The meaning of life

What is the meaning of life?

This ubiquitous phrase poses a storied question. Of those to whom it is seriously put (as opposed to its comedic use), many embrace their quandary, while others are certain they know the answer. Variously, the meaning of life might be service to others, obedience to God, achieving inner peace, making a difference in the world, developing one’s talents, or maximizing pleasure. The supposed meaning may sometimes involve human action or obligation, sometimes not. But it is rarely presented as having human origin. That is, the meaning of life comes from outside those who live it, possibly from a god, from the universe, or simply from what seems to make sense.

However, like other inquiries that beg the question, this one assumes a condition or proposition that is not only unspoken, but normally unexamined. Its assumption—and the only condition under which the question is, ahem, a meaningful one—is that life, in fact, has intrinsic meaning.

Consider the intrinsic meaning life is assumed to have. It can be a static quality (e.g., pleasure, peace, honor), but is often accompanied by the supposition that life is “going somewhere,” headed for some goal, final outcome, or end-state (e.g., heaven, nirvana, dictatorship of the proletariat). Moreover, whether life’s meaning is a static state or an ultimate one, it is usually thought to be desirable (except perhaps for those who don’t deserve it, if the meaning involves such judgment). Unlike the physical nature of being consumed in a few billion years by an expanding sun (that’s an end-state, too), the assumed terminus of life’s meaning is normally expressed in spiritual or supernatural terms.

We evolved with an irresistible teleological urge in viewing the natural world. We like to think that everything has an intended purpose, a niche in the universe which it is intended to fill or toward which it is aimed. We talk to little children as full blown animists. But even as adults we frequently slip into thinking the purpose of floral scents is to attract bees, of clouds is to supply rain, of the sun to warm our earth; in an earlier age the purpose of plagues was to punish. Many think a personal tragedy is to teach us some moral lesson. So goes the teleological mindset. It may actually help understand man-made things, but when applied to natural phenomena, it can seduce us into outrageous suppositions.

In teleological thinking, one’s view is as if the future is relentlessly pulling phenomena “forward” toward their purpose, toward some imagined completion or, at least, toward the next step in a sequence. That bespeaks design or purpose outside the thing itself, a supposed backstory for natural phenomena. Left only to guess at these alleged purposes behind components of the natural world, our conjectures know no bounds. We become entangled in our teleology, producing one intertwined meaning after another, as if engaged like Ptolemy sketching complex epicycles, all to support a meaning thought to be written in the heavens.

All religions rest on meaning ascribed not to human agency, but to sources outside the natural world, outside us. Having thus ascribed meaning to an unquestioned source, we become unable to see that meaning comes from us, that we were the meaning makers, not the gods or universe onto which we projected our meanings. Like ancient animists, the trees whisper to us, the wolf’s bay warns us, and the heavens declare the glory of god.

Please notice that nothing in this line of thought stops or even discourages us from vesting in our natural world whatever meaning makes human life more fulfilled, pleasurable, or intelligent. It does imply that life means to each of us only what we make of it. Anthropogenic is not a bad word.

And human origin does not condemn that meaning either to emptiness or to tentativeness. We can choose to make meaning a great adventure of learning, challenge, warmth, love, harmony, and friendship. The universe has presented us with a blank page on which to write. In fact, we have already constructed such meaning into life. That is not a bad thing unless we mistake what we’ve created for a missive from the universe, independent from ourselves. We have meaning in life because we’ve created it, even though we’ve wrongly assigned credit to the supernatural.

There is no evidence that anything in the natural universe has any intrinsic meaning at all. Rain has no meaning; rain is. A sunset has no meaning; a sunset is. Death has no meaning; death is. Love has no meaning; love is. The full moon has no meaning; the full moon is. The universe has no meaning; the universe is. Things are, things happen, things start, things stop. Except for the meaning human beings vest in them, they have no meaning nor do they have need for meaning; they just are.

We can embrace our power to invest meaning, thoughtfully designing that meaning for human benefit. Or we can deny the power, continuing to employ it surreptitiously rather than thoughtfully, thereby not to optimal human benefit.

So what is the meaning of life? Except as each of us decides, there is no meaning apart from our choices.

Intrinsically, then, life has no meaning. Life simply is.

[Comments on, challenges to, or requests about this or any other posting can be sent to johnjustthinking@bmi.net.]

About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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