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Saturday Feature
Life and its purpose
Syed Fattahul Alim

          The capacity to think is purely a human domain. Lower animals are probably deprived of the intellectual faculty that stimulates in one's brain the kind of cerebral activity called the thought process. The various kinds of activity that people pursue differ from those of animals in that the former weigh their actions according to certain values. At the most fundamental level all values are either right or wrong. One may also term those values as good or bad. One can also conceive of a grey or neutral region between the good or the bad, which is neither good nor bad. But in the final analysis, in the decision-making process it is the perceptual categories of right and wrong or good and bad that that play the central role. The animals, on the other hand, are not driven by any kind of values. They simply follow their instincts in their choice of actions. The animals may also follow a certain set of instinct-guided actions they might have learnt under special conditions. These learned behaviours are nothing but conditioned reflexes. Nevertheless, one may tend to read those conditioned behaviours in animals as thoughtful activities guided by the dictates of the value judgement. Ironically, humans lack the freedom of being value-free that animals enjoy. Therefore, more often than not they have to plan each step of their actions they pursue to achieve their goals in their day to lives.
Wait a bit! Do humans always plan their actions and do the instincts not play any part in their decision-taking process? Not in the least. Humans, too, have instincts, though they are not the slave of the instincts like the animals. So, they also respond to the command of the instincts as well as the learned behaviours in addition to using their intellect to plan their actions
Life indeed would become unbearable if we had to think and plan each step of our everyday chores. Careful thinking and extensive deliberations are undoubtedly the royal road to success in life. Examination of real world situations would show that much of what we call considered opinion is not considered at all. It is often repackaged old notions or beliefs. Sometimes, the pet notions or beliefs are used by people as thoughtless tools to arrive at a creative solution to a problem. Small wonder, most of our smart thinking that makes modern life is based on such repetitive thought stereotypes. Such type of thinking by which we solve problems and take decisions is time-bound, purposeful and focussed on the issue of interest. In fact, the thought stereotype universally known as efficiency lies at the core of all our activities. That is the dominant work culture of the world. And that culture, as everyone knows, is the Western work ethos and mind-set. Aimless musing, pondering and contemplation have no place in such a mind-set because they are purposeless and inefficient. So, it is at the altar of efficiency that all kinds of lax, non-focussed and timeless thoughts have been sacrificed.
But there is still a class of people who are unmitigated slackers. They will not go fast in spite of the relentless goading of the modern way of efficient, fast and result-oriented thinking. Poets, philosophers and scientists (not those who have always to prove their worth through efficient discharge of know-how at the laboratories and research establishments owned by the corporate business houses) belong to this category. Modern-day workaholic, highly focused people of worth do not think much of these stragglers. But even half a century back in our society and say, at least one century earlier in the western societies, people did not think time was in short supply. They took time in thinking and also in doing things. There are still others, though marginalized, in societies that are yet to catch up with the fast western mode of life who do not rush to whatever they think or do.
Are those people wasting their time and thus losing opportunities? Can one then hurry in what is called creative work, such as painting a picture, writing a poem, speculating on the mystery of life or of the universe? Can one really hurry in saying one's prayer or while in meditation? This is the world of slow, fuzzy and hazy thinking. There are no clear-cut goals and the thinker is not going or reaching anywhere. She or he would be in a playful mood, and just wondering or simply enjoying the passing moments. In this misty, elusive, inarticulate world of emptiness, the mind works at a transcendental level. Here time is not at all an adversary but a companion in a mission to be at one with the universe. Here the thinker is not an agent who is in hot pursuit of the fugitive truth. Rather when one is in such a contemplative or meditative mood, new ideas or fresh way of looking at things just emerge out of nothingness. This is how the great thinkers of the past and the present have been coming up with fresh insights into the world they have discovered themselves in. The great twentieth century philosopher and physicist Albert Einstein often gazed out of the window of his Princeton study; Japanese physicist Hideki Yukawa got the solution to his nuclear problem in his dream. Many of the new technological discoveries made by the American inventor Bill Lear just occurred to him at the most unlikely moments. Poet Rabindranath Tagore was always in the habit of daydreaming and got most of the plots of his stories and poetry through flashes of insights. So, the lazy thinkers contributed most to the world of ideas that led to the great technological discoveries rather than those otherwise disciplined and result-oriented scientists or entrepreneurs. Deliberation as it is understood by the protagonists of the modern-day corporate work culture has practically no role in hitting upon new ideas or making great discoveries and inventions that changed our outlooks about life and the world we live in.
Man's outlook about the world is now changing very fast. The less developed societies are now in a great race to be in the mainstream of life, which is time-bound, efficient and impatient. Few places that could so far hold out against this mad culture of immediacy are now slowly giving in.
Life is full of unanswered questions. In most cases the questions remain pure question marks on life till the end of time. But that is not because the questions hold some ultimate mystery about life or its situation. Nothing like that. They remain unanswered because no one ever tried to know their answers. And it may also be that people who were around the probable source of those questions quite forgot about them. Those may be very simple questions with simple answers or may not at all be the kind of situation in our day-to-day life that needs any answer, but they are questions all the same. When strangers' paths cross, questions certainly pop up in the mind of each about the whereabouts of the other. But that happens for a fleeting moment and then vanishes into the void of eternity. People never ache for a moment for the lost encounter or for the hint of query that occurs ephemerally. Those are just small ripples in the neurons of the brain like bubbles popping up in tranquil water and, for no particular purpose.
True, the questions in life that clamour for any answer have always something to do with purpose. Had there been no purpose, even the question of question would not have ever arisen. The conceptual category called meaning is also linked to purpose and to the questions it bring into being. So to be of any use in life, questions have to be purposeful and, of course, meaningful. The absence of this quintessential ingredient in any question that may cross human mind at any moment of time renders that particular transient state of mind in the shape of a question meaningless. So, that kind of evanescent mental state cannot merit further discussion. But still, most of us, like the Indian novelist Arundhati Roy, who shared her feelings by these words, "I love the unanswered question, the unresolved story, the unclimbed mountain, the tender shard of an incomplete dream. Most of the time," have a craving for those leisurely moments when one would simply gaze into space purposelessly, without the brow having to be furrowed in thought, without caring about the meaning of things.
Life is larger than the question of purpose or purposelessness, aim or aimlessness. The problem of intellect and value-guided purpose, aim or goal seems pointless when one puts it within the overall context of the universe of which one is a part. Does it at all matter to the cosmos if a life form known as human being living in one of its little known corners is taking pride in its ability to exercise a certain kind of brain activity called thinking?


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