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Quality of Life

Chris Lucas


Is life worth living ? Why ? Assume science makes you immortal, what will you then do for eternity ? Such questions help us to put into perspective just what is satisfying about life and what we would rather discard. But it also highlights that we would not wish to just repeat the same things over and over again - production line style. Even what we love becomes boring if we are forced to do nothing else, humans need variety in our lives. We can use a form of Kant's categorical imperative to ask "what does what we are doing achieve ?" If we all continue doing it for eternity then what benefit is it to us or our world ? If the answer is "not a lot" then we may wish to reconsider our options and construct a better lifestyle or 'Quality of Life' and this is what we consider here.

Before Darwin gave us 'natural selection' many theories of fitness had been proposed, these mostly derived from ethics and were variants on the question "what is the good life ?". Neo-Darwinism answers this only by saying 'survival', a one-dimensional reduction that trivialises life and cannot distinguish bacteria or virus from human or sequoia tree. Here we will say that fitness or 'Quality of Life' is a multidimensional set of values, unique to each organism, person and context. The higher the complexity of the organism or the more developed the person the more numerous the values or criteria for determining fitness become. This dynamic nature of fitness is very different from the static or fixed criteria previously employed, and reflects the coevolutionary insights arising from complexity science.

Dynamic Fitness

Complex systems grow, they change over time, and humans are one of the most complex systems on the planet. The shifting balance between components, whether in cells, minds or societies, makes a static evaluation of fitness invalid, so we must use a dynamic measure. This measure must take into account not only the effects of actions on the organism but also what effects they have on the environment (including other people). Additionally we must consider effects at different levels, e.g. drugs may be psychologically beneficial but damage our cells. A further complication is that effects vary with time, this can work in many ways, e.g. euphoria today, hangover tomorrow or pain this week, fitness next week.

Quality of Life is often defined in a very negative way, simply as the absence of health threatening hazards from the environment or as the absence of disease or medical problems. Even if we take a more positive approach and consider the advantages the environment offers (e.g. in arts, schools, natural beauty, access and so on) this is again a static viewpoint and assumes that a body that is functioning at its optimum in an optimum environment is somehow also optimised. Nothing could be further from the truth, a vegetable could perhaps say that - but not a human.

Optimising Needs

We saw earlier that our human needs group into many areas, but initially we will take for granted the measurable external Primal (survival) and Social (environmental) needs and concentrate on those higher psychological needs that actually comprise our humanity and what they can contribute to our 'Quality of Life' (QOL). We saw that these needs are implemented at an abstract level, they do not relate to the physical world, thus our evaluation of them (in ourselves or in others) is problematical - we cannot measure beauty, or love or understanding using any instrument. Despite this lack of a quantitative absolute measure, we can still easily measure these things in a relative way (e.g. as we do in eye tests - is this lens better that that ?) and for a dynamic fitness evaluation this will suffice.

If we weight (hypothetically) all these needs over a fitness range of 0 to 1, we can see that an optimum fitness could be obtained in multiple ways, there is no 'right' way of living (we are accepting here that we cannot maximise all possible activities at the same time). Similarly, we can see that concentrating exclusively on just one need to the exclusion of others cannot optimise fitness, since having two needs at 0 can't be compensated by a single need going from, say, 0.5 to 1, all three at 0.5 would be fitter. Thus the trend in modern society to specialise could be regarded as fitness reducing to the individual (unless compensated by other areas). The lack of independence between needs results from many causes, a prime one being time (e.g. doubling the time we spend playing golf must take that time from somewhere else, perhaps our family life).

Attitudes to Life

In many respects life is what we make it. It is our personal psychological attitude that defines our abstract level satisfaction or otherwise with our lives. Thus if we are an optimist we will see the good aspects of our environment, whilst a pessimist will only see the bad - thus the same environment is perceived differently. This means that environmental or material change is a poor method of optimisation, it is a crude global change that can make life seem worst for some - even if most like the change. Thus our concentration here on the psychological aspects of fitness should prove beneficial, in the fulfilment of those personal goals that lies behind most definitions of Quality of Life.

Focusing on the abstract aspects of reality gives us considerable scope. The mind (unlinked to material) is totally free, and this freedom means that all of state space is available to us (if we can avoid mental wall building). Thus our options are very much wider than generally believed, assumptions of a static world and a powerless me are invalid. This vast unexplored state space is what we often explore in dreams (day or night) - new free form combinations of existing concepts and variants on them. The world is dynamic and our views are as powerful as we choose to make them. They will be heard if what we say is sensible (and we collectively repeat it often enough !).


Assuming that there is nothing basically wrong in our life (in other words our Primal and Social need structures are in place) what fitness enhancing actions can we take ? Most of us go through life in a repetitive way, we do the same things over and over again, like passive machines. Yet we are not machines, so can readily break free from this outdated deterministic Newtonian model. Even our media and educational systems are locked into this narrow repetitive world - the full diversity and beauty of knowledge and of our world is hidden by a fear of being different, of going beyond the lowest common denominator.

The move towards multiple TV channels, towards online information, towards virtual reality breaks down the stranglehold over information that has steered (and manipulated) our societies over the centuries. New information is itself fitness enhancing, since it provides choice, new options in state space. It also allows us to counter misinformation, to challenge the views that we have had imposed upon us by those holding power (by whatever means). This freedom is itself a major component of Quality of Life.

Social Needs

Returning now to the real world, we must recognise that with all the will in the world we cannot make a silk purse out of a sows ear. If the world in which we live is actually a bad one in some respects, then we are unwise to persuade ourselves that it is good. This tends to invalidate many forms of psychotherapy, which attempt to make us believe that this is 'the best of all possible worlds', and if we cannot accept that then we must be 'faulty' and need 'reprogramming'. Our world today is far from perfect, and the negative effects on our quality of life is obvious - whether as a result of the need to commute for hours a day, suffering arrogant and insensitive leaders, of intrusive noise or all the other obstructive and restrictive practices that comprise our societies.

This level of needs relates strongly to the structure of our society, to the cultural norms that we invent to simplify our interactions. And make no mistake, we do invent these ideas, the values we put on things, on position, on fame or money are arbitrary. Many alternative value systems are possible and many of these will give a better quality of life. We need to carefully re-evaluate all these social attitudes and behaviours to specify just what benefit or fitness they provide, and to be prepared to discard those that have no benefit. We should augment or add alternatives that are more appropriate to a modern interdisciplinary and multidimensional view of quality.

Primal Needs

Mankind has failed dismally in even meeting the first stage of our species' survival needs. Despite all our technological superiority millions die from starvation, from disease, from flood and from natural disasters every year. Due to the insensitivity of the rich few (their inability or unwillingness to consider fitnesses other than their own) the vast majority have their quality of life reduced. Can any aware person say their fitness is maximised if they know of people dying from neglect elsewhere ? Clearly a fitness maximised world would not tolerate this problem.

Control of nature was one of the early ideas behind science. Despite a rather human centered domination ideology, we now have the ability to seriously raise the quality of life for millions, perhaps billions of the inhabitants of this planet. Given that we are connected nowadays more than ever before, this would considerably increase the fitness of the complex system of which we are a part. Like most aspects of fitness maximisation this isn't to do with material world limitations but with psychological ones. It is a problem of attitude and needs to be addressed initially from the abstract level. Quality of Life, essentially is again all in the mind.


Nature is passive, humans are not. That message means that the value of our lives is a fluid quantity. It depends upon many dynamic aspects, relating not only to our own attitudes but to those of our society and our physical or environmental context. As a species we have far more say in our own Quality of Life than other creatures, indeed since we base much of our perceived social fitness on abstract ideas of worth we are in a position to change this fitness globally, almost overnight. What is required to maximise Quality of Life is largely awareness. Awareness of options, of alternatives, of the different attitudes than can be taken, of the limitations of conventional thought processes.

Many of our essays and the complexity ideas behind them relate to the re-evaluation of our thought patterns, of our way of treating the world. In essence this means a move from a static mechanical and materialistic perception of reality to an organic multilevel perception of a dynamic and changing reality. In the latter we are all connected parts of one global ecosystem, interdependent and interrelated. What we do affects other people, it affects their Quality of Life - their fitness and they in turn (in coevolutionary fashion) affect ours. Taking these interactions into account is the key to maximising fitness both as individuals and as a species. This is a multidimensional task, there are many values, at many need levels and many social groupings. This web of diversity comprises our Quality of Life.