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The Meaning of Life: The Sequel


In my last post, I argued that there is no single, "true" meaning of life, which applies to everyone. The meaning of life is a matter of taste, not of empirical truth. Thus, no matter how meaningful we find some belief system or activity or set of values, we shouldn't insist that others embrace it.

Meaning of life, says 1983 Monty Python film, is, "Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then."

My post was inspired, in part, by two friends' gentle attempt to persuade me to try a Buddhist retreat, but let me offer a more extreme example of proselytizing: I once encountered a Christian who, when I resisted his exhortations to embrace Jesus, compared me to a man on a burning plane, to whom he was offering a life-saving parachute.

He saw himself as compassionate. I saw him as nutty. Demanding that people embrace your faith because it works for you is as absurd as demanding that they listen only to Lady Gaga or have sex only with stuffed animals. If we could all adopt a live-and-let-live perspective toward each others' meanings, we'd be a lot better off.

I hoped for, and got, some critical responses, which I'm posting, along with my replies, here. My Stevens colleague Garry Dobbins, a philosopher, objects to my interpretation of Socrates: "You err when you say, 'Socrates implied that there is one optimal meaning of life when he said, "The unexamined life is not worth living."' Socrates was not saying that the only life worth living is one in which someone sits around all day examining his life! No! Socrates was saying that EVERYONE, whatever she or he does, who never, and regularly, challenges her or himself by asking such questions as 'Am I lying to myself saying/doing this?' 'Is that bastard over there who just accused me of being partial, or prejudiced, really TOTALLY mistaken?' and so on, is not living an 'examined' life, and is thereby not living up to what we might fairly call a 'high' standard. You might say to me, 'I don't CARE to live UP to any such standard!' To which I would say, 'Out of your own mouth you stand condemned: not mine!' So, Socrates' words are perfectly consistent with someone being a doctor, lawyer, or Indian Chief--or candlestick maker for that matter--and examining her, or his life, or NOT."

My reply: "Garry, I admit Socrates irks me. To me he comes across as an arrogant jerk, bragging about how wise he is compared to poets, politicians and everyone else. (He's wise because he knows how little he knows! The irony.) You try to soft-peddle the implications of his 'unexamined life' remark, suggesting that he's asking only for a little ethical introspection now and then. I don't buy it. Socrates demands much more of us. His allegory of the cave describes ordinary people as hopelessly benighted, living in a world of illusion. If you're not trying to escape the cave, you're not really alive, hence your life is worthless. This is exactly the sort of extremism that I'm deploring, and that I see in both religious and secular zealots today."

Lee Vinsel, who teaches science and technology studies at Stevens, writes: "Isn't your philosophy just a tepid form of liberalism? The problem with this kind of philosophy, which also fits some forms of Existentialism, is that it squishes all of the interesting tensions in life by pretending they don't exist. The 'Whatever, man; you do your thing; and I'll do my thing; and as long as our two things don't interfere with each other's things, dude, then everything is copacetic, dig?' answer isn't very interesting a) because it describes what, like, dormant kids who sit around in their pajamas and play World of Warcraft all day think anyway, b) because this variety of liberalism has been around for a long time to not much effect, and c) because it experienced a major uptick in the 60s and look how that turned out. Finally, isn't the fact that the U.S. liberal, 'whatever, man' consensus is leading our world right off the cliff environmentally and otherwise proof that philosophically this isn't the way to go?"

My reply: "Lee, liberalism hasn't had much effect? Really? Looking just at the 60s, that was an era of enormous advances in rights for women, gays, blacks and other oppressed groups, and major grass-roots challenges to U.S. militarism and imperialism. Young people questioned the values of their elders and experimented with alternative forms of spirituality and social organization. Many of those experiments failed, but they were well worth trying, to my mind. I also reject your suggestion that liberalism is somehow to blame for our global problems. Ideological self-righteousness--whether religious or economic or nationalistic--is what threatens to lead us 'off the cliff,' as you put it."

A friend who's into meditation writes: "You portray us as born-again Buddhists trying to browbeat you into trying Buddhist meditation because WE liked it. Not fair. In fact, we only argued that if you were going to keep CRITIQUING meditation, you should really try it. (Not by reading about it, interviewing people about it, or taking a class here and there over the years - but by doing sustained meditation.)"

My reply: "I've never been psychoanalyzed or taken an antidepressant. Does that mean I shouldn't criticize SSRI's or psychoanalysis? I'm often faulted for not knowing enough about things I criticize, but no one ever accuses me of ignorance when I praise their pet belief. Now, you could argue that my criticism of others' beliefs is inconsistent with the live and let live philosophy I spell out in my post. I worry about that now and then. But when I look at the world today, I don't see it suffering from an excess of skepticism. Quite the contrary. Anyway, that's my convenient self-justification."

Dr. Strangelove comments on my blog: "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?"

I reply: "As I said, I'm not a total relativist. There are certain meta-beliefs, or meta-values, that are good for us to share, collectively, so we can create a society in which we can pursue our individual meanings as freely as possible. These are the meta-values embodied in liberal democracy. Now some people will devote their lives to promoting the spread of democracy, tolerance, open-mindedness, and so on, and that's fine. But if you insist that others join you in your social activism--and that your life is more meaningful than the lives of others who are not social activists--that's not fine."

Prazeologue comments on Twitter: "Logically your observation is self refuting. If it is true then it refutes itself. Bit like saying 'I'm always lying.'"

I reply: "Yeah, as I once said about Thomas Kuhn, all skeptics are self-refuting. When I say no meaning-of-life system is true, I'm offering up another meaning-of-life system, which must also be false. I get it. But that, I like to think, is a paradox and not a contradiction."

Andy Russell, an historian of technology at Stevens: "I'm glad fishing is part of this discussion. At the moment one of my favorite philosophers is Billy Currington, who wrote 'A bad day of fishin' beats a good day of anything else [].'"

I reply: "Now THAT is a wise man. I bet Socrates never went fishing."

Image courtesy Wikipedia:'s_The_Meaning_of_Life.

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

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