Creating a Sense of Purpose in a Post-Scarcity Society
This episode is brought to you by Skillshare. In a world where you have everything you could desire, and everyone else does too, the one thing you might desire the most is a sense of purpose. So today we are going to be looking at the more philosophical side of the future as we contemplate how people, and civilizations, can maintain or create a sense of Purpose in what we call a Post Scarcity Civilization, a future where material things are super-abundant and survival is a given.
This topic won our Facebook fan poll, and it is a rather BIG topic for many reasons, not the least of which being that before we can discuss what might give purpose to humans of a very different future culture, we need to consider what provides purpose for humans of our current one. And I think that’s a good place to begin, because this was a very hard script to write, and re-write, and re-write again simply from the title “Creating a Sense of Purpose”. Creating, not finding, not discovering, creating. But it’s also important to note that we’re talking about a sense of purpose. We can feel something without it being true, and things can certainly be true and real without our having any sense or awareness of them.
And really, it’s having a deep sense of purpose to our lives that makes us feel right with the universe—whether that sense is actual knowledge of truth, or a pleasant narrative our culture came up with to make us feel better and function better, a sort of cognitive software patch. So that’s what we’ll focus on, having and achieving that sense of purpose. For some discussion about whether life has inherent purpose or meaning, totally apart from our awareness of it, we discussed that in our episode, “Why Life Exists” But as an aside, the belief that life and the universe simply have no purpose or meaning or intrinsic value is called Nihilism. In its core form, Existential Nihilism, it is the belief that life has no meaning, that all morality is meaningless, and that even truth is meaningless. If you have watched much of the show you can probably guess I’ve a low view of that philosophy, and indeed tend to use Nihilism like a curse word, at least in its pure form, there are countless variations and I don’t know them all so won’t use a broad brush. Nihlism essentially extends out of the notion that science doesn’t indicate life has meaning or purpose, while ignoring that since its inception science has been acknowledged to be incapable of addressing such concepts.
In spite of this, folks get surprised that science fails to detect abstract concepts. If you use a metal detector to hunt for comedy, you will not find it, and no the answer isn’t to get a detector that finds paper or a device that can play digital media to detect a comedy book or video. Science can’t detect abstract concepts, like purposes and meaning, and it can’t detect humor either, it can just measure laughter.
Similarly stuff like love, hate, happiness, justice, and so on leave physical footprints, hormones attached to emotions or serving as their means of transmission, but they are not the thing itself, which is abstract. So unsurprisingly science finds no meaning or purpose, and yet it's hard not to see that absence and figure it probably means nothing is there. Especially in a civilization where science has done so much for us, we are prone to thinking it’s the only way to find valid answers or that questions it can’t answer have no answers. Even when we don’t, when we say the other areas of knowledge have value too, so often it's in the voice of the parent assuring their child that just because their sibling is a valedictorian going to the Ivy League on a football scholarship next year, doesn’t mean they don’t love them just as much. So science doesn’t allow us to prove life has a purpose, but it has given us so many other really good answers to other things, therefore if it can’t find a purpose to life, then life probably has no purpose.
The assumption that the Universe works this way is essentially the mindset we see envisioned in the Cosmic Horror genre written by folks like H.P. Lovecraft, and it makes for amazing fiction but it's no place I would want to live… to be fair it isn’t implied the folks living in those stories want to live there either, they just have no choice. So where would I want to live? Well ideally a Post-Scarcity Civilization. This is a concept we discuss a lot on the show, but as a reminder a post-scarcity civilization is one in which there are no scarcities of important resources, they’re cheap enough that everyone can have an abundant supply.
But this doesn’t mean infinite supplies of everything, which wouldn’t really work well in a finite Universe. Neither does this mean an end to work or economies. Manufacturing is a smaller sector of the economy than the service industry for instance.
In the Star Trek universe, we see folks giving haircuts and serving drinks in Ten Forward, Benjamin Sisko’s father running a restaurant, and Mr Boothby the Starfleet Academy gardener dispensing wisdom to cadets who consider him as wiser than their professors. You could build robots to do those jobs, and in Star Trek it is assumed that the folks doing it are doing so for enjoyment or even as it's their life calling. So in a world absent crushing concerns over food, shelter, and basic services like medicine, where survival and a standard of living well above survival are accomplished with minimal human work, a post-scarcity society is really one with a scarcity of anxiety over basic human needs and wants. This is important to a discussion of purpose because for much of history, day to day purpose was simply survival, our ancestors were focused on finding their next meal and safe place to sleep. Getting and keeping those was their main purpose, and only folks better off generally had time to worry if it all had a purpose, let alone to feel anxious about lacking a sense of purpose and to pine for one.
I’d like to focus on this point because of how scarcity, and a lack thereof, alter decision making, both individually, and at the group level. This is best embodied by two concepts, Decision Fatigue and the Scarcity Trap. Decision Fatigue, also called ego depletion, is the recognition that making decisions exhausts and stresses a person, making each subsequent decision worse and harder until the fatigue is removed. This can involve major decisions or minor ones, but a person with great resources can strip the minor decisions out in favor of habits and quick, easy decisions. And while all decisions generate fatigue, there is a big difference between a well-off person deciding what color of frames they want for their glasses, and someone deciding whether to get glasses or groceries, because they only have resources to do one or the other. The Scarcity Trap is where a person making that decision will be fixated on how much they need a given item and get more of it than they need, or focus decisions on acquiring it.
This has a huge effect on both the behaviour of individuals and groups, and generally pushes us toward making unwise decisions out of panic or desperation. And when a group as a whole has these scarcities, it can often drive what folks focus on for improving their social status or what decisions the group makes, and in both cases, often very unwisely. As an example, Humans need air, and there is a finite supply of it. But we are effectively post-scarcity where air is concerned, because a reasonable person would feel no anxiety about its scarcity or acquiring their next breath.
Sure, a person might have a pathological fear of running out of air, or an illness that makes breathing difficult. They might worry about air quality, or have suffered a rare traumatic event that made that next breath hard to obtain, but our civilization is not shaped by widespread anxiety about spontaneous suffocation. We don’t expend vast efforts stockpiling air, hoarding it, managing access to it, making money off of it, showing it off to our friends, or fighting wars over it.
We can recognize its value, but the decision to take that next breath or the fear of where it will come from aren’t influencing our culture or eroding our judgement. In the developed Western world, clean water is similarly abundant, the scarcity of it having been solved. We need air and water, but our environment and society provide them so abundantly that they are essentially a background. To be sure, resources like food or water influence cultures in thousands of ways: peoples who develop next to big freshwater lakes are very different from those living in deserts, and if you have to pay for your air it's going to have a big influence on your culture, even if it’s really cheap. Post-scarcity is not the same as people not knowing or caring about where their needs come from.
For that matter, someone who grew up poor and often went to bed hungry but later became a billionaire is still likely to show behavior influenced by that earlier want of food. They might glut themselves at every meal, or obsess over never wasting a scrap or letting others do so, or something else far more moderate, but that stamp is always on their brain. Civilizations influenced by scarcity might specifically aim to ingrain their youths with such deprivations too, like raising them in humble circumstances, or on virtual worlds where they lead more difficult lives, in order to put potentially useful stamps on their brains. We often use Maslow’s well-known Hierarchy of Needs as a way of judging how far into post-scarcity a civilization is, and in what ways. Maslow’s Hierarchy is a pyramid of human needs or wants, with basic physiological needs like sleep or food or air at the bottom, and more sophisticated or abstract needs like friendship, security, or self-esteem at higher levels. There’s debate about the format of the hierarchy, and objections to what wants and needs should be placed on which tiers, or how they’re divided up, but we’re just using it here for a familiar example.
In a post-scarcity civilization, most of those basic bottom needs are fairly well covered, but it might extend to higher needs and wants as well. Unsurprisingly, things like purpose will need to be there in some way, though one can argue that our biology and society adapt to solve those problems through assigning ‘purposes’ which check those needs. The reason this poses a potential problem is that in satisfying these needs, we also eliminate the purposes tied to them, so as a society becomes increasingly post-scarcity, it might also fall victim to its own success, with a bunch of bored but hedonistic layabouts spending all their time glutting themselves and demanding new entertainments, since they have no underlying motivations to do anything else, except perhaps ensuring that society continues to function at the status quo.
And this society doesn’t need much to function if they’ve got Star Trek technology. We are not shown the person who used their replicator to build a spaceship, with its own replicator and holodeck and fusion plant and hologram doctors, or the average citizen who flew off to the middle of nowhere to wallow in a personal paradise. But Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip, famously mused that if the Star Trek holodeck were ever invented, it would be humanity’s last invention because no one would ever do anything else after that, and it’s easy to see where that would be a temptation.
But hedonism is often a product of boredom or apathy as much as desire. Pleasures can get old, but this may lead us to redouble our efforts toward them rather than simply moving on, because moving on can get old, too. And pleasures that have lost their novelty can still provide distraction from feeling a lack of purpose.
So the notion is that we may have to invent some sort of purpose for everyone to follow. I think I worry about this less than most, because I’ve always figured if purpose and morality really are just human inventions, our ancestors already have a proven track record of being good at making them, and we are more clever than they. None of this is new thought, folks have contemplated whether or not morality and purpose were human inventions rather than discoveries since at least way back to Classical Greece and probably well before, it’s certainly a common thread in philosophy and theology all over the world’s ancient civilizations. My usual reminder to folks is that there’s a lot more of that pyramid beyond basic physical needs, and we often have a greater desire to see those fulfilled.
I don’t think that access to an infinite supply of sex, drugs, and rock and roll is going to result in everyone spending all their time partying. Every generation tends to be worried the next one is indulging in bad vices or over-indulging, and it’s probably not a coincidence that these worries seem connected to needs and desires that either did not previously exist, or ones that were somehow more difficult to satisfy. I could imagine a world where air was limited, like a new colony on Mars or the Moon, having folks who worried their hedonistic offspring would spend all their time hyperventilating. But most things we enjoy have a point of optimal satiation, and a point of diminishing returns.
We also have any number of sufficiently well-off people nowadays or in the past who had various vices they could have indulged constantly yet did not. Granted we have a ton of folks who are spoiled or self-indulgent too but I’m not really sure access to the ability to indulge correlates to a desire to do so, just a capacity for those who do. And let's not fool ourselves here, if you are watching or listening to this show you are probably living better than 99% of humans who ever existed and certainly in many regards.
They might think of us as spoiled self-indulgent brats, they might be right too but I think not, and that greater prosperity has let us indulge in things they did not, like addressing civil rights or economic inequality. But scarcity of a thing can drive desire for it. Pepper used to be a luxury good in Europe, and some folks so valued it that once their means allowed for it they overused it in every dish they could, and while I’d imagine there have been examples of pepper addiction or hoarding down the years, it doesn’t really seem to be a thing society worries on much. Same for any number of other spices whose rarity and trade drove whole economies in the past. Scarcity followed by abundance does not equate to a problem of overuse.
If anything, for a lot of luxuries it’s only their rarity that makes some people fixate on it. That’s a thing to keep in mind when we contemplate scarce resources in advanced civilizations like being the owner of one of the few remaining copies of Detective Comics #27. We might call it a silly desire to seek to own a physical copy of the first story with Batman in it, especially given that you can see scanned copies of it, and it's honestly not very good. It still sold for 1.5 Million dollars at an auction last November. Alternatively abundance can lead to something getting boring and for certain habits or desires that can lead to constantly needing or wanting a new fix, a new toy, some new variant on it. Variety is an inherently difficult desire to sate.
Too much chocolate ice cream gets boring, and you want 32 new flavors to indulge in, though that reference is rather dated now with easy access to thousands of ice cream flavors. This is not necessarily going to become pathological though and we also have to remember that the same sorts of technologies that can hypothetically produce the perfect new drug are also the sort that can hypothetically cure an addiction by flipping a switch. Of course, this brings up the other worry, the dark mirror of the Post-Scarcity Civilization, the Post-Discontent Society, one in which needs are not so much met as bypassed. People are simply made to be content and fulfilled, with the usual assumption being mind-control or indoctrination or something blinding them to their lot. It is one option though for giving folks a purpose, a post-discontent society in which deep senses of purpose and fulfillment are chemically or cybernetically imposed directly onto our neurology. That’s a favorite shared nightmare of both me and the term Post-Discontent’s originator, Jerry Guern, that a civilization might go that path--and maybe more disturbing, that folks might knowingly embrace it.
That someone who was plagued by a feeling of purpose being an illusion might voluntary have a purpose wired into them as a certainty and have their memory of that uncertainty erased, a bit akin to Cypher from the Matrix betraying his fellow crewmembers in exchange for being restored to the fake reality in the Matrix. And if your civilization is really good at neurohacking, you would skip the eating filet mignon and imagining that you’re a rich actor, and just cut directly to states of pleasure and permanent fulfillment you were trying to gain from those achievements. For my part I don’t think we ever really need to worry about folks running out of purposes, at the very least we are darned inventive and darned good at self-deception. So if a sense of purpose and meaning really are mere conceits of humanity, then humanity might be too smart to be deceived by the illusion. However I think it more likely we would just be smarter at crafting new and better illusions. Incidentally I do not believe purpose is a human construct or that life has only the meaning we give it, but it does remain one of my favorite albeit unlikely Fermi Paradox Solutions, that advanced civilizations come to be so smart and rationale that they can’t avoid seeing how illusory and fake purpose and meaning are and commit mass suicide, either the quick way in despair or the slow way from not seeing the point of building things or raising children.
It doesn’t work as a Fermi Paradox solution incidentally, I’m just fond of it for the same reason I enjoy reading books in the Cosmic Horror Genre. First it assumes there is an illusion to see through, which I don’t personally believe but again can’t prove. Second, it assumes the folks seeing through it are all going to see through it at once, and destroy themselves. But that would require everyone in your civilization to psychologically collapse over having their illusions taken away, which is something only the most rare and extreme humans do. In practice you would expect two surviving groups, the ones who guessed what drove others to destroy themselves and took actions like we just suggested, to burn a contrived but purpose-giving conviction into their mind or that of other folks, and another group that just refused to even accept the premise. They and their descendants are going to be fairly resistant to that scenario in much the same way we contemplate for folks who avoided really addictive drugs or virtual reality, if their civilization has big chunks of itself going off to use those to the point the civilization is collapsing, they will still survive and pass on an intense distrust of those options to their kids.
And again, we should only assume a post-scarcity civilization is one wallowing in its own hedonistic indulgence if the society and its individuals actually want to. If they have some other purpose that they see as more important than that, they will have the tools for keeping those indulgences from interfering in pursuing those goals. The same way most living human beings don't use heroin, even if they can afford it and even though heroin reputedly feels really great, our descendants will have to consciously refrain, as a society, from going down certain indulgent paths that will lead to ruin. Such being the case, what purposes are available? Can we use existing ones or do we need to create new ones? Now we’re not necessarily contemplating wildly new purposes either. After all, with our civilization’s advancement and the resulting free time available to many, the growth of education, sports, games and hobbies, and all types of other fulfilling activities, has grown significantly. Exploration, for instance, is a classic and there’s a whole unexplored galaxy out there with probably quintillions of mountains and trenches we might climb or SCUBA dive into.
We also modify our own personal purposes a lot and often they have some deeper purpose too, or background motive, like a desire to be the first at something or pre-eminent at something and that’s a desire a classic post-scarcity civilizations can not fill for everyone. There can only be one world champion at a given sport, one richest person, one nobel prize winner in a given science for a given year, only one person owning the last copy of Detective Comics #27. Although to be cynical for a moment, folks might flee into virtual reality and have their brain tinkered with so they believed they were that champion. Forget about illusions so good they feel real, and imagine self-delusions so good you can’t even know that they aren’t real.
You don’t even know you’re in it because you voluntarily had such knowledge removed from your mind and maybe even had a constraint added to prevent you noticing any indications it was fake. That seems like such a terrifying tool, like some Virtual Reality equivalent to Nuclear Weapons or Heroin, a civilization destroyer. And it might be too, because however addictive a virtual realm might be for us, being able to fully believe in the lie is even more powerful. But before we get lured into dreading that existential crisis, let’s remember that it should be just as easy for someone to have their brain imprinted with a strong compulsion to never go down that road, or to have a contract written up giving someone power of attorney to yank them out of VR and brain-zap them back into reality complete with a desire not to return to that fake world.
So you set yourself up with a brainwash that keeps you from wanting to spend eternity in such indulgences and always have some sort of timer or such on your use of it. Then someone could go enjoy their vacation in VR believing they were a comic book hero and leave that with total recall of it, but entirely able to return to normality. I do believe it will be a challenge in the future for people to find a purpose, same as it is now, but fundamentally I just can’t see it being any harder than now or for them to have any new insights on the topic brought to them by more advanced science.
Knowledge and Prosperity give us many things and will give people in the future more, it can give you new ways to find a purpose or pursue one, but it shouldn’t deprive us of a sense of Purpose. Technology has consistently helped free us from the chains limiting us, and liberating us to pursue purpose, and there’s nothing liberating about a lack of purpose. Our ancestors lived in a harsher world than us, and being preoccupied with overcoming its scarcities and hardships gave them a pretty clear sense of purpose. Even if mere survival doesn’t seem like a very inspiring purpose to us, it is quite compelling. This is part of why we fear the horn of plenty in a post-scarcity world will take away what we need the most, challenge and purpose. And yet, technology and knowledge have freed us from being so preoccupied with mere survival.
They have solved many of our problems, including many of the problems they caused. There’s no reason to suspect that finding a sense of purpose will be a sudden exception to that trend. I do believe it will be a challenge in the future for people to find a purpose, but I see no concrete reason to believe it will be any harder than it is now.
And a major advantage they’ll have over us is that their latest scientific insights into the issue will stem from far more advanced science than ours. And again, just because science can’t speak to abstract concepts like if life really has a meaning or if you have a purpose, does not mean it can not help us with the issues involved in contemplating the topic. And there’s a final, personal thought I’d like to close this episode on.
This goes back to the discussion about this proposed episode’s title and the big response it got in the Facebook poll. I can’t help but feel there was an unspoken question in there, as to how can we find a sense of purpose today, in our own world? I often say the worst vice is advice, but at risk of ignoring my own, I’ll try offering some up on that matter. Our world isn’t quite Post-Scarcity, but it’s certainly Post a lot more Scarcity than our grandparents’ world was. And there are plenty of signs, some subtle and some not-subtle, that our society is fraying at the edges psychologically. Relatively very few people in the developed world are actually starving, but stress is abundant and many are plagued by loneliness and depression, having trouble finding meaningful relationships or work and hobbies that bring them any sense of purpose.
To make matters worse, the people and organizations eagerly offering their suggestions to you on how to find your sense of purpose sometimes have their own purposes in mind, not yours. Well, here’s what I can offer, if you’re feeling a lack of a real sense of purpose. Explore. Keep yourself continually taking in and experiencing new pursuits, new ideas, and new people. Whatever is going to give you a sense of purpose in life, it will be birthed from one of those. People often look at science fiction or fantasy as escapism from reality, and it can be, but it can also be the way to explore to find your place in that reality.
The important thing to take away from those examples is that on the day you first encounter the pursuits and people who will be the most important to you, that will give your life its deepest sense of purpose and meaning, you probably will not be able to recognize them as that. You’ll have no idea how important they’ll be to your life until they’re in it for a while. And that means that if you’re searching for them, you’re searching for something you won’t recognize when you find it. And that means you simply have to invite as many new experiences and people into your life as you can, though while being responsible about it. I’ve often mentioned how lucky I’ve been in the friends and mentors I’ve gotten to have in life, and almost all of them were first encountered by bizarre coincidence, usually months or years before we’d meet again and become friends.
My best friend Bill I first saw while passing by a new platoon at boot camp, not long before I was to graduate, where the Drill Sergeant was busy chewing them out and smoking them while one of them grinned on evilly through the whole thing, and we would meet again on another continent a few months later, where I’d recognize him by that grin. My other best friend Jason shared a hometown with me and we never met till on yet another continent, in a warzone, and just in passing until bumping into him at home. Not long after he’d introduce me to my future wife Sarah, though it would be years before we became good friends and more till we started dating and got married. Each one of them would play a big and totally coincidental role in me forming the channel years later. I’ve lost track of all the peculiar coincidences life has offered, and all the forks in the road taken or not taken, but there were a lot of lessons and experiences along the way.
If nothing else, the journey is often as interesting as the destination. And those experiences will change you. Or at least they’ll draw out parts of you that you didn’t know were there. Don’t fight that, invite it to happen. Push yourself toward that kind of change. Try new things that are well outside your current set of interests, though again, responsibly and carefully.
Meet people of different kinds than you’ve known. And especially, if there’s something that intimidates you, go practice at it. Don’t focus on trying to get an opportunity or self-enlightenment from a given experience, just enjoy the experience.
If you’re helping out at a charity, or helping a friend, focus on giving help, not on how it might help you feel better. It’s been a rough year, there’s no shortage of folks who could use a hand, and if it's been a rough year for you, giving others a hand might make your year feel a bit better. And so, until you discover that sense of purpose, that exploration, that seeking of purpose, can be what gives you your sense of purpose… again sometimes the journey is as interesting as the destination, and becomes the destination itself.
The great thing about living in a Post-Mostly-Scarcity civilization as we do, is that we have unprecedented opportunities to explore in this way, by modern travel, learning new things online, and connecting with people in distant corners of the globe. I’ve met countless awesome folks while doing this show I’d never have been able to meet in prior times. Future generations will be even freer than us, to be certain, but we still enjoy greater freedom to create our own lives in that way than any generations before us. Don’t miss the chance to do so, you are not likely to regret it.
So we have a few announcements along with our schedule coming up, but first, given that our topic was about creating a sense of purpose, and how often I get asked how to start your own youtube show or podcast, it's probably fair to acknowledge that a lot of my own purpose and optimism comes from doing the show. Our hobbies and work shouldn’t exclusively define us but they’re a big part of who we are and often a big part in filling us with purpose and feeling of motivation. If you’re thinking maybe doing a show or podcast is something you want to try out, I’d recommend Marques Brownlee’s “YouTube Success” course over on Skillshare. He’s funny, inspirational, and highly educational.
Fundamentally though, adding new skills to your toolbox is probably one of the best ways to work toward finding or creating or enhancing your sense of purpose, and Skillshare is a great place to do that. They have a ton of useful classes on virtually every topic. Perhaps you’re trying to adjust to working in a new environment or just looking to pick up some new skill or hobby, Skillshare has a course for it, whether you’re a beginner, a pro, a dabler, or a master, Skillshare has thousands of classes on a wide variety of topics from experts to help you learn. Skillshare is an online learning community for creatives, where millions come together to take the next step in their creative journey, and Members get unlimited access to thousands of inspiring classes, with hands-on projects and feedback from a community of millions. If you’d like to give it a try the first 1,000 people to click the link in my episode description will get a free trial of Skillshare premium so you can explore your creativity.
Act now, and start learning, today. Before we get to our upcoming episode schedule, I’d like to thank Jerry Guern, one of our longtime editors, for his help with this challenging episode. If all this discussion of purpose has you in a mood for some deep fictional ponderings on the topic, I highly recommend Jerry’s 6-minute metaphysical fantasy story, aptly named “Purpose”. I won’t spoil any of it, but I recommend you go listen to it over on Jerry’s short story channel, which is aptly named, “Jerry’s Stories”. I’ve put a link to “Purpose” in the Description below and as an in-video card.
So we were talking about Purpose for humans in the future, but what we call humans now might not be entirely accurate down the road, as genetic, cybernetic, and robotic sciences improve, and next week we’ll be exploring the concepts of transhumanism and post-humans. Then we’ll close out April with our Monthly Livestream Q&A on Sunday, April 25th at 4pm Eastern Time, and close April out with another look at the Fermi Paradox, on April 29th, as we contemplate the impact Multiverses and the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics might have on encountering alien intelligences. If you want alerts when those and other episodes come out, make sure to subscribe to the channel, and if you’d like to help support future episodes, you can donate to us on Patreon, or our website, IsaacArthur.net, which are linked in the episode description below, along with all of our various social media forums where you can get updates and chat with others about the concepts in the episodes and many other futuristic ideas. You can also follow us iTunes, Soundcloud, or Spotify to get our audio-only versions of the show.
Until next time, thanks for watching, and have a great week!