About all it took for me to order Todd May's book was the title: "A Significant Life: Human Meaning in a Silent Universe."
How could I resist?
Hey, I want a significant life. Filled with meaning. And I totally agree we live in a silent universe. That is, one which doesn't have a God or some other cosmic entity whispering in our ears, Here is what makes life meaningful...
I've got a few chapters left to read. Ordinarily getting this far into a philosophical book would make me confident that I know what the final conclusions will be. But May, a philosopher, does his profession proud.
He isn't into academic, word-splitting, intellectual philosophizing. He writes clearly, informally, and passionately about issues that everybody is deeply concerned about, such as the relationships between happiness, experiences, and meaning.
What I like most about May's style is how he honestly considers arguments that are contrary to his own. Before stating his conclusion about something, he works through alternative ways of looking at that thing.
May does this so skillfully, several times I found myself saying to myself "Yes, that's so true!" to one of his counter-arguments, before changing my mind and saying "Yes, that's even more true!" to the thesis he ends up preferring.
If all philosophers could write and think this way, modern philosophy would have a much better reputation than it does.
May makes it into a very practical way of assessing what makes for "a good life" -- one of those terms that gets thrown around all the time, yet rarely pondered as anything other than a shallow platitude. For example, early on in his book May considers what we're really looking for.
Happiness seems like a fine answer. After all, he points out, the founders of the United States, who were well versed in philosophy, said that we have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
But what is happiness? Seemingly it has a lot to do with pleasure. When we're happy, we feel pleasure; when we are unhappy, we don't. So if we could feel pleasure all of the time, wouldn't that make for a good life?
At first I thought that it would. Until May put forward a thought experiment about having electrodes implanted in my brain that activate a pleasure center.
You would be given food and water, so you wouldn't starve. You would get adequate sleep. So you would live a life of complete pleasure. You would have pleasure at every moment. Also, because you would be sustained through proper nourishment, you would live to a ripe old age.
But here's the catch. You wouldn't be able to do anything except sit there and be stimulated by the pleasure machine. You would experience continuous pleasure, but you wouldn't be able to do anything. Would you take the offer?
May said that he wouldn't. I'm pretty sure that I wouldn't either. I like the notion of continuous pleasure, but not at the expense of living a normal human life.
The reason, May says, is that what really gives us satisfaction are life projects.
He says, "When we ask what we would like of our living, almost all of us think of our family and friends, our work or our outside hobbies, the plans we have for the future, as central to it. A life without projects would be less than a life, or at least less than a life any of us is likely to choose."
So this leads May to propose another thought experiment. The pleasure machine is redesigned. "Suppose that, instead of offering us pleasure, the machine offered us experiences." It would give us whatever experiences we desired.
The machine creates a virtual reality for its user, like that headgear one can don in order to have the visual experience of alternative worlds. The only difference is that the virtual reality created by the machine is not only visual. It is a complete experience. While immersed in it, one does not even know that it is only an experience. It would feel real.
This seemed much more appealing to me. I've had dreams that were so enjoyable, I didn't want them to end. They felt real, but weren't. So what? If an experience has the same taste as really real reality, why not grab onto it?
A few pages on, however, May had convinced me that actually I wouldn't want to sign up for the Experience Machine. He writes:
I can't imagine for a moment that I would take that deal. The experience machine is no more tempting than the pleasure machine. It might be neat to try for a couple of hours, but so might the pleasure machine. To look upon a lifetime of unreal experience is a repulsive prospect.
While it might not seem like torture if I were already in it, it certainly seems so now. And as with the pleasure machine, hardly anyone I've asked has ever been drawn to it.
The reason, May says, is that happiness is a type of engagement with the world, not a solitary subjective exercise. "Happiness, rather than being an experience or a passing feeling, is an emotional relation to how one's life is going. It is deeper than experiences or feelings, deeper and more sustained."
Which gets us to meaningfulness. I feel like I need to finish the book before I can explain May's conclusions about what gives life meaning. Here's how he generally looks at the situation, though.
For a human life to be meaningful, it must be one in which I am not a spectator but a real participant, and a participant in something that matters to me. That something can be any number of engagements: relationships, social change, work, athletics, or some combination of these.
I have previously used the word projects to refer to them. For my life to be meaningful, those projects have to feel like my projects; not in the sense that I own them, but more in the sense that they own me, that they have captured my focus.
...It is important to distinguish a meaningful life from a good one. A person can live a perfectly good life -- one that contributes to society or is loyal to friends and family or accomplishes an important feat -- without feeling absorbed by what he or she does.
...But to be a good person who has lived a good life is not the same as having a meaningful life.