Happiness and meaning while connected, don’t seem to be the same thing. We can imagine a paradigmatic meaningful life that is unhappy and vice versa. For example, one might seek truth, do good things, or produce beauty—paradigms of meaningful lives—and still be unhappy. Or one might have health, wealth, friends, and knowledge—things associated with happy lives—and yet live a meaningless life, say because individual or universal death undermine meaning. We could be happy, but think our lives ultimately meaningless.
Of course we can’t be sure that an individual life or the whole universe is objectively meaningful, but we can still derive subjective meaning by engaging in the worthwhile activities. And such meaningful lives are the most satisfying, the best, and the happiest. As the philosopher James Rachels put it:
“Be as a page that aches for a word which speaks on a theme that is timeless …”
(words and music by Neil Diamond)
All my life I struggled to stretch my mind to the breaking point, until it began to creak,
in order to create a great thought which might be able to give a new meaning to life,
a new meaning to death, and to console mankind. ~ Nikos Kazantzakis
This blog focuses primarily on whether life and death have meaning—the fundamental existential concern of my lifelong intellectual search. The question of meaning, like all philosophical questions I ask, is informed by an evolutionary perspective, without which philosophical answers are incomplete. This perspective has led to my interest in the future technologies that will transform or destroy us, and to the future of cosmic evolution itself.
Nonetheless it is hard to continually discuss such timeless themes. Sometimes we want to discuss current affairs, daily experiences, questions from readers, or important topics not directly related to the meaning of life. Therefore the blog often reflects on these topics, which allows a break from thinking about more substantive questions. Still, regarding any issue, I will try to bring to bear a reasonable amount of analysis and insight.
There are two disclaimers I would issue regarding my blogging on topics other than the meaning of life. First, when I venture in areas in which I lack expertise, my thoughts are less measured and thorough. Regarding issues other than academic philosophy, I can only speak as a reasonably intelligent layperson. Second, I often do not have the time to fully research topics about which I’m not an expert. Many topics I address demand book-length treatment, but I have only limited time and blog space. Thus my conclusions about topics not thoroughly research are provisional.
Still there is something valuable in thinking about topics about which one lacks expertise. First it forces you to keep thinking and to practice writing at the same time. Second such thinking grounds one to reality. For instance, if loved ones ask for practical advice or one reads about some important practical matter, then one should think about these things. Finally, virtually any topic connects to questions of meaning at least in some way, so thinking about almost anything is indirectly relevant. And it is easy to see why.
Consider topics which I sometimes blog about such as politics, society, work, art, education or economics. It is easy to see why the meaningful life depends on a good society and a decent education, as well as on a just political and economic system. It is also easy to see why issues of religion, science, technology, ethics, personal relationships and philosophy are directly related to questions of meaning. In fact these are the primary areas from which most persons derive meaning. So one can connect almost anything I blog about with the question of meaning, no matter how tangential my subject matter may appear from my primary concern.
I hope this explains why I sometimes deviate from writing directly about the most fundamental question for me, the question of life’s meaning. Evolution, transhumanism, science and technology, and all topics that have most influenced me do so ultimately because of my deep concern with life’s meaning. But life’s meaning is not only a theoretical or even existential question, it is a question that demands attention to the details of living. Oftentimes then, I will direct my attention to more mundane matters. Perhaps this is what Wittgenstein had in mind when he wrote: “… we could say that man is fulfilling the purpose of life who no longer has any purpose except to live.”
Answers to the question of the meaning of life fall roughly into one of three categories:
- Negative (nihilistic) answers—life is meaningless;
- Affirmation—it is ok that life is meaningless;
- Acceptance—it is bad that life is meaningless, but we accept this;
- Rejection—it is bad that life is meaningless, and we reject this;
- Agnostic (skeptical) answers—we don’t know if life is meaningful;
- The question is unintelligible; it can’t be answered;
- The question is intelligible, but we don’t know if we can answer it;
- Positive answers—life is meaningful;
- Supernatural (theistic) answers—meaning from a transcendent god or gods;
- Natural (non-theistic) answers—meaning created/discovered in natural world
i. meaning is objective—discovered or found by individual
ii. meaning is subjective—created or invented by individuals.
iii. meaning is both objective and subjective
The Question and Possible Answers – The question of the meaning of life is the most fundamental question of human existence. It asks “what is the meaning, significance or purpose of an individual life in the context of all that was, is, or could be?” Answers to this question come in many varieties: supernaturalists argue that meaning derives from a god or gods; skeptics doubt that an answer to the question exists, or that we could know the answer even if it did; nihilists claim that life has no meaning; while naturalists claim that we create our own meaning (subjectivists), or that we find meaning in the good things in the world (objectivists). None of these answers is entirely satisfactory.
Religious Answers – Religious (supernaturalist) answers are the most popular, but they depend on problematic assumptions about the nature and existence of a supernatural realm. And even if religious claims are true, it isn’t clear how a god grounds meaning. For instance, if you are told that you are a part of a god’s plan you might ask, how does being a part of some god’s plan give my life meaning? Being a part of your parent’s or your country’s plan doesn’t necessarily do that. If you are told that the gods just radiate meaning you might ask, how do they do that? If you can’t be the source of your own meaning, how can something else be? If you are told that a gods’ love gives your life meaning, you might wonder why the love of people around you can’t do that. If you are told that life is meaningful because you will live forever with the gods after you die, you might wonder how that makes life meaningful. (Reading my website for all eternity wouldn’t be meaningful!) You might also question why you would want to live forever with beings responsible for so much evil. So even if there are gods life may still be meaningless.
Philosophical Answers – Turning to philosophical replies to our question, we cannot straightforwardly accept skepticism, since we are forced by constraints of consistency to be skeptical of skepticism. Nihilism haunts us and no amount of philosophizing is palliative in its wake. Yet we reject it too. Why accept such a depressing conclusion when we can’t be sure of its truth? Subjectivism provides a more promising philosophical response—we can create limited meaning without accepting religious, agnostic, or nihilistic provisos. The problem is that the meaning created isn’t enough. We want more than subjective meaning, and the task of creating our own meaning is enormous. This leads us to consider the objective values and meanings found in the natural world—things like truth, goodness and beauty. In the meeting of subjective desires and objectively good things, we find the most meaning available to us in this life.
Death – Yet this is not enough—because we die. How can anything truly satisfy, even subjective engagement in objectively good things, if all leads to nothingness? Death limits the meaning we can experience, since fully meaningful lives necessitate that we live forever. Lives can be meaningful without the proviso of immortality, but they cannot be fully meaningful since they would be limited in quantity. Death puts an end to our meaning and our lives. The defenders of death may claim that death is for the better, but we know in our bones that it is not, as the wailing at funerals reveals.
Transhumanist Answers – Fortunately science and technology may provide our salvation. We might overcome death in the near future using some combination of nanotechnology, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and robotics. But this is not enough, for immortality is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for full meaning. Complete meaning requires infinite qualitative goodness as well as an infinite quantity of time. Yet science potentially solves this problem too. If science can overcome death, why can’t it infinitely enlarge consciousness? With oceans of time for future innovation, it is plausible to think that science could make fully meaningful lives possible; it could make a heaven on earth. Still we have no guarantees. Cosmic evolution reveals the emergence of consciousness and meaning, as well as the possibility of their exponential increase, but it doesn’t imply that a more meaningful reality will necessarily unfold or that a state of perfect meaning will inevitably ensue. We don’t know if science and technology will bring about a utopia or its opposite, or hasten our destruction. And even if a glorious future awaits our descendants, we don’t know if we’ll be part of it.
Hope – Uncertain that life will ever be completely meaningful, or that we will participate in such meaning if even it does come to pass, we can still hope that our lives are significant, that our descendants will live more meaningful lives than we do, that our science and technology will save us, and that life will culminate in, or at least approach, complete meaning. These hopes help us to brave the struggle of life, keeping alive the possibility that we will create a better and more meaningful reality. Hope is useful.
The Purpose of Life – The possibility of infinitely long, good, and meaningful lives, along with the hope that this possibility can be realized, brings the purpose of our lives into focus. The purpose of life is to diminish all constraints on our being—intellectual, psychological, physical, and moral—and to remake the external world in ways conducive to the emergence of meaning. This implies embracing our role as protagonists of the cosmic evolutionary epic. We should work to increase the quantity and quality of knowledge, love, joy, beauty, goodness and meaning in the world, while diminishing their opposites. This is the ultimate purpose of our lives; this is what we should do. This implies being better thinkers, companions, artists and parents. It means acting to promote human flourishing, and ultimate the flourishing of all being. Naturally there are disagreements about exactly what this entails, but the way forward should become increasing clear as we achieve higher levels of being and consciousness.
Is Life Meaningful? – Yet knowing the purpose of our lives doesn’t ensure that they are fully meaningful, for we may collectively fail to give life more meaning—we may not achieve our purpose. Thus the answer to our question is that we know how life could be ultimately meaningful, but we do not know if it is or will be ultimately meaningful. Life can be judged fully meaningful from an eternal perspective only if we fulfill our purpose by making it better and more meaningful. If we are successful, our efforts will culminate in the overcoming of all human limitations, and our (post-human) descendants will live fully meaningful lives. If we achieve our purpose in the far distant future, if a fully meaningful reality comes to fruition, and if somehow we are a part of that meaningful reality, then we could say that our life and all life was, and is, deeply meaningful.
Hope Revisited – For now though, forced to live with uncertainty about the future, we must have hope that life can be made continually more meaningful. Hope provides the impetus for our efforts, and makes the continued emergence of meaning possible. Our hope is no small thing.
The Struggle – The kind of hope we advocate is akin to wishing or dreaming, but it doesn’t expect good things to happen. And our hope motivates action; it is not passive. This hope implies that it’s possible to create a better world, we work for that, and in that struggle we find the meaning of lives.
(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, July 28, 2016.)
I received a correspondence from a reader who wonders about “the triumph of judgment over spontaneity as we emerge from childhood into adulthood and the consequent obstacle it poses for living in psychic comfort.” In other words she worries about how to reconcile “a naturally felt purposefulness and zest for life against an intellectual sense of life’s essential pointlessness and its indifference to human concerns that give rise to the recognition of absurdity.” The only consolation she experiences is with her grandchildren “as they go about engaging the world with perfect unmediated wonder, boundless energy, and demands for attention.”
I too have felt this tension. When I watch the delight my young granddaughter takes in looking at every flower and insect, when I sense the innocent eyes through which she sees the world, I am saddened beyond words. Like any adult I know the ugliness of the world that waits to trample on that innocence. I clearly see the contrast between childlike wonder and the pessimistic conclusions about the nature of reality that mature reasoners often draw. Given this tension, how do we carry on without accepting some silly supernaturalism?
There are a number of strategies we might adopt here. We might follow Victor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning) and conclude that the problem of life is not learning to live with its absurdity—since we can’t know for sure that it is absurd—but to learn to live not being sure if life is meaningful or not. Or we might follow a philosopher like E. D. Klemke’s (Summary of E.D. Klemke’s “Living Without Appeal“) who held that we can find subjective meaning in an objectively meaningless world by responding positively to its beauty. As Klemke put it: “if I can so respond and can thereby transform an external and fatal event into a moment of conscious insight and significance, then I shall go down without hope or appeal yet passionately triumphant and with joy.”[i]
Still I agree with my reader that no amount of intellectual reflection ever fully dispels our deepest existential concerns. For the movement of time spoils even those things that make us happy and which, for the moment, give our lives purpose. This passage of time haunts us; that perpetual perishing which diminishes our joy by its intrusion into the present. This radical impermanence, and our consciousness of it, reminds us that our own demise rushes toward us as the present recedes away. The awareness of our impending doom is a constant companion capable of poisoning our momentary happiness, leading in turn to the inevitable realization that it not just we who may die, but our children, and their children, and all children, and, in the end, all of reality as well.
Reaching the limits of the intellect’s power to dissuade our existential fears, perhaps we can be comforted by an exuberant affirmation of the meaning found in life’s activities. Any serious student of philosophy is struck by the stark contrast between the somber tone of our philosophical musings, and the joy we feel through our immersion in the world of the senses. In the mountains and oceans we see, in the walks we take and the meals we eat, in the joy we find in physical play and philosophical talk, and in the warmth we feel when surrounded by those that love us and whom we love, there we don’t so much find meaning as transcend the need for it. At those times life is sufficient unto itself. When we laugh and play and love, all the misery of the world momentarily vanishes. We hardly give meaning a thought. And if thought brings existential anguish back again—perhaps we can and should think less. In short, we live deeper than we can think.
But is living with less thinking a realistic antidote? Can we live this way after reflectivity has become interwoven into our natures? Can we live constantly in motion, so that troubling thoughts do not disturb? No, we cannot suppress our most important questions indefinitely. For after laughing and playing and loving, thought returns. Why is happiness so fleeting? Why must we suffer and die? Why do we all meet tragic ends? What if all is for naught? We cannot avoid our questions for long; eventually we drop our guard and they return.
But even if we could avoid our deepest questions, should we? I don’t think so. Our questions bring forth the deep reservoir of our inner life that is often hidden from normal viewing, and our curiosity and inquisitiveness ennoble us, differentiating us from less conscious beings. Our thinking may not make us happy, but it nourishes a deep interior life. However much we love the world of body and sense, thought is our salient feature. We should not repress it. And, since we cannot and should not evade our questions, the prescription to find meaning in activity only partially satisfies. No matter what we think or do, our questions remain.
Nothing then completely silences all our doubts and soothes all our worries—not the limited meaning life offers us, not the knowledge of a purpose, not the promise of hope, not the engagement in activity. How then do we proceed? We must accept something of our present life lest resentment cause us to curse it. Yet, at the same time, we must reject the present or nothing will improve. This creative tension acknowledges the limitations of reality as a starting point while rebelling against its shortcomings. It involves working to mold, create, and increase meaning. We don’t know that reality will progress, but if we partially accept our present reality, if we dream of a future without limits and struggle to bring it about, we may increase the meaning in our lives and in the world.
Yet for now we are forced to live with uncertainty and angst, as a testimony to our intellectual honesty and emotional integrity. Unlike those who adopt blind faith, we scorn the facile resolutions of the cowardly. And if we must die, we will die as free people who did not yield to the forces that sought to destroy them from the moment of their birth. Those are the forces we seek to defeat, but which have not yet been defeated. In the meantime, we should relish the limited joy and meaning life offers, work to eliminate human limitations, and suppress negative thoughts as best we can. This is no solution, only a way to live.
[i] Klemke, “Living Without Appeal: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life,” 194
In response to two recent post, “The Monotony of Work” and “Summary of David Foster Wallace’s Commencement Speech,” I received a perceptive comment from a reader. The commentor (C) is a well-paid software engineer who doesn’t look forward to thirty years of the same work. While thankful for gainful employment and recognizing the role that such works plays in sustaining civilization, what bothers him most is that his intellect is on loan to his employer, rather than being used in a search for truth and wisdom. And if he had a job that afforded this opportunity, he would be willing to make less money. (A better alternative would be to have a guaranteed minimum income to allow people to do what they enjoy.)
I was touched by the sorrow C feels in not being able to spend one’s life reading and learning precisely what one is most interested in and considers most important. I too felt that sorrow long ago and was fortunate enough to be able to pursue, and get modestly paid, for doing philosophy. I also relate to the pain he feels in knowing that he will never be able to know and be all that he want to be—a pain that all seekers of truth feel deeply.
C, who is about to become a father, believes that working to support his child will give more meaning to his work. He thinks that working for his child will be more moral and holy than pursuing “amor intellectualis Dei” (the intellectual love of God), for the latter is, after all, a selfish or hedonistic pursuit. Moreover, C had parents who sacrificed so that he was fed and educated. Thus he feels an obligation to do likewise for his own child. Perhaps then his own child to be able to both seek wisdom and be gainfully employed. As for C himself this probably isn’t possible, as his career demands too much of his psychic energy.
This last question particularly interests me. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard famously agonized over whether family life or being a philosopher was his better choice. Family life would impinge on the pursuit of truth and vice versa. Kierkegaard would choose philosophy over his love Regine Olsen, but he forever regretted his choice. Many of us face similar choices. I’ve had many students ask me whether they should major in something they loved with few job prospects like philosophy, or whether they should pursue something more financially rewarding but less interesting to them like accounting.
There are no easy answers to such questions. (I have addressed this topic in depth in “Should You Do What You Love?) What I can say is that even if one is lucky enough to pursue and be paid to do what you love—in my case to write, read, teach, and think about philosophy—one will find that there are unpleasant aspects to the job. You have to deal with uninterested or hostile students, dogmatic colleagues, disagreeable deans, unhelpful staff, boring meetings and more. This recognition might lead us to be more accepting of less than perfect jobs.
However C is correct that marriage, family and other outside interests do give us less time to pursue wisdom. Surely without a family and the demands of teaching so many college classes, nearly 250 in my career, I would have been a more productive philosopher. But would I have been a better one? Would I have gained more wisdom? I doubt it. There is a reason that Buddhist monks considers tasks like washing dishes, planting food, and other mundane tasks as opportunities for Enlightenment. We often find the deepest insights in the most simple things.
All of this reminds me of the words of one of my intellectual heroes, the historian, philosopher, and wisdom lover Will Durant. He says that we cannot definitely answer questions about the meaning of life or how we should live our lives—our minds are too small to entirely comprehend these things. Nonetheless, Durant believes we can say that:
The simplest meaning of life then is joy—the exhilaration of experience itself, of physical well-being; sheer satisfaction of muscle and sense, of palate and ear and eye. If the child is happier than the man it is because it has more body and less soul, and understands that nature comes before philosophy; it asks for no further meaning to its arms and legs than their abounding use … Even if life had no meaning except for its moments of beauty … that would be enough; this plodding thru the rain, or fighting the wind, or tramping the snow under sun, or watching the twilight turn into night, is reason a-plenty for loving life.[i]
We should be particularly thankful for our fellows; they are a primary reason for loving life.
Do not be so ungrateful about love … to the attachment of friends and mates who have gone hand in hand through much hell, some purgatory, and a little heaven, and have been soldered into unity by being burned together in the flame of life. I know such mates or comrades quarrel regularly, and get upon each other’s nerves; but there is ample recompense for that in the unconscious consciousness that someone is interested in you, depends upon you, exaggerates you, and is waiting to meet you at the station. Solitude is worse than war.[ii]
Love relates the individual to something more than itself, to some whole which gives it purpose.
I note that those who are cooperating parts of a whole do not despond; the despised “yokel” playing ball with his fellows in the lot is happier than these isolated thinkers, who stand aside from the game of life and degenerate through the separation … If we think of ourselves as part of a living … group, we shall find life a little fuller … For to give life a meaning one must have a purpose larger and more enduring than one’s self.
If … a thing has significance only through its relation as part to a larger whole, then, though we cannot give a metaphysical and universal meaning to all life in general, we can say of any life in the particular that its meaning lies in its relation to something larger than itself … ask the father of sons and daughters “What is the meaning of life?” and he will answer you very simply: “Feeding our family.”[iii]
Perhaps this is the best we can do to alleviate C’s worries. It may be a simple answer, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a profound one.