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The Meaning of Life

Meaning and Purpose

J.J.C. Smart investigates the meaning of purpose.

It can be tempting to suppose that those who agonize about ‘The Meaning of Life’ are the victims of a simple use-mention confusion, that is, confusing a word with what the word refers to. Thus it might be held that the intelligible question was only “What is the meaning of the word ‘life’ ?” In a way we all know the answer to this question since we know how to use the word and in another it raises interesting questions such as “Would you say that a virus or an intelligent robot was alive?” Still not the sort of question to agonize over. However, this interpretation of the question would be too superficial. From about 1300 A.D. the English word ‘meaning’ has had two meanings: (1) ‘purpose’ or ‘intention’ and (2) that of word meaning. The second seems to have arisen from the first via the notion of the intention of the speaker. The same occurs in other languages, though the matter may be more complicated. The question that people agonize over is presumably to do with (1) not (2).

Nevertheless the suspicion of use-mention confusion may have something in it. Consider the biblical “In the beginning was the Word” where there is just something of a suggestion of word magic (more evident in myths and stories in which incantations have causal effects on inanimate matter) even though ‘Word’ is an inadequate translation of the Greek logos. Recurring then to the sense of ‘meaning’ as that of ‘purpose’ we may reformulate the question as “What is the purpose of life?” This is pretty obscure too. ‘Life’ is a very abstract word. Compare “What is the purpose of electricity?” One would be baffled unless perhaps in the kitchen: “Why do you use electricity rather than gas?” We humans give electricity purposes, but no single purpose. Moreover most electricity occurs in the non-human universe at large. “What is the purpose of lightning?” would be a very odd question because lightning has no human purpose, even though humans may have made fortuitous use of fires so caused.

In the same way in which we can give electricity a purpose, say by using it in the kitchen instead of gas, can we give life a purpose? This question is too abstract. It needs a context. We do of course have purposes. They are our purposes and there is no mystery there. Satisfaction of these purposes may be intrinsic or extrinsic. Thus a cosmologist might invent a theory merely in order to gain fame and reputation. The satisfaction that he might gain from his thoughts about the universe might then be merely that of attaining a means to a further end. Another cosmologist might simply delight in his or her discoveries for their own sake. Perhaps most real cosmologists are a mixture of these two types. After all, a cosmologist who has a desire for fame is unlikely to attain it unless he or she has a passion for thinking about the universe for its own sake.

The reader may object to my example of the cosmologist. What about the poor of the world, who have no time for abstract contemplation or for elitist ambition? The struggle for survival of them and their families gives them an overwhelming purpose for their lives, and pursuit of it leaves no time for worry about whether life, as opposed to themselves, can have a purpose. Rich or poor we all act from purposes and there is no mystery about this. “What is the meaning of life?” suggests incorrectly that we act from one and only one purpose. No wonder that the question baffles us. The question might refer not to our purposes but to the purpose for which we suppose that God created us. In a secular context the question does not occur. In a theological context the question has a sort of obvious but unsatisfactory sense, in which we have a purpose for God analogous to the way in which a screwdriver or an electric torch has a human purpose. A religious person’s own purposes may stem from a love of God and hence from a desire to obey his commandments. Equally a non-religious person will have many particular purposes, some admirable, such as the desire to alleviate poverty and other sources of suffering.

For some the worry is that life may come to an end. Some have even worried about the heat death of the universe. Why they should worry about a cosmic (or individual) period in which there will be no life but not about a period when there was no life is questionable. Thinking four-dimensionally may help. Life is (tenselessly) somewhere in space-time: why should we worry that it is not everywhere? Perhaps the worry about personal or cosmic extinction of life may lie in the fact that natural selection has made us forward planners, not backward contemplators.

© Professor J.J.C. Smart 1999

John Jamieson Carswell Smart is a leading utilitarian moral philosopher and philosopher of mind. He is Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University in Canberra.

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