On Philosophy

November 12, 2007

Things Best Left Unconsidered

Filed under: The Good Life — Peter @ 12:00 am

Unraveling the meaning of life and its associated problems isn’t really that hard, when we set aside any prejudices about what we would like the answer to be like. But, on the other hand, doing so is a problem of its own, because in a paradoxical way pulling back the curtains and revealing what the meaning of life really is in this way may make some people actually less happy, less satisfied with life. And it’s not simply because they are asking the wrong questions, wondering about the meaning of life when what they really want to know is how to be happy or satisfied with life. But perhaps I am racing ahead of myself here.

Let’s begin again then by considering what kinds of answers people want, in order to begin with concrete observations instead of vague talk. In my experience what people want to hear when they ask “what is the meaning of life?” is an affirmation that life has purpose. They want to hear that there is some grand plan that they are part of; possibly religious, in terms of a divine plan, or possibly naturalistic, in terms of a vaguely understood goal for all life to spread out or some uniquely human destiny to make intellectual and social progress. What they want is an explanation that “makes sense of it all,” which puts the apparently random organization of the universe into perspective, and illustrates how what may seem pointless or arbitrary from our perspective is actually part of a coherent structure on some larger scale. The problem then is that while lives can be meaningful, at least to the individuals leading them, there simply is no larger perspective where it “all makes sense”. There are no grand plans, no blueprint for the overall structure of the universe. Although it is true that there are trends, and life tends to evolve and spread out, this is not some greater destiny, and we can’t, with a straight face, argue that the universe would be worse off if there was no life in it at all. Certainly it would be worse for the individuals who were wiped out by such a change, but there is no other, larger, perspective from which we can say this is good or bad. And so, while we can answer the question, we can’t give the kind of answer desired (perhaps this is why the problem seems so hard to some, because certain expectations about what the answer must be like prevent them from arriving at any answer).

But if people are motivated to inquire about the meaning of life this indicates that they want the answer to do something for them, and that the answer we actually provide is unsatisfying, meaning that it can’t serve the purpose they intended the answer to, then we are left with another task for philosophy. Specifically we must uncover what problems drive people to ask these questions, and then we must seek some other solution to those problems. Just because uncovering the meaning of life didn’t solve their problems doesn’t mean that solving their problems is impossible. I think what motivates people to ask about the meaning of life is unhappiness, or some other form of dissatisfaction with life. Perhaps they feel that their life is pointless or that the universe conspires to make them unhappy. Thus they want to know what the meaning of life is because they want the big purpose behind it all to be revealed to them, so that they can see how they really do matter, despite the fact that their life appears pointless. And if the real meaning of life essentially boils down to the meaning we give to our own lives (as I claim) then this doesn’t help people in this situation any, because they haven’t given their own lives meaning, or they wouldn’t be asking the question in the first place.

Now the simple solution, if I may use such a phrase, is simply to direct these people to the things that they already deem genuinely valuable, genuinely worthwhile, or those things that make them genuinely happy, and point out that there is meaning to be found in them. Fixing such a person’s unhappiness then is simply a matter of pointing them again towards the things that matter to them, from which they have been distracted for some reason. But not everyone driven to such questions has merely misplaced the things that matter. Perhaps the reason that they are dissatisfied with life is because nothing genuinely matters to them. What should we do with such a person? Or maybe what a person finds genuinely valuable are things external to them. Maybe all they really care about is fame or wealth or pats on the back, and, not being given these things, they find themselves unhappy. Again, with such a person we can’t simply point them towards these things, because they are out of their grasp and we would effectively be making them worse off by directing them to eternally fall short of their own goals, and thus be miserable.

So discovering what the meaning of life is may be worthwhile in its own right, as all knowledge is, but our real task is to find something to do with the people who are driven to ask such questions, to give them advice that can lead them to escape their difficulties and thus remove their desire to ask these questions, but not necessarily to give them the answers they think that they seek. Here we are really faced with two problems. One is to discover what to do with the kinds of people described above, those who are unable to give their own lives meaning. The other is to describe how a compromise might be achieved between a meaningful life and practical concerns. This might seem like a completely unrelated problem, but I think practical concerns can put some people in situations where they are prevented from pursuing what seems like completely reasonable ways of making their lives meaningful. And, if they choose practicality over meaning, that too may lead them to ask what the meaning of living in that way is.

But, first, let’s consider how someone who is unable to give their own life meaning might improve their situation. One way might be for them to go out and experience more, to try more new things, in the hope that they will come across something that does genuinely matter to them. However, there is no guarantee this will work. In fact the assumption that it might work is somewhat predicated on the idea that the person in this situation has lived a relatively narrow life, perhaps intensely focused on something that they had convinced themselves mattered, such as making money, but which they now realize was pointless. But who can say that everyone comes to these questions in that way? Perhaps they have lived a relatively aimless life, in which they tried a great number of things because nothing seemed to matter, and still find life generally pointless. In such a case it is genuinely impossible, at least as far as I can see, for them to make their lives fully good. What we must consider then is damage control, how to make the life of such a person as least bad as it can be. I would recommend complete distraction, so that the person in this situation simply never has time to reflect on the pointlessness of it all. They should take an intellectually demanding job with long hours and then invest heavily in entertainment, so that each day is full with nary a free moment. Such a life may be pointless, but at least the realization that it is need not ever bother them.

Now we can turn to the person who does have some things that are genuinely valuable to them, things that they would really like to do. However, they don’t feel comfortable investing the time that would be required to pursue them. Because, unfortunately for some, we live in a capitalist society, which means that if society at large doesn’t find some value in what you do, however satisfying it may be to you, then you will be left without the means to pursue what you like. Thus jumping headlong into a life that seems meaningful may be too risky for some, because, while there is a chance that they might be able to make it work out, there is also the chance that it might not pan out and that they will effectively wash out of society. Of course in my eyes that is a risk worth taking, because a life with meaning is better than a life without, no matter how much longer or more comfortable. But not everyone will make the choice that way, some people will take the unpleasant but practical choice over the risky alternative. What advice do we give to such people? Well, it may be possible for them to pursue what they really like on the side, and that is the best of both worlds. And they may be able to make only small concessions to capitalism, working part-time or taking the occasional year off in order to have enough time to do what is really important. But maybe that can’t work, for whatever reason. In that case I would give the same advice to the person who couldn’t discover anything that was genuinely important, to distract themselves sufficiently so that the pointlessness of life never comes up.

And that is why this post is entitled “Things Best Left Unconsidered,” because for some people, through no fault of their own, the meaning of life really is something that they are better off not thinking about.

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