Today marks the first anniversary for this blog. I would like to thank Miles Corak, who encouraged me to start. Miles has an influential blog on economics. My son Anthony arranged for the domain name and got me started in WordPress. I would also like to thank you, my readers.
I have been thinking about the question “What is the meaning of life?” lately. The question is perhaps more fascinating than the answer. Let us start with the answer and come back to why it is not immediately satisfying to everyone. The answer is Plato’s:“The search for the Good gives meaning to life.”
Of course, we have to define the Good, but dwelling on that misses the point. It is the search itself that gives meaning to life.
The question, just like my answer, is wrapped up in a lot of self-reference and implied sub-text. The most fascinating part of the question is the use of the definite article. Finding “a” meaning of life would not be very challenging. Finding the one and only meaning of life that would satisfy anyone from any culture in all of history would be much better- and more difficult.
Most of us are not alarmed by such an audacious concept that there might be only one answer to the question. Atheists and agnostics are pleased by the question, partly because it provides an argument for not having other people’s meaning imposed on them. The possibility of saying “Life has no meaning” raises the stakes surrounding the question and makes it more interesting.
I would say that the null answer is not admissible unless you make the question more precise. The definitions of “meaning” and “life” are inextricably intertwined. Life is purposeful existence. Without purpose, a living organism loses life. Purpose or meaning is a defining quality of life, distinguishing us from rocks, wooden planks (once alive) and bars of steel. These objects exist but do not have any purpose unless someone or something attaches one. I would argue that our understanding of the word “meaning” comes directly from that innate tendency to get up every morning and make our surroundings “livable”.
The question, “What is the meaning of life?” arises naturally when we have staved off all immediate threats to survival and identity – as I clearly have this sunny spring afternoon. What do we do with our excess purposefulness? Maslow’s answer is that we continue on addressing more refined and longer-lasting aspects of survival and identity, scaling a pyramid of needs or purposes until we reach a pinnacle that he calls “self-actualization”. Other names for this state of peace would be wisdom, God’s will or perhaps Nirvana.
Limiting our scope
One aspect of the Renaissance formulation of the meaning of life question is the tools with which you can answer it. It is assumed that you can only arrive at “the” one and only meaning of life using reason. Emotion, experience and culture are all considered offside in this universal quest. This seems like an unusual handicap for such an all-consuming question. Should we not bring all that we are to this question of life’s purpose ? Are we not likely to get answers like Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” , if we reduce the playing field to thinking alone? So rarely do we use only reason in deciding the big priorities in life. Why should this be an exception? Of course, the more subjective aspects of life are not terribly persuasive to the skeptic. It is important to remember that the Renaissance was directed primarily towards the free thinker, the individual and the skeptic. Yet, for most skeptics, the question about the meaning of life remains unanswered, if not unanswerable. I suggest that this is in large part due to the limited scope of reason.
Most people in history have taken a shortcut across this tortuous terrain by using faith to answer the question. This is neither cowardly nor dangerous. It involves a decision to trust the wise one, the one who can see further, the one who has reflected deeply on life’s meaning. This choice is not passive but reflects a willingness to appraise and travel with others who have embarked on life’s journey. To my mind, this embrace of all that life has to offer takes us further than a careful and logical attempt to experience the grand vista before us.