel, you are quite correct that the premise is controversial and, as such, may well generate some discussion in its own right. As for that which "makes humans different", my anthropological experience has taught me that all efforts to identify such characteristics has led to the ultimate repudiation of any so-identified characteristics within a few years because it can be argued that such traits are present in some other animal species but perhaps not to the extent they are in humans.

      1 · April 16

    • A former member
      A former member

      One exception to that observation could be your identification of the search for meaning as a difference maker. However, even this path might generate a discussion about just what the "meaning of life" means itself and do we have the capability of arguing that other species don't have some sense of a "meaning to life". For example, could we say that the pursuit of the survival triad is itself a meaning to life for other species? Clearly we are getting metaphysical here. And my window here is too narrow for my taste.

      1 · April 16

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