story & photo | Ng Yi Ming, Contributing Reporter
One fine afternoon on Sept. 13, the clock struck four, and a bunch of liberal arts and science students gathered around Neil Mehta, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Yale-NUS College. Under the auspices of the Philosophy Society, some thirty-odd students showed up for this instance of the Philosophy Cafe to discuss the ultimate meaning, the answer to Life, the Universe & Everything. They were warmly greeted in name by Neil (who insists on being called by his first name), and also by a warm jug of coffee plus some Oreo wafers.
Neil commenced the session, an “open conversation on life”, by probing for opinions on what the meaning of life was. Responses were naturally colourful, coming up fast and furious. First to be thrown into the ring was the very act of being alive, to live as long as possible, maximising this temporary state of consciousness — but to what end? Next up was a self-defined personal goal to be achieved: perhaps, building a school for the needy. At this point, Neil interjected and probed: what if the school was destroyed by a tsunami, and all the students along with it? Would you still be fulfilled? What if this happened only after your death? These questions served to highlight the distinction between leaving a tangible, desired impact, putting in your best effort to leave a desired impact, and the feeling of having left a desired impact.
Others placed the emphasis on the process, the journey; the idea that the experience of journeying towards the goal is the meaning of life. For some, it was specifically the struggle that was fulfilling, maybe because of the absence of struggle in death. Perhaps, the spirit of life is simply to exist in the happiest state of mind. Essentially, the meaning of life can be whatever makes you happy and whatever you want it to be. Discussing these different interpretations led to the emergence of key questions which Neil introduced as the discussion progressed. Are there any universal rules governing what the meaning of life can be? Is there anything inherently wrong with a personal life purpose that disadvantages others? Does our personal meaning of life have to be subsumed under the human civilization’s collective requirements for existence?
Next, Neil dived deep into uncovering what actually matters to us via a thought experiment. The Experience Machine or Pleasure Machine is a thought experiment put forward by philosopher Robert Nozick in his 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Right now, if you were offered the chance to switch over to a simulated reality, one as real, yet completely fulfilling to you — in other words, to have the perfect life, albeit an artificially simulated one — but had to accept the cost of being removed permanently from your original life, would you still take it?
A vigorous debate followed: do we really value the real friendship, knowledge, justice, or wealth, in themselves, or do we simply value the pleasant thoughts that come with them? Ultimately, no one took up the offer. This was quite a revelation. It showed that deep down, our feelings are not all that matter to us. We want to be real, we want to be alive, to exist, to be an original and organic entity. In this version of reality, there was also the distinct factor of having to vanish from your social circles. This was a significant consideration, for this meant that the happiness of your family and friends would be taken into account.
Neil then asked us to discuss the meaning of life amongst ourselves in groups. That was it – the culmination, the climax of the discussion of the meaning of life was the discussion itself. After a brief suspense of shock and bewilderment, the participants sluggishly obliged, turning to one another on the couch or forming circles on the carpets. A couple of persistent truth-seekers sought Neil out for the ultimate truth. Neil stood his ground, maintaining his no-spoon-feeding policy, flipping the questions right back onto the students. Half an hour later, the session was over and everyone dispersed, each going their separate ways.
Post-event, some of the multitude of thoughts floating around were collected. Nathasha Lee, ‘21, reflected on her excitement coming to the session. She loved having the chance to puzzle over such abstract topics. From the discussion, she observed that a consensus had been reached: the meaning of our lives would tend to be collectivist (i.e. centred around other people) rather than personal as none of us would secure personal fulfilment at the expense of other people’s feelings. She added, “The fact that there could be an agreement on aspects of the meaning of life at all surprised me because I’d always seen it as something intrinsically subjective.”
Michael Smith, ’20, shared that the café had exceeded his expectations. Smith said, “The session made explicit certain implicit beliefs I had previously held about the meaning of life. It helped me clarify my own thoughts, and raise the questions necessary to reach compelling answers.” He suggested that the value of the moderated discussion boiled down to Neil’s astute clarification of students’ ideas and the lucidity with which he was able to interject his own prompts and ideas.
We approached Sherry Yang ‘20, student coordinator from the Philosophy Society, to see the session through the eyes of the organizers. She shared that the Philosophy Cafe aims to engage more students to think and gain a new perspective of Philosophy in 90 minutes, understand more about the Philosophy major and the key areas of faculty research. Offering some personal thoughts on the matter, she said, “Philosophy to me is a very useful subject, not merely in terms of analytical skills, critical thinking and writing, but more importantly as a tool of introspection. It can also be helpful to mental health.”
Later on, we caught up with the man himself. Revealing his personal relationship with the ultimate question, Neil shared, “I’ve been interested in questions like these at least since my teens. I have spent a lot of time thinking about what really matters, and trying to apply what I learn to my life.” It turns out that Neil started graduate school intending to pursue questions in the foundations of ethics, for instance, the question of the meaning of life. Although his research ended up focusing on other questions, he has recently been attempting to re-address these foundational ethical questions. On his hopes for the session, Neil said, “There is no particular answer that I wanted students to reach. Instead, I hoped to inspire them to reflect more on the question – on what it means, and on what kind of evidence we might bring to bear on it.”
Thus, no matter whether your meaning of life is a noble crusade, a number, a food, or even another life, it is truly the chatter that matters. So, go forth: chase after the lively contemplations and conversations with all your heart, perspicacious kingfishers!