Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The Meaning of Life

It's a question which has struck people for as long as I'd dare to guess and one which hits at the very ground of one's being - what is it all about, all this? Human beings are confronted directly by their own existence, coming into being just long enough to realise the very being they're profoundly aware of will not actually last. It's a gruesome prospect for sure, and anybody who doesn't stir in the face of death just isn't thinking about it properly.

The long adored mechanistic interpretation of the world, the idea that the world is made up of simple atoms moving in a void giving rise to the emergence of all kinds of weird and wonderful phenomena, fans the flames of existential dread. Ultimately the universe machine will fail - we know that what comes up must come down, and that before we can even witness the shit hit the cosmic fan we'll either have obliterated ourselves through nuclear war, our sun will have died, or some other scenario you can imagine which sends an unwelcome chill down your spine.

But far from a simple spinal shiver, these sorts of notions can call into question the very meaning of life itself. What is the point if it is all literally going to be blasted to atoms before the possible summa exstinctio of the universe as a whole takes place at some point in the future, long after we are extinct? Indeed, even if the immortalists manage to secure the biological process which stops ageing, I wouldn't be too optimistic about the follow-up project aiming to reverse the universe's trend towards entropy.

It's something of a blessing and a curse to be able to look ahead in these ways. On the plus side we can plan ahead and make sure we take a piss before hopping on for that 6 hour coach journey, anticipating the future discomfort which may be wrought upon us - sat fidgeting and becoming intensely annoyed. On the other hand it lets us see what our life's work will ultimately come to - a harrowing prospect for those who want lasting results from their labour.

So what is the meaning of it all? I don't pretend to be able to give you a definitive answer, but I hope what I do have to say at least keeps the creeping backdoor nihilists at bay for a while. The idea struck me that to ask what the meaning of life is, is to assume that life itself takes place inside of a context which encompasses it and gives it meaning. The meaning of any piece of equipment, for example, is the context into which that piece of equipment fits. Without the pen (and paints, pencils, etc.), without writing (and painting, drawing, etc.), without human life itself, the paper means nothing. But with all of these things the paper can mean something. Meaning is given by this phenomenon, what Heidegger called "world", i.e. the interconnected nexus of purposes and tools and people - something I write a lot about on this blog.

To ask about life itself having a meaning, there would have to be some similar sort of meaning-giving horizon which underpins life itself. As life per se was not created towards some end, and as there is nothing apart from life for life to be useful for, it looks like we might be asking the wrong question in asking what the meaning of life in general is (a kind of category error). If only things situated in a context can have meaning, perhaps we ought to ask a different question: what is the meaning of this life?

The simplest answer is that the meaning of your life is whatever you choose to do with it. The meaning of your acts is determined by how they fit into the world, what they do. And how you choose to lead your life prefigures the meaning of certain concrete acts. But... is there really any point if it all dissapears? This idea plagues collectors and hoarders of all kinds, and is rooted in what I consider to be a very backwards view of temporality.

Remember when you were a child, and you built that big lego house (or whatever) but later on it was smashed apart and returned to a state of chaos inside the toy box? Remember how you didn't give a shit and built a better one later? This, I feel, is the meaning of that old maxim "life is play". If there is one context into which the whole of life fits, it is that of change. Everything in life changes (from people to passive substances) and to fight this fact is to defy the metaphysical grounds of life itself. Enjoy building and creating - after all, it is the best part. Once something is attained, we just end up wanting something else anyway. That's just how we are. When there's nothing left to do, nothing left to chase, life gets boring. Accordingly, then, the very idea that something only has meaning when its presence can be guaranteed indefinitely is, to put it as plainly as possible, horse shit. If anything, things threaten to become meaningless when they can be guaranteed to stick about like a drunk on a bus and never change.

My advice, then, is to discount[1] the mechanistic picture of life and it's nihilistic consequences (unless, that is, you fancy yourself a bit of a tragic type and want to spend your life sobbing into a notebook or something). It is a view of the universe which is based on the ultimately meaningless motion of matter in space, and as a result cannot penetrate to the meaning of human life which is essentially not characterised by matter in motion, but by the significance resulting from our involvements with things. Don't worry that it'll all be dust in the void one day because if you're reading this you're still lucky enough to have time left to do meaningful things.

[1] When writing this, it didn't seem to me as obvious as it does now that this could be seen in some way in which I would not like to be misunderstood. I am absolutely not writing off the (in my view, indispensible) value of being able to see things in such scientific terms, only that we ought to remember that this way of seeing the world is a modification of a more primary way of viewing things and so we should take care that our lives be understood in terms more suited to appreciating them. Human life cannot be adequately grasped in terms of the motion of bodies in space as other phenomena can.