A world that exists only in experience could not exist if there is no experience. Yet this seems to be what most of us unthinkingly assume. We suppose that with the death of all of us, the world as we know it would carry on without us.
— Ultimate Questions, Bryan Magee

When you think of the ultimate variety of questions, what comes to mind? What are some of the most important questions we can ask ourselves as people? If someone were to ask me, I’d have to think about it, but might ultimately say:
- What is reality? How do I know I exist?
- What is our purpose? How should we live our lives?
- What happens after we die?

It is these kinds of queries that Bryan Magee addresses in Ultimate Questions. I read Magee’s book in one sitting feeling electricity pop as the words hit my retinas and entered my spinning mind.

I’ve been thinking and reading, a lot about philosophy this past year. Maybe it is the global emergency we’re facing, or the climate catastrophe looming in our near future, but I felt it was important to learn and define a personal philosophy for myself. What did I believe was real? How did I know it to be so? How should I best live my life?

In this exploration, I’ve read a lot of classical philosophy, histories of philosophers, and modern philosophical texts. I’ve also watched a lot of youtube videos on the subject. To my surprise, I had already come into contact with Bryan Magee on youtube.

Magee was the host of a British tv show in the ’80s called The Great Philosophers. There were episodes that addressed historical philosophy, but he also interviewed philosophers alive at that time. It was exciting to hear from the people who created ideas in their own words. Magee was a great host and it was obvious that he knew a lot about philosophy himself in order to carry his side of the conversations.

If, in spite of my ignorance, I were compelled to gamble everything on what will happen to me when I die, I would come down on the side of oblivion, annihilation.
— Ultimate Questions, Bryan Magee

I wanted to learn more about Bryan Magee and did some googling. I found out he had just recently died in 2019 and Ultimate Questions was his second last book, published when he was 86 years old. He died alone in a nursing home in Oxford.

‘Everyone dies alone’ is an expression I’ve heard a lot. But is it true? I suppose everyone experiences their own death, but everyone experiences all of their experiences solely by that definition. Sometimes we talk about a ‘shared experience’ that comes from going through something with another person. Would two people dying at the same time together constitute a shared experience and refute that we all die alone?

When any of us dies, or any physical body is destroyed, the atoms that constituted it disperse, but they do not cease to exist. Having, before our existence, been part of other solids, liquids and gases—and having then come together temporarily to constitute you and me—they will disperse again to constitute other things.
— Ultimate Questions, Bryan Magee

Shelly Kagan has a course on death on Youtube and addresses this issue of dying alone. In it, he deconstructs the statement and ultimately decides that it is nonsensical. What might be a more important Ultimate Question is what happens after we die?

People care a lot about death, that’s for certain. Most religious belief and continued faith comes from a fear of death and not knowing what is going to happen. But does it really matter? I recently watched the movie “I Care A Lot”. I’d recommend it if you want to watch a movie without a single likeable character. My favourite part was when the protagonist(?!) was asked why they aren’t afraid of dying. “Why should I care about something I won’t experience” is the response.

Whatever society we find ourselves in, wherever its location in space and time, we need to be procreated by other individuals, then born, then nurtured. And only then can we live what may or may not be a partially self-directed life in a “container” of space and time, alongside other persons and objects. Then we die.
— Ultimate Questions, Bryan Magee

This is how Epicurus viewed it way back in Ancient Greece. We aren’t going to be around after we die, so why should we care about it. Instead, we should care about how we live: with maximum pleasure and minimum pain. Before you book your ticket to Hedonism, Epicurus also promoted simplicity in living and not living an excessive life. So maybe quell those epicurean urges.

What does it mean to live our best life? Aristotle said it was living a life of virtue and following the Golden Mean. Interestingly, he also said that our virtuous life could continue after we were dead if people speak well or ill of us. Almost as if there is a rolling window of virtue and depending on what point in history you checked, your virtue score could change.

One is playing a game, though like many games it can be played with intense seriousness. If one lives like that all the time, one goes to one’s grave without ever having lived seriously or intensely.
— Ultimate Questions, Bryan Magee

In my interpretation of Ultimate Questions, Bryan Magee believes that life has no clear purpose. This is a belief I can get on board with. It also reminded me of another recent movie, Pixar’s “Soul”. The moral at the end of Soul is that we don’t really have one true purpose in life and that frees us to live the best life we know how. It’s not as if a person is born to be a jazz musician, or write a weekly newsletter.

When I mention to people that I think life has no purpose it often freaks them out. What is the meaning of life if it has no purpose? Here’s the deal: the universe has been around 13.8 billion years. Human-type animals have been around for maybe 2 million years or so and civilization has existed for an infinitesimal amount of it. Even if your life had a purpose, do you really think it matters all that much?

It comes as a shock to realise that the whole of civilisation has occurred within the successive lifetimes of sixty people—which is the number of friends I squeeze into my living room when I have a drinks party.
— Ultimate Questions, Bryan Magee

Before you droop into a puddle of despair, think of it this way: now you can do whatever you want with the finite time you have in this world. You don’t need to chase the almighty dollar if that isn’t what brings you joy. The only limitation I’d put on this would be to not yuck someone else’s yum. Life is too short, so try not to ruin it.

There is something altogether primal in the relationship of the individual to the universe which is absent from the relationship of the individual to society. He can choose to live in a different society, and millions do, but he cannot choose to live in a different universe.
— Ultimate Questions, Bryan Magee

I have this mantra that I’m just a grain of sand at the bottom of the ocean. It gives me perspective on the 13.8 billion years that happened before I showed up. And the infinite number of years that will happen after I’m gone. If I’m just a blip, I’m going to make the best of it. Maybe Aristotle had something with living a life of virtue.

From what proportion of total reality we are excluded we can never know, but we should assume it to be nearly all, because the amount of what is unknowable is illimitable, whereas what we know, and ever can know, is so little.
— Ultimate Questions, Bryan Magee

How do we know the universe is 13.8 billion years old? Better yet, how do I know that I exist? Descartes would claim I exist because I am thinking that I exist and that is the only thing I know for sure. Bryan Magee questions even that. We can’t know anything is objectively true, or real, or exists.

Philosophers have thought a lot about the subject of metaphysics. Cartesian dualism had its time to shine, and now the majority of people take a materialist view of reality: reality is made up of matter including our minds.

Yuval Noah Harari introduced me to the concept of intra-subjective belief. Harari says that if enough people believe something to be true, then it is true. This is how we get societal norms. Harari snuggles intra-subjective belief between subjective belief (something I as an individual believe to be true) and objective fact (a universal law such as gravity).

If anything exists independently of us, then its very independence of us means that it does not exist in terms of the forms and categories that characterise the workings of the apparatus we happen to possess, an apparatus that we may even possibly be.
— Ultimate Questions, Bryan Magee

I’m not so sure there are objective facts though. Perhaps everything comes down to subjective and intra-subjective beliefs. A belief is not a fact because if it was a fact it would no longer be a belief. And if you didn’t think it was true you would no longer believe it. All we have is a belief in reality, no objective proof that reality exists.

What would happen if you woke up one morning and 2+2 suddenly equalled 5? Nothing would happen because everyone would now have the intra-subjective belief. Anyone who thought 2+2 equalled 4 would be labelled insane and possibly dangerous to society and themselves. We’d lock away these crazed mathematicians and go on knowing that 2+2 = 5 has always been the case.

Einstein believed, on purely scientific grounds, that there is no objective “now” as far as physics is concerned, and that what counts as “now” depends on the position of the observer relative to what is observed.
— Ultimate Questions, Bryan Magee

Ultimate Questions got me thinking about these ultimate questions. I’ve been reading and researching how other philosophers approached these concepts and have found some stuff I agree with, some I wish I could disagree with, and a whole load of nonsense. That’s kind of the beauty of philosophy, anything is ultimately possible.

I can only hope that, when it is my turn, my curiosity will overcome my fear—though I may then be in the position of a man whose candle goes out and plunges him into pitch blackness at the very instant when he thought he was about to find what he was looking for.
— Ultimate Questions, Bryan Magee

I hope you enjoyed this week’s edition of Booked. I’d love to know what you think the answers are to life, the universe and everything. Let me know in the comments.

This was quite different from my previous newsletter on Your Inner Fish. The next one will be different still when I write about what I learned from Chaos by James Gleick.