I have gotten a lot of good advice over my lifetime.  Two pieces of advice that I have gotten from people over the years are on interacting with people:

  1. Put yourself in their shoes to see how they may be approaching the issue.
  2. Make sure you agree on the problem you are trying to solve before looking for solutions.

Honestly, I forget to take these into account almost all of the time, since I am human and deeply flawed. But, at the best of times, I try to step away from the situation and take this advice.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have struggled with trying to make sense of how our country can be so divided. I have been thinking about this a lot. I am not sure that I have any great answers, but I wanted to share my thoughts.

To understand other people, you fundamentally have to put yourself in their shoes and then ask, what problem they are trying to solve. I have come to think of this as asking “what is the purpose of life”, not from my own perspective, but from someone else’s perspective. The reason that I think that this is the fundamental question is because I feel like it drives us all.  We all want things.  If you believe that the purpose is to do great things, then you might be an extremely driven person who pushes for innovation and change.  If you believe that there is no purpose in life, then you may just settle for whatever comes your way.

I struggle a lot with this question of purpose. I can see why people have vastly different beliefs on the purpose of life, since I don’t feel like there is a truly correct answer. Here are some of the answers I have come up with:

  • We are all members of a single species. The most important thing that we can do is improve conditions for all of humanity. This means that we should be working towards improving conditions for people across the globe. Borders should not matter.
  • We are part of the United States of America. We should work on improving conditions in the USA and making sure that the citizens of the USA have access to the best of everything. Other countries’ interests are not really our concern.
  • We are part of a tribe. This tribe may be our local town, our local state, our university, our business, people who look like us, people who believe what we believe, or whatever. There is a subgroup of people who are more important than others. These people should be elevated without full consideration of how this affects other tribes. The most important thing is the success of the tribe.
  • We are part of a family. This family unit is the most important thing and should be preserved at all costs.
  • There is nothing more important than my personal wellbeing and pleasure at this moment. You could argue that this is follows from the statement “there is absolutely no purpose in life, so nothing really matters except me.”
  • In order to live beyond death, we need to create a legacy that will survive us. This legacy could be a great work of art or engineering or science or whatever, or it may be being a leader of something.

A few thoughts about this list:

  • From bottom to top, this list is just an increasing of the number of people who are included in the group of people who are important to help.
  • I think (hope?) that most people think that all of these things are important, but to varying degrees that change, sometimes dramatically, as situations change. Large world disasters, such as the Tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people in Indonesia, unite the world. After 9/11, we went full on USA. We were pretty united. As time passes, and there are no uniting events, we separate more and more into different tribes.
  • This is very Darwinian. The survival of self is the most important thing. The survival of our offspring is the second most important thing.  The survival of our tribe helps our own DNA survive. The survival of our country helps our tribe to survive, which helps our DNA survive. The survival of our species is obviously important at an etherial level, but, when push comes to shove, people will act to save their own. We are genetically encoded to act this way. It is very hard to fight Darwin.
  • I personally think that liberals tend to think that the purpose of life is more global, while conservatives think that the purpose of life is more local. This is why liberals think of global warming as a serious threat, while conservatives don’t really care – global warming is not going to hurt us, it will hurt people who are not in the USA the hardest and our children’s children after that. (There is also the thought that we will simply engineer a solution to the problem, but that is another post.) This is fundamentally why liberals can’t engage with conservatives on the problem of global warming – their purposes don’t align at all.
  • I don’t think that there are fundamentally different camps in the world, where some people fundamentally believe in one thing and others fundamentally believe something completely different.  I think that there is a large bell curve, where the vast majority of people believe (or act upon) something in the middle, with fewer and fewer people towards the edges. (I happen to be way over on one edge, but I need to understand that I am not “normal”.)
  • Religion provides a guidebook on the purpose of life. I have a lot to say on this subject, but I won’t say it here.
  • This doesn’t say anything at all about how to accomplish the goals or act on the purpose.  That is a 100% different discussion.

So, what to do with this realization? First, I would suggest to talk to people about their fundamental core beliefs instead of how they want to act. If we can agree on the core beliefs, we can then move on to discuss actions, but until we are all talking about hitting the same target, it doesn’t make sense to discuss what direction we should be shooting in.

The second piece of advise that I would have (for myself included) is that when we make arguments for or against something, we need to think about the other person’s core beliefs.  The arguments must align with their beliefs, or else they will land on deaf ears. For example, arguing that they should give something up to help people in another country doesn’t make sense for people who think on a more local scale. Or, arguing that we should elect a woman for president when they care about why their town’s economy has been decimated by businesses moving out makes no sense. The message was not addressing their core purpose. It was addressing our own.



About aaronridley

Professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Climate and Space Science and Engineering.
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2 Responses to Purpose

  1. Eric Donovan says:

    Hi Aaron. Thank you for your interesting post.

    I agree with most of what you say, above. I believe too that there is a larger issue that hampers our ability to come together as a people, species (we may not end up as one species, by the way… researchers are watching as the Killer Whales seem to be evolving into two different species… but we might be better united if we chose sentience as the defining quality, rather than “usness” to invent a term), or tribe. Yes you as a nation came together after 9/11… but then it was also true that some leaders (or even all) used this as a way of advancing their agenda. The big example was going in to Iraq, when that had nothing to do with 9/11, and when there was not the evidence re WMD. So when leaders use unifying events to advance their own agendas, it erodes the ability of people to unify. Unification ultimately leads to subversion of values one holds dear.

    At UCalgary, we have a new Dean of Science. She leads to serve, in the truest sense. For the first time in my life, I feel well led. I feel I can invest time and it will move “us” forward, and not just advance the career of my “dedicated” leader. It’s a powerful thing, but also, sadly, quite rare.
    Also, the idea of selfless leadership is a red herring. By “leading to serve” I mean she is advancing her career by being a dedicated leader who is serving our Faculty. It’s not selfless, but she is advancing her own agenda by advancing ours. I think this confused the masses about Hillary. Obviously she is very ambitious, and those ambitions include amassing great wealth, but from my perspective, she is ding this through serving in ways that really matter. You would have gotten universal health care had you chosen Hillary. Now she’ll probably return to serving the world… your loss… our gain.

    I think we need to change our values. Happiness should be a goal… we should want everyone to be happy. It’s hard to convince happy people to be suicide bombers, and to cause pain and suffering to others. Happy people want the world to be and to *stay* good. Happy people are more empathetic. Apparently this is not just Pollyanna-ish thinking, but is supported by scientific evidence. Also, something strange has happened in the west… the Tea Party is the quintessential example of what I speak of but this goes way beyond them… people have come to distrust educated people and embrace ignorance. We need people need to be savvy, and to have the ability to be smart for themselves, and so we need people to be well educated. This is the irony of the Alt Right…. yes, it is probably true that I do want to take your guns away (I hate guns), but it is equally true that the Alt Right wants to take away your ability to think for yourself. You can hold a gun gun your hand… it’s tangible… and if you ignore the fact that it’s more likely to be used against you than by you in an altercation you an see it as a way of defending yourself, your family, and your property. But those things are under threat more insidiously and continuously by things that can only be defended against with reason…. and the tendency to embrace ignorance is the intellectual equivalent of those who want to repeal the 2nd Amendment. The consequence of this, this time around, was that people lacked the savvy to see past Hillary’s ambition for power and wealth and understand that her way to power and wealth was to serve our needs.

    Perhaps going forward, we could find a way for people to eschew ignorance, and also invent a litmus test for whether a potential leader will actually serve us. The particular philosophy… capitalism vs socialism… free trade or not… etc… that is way less important than whether the person is really going to try to serve us.

    • aaronridley says:

      Eric – I agree a lot with what you say. I have heard research that basically says that ultimately we all do things for ourselves. I don’t know if that always true, but I can believe that we have a complex list of goals in our subconscious all of the time and that this list changes from moment to moment. Sometimes the list has a lot of overlap (for example, wanting to do good because it makes you feel good, and/or because you may be remembered for it, and/or you will fit in with other people of you do it, etc), while sometimes the list does not (for example, really standing up for something that is important to you that everyone else is against can be very hard because of diverging interests in your head).

      It would be interesting to have a conversation about happiness.

      As a scientist, I agree with you that people should be more informed rather than less informed. Power over people is maintained through ignorance. I would also argue that it is maintained through trust that the person who you are giving power has your best interests at heart. Sadly, it is through knowledge of history that we understand that this is often not the case. It is difficult to tell whether a person in power is actually wanting to serve people, or whether they are simply trying to maintain their power.

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