Philosophical study of life, death, and nature

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Philosophy of Life and Life Studies



Table of Contents

1. What is philosphy of life ?

2. What is life studies?

3. What is a painless civilization ?

*Written by Masahiro Morioka on Jan.17,2004, revised on Apr.19,2004, and slightly revised on April 4, 2010.


1. What is philosophy of life?

The current era is one of environmental crisis and technological intervention in human life. Against this background of radical changes in the circumstances of our lives there is a desperate need to discuss “philosophy of life”. Addressing this need should be an urgent mission for contemporary philosophers.

Of course, there are already movements/disciplines that have addressed these issues, such as "philosophie de la vie" and "Lebensphilosophie" (in the 19th and 20th centuries) and "philosophy of biology". Today, however, a wider scope is needed concerning our philosophical traditions and the range of topics addressed. In English, the words "philosophy of life" can refer to one’s personal philosophy of life, but these words can also be used to refer to a broad philosophical field including such disciplines as environmental philosophy, philosophy of biology, philosophy of death, the study of the meaning of human life, and holistic approaches to environmental education.

We define philosophy of life as an academic research field that encompasses the following activities:

1) cross-cultural, comparative, or historical research on philosophies of life, death, and nature.
2) philosophical and ethical analysis of contemporary issues concerning human and non-human life in the age of modern technology.

3) a philosophical analysis of the concepts surrounding life, death, and nature.

Philosophy of life constitutes one of the most important pillars of life studies. The fundamental task of philosophy of life is to think deeply about the question, "What is life, death, and nature?" Philosophy of life was a major branch of philosophy in ancient times in Europe and Asia, but it seems to have almost completely disappeard from contemporary philosophy. There is no entry on "philosophy of life" in major encyclopedias. Interest in bioethics, end of life care, and environmental issues has nevertheless been growing rapidly. It is now time to reconstruct philosophy of life as a branch of contemporary philosophy. The following is a list of some of the research topics I have in mind.

1) Philosophical inquiry into some basic concepts concerning life, death, and nature
The main task of philosophy of life is to think deeply about concepts concerning life, death, and nature. For example, we are all going to die sooner or later, but what does this mean to us exactly? Surprisingly, this is an extremely hard question to answer. It is closely connected to another question, "what happens when I die?" But we cannot know anything for certain about the answer to this latter query. The question posed by life studies would thus be something like, "What is the meaning of our "limited life" when we do not know anything about life after death?" There are also other important questions to be addressed in the field of philosophy of life, such as "What is a life without regret?", "We are all going to die in the end, so why must we live?" "What is the difference between "life" and "existence"?", and so on. A "life without regret" might be thought of as refering to a situation in which I can genuinely believe that I am happy to have been born when I face my own death, but is this really a correct interpretation? I discussed some of these topics in Painless Civilization (2003). Research on ideas of life mentioned in Section 1 would be of great help in making progress in this area.
I examined these topics further in a paper written in Japanese entitled "What is Life Studies?" (2007).

2) Three natures of human life
See the guiding concept 7 in the life studies section. I believe that further investigation of this topic will provide us with a new research perspective on environmental philosophy and environmental ethics. I am planning to write a new paper that will expand on my former works on this topic.

3) The idea of a "fundamental sense of security"
See the guiding concept 2 (life studies) and the introduction to my works 5 below. We need to make clear what this concept really means in terms of philosophy.
For example, the difference between a "fundamental sense of security" and "human dignity," or the difference between "the fundamental sense of security" and "basic human rights" should be clarified.

4) Relationship and irreplaceability
See the guiding concept 6 below. I called this the metaphysics of "relationship and irreplaceability" in this paper and in the last chapter of Brain Dead person. This concept needs more clarification.

5) Social philosophy based on life studies
The ultimate aim of life studies is to help us live our limited lives without regret. We have to make clear what kind of social principles and social systems are needed in order to achieve this goal, and make clear how they are different from other social theories.
Future research in this area is required.

6) Life and ownership
What is the conceptual relationship between "I" and "life"? People who justify suicide may insist that "one's life" belongs to him/herself, but is this the same as saying that the person owns his/her "life"? The problem of "life and ownership" is probably one of the most important research topics in philosophy of life. This is closely connected to the question "What is the relationship between "the body" and "ownership"?," which was scrutinized in Shin'ya Tateiwa's very influential book On Private Property (written in Japanese) .

7) The problem of killing and/or eating other creatures
We eat meat, fish, and vegetables. We kill animals and plants for food. Most modern philosophers have justified this kind of killing and eating, but are these practices really justifiable from the viewpoint of life studies? Some environmental philosophers insist that all life forms on earth are equally valuable, but if this is true then what we are doing to other creatures should be severely condemned. Some philosophers distinguish sentient animals and non-sentient creatures, but isn't this just a convenient excuse for humans? With the help of biology, ecology and anthropology, we have to tackle this difficult problem in the field of philosophy of life.

There are a number of other philosophical questions to be addressed in addition to the topics listed above, and in order to fully investigate difficult questions in philosophy of life we need to study the ideas and insights of great philosophers of the past. My colleagues and I established a small research center, Research Institute for Contemporary Philosophy of Life , at Osaka Prefecture University, and have begun to set up places to discuss philosophy of life both inside and outside of this college. We are running an academic journal, The Journal of Philosophy of Life . See also my introductory essay, In Search of a Philosophy of Life in Contemporary Society: An Introduction (2010).

* Personally, I do not have a specific religion. I am agnostic, but I have a keen interest in religious approaches. See Lifestudies.Org Top page.

Philosophy of life has a close connection with "life studies" below.


2. What is life studies?


"Life studies" is an interdisciplinary approach to life, death, and nature. We have gender studies, disability studies, and peace studies. I would like to propose one more interdisciplinary-oriented approach, "life studies."

Our life in this world is limited. We are all going to die sooner or later. Life studies is an attempt to acquire the intellectual capacity, wisdom and systematically organized knowledge from a variety of disciplines needed to live our limited lives without regret.

In order to achieve that goal, we need to explore a new field in philosophy, the humanities, and the social sciences. With our program we seek to promote research on the meaning of life, the essence of contemporary industrialized society that makes us lose sight of the fulfillment of life, and scientific technology that can result in the exploitation of human life and the environment. Life studies is an open research program any person concerned with these issues can join.

The ultimate goal of life studies is to help people to live their own lives without regret. We aim to connect philosophical wisdom, academic research, and researchers' own lives.

> See the description of "life" and "meaning of life" in Wikipedia.

Essence of Life Studies

The following are the "methodology" and "guiding concepts" that constitute the essence of life studies.

<The Methodology of Life Studies>

1) One's own life as a starting point and ultimate end
The most important thing is that one's own life should be the starting point and the ultimate end of life studies. In life studies we should never detach ourselves from the problems we are tackling, and should never think of ourselves as exceptions. Knowledge or discussion completely separated from one's own life should not be included in life studies. Mere analysis of ethical concepts or social structure does not constitute life studies. A good starting point for the life studies analyasis of human psychology and ethics, for example, would be a private narrative of one's own experiences. I followed this approach in How to Live in a Post-religious Age and Painless Civilization. Subjective knowledge is as important as objective knowledge in life studies. We need to explore ways to share subjective knowledge among people with different backgrounds. Recently translated book Confessions of a Frigid Man: A Philosopher's Journey into the Layer of Men's Sexuality shows a good example of a life study approach to one's sexuality.

2) Pursuit of "a life without regret"
The pursuit of a life which is not regretted is the ultimate end of life studies. In life studies, all intellectual activities, for example, reading, research, analysis, contemplation, discussion and writing, are connected and integrated toward this end. We should be aware of the fact that our life in this world is limited. We are all going to die sooner or later. Hence, as mentioned above, life studies should be an attempt to acquire the intellectual capacity, wisdom and systematically organized knowledge from a variety of disciplines needed to live our limited lives without regret. In Painless Civilization I presented the idea of a "central axis" that exists at the very core of ourselves, and can enable us to live our lives without regret if we learn how to follow it.

3) Confrontation with our own desires and evil
Life studies encourages us to keep our eyes on our own "desires" and the "evil" that are deeply engraved in hearts. We cannot entirely escape from our own desires and the evil within us. What is needed is not to unconditionally accept them, but to forgive those of us who cannot escape from these parts of ourselves and to constantly seek ways to overcome our tendency to return to them. We need to explore the wisdom and social systems that can aid us in these efforts. Moral imperatives alone cannot change our fundamental attitudes. In the book Painless Civilization I presented the possibility of transforming "the desires of the body" into "the desires of life" and in the book Life Studies Approaches to Bioethics I presented the idea of "retroactive method from the evil."

4) Criticism of contemporary society, civilization, and scientific technology
A search for the meaning of life usually tends to aim at personal healing and self-realization, but we must also go on to the next important step, the criticism of contemporary society, civilization, and scientific technology, because contemporary civilization cleverly takes away from us the meaning of life and the possibility of living life without regret (See Painless Civilization). This criticism should lead to a reconsideration of existing scientific methodology and social systems. We should make clear what kind of society is most desirable in order for all of us to be able to fully pursue lives without regret, and we should make clear how we can create these sorts of social systems. A transformation of the self without any social reform is not the goal of life studies.

5) Inquiry into the world of life
All living things on Earth are closely connected with one another. Humans are no exception. We cannot live without killing and eating other creatures. Our life is supported by fresh air, water, crops, and domesticated animals. One of the most important features of life studies is to think about the meaning of human life in relationship with other creatures on the earth and nature as a whole -- the matrix of life. After we die, our bodies return to the earth and the air. All of the materials that constitues our bodies return to the matrix of life, and the meaning of human life and death should thus also be considered from the point of view of our relationship with nature and the environment. All creatures on the earth, including humans, share both a lot of their genes and the process of evolution by which they are formed, and thus a life without regret cannot be separated from our relationships with other creatures and the natural environment. (See The Concept of Life in Contemporary Japan , and Life Torn Apart).

6) A third way between religion and science
Life studies deals with the journey of our irreplaceable life, which cannot be scientifically replicated, because we cannot live any moment of our life twice. At the same time, life studies says nothing about the existence of God, transcendent beings, and the afterlife, because these are things about which we cannot have certain knowledge. Life studies does not deny science or religion. Life studies simply follows a different path from both science and religion. Life studies seeks a post-religious spirituality of life, death, and nature, without using the language of religion. It is important have a dialogue between life studies and religion. In other words, we need both religious approaches to life studies and life studies approaches to religion.

<Guiding Concepts in Life Studies>

1) Painless civilization
The endless drive to eliminate pain and suffering in our society makes us totally lose sight of the meaning of life that is indispensable to human beings. I refer to this as the emergence of a "painless civilization" in my book of the same title >> See section 3.

2) Fundamental sense of security
In the book Life Studies Approaches to Bioethics I presented the idea of "the fundamental sense of security" as a key concept for future research in life studies.This is "a sense of security that allows me to strongly believe that even if I had been unintelligent, ugly, or disabled, my existence in the world itself would have been equally welcomed, and whether I succeed or fail, and even if I become a doddering old man, my existence will continue to be welcomed." (quoted from this paper). I believe that this will be an important concept in the coming age of new eugenics.

3) The central axis
I introduced this concept in Painless Civilization. I conceived of personal identity as having three layers: a surface identity, a deep identity, and a central axis. The central axis is the most basic layer, but in everyday life many people forget that it exists. The central axis is a path that, if followed, enables you to say at the end of your life that you are happy to have been born. One's central axis can be found by dismantling his or her deep identity. This concept is closely connected with that of "a life without regret."

4) The desires of the body and the desires of life
In the book Painless Civilization I distinguished two kinds of desires, namely, "the desires of the body" and "the desires of life." While the desires of the body seek to protect things such as pleasure, pleasantness, and vested interests, the desire of life tries to discard such things, dismantle the current self, and open oneself to an unexpected future. It is our "desires of the body" that engender the drive towards a "painless civilization." These desires of the body take away from us the deep "joy of life" that can visit us in unexpected ways when we transform ourselves by going through pain and suffering.

5) The reality of a deeply shaken self
When we encounter a situation we have never wanted to experience, especially one that contains a profound self-contradiction, we are emotionally shaken by it, and wish to avert our eyes from what disturbs us. Japanese feminist Mitsu Tanaka calls this kind of experience "the turmoil of the shaken self." But paradoxically, only people in this state of distress can truly understand the deep suffering of others and enter into relationships of mutual support with other suffering people. "The reality of a deeply shaken self" is a concept I introduced in the book Life Studies Approaches to Bioethics in order to enlarge Tanaka's idea. "The reality of a deeply shaken self" is closely connected to "the advent of an absent being."

6) Relationship and irreplaceability
All beings in the universe, especially all living things on the earth, are incorporated into a web of “relationships.” They cannot exist without these relationships. At the same time, every being in these relationships is fundamentally “irreplaceable” to each other. Life studies urges us to view everything from the perspective of the correlation between "relationship" and "irreplaceability." (see The Concept of Life in Contemporary Japan .)

7) Three natures of human life
In a series of essays in Life Torn Apart, I argued that there are three fundamental qualities which are deeply embedded in human beings: "the nature of connectedness (with all living things)," "the nature of self-interest," and "the nature of mutual support." Some of the time these qualities are in harmony, but at other times they come into conflict with each other. I believe that it is important to see the relationships between humans and other living creatures from this perspective.

Research Programs

I would like to propose the following research agenda.

1) Philosophy of life
Philosophy of life deals with such questions as: "What is a life without regret?" and "Why must we live while we all die in the end?" >> See section 2

2) Criticism of contemporary civilization
Life studies should include a fundamental reconsideration of our society which is driven by capitalism, materialism, and scientific technology. The question to be addressed here is whether people can live a life without regret in a contemporary society in which they are obsessed with pleasure and pleasantness. >> See section 3

3) Research on ideas of life
One of the most important research areas within life studies is the study of the ideas of life, death and nature held by ordinary people in different areas of the world. It would be of great help to researchers in life studies if they could find out what ideas and conceptions people have in contemporary society. My paper, "The Concept of Life in Contemporary Japan," describes the results of preliminary research among people in Japan. This research is still going on. In the future research comparing the results of this kind of investigation in different countries will also be needed.

4) Criticism of bioethics
Criticism of "bioethics" is needed because it often lacks insight into the meaning of life, and it also lacks a critical view of the essence of the contemporary civilization that has created bioethical problems. As bioethics research is expanding around the world, now is the time to restructure it by introducing the perspective of life studies. I attempted to do this in Life Studies Approaches to Bioethics (2001) and other writings, some of which (1 2) were written in English. It is also important to connect bioethics to "environmental ethics" because our attitudes toward life are closely connected to our attitudes toward nature. I have written a series of papers in Japanese addressing this issue.

5) Research on human nature and social factors that interfere with our attempts to change
We seek to live a good life and create a good society, but we almost always fail. I suspect there might be aspects of human nature and/or social factors that interfere with our attempts to change our society and ourselves. I propose to research these factors that interfere with positive change from the viewpoint of various disciplines including biology, psychology, history, and the social sciences. This is the sort of research we are going to carry out in the future and we intend to implement a totally interdisciplinary approach in doing so.

6) Research on the fate of social reform movements
This research has a close connection to the approach discussed above. We have had various social reform movements arisen in the past, for example, Marxism, totalitarianism, American capitalism, various religious communities, etc., but there have been few movements that succeeded in creating a sustainable community where severe oppression against minorities did not occur. We need to understand the end results of these movements in order to think seriously about the limitations of "life studies." Future research should also be conducted in this area.

7) Criticism of science from the viewpoint of life studies
The aim of science, especially natural science, is to increase objective knowledge. However, as science progresses, a set of questions that science has avoided asking are starting to emerge before us as unavoidable, such as the question of "the meaning of life", the methodology to be employed in handling "qualitative data", the interpretation of the inner emotions or values of other persons, and so forth. We need a new methodology to handle this kind of "subjective knowledge." As a first step towards attaining this goal, I propose that we begin by criticizing science from this perspective. We can then go on to the second step, the creation of a new methodology for dealing with subjective knowledge. This is another area of potential future research.

8) An untouchable area in regard to human life
In the near future various advanced technologies are expected to invade the human body, DNA, and the brain much more deeply in the near future than they ever have before. It may be time to set up an "untouchable area" in regard to human life where technological interventions are prohibited. We need to protect this untouchable area from our own desires. (But we do not necessarily need to be conservative to support this idea).

9) Life studies approaches to various disciplines
I think it would be an interesting idea to introduce some basic concepts of life studies to various other disciplines or movements, such as psychology, nursing, sociology, religion, ethics, cultural studies, and so on. Life studies would presumably be able to stimulate these disciplines, and as a result lead to engagement in fruitful dialogue. I tried to do this in Life Studies Approaches to Bioethics (2001), a book in which I criticized the framework of contemporary bioethics from the viewpoint of life studies. I am thinking about taking a similar approach to ecology. Many similar initiatives should be possible in future.

10) Connection of academic research to the researcher's own life
The most important thing in pursuing life studies is that a researcher him or herself live his or her own life without regret. In this sense,
academic research that will not help transform the researcher's own life should not be called "life studies." Life studies encourages a researcher to rethink his or her actual life and transform it, and then express this painful process in some form in order share it with the rest of us. I tried to depict this process in Painless Civilization (2003). Following this approach should lead to the transformation of both our social systems and our intellects.

My previous works in the field of life studies

You can read several papers in English on this website, but most of the essays, papers, and books on life studies I have written are in Japanese and have therefore only been posted on the Japanese website. I am going to translate them into English in the future. Here is an outline of works I have published in the field of life studies.

1) Human relationship oriented analysis of brain death.
In Brain Dead Person (1989), I maintained that brain death should be interpreted as a form of "human relationships." I paid special attention to the emotional aspects of this issue and the inner reality of the family members of a brain dead person. A translation of this book is available. Legal and sociological aspects of this issue are addressed in Special Reports.

2) Research on ideas of life among ordinary people.
Some results in this area were presented in the paper "The Concept of Life in Contemporary Japan " (1991). Many Japanese (and probably people around the world) understand the idea of "human life" in relationship with that of "nature." The concepts of "life," "spirit," and "nature" overlap with one another in their worldview. The keywords here are "interrelatedness and irreplaceability." I discussed cultural differences in philosophy of life in the paper "Bioethics and Japanese Culture" (1995) and "Cross-cultural Approaches to the Philosophy of Life in the Contemporary World" (2003).

3) A third way between religion and science.
In the book How to Live in a Post-religious Age (1996), written as a reaction against the 1995 Sarin nerve gas attack by the Aum Shinrikyo cult on the Tokyo subways, I discussed a way to seek "spirituality" and the "meaning of life" outside religion.

4) Three natures of human life.
See guiding concepts 7.

5) A fundamental sense of security.
In Life Studies Approaches to Bioethics (2001), I discussed the idea of a "fundamental sense of security" as a key to thinking about the negative psychological impact of a new eugenics (See guiding concepts 2). You can read a summary of this argument in this paper. I believe this term will become one of the basic concepts of "life studies."

6) Research on men's sexuality.
In the above book, Life Studies Approaches to Bioethics, I examined "men's sexuality" that sometimes indirectly forces women to abort a fetus when men are not willing to have a baby. This kind of "violence" is lurking in the dark side of human nature and should be brought to light in the field of life studies. In The Insensitive Man, I further analyzed this dark side of men's sexuality and proposed a possible method of dismantling this twisted male sexuality from the perspective of life studies.

7) A criticism of contemporary civilization.
>> See Section 3.

*You can see a list of my books here, which may be helpful in understanding what life studies is.
*There is also an essay, The Structure of the Inner Life of a Philosopher: The Multi-Layered Aspects of Speech, which might also be helpful.


3. What is a painless civilization?

Life studies urges us to rethink the whole system of contemporary civilization because it doesn't seem to provide us with a sufficient opportunity to live lives without regret both in developed and developing countries. Criticism of contemporary civilization is required in life studies.

In Painless Civilization: A Philosophical Critique of Desire (2003), I presented fundamental criticisms of the negative aspects of contemporary civilization, particularly in the USA and Japan, in terms of life studies. The endless tendency in our civilization to eliminate pain and suffering makes us totally lose sight of the meaning of life that is indispensable to human beings. I examined our desires, and divided them into two categories, "the desires of the body" and "the desires of life." I am planning to translate the whole book and publish it in English in the near future. For the time being, the essence of the book can be gleaned from a shorter paper entitled Painless Civilization and Fundamental Sense of Security (2005). I have recently begun to think that I will have to write a second book continuing my discussion of the topics addressed in Painless Civilization.