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I am from a developing country, a poor country, a very populated country. We

I am from a developing country, a poor country, a very populated country. We live a hard life here. People often say westerners have a life while we only do the living, or according to one of my friends, we only do the breathing. I still remember a line from a popular song here: are we changing the world or changed by the world? And my friend gave me the answer: being an American means one is changing the world while being a non-American means one is changed by the world. So what is the meaning of life for a man living in a developing country anyway?

In terms of income, the panelists on this site by and large belong to humanity's top ventile (5%) -- where the average income is 9 times the global average. This is roughly 300 times more than what is available to people in the bottom quarter, where average income is about 1/32 of the global average. (The difference is still about 100:1 if one adjusts for purchasing power parities.) Moreover, people in the bottom quarter typically work longer hours in more exhausting jobs, and have about 20 to 30 fewer years of life. So, yes, those among whom you live do not enjoy anything like our opportunities to live a full human life, anything like our freedom to learn, think, enjoy, and be creative.

These huge discrepancies are profoundly unjust, and it would be good if many people in the more affluent countries used their much greater powers to change the world toward overcoming such injustice. Unfortunately, this is not happening, though some are trying. Those who have most power to contribute to change also have the least vivid sense of how urgently such change is needed.

So I think your friend is wrong, and wrong on both counts. Being affluent does not mean changing the world -- most affluent people make no effort to promote justice or any other greatly needed or otherwise important changes. And being poor does not mean not changing the world. Think of the Manchester dock workers who helped end slavery. Think of the millions who marched with Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Think of those who denied the US victory in Vietnam. Think of the garment workers in Bangladesh who just won an 80% raise in the minimum wage (from $25 to $45 per month), thereby lifting the spirits and in due time the wages of millions of grievously exploited workers in other poor countries. Ideally, of course, rich and poor should change the world together, toward reducing poverty and injustice, and toward preserving the health and beauty of our planet and its many species. Realistically, I would expect at least as much of a contribution to needed changes form the world's poor as from the world's affluent who, despite their much greater freedoms and capacities, typically find the status quo morally quite tolerable. I won't pass judgment on those who feel they are too poor to help change the world. But I do think it wrong, both empirically and morally, to count out the poor as important agents in human history.

I just turned 60 and my left-of-center value system has in some ways become

I just turned 60 and my left-of-center value system has in some ways become more conservative. At the same time, I have become more intolerant of right-wing views to the point where I find myself feeling uncomfortable with the thought of socializing with neoconservatives and tea-party types. I would not want to invite such types to my home, yet being a liberal, question my capacity for tolerance. I am contemplating asking new 'friends' just what their views are and making a decision. This has a narcissistic flavor, but I don't need token neo-cons for entertainment value (as they would keep pet liberals) or as reminders of what the dark side looks like. I guess the GW Bush legacy has opened my eyes. I am repelled. Is this chauvinism/tribalism consistent with living an authentic life I understand to be directed by evolutionary forces that propel me to seek out maximum stimulation in order to realize my potential? Suggested readings would be appreciated. Many thanks.

I'd like to start with the last bit. You say that you understand living an authentic life as "directed by evolutionary forces that propel me to seek out maximum stimulation in order to realize my potential." I'd suggest some skepticism about that. If you mean by "evolution" what biologists mean, then there are no such forces; evolution isn't goal directed. And in any case, it's not obvious that "maximum stimulation" is the best way for for anyone to realize their potential. On the contrary, it's at least as likely that most of us suffer from too much stimulation as from too little.

Down in the foothills, let's start with an example. I don't get along with racist bigots who lard their conversation with vile remarks. I've had all the "stimulation" from such people that my potential calls for. Being authentic doesn't call for inviting them to my dinner parties. On the contrary, doing that would be downright inauthentic. I'd be pretending a friendship that doesn't exist. Tolerance doesn't call for it either. Being tolerant doesn't mean putting up with hateful things.

That said, I can imagine a point in trying to talk to people I deeply disagree with. Sometimes when we do that, we find that we've been overlooking something worth worrying about, even if we still end up disagreeing about details and means. And it's a little harder for each side to demonize the other when people make an honest stab at mutual understanding. But whatever value this sort of exercise might have, it doesn't extend to dictating the people I spend my intimate time with.

As for asking people their views before even considering them as friends, that does seem off, whether or not "narcissistic" is the right word. I've come to have real affection and respect for people I would have dismissed if I'd used that sort of test before having anything to do with them.

Does nature have any meaning? I guess the scientists who like to study the stars

Does nature have any meaning? I guess the scientists who like to study the stars and the physical chemists who like to study things at the quantum level find something meaningful in nature. But those people usually say that their isn't any kind of ultimate purpose found in nature.

In "Brains in a Vat," the first essay of his book, Reason, Truth, and History, the philosopher Hilary Putnam considers a thought experiment, according to which an ant crawling along the sand produces what would appear to be an image of Winston Churchill. He asks whether this image would count as a depiction of Churchill, and claims that it would not: it would not count as a depiction or representation of Churchill, because the ant has never seen Churchill, and therefore could not have the intention to depict Churchill. The image, therefore, is not intrinsically meaningful: it would take an observer to notice that the ant's tracings resemble Churchill, and to conclude that s/he has seen a representation of Churchill traced in the sand, thereby endowing the ant's tracings with meaning. Nature as a whole, like the ant, does not seem capable of producing meaning: in order to produce meaningful representations (including pictures or words), there must be an agent who knows how to manipulate those signs. Whereas astrologists consider the order of nature to be meaningful, this seems to be an instance of what the philosopher Gilbert Ryle called a 'category mistake': the ascription of meaning to the wrong sort of thing to be a producer of meaning. If this is correct, then it should be concluded that nature itself doesn't have meaning. Now what distinguishes astronomy from astrology is that in astronomy, the study of the heavens is undertaken in order to explain the nature of the heavens, whereas astrology seeks to interpret the heavens. The astrologer's investigation thus seems to presuppose that the heavens themselves are meaningful, whereas the astronomer's investigation presupposes no such thing. While the astrologer need not--anymore than the astronomer--believe that there is any kind of ultimate purpose to be found in nature--in this case, in the heavens--the astrologer's attribution of meaning to the heavens does seem to presuppose that there is some kind of meaning-producing entity behind their configurations, and thus may--although I think it need not--lead naturally to the view that there is some source of purposiveness, of intention, of meaning, behind the stars that endows them with their significance. The astronomer makes no such assumptions, and so the astronomer's investigation, unlike that of the astronomer, does not attribute any meaning to the heavenly phenomena that s/he studies, and, therefore, does not presuppose that nature itself has any ultimate purpose. This need not imply, of course, that the working astronomer cannot share with the astrologer the belief that there is some ultimate purpose to nature, but only that such beliefs do not figure crucially in the astronomer's (or, for that matter, any contemporary scientist's) investigation of nature itself, quâ scientist.

Why is academic genius valued more highly than sporting genius? This seems

Why is academic genius valued more highly than sporting genius? This seems pretentious to me.

I'm not sure that this is so in the general public. But the reason would be that some great good can come from "academic genius" e.g. cure for a disease, whereas only entertainment can come from athletic brilliance.

What is the value of hard work?

What is the value of hard work?

Here we need to inquire - what is the standard that we are measuring value by and is that standard legitimate? If the standard is building character than I think it could be said that hard work usually works to build character-- though too hard a work and exploitation can also work to harden the soul.

How might a person who does not subscribe to any organized religion and does not

How might a person who does not subscribe to any organized religion and does not believe in an afterlife find meaning in his or her death—that is, the cessation of his or her personal existence? Or, perhaps another way to ask the same question: if there is no afterlife—no continuation as a soul, consciousness or personal identity upon the cessation of physical life—how might one’s life continue to have meaning after death? And if we only live on in the memories of friends and loved ones, or perhaps in some other concrete contribution to culture or society, are not these too ultimately ephemeral?

Good question(s)! I suggest the idea of a person living on in the memories of others is somewhat problematic, especially given that (assuming you are correct) death involves a person ceasing to be. But it may be that your life still has meaning in at least two ways: while you would not live on in others' memories, the significance of your life and the values you had might well live on with others. Of course if modern astronomy is correct all life on earth will end in about 4 billion years, so this bit about living on indefinitely will be a bit tricky. A second way to approach your question would be to refer to the point of view of the universe or the point of view of some ideal observer. This is also a little problematic, however, as it seems that the universe cannot (literally) have a point of view and if the ideal observer is merely hypothetical (viz. there is no God) and so this might also be a difficult foundation to secure meaning. Perhaps thre is a third option: four dimensionalism. According to this account, all moments are equally real. On one version it will always be the case the you are having a meaningful life in 2010. The wikipedia entry for 'four dimensionalism' is reliable, so check that out as a third option. Of course you might also take another look at the prospects of the soul in a theistic framework, but that can be the subject of another exchange.

I am sixty and I find myself becoming removed from my life (my very nice life, I

I am sixty and I find myself becoming removed from my life (my very nice life, I might add). I watch, rather than participate. Everything I read about, see, or experience is similar to that which I have read about, seen or experienced before. I've been down that road before, I know where it goes, it's hard to stay engaged. It's hard to care. I know that in the broadest view everything turns out fine- all good things end and all bad things end. I am not unhappy at all. Am I just old?

Thanks for your very well put and honest sigh of a reflection. It does sound as though you are bored and detached. You say that it is hard to care - which is right to suggest that caring is an activity-- not a feeling that washes over. Could you make stronger efforts to care, to get involved? I've often found that Pascal was right - going through the motions can lead to authentic feelings.

I'm in the same time territory and sometimes I think that there is nothing to look forward to - nothing good at least - just losing people I feel as though I can't live without, the body breaking down, not being taken seriously, the nursing home. I think it is a scary period. Not that this makes any difference, but it has also struck me how much being in the present, in America at least, depends upon having a future, a dream. It is as though for us, no tomorrow means no today. Sad. And at a certain point our future does in fact become pretty narrow and, well, terrifying.

I just try to care - to be as kind as I can, to soften my spirit, but this approach has been something that I have gotten from yoga, not from western philosophy. Indeed, I think that the Socrates guild has encouraged us to think that there is no wisdom in the body and movement. And sometimes just moving the body - taking long walks will move the spirit. I would try that when the great numbness comes over you. all the best, Gordon

If free will does not exist -- i.e, each person is only an observer experiencing

If free will does not exist -- i.e, each person is only an observer experiencing but never actually choosing or deciding anything -- can life still be meaningful?

This is an important question, since it might be that one of the reasons we worry about whether we have free will is that free will is required for life to be meaningful. If so, then any threat to our free will would also make life meaningless. (Actually, as I write that sentence, it makes me wonder if a person's life can only be meaningless, in the ordinary sense of that word, if it has a possibility of being meaningful--is a worm's life meaningless or does that word simply not apply?) But is free will required for life to have meaning?

As usual (with philosophical questions like this), a lot depends on what we mean by 'free will' and 'meaningful life'. My own view is that a theory of free will needs to be about the powers of control that matter to us, so it doesn't make sense to define free will in such a way that losing it would not matter and such that having it would not matter. If, for instance, free will is defined as some magical ability to exist outside of the natural order of things, then I'm not sure why it would matter if we don't have it. But if, as you suggest, free will is the power to make choices and have your decisions make a difference to what happens, rather than just being a helpless bystander observing what happens, then it would be terrible not to have free will. And I find it hard to see how life could be meaningful without such free will, since it seems like part of what makes life meaningful is deciding what sorts of goals and plans you have and making choices that help you achieve those goals and plans.

I should emphasize that I am a compatibilist about free will and determinism (as I explain here), so I don't think that the truth of determinism would make life lack meaning because it would not make us mere observers whose decisions didn't make a difference. But figuring out how free will works is no easy task. And figuring out what makes life meaningful is even harder.

What is an interest? I mean it in the sense in which I have an interest in

What is an interest? I mean it in the sense in which I have an interest in having an answer from you.

Great question! Someone else will be better at replying to this, but I will take a first shot to get the ball rolling. I do not think the term "interest" has a standard, clear usage, though I think it is probably most generally equated with a preference or perhaps a desire. So, your having an interest in a reply to your question would be the same as your having a desire or preference that someone give you an interesting answer. "Interesting" (I assume) means worthy of interest. In this sense, if someone is uninterested in X it does not follow that X is uninteresting.

A few more distinctions: Philosophers sometimes distinguish the interests that a person has and what is in a person's interest. In this sense, a person may be interested in drinking vast quantities of vodka, but it is not in that person's interest to do so.

We also sometimes think in terms of hypothetical or ideal interests. Someone may mistakenly think a glass of liquid is water and report "I am interested in drinking that" but let us say the glass is filled with poison and someone, knowing this, might well reply "You aren't really interested in THAT liquid! What you would really like is this other glass filled with purified water, enhanced with mineral for a pure, fresh taste!" Your chatty but well meaning friend would therefore assume that if you knew the facts your interest would be better expressed in reaching out for a different glass.

One further point is that some philosophers (e.g. Harry Frankfurt) have sought to capture the difference between preferences (and here we might refer instead to interests) that are substantial versus those that are (using Frankfurt's term) bull shit. An example of a BS interest is one that you have but you really don't care one way or the other.

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