This is the second part of a series on the Purpose of Life.
There is a lot of science fiction that portrays a dystopian world in which people are controlled by through mind-control drugs and psychological manipulation. Brave New World comes to mind. Often the average person is superficially happy, but so drugged up or deceived as to not experience what the author considers true happiness.
But if we consider traditional progress to be the sum of all joy or happiness, divided by the sum of all suffering– or we use a similar but more sophisticated formula– such a pacified society doesn’t look so bad. (This is the perspective of the philosophy of Utilitarianism. Buddhism has a similar perspective.)
Science is getting better all the time at understanding people’s motivations. Advertisers understand what motivates children (and adults) better than all but the most educated parents. One might argue that we are sliding willingly into a dystopian world. I don’t think so, and not simply because humans have been evolving to manipulate other humans for millennia.
There are three things missing in a dystopian world that aren’t captured in Utilitarianism: truth, freedom, and aspiration. We cringe from happiness that is disconnected from reality, and we prefer to suffer in pursuit of something we choose than to enjoy superficial pleasures. There are still plenty of people willing and able to go against the grain.
In a free society, people are free to invent. While any particular technical pursuit can flourish under a regime that decides to support it, disruptive technologies and ideas can only come from societies that allow– or even encourage– disruption. That’s why even as China adds more scientists and obtains more patents, the next world-changing technology (like the Internet or cell phone) won’t come from there.
So progress includes happiness and the elimination of suffering. It also requires freedom to invent and thereby disrupt the status quo. But can we come up with a definition of progress that’s complete enough to be a modern-day Meaning of Life? I’ll explore that idea later.
This is part two in a series on The Purpose of Life.