Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Purposes And Meanings

     It’s easy to get lost in the thickets of aimless rhetoric founded in circular “logic” when discussing “the meaning of life” or “Man’s purpose.” The reasons are not far to seek:

  1. Very few people can cope logically with what “meaning” and “purpose” mean.
  2. Virtually everyone who orates about these things has an axe to grind.
  3. There’s a lot of self-justification and self-exaltation involved.

     So when I encountered this John Hawkins piece, I braced myself for another ton and a half of those three undesiderata. And I got it.

     But we Certified Galactic Intellects have our duties, don’t y’know. One of them is to “sift the fly shit from the pepper” in such matters. Hence the following essay.

     “Martha, what is the meaning of life?”
     “What? Why, what a stupid question!”
     “He did not ask it stupidly.”
     “It’s a psychopathic question, unlimited, unanswerable, and in all probability, sense-free.”
     “I’m not so sure, Martha.”
     “But—Well, I won’t attempt to argue with you outside my own field. But it seems to me that ‘meaning’ is a purely anthropomorphic conception. Life simply is. It exists.”
     “He used the idea anthropomorphically. What does life mean to men, and why should he, Hamilton, assist in its continuance?”

     [Robert A. Heinlein, Beyond This Horizon]

     “Meaning.” Meaning what and to whom? Doesn’t meaning require an interpreter? Some entity capable of ratiocination to ask the question, and to whom the answer matters?

     But why should “the meaning of life” matter? Why, as Martha Mordan asserts in the passage above, can’t we just it accept it “as given?”

     Claude Mordan provides the answer, even though he doesn’t quite trust it himself. The interpreter is the individual asking the question – and the question, properly formed, isn’t “What is the meaning of life?” but rather “What does my life mean to me?

     Until we reach that level of personalization, the question is too poorly formed to be answered. However, even once it’s been delimited as I’ve proposed above, there’s work to be done in answering it.

     What does your life mean to you? Do you ever think about it, or are you too busy actually living to trouble yourself with that question?

     Consciousness imposes certain burdens upon us. We appear to be the only members of the animal kingdom capable of examining our own thought processes, which involves us in what Douglas Hofstadter called a “strange loop.” We ask ourselves “why did I do that?” in the aftermath of many of our decisions: a clear indication that our minds embed processes that resist penetration. Yet they participate in our decision making, sometimes crucially.

     One of those processes is the one that seeks meaning. We seem to need it. However, we resist admitting to ourselves that meaning is something each of us must create for himself.

     A great part of the reason faith in God is so important is that God is the ultimate Interpreter: He Who assigns both meaning and a “final grade” to each human life. Individuals “borrow” that meaning by their adherence to (or divergence from) His Commandments. For many of us, that’s all the meaning we need; more is not required.

     But atheists and agnostics need meaning too. They have a harder row to hoe, for the only interpreter the non-believer has available is himself. Still, the job is doable.

     Meaning arises from one’s chosen purposes, how one chooses to pursue them, and what costs and sacrifices one is ready, willing, and able to make in the process. Felix Hamilton, referred to in the quote above from Beyond This Horizon, feels that “life” is meaningless. In part that stems from his choice of occupation: game designer. He does it to satisfy an unarticulated urge, but he doesn’t respect it:

     “You don’t understand me. I’m not interested in games. Have you ever seen me waste a slug or a credit on one of my own gadgets—or any other? I haven’t played a game since I was a boy. For me it is already well established that one horse can run faster than another, that the ball falls either on red or on black, and that three of a kind beats two pair. It’s that I can’t see the silly toys that people play with without thinking of one a little more complicated and mysterious. If I am bored with nothing better to do, I may sketch one and dispatch it to my agent. Presently in comes some more money.” [Ibid.]

     At that juncture in Heinlein’s story, Hamilton has no love to cherish, no family to protect, and “work” he chose for himself but doesn’t respect. Of course his life lacks meaning!

     Under those conditions, wouldn’t yours?

     A few years ago, I wrote:

     The realities of human nature, our needs and desires, and the choices that flow from them are as absolute as any other metaphysical fact. Two above all confine us beyond all hope of escape:
  • We must work to live and flourish;
  • We need to love and be loved.

     He who rejects either or both of those facts is insane in the most fundamental sense: he denies the reality in which he must live. He who exhorts you to doubt or deny them is emphatically not your friend.

     “He who exhorts you to doubt or deny them” will be the one to pose questions to you about “the meaning of life.” They reveal his intent: he wants you to question the meaning of yours. But you’ve probably been creating meaning for yourself through your conscious choices for many years: your choice of occupation and avocations, and the persons you’ve chosen to love and protect. Those choices may entail necessities and difficulties. Perhaps the work you do is your only way to earn enough to meet your obligations, or is utterly unappreciated even by those who benefit from it. Perhaps the people you love are difficult, or don’t love you back. Both those conditions are common enough for all of us to be aware that sufferers exist.

     But the meaning of your life lies in those choices and nowhere else. Through them you defined your purposes. By pursuing those purposes in your chosen manner you made them – and yourself – meaningful, both to yourself, to those your work has benefited, and to those who’ve had your love.

     And no one else’s opinions about “the meaning of life” matter at all.

     For further reflections upon this subject, I can do no better than to commend to you my short novel The Sledgehammer Concerto. The Heinlein novel is pretty good, too. With that, it’s time for Mass. Be well.


furball said...

I found this pretty darned profound, Fran. Even though right after that thought, I smiled and thought, "Of course!"

Tim Turner

Pascal said...

Indirectly, from what you have written here, one may infer why Critical Theory was invented, why it has been successful in being put to such nefarious use, and why Saul Alinsky compared the task of what those whom would followed his rules to the disharmony attributed to Lucifer.

IOW, you concluded by offering readers with some very wise personal advice Francis.