Monday, November 5, 2012

The meaning of life

Jean Kazez has kind of a fun quiz here. (Fun until you find yourself in the age category 41-60, that is. Can't I be 26-45 instead?)

I thought of the meaning of life when I read Matt Pianalto's post on transgenic animals too. Falling-over turkeys bred to be all breast meat seem like a crime against nature to me, a kind of blasphemy, and the same goes for oncomice. But would finding a cure for cancer justify that kind of crime? I'm inclined to say No, partly because a crime is a crime, and partly because people who die of cancer will still die of something else even if we do cure cancer. But I realize that this is callous, and I would almost certainly change my tune if cancer hit closer to home. Really I think you would need to know the meaning of life to be able to answer such a question with any confidence. (I would have posted this as a comment on Matt's blog but it seems too  unhelpful to be worth posting there.)

And I thought of it another time recently when a friend of mine posted the uncharacteristic (for him) Facebook status: "What's the point?" I think he probably just meant why work hard on research if journals don't recognize good work when they see it?, or why teach in innovative ways if no one appreciates your efforts? But it sounded gloomier than that. To my surprise I found myself thinking, "Because we all die in the end." This wasn't just black humor but an expression of the idea that we are all, so to speak, in the same boat, and that boat is the Titanic. So we may as well be nice to each other while we sink. About the only things that seem to make sense are love or kindness and smelling the roses while you can. But I don't think this is really what I believe, or not the whole of it anyway. Those roses really do smell good--they aren't just a consolation. And some people aren't too bad either.      


  1. The way you put the Titanic comment made me laugh out loud. That post of mine got me thinking meaning-of-life thoughts, too, and I can relate to your comments about oncomice. Someone in class referred to medical progress as a need, and I said something like, "Dostoyevsky created great art without the benefit of oncomice. Socrates lived to be 70." I want to question the sense of inevitability when it comes to biomedicine, but then that point has to be made without it seeming like one is against medicine (Of course, that just gets back into the problem: what about the lives of the animals? by any and all means? etc.)

  2. One problem, perhaps, is that we tend to assume that longer life is good (which, other things being equal, it is) without thinking much about other values. Of course people do think about the quality of life, the lives of animals, and other related issues, but the attempts to prolong human life by just about any means possible push on regardless. (Or so it seems to me.) If we think at all about the wisdom or cost of this, and of course some of us do, these thoughts make no visible difference to the march of biomedical progress.

    That might not be a problem. I don't know what is most important, and it might be that saving lives and prolonging lives really is worth the price we pay. But we seem to be pressing ahead a bit too thoughtlessly for my taste, oblivious to the possible downside. Just knowing and thinking about oncomice is progress in this sense. Whatever we decide or think about them, at least we aren't being oblivious then.

  3. "people who die of cancer will still die of something else even if we do cure cancer" - but they could very well die 20 years (or more) later than if they'd died of cancer in the first place - an extra 20 years of being around which would have been much appreciated by those of us left behind, and which I personally would have enjoyed killing 10.000 little white mice for.

  4. Yes. That's why I said that view is callous. I am inclined to think that way even so, but only inclined. I would not say that it actually is my view. (I hope this makes sense.)

    But the bit about the mice is a long way from my view. I just have no idea how to weigh the value of 10,000 mouse lives. It isn't the same as 10,000 human lives, but it isn't nothing either. If I had to choose between the mice and 20 more years of life for someone I love then I would probably kill the mice. But then I might do all kinds of unjust things in those circumstances. When I try to weigh 20 years of human life against 10,000 mouse lives in the abstract I just draw a blank. I don't see a common currency into which they could be converted.

  5. what do you mean, you have no idea? you just aggregate them. you know how to aggregate things, right?

  6. I need an accountant to aggregate for me.