1: Harvard Professor and author Steven Pinker has been asked some strange questions.
Over the past several decades, he has delivered public lectures on language, mind, and human nature. He’s been asked: “Which is the best language?” “Are clams and oysters conscious?” “When will I be able to upload my mind to the Internet?” “Is obesity a form of violence?”
2: The most arresting question ever directed at him followed a talk on how mental life consists of patterns of activity in the tissues of the brain. A student in the audience raised her hand and asked: “Why should I live?”
“The student’s ingenuous tone made it clear that she was neither suicidal nor sarcastic,” he writes in Enlightenment Now. She was genuinely curious.
“Explaining the meaning of life is not in the usual job description of a professor of cognitive science,” he recalls. His stated policy is there are no stupid questions. Still, “I would not have had the gall to take up her question if the answer depended on my arcane technical knowledge or my dubious personal wisdom,” notes Steven.
So, “to the surprise of the student, the audience, and most of all myself, I mustered a reasonably creditable answer,” In doing so, he channeled the body of beliefs, values, and ideals of the Enlightenment.
3: “What I recall saying—embellished, to be sure, by the distortions of memory,” he remembers, “went something like this: In the very act of asking that question, you are seeking reasons for your convictions, and so you are committed to reason as the means to discover and justify what is important to you.
“And there are so many reasons to live!
“As a sentient being, you have the potential to flourish. You can refine your faculty of reason itself by learning and debating. You can seek explanations of the natural world through science, and insight into the human condition through the arts and humanities.
“You can make the most of your capacity for pleasure and satisfaction, which allowed your ancestors to thrive and thereby allowed you to exist. You can appreciate the beauty and richness of the natural and cultural world.
“As the heir to billions of years of life perpetuating itself, you can perpetuate life in turn. You have been endowed with a sense of sympathy—the ability to like, love, respect, help, and show kindness—and you can enjoy the gift of mutual benevolence with friends, family, and colleagues.
“And because reason tells you that none of this is particular to you, you have the responsibility to provide to others what you expect for yourself. You can foster the welfare of other sentient beings by enhancing life, health, knowledge, freedom, abundance, safety, beauty, and peace. History shows that when we sympathize with others and apply our ingenuity to improving the human condition, we can make progress in doing so, and you can help to continue that progress.”
Amen to all of that!
Reflection: Reflect on the meaning and purpose of my life.
Action: Set aside time to write a purpose statement: Why am I here?