Monday, 16 May 2011

The Meaning of Life

So nothing too demanding today, just a little excursion round the human lot.

The BHA is holding a national conference this summer in Manchester, with people who I think are interesting (Philip Pullman, AC Grayling, Polly Toynbee) although to avoid preaching to the (un) converted, maybe they could have asked a lively bishop, rabbi or suchlike along. Rowan Williams and Pullman would be a good gig, I'd guess.

Anyway, the title of the conference is "The Meaning of Life." The publicity stuff admits that maybe Douglas Adams is right, and that the question itself may even be meaningless, (but of course that's not the point, for a conference theme.) I think they are right, it is a non-question. I seem to remember that philosophers call this sort of thing a "category error, " which is to say that the question itself is mistaken, unanswerable, its terms won't and can't lead to a valid answer.

We don't ask "why is a blackbird?" It simply is. To ask "what is the meaning of life" is to say "why is a person?"

Some religious people might say that the meaning of life is to serve God, but if you don't believe in God, or at least, not in any sense in which serving a god could be a meaningful action, then that's no real answer. Or, the meaning of life is to go to heaven at the end of life, or at least avoid hell. But I've two probs with that outlook: 1) I don't share the necessary belief and 2) the question isn't "How should I live?" (i.e. virtuously, so you can go to heaven.) It's about looking for a meaning in the fact that people live (and so do earthworms, gannets, stinging nettles etc.) i.e. it's assuming that life itself has a meaning, because if my life has a meaning, then why shouldn't the life of a stinging nettle have a meaning? We're both equally alive.

To ask "what is the meaning of life' might be akin to asking "what is the purpose of life? We can devise our own answers to that question. i.e. "the purpose of my life is to make money," or "I didn't even know what the purpose of my life was till I met you, li'l darlin, can I buy youse a drink?" But these are constructs we decide for ourselves, they can't be general categories that can apply to any and all life, or even any and all human lives.

It seems to me, having read a bit, pondered in a simple sort of way, argued with a friend or two, that life simply IS. A life (mine, yours) is an event, or series of them, a process not a thing. Life itself is a particular arrangement of energy in the universe, distinctive from not-life. We can usually say "this thing here is a life-form, that thing over there isn't, never was and never could be. That's a pencil, this here is a Duke" (I'm aware there are a few tricky boundary things that are sort of a bit but not entirely alive, but just for now, lay off the picky stuff please, or I'll get a headache...)

Life reproduces and evolves, and eventually, here you are, and me too. For now. Because life is finite in any single of its multiple forms. So maybe it helps to see a life as a bit like a deep-sea wave (not a breaker, but an ocean swell.) Water (cf our body stuff) with energy passing through it, the energy lifts water up into a wave shape, then when the energy moves on, the same water subsides (the body dies. )The water itself doesn't move forward, it just settles back and the energy moves on. H'm, that might need a bit more thought. But I'll hang on to the idea that a person is body-stuff which is energised until it isn't any more, and the wave itself moves on.

So - life simply IS. A friend of mine criticises my views for being rationalist, reductive, not open to the wonders of God, I should trust my intuition and silence my ego etcetcetc. Well, my feeling that life IS rather than MEANS is the product of some rough-and-ready reasoning, sure, but also a deep, intuitive feeling, a kind of identitification - it feels right, as well as thinks right, to me. I find it liberating.

BECAUSE (wake up at the back, please) it's important to note that although life itself doesn't have a meaning, that does not mean our lives are not devoid of meaning. We have to make meanings to live. The human animal has to throw nets of meaning over the universe in order to live in it, has to make "sense" of its surroundings and itself - and many of those meanings are enlessly wonderful. I've got meanings all around me: Bach's Cello Suites, the Beatles, "Figaro" and Miles, I've got "Middlemarch" and Seamus Heaney, "The Wire" - just fill in your own current favourites of people creating meaning so they can make sense i.e. so that they can live as themselves, fulfill themselves. But even without these wonders, I've got the lives of those around me, those I'm close to and those I've just met, all those narratives and encounters: why should I feel desolate because life itself (human or nettle) has no meaning? I feel liberated, not abandoned. Meanings in my life abound, but that doesn't mean that life itself has a meaning. What is the meaning of the universe? Why is a galaxy? Non-question.

Why does this matter? This will be the subject of my next post (probably) which will be about our fear of death.

Look, I know this stuff isn't a barrel of laughs, but you've got this far, so why not hang in, eh? Please?


  1. Wow GM. There was no sleeping at the back from me and I was gripped from start to finish. What a fascinating, thought-provoking post. The subject of which, spookily enough, flashed through my mind today in connection with something else (will try to explain later). Here are my thoughts - excuse their randomness but my mind is whirring!
    It seems you are, rightly, asking "what does 'meaning' mean" in this BIG question ie. what is the meaning of life? You could translate that as - what is life for? or why are we here? or what's the point of it? For which, as you say, there can be a multitude of answers depending on your beliefs or point of view.
    However, like you, I find it very liberating to see life as something that 'IS' and to change the actual question so it reads 'what in life has meaning for you?' In trying to answer the BIG question in its current form (ie. what is the meaning of life) I think we put pressure on ourselves. It makes me think of millions of up-turned and discontented faces, all imploring "is this it"?
    Being a 'perhaps-ist' I find it hard to be clinical about it all - ie. you are born, you live, you die. But that doesn't mean the missing link is religion. Just a sense of something, well, soulful (for want of a better phrase).
    For me (and this is what I was thinking of earlier) if I want to see what life is all about, I just look outside at the natural world - waxing/waning, sunrise/sunset, new growth/dead wood. It is out there, being, doing, is-ing (no such word but you know what I mean) all over the place, all year round. And what a picture! Sorry - that probably sounds totally corny. Not sure if I'm making any sense!
    What I do know for sure is that if there is one thing that gives life meaning, then that one thing is death. Because it puts things into perspective, brings them into focus, sharpens us up, gives us a limit on how much/how long...
    So perhaps the meaning of life is death? Can it be that simple?

  2. No, it doesn't sound corny CB. We do put pressure on ourselves by asking what the meaning of life is, "what's it all about? Is this it?"instead of, as you suggest, asking where in my life do I find meanings that really matter to me; and your self-identity with the natural cycle seems to me a powerful way of feeling part of the energies/patterns of living and dying.

    The waves of energy, the cycles of the seasons (actually, waves themselves, some surfers say - feeling part of the energy of planet itself for a short time. No wonder it is, they tell me, addictive.)

    Feeling part of these things is how we can avoid banging our head against a sterile question (whether we are perhapsists, follow a religion, or are rationalist/atheists) because it simply steps right round the question. I like "is-ing." More is-ing and less anxiety about why, does us good, I reckon. Relates to present-momentness, mindfulness. Steps round the clattering old ego and hitches a ride, for a while, with something more profound.

    Your last paragraph, and last line in particular, lead right into what I want to bang about next!
    Thanks, really pleased it made at least some sense..

  3. Made a lot of sense GM. Isn't it interesting (and reassuring) how, no matter what is being 'debated', most paths seem to lead us back to mindfulness? Sounds like your next post is going to be another goodie!

  4. Gloria:

    I like the idea that there is no meaning so we have to make it.

    That's good. Are we straying into existentialism? - which I like, and heading towards Jean Paul Satre's phrase about being condemned to be free.

    Which doesn't seem like a problem to me, although I don't feel condemned; but actually at liberty to gorge on the smorgasbord of life.

    By which I mean all experience, including the pickle of love, the salmon of truth, the fromage du aspiration, and of course the jelly of truth.

  5. Yes, existentialism lures in some form, and Irvin Yalom, of whom I have read only half his superb book "Staring at the Sun," is, I understand, an existentialist psychotherapist.

    I used to think, as a pretentious tennager, that to be an existentialist you merely had to look moody and remote, peer at people through cigarette smoke with half-closed eyes, and pretend you'd been to the "Deux Magots," or whatever Sartre's caff in Paris was called. Oh, and wear black polonecks. But now, well I don't smoke any more and I have been to Paris, so that's some progress.

    Liberty it is, though I'm still not sure about the jelly....

    Thanks, as ever, for thoughts.