What is the meaning of life? I used to think this was an important question. Heck, maybe the only question worth seriously pursuing an answer to.
Why? Because once the question was answered, I'd know what were the most important things to do in life.
(Which, though I didn't ponder this at the time, had damn well better include "search for the meaning of life," or I was seriously screwed.)
Now I'm not nearly as interested in thinking about the meaning of life. I'm actually living a meaningful life -- much preferable to wondering what one might consist of.
A few years ago I wrote a couple of blog posts about Julian Baggini's book, "What's It All About?: Philosophy and the Meaning of LIfe." In it, Baggini has short chapters on the various main ways people view the meaning of life.
One is Lose Your Self. Here, as in the rest of his book, Baggini discusses the pros and cons of this strategy. I called a blog post "Losing your self is so egotistical," quoting Baggini:
The reason I am being a little brutal here is that I think there is a terrible dishonesty among some of those who claim that what they are trying to achieve is a lessening of attachment to ego. The clear truth is that people who find this path satisfying are living contented lives.
In other words, they like their "spiritual practices" because they make them feel more content, at peace, or whatever, than alternatives they have tried. So despite all the fine words about losing their egos, they are in fact simply engaging in another form of self-gratification. This isn't materialistic or harmful to others, so we tend to look upon it quite kindly. But it is not in any sense a way of life which shows disregard for self-interest.
Early on, Baggini emphasizes a point that gets repeated in his book. It became the title of another blog post: "Meaning of life is now, or never." I still like these Baggini quotes a lot.
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.
Right on, brother.
Such is one of the many delusional traps of religion -- spending one's life looking forward to salvation, enlightenment, god-realization, a second coming, ego loss, nondual consciousness, or whatever. When the meaning of life is a goal always dangled out of reach, we run the risk of ending our life feeling unfulfilled, even though nothing ever was lacking except our belief that something was lacking.
I put Baggini's book away without finishing it. Having rediscovered it recently, I've enjoyed reading the remaining chapters. This morning I read "The Threat of Meaninglessness."
Thankfully, this isn't much of a threat, notwithstanding the frantic cries of religious fundamentalists who threaten, "Without surrendering to what God wants for us, life is empty of meaning." What a bunch of crap.
Baggini feels the same, though he states his objections to supernatural bullshit in a more philosophical manner. He rejects the thoroughly unproven notion that some divinity holds the answer to the question, "What is the meaning of life?"
For example, some embrace Christianity and some Hinduism. Both faiths can't be true, since it is central to one that there is just one God and central to the other than there are many; and reincarnation is essential to one and inconsistent with the other. So at least one -- and probably both -- are just wrong to think that what they believe will ultimately provide meaning for life.
So what will? Whatever we find meaningful. And we don't even have to think about this very much. Living life provides the answer, not philosophical reflection.
Fortunately, there is no great mystery about how unexamined or mistaken lives can have meaning. Throughout this book we have seen many ways in which life can have meaning. The overall idea is that life is worth living just as long as it is a good thing in itself.
Such a life has meaning because it means something to us, it is valuable to those who have it. Many things can contribute to this: happiness, authenticity and self-expression, social and personal relationships, concern for the welfare of others.
...Hence it is more than possible for someone to live a full and meaningful life without ever having thought in terms of life's meaning.
Cartoonist Charles Schulz said it nicely.
My life has no purpose, no direction, no aim, no meaning, and yet I'm happy. I can't figure it out. What am I doing right?