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The Meaning of Life

September 3rd, 2007 · Written by · No Comments

Why are we here? What is our purpose? Mustn’t there be a point to this vast, remarkably complex drama being played out on this relatively tiny little speck in the cosmos? In short, what is the meaning of life?

By definition, there cannot be a more important question. Surprising, then, how little attention it receives. Most academics will scoff at attempts to approach the issue in a scholarly context. Popular culture, meanwhile, offers far more questions than answers, and generally concludes discussions on the topic with trite feel-good anthems or recycled therapy-speak. Think, for example, of the string of clichés that closed Monty Python’s delightful romp on the subject: “try to be nice to people…avoid eating fat…and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

In truth, the meaning of life has never really been all that contentious of an issue, as throughout history people have somehow felt they knew what it was even while it was constantly evolving. Ancient tribes were convinced that their everyday activities kept the sun rising and setting and (where applicable) the seasons turning. Early civilizations allowed only a fraction of their populace to reflect on anything but the toils of labor, and those that could (the ruling classes) saw no need to separate the concept of meaning from the concept of power and authority. Plato shifted the locus to a singular natural law he called the Good, a principle curiously concerned with human affairs yet supposedly as objective and discoverable as gravity or mathematics. Christians thought all meaning flowed from one creator god and the role he set aside for each individual, something that was still bound up in the 19th century notion that meaning was all about Progress.

Philosopher David Wiggins suggests that we might be right to envy our ancestors for the certainty and simplicity of the meaning of life in their worlds, where a supreme being or principle dictated the rhyme and reason for everything. But our ancestors were wrong, sometimes dangerously (cf. Spanish Inquisition), and their beliefs were not just factually incorrect, they were theoretically superficial. Suppose the ancients’ daily activities did keep the Sun rising and setting; that still doesn’t establish why it was meaningful for the Sun to rise and set. And if the Christian god confers meaning on human activity, what gives his action meaning? How can he be the source of his own meaning, while a human cannot?

If Sisyphus were somehow endowed with the desire to push the same rock up the hill over and over, then his life would suddenly become a sublime realization of his wildest dreams.

In essence, we have traded the comfort of certainty for the freedom of intellectual independence. But what has that freedom bought us? Precious little, thus far, as meaning, surprisingly enough, remains far from a central philosophical concern. Richard Taylor, brave enough to venture onto the topic in his book Good and Evil, tries to approach the thesis from its antithesis by working backward from a “perfect image of meaninglessness,” which he finds in the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus. King Sisyphus, cursed by the Gods for betraying divine secrets to mortals, was condemned by Zeus to push a single stone up a hill, only to have it tumble back down again, at which time he would push it back up, and again it would tumble down, and so on, forever. The opposite situation, Taylor reasons, would be if Sisyphus did not let the stone fall back down, but instead pushed many stones up the hill in order to erect a great temple at its summit. But Taylor ultimately concludes that this too would be meaningless because of the temple’s inevitable impermanence. This is the same line of thinking that purports to render all human accomplishment meaningless, because all will eventually be incinerated when the Sun goes supernova six billion years from now. But Taylor sees one other way to make Sisyphus’ toil meaningful. If Sisyphus were somehow endowed with the desire to push the same rock up the hill over and over, then his life would suddenly become a sublime realization of his wildest dreams. This is an example of a theory called emotivism, which basically means that if it feels good, it’s meaningful. It is the basic idea behind the popular wishy-washy notion that “love” gives life its meaning, and is precisely what most forms of Christianity fall back to when pressed (C.S. Lewis used humanity’s innate moral compass as an all-too-brief (and conclusive, he thought) argument against atheism).

Emotivism, however, has at least two fatal flaws. First, since it relies on an actor’s desire or feeling as the sole criterion for meaning, the theory is unable to make the simplest distinction between the values of specific actions. Emotivism finds the meaningfulness of Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel or a scientist discovering the cure for cancer equal to that of a blindworm burrowing through the muck (as long as that’s what the blindworm wants to do). Also, since emotivism places the basis for meaning entirely within a single actor’s mind, the meaningfulness of any action is externally unverifiable, and, by definition, completely subjective.

Wiggins makes several key additions to the theory, the most notable being the mutual dependence of subject and object. To illustrate, consider a red ball. The ball is not seen as red by every life form; it needs the color-sensitive eyes of humans and other higher primates for its redness to be recognized. But redness is clearly not all in the eyes of the beholders, either; that is, redness is most certainly a product of the ball’s inherent properties. Wiggins suggests that humans see redness in just the same way as they see meaning, value, or goodness. In each case, human perception “lights up” a part of the world that existed only as a potentiality waiting for a specific “perception apparatus” to recognize it.

Still, Wiggins’ improved theory relies on a phenomenological approach (a fancy term for a layperson’s perspective). Phenomenology is really quite close to emotivism in this instance (both are non-cognitive), and as such it can only provide us with guide-posts toward a logical explanation of the meaning of life.

If those guide-posts point us toward any solution, it must be through a fundamental similarity to moral discourse, and toward something I call relative meaning. Moral relativists believe that right and wrong can only be determined relative to pre-existing frameworks composed of socially agreed-upon values. That agreement is forged through social negotiation, but no small part of it comes from what feels right to the discussants. Consider, for instance, something that is truly terrible, like the murder of a baby seal. The emotional reaction to that atrocity will almost always comes first, followed later by a logical rationalization. Moral relativists conclude that there is not one right or wrong answer to a moral question, but many. If this is also true of meaning, it helps explain the frustration of philosophers and metaphysicians who search in vain for the one meaning of life. In fact, there are many, each relative to a given culture’s conception of reality and discretionary values, with a largely emotivist explanation for the social negotiation that leads to the adoption of those values.

So, we must put the meaning of life right next to morality in the category of really important questions to which there is no one answer.

So, we must put the meaning of life right next to morality in the category of really important questions to which there is no one answer. But is the difficulty we have with such giant dilemmas really all that surprising? Poetically stated, humans are halfway between atoms and stars – the number of atoms in a human body roughly equals the number of humans it would take to equal the mass of the average star. Our species evolved, and we ourselves developed, in a medium-sized world. It was there that we learned how to think. We are understandably baffled by things that happen on a very large (cosmological) or very small (quantum) scale, and only mathematics gives us clues as to what goes on in those domains. Similarly, our world is entirely populated by finite objects, most of which have a clear beginning and end. Thus, we can’t get our heads around something that goes on and on forever in time or space (except for our own lives, which we can’t comprehend as finite because being alive is all we’ve ever known). And although accepting the relativity of meaning leaves us with no one defining purpose, no grand Aristotelian Good toward which we can strive, it does equip us with the ability to construct local paradigms and find meaning within them. That may not sound lofty or magnificent, but it gives us the greatest of gifts: the ability to scratch out a meaningful existence here, with each other, somewhere between atoms and stars.

Tags: Philosophy ·

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