16 July 2006

I consider the statement "Life is worth living" to be prima facia true. Perhaps that is why asking if life is meaningful gives me so much trouble. It is not a question of "is life worth living" or of what gives meaning to life, but of what makes life meaningful: what makes an individual life meaningful, and to whom. A meaningful life is not one that has meaning to the person living it, or one that is worth living, or one that is good, necessarily. It may be any or all of these, but it is also something beyond that. It is a life that touches others, a life that is somewhat universally and historically significant, as if we were looking down, counting all the lives and going "Yup, that one's important––" it must have an effect on others to be meaningful(and perhaps obviously, the greater the effect, either or both in number of people effected and magnitude of individual effect, the more meaningful the life). This is the only way we can tell if it is meaningful, objectively: through its effect on others.

Perhaps I should now distinguish between a meaningful life(one which has meaning to others) and a life that has meaning. Any life can have meaning: meaning may come from a sense of purpose, or a passionate involvement, or from looking for meaning in life. Meaning is objective, yes: it is derived from a nameable something; a life is, however, only meaningful hyper–objectively. Any number of things can give meaning to a person's life; none of this necessarily makes it(hyper–objectively) meaningful. Some may object to this, saying that because they think or feel that their lives have meaning, they 'do' have meaning, and/or are meaningful. However, this claim is entirely subjective; to 'have' meaning, one must have objective somethings giving life meaning, not just a feeling that it has meaning.

To clarify this, let me explain what I mean by a life touching others(a meaningful life), by saying that most people don't matter to me. This sounds harsh, but I would not be effected by the death of most individuals currently alive(nor was I effected by most people who have already died)––simply because they have had no part in or impact on my life. In fact, only a small number of persons throughout history have individually changed my life: Shakespeare, Stalin, Beethoven, Christ, and Abbie Hoffman come quickly to mind. Of course, this is not including persons I know, or my family. Let us now consider them. Aside from my parents, who would have influenced my genetics even if they had not raised me, how may of these people would have effected me if I had never met them? Of course, they 'did' effect me, because I did meet them, and thus they have been meaningful to my life. But you can see how few people are actually meaningful to me. It is the same for everyone, I am sure, including myself. Except for personal contact, I doubt I have effected anyone. And even among those I have been in contact with, and thus effected to some extent, only a few would flinch upon hearing of my death, and undoubtedly none of them would have had a much different life if someone else had been born in my place. While of course my life seems meaningful to me(I am the most important person in my world, meaning that I am the one I consider first and foremost), that is a biased and subjective judgment. Take me away from my life, and who does it matter to, now that it no longer matters to me? My life then, except to a very few, has not been meaningful. It has made no impression on, or required any response from, the lives of others. It can have meaning to me, but to be meaningful, it must be meaningful to someone else. It is even conceivable that a life could be devoid of any meaning(an infant, for instance), and yet still be somewhat meaningful(to the parents). The two are not necessarily related. Yet for an autonomous life to actually be meaningful, it seems that it must effect more people than those who would be effected by its passive existence(parents and nurses, for example). I say autonomous because some persons have not yet met this criteria(children, or some of the mentally handicapped), and I do not want to dismiss their obvious meaningfulness to those close to them. I do, however, include those who have lost, or given away, autonomy(the aged, those in coma, or the heroin junkie): their lives may have been meaningful, but that doesn't make them meaningful now––which is not to say that they no longer have meaning. They may. This stance comes from a belief that life is not necessarily meaningful, yet life is a good thing to have and thus worth living(this is not to say that other factors may not outweigh this intrinsic value, and has nothing to do with my position on euthanasia, suicide, or abortion and infanticide). This conflict made me question not only what gives a life meaning, but what makes it meaningful. While looking for an objective standard of meaningfulness, I realized what my criteria was(effecting others), and found that most lives have the opportunity to be meaningful: the lives of parents are generally meaningful to their children and visa versa, as are those of friends, and teachers to students, et cetera, because of the influence each one has on another individual. Yet this means that regardless of how full of meaning a life is, it can only be(hyper– objectively) meaningful in the context of others. Something which gives meaning to my life does not necessarily make it meaningful to others. For example, if I were marooned alone on a desert island, I could find meaning for my life in the creative process of writing poetry(more on this below). But unless my work reached other people, it would not have any effect. My work, while being intrinsically valuable and giving me satisfaction(and giving my life meaning), would be meaningless.

Of course, life's being meaningful only in the context of others is contingent upon some value or meaning 'in' the lives of others. After all, if my life is meaningless without influencing others, but others are meaningless, I have no basis for being meaningful. Meaninglessness compounded upon meaninglessness does not create a meaningful anything, but only multiplies the meaninglessness. However, this does not really pose a problem. Because they are alive, most people are to some extent meaningful(whither or not their lives have meaning), as I have explained. But even if I am living my meaningless island life, Shakespeare is still meaningful to me, because I can derive meaning from reading and studying his work. Thus I have meaning, and Shakespeare has someone to be meaningful to.

Or perhaps this is really a question of whither or not humanity is meaningful. Allow me a return question: How would I be effected if there were no species homeo sapiens? The belief that life is not necessarily meaningful was crystallized upon reading Richard Taylor's 'The Meaning of Human Existence'. Taylor's main argument is that lives which have no purpose are meaningless, and ultimately, human lives are no different than those of animals: we repeat a pointless cycle of actions, achieving nothing but our own continuation and the continuation of our species and driven only by instinctive desires, for life's entire duration. Even higher goals, like artistic creation or athletic feats, he says, are no more than a peacock's preening before a hen: a method of making ourselves attractive to the opposite sex. This is quite bleak, and if correct, life does seem rather meaningless. Yet Taylor says that some lives can have meaning, if they have an over–riding purpose: striving toward a particular, realistic or attainable goal of the person's own choosing and design. In other words, he says that creative and intellectual work can give life meaning. Thus, according to Taylor, choosing to write poetry in my isolation would give my life meaning(even though it is no more than preening before an imaginary mate, by Taylor's own account). However, these standards still leave little hope that most people can lead lives which have meaning; most of us are not able to devote our lives to such pursuits.

While part of me agrees with this assessment(the part which makes a distinction between life having meaning for the one living it and actually being meaningful), another part of me was very glad to see Thomas Nagel's chapter, 'The Absurd', argue that some goals(or "pointless cycles") are intrinsically valuable or self–justifying, and that not even the highest of purposes(or one that is attainable, and both chosen and designed by an individual) is ultimately justifiable. One can, after all, ask why one is doing that which is most worthy of being done: what makes that the best thing to do? This satisfies my other belief: that even a meaningless life is worth living. The process of living is intrinsically valuable––or at least parts of it are. In another chapter, 'Death', Nagel expands on this by arguing that if death is an evil, it is only because it deprives us of life––thus ending "all the goods that life contains." These goods, or components of life, such things as thought, perception, and desire, are "widely regarded as formidable benefits in themselves;" they allow us to do and experience things. It is this ability to experience and do, he indicates, that makes life worthwhile even if what is being experienced is more unpleasant than pleasant: experience is worthwhile, regardless of its content. Life is good, then, because it gives us the opportunity to do things and thus experience things.

So life is worth living: it provides an opportunity for experience. But does what we experience have(or give us) meaning? Not necessarily. Meaning is like the bluebird of happiness: you can only catch a glimpse of it from the corner of your eye. It is not something you can simply 'have' or 'get', it is derived from something else: active participation in or pursuit of something else gives life meaning. Thus it is that Taylor can argue that creative acts can give life meaning, while Jonathan Glover proposes that some forms of work can, and Peter Singer puts forward the pursuit of a moral life as a source of meaning. All these, and many other(love, or pursuing an education, for example) activities can give life meaning––they are all active approaches to life. They all require doing something––and thus, also provide opportunity, not only for life to have meaning, but for it to effect others and thus be meaningful. The secret, my friend, is involvement. But what would be a life without meaning? It would be a life of utter passivity; a life spent(or squandered) on the pursuit of nothing. Even a person who spends all her time avoiding challenges or activity does something: she avoids. A life without meaning would be spent in a natural stupor, a coma perhaps. I really don't know. Getting high or drunk gives an addict meaning(though not an admirable one); they at least do something actively, and they experience something. The meaning of life? There is no meaning of life. Life is a process; life simply is (so proceed). It can have meaning––you can find meaning in something other than life, by doing something which will give meaning to life––but there is no meaning of life, native to it. Meaning must be sought elsewhere, and may not always be found: not all lives will necessarily have meaning(though they may be enjoyed, and indeed, people may feel that they have meaning nonetheless), and likewise, not all lives will be meaningful. However, by pursuing something other than life, we are not only much more likely to find meaning in life, but to make our lives meaningful.


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