The M(m)eaning(s) of(in) (my) L(l)ife.

In this cluttered title, I have tried to symbolically illustrate four significantly different ways both “meaning” and “life” can be used in a question. But spoiler alert: Only one of these questions is non-deceptive:

  • (A) What is the Meaning of Life?
  • (B) What is the meaning of my life?
  • (C) What are the meanings in Life?
  • (D) What are the meanings in my life?

I imagine readers can feel how each of these sentences carries their own assumptions.

Questions A, B, and C above are not useful questions for two main reasons:

(1) The word “Life” is a huge abstraction implying that there is one real thing called “Life”. It is a Trojan Horse much like the word “Truth” in my previous post. The idea/word of “living” is an obviously useful category, but as we have explored our world more deeply, the word “living” has gotten trickier as we wrestle with if it can be applied to (for instance) viruses, complex systems and now AI. These puzzles can help us see the artificial nature of the word “living”. Don’t get me wrong, “living” is a useful word, but that is the point, it is useful only in a limited way — it doesn’t point to a real “thing”. And so, you can imagine, if “living” has issues, the word “Life” — “living” morphed into a capitalized noun — is deceptively reified. I won’t go on here about this point — you can read my posts about other abstractions if you want to further understand my warnings about reified abstractions.

(2) A, B and C are not meaningful because of a short-coming in human reasoning. The metaphor that “humans are story tellers by nature” is a useful way to understand human communication and creativity but also to understand certain sorts of short-comings in human reasoning. With this story telling as a reasoning tool, it is tempting for people to look at history as a story, or at one’s own life as a story or a play. The next jump in reasoning is to assume that since it is a story or a play then it must have an author (“a god” or “the gods” or “fate” or “the Universe”) who has planned our roles in these stories — our purpose in the story or our meaning in Life. See how the phrase “meaning in Life” snuck in there? These weird false assumptions are what then make questions A, B and C seem deceptively meaningful.

Meaning” is a product of our interpretation, a tool for our motivations, but we must remember that it is comes from us, not from an invisible author. The beauty of realizing this is that it strengthens our sense of responsibility and participation.

Question to readers: Have you ever wrestled with any version of these questions?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

5 responses to “The M(m)eaning(s) of(in) (my) L(l)ife.

  1. chris

    Yes I have and I consider most of that time spent as wasted. For me recognizing that life is about Execution and not Purpose was a critical transition. When my mind shifted to questions of execution rather than purpose things became much more clear, manageable, and relatable.

    Wholeheartedly agree with those four questions being unhelpful. #2 above is most important in my opinion. So much pop-history/science writing is verbal diarrhea (a long book that should’ve been a short essay), narrative fallacy (forcing complex events into falsey clean narrative windows), mental masturbation (the writer showing off) or some god awful combo of those 3.

  2. @ chris: fun distinction — exuberant explorations. I don’t think the 4th question is unhelpful, btw — we can having many meaningful activities going on at any time(s) in our lives. Maybe I wasn’t clear enough though.

  3. Chris

    You are right Q4 isn’t unhelpful. Every individual needs to determine what is meaningful in their own lives. And of course before you can move to a state of “execution” you need to establish a foundational moral system, which necessitates reflecting on “meaning”.

    You wrote:
    “Meaning” is a product of our interpretation, a tool for our motivations, but we must remember that it is comes from us, not from an invisible author. The beauty of realizing this is that it strengthens our sense of responsibility and participation.

    I wholeheartedly agree with most of that but disagree that it only comes “from us”, which I assume reflects our different beliefs (you as a type of atheist, me as a type of theist). Apologies if I’ve misinterpreted though!

  4. My head isn’t in a place to speak to each one. I think there is a flaw in having a definite article in any of them. Relativity can give scenarios but none can be fixed for more than a moment in time, when each moment is a unique intersection of the 1`0,000 things. Life to me is a state of being that appears to have sentience but I believe that only because I am sentient. That said sentience very well take myriad forms for myriad life forms. For example the mycellium (sp?) fungal mats that serve as communication highways for trees, are alive, but are they sentient? Or asking is a rock alive? Is it sentient? To have sentience suggests an awareness of meanings. It feels like continuing in some form or another in our terrarium (sp?) in perpetuity would be a foundational meaning. I do agree that meaning for each of the 10,000 things is dependent on our individual view. Our view completes a circuit.

  5. @ msjadeli: interesting

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