“The Meaning of Life”, Logically Considered

I'm too late to enter the Philosophy Now website's last monthly contest, for an answer to the meaning of life; so I have to post my thoughts here, as an exploration of the definition of another kind of “meaning”, one that doesn't reduce merely to eliminating possibilities from consideration:

The meaning of the carrots that appeared in my kitchen yesterday is that they are intended to be cooked, eaten, and keep me alive; that's why someone bought them and left them there. The meaning or purpose of the hammer in my closet is to keep my roof up and therefore keep me warm and alive, and to help me hang art that keeps me amused (perhaps indicating that I can't afford very good art.) That's why that hammer was built, and bought: its purpose. Objects acquire this kind of “meaning” or “meaningfulness” in reference to (individual) human lives and intentions - our goals: nothing more abstract is intended by ordinary questions about purpose.

So to ask “What is the meaning of (a human) life” is to fall into something very like self-reference, as if we were asking our purpose in having purposes, much like a “Liar of Crete” (Epimenides) describing his own utterances. At the least, it's a “category mistake” or inadvertent pun: humans have purposes in the sense of having previously set goals (consciously or unconsciously); mere objects have purposes in the sense that they have utility. It is however, unlikely that the concept of “God” is only a product of this confusion and the perceived need to dispel it.

I want to claim, then, that our ancient query turns out not to be a well-formed question at all; any more than “What is the purpose of the life of the present King of France?” would be. It is grammatical but senseless.

Chekhov expressed this conclusion best, albeit somewhat in contradiction to my first example. His wife, near the end of his life, (perhaps hoping for something profound to repeat soulfully after his death) asked him just this question: “What is the meaning of life?” Chekhov stared at her for a while as though she were mad, and then said: “A carrot is a carrot.” Not being as intelligent as that writer, I have not been as brief. Kant produced considerably more words than either of us, in asserting than human beings must not be means, but ends. Buddha, on Mount Grdhrakuta, simply held up a flower, causing Kasho to become enlightened; or to smile: depending on which source you consult. No doubt, if carrots grew well in mountain soil, the Buddha would have held up a carrot.

As to whether sufficiently complex machines should be lumped in with humans, neither answer to that question this affects the logical point (I would like to think.)

It must be added however, that we can very easily come to treat our lives as if they were subsidiary, or fail to reconsider goals we set for ourselves much earlier in our lives; that we live out of habit and are not awake to the real choices that lie before us during our lives, and to our own unconscious purposes. In this vein, Tolstoy's Ivan Illich ought to have asked himself the “purpose of life” long before he arrived at his deathbed, and reached the conclusion that his life had “been meaningless”; since he might have become more aware that human beings choose purposes and are not subjects of them. As a koan, the question might have prompted him to discover decades earlier that his life had no purpose as such; yet he had lived as though his life had the purpose of impressing others, accumulating wealth or position, or pleasing the community whose mores he was born into - in other words as if he were justifiably a slave, and his life were subsidiary rather than sovereign. Instead, he led a less questioning life that was false emotionally and, I have argued, false in logic as well. Without its illusory and borrowed purpose, his life would surely have been a bit more fun, and I more than suspect, a bit more helpful to others, as well.

(Consideration of the philosophical implications of the song “If I Were a Hammer” is left to more industrious philosophers.)

- Russell Johnston

Dedicated to the memory of my father Wesley Johnston, and John King Farlow.

First posted January 25, 2007, last revised January 25, 2007