Meaning of Life
|THE TEN BIG QUESTIONS
Meaning of Life
There are short answers to this question, like 'love', 'happiness', 'to live truly', 'to truly live', 'life has no meaning beyond that which you give it' etc. If you can find a short answer that seems to answer your question, that is a good place to begin further reflection, if further reflection is needed, which depends how strongly you are wondering.
Then there are metaphysical answers to the question. These are the answers most favoured by philosophers and therefore thought most philosophical. Metaphysical answers are characterised by their embracing quality or comprehensiveness. Religions provide meaningfulness in the lives of many millions. Religions provide metaphysical answers, for instance about the nature of God (e.g. as Creator), the acts of God (e.g. giving us a Law or becoming a human himself) and our relationship with Him (e.g. He loves us, He has given us the sovereignty of free will and so He cannot have power in the world without except through mankind). Metaphysical answers in religion tend to blend with mythological answers, but modern Western philosophers tend not to subscribe to myth.
Philosophers have metaphysical answers of their own, for instance, that Philosophy herself is the meaning of life, or if it isn't, it certainly gives meaning to life. Another example: the meaning of life lies with the ever greater understanding of it. Or the meaning of life is being worked out in (or by) history. Or the meaning of life is hidden in the soul (hence psychotherapy).
All these ways of answering tend, perhaps, to make the questioner feel that the meaning of life is uncertain, and, therefore, that those who say there isn't any meaning, could be right in their judgement. Although how do we know what the criteria for the judgement of this question are?
I would venture that the meaning of life is different for different people. Therefore the meaning of life is not this or that but it depends who you are! The first question on the way then is: Who Am I? This question is not just an abstract question, but it leads to the discovery of meaning in life. This is not necessarily to say that the meaning of life is 'relative'. One of the best places to start to find an answer to the question of who I am, which directs me forcefully toward the meaning of life is the thought of death. I like Nietzsche's aphorism in the Gay Science, entitled, The Thought of Death. Or best of all, Tolstoy's novel, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Confronting the question of death, through reading and imagining, brings us into a sense of the meaning of life. We often imagine dying is something that 'happens', like an event, at the end of life, but being mortal, such as we all are, means I am dying now even I am as I write this and you as you read it. When you can think of death (and it is only modern Western culture that in the history of the world has avoided this thought) you know what is important and what it not; you know what is meaningful and what is not. Not because you know something more than you knew before, not because you are better informed by philosophy, but because you can SEE now what before you could not. The meaning of life is not a datum, it is something that must dawn upon us. The question, Who am I? posed in tandem with the thought of death clears our vision so that the meaning of life can be beheld.
Matthew Del Nevo
Well, nothing is really, objectively important. Whether or not something is of importance is a value judgement: Surely, what is personal to you is important to you? How can you live as if your decisions, thoughts and ideas are simply of no value at all? You would simply have to give up, not bother, collapse on the floor. But after a bit you'd probably find value in getting up and dusting yourself down and getting on with things.
So, as far as immensity of reality is concerned, if you don't mind me saying, I agree that you are not important. But surely you must judge yourself to be important insofar as it is you who has to live this life. It is you who have to live with your decisions, and those close to you care about them too. And, given that they are close to you, they probably think you are important to them.
Why should anything have precedence? Certainly there is nothing in reality which determines what has precedence in value terms, although the natural environment seems quite important to all of us if one of our values is survival.
You and I, Michael, and all the immensities of the universe you refer to, are possibly nothing other than the hair on a flea's leg in some superdimension of which we cannot be cognisant. Okay: maybe we're not; maybe these immensities are 'real' and there is truly nothing other than this one universe we inhabit. Would it make any difference? Are there, in other words, scales of immensity meaningful to us, and is it of any help to our self-perception whether we are a speck in the universe or a hair on a fleas leg? Would it help if I told you that the hair on a flea's leg in our dimension is so enormous, that to a microbe it would seem like the Himalayas? I think the answer is in the negative on all counts.
But let me give you one example where they do count. When you were conceived, your existence began as 1 cell. But your grown body contains 6 billion of these; but although on the scale of 1 cell this is just another prohibitive immensity, here you are, with 'thoughts and ideas, such as love and happiness' etc. You wrote all this down and did not take note of what you wrote? Incredible! You wrote down, 'I have thoughts and ideas' and it did not occur to you what an immense privilege you enjoy! Fancy being endowed by the chance of being born with the gift of thought, the gift of love, the gift of ideas if atoms could speak, do you not think that they would call it grossly unfair that you, a mere speck of mortal dust, should be so privileged, while they, the substance of the universe, are mute and deaf and dumb and in fact does not even possess enough agency to move themselves, let alone a thought!
All right, I exonerate you: after all, we humans do have an overall propensity to be jealous of beasts of prey and lunge at every opportunity to show how clever we are at killing and destroying, while taking the possession of a mind for granted. But this general lunacy does not invalidate my point. You are Michael, you have thoughts and ideas, and one of these thoughts concerns the immensity of the material structure of the universe and the 'puny' You which presumes to want love and happiness. And you wrote all this without realising or thinking about the fact that a handful of humans on this planet, scarcely 4 billion of them, possess minds, that is: self-conscious awareness; and this feature of the universe is so unique and absolutely precious in the face of an immensity of DEAD MATTER, that you felt intimidated rather than elated and grateful and filled with a sense of something so extraordinary that the immensities out there' shrink to a cipher. A sense that the universe is a mindless morgue of matter, which yet, in one remote little corner, began a process that for all you and I know may also have begun in many other places at roughly the same time: a process I call EVOLVING VALUE.
Value: mind stuff! Life!
No other reason whatever can be put up for considering the universe at all. That, potentially, it contains values. That potentially it contains minds. That meanwhile, it actually contains values and minds. And your's is one of them. Without your mind, and my mind, and everybody's thoughts, dreams and ideas, the universe would not know itself.
Yaya alternates between asking genuine, heartfelt questions and asserting claims that seem to rule out answers in advance. Psychology is not philosophy. There are questions that arise from one's inquiring mind that are of interest to other such minds, and there are questions that stem from an investigation into one individual's mental state. I can address only the former.
Some of Yaya's questions presuppose states of affairs that are not obviously the case. For instance, who says people don't do whatever they want? People want a great many things, but they also realize that their wantings are not mutually compatible and so must be ordered (for example, wanting to sleep late and maintain good attendance at one's job). They do what they believe will advance their most important goals. Also, wanting to feel guilt-free is neither a trivial desire nor a function of knowing "who would care."
Some people are remembered through the course of history, and some are remembered longer than others, but Yaya laments that history will come to an end in the (apparently inevitable) heat-death of the universe and, with that, the abolition of all possible memory. First, it is not clear to me why, unless that heat-death is just around the corner, it is meaningless to care about one's immediate future and that of one's loved ones. Millions labor daily for just that, and for them that is enough. Second, even if heat-death were immanent or, perhaps more relevantly, if no human being will remember us or care whether we had lived and died, it still may be the case that God does and will. It may be, for all Yaya has shown to the contrary, that a divine lure has been involved in the self-creation of every fundamental entity via its mentality and has retained knowledge of every one of them. Third, that everlasting divine involvement may also issued in the order of the physical universe. The evolution of that order exhibits a pattern of increasing novelty, complexity, harmony, and contrast. It is not paradise, and the existence of far too many people is hellish, but it is anything but a unqualified "hellhole," if that word has any meaning.
The "point" of our being here is to experience as deeply, richly, and intensely as possible, and to increase opportunities for oneself and others to do so and then to make possible experiences that surpass those. I'm not sure that the possible response, "What's the point of a deep, rich, and intense experience?," is coherent. Satisfying and fulfilling experience is at the heart of what it means for something to have point. As someone wrote recently, "What's my point? Well, does there have to be a point? The enjoyment of spectacular food, or just really good food in large quantities (southern barbeque is a case in point) is an end in itself. There needn't be a political or moral implication, or a practical application, to appreciate and simply enjoy such human artifices as the paintings and sculptures of da Vinci and Michelangelo; Texas-smoked beef brisket; or Newton's calculus." (Brad Edmunds, "Italian Cooking Still Wins," http://www.lewrockwell.com/edmonds/edmonds131.html posted February 12, 2003.) Some experiences are just intrinsically good (satisfying and fulfilling), good in themselves, about which it is absurd to ask, "Now what was that for?" Use your imagination.
That the universe has an order that makes intrinsically good (and rich and complex) experiences possible should caution one against regarding it as a mindless cauldron of vacuous "matter" in which persons (who experience ecstasy as well as excruciating pain) are anomalies. Yaya's despair is premature if he or she has not philosophically ruled out the possibility that the physical universe has a soul that is as organically related to it as we are to our bodies. If God is ever responding to each creature's effort at self-creation by luring (but not determining) them to the best that's possible at each moment, then someone, even if unable to miraculously wipe away every tear, heal every wound, or prevent every calamity, does care.
This site is brought to you by Pathways to Philosophy the world leading distance learning program run by the International Society for Philosophers. More answers to philosophical questions can be found at Ask a Philosopher and the PhiloSophos Knowledge Base.
Webmaster Geoffrey Klempner