Part of a three-part series of essays on human nature:
Introduction: Pain, Pleasure and the Meaning of Life (you are here)
Free Will: Fact or Wishful Thinking?
Belief: Are We Just Fooling Ourselves?
Ethics: Do They Work Anymore?
Introduction: Pain, pleasure and the meaning of life
According to a USA Today survey, the question most people wanted to ask God was, “What is the meaning of life?” That question reveals one of our main problems. Chapter 33 hints, Striving to prevail is will. Striving for important goals makes life feel meaningful for all animals, including humans (1). However, striving for goals is painful in various ways, so we envision ways to achieve our goals as much as possible without the hardship.
Put simply, pain in its broadest sense actually gives life meaning. In contrast, pleasure merely offers a respite from this daily “work” of living. We naturally avoid (fear) the hardship and seek (need) the pleasurable. In the wild, that would be a healthy response, for in the wild, you cannot avoid hardship. Somewhat ironically then, actually succeeding at circumventing the hardship side of nature quickly becomes too much of a good thing, and robs us of life meaning. Indeed, “too much of a good thing” appears to be a hallmark of humanity.
Our notions of free will, ethics, and belief all play a major role in this destabilizing effort to outwit natural processes. As we succeed, we become further estranged from nature. Together, these core notions make them promising areas to probe for insight.
(1) Social connection is the other main source of life meaning for social animals. Our success at circumventing hardship has weakened this aspect. After all, sharing hardship is a major factor in pulling people together.