Saturday, March 29, 2014

Further thoughts on meaning

Someone recently told me that watching the new Cosmos made them feel small and pointless, like "specks of dust." This got me to thinking a bit more about meaning. I've addressed the question of meaning briefly in my recent "Why I'm an athiest, redux" post, in which I said
I think this was the very first objection I ever got to atheism: "But if there's no god, then what's the meaning of life?" I have to say, I was honestly confused (I was young). My response was "Who says there has to be a meaning?" The question was, and is, a genuine one. We may want there to be a meaning to our life, one that some force greater than ourselves recognizes, but I see no reason to think that the universe is obliged to grant our desire. It genuinely puzzles me that anyone thinks that just because we want a particular thing, it therefore must exist. 
Meaning, if it exists, is something that we provide to our lives. It's not something that is assigned to us from on high, but rather something that we must find or choose for ourselves. I suspect that the "meaning of life" will always be somewhat individual and subjective. One person may find meaning in being a father who raises ethical children, while another finds it in philanthropy, and so on, and so forth. But even if we cannot find something to give our lives meaning on our own, or with the help of other people, that does nothing to prove the existence of a god or gods, or any sort of afterlife.
In the grand scale of the Universe, we really are, to paraphrase Tim Minchin, insignificant specks of carbon dust, in size, time that we're around, and impact. The Universe does not appear to give two shits about us, and I can think of no reason why it should (especially as it doesn't appear to be, you know, sentient or conscious). But I confess, I've never felt small, pointless, meaningless, or any other synonym when confronted with the grandeur of the Universe.

When I've contemplated the immensity of the Universe, I've felt awe, wonder, amazement, and fascination, but I don't recall ever feeling small or pointless. I don't know why. It's possible that I just don't actually grasp the enormity of the Universe. It's also possible that I do (as much as one can), and just am not bothered by it in any way.

We are human beings. We can only live our lives on the  scale of humanity. While we can learn a great deal about the wider, larger Universe, we don't live that scale. This, however, does not mean that we are meaningless. In fact, meaning doesn't even matter at any scale except the scale at which sentient, conscious beings live.

Meaning is something that can only be granted, or appreciated, by sentient, conscious beings. It cannot be granted by an indifferent universe. Living one's life only matters to the those who actually live life, after all. And at the moment, the only beings we know of that are living, sentient, conscious beings are those living right here on Earth. Us. It thus makes no sense to even ask about meaning, unless we are asking what meaning we can find to our lives.

So, there is no grand meaning of life bestowed on us from some outside force/being/whatever that somehow makes our lives not tiny and pointless in the larger scheme of things. I reject that standard. What about personal meaning, something we pick for ourselves? Is such meaning real? Or is any sense of meaning merely a psychological band-aid meant to give us comfort in the face of fear and loneliness, as that same friend suggested? I realize that for some, that psychological comfort may indeed be what they are focused on, and thus it would be easy to conclude that that's all meaning is. But I don't believe that's all it really is. I think there actually is objective meaning, even if that meaning isn't exactly the same in practice for all of us.

When we look at what our nature is, we exist as our various functions or abilities--our powers, as it were. To be good, is to be effective in our functions. So, in one sense, the purpose of living is to grow in our powers, to empower ourselves, and others, to the best that we can (the fuller argument for this assertion is given in my post here, and the links by Dan Fincke at the bottom of that post). Or in other words, one way of looking at the meaning of life is to say that the meaning is to strive to be the best we can be, i.e., the most effective that we can be. That's an objective fact.

But I think there's room for a more personal touch as well. None of us can truly be the best in all of our powers. Inevitably, when we focus on developing one or more of our abilities, some other ability will fall short. That too, is an objective fact. So individual meaning's will vary. A teacher may find meaning in enriching and helping to grow the minds of his or her students. A doctor may find meaning in aiding patients to be healthy, and in minimizing suffering. A parent could find meaning in striving to be the best parent they can be, and in helping their young one(s) grow to be the best that they can be. Some people may find meaning in striving as leaders, and helping their team, whatever that team may be. Pro athletes might find meaning in inspiring others. Being the best friend you can be would be another way to find meaning in life.

These are all ways that people can grow in their own personal power, and in the empowerment of others. There are many, many others. There's no reason a person couldn't have more than one, as well. And it's entirely possible, and even likely, that an individual's personal meaning will change as life circumstances change, as goals change, and as we grow. One's personal meaning in life need not be a static thing. In fact, it would not surprise me if a static personal meaning would be a sure way to stall out in life, and stop growing.

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