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The meaning of life

The age-old question

[Excerpts from this book. See also this blog post, "Excerpts on happiness."]

The meaning of life?— Life is not totally “meaningless.” People’s commitment to their work, to relationships, and to life itself proves that. However, it is hard to deny that life is not as meaningful as we’d like. It is the evolutionary product of “meaningless” random variation and natural selection, not meaningful teleology or some kind of cosmic purpose. The course of a person’s life is molded to a great extent by accidents; his very existence is an utterly improbable accident. No one is as special or valuable as he thinks he is. Whether he is popular or unpopular does not mean what he tends to think it does, that he is (respectively) valuable or not valuable. There is little justice in the world. A person’s basic existential project of objectively confirming his self-regard, or his value—which is ultimately what the desire for “meaning” is all about—is unrealizable. He implicitly wants to be remembered by the world forever, or at least for a very long time, because he thinks that that kind of recognition would make his life more consequential, but he will not be. And even if he were it wouldn't matter, because he’d be dead. His life is organized around illusions, such as that of the durable, “permanent” substantival self, and of the special value of loved ones, and of the “necessity” of his own existence. His place in the universe is not what he likes to think it is. In the long run and on a broad scale, his achievements are inconsequential. All this is not meaninglessness, but it is insufficient meaningfulness.

Another way to say it is that in wanting life to be “meaningful” in some deep sense, people want the world to have value “in itself.” Intrinsic value. Their desire for some kind of recognition from the world (i.e., for self-confirmation)—which is inseparable from their desire to have a meaningful life—is also inseparable from their implicit belief that the world has value. (We want recognition, love, etc., only from things or people to which/whom we attribute some sort of value.) But it doesn’t. Nothing has value in itself; its value comes from the subject, from us. We give things value by adopting a certain orientation to them. The world and life itself have no “intrinsic value,” whatever that means, which is to say they are essentially meaningless. Thus, the human project, viz., the urge for self-confirmation, is, from at least one perspective (in fact several), fundamentally deluded. It presupposes there is some value in “confirming” oneself, in objectifying one’s self-love, in making it a part of reality so to speak, which itself presupposes that reality or the world has some sort of “objective value,” which it doesn’t. In any case, the notion of objectifying one’s self-love is nonsensical, because freedom and value are necessarily subjective things.[1]


“Meaning.”— A purpose, a goal, a project, self-transcendence, community, recognition, self-confirmation in the world, the realization of self-ideals, purposive self-projection into the world, making a contribution, changing something, making lasting change, devoting oneself to something “other,” love, commitment, faith, hope, spiritual “ordering,” “centering” oneself, awareness of connection, transcendence of atomizing self-consciousness, transcendence in various ways of the merely “given,” immersion in the other, passion, truth, authenticity, spontaneity, affirmation.

[1] More exactly, from one perspective it is nonsensical to “objectify” or “confirm” your self-love. From another perspective, though, it isn’t; we do it constantly. We project our self-love into, and through, our activities and interactions with others, thereby in some sense actualizing it or objectifying it. But the goal of putting your self-love, your self, into the world so that it stays there, so to speak, i.e., so that the world from then on necessarily reflects to everyone “John’s value!” or something like that—something that can be read into the world—is nonsensical, though we all desire it (implicitly). What we desire, in other words, is to overcome the boundaries between self and world, self and other. That’s what it all boils down to, the desire for meaning and everything else. But it is impossible, indeed meaningless.


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