Towards a Science of MeaningStephen Farah
Let’s try and get some perspective on the question of meaning, specifically the meaning of life. What are the questions we need to answer and what are our challenges we need to address in asking the question: what is the meaning of my life (personal, subjective) or what is the meaning of life (collective, objective)?
1. Does the question (what is the meaning of life) itself make sense? A lot of people react to the question as a naivet’. What do they mean by this reaction? Well you should probably ask ‘them’ not me:-). Nevertheless I am going to be sufficiently presumptuous to propose what they mean by this reaction:
‘ Life is inherently meaningless. This has good philosophical precedent in Albert Camus, Schopenhauer and Kafka to name a few.
‘ Meaning is not given nor is it objective. Rather it has about it the quality of relativity and subjectivity. This is to say that we, as individuals, need to create our own meaning.
‘ There is also the view of the hard-core material pragmatists to consider. Their view is that the question itself is an absurdity. Simply: what can be gained from such an abstract and essentially meaningless question? Where can a question like this lead to? What can practically be gained? This is a utilitarian and pragmatic perspective. I think we can cite the great American philosopher William James in this category and also possibly the Positivist’s of the early 20th century. We may also classify the modern material rationalists like Dennet and Dawkins in this category, although in fairness to Dawkins he has proposed an answer- the meaning of life is to propagate DNA. Not to my mind a particularly satisfactory answer, but an answer nonetheless.
‘ The question makes sense ‘ but the answer is obvious. This is a fundamentalist perspective, most frequently encountered in religious fundamentalists.
Are we still in the game?
Assuming that we are able to navigate these metaphysical rapids and retain our appetite for the question, then this, as far as I see it, is what we need to consider:
2. Is it possible to answer the question objectively or is the best we can hope for a subjective answer? Are we enclosed in solipsism (the view that only oneself exists) in our attempts to answer or can we aspire to an ultimate objective truth?
3. What is ‘truth’? Does the word- truth- refer to something beyond itself? Or is it a purely language based proposition? Assuming that language is purely referential and does not contain its own validity.
4. Is meaning or purpose inherent? Is our purpose something which we are given although we may not be conscious of it at any particular time? Meaning the journey is one of discovering our inherent or latent purpose. Or alternatively is purpose something we need to create, is it a designer article of consciousness?
5. Is meaning and purpose synonymous for the purpose of our quest, to discover the meaning of life?
6. Can it be taught or does each one of us need to find his own answer?
7. Can physical science give us the answer? An answer to a question which is quintessentially metaphysical and existential.
8. Is there such a thing as objective reality? And if so is it conceptually possible for us to access it? Does a negative answer to either of two aforementioned questions stop our quest in its tracks or is there a real possibility of a meaningful answer despite the high probability of our inability to ever access objective reality.
A side bar to this just occurred to me. We must distinguish between reality and the concept of reality. There is no doubt that we all live in reality and have direct and immediate access, including those we have deemed clinically insane. The real problem is that philosophically speaking the issue is problematic, meaning that the problem is conceptual reality not fundamental reality. The problem of objective reality is a problem concerning abstraction not experience.
9. Would we know the true and ultimate meaning of life were we to encounter it?
10. The problem of God or of the Objective psyche. The biggest and most successful (if size is a measure of success) religions propose the existence of God. (the discussion around what God is will be central to this blog but will not be tackled now, I will leave you to your own definition and assume with some degree of comfort that our understanding, whilst not identical, is reasonably similar).
Hegel and Jung whilst not referring explicitly to God, refer to the Objective Psyche. Even the physicists concede a threshold beyond which they, and presumably rational thought intoto, cannot penetrate.
Anyway, regardless of your personal philosophical orientation, it is clear that something exists beyond our own consciousness, or if you prefer beyond our conscious comprehension.
So we are left with two parameters:
‘ A limit to knowledge, at least rational cognitive knowledge.
‘ An element of the universal reality which resists us, our conscious will, and our ability to understand, reduce, quantify and control our existence.
Whilst this is not meant to be in any way a complete list of the questions we need to consider in our quest. I hope it provides at least a starting point for our quest to launch from. And as the blog develops these are a few of the central issues we will consider.
In conclusion I will leave you what my Taoist Teacher had to say about the question of meaning of life.
He said that as everyone knows in the East there are only four questions worth asking:
1. Why were we born?
2. Why are we here?
3. Why do we get sick? And finally
4. Why do we die?