Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Meaning of the Meaning of Life

A.J. Grunthaler

One of the most fundamental and important questions in the discipline of Philosophy is “What is the meaning of life?” Maybe you’ve never asked this question in precisely the way I just framed it, but if you’re like most people, you’ve almost certainly reflected about the ultimate meaning of your life, even if you’re not fully aware that you have.

Perhaps, one night, while you were alone at home with nothing to distract you, a thought suddenly popped into your head, unlike any thought you may have had before. A crazy thought like this: “What’s the point of it all?” Believe it or not, most people—assuming they’re not completely shallow—will ask a question like this at some point or another during the course of their lives. And this is just another way of asking, “What is the meaning of life?” 

Even if we grant that life does indeed have meaning, another question arises when we consider whether this meaning is the same for all people or whether it varies from person to person. In other words, is the question of meaning objective (applies to all) or subjective (a matter of individual perspective)? If it’s the former, we might call this a “higher” meaning of life—the idea that life has a meaning that transcends our own beliefs, attitudes, and feelings about it. 

But if life does indeed have a higher meaning, this leads to another perplexing question: what exactly is the objective reality or condition that gives life this higher meaning? 

Most human being typically ask the question “Does life have meaning?” when they’re confronted with difficult times—when those they love are sick, suffering, or in pain or when they themselves are sick, suffering, or in pain. It’s at such times that some people begin to think about the possibility of the existence of some kind of Supreme Being or God who gives life meaning. If there is a God, then living according to his purposes (following his will, coming to know or love him, or living our lives according to his plan) would seem to fit the bill for a higher, objective meaning for all human life.

For most human beings, living in most parts of the world up to the present time, this belief in this existence of God—call him Brahman, Yahweh, or Allah, if you prefer—provided everything that was necessary to create meaning in life. Indeed, some form of belief in a Higher Power controlling the destiny of mankind has been part of our experience probably since our species began to develop the ability to engage in abstract thought. 

But what if there isn’t a God? What would that do to the question of meaning in life?

One possibility would be that we’d be forced to recognize that life is fundamentally pointless or absurd. After all, what could possibly be more absurd than to endure all the suffering and pain that are an inevitable part of human existence only to cap off our lives with the stark reality of death—which, in the absence of a God, ultimately means total oblivion. But, not just total oblivion for ourselves. In the end, all of our human projects will be swept away by time, until eventually even our species itself will disappear…as will our planet, our solar system, and possibly even the very universe itself. Confronted with the reality of such oblivion, human life cannot help but seem a bit pointless, can it?

But, even if life doesn’t have a higher meaning or purpose, does this automatically mean that our human lives must be fundamentally pointless or absurd? In fact, we in the West are already living in what is commonly called a post theistic age—an age, in other words, in which belief in God seems fairly unimportant for many people. In fact, the number of people describing themselves as atheists, agnostics, or unaffiliated with any major religion has been creeping upward since the dawn of the 21st century, making “non-believer” the fastest growing religion in the United States. 

And yet despite this lack of belief or interest in the existence of God, many individuals seem to find meaning in a whole host of significant activities that are part and parcel of our ordinary human lives. We find meaning in relationships with family, friends, and lovers; we find meaning in the simple pleasures of life and in the beauty—both man-made and natural—that surrounds us; and we find meaning in living lives of virtue for its own sake, rather than out of any external compulsions . We haven’t lost a sense of meaning in the absence of God: we’ve discovered that meaning all around us. Admittedly, this isn’t the kind of transcendent, objective meaning that theists think is necessary to provide purposefulness and value to our human lives. But it is meaning nonetheless. 

Whether our lives have one objective meaning or multiple meanings that vary from individual to individual, the question of the meaning of life is one that is intimately connected with our very humanity. Members of no other species ask whether their lives have meaning or not. In fact, one could argue that it is our very ability to inquire about the meaning of life that separates humans from all other creatures inhabiting this planet.

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