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December 11, 2011 4:46 AM   Subscribe

Psychology Today handles The Big Question: Why Are We Here?
posted by twoleftfeet (66 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Begging the question your honour!
posted by joost de vries at 4:48 AM on December 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


'Cause this where the beer is, duh.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 4:51 AM on December 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


Hint: any answer is probably a lie.
posted by Burhanistan at 4:55 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why does there have to be a reason? Why are roses here? Why are giraffes here?
posted by stinkycheese at 4:59 AM on December 11, 2011


A whole issue addressing questions that can't be answered, all right then.
posted by tomswift at 5:11 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


"How" is so much more fun than "why".
posted by Fizz at 5:19 AM on December 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


Look! Some psychologists took a philosophy class. How cute. (They aren't really claiming that these are novel responses to these questions?)
posted by oddman at 5:29 AM on December 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


I've become a fan of modal realism for the sheer brazenness.

There's no way to make an objective distinction between the set of facts that make up our universe and those of any other hypothetical system. So why not treat possibility and existence as the same thing?

In the context of our set of facts, we exist. Just like every other possible thing.
posted by Anything at 5:33 AM on December 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


How can hypothetical things be true? I don't know man, I didn't do it.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:42 AM on December 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


Combining the sum "teaching" of all four articles, apparently Psychology Today is run by followers of the late cult leader Osho?
posted by shii at 5:48 AM on December 11, 2011


I want to know 'where is here' before I gwet onto the lesser stuff like why.
posted by quarsan at 5:53 AM on December 11, 2011


Because we're not all there.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:00 AM on December 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


A big clown hit us!
posted by daisystomper at 6:00 AM on December 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


What do you mean, "we"?
posted by spitbull at 6:01 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Because personally, I am here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I am all out of bubblegum.
posted by spitbull at 6:02 AM on December 11, 2011 [6 favorites]


Since no one so far is particularly enthused about the articles, this seems as good as place as any to leave this "Why are we here?" anecdote.

At Burning Man one year (yes, it's one of those stories) I went up to a phone booth that said "Talk to God," picked up the phone, and heard a woman's voice announce, "Hello, this is God. What would you like to know?"

"Yeah, something's been bothering me lately. Why is there something rather than nothing?" I asked. The earnestness of my response startled me. This question had really been troubling me, to the point of prompting panic attacks.

"Look to your left. Tell me what you see."

"Some totally amazing beautiful thing that's blowing my mind . . ."

"Now look to your right . . ."

And so on, until I'd looked in all four directions, each time describing jaw-dropping wonders I could barely wrap my head around.

"There's your answer," She said.

I can honestly say that question has never really troubled me since.
posted by treepour at 6:08 AM on December 11, 2011 [18 favorites]


On a muggy Tuesday, 4.05 billion years ago, sightseeing aliens from Cygnus made a pit stop on earth and emptied their septic effluvium into Earth's sterile oceans. We are descended from their colonic flora.
posted by Renoroc at 6:26 AM on December 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm here to comment.
posted by pianomover at 6:33 AM on December 11, 2011


Because we're here. Roll the bones.
posted by LordSludge at 6:38 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sean Carroll of Cosmic Variance: Why is there something rather than nothing?

I love his blog but I can't help but think his approach is disingenuous, which is basically to brush off the question.

I don't see why this question should be a special case where incuriosity is accepted. Any prior distribution for the set of possible universes calls for an explanation. Even in the case that nothing existed, it would be a mistake* to take non-existence for granted.

* If, somehow, it was at all logically possible for anything to engage in such contemplation to begin with, which, of course it wouldn't be.
posted by Anything at 6:46 AM on December 11, 2011


I'm here because my parents didn't see fit to live on another planet, and I'm too lazy to leave.
posted by mccarty.tim at 6:50 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


A god who performs acts of creation is an agent, and to be an agent one must, minimally, be alive.

Can someone explain this assertion to me? If we're assuming the existence of some magical being how does it follow that it has to be alive?
posted by Midnight Rambler at 6:52 AM on December 11, 2011


Something has to exist for no reason. Including existence itself. As for what is the first thing to exist (assuming time is linear enough for that to work), it's up to debate whether it's just a bunch of matter/energy or a magical omnipotent being.

Occam's Razor, to me, suggests the matter. But it's matter that exists for no reason. Not satisfying, but there's never going to be a satisfying answer at the end of a long chain of "Whys."
posted by mccarty.tim at 6:56 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Nothingness has properties. Of a vacuum, we can still say how large it is, how long it remains pure, and when some pollution creeps in (which happens fast), we can say what that is and where it's from.

If we observe a universe in which nothing exists, that's actually pretty interesting on its own, because apparently it still has size, despite no very obvious need for it.

On the other hand, if you're talking about a "universe" in which not even the basic physical laws exist--that's equivalent to talking about nothing, right? And you can't assert anything about nothing, it's... nothing. To even establish negative facts about nothingness is to suggest that it might have had positive attributes of that kind, once. "This possible world shall have no physical laws!" gives that world a little physical-laws-shaped hole in its heart.

We don't have the ability to reason about things that are defined in such a way that there's nothing to reason about.

Anyway, why should we assume that the state without physical laws is a state of nothingness? Isn't it our own physical laws that tell us that you need energy to create mass? If that's not true, then this universe of infinite chaos should be creating and destroying shit at random, or something like that. Only the shit in question is shit that doesn't exist because you... said so... didn't you?
posted by LogicalDash at 7:05 AM on December 11, 2011 [4 favorites]


We exist because God has the emotional maturity of a twelve year old and we are its Sims.
posted by localroger at 7:17 AM on December 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


The universe exists because you can't have nothing without something to compare its nothingness to.

In other words, worrying about this is a waste of time. Now go brush your teeth or you'll get cavities.
posted by tommyD at 7:31 AM on December 11, 2011


I appear to be here to make others feel better about themselves.

It's a living.
posted by tommasz at 7:31 AM on December 11, 2011


Because diaphragms are not effective birth control.
posted by benito.strauss at 7:33 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


The big question is "why do we think "why are we here?" is the big question?"
posted by anazgnos at 7:34 AM on December 11, 2011 [4 favorites]


Monty Python has previously answered this question. Further clarification comes from Bill and Ted.

Problem solved! Dudes! Now, who wants pizza?
posted by LastOfHisKind at 7:44 AM on December 11, 2011


Asking the question in a psychology journal sort of biases the scope of possible answers.
posted by Segundus at 7:45 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


I wonder why that particular question is considered The Big Question? It may just be the most fashionable Big Question.

My personal favorite big question is Now what?
posted by LogicalDash at 8:14 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ahh, Psychology Today, the tabloid of the world of psychology.

Still, it is at least mildly interesting to note that the word "being" is indefinable because any definition includes - by definition, so to speak - the word "is", and so you are using the term to be defined already by the time you get to "Being is...".
posted by Pyrogenesis at 8:17 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


As opposed to where?
posted by jonmc at 8:18 AM on December 11, 2011


anazgnos: "The big question is "why do we think "why are we here?" is the big question?""

Or an even bigger question: "why do we think we are here?" or possibly "why do the rest of you think you are here?"
posted by 2manyusernames at 8:18 AM on December 11, 2011


I think the how we are here is the why we are here. Note, people argue over the how a lot.
posted by uni verse at 8:19 AM on December 11, 2011


Why not?
posted by oneswellfoop at 8:26 AM on December 11, 2011


I'm just here because someone said there would be smoked weenies and green bean casserole.
posted by Increase at 8:33 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Smoked weenies I get, but why green bean casserole?
posted by tommyD at 9:00 AM on December 11, 2011


Everyone has to be somewhere.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:33 AM on December 11, 2011


It's more of a big a priori assumption than a question.
posted by Decani at 9:48 AM on December 11, 2011


Apparently we are here because shit happens.

TRUE FACT: no human actually knows. Maybe some post-singularity artificial intelligent nanobot superhuman will find out, but I wouldn't count on it.
posted by bukvich at 9:50 AM on December 11, 2011


...I was told there would be cake?
Anyway, where else would you put everything but everywhere? It's where I keep all my stuff anyway.

Because these are the only two options, it can't be that life has a purpose.

So make one. Make one up. Pretend if you have to. Create a whole new world within a world within a world. Show a monkey a dollar. Win awards. Whatever.

Only the shit in question is shit that doesn't exist because you... said so... didn't you?

Yeah, I like the apriori - 'because beans or pancakes are the only two options' thing. Like it's a static state and not constantly reinvented in an infinite dynamic.
Screw that noise. You can't jump into the same river once much less twice. Existence would be intolerable otherwise, no matter how happy one might be. Change is all that is, in that regard.
Life itself seems to be a refined response, a faster material adaptation, to change.
And then there's consciousness, which is even faster.
So it goes.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:04 AM on December 11, 2011


Forty-two! No, that doesn't work.
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:05 AM on December 11, 2011


A musical question deserves a musical answer. [YouTube]
posted by 0rison at 11:25 AM on December 11, 2011


entropy
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 11:26 AM on December 11, 2011


This is my home. My home, MeFi! Where I sleep, where I come to play with my toys.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:09 PM on December 11, 2011


Everytime someone tells me what a color I'm wearing 'means', or what my stance 'means', or what the kind of books I read 'means' ... or any other fluffy-brained extension of a fluffy science ... I thank whatever gods may be for Psych Tod.
posted by Twang at 1:53 PM on December 11, 2011


when I was about six and in the very early stages of my Catholic brainwashing education, I had a sudden "light-bulb moment":

God had no choice about creating the universe. Because if he hadn't created it, then he'd just be the God of nothing.

It therefore seemed plain silly to regard the Creator as prior to and independent of Creation.

I told my parents and teachers about this but none of them seemed to "get" the logic, and simply told me not to be ridiculous. It was the beginning of my realization that religion was incompatible with thinking.
posted by moorooka at 6:21 PM on December 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


I hate all the bullshit facile answers. It's quite clear that this is a real question, and we do not know the answer.
posted by shivohum at 7:22 PM on December 11, 2011


Why is this a real question? How do you know that to be true? Could this preoccupation with Reasons We Are Here not in fact be a major flaw in humanity? How different would human history be if people had never asked themselves this question, decided on answers, and then acted in accordance to their answers to the question?
posted by stinkycheese at 9:44 PM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


"What's for dinner?" is a real question too.

How dare we mock philosophical wankery!!!?
posted by spitbull at 3:34 AM on December 12, 2011


> I hate all the bullshit facile answers. It's quite clear that this is a real question, and we do not know the answer.

And we never will.
posted by The Card Cheat at 6:22 AM on December 12, 2011


How different would human history be if people had never asked themselves this question, decided on answers, and then acted in accordance to their answers to the question?

So what would human history have been if people had never looked to the stars and wondered "What the fuck?"

I doubt you'd even call such a history human anymore.
posted by shivohum at 7:22 AM on December 12, 2011


Introspection, imagination, creativity, experimenting -- all these things are different than posing the question 'why is my species here?' -- in other words, assuming there is some reason for our existence.
posted by stinkycheese at 8:20 AM on December 12, 2011


Introspection, imagination, creativity, experimenting -- all these things are different than posing the question 'why is my species here?' -- in other words, assuming there is some reason for our existence.

They're not separate. The current of intrigue that leads to the former leads always to the latter too. The magic and strangeness of quantum physics or Shakespeare are but token examples of the magic and strangeness that anything exists at all.

The greatest thinkers, poets, scientists, artists, and statesmen all knew the tinted edge of mystery underlying the question of existence. Many felt there was no answer; they nevertheless felt the question keenly. It echoed the nameless Something More towards which they strove. So-called ordinary people also feel it, when they let themselves, and it provides the sense of wonder that makes life enchanting.
posted by shivohum at 9:21 AM on December 12, 2011


It echoed the nameless Something More towards which they strove.

With lines like that you seem to be making the opposite argument. The question, "Why anything?" is pervasive in large part because it's vague; you can therefore use it as an echo of your personal nameless Something More, even if that Something More actually has a name, like "Republic" or "Tempest" or "Gravitational Constant".
posted by LogicalDash at 12:29 PM on December 12, 2011


OK, how about a serious answer:

We are a cosmic accident. I am completely serious. We are the end result of quintillions of random collisions and a basic universe structure which might recur randomly itself; the reason the Universe supports life is that, if it did not, there would be no life within it to wonder how it came to exist.

The basic ideas of patriarchal religion are obsolete, but the reasons haven't gotten traction with the masses yet; we are in the very early days of this new Enlightenment. Is the creator always greater than what it creates? Tell that to the Mandelbrot Fractal. Does the creator always have perfect power over what it creates? Tell that to every computer that has ever crashed.

Life is active. Humans did not have the experience of creating such active things until we invented computers. What we have found in the experience of using these machines is that active things can surprise their own creators, surpass them in some ways (Quick, what's the square root of 27399?), and if the structure of the Universe is itself only very minimally active it can lead to unbelievably complex structures arising spontaneously. (Calling Dr. Wolfram, Dr. Wolfram to the philosophy module STAT.)

Patriarchal religion was itself a similar phase change from the previous matriarchal / goddess based model, in which the Universe and most things in it were thought to be birthed. This is really a much more sensible model because only an idiot would think any mother has perfect control over whether or what she gives birth to; a slight woman can parent a powerful man or a savant much smarter than herself.

In the patriarchal model though the universe and things within it are made, as if by a carpenter or blacksmith, and everyone knows a bad carpenter will make a crooked chair.

In the coming model things will still be made, but they will be made like computers with an active capacity that can expand and surprise the creator. The answer to the question "why does life exist" need be no more complicated than "because in this particular universe, probably for totally random reasons, energy gradients could power active growth and evolution." No other reason is necessary or likely.

The only problem with this explanation is that people generally don't like it because they'd rather feel we are a special snowflake of purpose and destiny. But we've got fossils of lots of species that probably thought they were the baddest motherfuckers around, and we will end up like them too. Probably a lot sooner than they did if we don't figure out a more harmonious way of living together in a finite space.
posted by localroger at 5:07 PM on December 12, 2011


"What the fuck?" and "How the fuck?" are very different, in my book, from "Why the fuck?".

Unlike the first two, answers to "Why the fuck?" are often used to justify really shitty actions by people.
posted by benito.strauss at 6:57 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


There's no use in wondering why we're here. Here we are. Life is. The question worth asking is "What am I going to make of it?"
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:03 PM on December 12, 2011


We are a cosmic accident. I am completely serious.

You're welcome to believe this if it satisfies you, I guess. To me it rings as absolutely hollow as anything I can think of. It's an evasion that gives the appearance of certainty, like eating mud instead of food to feel temporarily sated.

"What the fuck?" and "How the fuck?" are very different, in my book, from "Why the fuck?".

In the end they lead to exactly the same place. What the universe is is inextricably connected to why it is, because what a thing is is connected to its origin, and that is precisely what a why seeks to investigate.

Unlike the first two, answers to "Why the fuck?" are often used to justify really shitty actions by people.

"What the fuck is the right way to live?" has also been used to justify shitty actions. Does that mean we give up thinking about morality and values? Anything beautiful has been abused. Doesn't mean we live in an ugly, mundane world because it's "safe." Anyway, it wouldn't be.

There's no use in wondering why we're here.

Is beauty useful? Then wondering about this is useful.
posted by shivohum at 7:12 PM on December 12, 2011


To me it rings as absolutely hollow as anything I can think of. It's an evasion that gives the appearance of certainty, like eating mud instead of food to feel temporarily sated.

Well, you're welcome to feel that. But it's not an evasion. Randomness is really much more interesting than it sounds. I know something about this. The casino industry paid off my house. I spent eight years hanging around in dens of randomness and observing what randomness looks like, and how it affects people.

Randomness looks purposeful to humans. It is a consistent perceptual defect. And the search for meaning in life is no different from the search for a streak at the Roulette wheel.
posted by localroger at 7:25 PM on December 12, 2011


Randomness looks purposeful to humans. It is a consistent perceptual defect. And the search for meaning in life is no different from the search for a streak at the Roulette wheel.

I think this is an improper analogy between randomness in day-to-day life and randomness as an explanation for the universe itself. They're quite incomparable.

See, even the randomness of a Roulette wheel is only random from the point of view of the ordinary person. In theory, the ball falls where it does because of the laws of physics.

The laws themselves depend on quantum physics, and ultimately, in QM, whether some particle goes left or right is a function of probability states. Given that there are different probability states, why is one chosen and not another? Who is spinning the roulette wheel of the universe? The laws of physics, yet again? They're not an explanation: they're what we're trying to explain. Or perhaps there are many worlds, and in each world a different probability state was selected. Ok, then why are we in this universe and not another? It's random? Again, that's just what we're trying to explain: among random outcomes, what determines which is chosen at any particular moment?

So we come to see that randomness is not an explanation: it's merely an admission that we think something is inexplicable, and that we are not interested in ever being able to explain it.
posted by shivohum at 7:39 PM on December 12, 2011


Who is spinning the roulette wheel of the universe?

What you don't seem to get is that maybe the Universe is the Roulette wheel.
posted by localroger at 7:42 PM on December 12, 2011


Oh: among random outcomes, what determines which is chosen at any particular moment?

If the random outcome happens to be incompatible with life, we wouldn't be here arguing about it.
posted by localroger at 7:44 PM on December 12, 2011


Is beauty useful? Then wondering about this is useful.

Yeah, that was glib. I wonder at beauty almost continuously. I go nuts when it comes to the why, and have decided I'm okay with "because," and I'm grateful -- thanks, universe, for beauty. To me the more important question is application. How do I fit in to all this, since it's here? It's hard for me to put concisely into words, and that attempt kinda failed.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:06 PM on December 12, 2011


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