The Meaning of Life is pretty unfashionable. Mention it and it will be received as a joke or a naivete. The notion is unfashionable because religion is in decline and science has explained away most of life’s mysteries as being the result of evolutionary survival or byproducts of survival and reproduction. The Meaning of Life, however, can be emptied of piety yet remain meaningful. Meaning can be both discovered in the world and created by humans, at the same time. (The belief in the dual creation and discovery of the world through humans’ is known as monism. A plausible doctrine given the world is a continuum humans parcel into categories by convention only.)
Each person is born to create patterns, and into a world with patterns to be discovered. There need be no division between the meaning of life as what humans ascribe to the world, and what humans discern from it. After all, there is no outside nonhuman perspective from which to evaluate or produce meaning. Though, in the very act of rejecting the meaning of life, or even in saying that science demasks the meaning, there is an implicit acceptance that the meaning of life at least subsists (rather than exists) as a pervasive notion – one we will never outgrow.
Claiming that life has no meaning is rather like the contradictions of saying God is dead, or saying that there are no truths, or that life has no meaning except what languages ‘gives’ it. Claiming that God is gone and no longer relevant while invoking God; saying that life has no meaning is a meaningful statement; or saying that there are no truths is a true statement. These claims are very common.
And they are contradictory, but neither the frequency of claims nor their contradictions matter. The meaning of life is in forgetting to question its meaning, not because it does not have one, but because enjoying and losing oneself is vital to its practice.
In December 1950, Albert Einstein replied to an admirer who had mailed him asking about the very point of it all. He replied that there was no point in asking. The infinite regression of “why, why?” has no resolution. Even invoking God or nature leads to why are God or nature like that? Questions may lead to irresolution and more useless questions. Here is Einstein’s reply:
I was impressed by the earnestness of your struggle to find a purpose for the life of the individual and of mankind as a whole. In my opinion there can be no reasonable answer if the question is put this way.
If we speak of the purpose and goal of an action we mean simply the question: which kind of desire should we fulfill by the action or its consequences or which undesired consequences should be prevented? We can, of course, also speak in a clear way of the goal of an action from the standpoint of a community to which the individual belongs. In such cases the goal of the action has also to do at least indirectly with fulfillment of desires of the individuals which constitute a society.
If you ask for the purpose or goal of society as a whole or of an individual taken as a whole the question loses its meaning. This is, of course, even more so if you ask the purpose or meaning of nature in general. For in those cases it seems quite arbitrary if not unreasonable to assume somebody whose desires are connected with the happenings.
Albert Camus said, “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”
Of course the advice is consoling, yet we will still fall into meaninglessness sometimes; when our life story or expectations go awry or life is rife with disappointment.
Say you are working to market more pepsi. You might find it meaningless to sell sugary soda which trades small pleasure for health.
Say you are studying floristry. You might find it meaningless to present flowers beautifully, for flowers are valued less than money.
Say you are writing a blog post. You might find it meaningless to write for as few as 420.
Say you are reading about the Islamic Renaissance. You might find it meaningless because so few rewards, be it work or rare conversation, come from an intimate knowledge of al-Kindi and ninth and tenth century Baghdad.
This is because the individual’s meaning of life is far from solely individual – it is made by social pressures. So these examples may feel meaningless because they do not translate into the prerequisites of meaning: communicating, money, pleasure, understanding or serving, tangibly enough.
That is not to say that they do not have meaning; communication, money, pleasure, understanding or serving give a life meaning. Communication for us social animals. Money for survival and the maintenance of relationships. Understanding for it satiates the curiosity of the large-brained. Serving for helping others is fulfilling. Pleasure, though, is its own reward; these prior rewards all give a kind of learned pleasure. The difference between ‘find’ and ‘give’ meaning is vital. Arguably, citizens of today have been trained to think differently, by virtue of the devices they use. Uploading, publishing, sharing, and even learned work aspirations are enacted in a search for social meaning—extrinsic rewards—rather than an individual’s own, intrinsic meaning or pleasure. If it isn’t recorded it didn’t happen. If it doesn’t earn it has no value. If it is modest it is pointless. If the job title is rare it is a meaningless name.
The social meaning of life, however, is debatable and unreliable whereas intrinsic rewards—pleasure, captivation—are not. There is an easy test of what is intrinsic and extrinsic. The intrinsic rewards are what you would do regardless of money, if you had all the time in the world to ‘waste’ on oneself, which you find pleasurable just for doing it. An activity you treat with the sanctity Kant accorded to people: as an end in themselves rather than as a means for something else.
The most consistent meaning of life is living for itself, and in its own right. The occasional anxiety and meaningless of life stems from seeking to give life the meaning recommended by others – not what we find in ours. The meaning, for example, of writing, singing, reading, dancing, studying, floristry, drinking, or blogging is pleasure and forgetting about an exterior purpose one makes – time again, actually – in the act of forgetting into immersion. Viktor Frankl, a psychologist survivor of The Holocaust, in the wonderful Man’s Search For Meaning discussed finding a ‘why’ to justify living. In the circumstances of every-day life, though, living without needing a list of pros, is exactly when one has the most meaning.
To rework Nietzsche’s phrase: the man who has enough ‘how’ for life can endure any ‘why’.