“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.