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The Meaning of Life Is Bullshit
Some people gaze up at the stars and wonder what it’s all about. Me, I gaze up at the stars and wonder why people wonder what it’s all about. Why do people do this?
It’s not at all obvious. We’re animals—specifically, apes—and pondering the meaning of life is a strange thing for an ape to do. It doesn’t get us food or sex. It doesn’t keep us safe from predators. It captures our limited attention without providing any obvious, Darwinian payoff. So maybe the real mystery isn’t the meaning of life, but why apes like us care about the meaning of life.
Take a moment to reflect on the mystery. Why does the meaning of life matter to us?
Here’s one clue to an answer: it doesn’t matter to everybody. Usually when I ask people about the meaning of life, I get blank stares, shrugs, or eye-rolls. This is especially true among the more “normie” or working-class people I know. Only a small handful of overeducated weirdos express interest in the topic.
Here’s another clue to an answer: these weirdos are very good at reasoning. That’s how they got their impressive degrees, and that’s how they learned all the relevant terms—existentialism, nihilism, ennui, etc. So maybe if we understand what “reasoning” is all about, we’ll understand why the brainy weirdos care about the meaning of life.
What is “reasoning”? According to the psychologist Hugo Mercier, it is an adaptation for arguing and rationalizing. We reason to persuade people who wouldn’t otherwise trust us. We reason to excuse and justify our behavior. We reason to judge other people’s excuses and arguments, to avoid being manipulated or duped. Reasoning isn’t for solitary contemplation: it’s for winning debates, making excuses, bullshitting, and detecting others’ bullshit.
So if that’s what reasoning is for, we can start to see why the brainy weirdos care about the meaning of life. Maybe they’re looking for a way to argue with, or make excuses to, other hyper-reasoning weirdos in their peer group. Maybe they like to interrogate each other, demanding logical explanations for every decision they make, including the “decision” to be alive at all. Maybe the game is to see who can give the most eloquent and logical responses to these interrogations.
Unfortunately, there’s a problem. The real reasons for the weirdos’ decisions are ugly. Because like the rest of us, they’re animals—specifically, apes—who are driven by fear, status, nepotism, tribalism, and other primitive urges. So hyper-reasoning weirdos are in a bind: they can either converge on the true, ugly reasons for their behavior and look ugly, or they can make up false and pretty reasons for their behavior and get refuted by their peers. What to do?
The answer is: be as vague as possible. By sticking to airy, unfalsifiable explanations for their behavior—sacred values, higher callings—they can have their cake and eat it. Their theories aren’t obviously wrong enough to make them lose status, but they’re not obviously right enough to make them lose status either. They hit the sweet spot of being vaporous and vaguely plausible, framing all of human behavior as a quest for pleasant abstractions like wisdom, virtue, or—my favorite—happiness.
That’s why the intelligentsia cares about the meaning of life. They’re looking for a way to rationalize their lives—to dress up their careers and political loyalties in self-important verbiage. They’re looking for a not-too-obviously-false story they can tell about themselves to look morally and intellectually sophisticated, so that other nerds will praise them as “profound,” “revolutionary,” and “humane.” Debates about the meaning of life are ultimately a convoluted form of status jockeying.
Why else would apes like us care about the meaning of life?
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