What’s It All About?: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life

What is the meaning of life? It is a question that has intrigued the great philosophers–and has been hilariously lampooned by Monty Python. Indeed, the whole idea strikes many of us as vaguely pompous and perhaps more than a little absurd. Is there one profound answer, an ultimate purpose behind human existence?

image-leftBaggini starts his book with a simple premise, that it is a fallacy to think that understanding the origins of life automatically tells us its end goal or present purpose. But the one does not necessarily follow from the other. a building that was created with a specific purpose, can become purposeless with enjoinment changes around it. the question of Thea meaning of life is not a single question, but a place-holder for a whole set of questions: Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? Is it enough just to be happy? Is my life serving some greater purpose? Are we here to help others or just ourselves? etc.. The writer proposes a rational, secular approach to inquiry the questions. the quest of life meaning is not because we lake knowledge of hidden knowledge or evidence we will or can discover in the future, but through priori knowledge or thinking through the issue where evidence are not available. there are two competing clusters of theories for the meaning and purpose of life

  • (1) Creationist account, the origin of life is some supernatural agency working with a conscious mind
  • (2) Naturalist account, human life emerged as part of a blind process that is not the product intelligent design. and of course there are hybrid accounts where they see god as an intelligent faculty working as part of nature itself rather than working from outside it.

The worry many people have is if naturalist account is true, then life can only be a meaningless accident of nature. if there is meaning at all. As Bertrand Russell put it, ‘The universe may have a purpose, but nothing we know suggests that, if so, this purpose has any similarity to ours.’ the dilemma if we perceive life created by a designer for a certain purpose, if we discover that this creator doesn’t exist then we face life meaning crises, because we lost the source of life meaning! Sartre explains this with a paper-knife analogy, A paperknife has a determinate ‘essence’ by virtue of the fact that it was created by a designer to fulfil a certain function. In contrast, a sharp object like a flint has no essence, even though it too could be used to cut paper. it just happen that humans has found a use for it! If naturalism is true, and life emerged through natural blind processes, then Sartre is telling us we are just like a flint an object with no purpose or essence. we could simply accept that conclusion that life is meaningless, or just like the flint we can try to find a purpose for life that is not its essence. which the direction that Sartre choose, the crucial truth s that because purpose and meaning are not built in to human life, we ourselves are responsible for fashioning our own purposes. our destiny is in our own hand we are free to create our own purpose. There are no general principles or evidence that purposes are more real or important if they are introduced at the design stage (History of Post-it note).

What matter that life has a purpose for us, here and now regardless of its source. Why can’t we invent our own purposes?. Creationist purpose of life in general that god created humans to be fruitful and increase in number; fill and subdue it. it’s often said that we are here to do God’s will. we are an object to be used for the ends of others or as Sartre called it being-in-itself not a being-for-itself a conscious being making choices meaningful for itself. the view that we are created to serve God robs humanity of its dignity, not to mention makes God as egotistical tyrant. This is not the God which most religious believers worship. it seems the more plausible purpose for believers to be do whatever promotes a better life for all. which is not requiring an almighty source. A belief that we were created by God for a purpose does not then provide us with the kind of adequate account of life’s meaning we might expect. Religions are not clear about what this purpose is. The idea that it is to serve God seems deeply implausible and contrary to most conceptions of God’s nature.

knowledge of the creature’s origins does not reveal his life’s meaning, for there is no reason why looking to the past will inform us about our present state and future prospects. The idea that it does is known as the ‘genetic fallacy’. This term was coined by two philosophers, Morris Cohen and Ernest Nagel. The mistake they identified was of confusing the origins of a belief with its justification. Since then, the expression has come to be used more loosely to describe any kind of confusion between an account of origins and an account of something’s current or future nature. An original purpose or lack of purpose does not necessarily fix the purpose of the object for eternity. Purposes can be gained, lost or changed. That is why a consideration of life’s origins has not enabled us to come up with any clear answer as to what life’s purpose is, and why the naturalist belief that life was not created for a purpose does not mean that life can have no purpose.

Life is not about a final result! This is a key massage of the book. Goal-oriented life starts why/because series of question/answers following a temporal dimension and must terminate with a why question with no answer. When we achieve life goals why continue living? Do we simply search for another goal to chase? Or we end life? Moments slip away and so if life’s purpose is tied to moments, life’s purpose too must slip away.

Life meaning can’t be in the afterlife! The author argues for starters people believe in afterlife because of their weak nature, we need to have a teleological reason behind our existence. A greater purpose that explain it all. If the person believe in good existence and created a plan for all of us, this can lead us to give up on search for meaning. Faith can be risky, it can sidestep rationality altogether. Faith is not means to delegate responsibility for the quest of life’s meaning to God. The risk in this line of thought, that you are always responsible for the outcome of your life. On the other hand, some believe if there are no life after death, nothing matters. There are no rational evidence for life after death. We don’t have a reason to believe in the existence of immaterial existence (Soul), there are a wide range of philosophical and rational issues related to the idea of Soul. The important question is, can life be meaningful without a soul or survival of death? The answer is yes, life worth life for its own sake. And why meaning is mystery in this life and will become clear in the next one. It is not clear why eternal life will suddenly help us find meaning. If anything it could be meaningless and full of boredom.

Can life meaning be about escaping the narrow limitation of our own private existence? Altruism could be the ultimate answer to the question of meaning. But who should we help and why? We should help those in need, suffering from deprivation, or not able to lead a fuller life. We help others because we see their life as valuable as ours. But altruism can’t be the meaning of life. It’s a mean to an end, to increase the quality of others life. It also benefit the helper the most, since it provide meaning to their life. No to mention it present a paradox, if successful it will defeat its purpose. No one left to help, hence no altruism and no meaning of life. Helping others to lead a life of the full is a good cause, it helps us to nurture the social nature of our existence.

Maybe helping the entire humanity is the purpose of living. But how helping the entire human race, entails benefits to one’s own welfare? But before answering this question, we ought to define the ontological meaning of humanity. By applying Derek Partfit’s ontology of nation’s theory (Reasons and Person) a specie’s existence just involves the existence of its individual members. We could appeal to evolutionary theory to explain why helping humanity provides meaning of life. But origin doesn’t necessarily reveal anything about purpose. In addition, fundamental unit of selection is not the species, nor the group, not the individual, but the gene. Instead we can appeal to future possibilities. By pushing the boundaries of knowledge, tech, raising children, secure safe societies. But the question remains, why do we need to do any of this? Without an ultimate reason to stop the causality chain somewhere with a teleological purpose, there is no rational in pursing better future for humanity.

Some see the meaning of life in living in the moment. A simple hedonistic life of enjoying self, and the art of pursuing pleasure. But pleasure are not free and come at a cost. Plato argued that pursuit of pleasure foolish because both pleasure and pain are symptoms of the body being out of equilibrium. Moments of pleasure are precious because they pass, because we cannot make them last any longer than they do, but then they cause us pain and regret. Sartre thought we should act without hope, live life in “despair”. We are mortal, and we can only achieve so much through our short journey in life. We can’t rely on others to complete our projects for us. Hence, we should not allow ourselves to be deluded that future we seek will come. We need to make the most of today because life is short; not because we should ignore tomorrow. But first we need to identify what matters in life, otherwise seizing the day maybe an empty pursuit.

Most of us are intrigued to chase success as the ultimate meaning of existence. It is our main door to happiness and great pleasures. Success can be about achieving certain goals and outcomes in life. Or it can be about becoming a certain kind of person by developing self. Success defined by goals one day will come to an end, hence it can’t be the ultimate meaning. But becoming is continuous process that never ends. It’s a journey of self-actualization and discovery. It allow us to live our life authentically, facing it honestly mining the potential of who we truly are. Struggling to become who we are by doing and achieving outcomes is an active process of finding the meaning of life.

Aristotle through happiness ultimate end of human activity. Happiness is always chosen ‘for itself and never for any other reason’. But the word happiness is a vague place-holder rather than a word with a specific meaning or reference. We can loosely define it as a state that provides human with lasting satisfaction and is good in itself. Happiness can be about engaging our higher capabilities, our intellect. Psychological research shows the keys to contentment are stable and loving relationships, good health, and a certain degree of financial security and stability. But what about kind of happiness engaging our lower capabilities? And how to quantify how much happiness is enough for fulfillment? Maybe happiness is good in itself but it shouldn’t always necessarily takes precedence over everything else; there are equally good things for itself, maybe eliminating suffering and do not harm others.

Maybe finding the meaning of life starts with loosening of the grip we have on our own sense of self in favor of some kind of surrender to wider reality. Meaning of life is about care less about the “I”. Detaching from the sense of self and become more in tune with true nature of reality. But first we will have to find out if the self has physical existence or not? Descartes once declared “I double, I exist”, but it looks like he was too certain. Hume purposed the self as a collection of interconnected thoughts and feelings themselves known as the ‘bundle’ theory of the self. Souls are the sum of parts, but it doesn’t mean the sum is an illusion.

Maybe there is no meaning to life at all. It could be a pseudo-problem in the first place meaning has no linguistic bearer on life. But if we understood meaning as importance, then the question becomes, how does life mean something to us? If there is no meaning, maybe then we should stop looking for it. Most deniers of meaning reject only the idea of meaning determined by agents, purposes, and principles external to this world. Maybe the universe has no ultimate meaning, but life does. Life worth living, because it means something to us. It means happiness, authenticity, self-expression, social relationships, and concerns for the welfare of others. Love in its various forms is clearly of vital importance to human beings and is one of the things that makes existence worthwhile.

Finally, one can’t live life and futilely trying to find meaning. Just do it, life your life. You have the power and responsibility to discover meaning for yourself. We all have same needs like other people but it vary greatly in their nature and intensity. But any “guide to the meaning of life” cannot be a complete instruction manual but can only establish the framework within which each individual can construct a worthwhile life.

Interesting References:

  • The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus
  • Existentialism and Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre
  • The Will to Power by Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Peter Singer’s How are We to Live?
  • Why I am Not a Christian, Bertrand Russell
  • Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling
  • Albert Camus - The Plague
  • Bertrand Russell - The Problems of Philosophy
  • Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene
  • Jonathan Glover’s Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century
  • George Bernard Shaw - Man and Superman
  • A. J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic

About the Author

Julian Baggini is the founding editor of The Philosopher’s Magazine. He writes regularly for publications such as the Guardian, Sunday Herald, and The Times Educational Supplement, and is a regular guest on BBC radio. He is the author of several books on philosophy, including Making Sense: Philosophy Behind the Headlines (OUP) and Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (OUP). For more information, please visit the author’s website at www.julianbaggini.com

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