If we’re looking for wisdom, the lyrics of George Clinton’s outrageous funk bands may not be the obvious place to start. But what Funkadelic’s lyrics exemplify is not some deep truth about the universe, but the popular appeal of the vague and varying idea that the way to enlightenment requires some kind of freeing of your mind. The idea may be traceable back to eastern philosophies such as Buddhism, but its grip on the western imagination has probably more to do with the 1960s and psychedelia. The meaning of life is not to be found by earnestly thinking it through, but by chilling out, opening your mind and letting go of your ego. Attune yourself to the rhythms of the universe and, assuming they are funky rhythms, ‘your ass will follow’. As I have suggested, one problem with examining this possibility is that it is not a single idea at all, but a jumble of ideas from Buddhism, mysticism, 1960s counter-culture, new-age mumbo-jumbo and self-help. A recurring theme, however, is that the key is loss of ego, the loosening of the grip we have on our own sense of self in favour of some kind of surrender to wider reality. The thought is that rather than see the meaning of life as being about what purpose I can achieve, whether I can be happy or content, or how good a life I lead, we should see it as being about learning to care less about this ‘I’ altogether. So we don’t so much solve the problem of ‘Why am I here?’ as dissolve it by learning to see that such egocentric questions should not be asked. By freeing our minds, we see that ‘I’ becomes unimportant. My concern here is not to deal with every major variant of this idea but to consider some of the most general issues the broad approach raises. This method does have limitations, which I will discuss in a section on narrowing your mind. My strategy is simply to ask how such a view could be the key to the meaning of life. Two answers suggest themselves. The first is that it reflects a basic truth, namely that the self does not really exist. So in learning to detach from our sense of self we become more in tune with the true nature of reality. The other possibility is that the self is real, but that, paradoxical though it may sound, the way for the self to find meaning is for it to care less about itself. By considering these two very general possibilities, we can go a long way towards measuring the potential of this diverse set of views to provide meaning to life.
When Descartes famously sat down to see what truths were beyond
all doubt, he ended up with just the one: that he was an existing, thinking thing. In his Discourse on Method, he wrote, ‘I observed that
this truth, I think, therefore I am, was so certain and of such evidence
that no ground of doubt, however extravagant, could be alleged by
the sceptics capable of shaking it.’ If Descartes is right, then not
only is the existence of the self certain, it is the most certain thing
of all, because all else can at least be doubted. One cannot,
however, doubt the existence of the self, because in the very act of
doubting, the self declares itself. ‘I doubt I exist’ can only be thought
if there is an ‘I’ which is doing the doubting.
If Descartes is right, then the idea that we should detach
ourselves from our egos because the self is a kind of illusion is
plainly false. The self is not illusory but the most certain feature of
reality. Is it possible, however, that Descartes is wrong? Many have
thought so. The main problem is that Descartes is certain of too
much. When he thinks, all he is really entitled to be certain of is
that there is thinking going on. He is not entitled to conclude that
this thinking is indicative of the presence of a real self or soul.
The criticism was made incisively by the great Scottish
philosopher David Hume, who reported his own failure to replicate
Descartes’s sense of certainty when he tried to capture himself
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