The Meaning of Life, in 3 Minutes

My friend Lawrence Rifkin MD, who has thought deeply about the meaning of life, recently posted this beautiful, inspriring, and philosophically sophisticated video. I have outlined its basics ideas below, but this is meant merely as a guide, and in no way substitutes for the emotional power of the video itself which I highly recommend.

1. From the Universal or Objective perspective the meaning  or purpose of life is just to stay alive, reproduce, and keep life going.  Without this there is no life.

2. From the Social or Interpersonal perspective meaning emerges from engagement with positive or worthwhile relationships, goals, and actions. Love of people, ideals, knowledge, creativity, helping others or life itself drives or inspires such engagement. Without this there is no progress.

3. From the Subjective or Personal perspective the lack of pain and suffering and the experience of bliss, pleasure, inner peace,awareness, beauty, and happiness give life meaning. Without this there is no peace and joy.

Putting this all together, Rifkin is saying that there must be life as a prerequisite for anything, but from the point of view of the universe there isn’t much more purpose than survival. Since this doesn’t totally satisfy conscious beings, unless survival totally consumes them, deeper meaning emerges from personal and interpersonal perspectives which, when driven by love, produce good things like creativity, productivity, knowledge, inner peace and ultimtely joy. This also entails that suffering, lonliness, hunger, stress, have been minimized.

In the end Rifkin finds meaning in what I would call a hybrid subjective-objective meaning position. Meaning is found subjective engagment with objectively worthwhile things such as relationships, creative labor, inner peace and joy, etc. This echoes the position espoued by the philosopher Susan Wolf, which I have summarized here and here.

One thought on “The Meaning of Life, in 3 Minutes

  1. While I certainly won’t disagree with Mr. Rifkin’s organization of the issues, I’d like to raise a really weird question: why should life have meaning? What does “meaning” mean?

    I have free will. I choose certain goals for my life. Those goals come from my heart; they are manifestations of who I am. I strive to achieve those goals. Is this simplistic approach inadequate? I think not. But I must confess, it feels rather vulgar. I feel like a fat slob in front of his TV popping a beer and saying “I don’t need no stinkin’ philosophy.”

    I suppose that I could reduce this line of thinking to this simple advice: search your heart to find what is truly important to you. Pursue that. Nothing else matters.

    Dammit, I *still* recoil from the simplicity of this approach. Perhaps it seems clear to me only because I clearly know my own purpose. What about somebody who is uncertain? When I was 20 years old, I could not have followed the advice I offer now, because I didn’t know who I was. It takes decades for a person to develop a clear sense of identity.

    So is our problem 1) finding the meaning of life; or 2) figuring out who we are?

    Having raised all manner of complex questions, I’ll now skedaddle…

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