Wednesday, July 30, 2014

What is the meaning of "What is the meaning of life?"

This is a course description that I recently wrote for a class that I'll be teaching this fall called "Human Nature."

“What is the meaning of life?”

This is probably the most famous question you’ll hear that’s associated with philosophy.  It’d be nice if there was a definitive answer to this question, but unfortunately there isn’t (Or at least none that I’m aware of).  Instead, there are a variety of answers, some more established than others.

But, before we get to the answers, we need to be clear on what the question means.  This is what philosophers are really good, clarifying exactly what questions are supposed to be asking.  This is important.  If we don’t know exactly what the question is asking, then how can we be sure which answers are even relevant?

So what does the question mean?  In order to answer this question, we’ll need to make a distinction between two types of facts: positive facts and normative facts.  Positive facts are facts that describe things the way they are.  For example, “Obama is the president of the United States.” is a positive fact.  Normative facts are facts that describe things that way they ought to be.  For example, “People shouldn’t steal from others.” is a normative fact.

So, the question, “What is the meaning of life?” is combination of two more specific questions.  The first is, “What is life about?”  This is a question with a positive answer.  The second is, “How should people live their lives?”  This is a question with a normative answer.

It’s important to see how the two answers work together.  In order to know how you should live your life, you’ll need to know what life is like.  For example, let’s say that the right way to live life includes acts of prayer and worship to God.  This is a normative claim.  But, this wouldn’t make much sense if you didn’t believe that God exists.  The claim that God exists (or does not exist) is a positive claim.  So, in order for normative claims to make sense, it has to come with a set of positive claims that describe the reality in which we live our lives.

Every theory about the meaning of life will have a set of positive and normative claims.  The positive claims fall into two categories:

Metaphysics:  This first category has to do with what reality is like.  Does God exist?  Is there such a thing as fate?  Does everything obey the laws of science?

Human nature:  This second category has to do with what human beings are like.  Humans, of course, are part of reality.  But, are the a special part of reality?  Do they have souls?  Do they have free will?  Or, are they just like everything else in reality?  Is their behavior determined by laws of nature?  

The normative claims are also split into two sub categories:

Diagnosis:  We wouldn’t be asking “What is the meaning of life?” if life were peachy.  We experience all kinds of problems, conflict and suffering.  Where does all this negativity come from?  Each theory about the meaning of life gives us a diagnosis.  It tells us why things aren’t as they should be.

Prescription:  After a diagnosis, we need plan to make things better.  This is where we learn about how we should live so as to flourish and to live the best kind of life.  

Any theory that gives tells us about metaphysics, human nature, diagnoses the human condition, and prescribes a way to live a flourishing life is a theory that answers the question, “What is the meaning of life?”  In this class, we’re going to examine twelve such theories.  These theories include both religious traditions, as well as the thoughts of major philosophers.  From this survey, you’ll see just how diverse opinions are about what the meaning of life really is.  Hopefully the class will give you the tools you need to decide for yourself what the answer to the question is.

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