The Meaning of Life

I’m currently TAing a course called “meaning of life”, and something has occurred to me which I feel might be worth sharing.

In the course we are dividing the question of the meaning of life, (henceforth MOL), into two questions:

(1) What is important?

(2) Why is what is important important?

The first question is not a metaphysical question, it’s a question about salience, about  what you should do; it’s an intensely practical question. And when we ask the question of MOL we hardly ever mean the first question – we usually mean primarily an answer to the question to (2). Sure, we might mention what we think is important, but mostly we want to tell each other why we’re right about our answer to (1), and that means focussing on question (2).

This is dumb. 

This is dumb because question (2) is a metaphysical question, and while the question is interesting, the way most of us answer it is not interesting and won’t convince anyone of anything. If you believe what is important is important because of God, you aren’t going ever to convince someone who believes what is important because meaning is created by human narratives that they are wrong and you are right. Yes, interesting philosophical discussions can be had between different answers to question (2), but they are very rarely of public or political import.

Let me give you an analogy. There are lots of metaphysical problems in philosophy, most of which you haven’t heard of, and don’t need to hear about. For example, in philosophy, there is a big problem concerning how people remain the same person across time. Seriously, people worry about this. And metaphysically, this is a hard problem. But the answer isn’t important to very many people outside the halls of an analytic philosophy department. The metaphysical aspect of MOL isn’t any more important than the metaphysical aspect of the identity across time problem.

Like the MOL question, the problem of identity across time can be split into two: (1) what does it mean to be a person? and (2) how can we say that we are the same person one moment to the next? You care about (1), everyone cares about (1). But you probably don’t care about (2). There is no reason to care about this (2) anymore than the (2) of the MOL question. Except for one reason. Because you are trying to avoid asking the (1) question – what is important? And maybe because of one other reason – because you’re a jerk.

Let me explain. If we are going to talk about the question of MOL, we can’t do it without really laying our cards on the table, without really being honest about what’s important to us. And that’s hard, because we aren’t usually honest with ourselves about what is important to us. Mostly we go around doing things that we think are important to others, or which others tell us is important. Rarely do we really ask what is important to ourselves. And there’s a good reason for this: if you do what’s important to you and fail, you can’t brush that off. We avoid the (1) question of MOL because we are averse to the responsibility it puts onto us. And this makes us jerks.

Because we aren’t honest with ourselves, and don’t want even to admit to ourselves what is really important, we try to make the question of MOL about arguing with others. And since you can’t really have an argument just by saying “I think X is important”, you have to formulate your answer to (1) in terms of an answer to (2), i.e. “You are wrong about what’s important because things are important because of (metaphysical reason)”. Since there is no end to argument between different metaphysical positions, the yelling that ensues can go on forever, and never are we forced to go back to (1) and honestly ask ourselves – is this what we think is important?

If you really feel that your God, or your theory of human constructivism, or your nihilism, or your theory of human nature, is the right way to base an answer to the question of MOL, ask yourself why you never feel the need to argue about other metaphysical issues. The answer, I think you will find, is this is the only metaphysical issue that lets you avoid asking the question of what you think is important. In other words, the metaphysical question of the meaning of life is the only topic that metaphysics contributes to the field of popular distractions and displacements from the authentic question, what is important to you. A question which can’t be answered by formulas, or by any appeal to external normativity. A question which demands you to recognize your transcendental essence, your ability to stand above all you perceive and consider and judge – and judge not only the truth and falsity of statements, but judge the salience and importance of projects.

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3 thoughts on “The Meaning of Life

  1. I really enjoyed this post for two reasons: (1) I understood the entire post. (2) It is relevant to where I am at in my life. I find myself trying to live what I currently believe the answer to question (1) to be. It is scary – exactly for the reason you say, which is failure – but also because of vulnerability. When you reveal what is important to you, you expose a really big part of yourself. Others can hurt you by saying that what’s important to you is not worthwhile. Maybe you believe this and feel stupid for what you are doing. It’s important to be supportive of what’s important to others.

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