Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Musings on The Meaning of Life

I'd like to continue the Open Conversation on The Meaning of Life that Melbourne Philosopher began last month. I agree with him that "The meaning of life is only the meaning that people give to it."

Each person creates their own meaning or purpose in life. It is a necessary truth that we have no externally assigned purpose or function. Free agents are not the sorts of things that can be bound by external purposes. Some people believe that God gives our lives objective meaning. They're wrong. Any meaning their life has comes from themselves, not from God. They have chosen to make fulfilling God's will the purpose of their life. God did not, could not, decide that for them -- not if they were free agents.

But then, what makes doing God's bidding any more meaningful than doing your own, or someone else's? Suppose that God created you for a purpose. Why should you care about that? It does not give your life any objective purpose. It merely has a purpose to God. God's purpose need not be your purpose.

Imagine that I created an army of intelligent, self-aware robots, for the purpose of taking over the world. Now consider one of those metallic free agents. Is it this individual's purpose in life to help me take over the world? Not necessarily. It may be my purpose for him, but thinking agents can rebuke the 'purposes' of their creators. They must, in the end, decide their own purpose in life for themselves.

Even if God existed, he could not do the impossible by assigning objective values to things. If he made us for a purpose, that would merely be our purpose to him. (It remains an agent-relative purpose, even if that agent is God.) A valued object matters to someone, it cannot just matter, simpliciter. That's as incoherent as an object being "lower", simpliciter. (Lower than what? Matters to whom?)

So really the Big Question is not "What is the meaning of life?", nor even the more individualized "What is the meaning of my life?", but rather:
  What meaning does my life have to me?

And that is a question that no one else can answer for you. Not even God.


  1. Its a very existentialist idea, but it goes right back to Ecclesiastes where Soloman wrote that life was essentially "foolishness - a chasing after the wind". He has lots of gorgeous wives, lots of wealth, great projects to work on (ornate temple, vineyards, etc), fame among kings and queens from far off lands. But he considered it all as "a chasing after the wind". Even leaving a legacy to your kids was pointless if they did not appreciate the work that went into it -it would be readily squandered when you were gone. He sums up his advice:

    7 Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do. 8 Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. 9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun— all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, [a] where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.
    Ecclesiastes 9:7-10

    Since our lives are ultimately meaningless we are left with only the meaning we ascribe to it. Taking enjoyment from our relationships and our work.

    If God is real and is a person who knows you and cares about you (the loving, benevolent character of God), and he has a plan/ will for your life. That plan would naturally, be the most significant course of your life possible from *His* perspective. It is still over to you to decide to align your will with His and take on Gods plan and make it your own, ie. have a shared plan/ purpose to your life.

    That is essentially the goal of christianity -to seek Gods will for your life through prayer, meditation , conversing with Gods spirit within you to get in tune with what Gods purpose/will is, and then adopting it for your life as best you can, day by day. That is the spiritual life / journey in christianity (i admit i'm ignorant of what other religions that believe in a God do).

    From this perspective, life is essentially meaningless. But we *decide* that Gods will for our lives is signficant, and not meaningless, and in fact is the only thing that can truly provide meaning to our lives. This stems from the belief in who God is, and his message to us.

    So I guess I agree with your final statement, but my answer to that question for myself is that my own self-willful purpose for my life is not what is ultimately important as it does not derive true meaning for my life. It is Gods will for my life which provides my life with meaning. I realise the apparent circularity to the argument.. since I am deciding that Gods will is meaningful, and thus am deciding my own lifes meaning by making that decision!

    Christianity is filled with such paradoxes, to quote JC:

    39If your first concern is to look after yourself, you'll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you'll find both yourself and me.
    -Matthew 10:39 (The Message)

    It is certainly very tempting to think God does provide us with objective meaning because of the nature of who God is. I'm not 100% certain yet that he doesn't... But one thing I feel I can say is that having Gods meaning for my life as my meaning for my life does intrinsically feel that it is objectively meaningful - divine purpose being what it is purported to be and all. Objective, may well be the wrong term though.... I haven't read your link yet to that discussion.

  2. If you find meaning in life through religion, then good for you. But it would be a mistake to think, as many religious people do, that religion is the only possible source of satisfaction here. Others might just as well find meaning in love, friends, family, work, hobbies, science, or the pursuit of knowledge.

    For me personally, I find engaging in philosophy to be a deeply meaningful activity. I can sympathize with your remark that it "does intrinsically feel that it is objectively meaningful".

    I can't help but feel that those who overly concern themselves with fashion and other superficialities are wasting their life. Socrates' dictum that "the unexamined life is not worth living" has much resonance with me. So I can understand how a religious person might feel the same way about their religion. Though that doesn't make it any less mistaken, of course.

  3. Things have meaning in groups and meaning as individual utits where a bran cell might say it is a free agent, and a human might say it, and at some level a society might think the same thing.
    I am not sure there are any free agents but I am not sure that debate has any implications anyway.

  4. My first reaction is to agree that meaning is purely personal.
    On the other hand, humans do have a certain biological/physical/mental nature, and thus certain ways of thinking, acting, needing to belong, desiring .. and etc.
    Will we not therefore, find certain things more meaningful than others?
    My ( apparent) choice of what to value, and probably even the sort of universe I can perceive and believe in, will not be completely free.
    I have the feeling too, that we MUST feel there is objectivity in our beliefs .
    Could we really build lives around, or feel fulfillment from a belief, if we thought it was just a vague possibility ?

    Which leads me to think thus >>
    We can apparently find meaning in a fair range of things . Quite directly in things like physical prowess, or aesthetic concerns, or in good company, in love, or in sheer enjoyment of common life, in ‘success’, or in the skills of the mind .. in learning . And so on. They are valued in themselves.
    But, after I first saw that MP post a little while ago, I took it another way and out of curiosity asked odd people I met .. “what would you say is the meaning of life? “ . ( One clever answer was an atheist .. “does it have to have a meaning?” ) I and some of the others, were taking the question to be about an intellectual understanding of all that a human might know, and which answered all the ‘big’ questions of god and human minds and the universe -- and which therefore implied consequences for us.
    Like a physics theory of nature .. but a more philosophical “ Theory Of Everything.”
    In fact I would guess that everyone has , as well as the meaning they take direct from their experience of living ( as above), a world picture which justifies, or at least, gives intellectual framework to, that life.

    So I just ask, is it an acceptable, extended use of the phrase? It is such a framework that I hope(d) to find and assumed others, especially philosophers were hoping to find. ( Or has eveyone given up?)
    Even if one did find such an explanation ( presumably objective ) it would still be that YOU found it meaningful.. Fair enough. But surely, since we value ‘truth’ , we have to make this attempt to know the objective nature of things. Define it all in a way that could be said to be its ‘ meaning’.


  5. I think the problem is when we speak of the meaning of life, we want to distinguish it from the meaning of everything else. Most of the criticisms of meaning come down to the idea (often unstated) that meaning is arbitrary. But is it? Just because aspects of language are arbitrary I don't think it follows everything is. And I think the complaints about meaning come out of our philosophy of language

    Consider science though. When we ask about the meaning of various physical phenomena we don't want to say it is purely arbitrary. Certainly physical laws aren't arbitrary. They are theory laden and thus tied to human existing and thinking. But they are not arbitrary.

    The idea within many strains of existentialism that meaning is self-created avoids these considerations and just as frequently avoids the analysis of what the self is and how it creates meaning. I do not think it is arbitrary. And I think meaninglessness, while having a certain simplicity, is possible only because we avoid the analysis of what makes the conclusion possible.

  6. Within this context, I tend to think of "meaning" as simply synonymous with "purpose". I wouldn't think it has any connection with linguistic meaning. Do you disagree?

    It would also strike me as odd to say that scientific laws have a "purpose". That's not to say they're arbitrary (I'm not quite sure what that even means in this context), but simply that they lack any particular telos or goal.

  7. You could say the meaning of life is to move towards a higher intelligent ultimate life form (or somthing to that effect - maybe in a nichze (sp) sort of a way) this is what hte moral principle of rating higher lifeforms over lower ones implies.
    Or possibly happyness (a utilitarian sort of version)
    One could argue that in a sense the principle that observation condenses probabilities implies somthing about ultimate observers and if you like the purpose of live being to condense reality.

  8. [quote] I do not think it is arbitrary. And I think meaninglessness, while having a certain simplicity, is possible only because we avoid the analysis of what makes the conclusion possible.

    i agree decrying "meaninglessness" does smack of throwing in the towel and walking away. But why call something meaningless? We must have a judgement we are making to call something meaningful or less. In Solomons case it is his intuitive sense of justice. The world isnt fair, but that in itself implies that we have made a judgement that a meaningful life must be a just one.
    What then is justice? Perhaps Mr. Anonymous is closest with Utility?

    Perhaps a desire for justice is what we have in common? Only the problem is that everyone has a different perspective on what justice should be -largely steming from differing childhoods/ life experiences.

    Apparent objectivity could arise from our intrinsic desire/ need psychologically to reinforce our boundaries (or relative lack thereof) -and be a function of our upbringing/ life experiences. This would suggest a restricted freedom to decide independently on our own meaning for our lives.

  9. As an old man, I have concluded that the search for meaning and purpose in life is also a search for community in some ideal,even transcendal, sense of shared feeling with another or others. Could be wrong about that though, as, so far, I have achieved neither.

  10. Today has been one of those days, and all day I have questioned my purpose and what I am suppose to make of my life. I even came to the internet as if I would find answers there. I got "clues" I beleive u can say, other than that I ran acrosse your page. And all do respect, I strongly disagree with you. God has a purpose for you or he would of not put us here. Now yes if you feel something is what you want and will please you then yes you will do it. I agree with you there, but it may not be God's person and he is so much greater than all of us and he sent his only son to die for my sins and he never even met me. So therefore he died for me and I am going to live for him. Feel free to email me and ask questions, but do not waiste your time to persuade me because my God is an Awesome God and I am searching for his purpose for me and I will fufill it. The email address is shoothoops@ctc.net and please no spam....... thank you and I hope the Lord shows you that he does have a purpose for you.

    Your Concerned Brother In Christ

  11. There are so many ways that one can approach this unapproachable topic of discussion. I find it somewhat important to make the realization;
    'Two men, one wise, one fool, walk into a bar.
    Both men order a glass of H2O. The fool drinks
    his glass in one gulp. The wise man studies his
    glass of water and how its meaning is to give
    life to all.'
    The meaning of life is to live. Take three deep breathes close your eyes and find your place, then go there. Go and don't let your doubts stop you. Vagabond your life and you will have found the meaning.

  12. I think you can only find the meaning of life through practice. In practices you shape your own projects and your own goals. The question of the meaning of life becomes more than a theoretical excercise only when these projects fail or completely loose their meaning. That is when people try to find some meaning of life.

  13. I want life to have meaning, and I do agree I can decide what meaning it has to me, but somehow just the meaning I give it doesn't satisfy. I used to identify strongly with the person who commented first - that meaning was in God and finding him. Then I felt that no matter how "saved" I was or how hard i sought "God" I never actually felt like I found what I was looking for. I had "experiences" and intuitions and still do, but there has always been something missing and a question that seemed to have no answer. That is why I stumbled accross this site, looking for somebody who might have a bright and shiny view that would catch my eye and satisfy. I think that so many people feel lost, and it seems that the Christ that I believed that would leave the 99 sheep and find me has other plans and I after seeking him and trying to follow all the rules and "be the shepard" to myself based on what I was to do, I just said I am a Sheep and started just eating the grass and wandering around instead of thinking I knew the answers.


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