A question that many philosophers shun from is very popular in media and less-academic forms of philosophical discussion – what is the meaning of life?
It’s one of the oldest philosophical questions ever posed and will most likely never be answered in a satisfactory manner. In Susan Wolf’s “Meaning of Lives”, she writes about how the question is inherently flawed from a linguistic point of view. We can answer the question “what does x word mean?” because we have linguistic mapping for how to respond. We don’t have any such mapping to answer a question such as “what is the meaning of life?”
Despite this question being an epistemological let-down, there are ways to dive deeper into the implications without opening debate on the literal question. To go back to Susan Wolf, we don’t necessarily have to think that life, in general, having meaning is the same thing as having a meaningful life.
The two ideas sound very similar, arguably synonymous, but the important difference between them should be observed by everyone. One is big picture and deals with the billions of individual lives on planet earth as one massive being – as “life.” The other, deals with those individuals on a much smaller, more intimate scale. It offers them the option of arguing that perhaps life doesn’t have meaning, but that does not mean I cannot assign my own life meaning.
Imagine if the question was answered one day and the meaning of all life was discovered and decided. What if life did have a meaning and was predetermined before you were even born, even conceived? How would you feel if the only chance you had to exist was dictated by whatever God, whatever universal being or consciousness assigned a meaning to life? Perhaps you wouldn’t know. Perhaps this consciousness made it so that you were born with the inherent desire to follow your meaning. Perhaps that is what passion is. Even if that is the case, you still chose to follow that passion regardless of if you know why you seek it or not.
If it was different, and I was aware that a conscious being had control over my life before I was even a thought in someone’s head, then I would have a serious philosophical and existential problem with my life. I would feel worse knowing what the meaning of life is. I would feel as though my agency was stripped before I was given it.
The concept of meaning is so tricky. What is meaningful to me could be worthless to you, but you might have the understanding of it’s value in my life and vice-versa. In my opinion, the majority of those that seek to find meaning from sources beyond themselves have already found meaning in seeking it or are looking in the wrong places. The nun may find salvation and joy in serving God for her life, but she may never acknowledge that the meaning of her life might have never come out of searching for a higher being.
So, if life has no inherent meaning, what are we do to? If there is no purpose for us to exist in the first place, who are we to think that assigning purpose to our individual lives means anything either? Well, my answer to that would be who really cares? If there is no meaning then that means 1 of the following 3 options is true:
- There is no God.
- There is a God, but they do not see the purpose in giving us a collective meaning of “life.”
- There is a God, and they have determined the meaning of your life and all lives around you far before you understood what it meant to search for purpose.
The answer for the first two happenings will at least be similar, if not the same: If there is no God, then there truly is no one in the world that you absolutely have to prove the value of your life to. The only person who has any say in what you do or don’t do is ultimately yourself. You’re allowed to assign power to whomever you want, but the responsibility for how your life turns out will ultimately fall on your shoulders.
The third option is a little tricky. You could argue that life then becomes a Matrix scenario. That there is some higher power – a God is a good term for them regardless of their supernatural ability or lack there of – that has control and has had control since the beginning of the creation of humanity as you know it. So, now that you know this, what will you do? Will you cease your daily activity? Will the relationships with those you love become invalid because you believe them to be “pre-determined?” Will you loose all sense of what you life was and what you wanted it to become?
You shouldn’t. The Matrix Scenario is a perfect one to cite in this situation because the ultimate consensus on what to do if a Matrix scenario were true is nothing. If we lived in a Matrix, if there was a God that determined what meaning our lives was to have and, therefore, how we were to achieve that, it wouldn’t matter. That would simply be the reality. There would be an argument for an absence of free will, but that, of course, could be contested. The only other difference between this situation and that of a Matrix is that you were somehow made aware of the consciousness controlling you.
Lets loop back to the first two solutions thought. I believe that they are the most probable and the most productive. There could not be a better outcome. If one of these two instances is the truth, then you have the sole choice and responsibility for the outcome of your life. If anything goes wrong, it’s on you, but the same is true if everything goes right. You are free to take full control and accountability for the entire span of your life. What an amazing life it could be, if you so chose to make it.
I didn’t write this to stir up any kind of controversy or to offend anyone who believes in a higher power. I think that religion and the ideas behind it are beautiful in their pure forms. If you are inclined to believe the third position, that there is a God-like being who has determined the meaning for your life, all I ask is that you don’t let it impede your abilities. I like to think that perhaps there is somewhat of an after-life, or a spiritual continuation of our lives after our physical beings have passed. Whether this is found in the energy that our bodies give back to the earth, or to a more religious idea of a heaven, I do not know. I ponder these ideas, but I do not let them impede my every day life. I continue to write, to follow my passions, and to learn as much as I can.
In conclusion, there is no harm in pondering ideas of religion and meaning, but no one should allow such thoughts to intercede with their free will. Determinism and the meaning of life tend to be two peas in a nihilistic pod. I encourage everyone to think about and discuss whatever ideas come to their heads, but don’t allow those ideas to weigh you down in metaphysics and infinite regressions. Allow them to empower them. Watch as they elevate your ability to communicate about the world around you.
The truth is, until we have evidence of something different, all we can assume is that we are the sole controller of our own lives. Determinism is all bark when it comes to theoretical application. You hold the reigns, you decide the path, you ultimately create the outcome. The meaning of life is what you pull out of it.