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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.

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

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