Some activities are not useful and that’s how it should be.
This post presents a philosophical idea inspired by the text of today’s Daf. The Daf is one page in the Talmud that tens of thousands of people study each day. I explain the connection to the text in a comment below. My purpose is to show that there are underlying philosophical assumptions in the Talmud that can have great significance for anybody today trying to understand our complex reality.
There is a much to improve and a lot to fix in this world. We need people to be productive and useful. However, without detracting from that, we also need to stop and value activities that are not useful, but nevertheless good.
I am not just talking about having fun and relaxing. There is no doubt that these recharge our batteries and prepare us for the task of returning to useful activity. There is also intrinsic value in enjoying yourself or the pleasantness of social interaction. But I want to go even beyond that.
There is value in knowledge, understanding, gaining new perspectives, contemplating the “why” in our lives and self-discovery. Yes, all these can ultimately produce useful benefits for ourselves and for society. However, that potential usefulness is not their only value. They are also goals in themselves and not just means.
Study, for example, if it is to achieve depth, requires a significant portion of our lives. Can we afford to devote our valuable time to this activity if it is not targeted at useful benefit?
Many people in today’s world are paid to study, think creatively, gather knowledge and write. They are normally paid to do this by governments or students who are trying to get in with a career. How can we or society afford to fund these lives unless they are being productive and useful?
To narrow the example, I present the field of Philosophy. It seems like every book written must explore useful themes that will solve the world’s ills. Of course, I value this enterprise, but are we making room for non-useful value? Even subjects like Epistemology, how can we know what we think we know, or Metaphysics, the underlying reality of all, seems to need to focus on the Epistemology or Metaphysics that will improve the welfare of the world. I understand that researchers need to win grants and funding often depends on the research being useful, but does this not twist the field into something other than it really is?
Another example, if funding is provided for Basic Science research, the funding will always be justified by explaining that Basic Science is what will ultimately create tomorrow’s technology. If that’s what gets the funding, I can’t argue. But it just keeps underlining the position that there is no intrinsic value in just trying to find out the basic rules of the universe, for it’s own sake.
Perhaps we should change the discourse. The true value in our lives is in what we find meaningful. Of course, if we do not have the useful, we may not get to the search for the meaningful. For our purposes here, the meaningful is that which extends beyond the useful. It is that which has a permanence over and above the few decades of our personal existence. It is that which accesses the truth which transcends our daily life: literary, artistic, mathematical, scientific, psychological and spiritual truths. The useful is a means to an end, meaningfulness is the end.