“I shall say that an activity is fully meaningful if it suffers from none of these defects, so that it is valuable in itself, directed towards an end which is not trivial and not futile.” – W.D. Joske, Philosophy and the Meaning of Life.
In the last three posts we considered some simple contexts for approaching the meaningful life, but found them wanting. Now we will try to firm up our foundation without dismissing some role for these common considerations. However, what we desperately seek are criteria which inform an approach to the question, and it seems that five stand out: magnitude, duration, possibility, desirability, and understanding. I will address each individually.
Here I am referring to the idea that for anything to contribute to the meaning of life, it must be of sufficient importance or depth to satisfy our expectations. We already saw that trivial purpose denies meaning and suggests absurdity – recall Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional purpose of the human species as providing a small part for a ship on a voyage nowhere. Human meaning increases in light of an adequate scale of the effects of one’s living although it is doubtful we can or need achieve something of ‘cosmic significance.’ Sensuous pleasure and simple biological continuance fail for this reason. Logically a multitude of purposes, achievements, and pleasures augments overall magnitude, increasing the likelihood of success in finding meaning. Conversely it seems risky to rely on a single grand purpose to sustain one’s life and aspiration for meaning.
In addition to depth, common sense tells us greater meaning is likely with more enduring achievement. The brevity of human life and the impermanence of even our species and planet undermine the hope for everlasting meaning from our lives. This incongruity may explain the futility so many feel about the concept of human meaning. However there is a way out of this rabbit hole. As we discussed in the section on immortality, a human life is an infinite number of moments; perhaps we need to reconfigure duration in terms of one’s own life, in which case we seek to maximize the number of meaningful moments in our own lifespan.
We can enhance duration by extending some of our impact to the next generation, but it is for them to build on our efforts, find their own meaning in their segment of time, and attain extension to the next generation. There is no logical reason to insist the immense future is the responsibility of a single finite human.
(continued next post)