Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The meaningfulnes of life

I recently finished teaching a class called "Human Nature."  There are various ways of approaching the content for this class.  What I chose to do is to make this class about the "big" questions.  In particular, the class was about perhaps the biggest question of all:  What is the meaning of life?

I used this book as a textbook for the class.  As the title suggests, the book covered twelve theories, which gave their own answers to the above questions.  In case you're curious, here are the twelve theories:

1. Confucianism
2. Hinduism
3. Buddhism
4. Plato
5. Aristotle
6. Judaism/Christianity
7. Islam
8. Immanuel Kant
9. Karl Marx
10. Sigmund Freud
11. Jean Paul Sartre
12. Neo-darwinism

Each theory is broken down into four components:  the metaphysical assumptions of the theory, the claims made about the nature of human beings, its diagnosis of the human condition, its prescription for human flourishing.

Teaching the class got me thinking about the question of life's meaningfulness.  I've been getting progressively sadder over time because I've been getting more and more doubtful as to whether or not there is any meaning to life at all.  So, as a kind of therapeutic exercise, I figure I'd do reflection on what it means for life to be meaningful.

I don't have a definition for "meaningfulness."  I'll have to start with some examples and try to extract some necessary or sufficient conditions.  Let's go over some cases.

A lot people think that individual death and the ultimate "death" of the universe makes life meaningless.  Why strive after things if we're all ultimately going to die?

Supposing that the eventual death of all living things eliminates life's meaningfulness, we can draw at least two conclusions.

First, the meaningfulness of life depends on temporality.  What I mean by this is that whether or not you think your life is meaningful now will depend on states of affairs in the future.  This is what I infer when people say “What does it all matter? We’re all just going to die anyway.”  This is what you can also interpret from the first chapter of Ecclesiastes.

Second, the meaningfulness of life depends on consciousness.  I get this from the claim that death erases the meaningfulness of life.  I’m assuming that consciousness is extinguished upon death.  The idea, then, is that in order for life to be meaningful, that meaningfulness, whatever it may be, must be recognized.  Recognition, of course, requires a conscious perceiver.  Therefore, meaningfulness requires there be some conscious entity that is capable of recognizing the notion of meaningfulness.

It seems plausible to think that these two conditions are necessary conditions for meaningfulness, but we are still miles away from any kind of well developed theory of meaningfulness.  I’ll come back to this when I have more thoughts.

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