It is easy to find meaning in life in general; any herd of halfwits with a few books of philosophy under their respective or collective belts can do as much. But is MY life in particular meaningful? That is a very different question. The short answer – which, as always, will require a lengthy explanation – is, “maybe not.” But that “maybe not” itself comes with an important qualifier: almost certainly not in the form you were expecting. Right there is the primer that starts the engine of existentialism sputtering in poorly tuned outrage; that, and my grossly mixed metaphors. Not to take too much credit, but the latter might be the more important factor …
Nevertheless, there are two terms in the foregoing that merit some initial attention because of the oft unattended distinctions they bring into play: the “general” and the “particular”. In the spectrum of reasons, these two modalities of qualification are fairly far apart. Yet a great deal of discussion around the vitally important topic of the meaning of life flounders precisely on problem of navigating between these two rocks – this Scylla and Charybdis, to abuse my metaphors even further – that aren’t even all that close together. Navigating between them ought to be as straight forward as understanding if one is in the Atlantic or the Pacific oceans. Yet I don’t recall ever seeing matters satisfactorily distinguished, which is (like as not) as much a sad commentary on my scholarship as anything. So prior to getting to matters of any real substance, I must spend a few words on the interface between logic and metaphysics, so as to highlight the overlap between metaphysics and facts.
Anyone who has spent anytime reading this blog knows that I keep harping on the hierarchy of inquiry: logic, principles, evidence, facts. This corresponds rather directly with the universal, the general (as in “generic”), the specific (as in “species”), and the particular (or just simply, the individual.) Overlapping the universal and general one will find metaphysics; overlapping metaphysics and the specific, one will find science; and, well, “facts” are still facts, although their recognition as such is profoundly informed by the layers that come “before” or “above” (depending on how one wishes to spatially represent the “hierarchy.”) Philosophical issues about “the meaning of life” fall out most naturally within the spectrums, respectively, of the general and the particular. But the differences between these two spectrums are too frequently not respected. And they are spectrums (plural), not identifiable “points”; neither “the general” nor “the particular” stand out as univocally definable “things”; they are “smears” along a continuum; shaded areas of gray that are distinguishable from each other by the separation of yet another shaded area of gray that lies between the two. Yet one need not have absolutely unambiguous boundaries to nevertheless recognize that the two are profoundly distinct, that distinction being laid out by the easily recognizable chasm that separates the two; a chasm which, as previously noted, receives a singular lack of recognition.
The general case is the easiest to dispose of, so I’ll discuss it first. Does life (generally) have meaning? The answer is an immediate and unambiguous “yes,” because life (generally) is the very possibility OF meaning. This is not a statement about “ontology”, about what kinds of things are in the world; it is a statement of logical necessity. “Meaning” falls under the broad, semantic category of intentional terms. A confusion to be avoided here is that between “intention” with a “t” and “intension” with an “s”, the latter being another broad, semantic category, but one which does not concern us here: we are concerned just and only with the “with a “t”” variety.
Intention-with-a-t characterizes any form or act of interpretation, for example. Thus, interpreting a string of symbols to mean (← notice!) something is to intend-an-interpretation. But perception itself is an intention-with-a-t kind of action: when I perceive an object, that perception invests the object with meaning – it perceive that which means this object. Intention is something that only happens with life. A rock or an electron does not perceive or mean anything about the world; notice, in particular, that without an intentional agent to mean things like rocks and electrons, there is no basis upon which these intended objects can be separated out of the overall milieu of the world. Without life, there is no logical – to say nothing of pragmatic – reason for clumping one stream of phenomena together as a rock, another as an electron, because there’s no basis for even characterizing any part of the world AS phenomena. It is life that invests reality with intention, and thus infuses it with such a tsunami of meanings as to overwhelm the mind (which only exists to be overwhelmed because of life and intention.)
The case with the particular – does my life, or your life have meaning? – becomes vastly, though not quite impossibly, more difficult. This is because the particular is ineluctably concrete, and being concrete it cannot be explained by the abstract, the general. As Randy and I argue in our book, the direction of explanation is always the other way around, from the concrete to the abstract. (A concretely Whiteheadian position, I might add, thus linking this discussion to the philosophical orientation of this blog.)
“Is my life meaningful?”
Well, if we are honest, we must admit the answer: “possibly not.” Note, however, that that “possibly” stands in the position of an abstract general. Nevertheless, this is why Camus stated that the question of suicide is the only question of real philosophical import. It is certainly not a question I could answer for anyone – even myself – here in this blog: it is a matter between you, your god, your conscience, your therapist, your cat, and whatever you’re having for dinner.
Having briefly, if somewhat disingenuously, stared into the gaping maw of existential angst, it is time to tack on some additional qualifiers. “Is my life meaningful?” – possibly not, but at least as importantly, almost certainly not in the way you’ve been instructed to expect. Let’s enumerate a few obvious examples, starting with children. Many people see their children – whether implicitly or explicitly – as a projection of their own lives, and as such that which infuses their own lives with meaning. Leaving aside the possibilities of tragedy, a horror I can scarcely imagine, children can disappoint you, they can hate you and abandon you. Due to no fault of their own, children can fail to fulfill the dreams you have for them, especially when those are material dreams – our children will almost never do better than us financially. The world they will be inheriting from us is one of climate disaster, economic contraction, and endless war. Children can turn out to be psychopaths, a major disappointment unless you are Donald Trump, in which case they are just like daddy.
Having broached the topic, our own material/economic success is another source of almost certain disappointment. Not only will our children not rise in the world as we might have hoped, neither will we. Unless you were born rich, there’s almost no chance you’ll even break even economically. Meanwhile, love fades and fame is fickle, so what achievement of yours is to stand as monument to the meaningfulness of your life?
The last question is a misdirection, because it leaves unspoken the dubious assumption that whatever meaning you are (recall, this is now particular) to find in your life is something that must be projected into the future. That assumption, arguably, is the mistake we all make, the “way we’ve been instructed to expect” about life and meaning. “Generally” speaking (oops!), the universe itself will fade in time; so if meaning is to be found in time, then the only certainty is that it is doomed to be lost in meaninglessness. Which brings us to the question of “now,” a question I will have to pick up in my next post.