The Meaning Of Life: Five Shades Of Meaning

The Meaning Of Life: Five Shades Of Meaning

What is the meaning of life? The question may seem abstract and somehow removed. Yet, as many philosophical questions, this one has very practical effects. Depending on your answer, if you have any, you will have different ideas on what the “good life” is, what the “bad” life is and how it should be avoided, and of course on what you should do.

The last thing is especially important: to navigate chaos, one needs a definite vision, a stable idea one will turn into something real. If you don’t have a defined answer, you may keep drifting and dabbling around, and there’s no way you will ride the currents of chaos.

Some individuals seem to believe that life is all about accumulating money. You have probably met with at least one of these fellows in the course of your professional life. Such individuals are often motivated to work harder, live below their means, accumulate wealth. Some even manage to become wealthy. The “wealth dream” is not the last strange attractor around and having it doubtlessly improves your changes to gain wealth.

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On the other hand, this kind of dream has its costs. Companies have often been caught polluting or abusing their employees so they could squeeze a little more bucks. Money-minded individuals tend to neglect the humane side of relationships and, when they have one, a family. Is it healthy to believe that life is about money? This could be said about other examples of “life is about ___” as well.

Thus, to help you with the weirdly-philosophical-yet-quite-practical issue of what life means, here are 5 examples of possible answers. All have their strengths and shortcomings.

1. Constructivism: life is what we make of it

The Bible starts with these words: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth.” Famously, the primoridal waters are not mentioned in what God created, and some esotericists claim He merely built Creation from a matter He did not create. Freemasons seem to have taken the same line of thought when they called Him the “Great Architect.” Would you ask an architect to make up the stone, earth and everything else out of nothing?

Since then, postmodernism strove to put godhood in the layman’s hands. No one should let himself or herself constrained within traditional roles when one doesn’t want to. To each the right to build one’s own life! Everything shared is a social construction, and everything which is claimed to be more than that is a ruse to constrain people against their will.

This is Jean-Paul Sartre’s message in his analysis of a café waiter:

Let us consider this waiter in the cafe. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer… All his behavior seems to us a game. He applies himself to chaining his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seem to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a cafe.

The waiter is an example of “bad faith”, Sartre says, because he tries to pretend he is his social role and nothing else. He has to lie in order to be fully immersed in a role he did not create. Society oppresses the individual when it forces him to be committed to a social role: individuals should rather create, choose, and perhaps jump around a little bit to let no part of their beautiful potential unrealized.

Constructivism is by far and wide a story of emancipation, but it isn’t the panacea some of its supporters believed it was.

First, just like uncertainty, you can never be sure you did as good a you could, it is always possible that another choice could have been better and the individual’s total responsibility in the face of uncertainty can become a heavy burden.

Second, many replaced constructivism by deconstructivism and while making room for the new is rather natural, destroying is much easier than building and not always as rejoicing. Is it wise to “deconstruct” a home when winter is coming? Third, constructivism tends towards relativism—to everyone according to one’s perceived calling. Either for personal happiness or for living together, this might not be the best recipe.

2. Realism: the universe is made of absolutes

Taken to an extreme, constructivism may have us believe everything stems directly from human belief and desires. This would make some wholly aliens to others. This would also, as philosopher Hilary Putnam had put it, turn scientific success  into a sheer miracle.

Reality is what does not go away no matter whether you believe, or want to believe, in it. Modern science and the Enlightenment took their place by rejecting Church dogmas, or claimed absolutes, to look for real absolutes. Newton’s equations do not need inquisition to make sure everyone believes in it, and though science have superseded them with finer versions, it would seem silly to “deconstruct” gravity as an oppressive social house of cards.

Everytime in a while, when many crafted their own belief systems, flavours of philosophy, cults or whatever, someone comes and shatters it all to establish an undisputed center. Plato and Aristotle had all sophists’ ideas coalesced into their own systems—or rejected. The early Christian church crushed the idols with rage to force everyone into worshipping the undead Christ. Much later, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the first analytical philosophers flushed the verbose “absolute idealists” out of the academia and imposed very stringent standards on at least part of philosophy.

This seems to be a natural cycle or process. Denying nature on the grounds of it being oppressive or immoral is not only false but fallacious as well. Science succeeded because it was both efficient and in line with truth. And science is not only about numbers and non-organic matter: many human things are universal, from baby talk to several classifications, and to be found in all cultures and all times. Anthropologist Donald E. Brown compiled a hefty list of human universals to be found here.

How does it play with one’s sense of life? The Stoics, and many others after them, claimed we had to carefully distinguish between what we can change and what we cannot. What falls on the latter category should be accepted and made peace with.

This can be found in the Matrix’ Merovingian speech:

We struggle against it, we fight to deny it, but it is of course pretense, it is a lie. Beneath our poised appearance, the truth is we are completely out of control. Causality. There is no escape from it, we are forever slaves to it. Our only hope, our only peace is to understand it, to understand the why.

However, absoluteism may be seen as too small and too vast at the same time. It is small because science, rejecting subjectivity and its “distorsions”, tends to separate facts and values, which reintroduces the daunting relativism already mentioned. Science fails to give a deeper meaning. This rather depressing conclusion may explain why so many 60s’ students rejected old-fashioned analytics altogether to embrace the New Age. It is also too vast, the rigid, unflexible constantly reminding us of what we can not do.

3. Singularism: life as a self-realization venture

Everyone is unique. Science itself acknowledges this, everyone but perfect twins having a unique genetic makeup—and even perfect twins can develop different experiences and abilities. This one is not equal to constructivism as it can go hand in hand with some essentialism. It is less about building what you want than, in Nietzsche’s words, becoming what you are.

The search for self-realization has revived personality theories, initiatory literature, perhaps some esotericism and a lot of craftmanship. Homemade beers, sweets, handpicked organics are obvious embodiments of the trend towards authenticity and small-scale entrepreneurship. So far, this sort of sense of life has done well, the very sharing economy being built around how someone’s unique skills can find clients on a global marketplace.

“My purpose? Reproduction. Now this is success.”

Singularism fits creative, especially talented people. However, to put it bluntly, everyone does not have a distinguished personality or singular set of skills. Promoted to a social principle, singularism can become a frantic research, not for self-realization, but for coming across as special. Mere normalcy becomes “mediocre.” It can surely shatter our ability to live together, someone’s territory always becoming sooner or later a boundary for someone else’s expansion. It can also lead to tribalism if the self passes from the individual to the tribe, not to mention sheer navel-gazing.

4. Beyondism: life as merging

This may be one of the oldest “senses of life” ever. It may seem like the polar opposite of singularism and hence an outdated, unfashionable idea. Yet it seems to maintain an enduring, perhaps even timeless appeal, for it can be found in many different times and places as well.

The ancient Vedic religion and its modern Hindu heir maintain that the highest good lies in not reincarnating on Earth. Life is perceived as limitating, full of illusions, and the best one could aim for is liberation from the never-ending cycle of reincarnations. Some strands of Christianity believe that heaven means at least a closer communion, if not a merging with God. If limits are fetters, if the ego is illusory, then isn’t “becoming what we are” synonymous with merging beyond whatever defines and separates us?

The acceleration of travels and communications has long seemed a technological embodiment of this. Nations and wars briefly stopped before the emerging global village. If no one had claimed an exclusive identity and provoked new wars, who knows the point we could have reached?

Even then, the will for merging and communing is no more taintless than the other strands. Merging fosters conformism. “Mergers” can be tempted to view singular individualities with an evil eye. The quest for “consensus”, especially outside of science and the rational debate, threatens pluralism. As early as 1987, political philosopher Allan Bloom denounced how politization produced a “closing of the American mind”, only a handful of opinions becoming consensual and the rest, even when provably true, being sneered at or even actively suppressed. Perhaps a realist is just someone who doesn’t want to go beyond differences, and perhaps a beyondist is someone who wants to erase realities through denial. A discussion starting on that premise may show endless.

5. Fractalism: life is becoming increasingly fractal

So far all these strands seem at odds with each other. All seem to have a deep appeal. One can attract us more than another, but all of them have a ring of truth. How could one be chosen over the others?

If you know the world is becoming more and more fractal, you don’t need to. A fractal world is more complex, more unstable, but ultimately less self-contradictory and less limited. We are all more alike, meet more with one another, but everyone’s path may vary more from our neighbors’ than before. We are all more different from one another, as reflected for example by the 71 genders one can choose from on Facebook or by the more and more mixed ancestry of third culture kids but we are also more able to exert empathy than ever before. We have both more freedom to construct and build and more knowledge of reality thanks to the information age we are living in.

All of this is roughly consistent. Being self-recursive, fractals display a little of everything at every level and in every part. This has been true for ages in nature and is becoming truer and truer in our lives as well. I say “roughly consistent”, however, because harmonizing the details of it in our own lives is sometimes far from simple. In a fractal world, one of the biggest problems is equilibrium—to avoid falling in one excess or the other, or failing to reconcile seeming contradictions and getting depressed.

A fractal life is doubtlessly more interesting than more limited senses of life alone. It is more challenging, but more colorful too. It also has the unique benefit of acknowledging how all of the four senses of life before matter. Yes, we can strive for making our own special legacy while at the same time hoping humans from any place or ethnicity will recognize their deeper kinship. And if there is some contradiction in there, perhaps we just need a leap of faith that, one day, every contradiction will fall back into place into the vividly emerging world of tomorrow.

Art: Julius Horsthuis

Emergence has its own conditions. You may be perfectly satisfied with a sense of life where no newer state is to emerge and where everything important has already been discovered. If so, I would ask you to at least keep an open mind to inclusiveness and empathy so that, if something new is still to emerge, if some evolutionary leap is still waiting around the corner, it has better chances to happen.

And if said leap is an AI-powered, transhumanist singularity, as my interviewee David Friml once said… so be it?

To know more about what life means or can mean and how to take the right decisions in a chaotic, non-stopping world, check my book: Chaos, a User’s Guide, available here.

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