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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.

Simplistic Thinking

July 1, 2008


The New York Times op-ed columnist Bob Herbert weighs in today with an argument that we should all admit that we went into Iraq essentially for oil. He mentions several forms of proof of this. The latest is the role of State Department employees in the awarding of subcontracts for improving all production in Iraq. He supplements this with many other indications that this is what we were about all along, going back to the protecting of the oil ministry in Baghdad rather than any other ministries or institutions in the days immediately after our victory

The problem with all this is that Herbert imagines that he can find an explanation for our invasion. In fact, the invasion of Iraq, like many other actions made by leaders or even ordinary people was a complex result of many factors. Some in the administration did want to democratize Iraq. They have been influenced by or work partners in a long-term effort to have the United States play a more active role in democratizing the world. Some in the administration saw all the Middle Eastern affairs in terms of Israel. If we could defuse Iraq as a center of opposition to our policies we would have the same time be strengthening our ability to preserve the independence of Israel. Many in Washington saw the continued human rights violations by Saddam Hussein is a blot that had to be removed. Since the United Nations would not act we would have too. Others were concerned with the independence of Kurdistan, an independence that could not be guaranteed as long as Hussein was there. Many believe that George W. Bush wanted to show that he could do what his father failed to do after the first Gulf war. As is often the case, many of the military services saw this war, as any war, could be an opportunity to show what could be done with new weapons and strategies. And, in spite of all the discussion that has gone on since the war started, it was believed by many people, and not only in Washington, that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. This again was a danger to Israel

There is an overwhelming tendency of people to try to simplify complex issues. Yes, oil played a part. For some people it was probably the major reason. For others it was an important reason. But for many, it did not figure in the calculation — as ir might today. From this we should take a lesson.

Religion in Politics

April 15, 2007

Paul Krugman, the New York Times Op-Ed columnist offers (4/13/07) some worrisome facts about the influence of the Christian right in the present administration (and beyond that more generally in Republican circles). He points out that Regent University, founded by Pat Robertson, boasts that it has 150 graduates working in the Bush administration. We should remember that two days after 9/11 on Robertson’s 700 Club program Falwell blamed the attack on “pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians” as well as the ACLU and People for the American Way. Robertson chimed in to say, “Well, I totally concur.”

Krugman also points out that the Texas Republican Party in its official platform pledges to “dispel the myth of the separation of church and state” He tells us that Kay Cole James, former dean of Regent’s government school, was the federal government’s chief personnel officer from 2001 to 2005, and identifies many of the persons that were appointed, some notable for subsequent illegal behavior.

Krugman’s picture gets darker and darker. These are people determined to take society back to the world before the Enlightenment.