What is the meaning of life?

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The question of the meaning of life may be a question that we would prefer not to ask, for fear of answering it or not answering it.

Even today, many people consider that we, humanity, are the creation of a mysterious entity called God, that God had an intelligent purpose in creating us, and that this intelligent design is “the meaning of life”.

I am not proposing to repeat the worn-out arguments for and against the existence of God, much less to take sides. But even if God exists, and even if he had an intelligent purpose in creating us, no one really knows what this plan might be, nor that it is particularly significant.

The second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of a closed system – including the universe itself – increases to the point where balance is reached, and God’s design by creating us, and indeed all nature, might not have been nobler than catalyzing this process, just as soil organisms catalyze the decomposition of organic matter.

What is the meaning of life?

If the goal God has given us is to act as super-efficient heat sinks, then it is better to have no purpose at all than to have that kind of purpose, because it frees us to be the authors of our own or our goals and thus lead truly worthy and meaningful lives.

In fact, according to this logic, it is better to have no purpose at all than to have any predetermined, even more traditional, purpose such as serving God or improving our karma.

In short, even if God exists, and even if he had an intelligent purpose in creating us (and why should he have one?), we do not know what that goal might be, and, whatever it may be, we would rather be able to do without it, or at least ignore it or dismiss it. Indeed, if we are not free to become the authors of our own or objectives, our lives may, at worst, have no purpose and, at best, have only an unfathomable and potentially insignificant goal that is not of our own choice.

What is the meaning of life?

You or others might object that not having a predetermined goal is, in reality, having no purpose at all. But it is tantamount to believing that for something to have a purpose, it must have been created for that particular purpose and, moreover, must always serve that same initial purpose.

Several months ago, I visited the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, in the south of France. One evening, I picked up a round stone called a pebble that I brought back to Oxford and used as a bookend.

In the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, these stones are used to capture the heat of the sun and to restore it in the cool of the night, thus helping the grapes to ripen. Of course, these stones were not created for this purpose or for any other purpose. Even if they had been created for a specific purpose, it certainly would not have been to make great wine or serve as bookends.

That evening, during dinner, I gave my friends a blind bottle of Bordeaux – a bad trick, given that we were in the Rhone. To disguise the bottle, I slipped it into a pair of socks. Unlike the pebble, the sock was created for a specific purpose, but very different (without being strictly incompatible) from the one it had assumed during this joyous evening.

You might still object that the discourse on the meaning of life is neither here nor there, for life is only a prelude to a form of an eternal afterlife, and that is, if you will, its purpose.

But I can gather at least four arguments against this position:

  • It is not at all obvious that there is, or even maybe, a form of eternal life after death that involves the survival of the personal ego.
  • Even if there were such an afterlife, living forever is not a goal in itself. The concept of life after death only shifts the problem, which raises the question: what is the purpose of life after death? If the afterlife has a predetermined purpose, again, we do not know what it is, and, whatever it is, we would prefer to be able to do without it.
  • Dependence on eternal life in the afterlife not only postpones the question of the purpose of life, but discourages us or, at least, discourages us from determining one or more goals for what might be the only life we have.
  • If it is the brevity or finitude of human life that gives it form and purpose (an argument associated with the philosopher Bernard Williams), then eternal life in the afterlife cannot, in itself, have any purpose.

Thus, whether God exists or not, whether he has given us a purpose or not, and whether or not there is an eternal afterlife, we would do better to create our own purpose or our own goals.

To put it in Sartrian (or existentialist) terms, while for the patty it is true only that existence precedes gasoline, for the sock, it is true both that the essence precedes existence (when the sock is used on a human foot) and that existence precedes the essence (when the sock is used for an unwanted purpose, for example, as a bottle sheath). We human beings are either like the rock or like the sock, but in any case, it is better to create our own purpose or our own goals.

Plato once defined man as an animal, bipedal, featherless, and with large nails (which excluded plucked chickens); but he gave another definition, much better, which was simply this: “A being in search of meaning.”

Human life may not have been created with a predetermined purpose, but that does not necessarily mean that it cannot have a purpose, or that that purpose cannot be as good, or even much better, than any predetermined goal.

The meaning of life, of our life, is, therefore, the one we choose to give it.

But how do you choose?

In Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist and neurologist Viktor Frankl (d. 1997) wrote about his ordeal as a concentration camp inmate during World War II.

Revealingly, Frankl found that those who survived the longest in concentration camps were not those who were physically strong, but those who maintained a sense of control over their environment.

According to Frankl, meaning can be found through:

  1. Experiencing reality by interacting authentically with the environment and with others.
  2. Giving something back to the world through creativity and self-expression, and,
  3. Changing our attitude when faced with a situation or circumstance that we cannot change.

“The point,” said Frankl, ‘”is not what we expect from life, but rather what life expects from us.”

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