What is the meaning of life? To that end, what is meant by the meaning of life? Is it the meaning of human life in general, or the meaning of life to each particular person living it? Many people find the question of the meaning of life a religious one. As John argues, our lives could stand for something or be given meaning by a deity just as we give meaning to the words we utter. But, Ken objects, why should we have meaning simply because we were created by God? There is always the question of how God got his/her meaning. Furthermore, as Kant argued, human beings could just as plausibly be ends in themselves with the autonomy to define their own meaning for their lives. Even if there isn't an answer to the question of life's meaning, there is still the need to get through the day to day. Perhaps the question is not so much about the meaning of life, but about living it; answering the question “How should I live?” and finding something beyond yourself to help discover an answer.
Howard Wettstein studied at Notre Dame where he became an atheist. Soon after leaving the college, however, he found religion in the midst of personal loss. When his mother died, Wettstein found comfort in a God—not in terms of life after death or the unreality of death which he feels are illusions, but in terms of meaning. So, Ken asks Wettstein about the meaning he was seeking in reflecting on his mother's death. What did he mean by “meaning”: what does meaning mean? In philosophy of language especially, this question is hard to pin down. Wettstein argues that it is better to talk about significance or its derivative, importance, rather than meaning itself. Whether or not someone attaches importance to something beyond herself she must still need to find significance in who she is and what she is doing.
While he was at Notre Dame, Wettstein met a professor studying the philosophy of religion. In one of their conversations, the professor spotted an ant hill and remarked that without God, his life would be as meaningless as the lives of the ants on the hill. But for Wettstein, this didn't seem like a case of meaninglessness at all. It occurred to him that people who believe strongly in God could still feel their lives are meaningless. On the other hand, atheists who have significant projects and relationships could feel their lives are full of meaning. So, it seems to still be unclear as to how religion helps bring meaning to a person's life.
- Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek To 00:04:21): In San Francisco, Amy Standen takes a poll of various men and women on the meaning of life. There are, she says, as many different types of people as there are philosophies.
- Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek To 00:49:59): What is the meaning of life? Throughout the millennia, different philosophers had different answers. Existentialists think life has no meaning. Wittgenstein believed that the question itself was meaningless. Darwinians, of course, thought the meaning of life was to produce more life. If we change the question to be how to gain satisfaction from life, we get a whole new set of answers.
Talk about meaning makes sense in many contexts. We talk about the meaning of words and sentences, the meaning of smoke on the horizon, or meaning of a drop in stock prices. We ask people what they mean by what they say or do. Sometimes ‘meaning’ is another name for ‘purpose’ or ‘intention.’ In these contexts, we can discuss questions about meaning, and, even if the reasoning is difficult, we know what we are talking about. The case is different when people ask in a general way ‘What is the meaning of human life or of a particular human life?’
This is an important question because apparently people have a need to feel that they are living a meaningful life, or that human life itself has meaning. However, the question is not like that about the meaning of words, smoke or the stock market. So, what kind of meaning are people seeking? Perhaps the felt need for meaning originates in an existential dissatisfaction with life not shared by the other animals. A distant observer would never know this by looking at us. If intergalactic zoologists spent a few centuries simply observing life on earth from a space ship and cataloging its inhabitants, would they have any special reason to distinguish human life from the life of other animals? I doubt it. Human beings are unique, but no more so than the other animals. What the zoologists would see are simply various kinds of animals living out their species-specific life cycles.
For example, they would see humans going about their lives eating, sleeping, excreting and reproducing, things all animals do. However, no one asks what the meaning of life is for badgers or skunks, nor do badgers and skunks seem to ask that question. They simply live out their lives, replace themselves and die. How different are we? To the intergalactic zoologists, I believe humans would appear on a par with other animal species.
Somehow it is not enough for humans to live an animal life, die an animal death, and simply vanish into the mists of time. Such a life seems to lack meaning for creatures who are aware of the prospect of death, change and how everything ends. Perhaps the question of meaning is important for humans because it would be reassuring to believe that something is saved from the wreck of time. The dream of immortality, in whatever form, is also part of the attempt to elevate human life beyond the natural realm. Religion also speaks to this search for a transcendent meaning of life.
What I believe the intergalactic zoologists would note about the human animals under their purview is that they are essentially meaning machines. Humans generate meanings wherever they go, and so it is only natural that they would ultimately ask about the meaning of life itself. The trouble is that the concept of meaning has boundaries beyond which it no longer makes any sense to speak of meaning. This is similar to Kant’s complaint that concepts having their proper applications in one area are inappropriately applied to another. An example is Kant’s criticism of the use of the concept of causality beyond its use in understanding the empirical world to explain the existence of the universe as a whole.
Does the same thing happen when we start asking about the meaning of life? Is it possible to extend the concept of meaning beyond its many legitimate applications to the concept to life itself? The answer would give human life a transcendent meaning, or ‘Meaning’ with a capital ‘M’. The search for this kind of meaning leads directly to thoughts about God making the universe and human life meaningful. This is where reincarnation and immortality come in, so that this life we live is not ‘just for now’ but has an eternal import. There is a great fear that if this kind of Meaning is absent from human life, then human life is utterly meaningless.
The search for transcendent meaning and the thought that life would be meaningless without it is very like a category mistake. The truth is that humans cannot help living meaningful lives, even without any greater meaning. Indeed, the view that life is meaningless itself confers meaning on life, if only in a negative sense.
There may be no transcendent meaning of life, but there is something to the quest for it that many people believe makes their lives meaningful. Perhaps what people are looking for is a meaning for their lives that goes beyond their own merely particular concerns and activities. We feel better if we think that our lives are part of a larger concern. Such a concern gives us a sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves. However, this is a meaning that life can have without projecting some even greater meaning upon it.
On a lower level, personal meanings permeate the lives of individuals. Things and people matter to us and give our lives meaning with a little ‘m’. Without those ‘little meanings’ life would indeed be empty and meaningless in a way that causes true distress. Little things like small acts of kindness, support for friends, gatherings in celebration, condolences in times of sadness, all give life meaning even if not a transcendent ‘Meaning’.
So, in conclusion, I would argue that there are three levels of meaning to human life. One is misguided and two are legitimate. First is the misguided search for a ‘Great Meaning’ that gives significance to life as a whole. Next is the meaning conferred on a life that cares for something more than the simple satisfaction of personal desires. Examples are political or humanitarian causes in which we join together with others to do something beyond the power of any individual. Finally, there are the little meanings of everyday life that come from living with others and acting in the world. These include the memories and anticipations of daily life, as well as the things of personal significance that surround us. On these lower levels of meaningfulness, there is no doubt that human life has meaning. On the higher level, the question of whether human life is meaningful is itself meaningless.
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