Does life have a meaning?
Life, it might be argued, is the distinguishing feature of all organisms and may most usefully be thought of as involving various kinds of complex systems of the organization providing individual organisms with the ability to make use of those energy sources available to them for both self-maintenance and reproduction. Underlying this deceptively persuasive definition, however, lie those persistent traditional problems inherent in the search for an essential, distinctive substance characteristic of all forms of life. Additionally, as evolution theory makes clear, there is the problem of borderline instances, organisms of which it is not easy to say whether or not they may be defined as being alive. One such case is that of the virus.
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Viruses are the smallest, simplest living things, smaller than bacteria, and the cause of some of the deadliest diseases known to humanity. They are composed chiefly of nucleic acid wrapped in a coat of protein and are able to multiply only from within living cells. As with all other organisms, the virus depends on its ability to obtain energy and carry out the other processes necessary to sustain life, upon its stock of DNA, the hereditary material that makes up the genes, the “instructions” that determine the traits of every living organism.
What is interesting about viruses, however, is that their genetic stock is very meagre indeed, so much so that reliance upon it alone cannot enable them to survive. Nonetheless, viruses do persist from one generation to the next, as if they were alive. How this is managed, as it clearly is in both plants, animals and human beings, bears importantly upon the ways in which “life”, at least in the case of viruses, may legitimately be defined.
Advances in molecular genetics and the consequent growth in understanding of the developmental processes of organisms have tended to lead to the consensus, among both scientists and philosophers, that no explanatory principles important to the life sciences are likely to be found anywhere but within those sciences themselves. Vitalist notions that there is some feature of living organisms that prevents their natures from being entirely explained in physical or chemical terms only have, as a consequence, been increasingly eclipsed.
In vitalist doctrine, this mysterious additional feature may be argued to be the presence of a further entity, such as a soul, although it may also be explained as having to do with the existence in specific organisms of sets of conditions derived from their complexity and necessitating some form of life force or animal electricity injected in some way into inanimate bodies in order for them to become alive. In his expression of vitalism, Aristotle puts forward, in both De Anima and De Generatione, the view that the life of an animal consists in its psyche, thus offering a principle of explanation that determines the morphological development of an organism in terms of teleological causation.
Although vitalism is currently perceived as having been largely overwhelmed by modern scientific thinking, there remain problems of some magnitude to which scientific solutions or explanations have yet to be found. These may be felt to support the criticism often levelled at science, that it is descriptive rather than analytical, that it explains how certain phenomena occur, but not why. One problem of this type, by way of example, concerns the difficulty of understanding how different levels of description and explanation of the same thing, such as those of psychology, biology and chemistry, may be said to relate to each other.
The issue of whether or not solutions to these and other deep metaphysical problems must be conceded to lie beyond the contingent limits of human cognitive power continues to absorb some philosophers. Although representing a fairly extreme position, such skepticism has been, for example, a central preoccupation of the recent work of Colin McGinn [Problems in Philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry, Oxford, 1993].
To arrive at an agreed understanding of the ways in which meanings may be derived from specific life-contexts when the subject of the analysis remains less than fully understood is problematic. It is clearly unsound to argue that there is some proposition to do with meaning, either different in each case or uniquely common to all, the existence of which may be presupposed in every investigation. As Aristotle makes clear at the beginning of his Nichomachean Ethics, the transitions between, for example, the following statements are also clearly fallacious:
“There is something which is the meaning of all our activities”
“Each of our activities has a meaning”
“There is a purpose common to all of our activities”
It may be, in other words, that, although it is clearly important, for most human beings at least, to think of their lives as having some intrinsic purpose, this may not be the case, except insofar as that purpose is self-defined. The meaning of life, in other words, maybe what an individual decides that it will be. Equally, it may also be the case that the question as to whether or not life has any meaning is itself not meaningful.
The degree to which it is possible for individuals to find meaning in their lives may also have to do with their understanding of the concept of explanation. What constitutes an explanation of this type will necessarily be conditioned by the cultural context in which it is offered. An age which bases its religious beliefs and metaphysical or scientific view of the world on unquestioned or unquestionable certainties will certainly find answering questions as to why things are as they are rather more straightforward than will be the case for inhabitants of a time in which past certainties seem no longer sufficient to deal with what is known of the universe and mankind’s place in it.
In such an age, the laws of nature will be perceived to be less concerned with ends and purposes, than with processes and the observable and empirically verifiable regularities of the external world. This is certainly the case in the present age and goes at least some way to explain the contemporary preoccupation with the extent to which individuals do or do not find their lives to be meaningful.
The lack of a non-problematic life-world, one in which exists a structured series of beliefs, assumptions, feelings, values and cultural practices that constitute meaning in everyday life, removes the comforting sense that it is possible to live against a contextual background that speaks implicitly of firmly cemented meanings which there is no need constantly to re-justify. As a consequence, there may arise a preoccupation with ultimate questions: is it a good thing to have been born; what is the meaning of death; can individuals survive death; given the inevitability of death, how should life be lived; how may happiness be achieved; is death an evil or a good?
This condition of mind is recognizably modern, although it would be inaccurate to regard it as exclusively the product of our own century. Indeed, in going back much further, we discover that one of the central themes of Aristotle’s Ethics reflects this preoccupation with the purpose of life and his intuition, that the special rational faculty of human beings is the key to our sense of purpose and fulfilment, is one that has come down to us through the centuries. In his Eudemian Ethics, for example, he argues that there are many factors, such as disease, pain and natural disasters, that might cause individuals to wish not to be alive, but returns to a predecessor, Anaxagoras, whom he supports in asserting that it is worth being born “in order to apprehend the heavens and the order in the whole universe” [Hanfling: p. 205]. In his Phaedrus, Plato, also, refers to Anaxagoras as a scientific man … satiating himself with the theory of things on high” [Russell: Book 1, Part 1, Ch. 8, p. 79].
Along with Anaxagoras himself, it would seem, then, that both Aristotle and Plato share the view that it is the acquisition of knowledge and the insights which it offers into the nature of the universe and mankind’s place in it which make the choice of life worth making. More than two millennia later, this same view is reinforced in the comment of Albert Einstein [Brian: p. 175], in a newspaper interview given in 1929. He is discussing relativity theory:
“Now, but only now, we know that the force which moves electrons in their ellipses about the nuclei of atoms is the same force which moves our earth in its annual course about the sun, and is the same force which brings to us the rays of light and heat which makes life possible on this planet.”
The search for knowledge does not, however, offer a universal panacea for the anguish of being. This point, also, is emphasized by Aristotle, again, in his Eudemian Ethics [Hanfling: P. 205], when he speaks of “those who admire Sardanapallus, or Smindurides of Sybara or one or other of those who live the pleasure-loving life…… All of these, he asserts, “appear to place happiness in enjoyment…”. in his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle develops his conception of happiness more fully, when he speaks of it as a virtuous activity of the soul, rather than as amusement or a permanent state, a possibility which he rejects since, “if it were it might belong even to a man who slept all through his life, passing a vegetable existence; or to a victim of the greatest misfortunes.” [Hanfling: P. 206].
What Aristotle meant when he defined happiness in this way has to do with his belief that human beings have a function to fulfil in their lives which has to do with their proper use of the rational principle, a quality unique to mankind and not possessed by either plants or animals. He goes on to argue that when human beings function in such a way as to do excellently whatever tasks fall to them, such as playing the harp, for example, then it may be said that they are demonstrating activity of the soul in accordance with the rational principle and so in accordance also with virtue. As a result, they may be said to be leading good lives from which happiness will grow.
The view that the purpose or meaning of life may or may not have to do with the achievement of happiness and the problem of how much happiness may be defined have been and remain philosophical staples. At one point in his Gorgias, for example, Plato has Socrates and Callicles develop an argument in which the issue is to decide whether or not “a man who itches and wants to scratch and whose opportunities for scratching are unbounded” can be said to lead a happy life spent continually scratching. In the same passage [Hamilton: pp. 90-96], Socrates relates his analogy to the life of a catamite and confronts Callicles with the need to consider whether or not feeling enjoyment, of whatever kind, may be said to be the same as being happy. Is there not, he insists, a distinction between pleasures which are good and those which are bad:
“Tell me once more; do you declare that pleasure is identical with good, or are there some pleasures which are not good?”
In his Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill returns to this argument. He wishes to define his Principle of Utility, or Greatest Happiness Principle, which he regards as the foundation of morals, and, in the course of this passage [Ch. 2, P. 6 ff], he asserts, that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.” He goes on to argue that, in differentiating between the qualities of both “high” and “low” pleasures:
“if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account.”
Clearly, Mill finds the problem as intractable as did Callicles and, in addition, seems less than aware of the difficulties inherent in depending upon the judgements of individuals “competently acquainted” with “low” pleasures and in the elitist assumptions that underpin his argument concerning the relationship between “better/worse than” and “different from”.
The essential nature of a living creature, then, that which provides the means by which it achieves survival, reproduction and the creation of its own social formation or culture, may be defined in a number of ways. It may be perceived, on the one hand, purely in terms of biological structure and function in relation to the physical environment, or, particularly in the case of human beings, it may be regarded as having to do with much more complex metaphysical presuppositions as to our significance in the universe, our feelings as to the existence of God, a god or gods and our sense that some part of our natures transcends death and is immortal.
What, precisely, this may mean marks the point at which knowledge must be set aside in favour of what Kierkegaard called “the leap of faith”. The search for knowledge and the development of the rational faculty also form part of man’s perception of his purpose in living, as do the desire to be happy, to experience pleasure and to achieve fulfilment in those ways deemed valuable within particular social groups or cultures.
New-born children are not, of course, born into an uninhabited desert, but into societies and into a world already fully defined by the dominant values of each particular age and by the behaviour of the physical environment against which life has always to be lived. Given this, such questions as “How should I live my life?”, “What is my station and what are my duties?” [My question deliberately echoes F. H. Bradley’s, “My Station and Its Duties” in his Ethical Studies], “What purpose is served by living life as others before me have lived it if, finally, I must die?” are likely already to have been answered by the framework of law, morality and convention embodied in the principal institutions of whichever communities individuals happen to be born into and to which they will be expected, very largely, to conform.
If, as would seem to be the case, it is a universal truth that all human beings are born into some particular position in the world and that they very quickly learn the limits of the freedoms available to them to question this there clearly exist difficult issues to be addressed concerning the meaningfulness and purposiveness of life. The sense of meaning and purpose is surely never stronger than when an individual chooses freely and autonomously to act in specific ways. When this is not possible or not permitted, life is lived insincerely and under duress, in ways calculated to give rise to the sense that it is without worth or meaning.
To be forced to be what they are not, to live constantly in a condition of bad faith, is, inevitably, to force individuals ever further from the realization of who they are and what they perceive the purpose or meaning of their lives to be. As Jean-Paul Sartre puts it in Being and Nothingness [Hanfling: P. 226], an individual will be forced to be “in the neutralized mode, as the actor is Hamlet, by mechanically making the typical gestures of my state and by aiming at myself … through those gestures taken as an ‘analogue’ “.
One of the features characteristic of human nature is the felt need to live life seriously in regard to the choices that are made and the positions that are adopted, even though it may be perfectly apparent that other points of view and other choices might, logically, be equally acceptable. This quality of mind and general predisposition are not evident in other creatures. As Thomas Nagel makes clear in his essay “The Absurd” [Journal of Philosophy, 68 (20), 1971: Hanfling: P. 48-59], this inability to live with a diminished sense of the seriousness of life may be the fundamental reason for the sense that both Nagel and many others have that life is, in fact, absurd. He argues that the life of a mouse, for example, is not absurd because “he lacks the … self-consciousness and self-transcendence that would enable him to see that he is only a mouse.” This is very far removed from the more usual position that the lives of animals serve only as examples of meaningless existence.
In the course of his argument, Nagel develops the view that the human quest for meaning and a sense of purpose in life is derived from the fact that we are preoccupied with such issues as the brevity of the human life-span, our minuteness within the universe as a whole, the inevitability of the eventual disappearance of all of mankind, our sense that life is, if possible, something to be escaped. Rather than attempt heroically to deny the truth of these perceptions and fight against the sense of our own absurdity with which they fill us, Nagel asserts, we would do well to accept what cannot be escaped and, in so doing, demonstrate our ability not only to understand our human limitations but also to appreciate their unimportance in our situation:
“If sub specie aeternitatis there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that doesn’t matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.”
Brian, Denis Einstein: A Life John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1996
Hanfling, Oswald (ed.) Life and Meaning: A Reader Blackwell F, Open University, 1987
Mill, John Stuart Utilitarianism Dent Dutton (Everyman), 1962
Plato Gorgias trans. Hamilton, W., Penguin, 1960
Russell, Bertrand History of Western Philosophy Allen and Unwin, 1962
Works consulted following initial assessment of essay:
Murdoch, Iris The Sovereignty of Good Routledge, 1991
Nagel, Thomas The Possibility of Altruism Princeton Paperback, 1978
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