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My Modest Proposal for Solving the “Meaning of Life Problem”—and Reducing Global Conflict


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This post was inspired, in part, by a recent conversation with two friends that followed a familiar pattern. My friends have adopted a Buddhist practice that makes them feel good. They urged me to try it, and I said I’m just not into Buddhism or any other spiritual path; I’m fine bumbling along in my usual fashion, gabbing with my students about why Freud isn’t dead, knocking particle physics on my blog, fretting over my kids, watching Homeland with my girlfriend.

Socrates, when he said "The unexamined life is not worth living," implied that there is one optimal meaning of life. He was wrong.

My friends became annoyed. They seemed to feel I was condescending to Buddhism and hence to them. Hoping for a truce, I said that we were, in effect, arguing about the “meaning of life,” and that all such arguments are silly, because the meaning of life is a totally personal issue.

My friends reacted with shrugs rather than eager agreement. At the risk of confusing or irritating even more people, I’ll try here to explain more clearly what I meant. In so doing, I hope to solve once and for all what I call the “Meaning of Life Problem.”

First, let me define “meaning of life.” It is whatever gives you joy, or consoles you when life has got you down. It is something you believe or do that makes your life worth living. And by “you” I mean not the collective you but the individual you, unlike every other person past, present or future.

Long ago, some of our ancestors came up with the idea that there must be One True Meaning of Life—one optimal set of beliefs, behaviors, values–for everyone. The most obvious embodiments of this idea are religions such as Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Scientology, each of which—to true believers—represents The Meaning of Life. The One and Only True Meaning.

If you don’t dig religion, you may still insist that some meanings of life are better than all others. The pursuit of scientific knowledge, for example, or artistic illumination, or social justice, or freedom, or pleasure, or power and glory. Socrates implied that there is one optimal meaning of life when he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I loathe this aphorism. I enjoy pondering existence myself now and then, but I certainly don’t fault those who prefer, say, fly fishing or fantasy football.

When we assert that our favorite meaning of life is objectively, universally valid, we are committing what philosophers call a category error. We are placing the meaning of life in the same category as truth, which can indeed be objective and universal (in spite of what Thomas Kuhn and other misguided skeptics would have us believe).

The meaning of life belongs in the category of beauty, not truth. It is an aesthetic and hence fundamentally subjective phenomenon. You are moved by the Upanishads, the Koran, The Interpretation of Dreams. I prefer Emily Dickinson, James Joyce, Breaking Bad. You believe in Allah or in Nirvana. I believe in free will and the imminent end of war.

In other words, what makes life meaningful is a matter of taste. Arguing that your meaning is better than someone else’s is like arguing that strawberry ice cream tastes better than Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, or that Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself is superior to Song of Solomon, or that Bach beats The Beatles.

You demanding that I love Jesus is as absurd as me demanding that you love my girlfriend (although she is awfully lovable).

There are as many possible meanings of life as there are individuals. “Plushies” and “furries,” for example, are people who have sex with stuffed animals or dress up in furry animal suits and have sex with each other. This behavior doesn’t appeal to me. But neither does being celibate and praying or meditating all day, which some religions have exalted as the best thing that you can do with your life.

My meaning of life isn’t even absolute for me, because it keeps changing as the circumstances of my life change. When I was young, I couldn’t imagine having kids. Who needs the hassle? Now my well-being is inextricably entwined with the well-being of my son and daughter. But I would no more urge my childless friends to have kids than I would exhort my gay friends to go straight.

It’s natural, if you find something that delights you, to want to share your discovery with others. I recently raced through all the novels of Jane Austen, and I’ve been raving about her to strangers at parties. But I accept that you can have a perfectly wonderful life without ever reading Jane Austen. After all, my life wasn’t so bad before I discovered her.

I’m not a total relativist. We can and should make judgments about the empirical plausibility and practical advisability of various beliefs and behaviors. But even if we rule out ideologies like young-earth creationism and white supremacy, that leaves lots of room for diversity. And most of the harmful consequences of beliefs stem from the insistence of believers that everyone agree with them.

I’m critical of religions that purport to be uniquely “true,” or that make empirical claims (for the therapeutic benefits of meditation, for example) that I find dubious. But I’m also critical of militant atheists who denigrate all beliefs that supposedly contradict their cramped, reductionist vision of reality. Science has told us a lot about how the world works, but reality is in many ways still as baffling as ever.

Hence I try to be tolerant toward people who have a greater capacity to suspend disbelief than I do about matters such as extra-sensory perception. The geneticist Francis Collins, who leads the National Institutes of Health, manages somehow to believe in modern physics and biology and in a loving God who occasionally performs miracles. As long as he doesn’t insist that I share his outlook, power to him!

So what does all this have to do with “Global Conflict,” which I mentioned in my headline? The notion that there is one true meaning of life is not only wrong. It may be the worst idea that humans have ever invented, in terms of how much harm it has caused.

If we can all accept that there is no universal Meaning of Life–and that each person must find his or her own unique, personal meaning—imagine how much more peaceful the world would be! My belief in this possibility helps make my life more bearable—and meaningful.

Photo by Eric Gaba of bust of Socrates in The Louvre. Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Socrates_Louvre.jpg.

About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. David Cummings 11:19 am 10/19/2013

    Well said.

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  2. 2. tuned 1:52 pm 10/19/2013

    Utopians think “the meaning of life” is a stupid question.
    Utopians believe in “repent and be good”. Be as harmless as you can without allowing harm to oneself. Life is adversarial and “imperfect” by nature at many levels so there is no hypocrisy. Repentance and self imposed penance trains one to be better, thus making the world better for all.
    No scapegoats, no dominants.
    Those Utopians which believe there is a God make their primary prayer that God transform existence instantly into the true Utopia of ecstasy without suffering.
    Until then genetic engineering is the pragmatic path to a minor Utopia.

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  3. 3. Von Stupidtz 2:05 pm 10/19/2013

    “Everyone must find his own meaning of life aka own god”…..sounds like Jainism and partly Buddhism.

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  4. 4. Hernf 7:52 pm 10/19/2013

    Bravo! Sensible view, and whether part Jainism/Buddhism/new age Utopian categories, who cares?! Why must we always put people’s viewpoints into such categories? Therein lies part of the problem in my humble opinion. The rest lies our grubby grab for resources natural or human value-derived (money/status/power). All of course one can best pass along one’s “selfish” genes. Sigh… Yes, maybe we can rewire robosapiens for something more egalitarian and noble.

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  5. 5. stamos 12:50 pm 10/20/2013

    Socrates was saying that the search for meaning in life gives meaning to life. He was not referring to the existence of the supernatural with this “aphorism”….
    This actually is very close to the opinion of the writer:
    “..that each person must find his or her own unique, personal meaning..”
    (At least that is how I understand the saying reading it in ancient Greek and being Greek….)

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  6. 6. rkipling 3:32 pm 10/20/2013

    I wonder if what Socrates meant was that he considered the unexamined life a waste of a human being. The person living the unexamined life could well be quite content with an existence centered on fantasy football or dressing as a marmot. That line of thought seems elitist though now that I think about it. Those self-unexamined souls may well make perfectly good wait-staff, checkout clerks, or auto mechanics. (Most would probably prefer they lose the marmot suit while on the job since it would hurt productivity. The full-body hairnets would get in the way while waiting tables for example.)

    The concept that religions were developed for the spiritual benefit of adherents might not be quite right either. I suspect the real motivation was power and financial benefit. “Pay me money and I’ll see you get successfully to the afterlife.” A way better gig than selling swampland. Who can prove it work?

    John Lennon had a similar idea for world peace in “Imagine.”

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  7. 7. rkipling 3:42 pm 10/20/2013

    Who can prove it didn’t work.

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  8. 8. chernavsky 5:03 pm 10/20/2013

    John Horgan wrote, “I enjoy pondering existence myself now and then, but I certainly don’t fault those who prefer, say, fly fishing…”

    In contrast, I do fault those who prefer fly fishing, for this reason (the article is about evidence that fish are able to feel pain):

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/2983045.stm

    To me, veganism comes close to being the meaning of life. Or, at least, it’s part of the meaning of life. I don’t view it as being arbitrary, like I’m little bit country, whereas carnivores are a little bit rock ‘n’ roll. Gary Francione, a philosopher and a professor at Rutgers University Law School, summed it up like this: “Veganism is about nonviolence. First and foremost, it’s about nonviolence to other sentient beings. But it’s also about nonviolence to the earth and nonviolence to yourself.”

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  9. 9. softwarematters 5:23 pm 10/20/2013

    Boy, did you realize that you just wrote a wonderful critique against coercive psychiatry?

    Going along your lines, no society should have a group of self appointed mind guardians with the power to impose behavioral orthodoxy (by way of pathologizing what they see as “not normal”) on anybody. Yet, the APA, and particularly the DSM committee members, does this with approval from society. Their imposition of “normality” is done on many levels, from the promotion of their notion of “mental health” by the US government, to the US government subsidizing their drugs, to their testimony having bearing in legal proceedings (like custody battles, etc) to the more direct measures of coercive psychiatry like civil commitment and forced drugging.

    Freedom of thought also applies to the APA. No individual should have to be bound by what the APA considers “normal”. We already have the criminal justice system to penalize harmful behavior. The APA, and the profession it represents, should be abolished.

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  10. 10. rkipling 5:58 pm 10/20/2013

    chernavsky,

    Vegan: Someone who slaughters and kills fruits and vegetables.

    The poor carrot had no chance. (sob)

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  11. 11. Dr. Strangelove 5:09 am 10/21/2013

    Horgan,
    We like to believe there is no universal meaning of life. What about democracy, human rights, right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness? Don’t we all agree to that? These are supposedly human inventions but they are rooted in evolutionary psychology. Pre-programmed in our brain before we were born.

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  12. 12. ShiraCoffee 11:38 am 10/21/2013

    As a Buddhist myself, I have sympathy with both your friends and yourself.

    It seems to me that “What is the meaning of life” is the wrong question. A better question is, in what circumstances do people feel that life is meaningful?

    I’ve come to believe that one necessary (though perhaps not sufficient) condition for a feeling that life is meaningful is belief in one’s own agency. That is, no one can feel that life is meaningful unless s/he is convinced that s/he can choose and carry out actions leading toward personal goals. Feelings of utter helplessness are incompatible with a sense that life is meaningful.

    A conviction of human agency is at the heart of the Buddha dhamma, and this conviction in fact represents one of the Buddha’s contributions to the long tradition of philosophical inquiry into the workings of cause-and-effect (kamma).

    That said, Buddhism does not offer the only valid way of thinking about meaning. I think of the dhamma as a tool kit for life, but it is not the only such tool kit. Obviously, you have your own excellent tool kit. Still, it is easy to get attached to tools that work better than any you’ve found before, and to try to convince everyone around you to adopt them, so I sympathize with your friends!

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  13. 13. rkipling 12:15 pm 10/21/2013

    “Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.” – Buddha

    It’s something to consider.

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  14. 14. Andrei Kirilyuk 12:21 pm 10/21/2013

    Maybe too many words, John, just to say that you are a convinced adherent to the religion of HEDONISM (love of personal pleasures), the truly dominating one in the USA and elsewhere (whatever they would lie about their formal “religions” and other “convictions” – just try to separate those “true believers” from their dollars and pleasures! :) ). It does provide its own UNIVERSAL meaning of life, despite all variations in preferred individual pleasures (including Buddhists, vegetarians, totally corrupt official science, war profits, love of crude force and global ambitions). As a matter of fact, this IS the actually dominating meaning of life, both unified and very dangerously outdated. And THIS is the problem, this real, unified and persisting, but already totally, catastrophically wrong (fundamentally and practically insufficient) meaning of life. In particular, it is the true (though not always direct) reason for all strong conflicts and losses in modern world (contrary to previous epochs).

    One would ask then, what is the new, right, sufficient and sustainable (thus realistic) meaning of life that should replace that dominating hedonism, barely hidden behind the cacophony of personal formal beliefs and real pleasures. Contrary to your illusion (accepted by many), it can only be the equally (but much deeper) unified one, since all the existing “personal” meanings are completely exhausted now – and reduced to the practically reigning and actually meaningless hedonism (including even such “extremely advanced” meaning as fruitless official science “search”).

    It’s not really difficult to understand that the only remaining new (old) meaning of life satisfying these necessary demands is the (qualitative) progress of human intelligence, in its widest and deepest interpretation. Unfortunately, this unique solution to all problems is NOT the real motivation of the existing civilisation, including its most “developed”, practically dominating and self-confident parts. It means that it will inevitably (and quickly) change, either towards a strongly degraded phase in the dominating self-destructive tendency (unfortunately including its Buddhism, vegetarianism and pacifism) or else towards that superior and now absolutely indispensable meaning of (explicitly and tangibly) growing level of consciousness, beyond any easy “utopia” and abstract “belief”.

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  15. 15. Dr. Strangelove 10:00 pm 10/21/2013

    @Andrei
    Review world history. Who’s causing troubles and wars? Not the hedonists. The Epicureans are usually blamed for originating hedonism. Their philosophy is pleasure is the highest good, pain is the greatest evil. The Epicureans were peace-loving materialistic atheists. Materialistic simply means they didn’t believe in spirits. They lived in seclusion avoiding politics and public life.

    The trouble-makers are usually the religious and ideological fanatics. The conquerors believe they are appointed by god or some supernatural power to rule the world. Killings and slavery are justified to attain their divine kingdom. For the hedonists, this is sheer nonsense and hubris.

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  16. 16. jonhuie 10:45 pm 10/21/2013

    On what possible basis can the author conclude that “The unexamined life is not worth living,” implies that there is one optimal meaning of life. Socrates suggested no such thing – but exactly what his words say, that the value of life lies in living consciously – in thinking about what one is doing, and why.

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  17. 17. Andrei Kirilyuk 6:52 am 10/22/2013

    @ Dr. Strangelove

    Traditional history is finished, together with its causes of conflict, “strong” ideologies and religious beliefs. In today’s world everything turns around personal material well-being (in exact correspondence to that Epicurean-Hedonist “meaning of life”!), while various “religious” and “ideological” ambitions are simply exploited, with the help of the “history inertia”, to ensure someone’s greater and more guaranteed access to the top-level well-being (and fool some low-level “simple believers” used as “soldiers”).

    It’s obvious that today the totally criminal, ultimately fraudulent world finance kills many more people than any direct weapon application (being just another “financial instrument”). And it kills not only “bodies”, but something more important, real human progress and hope, without which the “meaning of life” quickly falls down to states where one would easily prefer to physically disappear… And those effects are guided by externally quite “hedonistic” (and “pacifist”) communities and motivations. Among other things, they’ve killed any real sense of scientific search, replaced by a mafia-governed (and self-assessed) distribution of public money, with totally fooled and abused “public opinion” (not without the direct help from “science journalists” nourished from the same criminal sources). Think twice before stating that it’s better than a war, since there are usually many survivors in a war…

    So, the problem with your “innocent hedonists” is that they have well-recognised INTERESTS to maintain their “good life” (certainly not by working at a factory), which creates conflict-bearing pressures upon the world, especially important with its extremely uneven distribution of real power and resources. And precisely because of their hedonism, they won’t sacrifice their pleasures to the real progress of the world (even their own, as they consider it’s OK for them). There is the inevitable (and antagonistic) “general conflict” in this world structure, the one between the privileged “hedonists” and the “real value creators” necessary to ensure the unconditional pleasures of the “hedonists” and excluded by definition from their ranks (irrespective of their creative capacities, in today’s world of powerful technologies). It has never been like that before, in a technologically insufficient world.

    In a yet more general perspective, a world without real sustainable progress inevitably degrades (from any its initial state) towards a low-level meaning of life close to “physical survival”, simply by universal laws of “dissipative system” evolution (the generalised “second law of thermodynamics”). And that sustainable progress necessary for a better possibility can only be governed by a “superior” (and certainly universal) purpose. It’s true that it cannot be anything like traditional religion or ideology any more, but even less any “hedonistic” meaning of life. Just think what remains then…

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  18. 18. FOOZLER8 7:19 pm 10/22/2013

    Here is something we all need to understand: people want consensual validation – if you do not agree with them their views are lessened in their sight. Yes, I know, that is a very weak attitude but most people have it.

    That said, though I am a naturalist, I find the Dalai Lamai in Beyond Religion has a great deal to say that I agree with, some of it a followup on his contributions to Destructive Emotions by D. Goleman.

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  19. 19. Dr. Strangelove 10:28 pm 10/22/2013

    “Think twice before stating that it’s better than a war, since there are usually many survivors in a war…”

    Andrei, think thrice that it’s worse than war. You prefer Nazi death camps, Mongol hordes, chemical poisoning of civilians because there are many survivors? The Epicureans are too worldly for you? Try Buddhism. “Desire is the root cause of sufferings” – Buddha. I respect your ascetic taste. But not everybody wants to become Buddhist monks.

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  20. 20. dburress 11:53 pm 10/22/2013

    I was prepared to be totally annoyed until Hogan admitted he wasn’t a total relativist. Now I am only relatively annoyed.
    Granted that there are vast differences in the ways in which individuals are able to organize a positive sense of meaning in their lives. Nevertheless there is also a vast range of imaginable ways of life that simply won’t work. It is imaginable that counting grains of sand on the seashore should be someone’s highest goal, but empirically I defy anyone to locate an individual dedicated above all to counting grains of sand who is happy in his life and also has normal human brain scans. There is such a thing as a biologically given range of normal human natures, and our common humanness places strong limits on what ways of life can be satisfying or happy-making.
    Granted also there are extreme types such as sociopaths who are probably incapable of finding a meaningful way of life at all–an empirically testable proposition–but even if you can find a truly fulfilled sociopath, it will tell us little about what is possible for most human beings.
    David Burress

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  21. 21. bucketofsquid 2:46 pm 10/23/2013

    Just a couple of random drive by thoughts before I get back to work;
    Vegans don’t understand evolution and the whole point of our canine teeth. They also don’t understand the entire nature of life. Even those veggies and fruits you eat are ruthless killers. The only lifeforms that aren’t killers are lithovores.
    There is an absolute truth that is universal and I can prove it easily. Dress only in a thong and carry no tools. Climb to the top of mount Everest. Have someone that is properly equipped take your picture and then climb down again. If you are still alive and don’t have any physical harm you will have proven me wrong. Until someone survives the experience without harm I am completely right. Every person that tries and dies proves me correct.

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  22. 22. edprochak 10:09 am 10/24/2013

    John,

    Your conclusions are logical, GIVEN you definition.

    I’ll simple say that I think your definition is weak, and very limited. In the end, your argument is circular.

    Also, your definition included: it “consoles you when life has got you down”, yet you give zero examples of this in the rest of your essay.

    Perhaps this would earn a B in Philosophy 101. Here, it just falls flat. I’d grade it a D, passing because it did generate some interesting replies.
    ed

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  23. 23. Farewell God 1:44 am 01/14/2014

    Ask me anything. I am answering anything you want about the meaning of life
    http://downdeepquestions.blogspot.com/

    Link to this

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