Sunday Long Read: On Purpose by Shiv Socrates
Reflections on purpose
A graduate of The Wharton School, Shiv's experience ranges from Consumer Packaged Goods Sales to Technology Investment Banking across India and the US. He has been part of our community from the beginning and conducted a fascinating masterclass on Web 3 trends. To learn from interesting professionals like Shiv, you may want to subscribe to Network Capital.
I’ve been bothered by the Purpose question—and if you extrapolate it, the God / Higher Power question— pretty much my entire adult life. I’d moved away from religion for over a decade and recently decided to return to it.
The framing that stilled my mind on this question was to take a non-human-centric view of life. If I do that, the answer’s pretty clear—the purpose of all life is to live (in the vein of Boyd Varty’s seeking “aliveness” mantra). Your pets don’t worry about this stuff, and neither does the broccoli I imagine.
Consciousness is a human burden (for now at least, pre-Planet-of-the-AGI) and the intellect is its most pliant tool. Naturally, we default to it, crowding out our other faculties. Nowhere is this captured better than in a pithy koan from a made-up religion in a Vonnegut book:
Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly,
Man got to wonder why, why, why.
Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land,
Man got to tell himself he understand.
Man can wonder all he wants, but ultimately, has to be satisfied with not knowing. I applied this realization to actively cut off the intellect past a certain threshold. The intellect dissects, and to dissect living things is to kill them. The state that I needed to strive towards instead was awareness.
Prioritizing experience over the intellect. To simply, be. (I’m not claiming success yet.) Gun to my head, I don’t believe life was created for a reason or that it has any purpose except the tautological one above.
Life sprang up and then grew from there. Maybe the rules and the initial parameters of that primordial soup were set by a Creator. Who knows anyway; throw it in the “too hard” pile, Warren.
That life exists to live, does seem to play out at a cellular level as well—we are but vessels and genes drive our behavior in a way that maximizes their own survival and propagation. As humans, much of what we do on this earth can be bucketed under those two categories. If there is a purpose, it is to live and spread more life. Not an exciting answer I know. But if you want a more colorful perspective, have George Carlin suggest to you that the answer to the age-old philosophical question of why we’re here on this earth is... “PLASTIC” (best 8 minutes you'll spend on YouTube this week).
Last, to drive home the non-human-centric view. Tim Urban has these two posts contrasting humans against the incomprehensible vastness of time and space. Go read them. He’s also got a mobile app where you can zoom in and out to get a feel for the relative dimensions. Spend ten minutes playing with it and tell me if you feel like WE are special or if WE were put HERE for a PURPOSE (I’m not shouting lol, just emphasizing how blown away I was contemplating my existence on those scales. Sampler: if the Earth were the height of a real-life human, Mount Everest would be less than a couple of millimeters in height. How tall does that make YOU, big man?).So, why should I care about anything, if the lines are made up and the points don’t matter? Shouldn’t I just mope around all day about the meaninglessness of it all like the Goth kids in South Park?
Well, that’s where the choose-your-own-adventure stuff comes in. And the ability to give it your own meaning. It then feels kind of dumb to not select the most fun combination of those. If in the long run, we’re all dead anyway, let’s at least have some fun before we get there. Not for the first time is Seinfeld’s philosophy appropriate— life is a show and it’s about nothing.
“Fun” isn’t dissociated from achievement by the way, which does matter to me (and I imagine to a bunch of folks on here). Longevity is the true differentiator for the GOATs in any field and it’s a lot easier to show up consistently over a long enough timeline if you’re having fun.Watch what Elvis said (not what he did)—“Listen easy, you can hear God calling.” Create the space to observe your mind, identify what fun looks like, and then go do it. The set of things that’s fun also tends to be surprisingly small, if you boil it down to core human needs —autonomy/variety, progress/mastery, belonging/meaning. Takes some form of more time with family, friends, pets, nature, giving, and constructive work. If you’re still here(!), that left only the question of God for me—do I need to believe in an omniscient Creator if everything else I believe in points to randomness/evolution? The intellectual argument leads to Pascal’s wager.
But that didn’t cut it for me emotionally. What then? I decided to try living my life again as if there is a God and see if I could depend on Him from time to time. I’m a few months in now, and it has helped.
First, it put me back in touch with my childhood, immersed in stories from the Indian epics.
Second, that safety net seemed to balance me (not unlike goodwill on a balance sheet lol; yes, God is a “plug”, and I’m not even kidding).
Ultimately, you have to choose the premise that empowers you - steeped in “reality” or not.
You might even need that touch of “delusion” to attempt hard things, and to keep going when it no longer makes sense to. Science, its incredible gifts notwithstanding, is still in its infancy. Physicists will admit that they don’t understand the nature of reality (our models just about apply to the 6% that’s observable; 94% of the Universe is anointed “dark matter” and “dark energy”, aka a plug, aka Shiva in Hindu philosophy, which literally translates to “that which is not”). Physics, in a certain sense, has more in common today with Eastern mystics than it does with Sir Isaac Newton.
I referenced The Selfish Gene up top—Dawkins is right a lot, but also I believe misguided in his interpretation of religion in literal terms, regardless of whether you believe in God. You read these stories not for their facts, but for their truths. Returning to God has put me in touch with these truths again, which has been valuable. I reserve the right to change my mind of course, but at long last— Kids, this is the story of how I rediscovered my Maker. :)
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