Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The Meaning of Life

What is the meaning of life?

To begin with, I need to stress the importance of meaning as a human concept. This may be disputed, by those who claim that meaning is generated outside of the individual, but as you will see, this belief can be incorporated into my theory of meaning and how it is created.

Events and actions do not have meaning, outside of human interpretation. ‘Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so.’ One need only visit a sporting event to understand how an individual event such as a goal or try can have a vastly different meaning for two otherwise similar human beings. Any occurrence is assigned meaning by a human brain, framing that occurrence within the context of its own values and beliefs. Value judgements about the triviality or importance of an event, its morality or lack thereof, are not possible without the observer to apply them. When the last human on Earth dies, who will be able to point to an event and say this is bad or good?

So, people acquire meaning through experience, through the values and beliefs they are taught (directly or indirectly) by those around them and by society. Systems and structures of meaning, whether one creates them consciously through study and thought, or accepts them passively through the teachings of others, become the pillars of our lives; they affect the way we feel about an event, and direct how we act in any given situation.

As Sartre said, we are ‘condemned to be free’. We have the burden and the gift of deciding the meaning of our own existence, each and every one of us. And this determines how we act; our lives are our own responsibility.

Some individuals allow their values and sense of purpose to be defined for them by a teacher, or invisible man, or other entity, and thus defer the decision of meaning to a moral authority they perceive to be greater than themselves; but nonetheless this act, in itself, is a decision of a kind. We cannot escape the fact that we must choose the meaning of our own lives, even if that choice is to embrace someone else’s rules and values.

(Indeed, we cannot stop ourselves from creating meaning; we begin to assign human motive to other living things, and even vast inanimate things like the universe, simply because to do so is instinctive, almost automatic. The current theory around our willingness to assign motive to things like storms and computers, is that it is the remnant of a survival trait which prompted action on our part where otherwise we might have failed to act appropriately. If we perceive a landslide is trying to kill us, it makes the situation much more immediate, and the required action much clearer. However, we can now see how it can be flawed to reason in this way.)

It is also true that a meaning can and will change for a person during their lifetime. You do not value things now the same way you valued them as a chil,d and your ideas about what is important have changed as you’ve assimilated new information (whether accurate or not) and undergone new experiences. Thus, meaning cannot be defined as a universal statement or even feeling. It is unique for each individual, and indeed for each time and place in that individual’s life. This is because of the nature of the universe, and of human existence; which is to say we are in flux.

If we search for absolutes, which you might realise by now is a risky thing to do, we can only say: change is the only true constant. The only permanence is impermanence.

It is not logical to expect that meaning can ever be expressed in absolutes, even for an individual. Instead, we find meaning in the search for meaning. (If this seems paradoxical, consider the fact that at the end of our lives, we die. We do not sit down to sum up our lives and describe the meaning of them in a neat package, or if we do, we inevitably find multiple ways to express the truth of our existence, such as it has been at various points over the course of the years. And others who examine our lives from the outside will find their own ways of interpreting and understanding them.) We constantly rediscover our own meaning as we go through the inevitable changes life brings. The goal is the struggle. The destination is the journey.

So the answer to the question, ‘what is the meaning of life’ must ultimately be another question: what do you think it is? The answer is the question. But your answer is yours alone.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Football vs football

I really do enjoy a number of different sports. Having relatively recently been able to watch a decent amount of NFL in a way which was hitherto unavailable, I have enjoyed a good deal of American Football too. Thank you, Sky Sports. Now, part of the reason people who are used to watching rugby or football (aka soccer) often struggle with the US version of the same name, is that it is just so stop-start. I mean, the stoppages are built into the game, from turnovers, to flags, to quarter breaks, to the two-minute warning. Now, I propose no solution to this issue, nor do I insinuate that such a solution is necessary (to say nothing about desirable); no, my point is to analyse the relative 'value', in terms of game time to non-game time watched, provide a comparison.

What I mean is this: say you are sitting down with a beer, about to watch a game, and you find yourself wondering, 'just how much crap am I going to have to watch during the course of this match?' By my use of the highly-technical term 'crap', I mean anything that isn't the game itself, such as advertisements, punditry (informative or otherwise), or the players standing around waiting for something to happen or arguing with the referee. I admit that I am going to be dealing in averages and imprecise figures here, since rugby uses a stopped clock, players argue with a referee for differing amounts of time, and NFL games don't all have the same length. This is a necessary evil, but I think I can give enough of a picture to provide some satisfaction. I am also assuming the aforementioned beer-wielding man turns his TV on at then precise moment a game begins, ignoring things like anthems, cheerleaders, or the haka. For the purposes of this article, I will also ignore games which require overtime or extra time.

1) Football (aka soccer):

A football game is scheduled for ninety minutes, with fifteen minutes for half time. There is also added time in either half, but since this added time is intended to compensate for stoppages during play itself, I am going to use ninety minutes as our basic figure, and add the stoppages to the 'crap' category. I am going to assume an average of six minutes of added time per match, that's three minutes per half. Therefore, if a match is watched completely, the viewer has ninety minutes of sport time, and twenty one minutes of 'crap' (fifteen minutes for half time plus six minutes for stoppages).

This leads to a ratio of 90:21, or 30:7. This can also be expressed as 4.29:1, and it means that for every four and a half minutes of sport the man (or woman, let's be fair) watches, he also has to watch a minute of crap.

2) Rugby (aka rugby union)

Rugby is only eighty minutes to football's ninety, and what's more the play clock is stopped during breaks in play or when the video referee is being consulted, making things a little more tricky to calculate. With the problems around the modern scrum, I estimate this stoppage time at around four minutes per half, for a total of eight minutes. A rugby half time is ten minutes, for a crap total of eighteen minutes.

This leads to a ratio of 80: 18, or 4.44:1. Pretty similar to football, and if you take into consideration the fact that in rugby you don't have to put up with scenes of players falling to the ground in agony only to be fine again moments later, or surrounding the referee to complain about a decision, rugby creeps ahead in the watchability stakes (but that's another argument).

3) American Football (aka gridiron)

The duration of play time for an NFL game is 60 minutes. The half time lasts 12 minutes, and the quarter breaks each also involve short stoppages of 2 minutes. So far that's 16 minutes. However, I'm going to take a different approach on this entry, because the timekeeping in an NFL game involves both the game clock and the play clock, and the many rules are too complicated for me to go into here. What I want to do is compare the play time (60 minutes), with the average duration (slightly over three hours). Therefore, the crap total is about 120 minutes (i.e. 180 minus 60).

This leads to a ratio of 60:120, or 1:2. This means that for every minute of play an NFL fan watches, he or she also watches two minutes of crap. This is a far smaller reward for effort (if by effort you assume I mean couch time), than either of the previous two entries. I believe this accounts for much of the difficulty in selling the NFL to a British or European public.

Now, as I have mentioned, American Football is built around the system of plays and downs, and this is part of what makes the game so enjoyable. However, if some of the extraneous viewing could be weeded out, it might make it more palatable to those who have grown up watching more fast-paced games (which is certainly on the NFL's agenda, at least in the UK). Dammit, I said I wasn't going to look at solutions. Oh well, I got drawn in.

In closing, I enjoy all the above sports, and more, and of course there's more to a game than how many ads you have to suffer through, but I do feel that generally speaking, the less crap involved, the better.