Table of contents
1. Aims and Limitations
2. What is life? (The concept)
3. The objective meaning, humanity as a collective, subconscious meaning, the true meaning of life
4. The subjective meaning, humanity as individuals, conscious meaning, a meaning for life
Aims and Limitations
The aim of this essay is to philosophically discern the broad and universal question of "What is the meaning of life?" pertaining to humans and humanity. The conclusion will as accurately as possible represent the shared meaning of life amongst individuals as well as the basis of the meaning itself. It is key to understand that any conclusion found may not include every single individual but will include most individuals. It may also be found that any actual meaning of life is subconscious, where the individual is simply unaware of themselves embodying or actuating the meaning itself. This writing will also highlight the relevance as well as importance of the concept within individuals, society and humanity as well as the philosophical insights and inferences found due to this. I will be referring to sociological and philosophical theories throughout to compare, contrast and analyse perspectives which will aid in the honing of my purpose. Lastly, throughout the essay I will mention reservations of my own findings and I will address them to further clarify my points.
What is life? (The concept)
As I will be focusing on the meaning of human life it is essential that we define what human life is and how it differs from the rest of life as we know it. Firstly let us eliminate that which is not life as far as our senses can observe, common objects such as items made from plastics and plate can be ruled out, for example: a computer, a fan, pieces of cutlery and other utensils; mugs, pans and so on. Interestingly we can understand that these items are things that we cannot eat to sustain ourselves and may very well be poisonous if ingested. Next we have items that come from arguably alive sources such as trees: books, bird feathers, furniture made from wood; wool and clothing and so on. These items, although with arguably more potential, are still not alive. Then we have things similar to the previous but are more closely connected to sources of life: seeds and eggs for example, in this category I would also include water, air, earth and fire as they are the four classical elements essential for life (the fifth classical element, aether or akasha, would also fit into this category). Barcalow (2001, P57) states that ‘in ancient times, people believed that something special had to be added to a purely physical object in order to make it come alive’ and in the same manner, if that something special is taken away, it dies - this is the concept of the soul. At this point ristotle’s idea of souls comes into play, the soul as explanation of life itself͘ It is split into three types of soul, nutritive, sensitive and rational based on capabilities and functions of the soul-bearer with the latter souls including the traits of the former souls. Nutritive souls are lifeforms such as trees, they consist of growth, nutrition and reproduction. He continues by stating that sensitive souls consist of those as well as perception/sensation and active movement, such as animals like dogs, cats and so on. Rational souls include the previous as well as the new function of reasoning. The rational soul could also be understood as a true sentient being.
Another definition of the soul lies in science and is what atheists would tend towards. It is the naturalism view based on structures in the body, that non-living parts come together and create simple living parts like the cell. The simple living parts in turn create more complex living parts that more resemble life (as defined by being more complex). There are three attempted explanations for this: ‘the right atoms met and joined together’; ‘this process was the result of chance’; ‘cellular life emerged elsewhere in the universe and came to Earth in some unknown way’ (Barcalow, 2001, P65)͘
A third definition is based on a pseudo-scientific premise, the mind being an explanation of the consciousness, or life. This is a non-physical explanation that involves the five senses, the way we perceive things and mental states. The brain makes subconscious sense of the inputs of the peripherals found on the body and this develops certain parts of a lifeform’s brain (Eagleman, 2015), but does not explain the source of self-awareness. It does however explain the survival tendencies of every lifeform, as they adapt in many different ways, from being able to produce electricity to being able to see in infrared - all for the sake of survivability. This concept keys into the idea that seeking and adapting to increase survivability is a must as it is evident in every instance of life we find today, therefore the consciousness may be a manifestation of this survival tendency once the organism becomes more complicated (as a lifeform’s functions increase)͘ On this note, Eagleman (2015) and his research team have proposed a method of creating new senses for humans, with the tests currently underway. If the brain manages to work out the new inputs and adapts to them accordingly, we may find humans reaching a higher stage of consciousness (and consequently a higher level of life) - as long as we have access to these added peripherals that give us new inputs for our brain. Our ‘perceptual sensations are a kind of mental state’ (Barcalow, 2001, P67), which have varying classifications, Aristotle argued that emotions are a lesser mental state, meaning emotions are apparent in ‘less conscious’ lifeforms͘ Aristotle’s reasoning for the emotions fall under ‘”evaluative,” or “cognitive” theories’ (Dixon, 2001), he ‘ascribes emotion to animals’ (Scheiter, 2012), but no other trait of a higher state (reasoning), making animals and humans both lifeforms but one being lesser than the other.
None of these three definitions hold a conclusive answer for the origin of life within lifeforms, although they are also not mutually exclusive. We can observe traits pertaining to each of these concepts, as well as where the concepts intersect. Granted, at this level of active human consciousness it may be a futile to attempt to unravel the intricacies of the source of life, let alone the more complex human life. Therefore I propose that any practical definition of human life consists solely of the meanings we give to it, put simply, individuals find their own meanings for life and seek to fulfil it. The meanings each of us find may or may not be conscious efforts, but it drives us to do what we do regardless. I would argue that most humans default their own meaning unto others as we have our own ideals of how life should be lived.
The objective meaning, humanity as a collective, subconscious meaning, the true meaning of life
For humanity as a whole, what is the meaning of life? Or what meanings for life may we gravitate towards? Such a broad and seemingly limitless concept for one mind - limitless because it may seem unanswerable.
There seems to be a sense of shallow or linear wonder - or even no wonder at all - when it comes to profoundly seeking the meaning for life. We all have to remember that we are a sum of many parts, not just our own person and experiences. I believe this is crucial in understanding the larger concept at hand. Our inner machinations reflect and reverb through the world as well as each other. By opening your mind to new possibilities, you become, or enable, those possibilities - possibilities for humanity. By embracing and actuating good will there is a certain sense of fulfilment and joy known only to humans, it is a pure kind. Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle called it virtue, Plato in particular based a considerable amount of his writings in the pursuit of virtue - through politics, society, life and otherwise. Throughout The Republic, virtue is the guidance for the principles and is the key to true wisdom with the knowledge that the virtuous philosopher king would lead his people to happiness. Are we working towards happiness for everybody, or are utilitarian methods the best solution? In the age of today is the pursuit of virtue society’s main goal?
It seems as though humanity as the general public focuses only and intently on ‘current’ events, media driven events that stir drama and conflict - whether this is media on a large scale like news from the USA, or on a small scale, like turmoil within your Facebook friend group. Where catastrophe has not occurred yet, there seems to be increasingly less care. A good example of this is the denial of global warming, which according to numerous sources through NASA (2015) is ‘proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented in the past 1,300 years’͘ Where ‘Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities’, a statement backed by eighteen official scientific associations (NASA, 2015). The power of the media is truly shown as a ‘2012 DARA International report, commissioned by 20 governments’ (Voorhees, 2015) reported that climate change causes on average 400,000 deaths per year, which could rise to more than 600,000 by 2030 (DARA International, 2012). Voorhees (2015), in his article, also cites the Global Terrorism Index (2014) which reports terrorism as the cause of 18,000 deaths in a single year, 2013. Besides these figures, on mericans’ 23 top policy priorities for the year 2015, global warming was second to last while terrorism was first (Pew Research Center, 2015). These are matters of life and death, as part of a collective meaning of life for humanity surely the sustainability of life, to help each other to progress humanity itself, is a just cause, yet it is doing the reverse in the hands of the ignorant society. To this extent it could be argued that the general populace could not provide a good conscious answer for the meaning of life when asked - yet they are still a part of humanity. There is no real awareness of a sacred, more universal meaning of life in society.
Is it even relevant? With many so unaware, or as Plato said in the Theaetetus, ‘eu amousoi’, which translates to “happily without the muses” (Theaetetus 156a)’ (PLATO & Jowett, 1970), does a true meaning of life even matter to these people? I doubt, due to practicality, it is relevant in their lives and who could blame them? For the many there is no reason for a true meaning to be consciously known, they are but a single in the whole of over 7 billion (worldometers, 2015). Such thought into the meaning may most likely impede on happiness, but that is an essay of its own. From our past we must realise that we share that same past with every other organism that exists today - simply because of the fact that it exists and others did not. Darwin’s ‘natural selection’ or as Spencer called it, the ‘survival of the fittest’, are a good basis for understanding the prerequisites for life. Even regardless of any theories it is evident that some sort of evolution or adaptation as species has taken place, for the worse or for the better. The worse perish and the better persevere, only to evolve more. In this sense they are strong because they have survived, the most dangerous and most survival savvy creature today is us humans, arguably all thanks to this process. A distinct cycle that which exists share, or more accurately those that exist. What do us survivors all have in common? Although a more concise definition is desired, we are universally many. We cannot exist alone. A singular existence arguably does not even exist for there is no external party as to which base its feasibility - only unto itself. A paradox where it is everything yet nothing. In such a case even the terms ‘everything’ and ‘nothing’ lose meaning, I digress. The objective and subconscious meaning of life seems to be to survive and evolve, only to survive more, where becoming a collective is a side effect - it doesn’t mean that we will absolutely survive and evolve, but it does mean that as a biological organism we will try.
The subjective meaning, humanity as individuals, conscious meaning, a meaning for life
Mankind has personally fabled existence since the dawn of time, through representative paintings on walls to more comprehensive religions. To some, maybe most, the answers lays in a physical or religious form, where the meaning is some sort of amalgamation of what they worship, the specifics that they place their faith in, whether it be God or money. Another manifestation of this is a person’s duty, their own meaning: running a business; performing their job and providing for their families, to name a few.
Do you frequently attribute meaning to your life? How does one find a genuine meaning in such a chaotic world? I would argue that many are lost in today’s society, their true vocation squandered by societal pressures and their own lack of persistence and dedication. It is not difficult to understand the causes of this, the culture of at least the Western world promotes a short lived life based on hedonistic motions, quick and cheap thrills as well as a narcissistic and one-upmanship based demeanour. Interestingly all of these factors contribute towards capitalism, the dominant ideology of the Western world. The lower classes have adopted this ideology on a more discreet level unto themselves. This could be due to the aforementioned survival mechanism, the upper classes (in London, where the quality of life is significantly high regardless of class) live on average 25 years longer than the lower classes (Pickett & Wilkinson, 2014); within life we simply could be seeking the better, the things that will make us survive longer whether we are conscious of this choice or not. Marxist bourgeois cultural hegemony in this sense has a natural base, a view opposing Marx’s method of hegemony which states it as an artificial social construct. Whichever it is (from the aspect of persuading action, norms and values), the lower class subconsciously aspiring for longevity (survivability) and therefore mimicking the upper or the upper class imposing culture that shapes society, neither include an entirely conscious effort of the individual creating their own meaning in life. The conscious effort is something more tangible, and in the world (particularly the Western world) is summarised distinctively by, “What do I buy next?” From fashion to games͘ The point is that if this is the frequently occurring drive for the individual, it is a good basis for what their life entails, revolves around and therefore means to them.
As mentioned in the second section, the objective meaning, as well as earlier in this section, humans can be quite unwise and petty when it comes to thought. We are subject to greater powers skewing our understanding of the active world through soft power such as indoctrination by media and cultural hegemony. The meanings for our own lives that we gravitate towards are highly conscious, maybe all too conscious, and are also highly subjective. We impose this meaning onto others as we justify our own ways of life by attempting to make others conform to the same meaning. This is the same idea of cultural hegemony but on a smaller scale: firstly, by creating and promoting your ways of life you are assured in your own ways; secondly, by others adopting that way you are further legitimised; thirdly, your ways become law as you now control a form of soft power. This is culture, culture that occurs on a big scale within a country as well as more localised in a city, even more localised in high-school or secondary school relations as you are subject to an internal social hierarchy that controls soft power a very similar sense. If you accept your place (status or class) and follow what is the culture then you will most likely live a ‘content’ or ‘satisfied’ life within those norms, values and ideology. The definition of content as well as satisfied is relative within the culture. This is conforming to a social meaning for life and can be used and abused greatly. The idea of culture forming the meaning for life has extreme potential negatively and positively͘ The ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ nature of man (Hobbes, 1909) can be readily actuated, cultivated, influenced and supported due to society’s culture͘ We only have to take a look at Western governments, politics and gross capitalism to understand the negatives of such an ideology, with negativity brooding within society due to social attitudes, wealth inequality and the other contemporary Western issues.
By this I propagate that we need to more readily adopt the virtues in our mind, body and soul, given the Platonic virtues of temperance, prudence, courage, justice and piety, at least as a base. Simple acts of kindness are less sophisticated than virtue but are easily and readily available with the hope that we will slowly create a virtuous culture. Our subjective and conscious meaning of life should be to actively help others, not just humans but other lifeforms too, and not cause schism due to our own bias, shortcomings and mentality. The 14th Dalai Lama profoundly summarises my own perspective, ‘love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries͘ Without them, humanity cannot survive’ (XIV & Cutler, 1999).
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