How would a modern person who has no allegiance to the Bible or traditional Jewish sources answer the question of the meaning/purpose of life/creation? Such a person would examine the question and the answer(s) on their own merit and not on the basis of established tradition. What are the non-traditional answers to the ‘Big Question’?
First off, the atheists out there would probably say that there is no answer since there is no meaning to life. Or perhaps, it is more accurate to say that this is the atheist answer – there is no meaning to life. It must be stressed (once again) that this ‘answer’ is absolute. There is no meaning to life means that any sense of meaning that we sense or wish upon ourselves is nothing other than an illusion. In other words, if a true atheist feels that his or her purpose in life is to help others, or to save the whales, or to reduce global warming, or any other noble cause, that feeling and the cause itself are ultimately meaningless and even downright deceiving. There is nothing ‘better’ about saving the world or helping the downtrodden than there is about destroying the world and trampling the downtrodden. As cruel and as heartless as this sounds, it is god’s honest truth from an atheist standpoint. It’s all one grand accident. Other than self-deceptive feelings, there is no more reason to strive to preserve the accident rather than to end it.
Needless to say, this presents a rather discouraging picture. What are the alternatives? Well, for starters, once we are off of the atheist take on things, we are automatically into the realm of theism, meaning some sort of belief in a higher power. At this point, all kinds of doors open up. Meaning and purpose could be found almost everywhere and in almost everything. Thus, the first major dividing line in the answer to this eternal question is whether or not there is a higher power. Deciding which side of this fence one is on determines if one is able to believe in ultimate meaning or not.
Where does one go to find a good survey of contemporary answers to the question of what is the meaning of life? That question, at least, has an easy answer. The Wikipedia entry on ‘Meaning of life’ goes through dozens of answers, from ancient Greek philosophers through the major religions through the Enlightenment up to non-religious modern times. The Greek answers revolved around three areas: knowledge, virtue, and happiness or fulfillment. The Enlightenment answers focused more on practical matters like improving society and ensuring the common good. More modern views tended to get more cynical about ultimate meaning, even claiming that it is an illusion at best. At the end of the Wikipedia article a survey of modern approaches is listed.
The article lists seven general categories of what it calls ‘popular views’:
1. To realize one’s potential and ideals
2. To achieve biological perfection
3. To seek knowledge and wisdom
4. To do good, to do the right thing
5. Meanings related to religion
6. To love, to feel, to enjoy the act of living
7. To have power, to be better
There are three additional categories that deny finding meaning in life in one way or another:
8. Life has no meaning
9. One should not seek to know and understand the meaning of life
10. Life is bad
We are going to leave the final three categories out of this survey. The other seven categories can be condensed into four basic goals: survival (2 and 7), happiness (1 and 6) knowledge (3 and 5, religion being a form of knowledge), and being a good person (4), with a little overlap among the various categories. It is interesting that three of these four were precisely the three main categories that the ancient Greeks came up with. Perhaps there really is something universal about these goals, something that survives the changes of society over the millennia.
Let us analyze these three categories separately. Happiness includes a broad swath of human endeavors, from the pursuit of pleasure and comfort to very spiritual forms of personal fulfillment. Such a wide scope of experiences is difficult to put in one category. But such is the nature of the human being – a complex creature who finds fulfillment in an incredible variety of activities. Some of these are purely physical while others are intensely spiritual. But the unifying theme that is common to them all is the direction to which they point. This is the arena of the self. The focus is inward, not outward.
The most direct sense of meaning and purpose that we can experience is the experience of the self. Anything else is really secondary. This is the reason that personal happiness and fulfillment is the central goal of life once matters of survival have been taken care of. Consequently, many of the experiences associated with happiness are selfish. Even the most spiritual of them contain a tinge of selfishness. Whether the goal is to stimulate or relax the body, or to expand or still the mind, or even to earn a well-deserved place in the afterlife for the soul, the beneficiary of the experience is the ‘I’. There is not necessarily anything wrong with such a focus, but it does limit the scope of the experience.
This limitation seems to be overcome by the other two categories. The second pathway, being a good person, in a sense is a direct challenge to the ‘self-ish’ focus of happiness. The goal in this category is the other. Whether that ‘other’ is all of humanity, or the oppressed, or some friend in need, or the whales, the focus is outward and not inward. The obvious ‘ultimate’ benefit of this is that it enables one to feel that the experience goes beyond the limitations of the self. This is an incalculable advantage for seeking ultimate meaning. No longer is one faced with the dilemma that however great a thing one is doing, it is ultimately just for oneself. ‘Being a good person’ invariably revolves around helping others and making the world a better place - to give rather than to take.
But there are problems with all this noble altruism. The first is the simple and ever-present snag that all good-hearted people feel at one point or another – one rarely succeeds in really helping and even less rarely is the effort truly appreciated. The frustration that every giver feels every now and then can dampen even the most unselfish of aspirations. This brings us to the second problem. At the end of the day helping others, whoever they may be, is really just a cleverly packaged method helping oneself. This, as we all know, is the really motivation for giving. It’s that feel-good sensation that comes from the knowledge that we have made the world a better place that really keeps us contributing and pitching in and doling out. It may be directed outward, but the payback is inward.
The third path, truth, is the most objective of them all. It is not sullied by selfishness or weighed down by frustration. It is simply using the mind and the experience of life to gain some understanding of the way things are and why they are that way. It could be scientific, or artistic, or purely experiential. It could be intellectual, emotional, or spiritual. It is the goal of applying one’s mental and physical resources to comprehend the mystery and perhaps come to terms with some part of it. It is the search for the truth in whatever direction it takes. What could be a purer goal than this? What could possibly be a higher purpose for our unique and wonderful abilities and drives than this? To dedicate a portion of one’s life and energy to understanding some aspect of our reality is about as close as we can come to the ultimate.
But like the others, this path has its shortcomings. Most people have neither the perseverance the wherewithal or the desire to go on any great ‘quest’ for truth. This quest is so far out of their world, so pie-in-the-sky, so utterly irrelevant to normal life, that they would be on the next web site by the time they see the word ‘truth’. Most of us, when all the dust clears, really couldn’t care less.
What hope is there for an answer to the big question? Is there an answer? Perhaps there is. Perhaps we have been a bit too cynical about these three paths. Perhaps they really are the royal roads to meaning and purpose in life. Maybe they need one added ingredient to remove the problems and allow them to lead us towards meaningful lives. That missing ingredient, perhaps, is meaning itself.
Personal happiness is the most wonderful experience in life, but it is tinged with selfishness. So the solution is to transform that happiness into something that goes beyond normal forms of pleasure and comfort or even personal fulfillment. Make happiness a source of meaning. Transform the over-powering and ever-present drive for pleasure into a subtler but infinitely more powerful drive for genuinely meaningful experiences that fill the body, mind, and soul with a sense of purpose. It’s not just eating – it’s imbibing the life force of the universe. It’s not just feeling good – it’s appreciating all the goodness. It’s not all about me – it’s about being.
Helping others is about as beautiful a thing we can do with the time we have been allotted. But it sure gets frustrating. What’s needed to get over those humps is a little dose of meaning. Whenever lack of accomplishment or the lack of appreciation, or the sense that this is all pointless gets to be too much, we have to look behind the immediate picture and understand that what we are really doing by doing good, is to bring some meaning into our own lives and the lives of those whom we touch. It’s not much, but it makes all the difference in the world. It’s simply a slightly different take on how we approach the matter at hand. The desire to help and to make the world a better place is really nothing more than a broad path on the road to meaning.
What is the search for truth if not a search for ultimate meaning? The desire to truly understand something is a little piece of the great pie of understanding why we are here. Why don’t most people care about this? Perhaps it is because they have not fully grasped that the greatest joy in life is to sense that life matters. Searching for that subtle and frequently hidden significance that lies underneath the surface of everything is the search for truth. The scope of this search is limitless. It is everywhere and in all things. Meaning can found whenever one chooses to look for it. But that choice must be made.
Perhaps we can find a fitting close for this portion of this project along these lines. Judaism, in the course of its long and winding history, has revealed many different paths for finding meaning and purpose in life. Some have retained their relevance while others have not. But the sum total of them all points to alternative conclusion. The very fact that there are so many different paths reveals that meaning can be found in wide range of experiences. In fact, this itself may sum up the Jewish answer to the question. There are not really 60 answers, or 100 answers, or even 1000 answers. There are as many answers as we can come up with. Meaning can be found everywhere, in everything, in any situation. The key is to search, to seek, to always be ready for another path.
Maybe it all boils down to just one answer: The purpose of life is to search for meaning in life.
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Date: 05/09/17 at 15:28:31
I'm slightly confused as to why the fact that people not having interest in something should affect it's validity in being the meaning of life? Regardless to what one postulates the meaning of life to be another could simply respond "that doesn't interest me". If we are speaking of ultimate meaning then by definition we are not constrained to subjective viewpoints.
Beautiful essay, thanks