Alan Kirker

Meaning

December 30th, 2020 by

Meaning can refer to the representing of a concept, such as through language, and it can refer to the broader philosophical and psychological questions surrounding the existential nature of what it is to be human. Holocaust survivor, psychologist and philosopher Viktor Frankl, whose book “Man’s Search for Meaning” (1946), saw that “the search for a meaning in life is identified as the primary motivational force in human beings” (Wikipedia, retrieved December 2020, after Frankl, 1946).

The ending of the Second World War ushered in a new era. The meaning of human civilization itself had a poignancy as massive population and economic growth stood in sharp juxtaposition to the sudden new ominous potential of “mutual assured destruction” brought about by the atomic bomb and the start of the Cold War.

In 1947 my father attended the World Council of Churches youth conference in Olso, Norway as a Canadian delegate. As part of this trip he traveled to the city of Bergen and, where standing on the threshold shore, described a similar juxtaposition: Around and across the water lay a splendid mountain vista rising up from the placid waters in display of the utter beauty of creation in nature, while directly behind him stood in sharp contrast the shattered and bombed-out remnants of post-war Bergen, eerily symbolic of humanity’s most destructive potential. One of his books titled “The Shaking of the Foundations” (1948), a collection of sermons by philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich published around that time, has passages which continue to be meaningful:

“At the beginning of our period we decided for freedom. It was a right decision; it created something new and great in history. But in that decision we excluded the security, social and spiritual, without which man cannot live and grow. And now, in the old age of our period, the quest to sacrifice freedom for security splits every nation and the whole world with really daemonic power. We have decided for means to control nature and society. We have created them, and we have brought about something new and great in the history of all mankind. But we have excluded ends. We have never been ready to answer the question, “For what?”

And now, when we approach old age, the means claim to be the ends; our tools have become our masters, and the most powerful of them have become a threat to our very existence. We have decided for reason against outgrown traditions and honored superstitions. That was a great and courageous decision, and gave a new dignity to man. But we have, in that decision, excluded the soul, the ground and power of life. We have cut off our mind from our soul, and have suppressed and misrepresented the soul within us, in other men, and in nature” (1948, p. 179-180).

This past year, despite its challenges, has provided a useful opportunity to continue and deepen my own quest for meaning, and I am looking forward to carrying it on into 2021. To end 2020 on a positive note, I will share another quote from one of my father’s books, titled “The Clown and the Crocodile” (1970), by a friend and colleague of his named Joseph C. McLelland:

“Because of life’s contradictions; because man experiences both darkness and light; because the contest is a dance and the dance a glory… therefore celebration is always in order. The truly human life is an act of celebration” (1970, p. 152).


Frankl, V. (1946) Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston, United States: Beacon Press (2014 ed.)

McLelland, J. C. (1970) The Clown and the Crocodile. Richmond, United States: John Knox Press

Tillich, P. (1948) The Shaking of the Foundations. New York, United States: Charles Scribner’s Sons

Value

December 9th, 2020 by

Despite backwards and otherwise misinformed views on eugenics and corporal punishment, nineteenth century author and Congregationalist pastor Newell Dwight Hillis acknowledged the very human fears of the Industrial Revolution in his 1896 book “A Man’s Value to Society“:

“Recently the test exhibition of a machine was successful, and those present gave the inventor heartiest congratulations. But one man was present whose face was drawn with pain, and whose eyes were wet with tears. Explaining his emotion to a questioner he said, “One hour ago I entered this room a skilled workman; this machine sends me out the door a common laborer. For years I have been earning five dollars a day as an expert machinist. By economy I hoped to educate my children to a higher sphere, but now my every hope is ruined.” (1896, p. 64).

As we enter the age of Artificial intelligence (AI), do the skilled nineteenth-century workman’s fearful words find resonance once again? Or, such as back then, are there other factors not presently being considered?

Economist and author Daniel Susskind states in his book “A World Without Work” (2020), that the rapid rate at which AI and automation supplant occupations over the coming years could eventually outstrip the amount of work left available for people to do, potentially leaving many unemployed.

Considering a Universal Basic Income (UBI), Susskind argues that such an approach could still leave people in an existential vacuum and exposed to other risks. One proposed solution is a Conditional Basic Income (CBI), which could provide a guaranteed level of economic security and see people compensated based upon things they enjoy doing, or that are nonetheless essential. These might encompass creative pursuits, education, recreation, providing care-giving services to family members, neighbours, or contributing in some way to community and society.

Another approach Susskind explores is a sharing of state capital which could see people each having their own stock of it, as traditional capital, like an endowment (2020, p. 189).

What other innovative approaches could similarly aim to help narrow economic divisions in society and how might they be realized? Can “Big Tech” play a role? Based on current evidence, Susskind suggests perhaps not, as “software engineers, after all, are not hired for the clarity and sophistication of their ethical reasoning” (2020, p. 210). Further along this idea of trust is the question of should we not also be wary of leaving it up to the “Big State” to look after, given the example of China’s new surveillance-driven “social credit system” where citizens are scored and ranked based on everyday conduct (2020, p. 211). Moreover, does looking at potentially new social landscapes from a purely economic angle not limit our perspective overall? As Susskind writes,

“We have tended to turn to economists, the engineers of contemporary life, to tell us how to relentlessly grow the pie. In a world with less work we will need to revisit the fundamental ends once again. The problem is not simply how to live, but how to live well. We will be forced to consider what it really means to live a meaningful life” (2020, p. 236).


Dwight Hillis, N. (1896) A Man’s Value to Society: Studies in Self-Culture and Character [HTML document]. New York, United States: Fleming H. Revell Company

Susskind, D. (2020) A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond. New York, United States: Metropolitan Books

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