Sunday, May 15, 2011

And Now for Something Completely Different:The Meaning of Life

I've become bored with recounting some of the events of my life that I find interesting. I assure you that many more events, interesting at least to me, have occurred since the Seventies, where I've left off; perhaps I'll continue recounting them some day, but the closer I get to the present the more delicate it becomes to speak of them. At any rate,  it was my intention from the beginning of this blog to interweave my lived life with theoretical reflections upon it; as I believe each informs the other. I want to turn to an issue which seems to have arisen frequently of late in both my professional and personal conversations; not that I would totally separate the two domains. Otherwise, elucidating their interconnection could hardly have been one of the other intentions of this blog. At this point, I turn with some modesty to another topic: the meaning of life or, more precisely, a reflection on asking the question: "What is the meaning of life?".

That is not a question that would tend to perplex someone who is a firm believer in some comprehensive world view, such as a religion or sophisticated secular ideology: most such world views come complete with answers to the question of the meaning of life. My reflections are mostly oriented toward those who have not adopted one of those belief systems.  It is a question asked with some frequency by the depressed and by those in the olden days of the Sixties were known as "questers". The question can take many forms: "What's the point?"; "What does anything matter given we're all going to die, the human race will some day be extinct and the universe itself will end?"; "What's the purpose of life or, more ambitiously, the universe?"; "Does life have a meaning?" The first response that occurs to me when asked such a question is: besides me, to whom are you asking that question? Meaning is necessarily meaning TO someone. It takes an intelligence of the sort we associate with persons, not an artificial one, to attribute meaning or significance. Consequently, if you don't believe that there is some sort of intelligence that is responsible for the creation and continuation of the universe, it makes little sense to ask the meaning of the universe. The universe itself can't be coherently said to give meaning to anything or to possess meaning in itself; or to think or intend anything; in fact, the universe isn't, strictly speaking, anything in itself, but only an aggregate of things; if there are a plurality of universes, they are all simply aggregates of what there is in that universe.

If you are a seeker, rather than already a believer, and looking for a meaning or purpose of all there is, such a search only makes sense in the context of a transcendent intelligence that created it all. If you are willing to believe in such an intelligence, there are many pre-packaged world views, usually called religions, that include such a being and come complete with a meaning of both the universe and human life; including, happily, your own. Usually, those religions link the meaning of life with some individual reward, which becomes a goal in life. Consequently, you must also be willing to adopt some conception of immortality or re-birth in order to adhere to that particular perspective. Many find it difficult to accept or, indeed, make sense of such metaphysical baggage; others are comfortable with miracles and mysteries that by definition are beyond human understanding.

If you can get past those limitations, there are a variety of world views from which to choose.You can either explore and, perhaps, adopt a world view which is culturally familiar to you or, if you've been alienated by those that are familiar, explore those which find their homes in different cultures. They are almost all a source of comfort: in the sense of purpose they give to an individual life; through the participation in a community that shares their world view; through the practice of rituals which express and embody their particular understand of purpose. If you are not comfortable believing literally in what such a world view has to say about a transcendent intelligence that is responsible for all that exists or individual immortality, many religions offer a space in which you can assume their world view as a story, mythology or metaphor, which can impart meaning even if you do not believe in its literal truth. Characteristically, such a space is on the periphery of the main body of religious adherents and is often dangerous to occupy.

Buddhism and Confucianism are somewhat more complex amongst the pre-packaged, religious world views because they do not presuppose a creator-intelligence. As such, they are not equipped with an answer for the purpose of the universe, but do have answers as to the purpose of human life. Nevertheless, in both world views that meaning is imparted though a divine or semi-devine teacher who is taken to have seen the truth of human existence. Once again, meaning is given by someone, but that someone is not seen as a transcendent creator of all that is. If you are looking for an answer to the meaning of human life and not that of the entire universe, either of those two world views offers sophisticated solutions and communities of belief and practice. Confucianism, in my understanding, which is very limited, is like Judaism in that it doesn't necessarily link the meaning of life with belief in immortality or reincarnation; the reward or objective being more the achievement of respect and reverence within the community and having contributed to its advancement.

Unlike some folks of the atheist persuasion, I wouldn't belittle or lack respect for those who adopt a particular religious perspective for the sense of meaning it gives to their lives. Religions, even when understood as mythologies, are tremendously powerful and can situate people in the world in a way that confers value and significance; can inform their life-choices in productive ways. It is only when such meaning-giving world views are believed to be literally true that a propensity for harm and destruction often accompany them. Believing that your particular world view represents the truth and all others represent falsehoods introduces identity politics, a focusing on us versus the other, that is almost aways an engine of human suffering. Any world view that is taken to be literally true has such a potential, whether it is what we would call a religion or a secular ideology. Communism and fascism have been, during their short time in existence, as much a cause of human suffering as Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism and almost all other major religions.

Some think it is mainly "People of the Book", Christians, Moslems and Jews, who have had a predilection for oppressing those who don't share their versions of the truth, but history indicates that other religions have the same potential. Even Buddhism, which has a good press as a tolerant religion, continues to have adherents who brutally oppress non-believers. Most religions will preach tolerance when finding themselves in a minority and become oppressive as soon as they're in the majority; readily using the state apparatus to force their world views on others.  From the perspective of my own world view the major determinant of whether a particular religious faith is harmful or not depends on whether it is believed to be literally true. Perhaps, I have somewhat digressed, but I want to situate how it is that I believe a person who adopts a religion because it is comforting and embodies values important to that person is to be respected. Why not adopt such a world view if it contributes to your happiness and sense of well-being in the world?

But what if it is is not a viable option for you to adopt a pre-packaged world view; even if you do not understand it as THE literal truth? What if you will not be comfortable unless you know THE meaning of the universe or, at least, of human life? Well, you're out of luck; unless you undergo a conversion experience that leads you to a particular world view containing the answers for which you search or construct your own version of THE truth; even then be aware that in the perception of the vast majority of other humans, you still won't be in possession of THE answer and you are likely to be plagued with both inner and external conflict. Some would claim that insisting the world be as you would want it to be is a cognitive distortion which inevitably feeds depression and anxiety.

I would suggest that there is another important alternative in your quest for meaning; one for which I have a preference: assume to yourself the role as the giver of meaning to your life; create meaning.  Decide what is important to you; what you value and want to contribute to the world; what you want your life to mean to others; what legacy you want to leave to others. You might consider what other traditions and people have pursued as the meaning of life for them and choose what resonates for you. You won't be able to claim that your purpose or objective in life is the only possible one or that it is embedded in some purpose of the universe; you can make your life a vehicle and expression of what is important to you. I find a certain exhilaration in the perception of being in a universe which has no meaning or purpose other than what I choose to give to it; a freedom of structuring a life that represents, as far as that's possible, what is important and valuable to me and in being part of a chosen community which shares similar values.

If you feel that approach is just too pollyanna to pursue, keep in mind the following: I don't think you can avoid attributing some significance or meaning to your life. In virtue of being a human being, you are a creator of meaning; you are going to either adopt someone else's understanding of the significance of life or attribute to it your own meaning. Some may even find meaning in the belief that their life has no meaning; clearly finding pleasure and satisfaction in communicating their perception to others. If you don't make a choice, the unreflective meaning you can't avoid giving to your life by default may, sadly, emerge as banal or self-defeating: "nothing really makes any difference"; "do whatever turns your crank"; ''what's the point?". If you value the role of intelligence in your life (nothing says you have to), isn't it preferable to articulate and attempt to live a life reflecting, as far as possible, your own values and your own sense of purpose? Isn't that worthwhile in itself even if you accomplish nothing of world-historical proportions. On the most modest of scales, your life can make a difference; indeed, will nearly inevitably make a difference. Why not make a difference that you would like and want, rather than just leave the impact of your life to chance; pretending nothing really matters.

I don't think immortality or even belief in the survival of the human race is a necessary condition of imparting meaning to life.  If your own life and the lives of those with whom you come into contact are potentially changed through an interaction with you in a manner that gives you pleasure, is it really important that such an impact be remembered forever and ever? Need it even be acknowledged by others in order to give your life an enhanced sense of having value? Giving meaning to your own life will, on the most elementary, biological level, likely lead you to experience greater satisfaction with life and avoid some of the pain of negativity. I feel what I am suggesting to those searching for meaning to their lives provides a relatively common sense, modest proposal.

I would be very interested in receiving your comments and observations.


  1. Today's (17 May) NYT has an interesting article making many of the same points:

  2. Yes, I saw that article. I think the cognitive/behavioral approach to therapy is largely a common sense, "lets just be reasonable", correction of distorted thinking. As such it reminds me very much of Aristotle's Ethics, which was so much a part of my philosophical background; a connection I might blog about at some point in the future.

    Thanks for the reference and comment.
    Hope all or mostly all goes well.