Imagine a universe full of dust and rocks. It contains everything except life, including conscious creatures like you and me. Now what could be potentially valuable in this universe? Forget about what, first of all to whom it would be valuable. This is a hypothetical universe Sam Harris wants us to consider in order to answer the question of value. Now if you answered that nothing is valuable in this universe, you would be exactly right. Simply because there is no one to value any potential value. Just as a control experiment, you can imagine another universe, this time one that is super beautiful. Okay, it is as beautiful as it could be. But again there are no conscious creatures. So again, what matters in such a universe?
You see, there has to be someone or something that can appreciate any value contained in anything. Again we run into the sort of problem posed by the question, ‘If a tree fell in the forest but there was no one to witness it, did the tree really fall?’. But there’s more to it than this, because here we’re talking about the very substance that makes our universe valuable. The question of value is different, in that unlike the case of observer, here we need an experiencer to testify to a supposed reality. The reality of consciousness and therefore value is in the subjective first person1, whereas the reality of the tree is in the objective third person. For now, we can just assume that the tree still falls in the forest regardless of anyone’s presence to witness it.2 But the same cannot be said of the question of value. For any value to exist, there has to be someone or something for whom it exists. It cannot exist independently of the witness. So all we have to do to our hypothetical universe is add a conscious creature or two, and all of a sudden questions of value start to make sense. And this quite unequivocally conveys the point.
See, consciousness is the only thing in the universe that matters. In fact, it is the only space where anything could matter. Even in your own body, most of what happens happens in the dark. It is only what shows up in the light of your consciousness that matters. To steal the words of Sam Harris, “Subjectively speaking, each one of us is identical to the very substrate that brings value to the universe.”. So, why understanding this truth matters? Well, there’s every reason why it is so.
First of all, whether you’re aware of this or not, you spend your entire life in an effort to maintain and enhance your conscious well-being. And by conscious well-being, I mean every positive state of mind correlated with happiness and one that feels good, including fun, pleasure, joy. This is the goal that determines what you do in each moment. You build your entire life in favor of your conscious well-being, and of those closest to you, and sometimes mankind and the planet at large. If these things didn’t promise this one good, whether in the present or in the future, you wouldn’t do them. So the first thing is that understanding this truth bestows upon us an awareness of what’s important and what’s not.
Second, understanding this truth brings a kind of moral clarity to us. Because consciousness is the context in which questions of right and wrong, good and evil, make sense. Questions of morality, justice, fairness, they all make sense only in so far as there’s something in question about the well-being of conscious creatures. If this substrate is removed, the validity of these questions collapses. To prove, you only have to reconsider our hypothetical universe mentioned earlier.
Third, it offers us the real perspective on the value of trying to improve the lives of ourselves and others. Once again, awareness is the beginning of every great change. And the point of this particular awareness is twofold. The first is that it offers us a basis to evaluate the effectiveness of the things we already do with this goal in mind, so that we do more of the right things that will enhance our well-being, and do them more effectively. And secondly, it gives us the warning alarm when we are doing things that will threaten this very good in favor of which we do everything else.
By the same token, the true worth of sacrifices made and pains undertaken can be measured. If the net amount of gain in well-being exceeds the net amount of pain or sacrifice, congratulations you won. You picked the right kind of goal to invest your time in. But the reverse is also true. Many bad habits have disproportionately bad consequences, usually in the future, and thus we now find a reason to break them immediately.
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