Excellence Reporter: Prof. Tartaglia, what is the meaning of life?
James Tartaglia: Life is meaningless and that is neither a good nor a bad thing. The meaninglessness of life is a very philosophically interesting fact about the human situation, but to state this fact is not to evaluate life; it is not to say that life is terrible and futile (because it is meaningless), or that life is a wonderful opportunity in which anything goes (because it is meaningless). It is just to say that it is meaningless – full stop / period.
I think it is meaningless because I do not think there is any wider, meaningful context that human life fits into, and such a context is the only thing that could make it meaningful. If a greater power created the universe in order for human beings to achieve something, then life would be meaningful. But I see no good reason to think this is true, and plenty of reason to think that the whole idea is simply a product of human desire, and hence very unlikely to be true. Life might be meaningful … but lots of things might be true which we have no good reason to think are actually true.
Why does it matter that life is meaningless? It matters because religions have traditionally taught us that a meaningless life is bad, and I think this prejudice has been inherited within contemporary secular culture, through the idea that we must make our lives meaningful, such as by cultivating certain interpersonal relationships, achieving great things, or amassing lots of diverse experiences. This humanistic, secular notion of ‘a meaningful life’ strikes me as potentially very dangerous, since I think it lies behind obsessions with personal fame and unrestricted technological advancement. Beliefs such as that we make our lives meaningful through loving relationships, by helping to alleviate poverty, or by trying to make the world a better place, are all very well-meaning – and I am of course in favour of these goals! But none of them are the meaning of life because there is none.
By talking this way, however, and thereby perpetuating a philosophical error, we encourage a culture in which depressed teenagers seek to make their lives meaningful through high-school massacres, and scientists tirelessly seek to unravel ‘the mysteries of the universe’ – as if more physical information might tell us the meaning of life, or allow us to create our own meaning of life – thereby facilitating new technologies which may well prove more dangerous than the nuclear weapons we are still struggling to control.
I would like human beings to carry on enjoying their meaningless lives for millennia to come, but for that to happen I think we need a lot more philosophical clarity on these matters.
~James Tartaglia is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Keele University, UK. He is the author of Philosophy in a Meaningless Life (Bloomsbury), and The Meaning of Life and the Great Philosophers. He is also a jazz saxophone player, who leads the jazz-philosophy fusion band, Continuum of Selves.
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