One of the most famous philosophers of the 20th century, ironically, thought that the discipline of philosophy was mostly useless.
Over the years, Ludwig Wittgenstein studied logic at Cambridge University, taught in Eastern Europe, built his own secluded house, and served in both of the World Wars. And yet, disgruntingly, he found that the work of philosophy was the only work that brought him true joy.
In Philosophical Investigations, he tore down his own old theory of language that he had built from the ground up a few decades earlier to make the case that the way we use language means it doesn’t perfectly represent objects in the real world — rather, language finds meaning in use.
When my friends and I sit around a campfire looking away at the stars, pondering the mysteries of the Universe, we’re not really talking about truth, even if we, say, bring up physics; no, we are merely playing a language-game with each other that helps us better relate to one another. This is, of course, simplified, but that’s the general idea.
“What is your aim in philosophy?” Wittgenstein asked. “To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.” To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle means that language is an assistant in life, a meaning-making device, not the prime judge of what is good, or what is true, in and of itself.
As you can imagine, this has tremendous implications. We can talk about facts and opinions all day, but if the language we use to discuss these things itself is suspect, if it loses part of its legibility in translation, then pretty much everything that we say about the world must be treated with caution.
Cherished ideas of truth, and what constitutes reality, and what has meaning — all of these have to be, first, explored in the context of how we use these ideas when we talk about them with other people.
Wittgenstein argued that when we take a step back and see these language games for what they are, we would be able to move on with our life — move on without getting stuck in philosophical puzzles, or the big questions of life and death, and simply live our day to day life in a meaningful way.
But if the Capital-T truth can’t be the foundation of life, if the use of language entails this kind of uncertainty, what does it actually mean to live in a meaningful way as a matter of practice?
The Problem of Viewing Life as a Game
One of the wonderful things about science is that, fundamentally, it respects the inherent uncertainty of the world. True science never makes grand claims about The Answer — it’s a process of creating better and better experiments to keep reaching for a truth that we can never quite grasp.
In many ways, in fact, the process of science mirrors evolution. Evolution, too, respects the uncertainty of the world, the environment for which it fine-tunes its species, and it does this by using those species as experiments to see which ones will better fit a particular environment.
In the practice of science, experiments create results that confirm or deny an idea. Old ideas die as time disproves them. Evolution creates species that also confirm or deny a fit to the environment. If a species is a good fit, it survives. If it is not, it dies out competing for limited resources.
From this vantage point, both the life of ideas and the life of species is a game, with winners and losers, time being the great destroyer. We can scale this up to the level of history, where this pattern plays out in wars fought and in intellectual revolutions brought forth, but we can see the same pattern at the smaller scale of our day to day lives, where old ideas give way to new ideas about how to collectively live together, where for me to get a promotion at work, chances are, I will have to outcompete you.
In a world devoid of absolute truths, games are about a particular kind of progress — they are about winning. Even the language games we play, as Wittgenstein would say, are often about winning. Most people don’t care about truth or what is right as a matter of principle even if they claim they do; subconsciously, they want the reward that comes with being more right than the person they are talking to. They want to be better. They care about winning, which is why most debates are futile.
If we ignore the messiness of philosophy and just live our lives as they present themselves to us as Wittgenstein argued, then this hyper-rational scientific and evolutionary lens is the first and most obvious vision we have to find our place in. What is meaningful in this sense is how well we play the game, how well we survive, how much we conquer. But here is the thing about games: They always end. There is no such thing as beating the game.
Your idea might die before mine in the minds of scientists, but if we all do our job well, then mine will eventually die, too. You might make more money than me, or live a little longer, maybe even win an argument or two as we face-off, but like me, you, too, will one day die.
We all die, and as long as we view life as a game, we lose by default. The details of victories here and there matter far less than this simple truth.
The Delusion of Making Life a Drama
Before our current age of science and reason, before the idea that atheism could itself be a banner under which groups of people could come together to compete against the belief in God, life was broadly a drama.
Given how many diverse ways of thinking we have today, we tend to forget that the past was quite different from what we know today — not just in the material sense that we have more technology and that the world outside looks different, but in the sense that our ideas and our language games were so different from today that we literally perceived a different world.
Before the Age of Enlightenment came along and began to encroach on the authority of God and his religion in the West, before we imagined life as a game of evolution, before science itself became a kind of authority, reality — to the average person living in the world in, say, the 14th or 15th century — was more like a larger drama in which the individual had a small part than it was a world dictated by some objective facts of nature.
Back then, we didn’t have physics or biology to explain how things worked. Instead, we relied on metaphors and stories passed down through mythologies and traditions to help us make sense of what was going on around us. And given that these stories were larger than we were, we simply became participants. A disease back then wasn’t caused by a virus or an infection messing with our cells, but it was caused by, say, misbehavior — a moral punishment dished out by some supernatural force.
It’s easy to perhaps laugh at the obvious superstition here, but the truth is that most of us, if we hadn’t been born into the current culture, would likely have believed these stories, too. There weren’t many other alternatives.
In fact, we still believe stories not too dissimilar to these. We tell ourselves stories about our past. We tell ourselves stories about our future. We tell ourselves stories about our family and our work. We can never quite understand the sheer complexity of our lives, just as people in the past couldn’t understand the complexity of the Universe, so we use these stories as shortcuts to make sense of what is happening and why it is happening.
While stories themselves are important, a source of individual and shared meanings, seeing the world as a drama inherently tethers at the edge of delusion. It creates explanations where there are none, and it thrives on some sort of conflict, whether that be a conflict of good and evil, or left and right, or religion or non-religion, or something else.
If the hyper-rationalist proposition of life as a game is a losing battle, which defeats its rationality, then the overly irrational proposition that life is a drama can’t thrive without conflict in which you must be a participant.
A Better Way
If you dig deep enough into all of the grand questions of meaning, truth, and uncertainty, they all find their root in our abstracted away fear of death.
Someday, this will all end, and if so, what’s the point? Once we realize this, whether consciously or unconsciously, we begin the march towards The Answer that philosophers have done since the dawn of time. It was this march that Wittgenstein argued was ultimately futile because it doesn’t have a certain resolution, which just brings us back to where we started.
And if we are exactly where we started, once we put away the language games, we just see the raw experience of our reality as it is rather than trying to grapple with it in incomplete words and theories. But experience makes two things apparent, neither of which seem satisfactory, either. We end up having to choose between life as a game or life as a drama — both incomplete modes of living. What then? Is there a better way?
At Cambridge, one of Wittgenstein’s mentors was the great philosopher Bertrand Russell, and in writing about growing old, he had something to say about the process, which seems to hint at a different approach:
“The best way to overcome [the fear of death] — so at least it seems to me — is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being.”
Life as a game finds meaning in doing something to the experience. Life as a drama finds meaning in interpreting away the uncertainty under the guise of some larger and grander conflict. Both of these have their place. But ultimately, in order to appreciate the fullness of our being, the experience itself has to become the end, and once it becomes the end, then the point is just to better merge with what is, fully and completely, until it ends.
There is a wide spectrum of consciousness that we are capable of experiencing, infinite in the complexity of its detail, unlimited in the variety that it offers to our thoughts and our senses. And as humans, we are merely a sponge, not here to play games or to interpret stories but to absorb — starting from nothing and slowly reaching towards everything.
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