January 30, 2008

The meaning of life

Filed under: Concepts, Debate, Ideas, Observations — Tags: , , , , , , — conceptualizer @ 4:12 pm

I have recently been pondering a big question again, usually expressed as “what is the meaning of life”. Being a little older and more experienced I could not ask the question in that way. It is clear to me this time that it must be asked in a less flippant and more constructive way if I hope to make any progress.
On this particular revisit I also thought I might gain more traction by enlisting the help of the rest of the biggest human community that has ever existed, via the internet, the greatest communication tool so far. Do you feel you have some insight that may help progress on this question and would like to share it? If so please reply to this post.

The Question (provisional)
Is there now, or has there ever been, a purpose for life, intended or not, particularly human life and especially an individual human life, whether from an objective or subjective point of view?

Anatomy of the question
Obviously this question has several related parts, but in framing it this way I intended to highlight some possible points of discussion and confusion from the outset. The traditional form of the question uses the word ‘meaning’ rather than the more tightly focused ‘purpose’ or ‘objective’. Using one of those words helps narrow the question a little, while not diverging significantly from an acceptable form of the question. Also, the traditional form of the question is implicitly understood to be concerned mostly with individual human life, but to some extent all human life. Broadening out the question to explicitly include the individual, all human life and all life may help by identifying general patterns for all life first and analysing how they might be transposed to and augmented for the more specific categories. In addition the traditional question is unconcerned with intentionality, that is it does not discriminate between life with intended or unintentional purpose. This can be clarified with an example: A pebble used under a garden table leg to prevent the table from rocking may be considered to never have had an intended purpose, although it gained an unintentional purpose. We may extrapolate from that example to emphasize the viewpoint of the observer. It may be that the pebble has an unintended purpose, but for levelling individual it has an intentional purpose. Further, to another individual the pebble, table and person doing the levelling may all be considered to have no purpose. The example also highlights another component of the question, temporal status. That is, the pebble may be considered to have no purpose except for a window of time where it is used to level the table. Whatever the status of anything in the question is at an instant, we can not assume it is so throughout time. Lastly, an implicit thread through both forms of the question is the identification of distinct entities that are independent although impinged upon by each other. This may be the normal mode, but it may not be a reasonable understanding of reality and thus may be material to the answer. However, it is difficult to include this concept directly in the question without obfuscating it and so I have not included it in the current version. Rather, I hope and expect to include it in a subsequent elaborated version. I also feel that the issue of the observer is a rather weak addendum in this version of the question. Quite probably the question needs to be reframed without the artificial constraint of trying to include all relevant aspects in a single sentence. Clearly the form of the question needs further work and I expect to enhance it as thoughts on it evolve and clearer language emerges. The most important facet of the question is the inclusion of all the component concepts as described above. The actual form of words must be subservient to that and this understanding has informed the effort so far. I welcome any suggestions on how to better frame the question to embody all the important concepts identified so far as well as suggestion for new concepts to be included.

I don’t like to impose rules, but I think three are necessary to keep this discussion in order.
Firstly, I will exclude religious answers from this discussion. They resolve to faith in something which is not testable and non-provable, at least not to those without the right flavour of faith. However, I do not exclude faith itself. A legitimate faith for consideration might be in a scientific or research process or a living individual. The important element of a viable faith for consideration is that whatever the faith is in, it must be evolving toward some evidential state or may be questioned or tested directly. Ultimately we need empirical evidence or the prospect of it for faith to be allowed as an immediate surrogate answer.
Secondly, I will exclude answers that in whole or part have unreasoned and unequal treatment of subsets of what may be considered as life. A non-parity status for subsets of life needs to be rationally justified.
Thirdly, although I have reservations about some basic elements of this discussion, such as the nature of time and accuracy of language to represent cognition, unless there is a compelling reason to the contrary they are considered tangential and should not be offered as a part of this debate.
The question itself is clearly difficult to construct and answer, so I have been asking it in various ways to people and thinking about it. The answer is often glibly stated as ‘happiness’, but that moves us no further forward, as we then need to ask ‘what is happiness?’. The reason we need to ask this is that not only do we not know what it is, but we do not know how to obtain it. Anyway, I have come up with this so far:

Be comfortable with yourself.

You are probably thinking that also seems a bit glib, as it is rather short to seem well considered, or, maybe too pithy and knowing, because there could easily be an over economy of words that loses essential detail for the uninitiated. One might conclude it is a defeatist answer, because it seems not to address the current form of the question, which is by own admission incomplete. Perhaps you even consider it a terse expression of a consolation philosophy, because it does not seem to require one’s agency in the world.
A little examination of this answer is required.

Firstly, I will say it does feel a little like a stoic or Buddhist attitude. Secondly, those people who know this answer may superficially look like those that do not, because that answer seems to require no visible agency. Thirdly, perhaps one can achieve this state without realising it; that would explain why some people are seen as endowed with an aura of happiness, despite having made no obvious effort to achieve it. If so, I could console myself with the thought that if I were in this blessed state, then knowing why is better. However, that could simply be because that is my nature to want to understand, it might offer no other advantage. Indeed, in some ways obtaining it without effort seems preferable, although again it is in my nature to believe that effort in itself is worthwhile, although it is also difficult to justify that view, so it could be aberrant. It could even be that a higher state of awareness and happiness are incompatible, but let us assume they are not for now, that thought is making me feel uncomfortable.
Anyway, how does one go about achieving this. Clearly there are many possible events that would prevent or at least make this difficult. Therefore a lengthy, if not infinite, list of reactions might seem necessary. That is not practical, so we need a more direct answer. This is where it gets difficult and currently I am thinking it is perhaps something to do with the acceptance of things as they are. If one makes efforts to improve oneself and one’s situation that should not be bound to a sense of disappointment when some objective is not reached. Admittedly that seems very hard to achieve, so I suspect that one needs to observe what level of ambition is appropriate for oneself. That could change based on circumstances, age and abilities. This formula then starts to look complex and may explain why we have so much difficulty obtaining ‘happiness’. I can say however that if one is unhappy that the level of ambition is probably wrong. Here I apply ambition to any desire and would point out they are often created or strengthened by observing other people who are not necessarily happy or like us.
I should point out that the word “comfortable” was chosen over ‘content’, because I did not want to convey the idea that one needs do nothing other than change one’s point of view. The word “comfortable” allows for a desire to self improve and so is accessible to all people, whatever they have done. Now supposing this is a good line we have here, the burning question is ‘how do we become comfortable with ouselves?’, this does sound like a much more tractable question.
I will consider this more and update this post again.



  1. And how do we become comfortable with ourselves?

    My conscience doesn’t have an OFF switch. I could only be comfortable with myself if lived a perfect life from now on and somehow forget about all the messes I’ve made up to now.

    I’m inclined to think the life pursuit of self-peace seems a bit selfish.

    Comment by Aaron D. — March 25, 2009 @ 4:31 am

    • Thanks Aaron
      “And how do we become comfortable with ourselves?”
      Every personality is equally valid, because there is no valid objective basis on which we can apply values, and hence no valid judgements of personalities. It may be that there is a complete and objective system of values, but if few people know or accept it, what is it worth. Consequently, each personality is equally valid, regardless of how deviant, although probably it would make life easier to be less deviant from a norm. Accept variation, and then it is easier to be comfortable with oneself.
      “My conscience doesn’t have an OFF switch. I could only be comfortable with myself if lived a perfect life from now on and somehow forget about all the messes I’ve made up to now.”
      I am not suggesting that it is easy, or that there is a simple switch. One must work at it, but the logic of it is unassailable. Further, everyone makes mistakes (viewed from some value system) so it is not helpful to be self-deprecating. Accept that one was different in the past and the past cannot be changed to meet changed values. Mistakes are normal. We cannot see with certainty the future consequences of our actions.
      “I’m inclined to think the life pursuit of self-peace seems a bit selfish.”
      It is. What else should it be?

      Comment by conceptualizer — June 26, 2009 @ 10:28 pm

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