On Philosophy

February 25, 2007

The Meaning Of Life

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Worrying about the meaning of life seems like a popular activity. People wonder what the meaning of life is, and if their lives have meaning. And some cling to their religion because they think that their lives will be meaningless without it. Of course as it is phrased the whole issue is nonsensical. Meaning has to do with language, with how a word represents something or communicates something. And a life is not the kind of thing that can represent or communicate, and so it doesn’t make sense to inquire about its meaning. So by these questions people must mean something else, if they mean anything at all.

One way of understanding worries about the meaning of life is as worries about the purpose of life. And one way of understanding what it can mean for a life to have a purpose is to see a life with purpose as one that has a goal towards which it is working. For the religious this usually means a place in the good afterlife instead of the bad afterlife. But this isn’t the only possible goal. A life could be lived with the purpose of doing the most good possible, or of collecting the most stamps possible. As I see it, if a life has a goal it is self-assigned. It is true that external agencies may try to influence people towards living their life with one goal or another (society wants you to contribute, your boss wants you to work, ect), but I don’t think it makes those goals more real or more valid unless the individual chooses to accept them. And of course there is no obstacle to individuals deciding their own life’s goal; we can decide on smaller goals validly, such as to go to the store, to get a job, ect, so there seems to be no barrier in deciding to have a goal that requires an entire life to complete.

Another way of understanding what it can mean for a life to have a purpose is to see a life with purpose as one that is part of some greater process. Obviously the religious interpret this as god’s plan, but again there are many other possibilities. For example, we could see a life as being part of cultural or intellectual progress. And of course there are a number of human designed plans that a life could be part of; you could dedicate your life to serving some organization, which surely has far reaching plans of its own. And again there isn’t a factor that makes any one of these larger schemes more or less valid than another. Obviously personal preference will determine which an individual chooses to be part of, if any, but the fact that individuals choose differently doesn’t make their choices invalid.

A final way of understanding what it can mean for a life to have meaning, going back to the original form of the question, is as one that is important. Of course if something is important it is important for a reason, because it is valuable to someone or something, or because it serves a purpose. Since we have already investigated what it can mean for a life to have a purpose let us instead turn to the idea that it is valuable. Now in my previous discussion of what was valuable I pointed out that value was always relative to someone or some system that can be said to have interests. Again, the religious will say that it is god to whom we are valuable. And again that is not the only possibility. Our lives can be valuable to ourselves, to others, to society, ect. And, as with the previous two possibilities, individuals may decide differently on which viewpoint they want their life to be value to, and there is no reason to say that one of these choices is less valid than any other.

But some may be unhappy with the number of possibilities in each of these ways of understanding what it can mean for a life to have a purpose. It may seem like the number of possibilities devalues them all, making then essentially arbitrary, and thus unfulfilling in some way. I think this is because we may all instinctively want an understanding of the “meaning of life” to be something that makes our lives easier. If there was one simple answer then we could just follow it, and our worries about whether we were living the right way, or if our lives were important, could be set aside. But just because a single answer may be desirable doesn’t mean that there actually is one. However, even though there isn’t a single answer of the kind we may have been looking for it doesn’t mean that there is no answer either. Instead we simply have to make a choice, instead of having that choice made for us. And obviously we will make that choice based on our interests, based on what is important to us, and so the choice made will be different for different people, but that doesn’t invalidate it. Essentially then the meaning of life is what you make of it. You can choose to live in a life that has no meaning, but you can also choose to live one that does, based on the standards that seem important to you; the fact that not everyone else will agree with you has no bearing on the issue.

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