The Meanings of Life

What is the meaning of life? I finally feel I can answer this question, even if only partially, in the plural: life has multiple meanings.

The meanings of life include…

…the feeling you get in your soul (even if you aren’t sure you have one) when listening to Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony.
…the joy you experience when you see your child’s smile.
…the filling of the cathedral with the sounds of the choir.
…the taste of acacia honey and butter on freshly-baked bread.
…the expression on someone’s face when you deliver good news.
…feeding the hungry.

I could go on, but I suspect some may already object that none of the things mentioned above is a satisfactory explanation of our existence. I would go further than that: they aren’t explanations at all.

Part of the confusion we experience when thinking about “the meaning of life” is that we fail to distinguish between meaning and explanation.

Physicists are seeking an explanation for the way the universe is. As we discussed Philip Kitcher’s book today in a faculty reading group, one of my colleagues mentioned the concept of “unexplained explainers”. Goedel’s famous theorem demonstrated that no equation or system can be entirely self-contained.

However true this might be, it may be besides the point in an important respect. Even if it turned out, as Douglas Adams suggested, that the answer to the ultimate question is “42”, such an answer should not be entirely surprising if we are dealing with the realm of explanation. Scientific explanations will point to causes and produce formulas and equations.

Meaning is something else entirely. I was not altogether happy with Keith Ward’s references to God (in his book Pascal’s Fire: Scientific Faith and Religious Understanding) as the “ultimate explanation”. I am more inclined to agree with another colleague who suggested to me that, in general, when we talk about God we are not adding anything additional by way of explanation to whatever it is we are talking about. If we connect God with each sparrow that falls to the ground, have we in fact explained something?

For me, God is about meaning in an ultimate sense. Even when life seems meaningless to us on our level, I am persuaded that it is not genuinely meaningless, because it is part of something greater.

Nevertheless, meaning is in principle something that is produced in concrete actions and events. It is a product of how we live, rather than an explanation for why we are alive. We could all point to individuals, whatever religious or philosophical tradition we might belong to, who assented on some rational cognitive level to the teachings of that tradition, and yet lived lives that did not seem meaningful either to them or to those around them. They may find meaning within the big picture, or in relation to others, but this does not change the fact that, for all the ‘right beliefs’ they may hold, they are not themselves living and acting in a meaningful way.

I am in favor of seeking explanations. But saying that God made human beings by molding dust with his hands, or that God created us through evolution, or that evolution gave rise to us without there being any reason to mention God, we are still focusing on attempting to offer explanations. But whichever account of our origins one may subscribe to, it does not automatically lead to one living, or not living, a meaningful life.

For our lives to be meaningful, we must make them meaningful, by filling them with meaningful experiences, and engaging in meaningful actions.

There is also a connection between meaning and beauty, but the latter seems to be literally in the eye (or more precisely the brain) of the beholder. It is an amazing fact that the universe has evolved conscious beings that can look at it and find it beautiful. So, like the famous question about whether a tree that falls in a forest makes a sound if no one is around to hear it, we may ask whether the universe is full of beauty even when no conscious organisms behold it and find it beautiful. If not, then it becomes true to say that each of us gives meaning and adds meaning to the universe in every moment we stop to observe and appreciate beauty.

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  • BSM

    I have to quote ‘ole Bertie: “I feel inclined to answer by another question: What is the meaning of `the meaning of life’?”I think, however, you covered that in your post. ~BCP

  • James F. McGrath

    I think I did. The meaning of ‘the meaning of life’ is 42. :)

  • Qalmlea

    I always found religion to be distracting from the “meaning of life.” It was too far-removed from life to provide a meaning. For the moment, I’m going with “The meaning of life is to live it.” (Feel free to elaborate/attack as you see fit)

  • James F. McGrath

    I might supplement what you posted and say “the meaning of life is to live it meaningfully“. That might seem like a tautology, but I think it is a “meaningful” one nevertheless. Simply living, or to put it another way, merely existing, is probably not what most people think is meaningful. Paul Tillich defines the object of religion/faith as “ultimate concern”. That is what “religion” is about – whether what is ultimate for us is God, baseball, or ourselves.For me, a positive component of most religions is that they situate the ultimate, the meaningful, beyond ourselves, in the realm of the transcendent. As such, they can help us to not see meaning simply in terms of personal gain or the survival of my individual ego or identity. Ironically, for some people religion seems to have the opposite effect, but I don’t think that is a problem with religion per se.

  • Carlos

    I think this post goes some distance towards disambiguating some important issues. One is the extremely important difference between explanation and ‘something else’ — I’m not sure if meaning is the best way of putting it, but it gets at the right problem — meaningfulness, significance, value — the sense of a well-lived, a full and rich, life. Another is whether one needs a sense of ‘the transcendent’ in order to have a meaningful live. The basic claim being put forth by atheists — as I understand it, speaking as an atheist myself — is that transcendence isn’t required for existential significance. One can have a well-lived and valuable existence without reference to anything that transcends the natural world (including humans as a part of that world). Some would deny that this is even possible. So there’s some burden of proof, perhaps, on atheists to show that denial of transcendence of nature isn’t the same as denial of transcendence of the self. In other words, that naturalism isn’t (or needn’t lead to) narcissism. However, that debate still operates in a different register than the debate over adequate explanations. The problem with the “IDologues,” if you’ll pardon the pun, is that they don’t see any way of disrupting or short-circuiting the flow of thought: Darwinism –> naturalism –> atheism –> narcissism, hedonism, nihilism.

  • Qalmlea

    I didn’t add anything to my statement because, for me, it’s not living if you’re not aware of the living. “Merely existing” is…going through the motions, reacting rather than responding, and a whole bunch of other clichés.

  • Mike Donovan

    To me, I feel it is pretty much like many a trip as a child. We would head out on the open road and I would have no idea where I was going – or why. When we arrived, I was always excited and happy – and surprised. Likewise, for me, The Meaning Of Life doesn’t need to be known until the end of the trip. None of us know anyway (except by faith). If you can live with that and believe that our earthly existence is the work of design, the surprise to learn (and actually know!) the “meaning” of all this will ultimately be worth the wait – and the faith.Over the ages, the tortured souls who have been kept awake trying to figure out the “meaning of life,” can be counted in the millions to suicide. Many find a purpose, a faith and/or an anesthetic for the soul. Some of it is positive, some of it is life destroying. To me, my Christian faith doesn’t depend on my KNOWING the “meaning of life,” – or even speculating. We are here. That’s what I know. That’s all any of us KNOW as fact.But, I choose to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was, indeed, an ambassador from the heavens. I choose to find meaning in my walk with Christ. Does that mean I don’t ever wonder about The Meaning Of Life? Of course not. Why was it set in motion in the first place? (That’s the ultimate question to what it “means” to be human.) I have faith it will be revealed at the moment I close my eyes last. Until then, I follow Jesus, help build The Kingdom and ACCEPT that the “meaning of life,” is, alas, a mystery.Okay, it’s very, very late – at least that’s my excuse.