“The whole point of knowledge is to produce both meaning and purpose in our personal lives.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?
This post considers three areas of knowledge that attempt to produce ‘meaning and purpose’ in our lives.
Religious Knowledge Systems: religions, especially the monotheistic ones, promote the idea that the universe has a specific design which is conceived and executed by a higher power. It is this design that gives ‘meaning and purpose’ to our lives. Meaning comes from the dualistic conception of the self – we are both flesh and soul, but it is the soul which must be nurtured while the flesh is merely functional and houses the soul for a short while. In this life, the soul is to be made ready for the after-life in which it can exist either in God’s paradise or Satan’s hell. This brings us to the purpose of life: while each individual is given a personal will, it’s up to us to merge this will with the higher Will of God. This is what prepares the soul for the after-life. Those who deviate from God’s Will take the path of evil; those who conform, take the path of good. See how this religious narrative carries within it a wide range of moral values and ritualistic elements that shape our day to day lives from the moment we are born. Out of this narrative are born ethical systems such as deontology (eg ‘The Ten Commandments’) and artistic traditions (eg. medieval iconography), as well as culturally evolved groups based around different faiths. What happens when one group’s perception of the meaning and purpose of life clashes with another groups perception of meaning and purpose? Is there a meaning and purpose we can all share? (Some would argue that ‘science’ gives us such a meaning and purpose…)
Indigenous Knowledge Systems: indigenous tribes gave us creation myths to shape our day to day lives with meaning and purpose. These narratives accounted for the origins of the universe and many of them reveal a deep connection between man, animals and the environment. The thread running through these creation stories is the idea of ‘interconnectedness’: the fates of every living creature are linked in an unpredictable environment. Meaning comes from imposing a coherent story to make sense of the apparently random cycles of life and death; purpose comes from devising rituals to create balance between harmony or chaos in the environment. Much of this knowledge is handed down the generations through the oral tradition and guarded by individuals specially raised and trained to minister it to other members of the community. In this sense, indigenous knowledge and religious knowledge seem to be the same thing: a way of organising society according to a set of, what many scientists would now call, superstitious beliefs. A potential problem of this approach to knowledge is, of course, how do we know that the ministers of this knowledge aren’t abusing it…?
Science & technology: Those of you who are hooked to your computer games will know how sometimes you get so involved in the game that the distinction between virtual reality and reality itself becomes blurred. Just reflect on how sometimes your dreams are so powerful that when you initially wake up, you still feel as though you’re in the dream. Now what would happen if we could harness this power of imaginative engagement with virtual or dream worlds and use it to shape our personal lives in a purposeful and meaningful way. Well, scientists have developed virtual reality technologies to such an extent that it can be used in such a way. The military have been doing this for years with flight simulators and now chicken farmers can use technology to give their birds the illusion of wandering happily in a field, when in fact they continue to be caged. Why? In an attempt to use a cost effective method of producing ‘free range’ yet factory farmed eggs…Think ‘The Matrix’ (gone mad!). And yet, is this so farfetched? Star Trek’s idea of a ‘holodeck’ showed us the vast possibilities of virtual reality for entertainment purposes; today, the proliferation of online roleplaying games suggests that many people find more meaning and purpose in their simulations and simulated universe than in the physical universe of their day to day lives. In fact, Bob the builder feels he is more himself in the sim version of Bob the dragonslayer, than he is in his mundane, poorly paid job of fixing the plumbing for a living. What does this tell us about the nature of technological knowledge through which such games are constructed…?