by Derek Williams
Age 56. Long Beach, CA
What most would think of as a purpose in life, I can’t say I’ve found. I have, however, discovered anti-purpose, which is perhaps more useful.
Once you start reflecting upon a few difficult questions, it is doubtful that you will emerge with anything other than more questions: What does it mean for an object to exist that does not take up space? Can an object exist in space and not have duration in time? Why can’t I detect the origin of my thoughts? If I see a pattern to my past behavior, did I really have free will? How can we sensibly define what is meant by the greatest good for the greatest number? What is motivating me to write this letter?
Introspection can help develop humility and an appreciation of what you don’t know, and to know what you don’t know is valuable knowledge indeed.
Rather than leaving you with a feeling of helplessness, introspection can help develop humility and an appreciation of what you don’t know, and to know what you don’t know is valuable knowledge indeed. This is what I’m calling anti-purpose. It is an appreciation that there is no external measure to gauge any endeavor as more purposeful than another. I want to leave this planet having done more good than harm….I doubt, however, that I will ever learn to appreciate the virtues of modern music and golf.
This could be called my moral compass. It can be somewhat feeble at times and rather generic, but it does help. Interests I’ve developed are purposeful for no other reason than they satisfy me. I enjoy origami for instance. I love seeing the paper transform into something that didn’t seem possible. This pursuit has no particular rhyme or reason, I find it greatly satisfying though. I often fix computers and appliances for neighbors even though, in most cases, it would be less expensive to buy a new one. It’s just kind of fun, up to a point.
Here is the anti-purpose: I don’t think any of these interests would be half as satisfying if I had not developed a sense of how ridiculous most interests are.
Here is the anti-purpose: I don’t think any of these interests would be half as satisfying if I had not developed a sense of how ridiculous most interests are. My job as a programmer is much more satisfying when I think about the futility and silliness of pushing words and numbers all over everywhere and back again.
Some years ago, a physics professor (Dr. Ayison) was influential in setting me along this somewhat existential path. He graduated from Princeton with a 4.0 GPA, made original contributions to research in harmonic motion in musical instruments. He played in an early music ensemble, and I don’t know what else. What bothered me about him was that he seemed quite normal. I mean, how can someone that bright and accomplished not be weird? He had a photo on his desk of his wife, he was extraordinarily patient (I know because I tested his patience more than once), he kept up with current affairs. What’s more, he nearly always wore a smile. In lectures I would stare at him thinking “c’mon you wear ladies underwear, or you pull legs off spiders or something.” I never did find anything off kilter about professor Ayison.
It was the first time I realized that you could know a lot of stuff, be extremely bright and still be, for want of a better word, normal.
“You can’t get anywhere without definitions.”
I was once talking to Dr. Ayison about an assignment: Somewhere along the line he said “you can’t get anywhere without definitions.” Nothing too profound I suppose, but it occurred to me how many discussions I had been in where no definitions were established. A friend would often entice me into a discussion about whether computers could think like humans. After going round in circles for hours, I realized that we never defined what we meant by thought, or thinking. We certainly didn’t define what we meant by the word “like”. Did we mean similar to, resembles, exactly the same?
You don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t think anyone else knows. Who’s turn to buy the beer?
I realized then how difficult it is to come up with definitions for many discussions, and it was around this time that I developed my personal philosophy which goes like this: You don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t think anyone else knows. Who’s turn to buy the beer? I was quite proud of this at the time. It only took me about 7 years to develop, and it is better than say Kant’s categorical imperative, or Descartes “I thin
k therefore I am.” After all, their ideas don’t even have the word beer in them.
This philosophy worked well for a number of years until, about a year ago when I realized that it is always my turn to buy the beer. I’m currently working on a solution to this problem and expect to have an answer in about six years.