What's the meaning of life? For many people, me included, this is a vitally important question. Finding the answer to it is a big part of what gives life meaning.
But wait...something is wrong here.
If what gives life meaning for me is a search for the meaning of life, I've got a couple of problems.
(1) If I ever find the answer, then life won't have meaning for me any longer, because the meaning was in my searching, not my finding. (2) Maybe I won't ever find the answer, in which case my life has been meaningless, though the time I spent fruitlessly searching for the meaning of life counts for something, I guess.
What I'm doing here is thinking philosophically. Or at least, thinking.
Lots of religious believers and spiritual seekers consider this to be wasted activity. They disparage thinking, viewing it as the antithesis to faith, intuition, insight -- the real way to God or ultimate truth.
Well, I beg to differ. Along with Julian Baggini, a philosopher whose book ("What's It All About?") I blogged about recently.
In that post I talked about Baggini's view of ego loss and selflessness. I liked how he cuts through a bunch of often-unexamined religious crap with clear thinking and common sense.
Thinking may not get us to the promised land, but it points us in the right direction, helping prevent us from wandering off into a wilderness of mumbo-jumbo and foundationless beliefs.
Here's some additional Baggini thoughts about the meaning of life (drawn from his initial chapters) that struck me as right on.
First, even if God created the cosmos, the meaning of life doesn't necessarily follow from its ultimate origin.
Knowing that the laptop on which I'm typing these words came from an Apple factory in China says nothing about the meaning my beloved MacBook has for me. Baggini says:
This is a kind of answer I would resist for reasons I will shortly explain. For the moment we simply need to note that we cannot assume that answering the question about something's origins tells us about its future or present purpose.
Second, and this relates to "how they evolved" in the quote above, the meaning of life isn't dependent on its being wired into the universe by someone or something else, such as a personal God.
Meaning is within each of us. Even if someone subscribes to a religiously-inspired faith concerning what life is all about, that belief is rooted within his or her own mind, not elsewhere.
So there's no reason why a meaning we arrive at on our own is any less valid than a meaning that supposedly is dropped down from the heavens into our laps.
...Why should we think that assigned purposes are inferior to predetermined purposes, and that only the latter can make life meaningful?
...The fact, then, that we can find no purpose or meaning in the origins of human life is no reason for supposing human life has no purpose or meaning.
Third, and most important in my opinion, a quest for the meaning of life has to end somewhere and sometime. And that might as well be here and now.
Some people believe that life will be truly meaningful when they get the next best material thing: house, car, computer, vacation, jewelry, healthy body, child, whatever.
Some people believe that life will be truly meaningful when they get the next best spiritual thing: enlightenment, salvation, satori, heaven, nirvana, grace, whatever.
Both types of people are forever chasing a string of "because's" that never comes to an end. They do this or that because it supposedly will lead them closer to the Meaning of Life promised land. Yet each step is followed by another step, not a standing still.
I have rejected the view that life's purpose can be understood by looking backwards to its origins. But that doesn't mean the only alternative is looking forward to its ultimate end. Just as the restaurant staff are fulfilling their professional purposes in the present simply by doing their job, couldn't we fulfill life's purpose in the present simply by living our lives?
...So if life is to be meaningful, the "why/because" series cannot extend indefinitely into the future. At some point we have to reach an end point where a further "why" question is unnecessary, misguided, or nonsensical. Otherwise the purpose of life is forever beyond our reach.
...As we have repeatedly seen, at some point we have to reach the stage where a "why" question can be met with an answer along the lines of "Are you nuts? Why wouldn't anyone want that?" If not, the "why/because" series just extends into the indefinite future.
...Yet so many of us do look towards some idyllic future when we have "made it" as providing purpose for what we do. This is a mistake and at its root is a failure to realize that if what is being worked towards is worthwhile in itself, then so are many other things that are within our grasp right now.
If one still has an inordinate liking for the things of this world and wallows in relished attachments...what can be said? One's reality takes precise shape according to one's attachments, for karma is an exact dispenser of justice and destiny. If it is Maya one loves, one will get more Maya. Maya is an endless abyss of dreams and false hopes, completely delusional and deadly. The Merciful Lord is not harsh or cruel. Everyone gets what they strongly desire, whether nectar or poison. In any case, have fun!
Posted by: albert | January 19, 2009 at 07:48 AM
Albert, how does your comment relate to this post? Finding meaning in the present moment is the precise antidote to maya, "the endless abyss of dreams and false hopes," as you put it.
So I guess you're agreeing with Baggini and me. If not, please clarify.
Wanting to be somewhere other than the present moment, like "Get me out of Maya!" -- that certainly seems like a strong desire and an object of attachment.
Posted by: Brian | January 19, 2009 at 09:36 AM
Could One find a category of meaning to life, in the process of finding the answer to the origin and ending of life? This exercise could be simple contemplation, not constant, but from time to time. If there is no answer, that is ok, but a special category of meaning, maybe worth the time of contemplation. Nothing wrong with the act of searching, if that act gives One meaning. A moment of contemplation, is within One self, and can occur right now.
Posted by: Roger | January 20, 2009 at 12:40 PM