I’ll start by defining terms. By ‘life’ I mean “your existence as a living organism”. So if you choose to end your existence donating to an organ bank, that’s included in the discussion. With ‘meaning’ I did some research, looking into the Pocket Oxford Dictionary, 4th edition, and Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1968 edition. The encyclopedia has a nice half-page article on meaning, the topic falling in sequence between ‘mean’ and ‘measles’. My sense for ‘meaning’ is “intent or purpose”.
You could choose your purpose in life as “to be happy”. Good luck with that. One problem I call ‘Ms. Wichowski’s Dilemma’, named for my 10th grade history teacher, who told us the story of the 3 Snickers bars. The first one is yummy and makes you lust after the second one, which isn’t quite as good. Eat the third one and it will be a while before you eat another; your taste for Snickers bars is sated. Ms. Wichowski was warning us that happiness is subject to a lot of constraints, including the limits and variability of appetite.
A life spent in pursuit of happiness seems risky and unwise. Socrates is quoted as saying that the unexamined life is not worth living. A life spent in pursuit of happiness would probably be an unexamined life. But that won’t stop us.
A Chance to Achieve
Pursue some goal. Travel. Be a great practitioner in some field – basketball, writing, or neurology. Climb Everest or go to the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Be a great spouse or parent. This item on my list of purposes might be just a riff on “be happy”. Find a pursuit that justifies a life. What would that be? This seems to be a riskier and more disciplined version of “be happy”.
You want to achieve something transcendent? You can’t play it safe. See Joshua Slocum and Vincent van Gogh.
Be of Use
Credit this one to Joyce Carol Oates who has one of her characters say “we are here on earth to be of use”; to which the response is “what kind of use, for whose use, at what price to the user”?
We’re making progress. I like this purpose; but who gets to decide whether a specified purpose is good or bad, useful or destructive? Take three very different examples: Chief Joseph, Andrew Carnegie, and Adolf Hitler. I’m sure Hitler thought he was a savior of the German people. Andrew Carnegie had a distinguished record of good works, but imagine how Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would describe the Scottish industrialist. Chief Joseph was thrust into a role he did not choose, and arguably led his people to disaster.
Credit this purpose to a lecture by Prof. Patrick Grim recorded on a Great Courses DVD. I see ‘relieve suffering’ as a refinement of ‘be of use’. It’s hard to quarrel with this purpose. I think of Sister Theresa and Martin Luther King.
This purpose is a rabbit hole, as described below, because of its Christian resonance. How do other cultures look at relief of suffering as a mission? Good, bad, foolhardy? You might begin by looking at the Wikipedia article on ‘suffering’ and scrolling down in that article to the section headed ‘Religion’.
In determining the meaning of life there are rabbit holes, as in sources of unresolvable circular discussion that you never emerge from…
Determinism versus Free Will
How does the debate between determinism and free will affect your opinion on the meaning of life?
Determinism says that everything we do is determined by a. our biochemical makeup and b. our environment. We’re not responsible for either of those, so all of our actions are completely determined by previously existing or external causes. Free will, on the other hand says we are free to direct our own actions independently of necessity or fate.
It seems that if you’re a determinist, then the question of “the meaning of life” is illogical – there is no meaning, it’s all chemistry and physics. Pondering the meaning of life only applies if you believe in free will?
‘Meaning’ in Different Cultures
Is ‘the meaning of life’ a question for Muslims or Buddhists? If you’re a devout Catholic or an evangelical Protestant, does the Bible provide a ready-made definition for the meaning of life?
Does life have Meaning for a Rabbit or Chimp?
If one can ask whether “meaning of life” is an issue for a Buddhist, imagine my confusion when wondering about higher mammals. There were press reports recently about killer whales attacking sailboats in the Pacific near South America. Does this imply that killer whales hold humans guilty for the decline of their environment, and consequently feel anger? If so, what does that imply about other thoughts killer whales might harbor?
Personally, I feel life has meaning for domesticated dogs and cats. What does that imply? Feel free to discuss among yourselves.
The Bottom Line
My own personal purpose for life at this moment is a combination of the first three “meanings” described above.
The fourth one, which I can’t buy into is “relieve suffering”. I’m confident I could relieve suffering by providing pain killers to the terminally ill, but we’re not allowed to do that. I can only hope someone will do it for me, legal or not. Outside of that narrow case I’m so weary and cynical that I have no confidence in my ability to relieve anyone’s suffering without making things worse in the end.
Regarding “relieve suffering”, see the case of Chief Joseph. He tried to help, but couldn’t. Was it worth it for the Nez Perce and Chief Joseph?