The comic and the analogy really hit a spot because like many others, I've dealt with some form of existential depression -- I'm not not intelligent enough to have the full-blown version, but reading about it for the first time was an emotional experience. I, too, thought that life was a donut, but for a different reason. Donuts were addictive yet void of nutritional value, and I thought life was like that. We chose to live not because of a conscious decision, but because we are shameless addicts who take our addictions for granted.
That's why the comic failed to comfort me. Its argument is based on leaving our donut-loving-addict-ness unquestioned. Yes, I'm asking you the question:
"Why should we even like donuts?"to which a reasonable answer might be:
"Because they taste good."
...but of course I knew that as well as you, so I explain,
"Yes, but why should we like things because they taste good?"which doesn't sound like a question that makes sense. After an afternoon of discussion, we might get to the question: why should pleasure be intrinsically worthwhile or meaningful? It's really hard to answer without begging the question.
This all sounds pretty depressing. Thankfully, my interest in depressing blog posts has waned. Instead, I'd like to offer an alternative to Stanley's "donut analogy" as to why one should live. It is what I call the "dream test".
Suppose that you are having a lucid dream -- a kind of dream where the dreamer knows they're dreaming. You've been in the dream for long enough that you don't recall who you really are, but you do know that it's a dream that would eventually be over. What would you do in that case? Would you just try very hard to wake up just because you'll eventually have to wake up?
Hell no! You're in a lucid dream! If you've been in a lucid dream, you'll know that there are so many fun things to do in such dreams. Fly around. Try to teleport. Make things appear and disappear. Make yourself invisible. Explore this dream state.
Sure there aren't many inherent value in things. Dream donuts might taste good but there is no point in accumulating as many of them as possible. They'll all disappear once you wake up.
But, the experience itself has value outside of the dream. Once you wake up, that experience stays with you. The knowledge, the (self?) understanding, and the experience all stay. Maybe this is why spending money on acquiring experiences makes people happiest.
So here's my answer to the kid in the comic:
What's the point of all this? Why live if we're gonna die anyways?
Well, remember the last time you had a dream? What if you suddenly realized that you're dreaming, and can control things in the dream? Pretty neat huh? In that case, wouldn't you want to explore, and see what you're capable of? Would you think about trying to wake yourself up, just because you know that the dream is going to eventually end?
No! Because the dream is going to be an interesting experience. Sure it might be short, and sometimes scary, and sometime sad, but you can experience a lot and learn a lot about yourself.
...and at the end of the day, you will having one interesting story to remember and share. Who knows, maybe the experience that we're building up in "real life" will be meaningful somehow too.The difference is that the focus here is on experience rather than pleasure. It is easier for me to accept that experience might be of importance after we die, and that thus dying now is equivalent to dying later. It is a lot harder to say the same about pleasure. (I'm not certain what's going to happen when we do die, but I sure would bet that experiences have a higher likelihood of persisting compared to, say, donuts.)
I sometimes use this "dream test" to tell if a goal or aspiration makes sense, given that we don't live forever: suppose you're hit by a bus and enter a very deep sleep. While you're asleep, you dream that you've gone through the process of achieving that goal, or became what you aspired to be. Would you be content, knowing that that had only been a dream?
If you are content with having the experience of achieving that goal, then you will probably say yes. If you are looking for the effect of achieving the goal, then you will probably say no.
If you said "no", then you might want to think twice about working towards that goal.