Sunday, June 17, 2012

Some Thoughts on the Meaning of Human Lives

The question "what is the meaning of life" persists. In this post I would like to summarize what I think answers to a form of this question may be, from a humanist non-religious framework. Consider these thoughts more of speculations, possibilities, or leanings of mine rather then beliefs.

One way of interpreting the question "what is the meaning of life" is to ask what good's make life worthwhile. But we aren't looking for answers that are merely subjective we want objective answers to these questions. That is, the meaning of life isn't the pursuit of goods that merely satisfy a subjects desires, an appropriate answer to the question lies independent of what people think, it will be objective. For example a  life where a person is satisfied by endless stamp collecting doesn't seem meaningful despite the subject's satisfaction. At any rate such a life shouldn't seem meaningful to the humanist!

Ancient Wisdom

An ancient perspective on the meaning of life is that the "most worthwhile kind of life involves pursuing the joint tasks of understanding oneself and of understanding one's place within the universe." (See Evan Fales paper Despair, Optimist, and Rebellion) Notice how stamp collecting (unlike philosophical investigation, religious practice, and so on) does nothing to advance these goals. So some lives will be more worthwhile then others. Those lives which face the facts of human existence, the facts of this particular universe, and all that entails will be meaningful lives.

Yet one might worry that this perspective merely rephrases the initial concern. We want to know what we are and what our place in the universe is not to merely pose a question! Although the investigation of understanding into the depths of what we are and reality at large may be meaningful in itself, how much better will the answers to such questions be! As such we may want to consider some answers.

Social Goods

Humans are social animals, that is one aspect of what we are and one way to understand what we are. So perhaps one way in which life is worthwhile, and good is through  social pursuit. In getting to know other human beings, being involved in their lives and having other human beings know and be involved with us (our desires, needs, and other attributes) life takes on meaning. The goods of relationships with other animals (human and nonhuman) not only bring about pleasures (and of course pains), insight, but may also be good in themselves. 

Another good related to human sociability is being good. Treating others with moral concern is not only morally good, but meaningful as well. For example lives fighting for justice and equality, against racism, sexism, speciesism, and statism certainly seem meaningful. There is of course the question of whether life is meaningful in mere pursuit of such causes or in actual, concrete success. Either way morality will be relevant, central even in a meaningful life.

Human lives may also gain a boost in meaningfulness from aesthetic concerns. Fittingness is one of those aesthetic components. We might best capture what fittingness is by analogy. Suppose you are considering where to put your door frame, mentally picturing different possibilities, now absent practical concerns how are you to choose? Most likely on basis of what simply looks right, or in other word in which set-up fits. Not how it fits in respect to itself (whether the door itself looks right) but whether the door looks right in it's environment, in this case the house. We might describe fittingness as this then:
Fittingness is a judgment and experience of a thing x in regards to the surrounding things y. The judgment is an aesthetic judgment of x being in the state that it should be or is proper in an environment of y, where y’s properties are setting what x should be or is proper
How does this relate to the meaning of lives? I will quote Roger Scruton from his nifty book A Very Short Introduction to Beauty , “Aesthetic interest has a transfiguring effect. It is as though the natural world, represented in consciousness, justifies both itself and you. And this experience has a metaphysical resonance.” There is then a move between a fittingness of other objects, to the fittingness of the self. We recognize at certain parts in our lives that we are where we should be in relation to the universe. We are at home. These experiences are examples of fittingness. Now it is no doubt quite mysterious and vague how this works, but never the less it is significant. for these experiences of fittingness “contain a reassurance that this world is a right and fitting place to be—a home in which our human powers and prospects find confirmation."


The above answers to the question "what is the meaning of live" all have objective answers. We can answer whether someone is in fact living a life with ancient wisdom, full of social goods, and one that is fitting (independent about what they think or feel is the case). The answers to these questions will not depend on that persons desires, or satisfaction. Yet what if that person is horribly unhappy are we still to say that  their life is meaningful. Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps happiness is a necessary condition for fittingness. At any rate one may think that a severely unhappy life isn't a life that is worth living, and thus it is not a meaningful life. Facing this challenge perhaps we could say that in order for a life to be meaningful there must be a marriage between subjective and objective goods. It is not enough to have one without the other. A meaningful life must be one in which a subjects desires are satisfied, but it must also have meaning outside of the subjects desires and preference. 

These then are a few ways in which a humanist can answer the question "what is the meaning of life." This list should of course not be taken as extensive by any means. Clearly each category of meaningfulness could use some more sketching out. At any rate I hope to have shown that there is some plausible answers for the humanist for the persisting question.

See Mere Humanism for a discussion on what a Mere Humanist might be.

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