Tuesday 11 February 2020

Life, Death and Meaning

On 9th September 2019, Yujin Nagasawa organised and hosted a workshop on Life, Death and Meaning – Eastern and Western Perspectives in the Muirhead Tower at the University of Birmingham, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Tokyo and Waseda University.

Muirhead Tower

The first speaker, Norichika Horie (University of Tokyo), presented on Spirituality and Meaning of Life and addressed several themes in our philosophical understanding of meaning. He started from the meaning of meaning. In Chinese and Japanese “imi” (meaning) is about externalising and verbalising something internal and has important links with intention. “Imi” is an emotion that stays in the mouth and doesn’t turn into words, it is affective and preverbal. But is meaning something to be explored or something to be produced?

Norichika Horie

According to Norichika Horie, the relationship between life and death is crucial to what we think about meaning. The story of life ends with death: it stops changing and becomes meaningful as a whole (a bit like a book that needs to be deciphered). The role of trauma is also important to meaning in life. What is the meaning of evil? In some traditions (Buddhism), suffering can be avoided by detaching from the world and reaching Nirvana, a type of death. In other traditions (Christianity), suffering is a source of meaning and growth. In concentration camps, those who did not lose sight of their future goals did not lose the will to live. This suggests that meaning lies in the sense that we feel responsible for our future, not just our past. Death and trauma are opportunities to renew the meaning of life.

Yujin Nagasawa

Next speaker was Yujin Nagasawa (University of Birmingham), talking about Existential Optimism and Evil. He introduced the problem of evil in philosophy of religion—if God is all-powerful and good, why is there evil in the world? One answer is that evil is allowed to enable us to be free to choose: when we choose badly, evil is caused. So, evil is the price to pay for freedom. Another answer is that we do not know so many things about the world and it may be that God has good reasons to allow what seems to us to be evil to happen. Other solutions have been proposed too.

The problem of systemic evil is about the existence of pain and suffering in nature. Darwin thought that there seemed to be too much misery in the world. Nature is like a small cage where many animals are placed together and they desperately fight for the limited resources. Dawkins also described natural selection as a very unpleasant process, saying that he does not want to live in a kind of world where natural selection operates.

In theism, existential optimism is about thanking God for our existence, which is an undeserved personal favour. Atheists like Benatar argue that existing is always painful and it would always be better not to exist. Other atheists are optimists: they mention gratitude to be alive and a sense of wonder. That is why there can be a problem of evil for atheists too: why do we think that the world is good if nature is full of pain and suffering? How can we say that we are happy to be alive if horrible events led to our coming into existence? This version of the problem is more systemic, and cannot be explained by reference to freedom. Also, it concerns not just our existence, but the existence of the world and the existence of other animals.

Can we be happy about our existence while wishing that natural selection did not happen? The world we would like to live in would be too different from the world we live in, because if natural selection did not apply, then laws of nature would not apply either. For atheists the problem is unsurmountable because they identify the world with the material universe. But theists can say that there is something beyond nature that is positive and makes the world overall more positive than negative.

Yuria Mori

After a quick break, Yuria Mori (Waseda University) contributed to the workshop with a paper on life and death in Zhuangzi’s thought, and the notion of the Way. The Way is something given spontaneously to people at birth and does not depend on life events. The original state of the world is a continuous single process of changing, but people just see what they can know and territorialise parts of the world, which leads them to exhaustion and fear of losing identity.

What is the relationship between life and death for Zhuangzi? He did not seriously consider the possibility of a personalised existence of the dead. In the changing process of the world there is appearing (life) and disappearing (death). When there is appearance, the “qi” becomes dense. When there is disappearance, the “qi” is vaporised and becomes invisible.

The best way of self-cultivation is to come to see yourself as the always-changing "qi". We do not fear death because we are afraid of suffering. We fear death because we want to keep a false identity and hold onto the separation between life and death. To see life as ceaseless change is to stop fearing death. Meaning of life is found within ourselves.

After this talk, I presented my work on optimism and agency that our readers are already familiar with, and drew some implications for meaning in life.

Masahiro Morioka
Nō mask

Masahiro Morioka (Waseda University) closed the workshop. He delivered a talk investigating the ontological status of the deceased person that continues to appear in this world. When a man is brain dead for instance, some of his family members might see him as "being there" and react to him by talking to him. How can we explain this? They believe he is dead, but at the same time they perceive something there.

To understand the phenomenon, Masahiro Morioka introduced Nō masks. A mask made of wood has no self-consciousness or rationality but when it is worn by an actor on the stage acquires a personality, becomes a persona. The personality develops out of the interaction between actor, audience, music and stage. Morioka calls this “animated persona”: the notion does not require personhood as intended in the tradition of Western philosophy. An animated persona is simply the compelling power to make us believe that there is a person there.

When animated persona appears on the body of a deceased body, is that an illusion or a deception? The experience is akin to a religious experience. Perceiving an animated persona is like perceiving God. The persona is not hidden inside, but shown on the surface (surface-ness).

The discussion during question time was lively and workshop as a whole proved very varied and interesting, genuinely combining Western and Eastern perspectives on meaning.

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