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Our meaningless modern lives: Part 1

Summary:
From Asad Zaman and WEA Pedagogy Blog The Most Valuable Kind of Knowledge These lectures aim to provide the reader with knowledge. But what is knowledge? Our lives consist of a small number of infinitely precious moments. What makes it worthwhile to invest these moments in the acquisition of knowledge? Is it the kind of knowledge that can teach us how to lead better lives—how to make the most of the few moments that we have? This has been the central preoccupation of philosophers and thinkers across the millennia of human history. What is the good life, and how can we learn to live it? This type of knowledge would be invaluable, well worth the time invested in learning it. Knowledge that distracts us from these central questions would be useless. Knowledge that provides us with the

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from Asad Zaman and WEA Pedagogy Blog

The Most Valuable Kind of Knowledge

Our meaningless modern lives: Part 1

These lectures aim to provide the reader with knowledge. But what is knowledge? Our lives consist of a small number of infinitely precious moments. What makes it worthwhile to invest these moments in the acquisition of knowledge? Is it the kind of knowledge that can teach us how to lead better lives—how to make the most of the few moments that we have? This has been the central preoccupation of philosophers and thinkers across the millennia of human history. What is the good life, and how can we learn to live it? This type of knowledge would be invaluable, well worth the time invested in learning it. Knowledge that distracts us from these central questions would be useless. Knowledge that provides us with the wrong answers would be harmful, leading us to pursue the wrong goals and waste our lives.

But puzzlingly, questions about the “Meaning of Life” have themselves become meaningless today. How did this come to pass, leading to lives that feel devoid of purpose? And why does the search for meaning remain the most important quest we face? To explore this, let’s first illustrate the modern dismissive attitude toward this question. Here are a few quotes that trivialize existential inquiries:

1. Bertrand Russell: “Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; … his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms.”

2. Richard Dawkins: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

3. Stephen Hawking: “Philosophy is dead. Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics.”

4. Douglas Adams: “The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is 42.”

The Mystery: Loss of Precious Knowledge

Putting aside heavy philosophy, it seems intuitively obvious that “how can we best spend our lives?” should be on anyone’s top ten list of important questions. So why don’t our universities—the warehouses of accumulated human knowledge—educate students about the answers offered by the wisest people across millennia? Julie Reuben’s study, *The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality*, offers a fascinating answer. She documents how early 20th-century colleges aimed to develop students holistically, improving all their faculties. She quotes Francis Wayland, a prominent educator, who said: “When all the faculties are developed or educated together, then we have beauty and symmetry and strength and perfection of character in the result!” The goal of education was to teach students how to lead the good life by developing perfect character. Reuben’s book describes how this goal was abandoned, and university education became confined to providing skills, disconnected from character development. A critical element in this transformation was a change in the conception of knowledge.

As Reuben explains, knowledge once included both morality and science, but developments in the theory of knowledge led to a sharp bifurcation between the two. In the early 20th century, logical positivists argued that morality was a feeling, and only scientific statements could qualify as knowledge. For example, A.J. Ayer (1936) wrote:

We can now see why it is impossible to find a criterion for determining the validity of ethical judgments. It is not because they have an ‘absolute’ validity which is mysteriously independent of ordinary sense-experience, but because they have no objective validity whatsoever. They are pure expressions of feeling and as such do not come under the category of truth and falsehood. They are unverifiable for the same reason as a cry of pain or a word of command is unverifiable [as a statement]—because they do not express genuine propositions.”

Once talk of morality became just noise, meaningless as a cry of pain, it eventually disappeared from the curriculum of universities, the purveyors of knowledge. Universities act as the collective brains of civilization. If academics start to think that morality is meaningless, this view eventually propagates to the public. If there are no standards for good and bad, no way to distinguish (objectively) between good and bad ways of living, then the meaning of life becomes an empty phrase, devoid of significance.

Many questions arise from this brief sketch of how the most important questions we face became meaningless in the 20th century. In later parts of this lecture, we will address some of them:

1. In what sense is a “cry of pain” meaningless? It is part of a universal human language, clearly understood around the globe, and elicits immediate responses from those who hear it. Can something so deeply ingrained in human experience truly be considered devoid of meaning?

2. Logical Positivism is a theory of knowledge that is obviously flawed. Even its most ardent proponents eventually saw this, leading to its spectacular collapse. How did such a flawed philosophy become so influential and pervasive in shaping modern thought?

3. Why were no revisions made to epistemology following the collapse of Logical Positivism in the 1970s? How did the academic world respond to its downfall, and why hasn’t a more holistic approach to knowledge emerged since?

4. Logical Positivism precludes discussion of the meaning of life, considering it meaningless. With Logical Positivism now abandoned, what new paths can we explore in our quest for understanding the meaning of life? How can we rebuild an epistemological framework that includes these vital existential questions?

5. This story seems oversimplified and reductive. Can it really be true that an obscure philosophy which emerged in the 20th century, and is not understood by most, blocked us from considering the central question of our lives, which has been discussed for millennia? What other factors might have contributed to this shift in focus?

This first introductory post just sets out the problem and provides a framework for analysis. We will discuss some aspects of the questions posed above in greater detail in later posts.

Related: For my life-experiences which led to my current stance, see “Lessons MIT did not Teach Me

Asad Zaman
Physician executive. All opinions are my personal. It is okay for me to be confused as I’m learning every day. Judge me and be confused as well.

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