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The Meaning Of Life

The Meaning of Life, The Universe, And Everything

There is neither luck nor fate, only cause and effect, influencing an infinite number of variables of which we have varying degrees of control over. To the perceiving subject who is constrained to see only the present, life appears random (luck), or beyond our control (fate), but this is only the result of way in which we must subjectively perceive the universe.

Life is only as meaningful as you make it. There is no meaning without a perceiver to acknowledge it. We construct meaning through our thoughts. Meaning is simply our semantic connections between objects in reality. Without consciousness, there is no meaning.

Consciousness is essentially a thing that gives itself meaning. It implies itself, finds itself by perceiving itself. It is the axiom that Descartes described as “I think therefore I am.”

We know that we exist, because we know that we exist. What we are is irrelevant. It simply is. That being said, it is helpful to know more than just that we are. In this, I am assuming that you and I are both conscious, aware and able to perceive and interpret these words. The uniqueness of conscious beings, is that they can communicate meaning to each other.

Life's Intermission - The Meaning of Life, and Other Dreams

August 6, 2011 at 10:03pm

So, while I was away on my self-imposed exile in Burlington, trying to get things done that should have been done months ago... I found myself trying to figure out a lot of things that I suppose I should have figured out out a long time ago.

First among them, the meaning of life.

There was a textbook for a course I didn't end up taking. I bought the book anyway since it seemed interesting. This isn't your fluffy self-help book that will tell you what you want to hear. No, we're talking about essays by people from Kant to Nozick, questioning the very nature of the existence, whether's it's better never to have existed, whether immortality would be good or bad, or if optimism is at all rational. Essays from all different sides, arguing complex questions, reminding me why I wanted to go into philosophy, and also why I didn't.

I think at this point, I finally understand the meaning of life. The meaning of life is subjective. It's whatever you decide gives meaning to your life. You can't get it from anyone else. That would just be their meaning for your life (from their perspective). In the end, your life only matters only to the extent that you will it to.

You can argue that if there's a God, you could have an objective purpose, or even if not, that you could have some purpose based on your genetic programming. But these things are external purposes imposed on you by others. If God's will was that your soul existed to one day be food for angels, would you find that acceptable? Or is that, rather the purpose others have placed on you, rather than your own purpose? Alternatively, if your programming was survival and procreation, are you required to follow what you are aware, drives you?

We humans are perhaps freer than most creatures on this Earth, in that we can look at ourselves and question our own existence. We can see the emotions, the rewards of pleasure and the punishment of pain that are meant to drive us to certain behaviours that perpetuate humanity, and we can choose to override them for our own, personal will.

And yet, what does that leave us with? Meaning is subjective. I can only mean something to myself and to other sapient people. I mean nothing to an asteroid hurtling towards the Earth. I mean nothing to most people who aren't aware of my existence, though that changes if/when they do become aware. I am forced to mean everything to myself, because without the I, there would be nothing from my perspective. But I also mean something to the people I've interacted with on this Earth. For the most part, I mean whatever use or value they put into my existence.

To mean more to others, would involve being more valuable to others. But why bother? What is the point of existing at all? Are we forever pursuing an amorphous emotional state called happiness? The presence of pleasure and absence of pain? Are we pursuing some grander scale impact? To be significant even though at a grand enough timescale nothing we do on this Earth will survive the Heat Death of the Universe?

I suppose there is no satisfactory way to be significant forever. The best we can do is have some impact on a moment in time. In this time and place, we are given but a fleeting existence as a mysterious gift, and we are free to use this gift as we please, so long as we pay the daily cost of living.

And yet I feel empty still. I wanted the meaning of life to be something tangible. A goal, a destiny to achieve with certainty. Instead all there is, is an infinite set of possibilities, and an infinity of uncertainties to go with them.

But what purpose do we have? People like Aristotle and such, they came to the conclusion that the meaning of life, the goal as it were, was Eudaimonia, a kind of self-fulfillment, a grand happiness from having succeeded at living to the best of one's ability. When I look at it, most of everything that people do is an instrument to achieving happiness in some form or another. Even an act of pure kindness hides a selfish desire to feel good about oneself.

I feel though, like setting happiness as my objective to be strangely circular. Happiness is what I feel when I succeed at whatever it is I desired. I don't know what to aim for, to strive for happiness? What makes me happy? I never thought it would matter...

I guess I just kept asking why? I wanted to know why I am this way and that. And eventually I discovered that there is no why. I just am. There really is no reason, disregarding other people's concerns, to be or not to be. It's really a matter of preference, whether you want to explore this reality or abandon it.

And that wasn't the answer I wanted. I wanted a life-affirming "live life to the fullest!" kind of answer. But I couldn't find it. Not in logic of reason anyway. Desiring to exist, is an emotion.

The will to be something more, is something that I thought could drive me to great heights. But, faced with the reality of the impossible, with the absurd and inconsequential reality...

Life it seems, is just a bunch of stuff that happens. What ordering you imagine can be attributed to synchronicity, your mind finding meaning in coincidences. Against the open canvas of reality, humans create meaning. All that matters is constructed in the mind. Relationships, nationalities, grand causes, ideas, cultures, and dreams. These all exist within the mind, and only artifacts will exist after they cease.

So what then shall be the meaning of my life? What end is worth pursuing? The thing that everyone can seem to agree on is that happiness is a universally desired state of being. All other things can be seen as a means to happiness, from accumulating power, to seeking the truth, they are all meant to bring happiness to the seeker. Since meaning is subjective, it may as well be that the meaning of life is a subjective one, to bring the most happiness possible to everyone, or something similar.

I suppose you could counter with Nozick's experience machine, that plugging someone into a machine that causes them to experience pleasure is not meaningful... So I would say that the happiness I seek is meaningful, that is, it is that which a person knowing the full truth would find happiness in.

An interesting little construct this is. I wonder if it will last the next existential crisis?

I don't think that was an adequate summary of my thoughts (my journals go on like this for pages and pages), but I suspect if I keep going I will bore anyone still bothering to read this to tears. The final conclusion to my search was essentially that the meaning of life is whatever you want it to be. That was the best answer I could come up with anyway. I went after the absolute truth, and found just a pile of postmodern subjectivism. Maybe you'll find something better.

The Meaning of Life - Part 2 - Eudaimonic Utilitarianism

February 3, 2013 at 10:16pm

So, a little while back, I wrote a note on my findings in the grand search for the meaning of life here.

I've since had over a year to face new experiences and come to some new conclusions on the meaning of life.

At this point I think there are in fact two meanings of life that can exist, the subjective one that I described before, and an objective one that is based on reason.

Meaning is subjective, but often when we ask for the meaning of life, we are not asking for a meaning, so much as we are asking for a purpose, a vision, a goal. Purpose asks a should or ought question about life. It asks what should we do with our lives? Such questions are what philosophers call normative questions, and such questions are in fact, moral questions. Morality is after all, what tells us what we should or ought to do. Morality tells us what is good and right.

Thus, the objective question of the meaning of life is a moral question. The purpose of our lives then is to do the right thing. What is the right thing to do though? What is good? When we speak of created objects, we say that something is good when it achieves the purpose it was made for, but human beings are not simply objects, but also subjects. As subjects we can define the purpose of an object. For one person, a hammer may be good if it hammers down nails, for another person, it may be good to them if it is an effective weapon (though perhaps bad to someone else). Once again we encounter the subjectivity that makes determining an objective universal difficult.

Nevertheless, let me try something. Let me ask, can we find a universal morality that can direct our purpose in life? How do we cross the gap between the subjective and the objective? Well, we can generalize. Any given sentient being feels happiness when it achieves its goals or shall we say, its purpose. Certain hedonistic systems of morality consider this to be the prime moral aim. Subjectively, a creature is likely to see its own happiness as the most important thing, but objectively from the perspective of, say, a benevolent, all-seeing God, what is the difference between the happiness of one creature to another? From the objective viewpoint they are equally important. If we are to value our own happiness, we should value the happiness of others as well. In fact, we accept this notion when we consider the idea of fairness.

An objective hedonistic morality therefore values everyone's happiness equally. Such a moral system already exists, and is called Utilitarianism. What does Utilitarianism say about the meaning of life? Well, it would suggest that we should do everything possible to maximize the happiness of everyone.

That indeed seems like quite a task, and one that is already rewarded to an extent by the market economy. The market after all, rewards people who create things that are valuable to others, and what is valuable to others is valuable ultimately because they are means to the end of producing happiness. It perhaps should not be surprising then that modern economics usually assumes the value of utility in its calculations.

But wait, isn't a hedonistic morality still a subjective morality? Isn't happiness itself a subjective thing? Wouldn't that mean that we could take, say the perfect drug Soma from the book Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and placate the masses with it? What about creating a Matrix and plugging everyone into a utopia? Both are ways of creating mass happiness, but both also leave something to be desired, as if there was something objectively wrong with happiness through artificial means.

How can we make our purpose more objective? Well, we can borrow from the ideas of Aristotle, who came up with the notion of Eudaimonia as the ultimate purpose of life. Eudaimonia is similar to happiness, but is often better defined as "life flourishing". It is, not just a subjective notion of happiness, but an objective one. I like to think of it as, the happiness you would feel if you could see yourself from the perspective of God, knowing everything. In that perspective you would probably not be so happy about living in the Matrix, or wasting your potential life doped up on Soma.

This then is my universal morality. It is Eudaimonic Utilitarianism. If you believe in God, it becomes Theistic Utilitarianism, because an omni-benevolent God would by definition want to maximize the happiness of all His creatures, perhaps by creating an afterlife of Eternal Happiness.

Now, the problem with Eudaimonic Utilitarianism is that in practice, it is very hard to achieve an objective viewpoint on the universe. We are stuck with our limited subjective perspective. So in practice, Eudaimonic Utilitarianism actually functions a lot like normal, classical Utilitarianism.

There are actually many forms of Utilitarianism to choose from if we want to use it as our system of morality. I personally like the Two-Level Utilitarianism that uses Heuristic Rules in day to day transactions, and only actually attempts to calculate utility when we have enough information and it's really important enough to justify the extra time required to do the math.

So this is my current life's philosophy. Everything is a means to the end of maximizing the happiness of everyone, aka, The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number. Now, don't think that I don't believe in things like Human Rights for minorities. I do. I do because I believe that protecting minorities ultimately produces the greatest happiness in the long run. See what I did there? I can justify the modern liberal democratic tradition almost entirely with Utilitarian logic. I could also justify using Rule-based (Deontological) ethical frameworks as heuristics, and even old school virtue-based ethics as a means of producing the Greatest Good. Thus, using Utilitarianism as the root of my moral system, I can incorporate pretty much all the benefits of the other major systems as well.

Okay, so I'm probably boring the lot of you. And I'm not here to demand that you convert to my morality. I am merely showing what I have come up with in terms of reasoning my way to some kind of morally coherent meaning of life over the past year or so. If anything it gives me an objective, a grand vision or goal to aim for in life, and reasons to do so.

I also like that it ties in nicely with my notions of Love and Empathy, which provide me with emotional impetus to go about trying to change the world for the Happiness, the Eudaimonia of everyone. Everything else, Truth, Justice, and Love, are a means to this greatest of ends.

This actually makes sense when you think about it. After all, the Truth, what do I care about the Truth that a comet hit an asteroid in a far distant region of space? It's not very valuable information. Now if that comet was headed towards the Earth, suddenly that information becomes much more valuable. Similarly, what is Justice for? Justice in isolation is just a systematic application of fairness, which only really matters if you value the happiness of the people you're being fair to. Love is by my definition, about caring for someone's happiness. Ultimately, all roads of virtue lead to happiness.

One last question. Why value happiness or Eudaimonia? Why value the ultimate positive emotional goal state? Well, the reality is, it's because that's how we're all programmed. To try and reason our way out of our fundamental emotional needs is to lose our very reason for living. We live to be happy, and that is why people who are very unhappy for extended periods of time with no end in sight, often lose their will to live. The happiness that we can achieve in this life is what makes life worth living to a sentient being.

That's all easy to say of course. The real trick is understanding how to achieve true happiness and Eudaimonia.

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Page last modified on July 23, 2014, at 03:05 PM