Reader Request 2004 #2: The Meaning of Life

Today’s reader request, from Karl:

I would like to know what you think about the question, “what is the meaning of life?”

Is it a good question? Does it have an answer? Do you know it? Is it a stupid question for people that are too anal?

Oh, goody! I finally get to use my philosophy degree.

It’s not a stupid question. I’m not one of those people who subscribes to the theory of “there’s no such thing as a stupid question,” because there is, and I submit that in most cases you’re doing a disservice to the person asking the question by not pointing it out. However, this is not one. This does not automatically make it a good question, of course. Like many questions, what makes it good (or not) is the intent behind the question and the willingness to actually consider the response to it. Whether it’s a good question, in other words, depends on you.

The thing that gets me about the question “What is meaning of life?” is that generally the implication seems to be that there is just one meaning to it. That doesn’t make sense to me. It’s like pointing to a multi-hued striped shirt and asking “what color is that shirt?” You can answer by naming one of the colors of the shirt (thus ignoring the rest) or perhaps use technology to find a chromatic mean to all the colors of the shirt and describe that color through the use of Pantone strips or even angstrom units (which tells only what color the shirt would be if you mashed all the colors together — not the same question). If I were presented with a striped shirt and asked to name its color, I would say “You phrased your question poorly. Try again.”

“What is the meaning of life?” is to my mind phrased poorly; it implies all life has the same meaning, which would imply, among other things, that you have the same meaning to your life as your cat or a mat of blue-green algae — and no more meaning to your life than either. Both of these propositions may actually be true — but as with describing a striped shirt by naming one color, that’s not all there is to it.

Also, of course, it implicitly suggests there is meaning to life — which simply may not be the case. “Meaning” is the handmaiden of causality, and while the religiously-minded take comfort in the idea of an agent of universal causation (usually called “God”), as a matter of science, causation is a tricky thing. This is due in no small part to our current limits in understanding the universe. We can get to a near-infinitesimally small fraction of a second before the Big Bang to a point called Planck’s Time, but beyond that point the door is shut; our physical models of the universe fail. Beyond Plank’s Time lies god or randomness or some intriguing combination of the two or something else entirely. But it’s not inconceivable that our universe exists without causation (go see Dr. Hawking for the details), in which case asking for “meaning” for the universe or anything in it (including life) is in the final analysis like asking why chocolate doesn’t breathe avian sonnets. It’s not only a question without an answer, but a question in itself without (heh) meaning.

But let’s make the assumption that the universe has meaning, or at the very least that meaning can be approached in a Gödelistic sense: Fundamentally incomplete but workable within its own parameters. In that case, “What is the meaning of life” is still the wrong question. I would phrase the question: “What are the meanings of life?” This is an answerable question, because I believe there are several answers. And here are some of them, roughly in order of specification:

The Meaning of Life is to Observe the Universe. One of the spookier aspects of our universe is that it reacts to being observed; indeed, some of the stronger flavors of the Anthropic Principle suggest the universe requires observation in order to exist (and if the universe needs life to exist, how could it have existed to create life within it? See, there you go again, getting all hung up on causality).

I’m personally not especially convinced the universe needs life — most versions of the anthropic principle don’t suggest it does, merely that this universe is of a design that supports it — but this is not saying that as long as life’s around, it’s not doing a mitzvah by being observant of its surroundings. Any life will do; most anthropic principles don’t require intelligence, just sense — you don’t have to understand the universe, man, you’ve just got to feel it.

What end is gained by this observation, if not snapping the universe into place? Sorry, that’s another question entirely.

The Meaning of Life is to Make More Life. This particular meaning of life is neutral to other aspects of the universe and considers only what’s good for life as opposed to the rest of the universe. The advantage this particular answer has is that it’s manifestly true: Life, by definition, has within it the capacity to make more of itself and also by definition is compelled by instinct to make more of itself (otherwise it doesn’t remain life for long).

The drawback is that it’s not very satisfying — making more life is fun and all, but at the end of it all you get is more life and none of your existential yearnings fulfilled. Also, you’re still going to die. But, you know. Not every meaning of life is going to be deep. Some are just going to be obvious.

The Meaning of Life is to Create the Meaning of Life. After all, who says we can’t? Look: When you’re born you have no idea what you’re going to be when you grow up, right? You decide over the course of time what you’re going to do with yourself. Same thing here, applied on a much larger scale. It’s not inconceivable that life was created without meaning, a senseless agglomeration of amino acids that just happened to fold themselves into self-replication. But that doesn’t mean it can’t get a meaning. Maybe that’s our job in this universe: To figure it out. It doesn’t matter whether we were given the job by some creator, or just looked around and decided the job needed doing.

The problem here is that there’s no assurance from the universe (or any presumed creator) that we’re giving life the “correct” meaning, or that this meaning won’t turn out to be an ill fit for life — that just as one can hopefully declare one is going to become a ballerina when in fact one is as coordinated and graceful as a drunken tortoise. But, you know, so what. If there’s anything we know about life it is that more often than not there are second chances. If life doesn’t stumble upon a good meaning to its existence the first time around, maybe it will later.

The other problem with this answer is that unless “life” hits upon a meaning in the next 50 or 60 years, most of you reading this will be dead when it’s all figured out. And then a fat lot of good it will do you. Personally speaking I’m not optimistic about life figuring out the meaning in that time frame: It’s had (on earth at least) more than a billion years to get a clue and it’s still grinding its gears. We like to think humans might be able to crack this nut, but look: We can’t even agree about what the hell The Matrix was really about. I love humanity — it’s my favorite intelligent species! — but let’s just say I’m not holding my breath.

The Meaning of Life is to Do What We’re Told. This is the religious answer, and no, it’s not meant to be dismissive. Religions come with rules. Rules are meant to be obeyed. That’s one of the attractions of religion; it offers structure. Not only religions offer the religious answer, of course: All sorts of secular philosophies, political platforms and self-help books do the the same. But the added bonus of religion is that usually a reward is offered as a sweetener for following the rules — and among those rewards is often an understanding of what it’s all supposed to be about. If religion is true, it’s quite a deal: Most religions are not so onerous as to be impossible to follow (especially here in the US, with its general tradition of religious toleration), so the risk-to-reward ratio is generally substantially in the favor of the practitioner. If it’s not true, well, you’re no worse off than everyone else who is dead.

I often don’t like how religious people practice their religions (especially when they decide their religious beliefs should be imposed on me through public policy) and as I’ve noted before I don’t subscribe to any religious philosophy. But as a theoretical matter I don’t see any harm in creating a meaning of life through a religious impulse; the fact that religion is ubiquitous suggests it offers something most people want or need (rules and the idea of continuation beyond this universe), and who knows? That impluse may even be correct.

The Meaning of Life is What You Want it to Be. This is the final and most specific answer: It’s not the meaning of life as in “all life everywhere,” or “all humans,” or even “all the people who live in your house,” but the meaning of life as in “the meaning of your life.” And once again, who is to say that creating a meaning of life for yourself isn’t what you’re supposed to be doing? This meaning is specific, involves only one person and will not outlast your own life. But last I checked, “meaning” doesn’t imply permanence. And it doesn’t make it any less true, for the time it lasts.

The meaning of my life is pretty simple: To live my life without regret. But like many simple ideas, the execution is difficult. It means being a good husband and being a good father. It means working hard to support my family. It means doing my best to give others the respect they deserve. It means being involved in the life of my community and country. It means developing a moral system and the backbone to stand for what I believe. It means being to admit I was wrong. It means being willing to forgive (but more often to be willing to ask for forgiveness). It means being a good friend. It means being aware of life and being part of life.

It’s a lot of work, and the real kick in the ass about it is that in a very real sense it’s all process — there’s no reward. Except one, which is in the very last seconds of my life I get to have the knowledge that the life I lived was as good as I could make it. That knowledge, a lifetime in its creation, is likely to last a fraction of a second before I’m gone. It’s the meaning of life as a sand mandala. Will it be worth it? Well, you know. I don’t know. I guess I’ll find out. Briefly.

But in the meantime it’s a good way to live (or to try to live — I’m not as regretless as I want to be), and I can genuinely say my life has meaning. It’s not THE Meaning of Life, true enough. But like I said, I doubt there is THE Meaning of Life. It is, however, a meaning of life, and that’s good enough for me.

(Want to request a topic for me to write about? Put it here.)

2 Comments on “Reader Request 2004 #2: The Meaning of Life”

  1. The Meaning of Life

    I posted this over on Scalzi’s Whatever and then thought it would be a good conversation-starter (I hope) on my blog here. Since I’ve already used it as a comment to the conversation over there, I won’t do a trackback….

  2. Anthology: “Scalzi’s Meaning of Life”

    Light blogging today. I’ll be out all day on a field trip to Gettysburg with my son’s class, so let me recommend a little thought reading for the Anthology: The