Sunday, November 25, 2007

What's the meaning of life?

What's the meaning of life? One of the still-persistent man-on-the-street questions of philosophy is: "What's the purpose of the universe?" Or, in a slightly different form: "What's the meaning of life?"

Anyone else have that conversation over the weekend?

There was a time before post-modernist pomowank when philosophers themselves tried to answer such questions -- those days of course are now long buried under bullshit. But after answering it myself couple of times recently, I enjoyed seeing James Valliant saying what I said to my own interlocutors, only with far more eloquence than I. Explains Valliant, there is no meaning, no value-pursuit, and no "values," apart from living organisms.
That is to say, there are no ends, no goals, and no purposes apart from the specific ends, goals or purposes of a living being. Life is the only objective end of all other ends -- and only life is an end in itself... According to Ayn Rand, life is the pursuit of values, and happiness is the emotional state that proceeds from successful value-pursuit. Thus, the struggle to live and the quest for happiness, she argued, are two sides of the same coin.
Without life, there is no meaning. It is not the universe that gives meaning to life, but life that gives meaning to the universe. Continues Valliant:
Atheists have long pointed out that such questions already assume that the universe, or life, has an overarching (teleological) "meaning," end or purpose. And, as an atheist, the Objectivist agrees that the universe as a whole lacks such "meaning."

But the Objectivist has more sophisticated answer: it is the phenomenon of life which generates all of the "meaning" and all of the purposes to be found in the universe. Life is the meaning of life -- and the quest for my own life and happiness is an end in itself.

Rand puts this point most poetically in chapter XI of her novel Anthem:
"I am. I think. I will.

"My hands. . . My spirit. . . My sky. . . My forest. . . This earth of mine. . . .

"What must I say besides? These are the words. This is the answer.

"I stand here on the summit of the mountain. I lift my head and spread my arms. This, my body and spirit, this is the end of the quest. I wished to know the meaning of things. I am the meaning. I wished to find a warrant for being. I need no warrant for being, and no word of sanction upon my being. I am the warrant and the sanction.

"It is my eyes which see, and the sight of my eyes grants beauty to the earth. It is my ears which hear, and the hearing of my ears gives its song to the world. It is my mind which thinks, and the judgment of my mind is the only searchlight that can find the truth. It is my will which chooses, and the choice of my will is the only edict I must respect.
. . .

"I know not if this earth on which I stand is the core of the universe or if it is but a speck of dust lost in eternity. I know not and I care not. For I know what happiness is possible to me on earth. And my happiness needs no higher aim to vindicate it. My happiness is not the means to any end. It is the end. It is its own goal. It is its own purpose."

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