People ask questions about the meaning of life, because they want to discriminate between good and bad things; important and irrelevant things; I know how to achieve that distinction. But still I don’t know “What is the meaning of life?” because it is not a good question to ask. Looking at some typical cases shows the futility of the effort:
Case 1. Some people start by saying, “The meaning of life is doing things that ensure the survival of humankind.” Science, teaching, economics and space exploration are, therefore, very meaningful. It is a good point and most people would agree. But I ask, “If survival is the meaning of life, and there is nothing beyond it, then what is the point of survival? Does it not become meaningless?”. And so it goes on for ever, question after question.
Case 2. Other people start by saying, “The meaning of life is Art, it is ART.” In saying this, they have a point, and some would agree. Gombrich writes that art started as something that was practically useful to the early tribes who walked this earth. In their minds art had magical power, it controlled the forces of the earth and the beasts. This seems naive. But in later ages art was transformed into writing and this is the most powerful scientific discovery (alongside fire, the wheel and mathematics). It is the narrative, educational, and emotional power that helps for the survival humankind. Case 1 and Case 2 are united.
Case 3. Oscar Wilde, who sees Art as an ultimate end to itself, not something that leads to practical utility. It is hard to define what Art is totally without practical utility, and moreover, nothing proves it is really the meaning of life. It is just an assumption that some people choose to make for themselves; not universal.
Case 4. “Happiness is the meaning of live” also means very little. Pleasure and pain have evolved to ensure self-preservation of living creatures. Happiness and sorrow are more sophisticated emotions but they are in every occurence connected to underlying physical things. Joy in being together with the loved one, sorrow in being separated; Therefore, happiness is quite simply the same as pursuing the survival and prosperity of the species. This case has already been discussed.
Complete happiness is a foolish objective. It could not exist, because the human mind is capable of both pleasure and pain. Humans can exploit the mechanisms of happiness (for example by drug users). This does not bring them any closer to the meaning of life.
I doubt this universe has bothered to prepare a “meaning” for us humans. We are, like the stars and planets, like slugs and dandelions, the consequence of natural law. Our personalities, the biochemistry of our bodies, have emerged as a result of evolution. Perhaps the universe moves along on a meaningless path of self-destruction.
All the amazing knowledge of science does not bring us a step closer to meaning. Perhaps religion got it right and not science. But I ask: “What is meaning?” Something can be meaningful only in relation to another thing.
The question “What is the meaning of life?” contains a paradox. The word “meaning” suggests practical utility. Some usefulness but for whom? For you? Utility must be applied to somebody.
As soon as we have have found the practical utility, we can ask: But what is the meaning of the meaning? And the meaning, of the meaning, of the meaning? And so it goes, torturing the unwise inquisitor.
I can’t define the meaning of life, but I know how to live a meaningful life. Looking at the “big” questions of life and the universe we find ourselves helpless. But when we move from the general to the specific, our knowledge increases. It is more productive to observe the meaningfulness in the life of a single person, rather than the question in general.
It is of importance to discover the deeply rooted desires that build up the person. Such wishes define the person; Desires, sentiments and emotions that matter on the most profound level. They are his companions in life. They have existed in his earliest childhood dreams, in his earliest social and creative attempts.
The person becomes what he or she is during childhood. Events, exposures and activities during childhood enter the psyche and stay there. The unthinking universe, the dead world, becomes living and thinking. Something unique has been created; Something valuable has been created. The meaning of life, as I see it, is in expressing and defending this thing. The individual should at all times defined his inner child, because it is a very important element of his person.
This rings true from a biological standpoint, because the brain absorbs most information, and has the greatest morphological flexibility, early in life. Neuroplasticity gradually decreases with age, although it never really stops. I am making some claims here, that need to be backed by references. Ho, well. Psychologically, the young mind is more susceptible to impressions.
The inner child is ignorant, as any child. But it represents your most intimate essence, so it should not be ignored. It is important to know it well, your self-child, remember it, and give it voice in any decisions.
People change with experience and age, we can’t freeze time. Of course; Desires inadvertently change with time, wisdom increases (hopefully); new things are discovered. So the inner child stays in there, is a definition of you, and at the same time it is no longer you. Should we stop listening to it?
My answer to this is NO. The inner child still pays and important role in who we are. But it is more ignorant than your current self. More primitive, and elemental. In a matter of speaking the wise person should be like a parent, and a defending guardian of his former self. Be true to yourself, consult your self-child in making important decisions. It is a matter of balance between ego and child.
A method for determining important desires and wishes:
Desires are changeable, some come and go away very quickly; Others are persistent or recurring. In order to identify important, persistent, fundamental desires we need a specific method.
The method I use is recording a priority list of desires. This should be done frequently, with the greatest honesty you can. The obligation here is honesty – so that possible sources of persistent desires can become self-evident. The benefit of doing this is that desires can be observed over the long term. The important, persistent ones raise to the top. The changeable ones are sifted away.
Desire analysis is what I call a first order skill, because it is the basis for the desire-goal-action chain. And as such, this is a very important thing.
In identifying desires try to find the uppermost root of every desire, but don’t go beyond it. Something doesn’t need to have cause in order to be meaningful. What is honestly felt is meaningful.
If I like drawing, for example, this can be my meaning and end to itself. Perhaps I like drawing, because I love self-expression. Perhaps I like it because I like crafting things. Maybe it is a combination of several factors, this or that, that make this desire come strong in my brain.
If I can identify a robust desire, then this is good. Causes are irrelevant. Identifying causes quickly becomes pointless because it is too much generalization. So, I think it is wise to describe what you feel and stick to the directly Felt Desire (FD), and not some possible causing factor or source.
Desires of the moment do not always coincide with long-term desires. Emotions come and go. But this should not be taken as contradiction to the importance of desire. Persistent desires are important, because they have existed for a long time, have appeared again, and again (and are likely to reappear).
The basic procedure is as follows:
I am attentive to my present emotions. When they do not contradict long-term felt desires, I am at my liberty to act on them. But I know them to be momentary and volatile.
In the greater scheme of things, I choose to follow my identified long-term desires. If they do not resonate with me in my mood, I venture to remember: “What have I decided is important? Can I feel it, how it is important?” In most cases this returns me on track.
Present and long-term felt emotions can diverge a lot, but I can revise my desire analysis. The changeable things can be recognized and separated from the constant things. Having a persistent emotion is having a persistent goal. Only in this way there could be a definition of meaningful life. It is meaningful to who you are inside.
Perhaps your desire is to learn about the ultimate “truth” of things. This is a perfectly valid desire if you are a scientist type. You can dedicate yourself to do physics, mathematics, philosophy and find the ultimate “truth”. In the meantime, before you reach the ultimate truth, there is some way to walk. You only have your desires for company.
In the end, the thing that will pay off most is to be honest; Determine what drives you profoundly, and not what other people suppose this should be.