John Horgan has quite a philosophically messy post full of meta-reflections on this classic question over at Scientific American (hat tip to Zack Beauchamp). But that’s okay – there’s enough there to work with and take as a platform to spur further thought. What struck me most is the way he – at least at first – interprets the question about the meaning of life as a request for an explanation of what makes life valuable for you. So insofar as I’d be inclined to answer the latter question by listing a variety of sources of goodness which bring me enduring happiness – philosophy, film and cooking; friendship, love and altruism – I’m also implying that these things are the key to the meaning of life.
That would be a conveniently simple analysis that allows me to answer the question quite naturally. It also fits a few basic linguistic intuitions insofar as we say things like ‘this gives my life meaning’. But the suggestion sadly seems like quite a stretch to me. To ask what the meaning of life is isn’t to ask what gives life meaning. The former question seems to have far deeper metaphysical presuppositions. It’s asking what is true for all, not what you’ve personally decided fulfils you. Normally, such questions are surely trying to request some far grander explanation of what our purpose is that is ‘written in the stars’, so to speak, that we’re obliged to somehow discern and follow. And that question is, for me and surely most non-religious people, pretty unintelligible. I don’t think any such answer exist, nor do we need or should we want one to. We should instead be content with a more modest account of happiness that Horgan hints at, without getting carried away and thinking we’ve discovered any special facts about the operations of the universe. Phrases like ‘the meaning of life’ seem to lead people astray like that. In that respect, we’re probably better off rejecting the question altogether.
None of this is to say, though, that we thereby can’t rationally debate what the stable sources of happiness are, instead being left alone as individuals to disagree and pursue our own paths. The fact that we’re all similarly constituted with shared experiences, emotions and social conditions means that we should expect a significant and perhaps surprising amount of agreement about what works best, irrespective of whether this reflects any great Truth. And once more, that should be sufficient to intellectually satisfy us.