Archive for November 2008

Meaning:Part I

November 17, 2008

When we speak of the meaning of life, we need in the first instance to consider the meaning of existence. For the ultimate question that lies behind this discussion is the why and wherefore of anything at all. Leaving life aside, why is there any material existence here or anywhere else in the universe? The easiest answer is to posit the existence of God or some other prime mover. The problem with this is that there is always the question of where this individual or power or force came from. So that brings us back to the first question again. This is essentially the question that I ask when I hear about the Big Bang theory. The Big Bang theory started everything. Yet of course it didn’t at all. It merely brought together pre-existing materials in such a way as to cause a gigantic explosion for which we are all thankful.

Now the meaning of life question simply adds a new layer to that of the meaning, or rather reason for, existence of any kind. Given certain pre-biologic materials and certain environmental conditions (temperature, mass. etc), it has been assumed that biological forms emerge more or less automatically. From this point we can sketch an exceedingly gradual and then accelerating biological evolution.

At some point, consciousness emerged in within biological forms. Initially, this was not reflective consciousness. It was, for example, the painful feeling that we imagine an animal suffers when it is injured in combat. On the positive side, most forms seem to enjoy eating or taking nourishment, or at least most animal forms do. Then at some point, this kind of consciousness evolved into a reflective consciousness, a form ascribed to human beings, but not necessarily only to human beings. This is the consciousness that allows one to think about what he’s been thinking about, or, for example, to think about the future of his family and the inevitability of death.


Meaning: Part II

November 17, 2008

So far we’ve only been discussing the context in which we must consider the question of the meaning of life, or, more explicitly, the meaning of life for us as individuals. One could take the minimalist position of assuming that the meaning of life is inherent in reflective consciousness. It is somehow valuable to us to think about our thoughts, to mull over what we do and say and think in the course of a day. But this leaves us with an emotionless answer which seems to leave out what most people find valuable in their lives.

It seems to me that what most people find meaningful as they participate in reflective consciousness are stories, stories of their life as a whole, stories of particular episodes in their life stories that occur only in dreams, or even daydreams in which they figure more prominently than they might in real events. Even when one is in a hospital bed, perhaps close to the end of his life, the remaining meaning is likely to be in the visits of relatives and staff — past present and future (where these three are quite foreshortened). Our participation in stories is so attractive that we may spend much of our time immersed in novels or watching movies that depict stories which we can participate in without actually participating.

This hard rock of meaning as narrative may not have much moral content. We do of course gain meaning from having done what we feel to be meritorious acts, or acts in which we take pride. We want to feel that we are contributing to the life of others in small ways and large, or have in the past. But for most people I suspect that this moral meaning is less immediate and sustaining than participation in life narratives at various levels.