Discover more from Joyful Pessimism: Sex, Mental Illness, and Philosophy
What’s the Point When There is No Point?
In his 1799 book The Vocation of Man, German idealist philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte asks a series of pressing questions:
Shall I eat and drink only that I may hunger and thirst and eat and drink again, till the grave which is open beneath my feet shall swallow me up, and I myself become the food of worms? Shall I beget beings like myself, that they too may eat and drink and die, and leave behind them beings like themselves to do the same that I have done? To what purpose this ever-revolving circle, this ceaseless and unvarying round, in which all things appear only to pass away, and pass away only that they may re-appear unaltered;—this monster continually devouring itself that it may again bring itself forth, and bringing itself forth only that it may again devour itself?
These questions (which Fichte asked rhetorically) can be summed up as the depressed and existentially-anxious person's perennial cry: "What's the point?" After all, a point is not a point if the point itself will disappear. So if you believe all things are ashes to ashes and dust to dust, with no afterlife or other lasting impact, then yes, "what's the point?"
A typical response to this type of existential despair is illustrated in a scene from the film Annie Hall. The scene (worth watching) is a flashback to the main character Alvy's childhood. In it, Alvy's mother takes the boy to see Dr. Flicker, a psychiatrist:
Mother: He's been depressed. All of the sudden, he can't do anything.
Dr. Flicker: Why are you depressed, Alvy? . . . .
Alvy: The universe is expanding. . . . Well the universe is everything, and if it's expanding, someday it will break apart, and that will be the end of everything.
Mother: What is that your business? [To Dr. Flicker] He's stopped doing his homework.
Alvy: What's the point?
Mother: What has the universe got to do with it? You're here in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not expanding!
Dr. Flicker: It won't be expanding for billions of years, Alvy. And we've got to try to enjoy ourselves while we're here, eh? Eh? [Laughing]
Dr. Flicker's response makes sense. After all, pleasure is its own reward; it does not need some deeper meaning to provide it value. When you're in the throes of sexual ecstasy, receiving the best oral sex of your life, you don't usually think, "Yeah, but what's the point of this?" (Unless, like me, you've got some weird kind of philosophy kink.)
That is, in the moment of sexual ecstasy, you don't usually think "What's the point of this?" But there's a reason that orgasm was has been referred to in French as la petit mort— the little death. There's a reason sex without cuddling afterward can often leave one feeling hollow and disconnected. There's a reason, during that post-coital cuddling, people sometimes wonder (if it's a new relationship, or if it's on the rocks), "What is this relationship? Where is it heading? What are we doing here?"
That reason is that pleasure, while pleasurable, can feel empty afterward. It is its own reward during, but afterward, it admits of the question, "What was the point of that?" As anyone who has woken up with a hangover and an empty bed after a one night stand can attest—however ecstatically Dionysian that one-night stand was during the night of its oneness.
"What does it all mean?" "Where is it all heading?" "Is this all there is?" "Should I just do as much drugs and fuck as much as possible before the apocalypse?" These are the perennial questions of the existential crisis.
Meaning for Mortals
The meaning of “meaning,” when used in phrases like “what’s the meaning of life?” or “what’s the meaning of my life?” is difficult if to pin down. After all, what’s the meaning of a rock? What’s the meaning of a tree? Humans, like rocks and trees, were not created as symbols or expressions, so it’s difficult to understand what “meaning” even means when applied to them.
Of course, religious people believe that humans, rocks, and trees were created to mean something. Specifically, they were created to reflect the glory of God. Psalm 19 of the Bible illustrates this view clearly, suggesting that while the skies have no literal voice, they nonetheless speak volumes about the glory of God:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In Ephesians 1:4-6, Paul proclaims that God “chose us in him before the foundation of the world. . . he predestined us. . . according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace. . . .” In other words, before God created anything in the world at all, he predestined us to praise him for creating the world and for creating us within it.
Of course, as an atheist, if I were to ask, “what is the meaning of my life?” and someone were to answer, “the meaning of your life is to reflect and praise the glory of a narcissistic, vindictive, bloodthirsty, infanticidal, megalomaniacal, racist, homophobic, misogynistic genocidal ethnic cleanser in the sky,” I would scratch my head and ask, “Hmmmm…. And why is my participation in that mess preferable to, say, jumping off of a bridge?”1
If you are a non-believer, then you can’t hold that that the fact of your birth was an expression of anything, other than (perhaps) your parents’ love. (For those who were brought into the world with less forethought, it could also be an expression of one’s parents’ drunkenness, horniness, and lack of using a condom.)
Nonetheless, of course, you can express many things while you’re alive. Thus, your life can in fact be an expression of something that matters to you. Perhaps it is an expression of love, or your values, or what you care about, or some difference you’d like to see in the world.
If your life can be an expression of something that matters to you, then what are you expressing, and why does it matter to you? If you can answer these questions, you will be well on your way to figuring out what your life means—to yourself and others around you.
Yet, for a philosophical pessimist such as myself, the question still remains: if everything is going to perish, what difference does it make if I express something that matters to me or not? Eventually, unless I become legendary for some reason, everything I ever express will be forgotten. And at some point, everything humans express will be forgotten, at least by humans themselves, as humans will cease to exist.
Maybe our expressions will be remembered by artificially intelligent entities, up in “the cloud” (a secular version of “the heavens”?) But it’s not even clear that these entities will be conscious, and even if they are, they will be so alien to us it’s unclear why we should care what they think about us (and if they do, it's probably not positive).
The memories of our expression, all those drunken photos we posted on Instagram, all those ramblings, rants, and tirades on TikTok, will simply be bits (or quantum qubits) stored in a memory substrate, selectively wiped out when the server farms get full and fresher data needs to be stored, and perhaps being mined for data to run simulations.
Maybe these simulations will exist to teach the AIs how to avoid their own civilizational apocalypse. Or maybe reconstructions of you will be run and digitally projected as holographic entertainment—perhaps with your face deepfaked onto galactic porn. Until the heat death of the universe, when even this deepfaked galactic porn (or whatever the memories of your expressions are being used for by the AI entities that supersede us) will be shut down.
At any rate, at some point, all our expressions in life and their attendant meanings will disappear. So what’s the point of making them? We could say, “to help others.” That feels meaningful. But then we must ponder the 1923 quip of British comedian John Foster Hall: “We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know.” If we’re all just here to help others, then why are any of us here? As another quip goes, we can’t all live by “taking in each other’s washing.”
My pet theory of religion (influenced by Ernest Becker from his book The Denial of Death) is that people believe in God primarily because they want to be remembered. Being forgotten is depressing—perhaps even more depressing than death. After all, when we die, we know that we may be remembered by friends and family. But at some point, all of the friends and family who knew us while we were alive will be dead too, and then we will die to living memory.
Maybe our non-living memory will remain in a generation or two of our family members, in the stories about us they’ve passed on to younger generations. But it’s doubtful those memories will last more than a generation or two. How much do you really know (and how often do you think) about your great-great-grandparents? Sure, anyone who’s curious can Google whatever random traces you’ve left on the Internet. But who will be curious?
The idea of simply disappearing from memory feels depressing, even to a philosophical pessimist like me—and I’m someone who is comfortable and has made peace with all kinds of depressing thoughts. I think that religion serves as a balm to this depressing thought. Not only will we get to live forever with all our friends and family, if we’re good little boys and girls and do as Daddy in the Sky tells us, but just as meaningful—and perhaps more meaningful: we will be remembered lovingly forever, by our fellow heaven dwellers, and most magnificently of all, by our loving Father.
God, as eternal and infinite being, has eternal memory and infinite attention. Basically (so goes my pet theory) believers are competing to get into God’s good graces so that they can secure a bit of space in that memory—and a bit of his loving attention towards those memories—so that believers will never be forgotten; that makes life feel meaningful to them, as their expression will continue to have meaning (in God’s mind) forever.
Of course, God has a lot else on his mind, but since his mind is infinite, he still has attention available to remember all the times we couldn’t resist the Devil in our fingers and gave into temptation and whacked off, repenting after we came, and begging forgiveness for our sins, recommitting to our path of sanctity (before the next whack off the next day)... this whole repetitive charade earning us our loving place in God’s eternal memory. Our lives meant so much!
For those of us who don’t believe in God or his eternal loving memory, however, we still have to wrestle with why the expressions of our life will mean anything, if the memory of these expressions will eventually disappear.
So, it’s fair to ask…
What’s the point when all points will disappear?
In a 1948 essay entitled "On Living in an Atomic Age," C.S. Lewis, the devout Christian author of The Chronicles of Narnia, attempts to drive a knife into any hope that a nonbeliever might have for leading a meaningful life without God and the afterlife. He was reflecting on the widespread existential dread that the advent of potentially world-ending nuclear weapons. Addressing nonbelievers, he asks—glibly, in my opinion—why we nonbelievers might have any concern for the end of human civilization at all. I quote this passage at length, as it’s so vivid:
What did you think all this effort of humanity was to come to in the end? The real answer is known to almost everyone who has even a smattering of science. . . . And the real answer [for non-believers]. . . is that, with or without atomic bombs, the whole story is going to end in NOTHING. The astronomers hold out no hope that this planet is going to be permanently inhabitable. The physicists hold out no hope that organic life is going to be a permanent possibility in any part of the material universe. Not only this earth, but the whole show, all the suns of space, are to run down. Nature is a sinking ship. . . . Nature does not, in the long run, favour life. If Nature is all that exists—in other words, if there is no God and no life of some quite different sort somewhere outside Nature—then all stories will end in the same way: in a universe from which all life is banished without possibility of return. It will have been an accidental flicker, and there will be no one even to remember it. No doubt atomic bombs may cut its duration on this present planet shorter that it might have been; but the whole thing, even if it lasted for billions of years, must be so infinitesimally short in relation to the oceans of dead time which precede and follow it that I cannot feel excited about its curtailment. . . .
We see at once (when we have been waked) that the important question is not whether an atomic bomb is going to obliterate ‘civilisation’. The important question is whether ‘Nature’—the thing studied by the sciences— is the only thing in existence. Because if you answer yes to the second question, then the first question only amounts to asking whether the inevitable frustration of all human activities may be hurried on by our own action instead of coming at its natural time. That is, of course, a question that concerns us very much. Even on a ship which will certainly sink sooner or later, the news that the boiler might blow up now would not be heard with indifference by anyone. But those who knew that the ship was sinking in any case would not, I think, be quite so desperately excited as those who had forgotten this fact, and were vaguely imagining that it might arrive somewhere.
It is, then, on [this] question that we really need to make up our minds. And let us begin by supposing that Nature is all that exists. Let us suppose that nothing ever has existed or ever will exist except this meaningless play of atoms in space and time: that by a series of hundredth chances it has (regrettably) produced things like ourselves—conscious beings who now know that their own consciousness is an accidental result of the whole meaningless process and is therefore itself meaningless, though to us (alas!) it feels significant.
Lewis then says that a nonbeliever might have three responses to the belief that nature is all that exists, and that life has no future in nature. His ultimate point is that none of these responses are satisfying, so we must all become believers in God and the afterlife. Of course, I disagree with this view, but I do think his outline of the three basic responses nonbelievers have to existential dread is solid, so it is from these responses I must fashion some thread of meaning and satisfaction in a dying universe. And the first response posits no meaning or satisfaction at all; it's the cessation of meaning or any hope for satisfaction.
(1) You might commit suicide. Nature which has (blindly, accidentally) given me for my torment this consciousness which demands meaning and value in a universe that offers neither, has luckily also given me the means of getting rid of it. I return the unwelcome gift. I will be fooled no longer."
Ouch… strike 1 for meaning! Lewis's second response of the nonbeliever is where pleasure comes in:
(2) You might decide simply to have as good a time as possible. The universe is a universe of nonsense, but since you are here, grab what you can. Unfortunately, however, there is, on these terms, so very little left to grab—only the coarsest sensual pleasures. You can’t, except in the lowest animal sense, be in love with a girl if you know (and keep on remembering) that all the beauties both of her person and of her character are a momentary and accidental pattern produced by the collision of atoms, and that your own response to them is only a sort of psychic phosphorescence arising from the behaviour of your genes. You can’t go on getting any very serious pleasure from music if you know and remember that its air of significance is a pure illusion, that you like it only because your nervous system is irrationally conditioned to like it. You may still, in the lowest sense, have a ‘good time’; but just in so far as it becomes very good, just in so far as it ever threatens to push you on from cold sensuality into real warmth and enthusiasm and joy, so far you will be forced to feel the hopeless disharmony between your own emotions and the universe in which you really live.2
This is the response I want to focus on, because it expresses so clearly religious believers’ argument for why life without God is meaningless.
If This Be Idolatry, Make the Most of It
Lewis’s quote above, about love and music, is idiotic. Think of your favorite absolute favorite song, album, or musician. Is there anything you could learn about why you like that music that would make you less passionate about it, or make it feel any less meaningful to you?
My favorite musician in the world is the singer-songwriter-pianist Adey Bell.
As much as anyone has been a fan of anyone's music ever in the history of music and fandom, that is how much of a fan I am of Adey Bell's music. (A la Wayne’s World: “I’m not worthy! I’m not worthy!”)
Suppose I discovered that the reason I like Adey Bell's music is because I was infected with a parasite that selectively causes people to like Adey Bell's music. What would I think? Here's what I would think: I'm glad I got infected with that parasite!
And if an antibiotic were offered to me that would kill the parasite, but would also kill my love for Adey Bell's music, I would refuse the antibiotic.
C.S. Lewis is deeply confused about the difference between our passions and the sources of our passions. Our passions are, by definition, animating to us. They are animating to us no matter where they came from, and no matter how aware we are of these sources.3
The same goes for romantic love as for music fandom. When I’m in love with someone, I don’t care where that love came from. My love is compelling to me, no matter its source, and no matter how aware I am of this source.4
Ultimately, if I’m in love with a woman, the source of why I’m in love with her matters to me even less than do any passersby when I’m gazing into her eyes.
When I’m gazing into my beloved’s eyes, I don’t care if my love for her came from my genes’ program for self-reproduction, or from my need to resolve psychological traumas of childhood, or from some way my beloved reminds me of my mother, or from the cultural programming I got all those cheesy 90’s rom-coms and sappy love songs, or from Cupid’s arrow, or from God’s grace and His plan to create a love within me worthy of Him, or from her being a witch and she cast a love spell on me (actually, I have a slight preference for that one, that would be pretty cool), or from her being the first person I gazed upon after Shakespeare’s Puck sprinkled flower juice on my eyelids.5
Lewis says that you can’t truly be in love with someone if you “know (and keep on remembering)” the causes of that love. (For example, causes relating to the interactions of atoms, chemicals, or genes.)
But this is disingenuous. The phrase “keep on remembering” is doing too much work here, in a sneaky way. The problem is not that knowing the causes of your love makes it impossible to love. The problem is that if you are constantly thinking about these causes (i.e., remembering them) while you are with your beloved, then you are thinking about something other than your beloved when you are with them. You aren’t being present with the person in front of you and the experience of love between you.
This applies just as much if the cause of our love is God, as if the cause of our love is atoms, chemicals and genes. A person who “keeps on remembering” Jesus, when their beloved was in front of them, instead of their beloved, would be just as guilty of a lack of presence as someone who keeps on remembering atoms or genes, or anything else other than the person in front of them.
In C.S. Lewis’s novel The Great Divorce, the character named “the Teacher” says:
There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him. And the higher and mightier it is in the natural order, the more demoniac it will be if it rebels. It's not out of bad mice or bad fleas you make demons, but out of bad archangels. The false religion of lust is baser than the false religion of mother-love or patriotism or art: but lust is less likely to be made into a religion.
Of course, views expressed by characters in novels don’t necessarily reflect the views of the author, but in this case—based on Lewis’s pronouncements elsewhere, and knowing that he generally wrote allegorically—it is clear this view expressed by the Teacher is shared by Lewis.
Lewis’s view here is religiously passionate—but it’s not romantically passionate. He would say, “Exactly: romantic love is a false religion.” And I would say, “Well then, bud, you must not have had the kind of romance I’ve had!”
C.S Lewis would say, “Romantic love is a false religion.” And I would say, “Well then, bud, you must not have had the kind of romance I’ve had!”
If someone wants to have all their love on earth—including romantic love— mediated through their love of God, more power to them. But it bothers me when theists such as Lewis can’t imagine how someone could find meaning by loving something other than God on its own terms, not as a mere prop in a play about God.
It’s very simple how we find meaning in a world without God: we love the people and things we care about on earth for their own sake—precisely the type of love that believers are committed to avoiding (because they view such love as false religion, i.e., idolatry.)
In his 1580 essay “On Friendship,” Michel de Montaigne says of his best friend, the writer Etienne de La Boétie: “If you press me to tell why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed, except by answering: Because it was he, because it was I.”
That’s the kind of friendship I want; all of us should be so lucky to have one or two friendships in life that reach this inexplicable depth. I would infinitely prefer a friend say that about our friendship, over them saying that they love me because God God something something.
If this be idolatry, make the most of it.
A Rebellion Against Meaninglessness?
As I mentioned above, C.S Lewis posits one possible third option that non-believers have for creating meaning in their lives, when they contemplate that (absent God and the afterlife) everything they care about will eventually perish.
(3) You may defy the universe. You may say, “Let it be irrational, I am not. Let it be merciless, I will have mercy. By whatever curious chance it has produced me, now that I am here I will live according to human values. I know the universe will win in the end, but what is that to me? I will go down fighting. Amid all this wastefulness I will persevere; amid all this competition, I will make sacrifices. Be damned to the universe!” . . . . You hold up your own human standards against the idiocy of the universe.
This is the stance of the existentialists. It is the stance of Camus in The Rebel: “The final conclusion of absurdist reasoning is, in fact, the repudiation of suicide and the acceptance of the desperate encounter between human inquiry and the silence of the universe.” Elsewhere in the book, Camus writes:
Metaphysical rebellion is the movement by which man protests against his condition and against the whole of creation. It is metaphysical because it contests the ends of man and of creation. . . . [T]he metaphysical rebel declares that he is frustrated by the universe. . . .
Human insurrection, in its exalted and tragic forms, is only, and can only be, a prolonged protest against death, a violent accusation against the universal death penalty. . . . The rejection of death, the desire for immortality and for clarity, are the mainsprings of all these extravagances, whether sublime or puerile. Is it only a cowardly and personal refusal to die? No, for many of these rebels have paid the ultimate price in order to live up to their own demands. The rebel does not ask for life, but for reasons for living. He rejects the consequences implied by death. If nothing lasts, then nothing is justified; everything that dies is deprived of meaning. To fight against death amounts to claiming that life has a meaning, to fighting for order and for unity.
But given that, as John Maynard Keynes writes, “in the long run we’re all dead,” what is the point of all this fancy metaphysical rebellion? Given that all will be forgotten anyway, what is the point of this metaphysical protest that will be forgotten as well? It seems just as pointless as the pointlessness against which it rebels.
The Door to More Doorways
In life, if you find yourself asking “What’s the point?” it’s probably because you haven’t found something that is, for you, its own point.
The word “autotelic” comes from the Greek roots auto (“self”) and telos (“end, goal”). An activity is autotelic for you if engaging in that activity is its own goal; the activity is not a means towards any other end or goal, beyond itself.
For me, the most consistent example of an autotelic activity in my life has been my thirty-one-year devotion to writing (I started taking writing seriously when I was fifteen, and I am now—in 2023—forty-six.)
I admit, throughout most of this period, in addition to the autotelic rewards I received from the activity itself (creativity, learning, mental expansion), there were many external rewards I was seeking from writing. These could be called “exotelic” rewards, from the Greek root exo (“outside of, external”): fame, notoriety, widespread recognition of my unrecognized brilliance and creativity as a struggling twenty-something writer, and the romantic and sexual opportunities I thought would come from these.
Ironically, in order to write the present book, I needed to give all of these extrinsic rewards. Philosophical pessimism is not exactly a popular position. For years I struggled with the tension between my intrinsic motivations for writing (the joy of creativity, and of exploring and penetrating deeper layers of truth and reality) and my extrinsic motivations (basically, the desire to get laid because of my publicly-signaled creativity.)
Maybe it was some deep commitment to truth—or maybe it was just getting older and my sex drive mellowing out and no longer feeling the need or desire to “make an idol out of sex” (as religious people might put it)… but my desire to write what felt true for me, rather than what was attractive within my dating pool, won out. (If your dating pool has been optimistic, cheery “personal growth” type people, as mine has, then writing a work of philosophical pessimism is very much like taking a dump in your pool.)
I’ve never been happier though. The reason I dive into writing and thinking, is to dive even deeper into writing and thinking. Each bit I learn (and write about) opens up branching channels for deeper learning, thinking, and writing. For me, writing and thinking have become as close to purely autotelic activities as I’ve experienced.
(Sure, I wouldn’t mind if my work became widely read, or if I got dates because of it—but I really don’t care and that’s not why I’m writing anymore. One exotelic result I do care about, however, is getting the writing into the hands of those existentially depressed and anxious people—as I was in my twenties and thirties—for whom it might provide some comfort and solace, make them feel less alone and crazy, and maybe even lead to some joy.)
As I read, write, and think about the topics of this book, each door I unlock leads to more doors, for which I now want and need to discover the keys.
For me, writing is the door to more doorways—and all want to do is open them all!
Feeding the Monster vs. Feeding the Mystery: The Power of Richness
How do you find your own autotelic activity? In other words, how do you find your activity that is its own goal?
How do you find your door to more doorways?
I think it’s useful to distinguish between two types of “autotelic” activities, one of which is a subset of the other.
The first category is “self-rewarding” activities, and a subset of self-rewarding activities could be called “self-amplifying” activities.
A self-rewarding activity is any activity that is enjoyable in itself, and not as a means to some other end. For example, going for a walk because you love going for walks is self-rewarding—but going for a walk because your doctor told you that you need to do so for the health of your heart is exotelic. (That doesn’t mean the latter is less worthwhile, it just means that it’s not its own reward; it is serving a different reward, which is health.)
A subset of self-rewarding activities consists of which become more enjoyable for you as you do them more. I call these “self-amplifying” activities, because doing them gives you the capacity to do them, in a deeper, better, and more satisfying way. In a sense, self-amplifying activities “build on themselves.”
For example, learning to play music provides self-amplifying enjoyment. It is self-rewarding, in that playing music provides its own reward. But also, the enjoyment is self-amplifying, because learning to play some amount of music allows you to play more and better and more interesting music. The pleasure you get from it expands as you do it.
The point is not just that you get more pleasure out of doing the activity as you do it more, but that the pleasure takes on a quality that I call “richness.”
Richness, when used in a phrase such as “richness of flavor,” does not mean that there is a great abundance of one quality. It means there are a lot of different elements at work, enhancing each other, “bringing each other out.” Table sugar is not a rich flavor. And, if you already have some table sugar, adding more table sugar will not get you more richness of flavor. A fine chocolatier, however, can combine some sugar with some cacao powder, cacao butter, vanilla extract and other ingredients and bring out the most marvelously rich flavors.
Similarly, a phrase such as “the richness of the novel’s language” does not mean that there is a great abundance of one word. It means, there is a great diversity of elements—vocabulary, diction, nuances, connotations—each enhancing the each other. The same goes for phrases such as “a rich cultural heritage” or “a rich musical tradition.” In ecology, “species richness” refers to the diversity of different species in a given ecosystem.
Self-amplifying activities expand enjoyment not by simply adding more of the same simple enjoyment together (More sex! More drugs!) Rather, they expand enjoyment by adding and interconnecting more and different elements to create a richer experience.
Other examples of potentially self-amplifying activities include:
Friendships and relationships: the deeper you go into a relationship, the more shared history you have, the more experiences you can recall together, the more ups and downs you’ve been through, the richer the relationship feels.
Any kind of learning (skills or knowledge): the more you learn, the more you can learn. Each bit of learning ups up vistas towards more advanced and complex things to learn, which allows you to experience the full richness of the field or activity.
Art and creativity: these feed on themselves, in that each creation can be the basis of the next and the next, until a rich tapestry of creation has been woven within the artist’s work.
The point here is not that simple, straightforward pleasures like sex and drugs are necessarily bad. The point is that, on their own, the satisfaction one derives from them tends to diminish. The enjoyment can be expanded greatly if they are taken as part of a wider tapestry of richness, interconnected to various parts of life. (And by drugs here, I’m talking mostly about psychedelics—which in my experience provide diminishing returns on their own, but expanding returns when taken in moderation in the context of an ever-interconnected creative, intellectual, romantic, sexual, spiritual and social life.)
I think the distinction between simple self-rewarding pleasure, and its subset of self-expanding pleasure is important, because it’s possible (and in fact common) for self-rewarding activities to become less enjoyable as you do them more.
The most obvious example is addictive drugs: snorting coke is its own reward. But snorting coke doesn’t lead you to get more enjoyment the next time you snort coke; on the contrary, you develop tolerance and eventually will need more and more just to feel normal. (Furthermore, the negative physical, psychological, and social side-effects grow, at the same time the reward diminishes.)
A more mundane example is binge-watching television, or obsessively scrolling on social media. A bit of TV or phone-scrolling can be a pleasurable way to take your mind of things and unwind after a long and stressful day at work. But I think we’ve all experienced that “zombie” feeling after the third, fourth, or tenth hour of mindlessly pressing “next” on the TV or “refresh” on our social media. It’s anything but refreshing!
Of course, that doesn’t mean that all self-rewarding activities have this feature of diminishing returns. When you go for a pleasant walk, that doesn’t make mean that going for tomorrow’s walk will be any less pleasant. But many self-rewarding activities do in fact have this feature of diminishing returns.
In contrast, activities that are self-expanding activities lead to a feeling of, well… expansiveness as you engage in them more over time. You feel like the world is expanding as you do them. (And in a good way, not in Alvy’s existentially dreadful way, as in the Annie Hall quote above!) You start to see more and more of your life and the world reflected in the self-expanding activity—and that activity starts to feel like more of a metaphor for your life (“life imitates art”), and guide for you as you navigate the world beyond.
I call this “feeding the monster” versus “feeding the mystery.” Feeding the monster is engaging in any self-rewarding activity that, while pleasurable in its own right, starts to provide significantly diminishing returns. You have to keep feeding the monster just to placate it, until—at worst—the monster completely consumes you and you are living (or dying!) inside its belly.
Whereas I refer to engaging in self-expanding activities as “feeding the mystery.” I call it this because, the deeper you go, the deeper it gets; the wider you go, the wider it gets; the higher you go, the higher it gets. Until you feels as though, through your immersion in the expanding richness of the activity over time, you have a glimpse—and maybe even a grand vista—of the infinite. Once you have that glimpse, either the answer to the question “what’s the point of my life?” will become obvious… or you’ll simply be bored by the question as it distracts you from your favorite self-expanding activities. Either way, you’ll be happy.
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The adjectives here are from Richard Dawkins’s wonderful quote about God, in his book The God Delusion: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Theists frequently hold that atheism (and naturalism, which I think is a more useful term for roughly the same complex of ideas), robs the cosmos of wonder and awe. Atheists and naturalists emphatically disagree, holding that wonder and awe at the cosmos, and appreciation of the beauty within it, are entirely compatible with atheism and naturalism.
The strongest statement of this reply from atheists/naturalists I’ve encountered comes from naturalist thinker Thomas W. Clark in a chapter entitled “Naturalism and Well-Being.” In this chapter, he introduces a lovely term, which lit up a flash of recognition in me when I saw it: “existential astonishment.” Here’s Clark on existential astonishment:
We of course didn’t ask for any of this [in the cosmos] - we simply find ourselves present in the cosmos, which according to naturalism exists precisely for no discernable reason. Therefore, we exist, ultimately, for no discernable reason. But strangely enough, the naturalistic subtraction of ultimate meaning and purpose can generate a genuinely spiritual response to the human condition. Although it takes a little getting used to, appreciating the sheer unguided facticity of the cosmos can be the gateway to existential wonder and amazement. It isn’t as if existence as a whole is meaningless – that’s to project our parochial demand for meaning onto it, and find it rebuffed – rather, it altogether escapes the meaningful-meaningless distinction: it just is. Seeing that we can’t expect nature to have a meaning, we are left, finally, existentially astonished - to be alive and aware, participants in a grand mystery that necessarily transcends any ascription of purpose.
Related to this issue, in the quote above Lewis displays a glaring example of the "fallacy of composition": the fallacy that, if something is true (or not true) of a thing, it must be true (or not true) of larger groups, collections, or wholes composed of that thing. A classic example the fallacy: atoms are not alive, therefore, nothing composed of atoms is alive.
In Lewis's case, the fallacy of composition is: atomic and genetic processes on their own (without God) are meaningless, and thus, everything arising from just atomic and genetic processes (without God) is meaningless. Lewis wants to argue this, because he believes it is only God that gives things meaning. (Personally, I've never understood that view. Why would a crusty old genocidal prude who sends his only son to get slaughtered bestow meaning on my life?)
At any rate, to see why Lewis's argument is a fallacy of composition, consider the following: Would you like to eat some raw flour? How about some baking soda? How about a butter stick? Or some 100% bitter chocolate? Or a raw egg?
None of these are very appetizing on their own: but if you mix them together and bake them, they become something very appetizing indeed: a chocolate cake!
The whole is other than the sum of its parts; meaning is other than the sum of its parts.
If I’m in love with a woman, I can list a hundred reasons why I’m in love with her: her character, her intellect, her values, her sense of humor, her beauty, how she makes me feel around her, the wildness of the sex we have together.
But this list is simply a description of why I love for her; it is not an explanation. To see the difference, consider the following thought experiment. Imagine listing the top 12 reasons you are romantically attracted to your current partner (if you have one) or a partner you’ve had in the past, or just anyone you’ve had a crush on. You can write in detail about their values, their personality, their sense of humor, why you’re physically attracted to them, etc.
Now, imagine we gathered 100 people with roughly similar qualities (similar values, character traits, sense of humor, physical attributes, etc.), and gave your list to a stranger, whom we tasked with finding your specific beloved out of that room.
My guess is that the stranger wouldn’t have much luck picking your beloved out of the crowd. Why not? You’ve written in detail about why you love your beloved. Those qualities contributed to you falling in love with your beloved. They helped you pick your beloved out of a crowd of people you could have fallen in love with. (And I’m sure that your beloved would hope that if you were in that room with 100 similar people, you wouldn’t just view the others as interchangeable with your beloved!)
Why isn’t this list enough for the stranger to identify your beloved out of the crowd of similar people? The crux of the matter is that, while we can list and describe countless reasons why we fell in love with a particular person, these reasons don’t amount to a causal explanation of why we fell in love with that person. There is a certain je ne sais quoi about falling in love, that we can’t explain.
If it were explainable why we fell in love with someone, then it would be predictable. And as anyone who has fallen in or out of love knows, it is anything but predictable. They call it “falling in love”—and not “conscientiously walking down the stairs of love”—for a reason.
I used to be in a relationship with a professional matchmaker, and I supported her in finding and making matches. From observing the matchmaking business up-front, I got a special window into just how unpredictable “chemistry” can be.
Of course, we would try to find matches that check of most of a client’s boxes for traits and qualities they were looking for (compatibility, life, career and relationship goals, age, appearance, lifestyle, personality, etc.) But we could find someone who checked off all the boxes “on paper,” and yet who left our client feeling cold on the first date.
My point is not that finding a match is so unpredictable that it’s “anything goes.” People tend to match with people in similar ranges and backgrounds of attractiveness, career success, education, values, etc. But no matter how detailed you get on matching specifics, within those specifications, unpredictability still reigns supreme.
The princess rarely kisses the frog, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to predict which prince the princess will fall for, or which fellow frog the frog will croak for.
We’ve all had, no doubt, a few instances of past romantic love that—after it faded—had us shaking our heads and asking ourselves (and our therapist) “What was I thinking?” Things that felt meaningful and motivating in the moment can seem hollow and illusory in retrospect.
But that is surely just as true of a brokenhearted Christian as it is a brokenhearted atheist. The Christian, unfortunately, has the added challenge of producing a theodicy for this particular bit of suffering and misery: “Why did God put me through this?”