Meaning of life

From Academic Kids

This article concerns the philosophical question of the meaning of life itself. The Meaning of Life is also a movie by Monty Python.

"What is the meaning of life?" is probably the most-asked philosophical question by humanity at large, though we will probably never find the answer, for whatever reason. Common answers include: happiness or flourishing; love; compassion; pleasure; reproduction; power; 42; knowledge, understanding, or wisdom; and being blessed, or achieving union with God or the divine; or simply that there is no meaning to life. Philosophers, religious authorities, artists, scientists, and countless ordinary people have thought deeply about the question. In fact, the very concept has become such a clich that it has often been parodied.

Contents

What does it mean to ask what the meaning of life is?

When people ask for a meaning of life, they are asking for life's purpose, justification, or goal — not a "meaning" in the sense in which words have meaning. This is why responses such as 'life can't have a meaning, it's not a word' or 'look it up in a dictionary' are fallacious or spurious. The definition of life is an interesting issue in its own right, however, especially as relating to artificial and extraterrestrial life.

We can also separate this question into two different questions; one about the objective purpose of life, and the other about subjective purpose of life. The subjective purpose of life varies of course from person to person, and need not be considered any further.

Many deny that an objective purpose of anything is possible. Purposes, they argue, are purely subjective. Others claim that life has an objective purpose, though they differ as to what this purpose is, or where it comes from.

Topics that one might contemplate, related to the meaning of life, include:

  • What kind of life is worth living?
  • What should we, as individuals, seek to do or be in our lives? This is a basic question of ethics, particularly virtue ethics, which asks how we should develop our characters.
  • Is there a goal toward which society, or the cosmos, is attaining? Many religious believers hold that the world will be transformed or redeemed in the future by divine intervention -- such as the Second Coming of Christ, or the end of the Hindu Kali Yuga. Some secular belief-systems, such as Marxism, have also held out a telos or ideal end-state of society, toward which adherents might strive.
  • Is there a goal or purpose I myself am meant to fulfill? Some persons feel an individual sense of destiny or purpose, whereas others do not. Many regard this sort of sense of purpose as psychologically valuable, but of no metaphysical import.
  • Can I find satisfaction in my life? How so? Utilitarianism considers happiness or satisfaction to be the purpose of our lives, but different philosophies have widely varying definitions of satisfaction. Epicurus saw satisfaction as moderation and freedom from fear. Gautama Buddha saw it as the release from suffering caused by desires and needs. Harry Browne wrote a libertarian self help book on finding happiness through freedom.

How philosophers have addressed the question

Over the millennia, philosophers have had much to say about this question--though philosophers do not fixate on it as much as popular conceptions might lead one to believe. Theories of value--of which there are very many indeed--are not necessarily, but can sometimes be construed as theories of the meaning of life. Great philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, and many others had clear views about what sort of life was best (and hence most meaningful). The 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer offered a bleak answer by determining one's life as a reflection of one's will and the will [and thus life] as being an aimless, irrational, painful drive. The existentialists followed Schopenhauer's lead in addressing themselves to the question head-on. More recently, Robert Nozick discussed the question at great length in his Philosophical Explanations.

Using a general line of thinking exemplified by Wittgenstein and the logical positivists, it could be said that, expressed in language, the question is meaningless. This is because 'meaning of X' is a term in life usually conveying something regarding 'the consequences of X', or 'significance of X', or 'that which should be noted regarding X', etc..

Things in my life can therefore be said to have meaning (for me, for other people): my life can even be said to have meaning (legacy, achievements, family etc).

But to say that life itself as a whole has meaning is a misuse of language, since any note or significance or consequence would be 'in' life and therefore highly dubious in status. The Wittgensteinian line would say therefore that language cannot provide a meaningful answer unless it refers to a realm 'in' the realm of life, but this is not usually given. Other philosophers have sought to discover what is meaningful within life by studying the consciousness within it.

Pragmatic philosophers suggest that rather than a "truth" about life, we should seek a useful understanding of life. William James argued that truth could be made but not sought. Thus, the meaning of life is a belief about the purpose of life that does not contradict one's experience of a purposeful life. Roughly, this could be applied as, "The meaning of life is those purposes which cause you to value it." To a pragmatist, the meaning of life, your life, can be discovered through experience.

Religious views on the meaning of life

Religion itself, it is often suggested, is a response to humanity's search for meaning or purpose. Indeed, the realm outside life itself referred to in the previous passage could be interpreted as the religious or spiritual realm. Most people who believe in a personal God would agree that it is God "in Whom we live and move and have our being". The notion here is that we do or ought to seek a higher purpose that will give our lives meaning.

One particular perspective on how religion answers the purpose for human life is given in the biblical story of creation: That the purpose for man is to "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it..." Gen 1:28 This may indicated that the propagation of the human race, the care and restoration of the earth, and the control of our environment are the three goals God has set for man. However, instructions given by God and "the meaning of life" (or the purpose of one's existence), may not be synonymous.

In Mark 12:28-31, we read about the two greatest commandments of all: "Then one of the scribes ... asked Him, "Which is the first commandment of all?" Jesus answered him, "The first of all the commandments is: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.' This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."

Another perspective looks at the history of what God has taught man, and then summarized. The Westminster Shorter Catechism did so, famously answering at its outset that "man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever." [1] (http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/westcat1.htm)

However, this does not help the non-religious person in dealing with the question "What is the Meaning of Life?" when it is asked in a philosophical context. It is not a complete answer to say "Believe, and you will understand", as this relies on faith in the delivered truth rather than logical or rational justification.

Islam's viewpoint is that God created man for one purpose only and that is to worship God. To Muslims, life is like a test. How well you perform on this "test" will determine whether you get into Jenna (Heaven) or Jehenim (Hell). There is no Purgatory or in-between in Islam.

I only created jinn and man to worship Me. (Qur'an, 51:56)

Purely theological answers raise other questions. For instance, if we exist to obey, how does obeying improve us? If we live to worship God, what is God's purpose? Even for the religious, dogmatic imperatives may not be satisfactory.

Scientific views on the meaning of life

Strictly speaking, as the term "science" is usually defined, there are no scientific views on the meaning of life (and indeed this is often given as a criticism of science itself): science simply addresses quantifiable questions such as By what means? and To what extent?, rather than the For what purpose? which is typically implied in the phrase "the meaning of life". However, many scientific disciplines have given rise to developments which are often interpreted philosophically rather than literally, (and sometimes in different ways by different people), such as Gdel's incompleteness theorem, the halting problem, and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

Some scientific theories suggest that life on Earth was created when a lightning bolt, comet or meteor impact, or other "accidental" event caused a group of organic compounds to bind together forming a primitive cell, which was then able to reproduce and eventually evolve into higher life forms. Based on these or similar theories, some philosophies say that because life was entirely coincidental, one cannot expect life to have any significant meaning at all, other than its own self-perpetuation - the purpose of life is to reproduce.

Other views on the meaning of life

The number 42 as an answer to the question of the meaning of life is a reference to a joke in Douglas Adams's book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. An advanced race of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings (mice) builds a gigantic computer called "Deep Thought" to find the Answer to "Life, the Universe, and Everything!". Seven and a half million years later, the computer gave the answer: "42". After the answer was given, the pan-dimensional beings realized that they did not know the question and an even larger computer (the Earth) was built to find it; however the Earth is destroyed minutes before the final readout. The question is still found though, by Arthur Dent (one of the few that escaped the Earth's destruction). By taking random letters from a Scrabble set he gets: "What do you get when you multiply six by nine" (which involves some artistic license, as there are insufficient letters in an English Scrabble set to make up this sentence). Since 6 x 9 = 54, (although, when in Base 13, 6 x 9 = 42) this being the question would imply that the universe is bizarre and irrational; on the other hand, there is no proof that this was the actual question.

Other notable non-serious views come from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life; According to The Very Big Corporation of America: "One: People aren't wearing enough hats. Two: Matter is energy. In the universe there are many energy fields which we cannot normally perceive. Some energies have a spiritual source which act upon a person's soul. However, this 'soul' does not exist ab initio as orthodox Christianity teaches; it has to be brought into existence by a process of guided self-observation. However, this is rarely achieved owing to man's unique ability to be distracted from spiritual matters by everyday trivia...has anyone noticed that building there before?" At the very end of the movie, Michael Palin, in drag, is handed an envelope, opens it, and says nonchalantly: "Well, it's nothing very special. Uh, try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations."

Rufus, the naked mole rat from the TV series Kim Possible, insists that the meaning of life is cheese.

Jane Roberts in the Seth books gives Seth's distinctive views on the meaning or purpose of life and Seth's view can be paraphrased as "the purpose of life is achieved by being not by doing". More specifically in the books that Seth once described as his masterwork (see references below) Seth introduced the concept of value fulfilment. He said that the concept was difficult to verbalise but meant something like achievement of self-expression. In his works Seth argued that all things are conscious (trees, animals, the environment) and that each conscious entity seeks to more fully realise its potential i.e. it seeks value fulfilment...the exploration and growth of its own way of being.

Paul Gauguin's interpretation can be seen in the painting, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

A supercomputer that had a small appearance in the TV series "The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy" was asked, "What is the meaning of life?" He replied, "Life has no meaning. Only intelligent machinery has any importance on a cosmic scale!"

References

  • Dreams Evolution and Value Fulfilment, Jane Roberts, Amber-Allen Publishing.

See also

External links

de:Sinn des Lebens he:משמעות החיים pl:Sens życia simple:Meaning of life sv:Meningen med livet

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