… continued from the Introduction
- Two Questions about Life and Meaning
I distinguish between two basic questions concerning life and meaning.
The first is: “What is the meaning of life?” It might also be expressed: “Why does anything exist?” “Does anything matter?” “Does the universe have a purpose?” “What’s it all about?” This is the cosmic dimension of the question. It asks if there is a deep explanation or universal narrative that would make sense of everything, including us.
The second is: “Can I find meaning in life?” It might also be expressed: “What the point of my life?” “Does my life matter?” “What kind of life is meaningful?” “How should I live?” This is the individual dimension of the question. It asks if there is a valuable, significant, or worthwhile way of living that prevents life from being futile, pointless, or absurd.
Thus the often-asked, singular question, “what is the meaning of life?” is really a marker or an amalgam for all the above questions.
Putting our two main questions together leaves four possible answers:
1) Both the cosmos and our individual lives are (ultimately) meaningful;
2) Both the cosmos and our individual lives are (ultimately) meaningless;
3) The cosmos is (ultimately) meaningful but we can still live meaningless lives;
4) The cosmos is (ultimately) meaningless but we can still live meaningful lives;
2. What Do We Mean by Meaning?
In the broad sense, to say that the cosmos or an individual life is meaningful is to say they have value, worth or significance. Moreover, a meaningful cosmos contains things like truth, beauty, goodness, justice, joy, and love, while a meaningful life entails flourishing, satisfaction, contentment, and moral goodness.
Note that meaning is conceptually distinct from happiness or moral goodness. We can imagine happy or morally upright lives that aren’t particularly meaningful and meaningful lives that aren’t especially happy or moral. Still, I’d argue that happy and moral lives tend to be meaningful, and unhappiness and immorality detract from the meaning of life. So, while happy, moral, and meaningful lives aren’t identical, I believe they mostly overlap.
Put differently, both a meaningful cosmos and a meaningful life matter, they are good, and they are long-lasting. The more they matter, the better they are, and the longer they last—assuming all these conditions hold—the more meaningful they are. In other words, what I call a fully meaningful cosmos or reality is the best one that can be, and a fully meaningful life is the best one that we can live. Meaning is, in my view, a final good.
Note too that meaning varies over time. The cosmos may be more or less meaningful now than it will be in the future—it may one day become perfectly meaningful, totally meaningless, or something in between. Individual lives may also become more or less meaningful over time, and their meaning also varies from person to person. In other words, meaning is a gradient good.
However, a meaningful life isn’t necessarily devoid of all obstacles for many meaningful projects—developing our talents, educating our minds, raising our children—involve disappointment that is often at odds with our momentary happiness. I’m not implying that suffering is good or desirable, simply that, for now, it often accompanies our attempts to live meaningfully. Still, the maximally meaningful reality that we should seek would be devoid of evil.
- Should We Ask About Meaning?
Questions about meaning and life arise because we are big-brained hominids capable of adopting a detached point of view—we can disengage from life and reflect on it. This ability to reflect is made possible, or at least greatly enhanced, if our basic needs are met—i.e., we possess a modicum of wealth, health, and education, don’t fear for our safety, live in a relatively just political order, etc.
Our consciousness of suffering, impermanence, death, and our apparent insignificance in the vastness of space and time especially stimulate questions of meaning. We can’t live long without wondering why life is so hard; we can’t love passionately without asking why we and our loved ones must die; we can’t think deeply without realizing that something about life is amiss. We wonder where it all came from, where it’s all going, and what it’s all about. These questions resonate deeply within us and are hard to silence.
Yet even if we could avoid our deepest questions, we should not. Our questioning ennobles us and it is part of the rich interior life that differentiates us from less conscious beings. We simply don’t fully actualize our powers of thought and reason until we reflect seriously about ourselves and our place in the cosmos. The examined life, all other things being equal, is better than its opposite.
Furthermore, good answers to our deepest questions promote our survival and flourishing, as well as aid our descendants in successfully navigating into the future. Without knowing the purpose of our lives we don’t know where we should go or how we should get there. Without an understanding of life and meaning, we are lost, adrift on our cosmic journey without a compass. But where do we look for understanding? One answer is to religion.