The Search for Hollow Unicorns
June 23, 2010 § 3 Comments
People like to feel that their lives have meaning.
Let me just examine that statement. In this context, people like to feel that their lives are worthwhile, that their actions are of some consequence, that there is a reason to get up in the morning, to go to work, to earn money, to go through the daily routines that we do to support ourselves and our families. We need to feel that there is a sense of purpose to our daily existences or we can feel that, without a life of some small consequence, that there is no point in existing at all. I too feel this need and know that it is an important part of being human.
Not only do we feel the need to feel some sense of purpose, likewise we value those around us, and we engage these people, our loved-ones, our families and our colleagues, in our sense of purpose. We want to be needed by those around us. We depend upon this.
We are also very empathic animals, we can identify in others fear, pain, love, gratitude, anger, lust and all the other human emotions, and we act and react accordingly. We can relate to others, and this is what helps us to be able to give value to the lives of others. We want for those around us to be happy, healthy and successful, as we want to be ourselves.
So we need to value our own lives, we feel the natural need to see the value in the lives of others. This is what gives our lives a sense of meaning, purpose and consequence. What we do for ourselves and others is what sustains us as human beings, and what drives us onward.
So life has meaning?
I would say yes, life does have meaning, in the sense that we can continue forward with our lives and not feel like we have a pointless existence.
I was asked recently by my friend Jonathan, and I paraphrase, “As an ‘existential nihilist‘ how can I say to someone that there is no innate value in a human life, but that I believe in human rights?”
This is a tricky one, as he pointed out, for it lacks a consistent basis, and seems contradictory. However I see no problem in saying that the universe and life, like rocks, hold no innate meaning or purpose on a cosmological scale, and yet still maintain that there is value in a human life. And this is because I am human and am empathetical toward my species and to others, as we all are to a greater or lesser degree.
In my last blog piece “A Universe Without Meaning” I countered the idea that the universe has innate meaning and took it to its logical conclusion; the answer to the question “what is the meaning of the universe?” is that there is no meaning, and the question is not valid for it gives no premise or context from which to extract a meaning. The question is a bad question. In my comments, in reply to a commenter I said:
I cannot see how you can extract meaning from something like the universe, which can only answer questions which have a possible answer like “Why is the universe the shape it is?” or “How old is the universe?” or “What is the meaning of background radiation in the universe?” The question needs context.
This is similar in mood to the quote from Richard Dawkins who said in an interview with Salon:
“Now, the mere fact that you can frame an English sentence beginning with the word ‘why’ does not mean that English sentence should receive an answer. I could say, ‘Why are unicorns hollow?’ That appears to mean something, but it doesn’t deserve an answer.”
While Dawkins has a reputation of never being one to mince words, his point is clear. The questions “Why are we here?” and “What is the meaning of the universe?” are perfectly good sentences in English, but they lack any validity for they lack any context. We need to ask questions like “given X what is Y?” or “given Y, what is the meaning of X?” Or we could ask something like “What is the meaning of the expanding universe?”
I think the biggest stumbling block in the whole “meaning” debate is what is actually meant by “meaning”? As I understand it, meaning is the implications of a thing or situation given the context it is in. A quick web search gives me this:
Now, while I bring nothing new to the debate here, I do think it’s important to point out to my readers that just because I see no innate “meaning” in the universe does not mean we cannot have meaning in our lives. The idea of our lives having meaning in as described by point four being “Inner significance” is very important to us as a species. In fact I’d go so far as to say it’s crucial for us to have a sense of significance in our lives, and to have that feeling about the lives of others. And it is no wonder that people react with shock and horror when I say to the world that life has no meaning. To them it must be like me saying “There is no point to living, you might as well end it all.” But as you can see, this is not what I mean at all.
It is in our nature to ask questions of our lives and our universe, starting with the basics, and as we learn more and more, our questions get more and more complex. We also complicate things because we have the ability to abstract our questions, and synthesise meaning from seemingly unrelated ideas. And sometimes the words we use in the English language carry more “meaning” than others in different contexts. I think that in order to go forward, we need to stop looking for a “higher meaning” and concentrate on the meanings of our of lives, how we interact with others and the planet around us.