… continued from the Preface
- Meaning of Life Versus Meaning in Life
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’s 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 for an amalgam of all the above questions.
Putting our two main questions together leaves four possible (overall) 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 our lives may still be meaningless;
4) The cosmos is (ultimately) meaningless but our lives may still be meaningful;
2. What Do We Mean by Meaning?
We may not be able to precisely define the concept of meaning, but as a starting point we can say that either an individual life or the cosmos are meaningful if they have value, worth, or significance. This implies, I’d argue, that a meaningful cosmos contains properties such as truth, beauty, goodness, and justice, while a meaningful life is one of flourishing, contentment, happiness, and love.
Still, the dominant view today among English-speaking philosophers is that meaning is a final and distinct value. To see this consider that meaning isn’t synonymous with, for example, happiness or moral goodness. We can imagine happy or morally good lives that aren’t very meaningful—lives spent pursuing physical pleasure and collecting coins—and meaningful lives that aren’t especially happy or moral—the life of an unhappy, immoral scientist who makes important discoveries. This shows that meaning isn’t the same thing as happiness or moral goodness. In short, meaning is a unique 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.
Put differently, I’d argue that for an individual life or the cosmos to be meaningful they must matter, be good, and be 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, a fully meaningful cosmos is the best one that can be, and a fully meaningful life is the best one that we can live.
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. I’m not implying that suffering is good or desirable simply that it often accompanies our attempt to live meaningfully. Still, a maximally meaningful reality 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 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 on 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.