“The unexamined life is not worth living”, quoth Socrates in Plato’s apology. By this statement, Socrates shows us the very essence of philosophy and science; To enrich our lives by understanding it, or at least have a kind of fascination with it. It should go unchallenged, that that which fascinates you in whatever way -even morbidly- is something that provides happiness, entertainment or some other kind of joy. In this series of articles under the heading “the life worth living”, I intend to do just that. To bring philosophy back to its primary function as means to understand life, enhance our experience of it, and hopefully introduce more happiness in it for my readers.
To be as effective as I can, I will stand on the shoulders of giants to do so. There have been many wise men and women before us, who have aimed to help us see the truth to life’s inevitable disappointments, hardships and tragedies and tried to provide us with the tools to overcome these. As such, I will borrow from them.
In the hopes of making as effective a start as I can, this first episode of the series will deal with a fairly hard subject; The meaning of, and purpose to life.
Meaning, purpose and suicide
“There is but one serious philosophical question, and it is that of suicide” (Camus, 1942, pp 13). This is a famous line. In his book, the myth of Sissyphus, Absurdist philosopher Albert Camus, uses this to set the stage for what is to come. The book is, in essence, about the meaning of life. Camus poses a world ruled by no God, where people have nothing but their own wills and responsibilities to keep going, and he asks himself; what is to keep us from committing suicide if this is true? He posits a world, like our own, where there is no objective God given purpose; no reason to be, or raison d’être.
But, as the good philosophers and science fans we are on this site, we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. Before we can be honest in saying that we find a meaning or purpose to life to be in any sense lacking, we must first decide what it is that we may find lacking. In other words, we must pose the question; “What is a meaning to life?” or “what is a purpose to life?” So, let’s put the guns, razors and ropes away for now, and focus on the issue at hand.
The wikipedia page on the meaning of life, equates purpose and meaning of life, by saying that the question “what is the meaning of life?” “Pertains to the significance of life or existence in general” (“Meaning of life – Wikipedia”). This wiki page is long, and mostly a worthwhile effort to look into this question. It should then be clear that to have a meaning or a purpose for life, a significance to life, is the ideal starting point for our journey towards the life worth living.
A common atheist trope is that there is no objective meaning or purpose to life, so we should just make the best of it, have fun or find our own meaning or purpose. But is this true?
Objectivity doesn’t mean what you think it means
The atheist trope I cited above is a very common one, and it is simply incorrect. By this statement, the atheist in question is effectively asking for a universal meaning or purpose, not an objective one. This is actually a pet peeve of mine, so let’s get it out of the way quickly. We seem to understand very well what it means to be objective in an active sense of the word. For instance, when I say; “That reporter is not being objective”, you will understand me to say that the reporter is not following the evidence, but is merely following a bias he or his medium has. You will also understand that I am not saying that this reporter does not conform to the opinion all humans hold universally.
However, when it comes to more abstract things, like a meaning or purpose to life, or morality for that matter, things become confused. The point many people will then make is that for these things to be objective, the measure in which they are found to be true is supposed to be universal. It is understandable, sure, but it is simply correct. To take an example; I am certain that none of my readers will doubt the truth of gravity. Likewise, we will all accept that the exact gravitational force of a planet can be calculated based on its mass and the mass of the interacting object. We will agree, then, that this formula is an objective formula. However, as you will note, there are still two variables in this equation, leading to different outcomes of the equation when performed on different planets with different interacting objects.
The point I’m trying to make here, is this: While we might not be able to say that there is a universal significance of existence for everyone, we certainly can’t say that there is none, either. In fact, the question or statement that “there is no objective meaning or purpose to life”, makes no sense. It is either going to the mistaken view, as I just laid out, that an objective meaning or purpose to life should apply to each and every person, which is mistaking objectivity for universality, or it means that there are no objective variables that constitute a personal meaning or purpose to life.
Significance through religion
So, how then do we find a purpose or meaning? We are of course familiar with the religious perspective. And though I don’t like to write about religious matters too much, no serious article about this subject can be complete without shedding some light on the religious side of things.
The significance of existence is a tricky thing, especially in the shape it takes when we are dealing with religion. There are a number of ways to describe it, of which perhaps the most significant is the teleological (goal-related) way. In fact, this is where the idea of “purpose” of life originates from; significance in the form of a goal, or purpose.
The beauty of religion, here, is that it provides a goal right off the bat; to serve God and gain entrance to the “kingdom of heaven”, or to avoid “hell”. These are two goals to which you can contribute or not contribute. In the sense of providing significance to life/existence, the existence of these goals are arguably more important than the question of whether God actually exists or not. The belief that he does exist provides the believer with the motivation they need and the goal that they need to feel as though their life is significant, not just to them, but to an outside force that is varying degrees of almighty and that loves them.
But it doesn’t end there, most religions come with a “handbook” of sorts, which has within it a comprehensive set of rules. This gives the believer extra purpose, because they have a sense of what it is to have moral character and how to obtain it.
As a final point, religious people find a lot of purpose in their communities as well. As members of a religious community, religious people find not only like-minded people, but they find support, solace and competition. Religious communities come togethers in parishes, churches and study groups, where they find themselves in tightly knitted company. They find people who care for them, who help them in their times of need, often without wanting anything in return. They find help with the most trivial as well as with the most challenging of things. Competition is found in the same sense as we find it in other communities, where we try to outperform one another. It is this kind of friendly competition that binds people and gives them a purpose, as they try to give their being there extra significance.
Secular significance of existence
Though religion is excellent at providing a significance to your life or existence, there is no need to become religious at this moment. In fact, you will find that the significance religious people find in their communities largely applies to non-religious communities, too. While you’re at work, or at the gym, or in a discussion group, you will find support, solace and competition. However, for the question at hand here, we are still dealing with “the significance of life in general”. If you put the emphasis on the “in general” part, you might feel that being significant in the social sense isn’t enough.
The first thing I’d like to mention, is that there is a scientific hypothesis in the works at the moment, posed by Jeremy England (J. L. England, 2013) says we might simply be the result of the tendency the universe has towards entropy. In this sense, the significance of life in general is to speed up the process towards entropy and the inevitable heat death of the universe. However, I do want to remind the reader that this hypothesis is yet to be peer reviewed and more exhaustively tested. Nevertheless, it does give a sense of significance to life in general in the broadest of terms if it turns out to be true. For those interested, here’s a talk about the hypothesis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=10cVVHKCRWw
Aside from the hypothesis by England, there are still a number of good raisons d’être that we can find, most of them geared toward some conception of the “good life”. The idea here is to live both a life that is good to you as a person, but also to your surroundings. Here, we say, “the significance to life in general, is life itself”. To support one another, and be supported. There are a litany of different schools that aspire to this ideal, grounding the significance of life in mostly moral teachings or some ideal of how a society should look. I will treat these schools in upcoming articles, where we will explore both questions of morality and of politics, focusing primarily, like i have here, on adding value to your lives through philosophy.
Suffering as the purpose to life
In ancient India, the prince Siddhartha Gautáma, also known as Buddha, saw that there was a lot of suffering in the world. In his travels across the continent, he witnesses lepers, murders, thefts and all other kinds of suffering. He developed a fairly complicated philosophy/religion around this very fact. As he saw it, life equaled suffering, so the purpose of one’s actions had to be to alleviate or diminish suffering. Though I would not characterise myself a Buddhist, I thought that perhaps it’ll be worthwhile for me to express my own view of my meaning of life.
Like Buddha, I am of the opinion that life equals suffering, simply the virtue of the fact that, if you don’t actively chase your happiness, you will suffer. If you don’t actively chase a meal, you will starve and die slowly. In other words, you have to work for your happiness, but if you don’t work, suffering will find you very rapidly. This means, like Buddha thought, that your actions should be designed to induce as much happiness and as little suffering as possible, both in yourself and in others. As a part of this, I ascribe to the stoic line of thought and try to teach the stoic doctrine of “the dichotomy of control”, found among others, in Epictetus’ Enchiridion or manual (Epictetus, 2012), which helps people deal constructively with negative emotions.
Camus’s second-to-last chapter in The myth of Sissyphus (Camus, 1942, pp. 153-158) describes the actual myth itself, where the titular Sissyphus was condemned by the gods of ancient Greece to roll a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll back down the other side when he finally got to the top. Camus urges us to see Sissyphus, an obvious analogy for the -according to him- hopelessly empty and pointless lives we live, as being a happy man. According to Camus, Sissyphus is happy, because he finds his purpose, his meaning, in the task he performs. So too, argues Camus, should we work to find a meaning in our own lives. And we will be the happier for it. In the end, Camus is half-right. In a world without a single, unifying and universal purpose given to us from birth, it is up to ourselves to find a purpose to our lives. However, he is wrong when he suggests that we can do so in performing trivial tasks ad infinitum. Rather, we should look to those things that we value for ourselves, the things that constitute our identity, and make for ourselves a purpose that makes our life the life worth living.
- Camus, A. (1942). The myth of sissyphus. Utrecht: Ijzer.
- Meaning of life – Wikipedia. (z.d.). Consulted on 08-03-2019 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meaning_of_life
- England, J. L. (2013). Statistical physics of self-replication. The Journal of Chemical Physics, 139. Geraadpleegd van http://www.englandlab.com/uploads/7/8/0/3/7803054/2013jcpsrep.pdf
- Epictetus, E. (2012). The Enchiridion of Epictetus. Wilder Publications, Limited.
I am a 25-year old worker in social care. I was raised catholic up to the eighth year of my life, when the disbelief and frustration of me and my brother, along with changes in the church, caused me and my family to leave the church.
Ever since I was twelve, I have been interested in the god question and politics. In discussing these things, my interests have expanded significantly into the realms of science and philosophy. These handed me the tools to distinguish myself as a thinker, rather then the crazy man in the streets.
And now, I am here. My aim will be to provide thought-provoking pieces that invite the reader to join me on a journey to investigate truth, morality and whatever might cross our path. In doing this, I hooe to convey and transfer my near limitless excitement and interest in the subject at hand and grow together into more understanding, loving and wise people.
Comments on “The life worth living; meaning and purpose”
AA writes, “Like Buddha, I am of the opinion that life equals suffering, simply the virtue of the fact that, if you don’t actively chase your happiness, you will suffer.”
Some people would say that it is the chasing which causes the suffering. Chasing is a process of becoming, where one mental image of how things are is compared to another mental image of how things could be. This conceptual comparison creates a story line involving movement from one mental image to another, the chase, the becoming, a journey.
Suffering may happen to the degree the journey is perceive to be unsuccessful. I imagined myself as a rich person, I tried to get there, I didn’t make it, so I’m unhappy.
We might note how all of the above takes place not in the “real world” but rather in the symbolic realm between our ears. The story, the becoming, the chasing, the success or failure, the happy or unhappy, it’s all conceptual.
Most of us most of the time work at this conceptual level, the attempt to make the story go the way we want it to. We do various things in the real world, with the goal of getting the story in our heads to come out a particular way.
There is an alternative to the becoming process, being. Instead of living in our heads and trying to write a story, we can focus our attention on the present moment, which is the only thing which actually exists. That is, we can focus on reality itself, instead of our thoughts about reality.
This can be a tricky business because our minds will likely try to create another becoming story out of the experience of being.
AA writes, “In other words, you have to work for your happiness, but if you don’t work, suffering will find you very rapidly. ”
There is some truth in this in that because, if for example, if you sit in a chair all day doing nothing but being, suffering may indeed arise. Your mind is used to stories, and you aren’t feeding it one, and so it may complain. This is pretty normal, maybe even universally true.
However, if you simply wait out the suffering, your mind will adapt to the new situation and eventually stop complaining. This leads to an experience which is not happiness so much as it is peace. Happiness is when we are riding a becoming story and getting what we want. Peace is when we’ve stepped out of becoming stories.
Thank you for replying to and reading the article. It is very much appreciated!
I would agree that the chasing of your happiness is also suffering. In essence, we suffer for a lot of things. We suffer our own opinions, the caring for other’s opinions of us, the actual work we do etc. One of the things we suffer most, is indeed the “process of becoming”. Our opinions of what we want to be, need to be, or should be. And, as you say, this is mostly due to (the perception of) failure.
And that’s the interesting thing, isn’t it? We perceive ourselves to be something or to ought to be something, and then we perceive ourselves to fail, or to be a long ways away from the goal we are trying to reach. This is a kind of self-inflicted mental suffering. But, while I agree that this is a significant source of suffering, which must be dealed with on its own and separately, my claim is a tad bigger.
It is my claim that the world in general and human society in particular, tend towards suffering. To take your example of sitting in a chair all your life, you will encounter countless forms of suffering. After a few hours, you’ll start to be hungry. After a few days, you will start to develop muscular atrophy (the reduction of muscle strength), After a few days more, you’ll start to develop bedsores and after one week/11 days, you’ll die of starvation. So, you have to work and be mobile to sustain yourself (which itself causes suffering) to prevent worse suffering.
When it comes to what you say about “waiting out the suffering”, I disagree in the following sense: You wouldn’t achieve a state of “peace” by simply “waiting it out”. You might achieve a state of tempered or controlled panic, but you won’t be -as they say- “at peace” with the situation. I do agree however, if you say that to reach this state, you must take control of your own mind and train it to handle the situation you are in. In fact, I say that we must -and in fact mostly do- do this with life itself.
I hope that I have explained myself clearly with this reaction. Please feel welcome to comment again if anything remains unclear.
Hi there AA,
Very well written response, congrats.
You write, “It is my claim that the world in general and human society in particular, tend towards suffering.”
Yes, agreed. And no matter how many plans, schemes, religions, scientific studies or other methods we try over many centuries, the psychological suffering situation remains largely unchanged. The universal and seemingly eternal nature of human psychological suffering suggests that the source of psychological suffering is something that all humans have in common. I propose that to be the nature of what we’re all made of psychologically, thought.
You write, “When it comes to what you say about “waiting out the suffering”, I disagree in the following sense: You wouldn’t achieve a state of “peace” by simply “waiting it out”.”
Agreed again, and I should have been more clear. We wouldn’t achieve a state of _permanent_ peace by waiting out the suffering as my claim may have inadvertently implied. But we can wait out the mental disturbance that can arise when shifting gears from busy becoming trips to simply being, and reach some temporary peace. If one knows how to reach temporary peace that tends to contribute to a more permanent peace as one is less likely to panic when things aren’t going well.
You write, “I do agree however, if you say that to reach this state, you must take control of your own mind and train it to handle the situation you are in.”
I understand what you’re saying and don’t disagree, but perhaps the phrase “taking control” can be improved upon. The experience of being is perhaps better compared to an act of surrender. As I said above, it can be a tricky business as even just being can be turned in to a becoming trip. You know, “I must just be, so I’ll become enlightened!” 🙂
BTW, I was raised Catholic too, but wandered off in high school, some 50 years ago now. But here we are, still thinking about the kinds of things Catholics tend to think about. Some things just aren’t a choice I guess. 🙂
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