(reprinted in the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, May 30, 2015)
Insignificant mortals, who are as leaves are,
and now flourish and grow warm with life,
and feed on what the ground gives,
but then again fade away and are dead.
Life is hard. It includes physical pain, mental anguish, poverty, hatred, war and death. Life’s problems are so significant that humans try desperately to alleviate and avoid them. But mere words cannot convey the depth and intensity of the suffering in human life. Consider that persons are starving, imprisoned, tortured, and suffering unimaginably as you read this; that our emotional, moral, physical, and intellectual lives are limited by our genes and environments; that our creative potential is wasted because of unfulfilling or degrading work, unjust incarceration, unimaginable poverty, and limited time; and that our loved ones suffer and die—as do we. Contemplate the horrors of history, and lives so insufferable that death was often welcomed. What kind of life is this that nothingness is often preferable? There is, as Unamuno said, a “tragic sense of life.” This idea haunts the intellectually honest and emotionally sensitive individual. Life sometimes seems not worth the trouble.
Of course the above does not describe all of human life or history. There is love, friendship, honor, knowledge, play, beauty, pleasure, creative work, and a thousand other things that make life, at least sometimes, worthwhile, and at other times pure bliss. There are parents caring for their children, people building homes, artists creating beauty, musicians making music, scientists accumulating knowledge, philosophers seeking meaning, and children playing games. There are trees, flowers, mountains and oceans; there is art, science, literature and music; there is Rembrandt, Darwin, Shakespeare, and Beethoven. Life sometimes seems too good for words.
Now assuming that we are lucky enough to be born without any of a thousand physical or mental maladies, or into bondage, famine or war, the first problems we confront are how to feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves. Initially we have no choice but to rely on others to meet our basic needs, but as we mature we are increasingly forced to fulfill these needs on our own. In fact most human effort, both historically and presently, expends itself attempting to meet these basic needs. The structure of a society may aid us in satisfying our needs to differing extents, but no society fulfills them completely, and many erect impediments that make living well nearly impossible. We often fail to meet our basic needs through no fault of our own.
But even if we are born healthy and into a relatively stable environment, even if all our basic needs are met, we still face difficulties. We seek health and vitality, friends and mates, pleasure and happiness. Our desires appear unlimited. And presuming that we fulfill these desires, we still face pressing philosophical concerns: What is real? What can we know? What should we do? What can we hope for? And, most importantly, what is the meaning of life in a world that contains so much suffering and death? This is the central philosophical question of human life. Fortune may shine upon us, but we ultimately suffer and perish. And if all our hopes, plans and loves ultimately vanish, then what does it all mean? This question is not just academic; it penetrates to the core of the human existence.
Given the gravity of our query everyone, if they are lucky enough to have the chance, should think deeply about questions of meaning. And they should be honest in their quest, never cheating like the youths that Kierkegaard described: “There are many people who reach their conclusions about life like schoolboys: they cheat their master by copying the answer out of a book without having worked the sum out for themselves.” If we work out the answers for ourselves then perhaps we will find that Rainer Marie Rilke was right when he said: “Live your questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers.”