Does Life Have Meaning?

Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life.
It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.
― Joseph Campbell

This post might seem to be something of a deviation from my theme of universal empathy and benevolent reciprocity, but it is not. It is a revision to the response I gave, concerning Campbell’s quote, at Kendall F. Person’s blog recently and it reminded me that, although I have held the same concept for many years, I had never thought to reconcile it with my philosophy of causal determinism (all events in the universe, including our actions and thoughts, are determined, not from any deity, but from nature). But if causal determinism is true and we have no free will, then how do we “give” meaning to life?

The meaning I try to give is unconditional empathy and benevolent reciprocity. Looking back at the horrors of history, I think humanity is evolving ever so slowly toward a world of brotherhood and sisterhood, and I desire to help the process, yet it may be coming about involuntarily–despite my meager and often flawed efforts, or the efforts of anyone else.

Involuntarily? How so?

Campbell’s quote suggests that the meaning of life is entirely existential (from within each individual)–that there isn’t a meaning other than what we give it. I think this is necessarily so. Plato recognized the existentiality of true social justice somewhere around 400 BCE. Indeed, looking back at my own intellectual evolution, I can see the causal factors that brought me to the world view I hold today, and I am virtually convinced that I had no choice but to evolve as I have.

So, if causal determinism is true, then the meaning each of us give to our lives was determined from an incalculable number of intertwining causes and effects going back to the beginning of the universe, and possibly back into infinity past.

To make my point more lucid, I offer you another excerpt from The Empathy Imperative:

* * *

[Scene: Jeff Hale, professor of evolutionary biology, is trying desperately to suppress an onslaught of grief caused by news of the death of his estranged, fundamentalist father. He stands at his office window, staring out in search for distractions.]

His attention was drawn to a wind-blown sheet of paper, loosely crumpled, trapped in the hedge by the sidewalk. He mused at how it seemed to struggle to free itself.

It might be a page from a philosophy paper, a rough draft, or even a graded paper, possibly from one of my own students. Discarded thoughts, once regarded by their perpetrator as brilliantly original arguments, but found on deeper reflection to be groundless assertions—conjecture without foundation—a desecration of sound logic.

Jeff smiled and nodded approval. Even if it were so, failure is often a good thing. From every attempt to elucidate an argument, fail or not, a student learns and progresses.

The paper freed itself from its prickly captor. Jeff watched as it joined the swirling leaves tumbling off across the quad, its unwilled course set by the capricious wind.

Capricious? No, even the direction of the wind has a cause, as does the wind itself. And was there not a cause that impelled the student to crumple and toss the paper? Anger? Disinterest?—an attempt to cast away his regret for not having studied sufficiently?

The paper was going to bounce across the quad long before the student crumpled it, long before he adorned it with his thoughts, long before the paper itself was made, and even long before the student was born. From the beginning of the universe, an unbroken chain of countless, intertwining events merged to cause that crumpled sheet of paper to tumble across the quad.

It reminded Jeff of Laplace’s Demon. Pierre-Simon Laplace penned the most cogent explanation of causal determinism, a concept that suggests the current state of the universe and everything therein is “the effect of its past and the cause of its future.”

He supposed that if there could be an intellect so immense as to know all forces of nature in the universe at a single instant, know the positions and trajectories of all particles, and could analyze that data, to such an intellect there would be no difference between the future and the past.

My standing here gazing out this window, every whip and whirl of wind, every deflected motion of the tumbling paper, indeed, every thought in my head and in everyone else’s head would be known to such an intellect from eternity past.

It’s the very definition of unqualified omniscience. But what an eternally boring state of existence such a being would have. What an unending, intellectual hell it would be.

Jeff grinned. How could such a being possess humor? It would know the punch line of all jokes in the universe for all time. No humor there. It also would be devoid of curiosity. It would be indifferent to all things.

The net effect on such a being would amount to eternal, intellectual paralysis. Is that why the god of the Old Testament was so angry and devoid of humor? He spent all of his prior existence trying to do something he would not know he would do before he did it? But, then, were the stories of the Old Testament even remotely true, he didn’t act as though he were omniscient.

Still, there is no need of a god or a demon. Take them out of the mix—remove the intelligence factor altogether—and you have determinism: cause and effect.

Thoughts of omniscience brought Jeff back to his father, who zealously believed that his god was omniscient and knew the thoughts of every soul on earth at every moment, even before the thinkers thought them, and even before the earth came into existence.

* * *

I welcome all points of view on this.


Max T. Furr is author of The Empathy Imperative, a philosophical novel of Justice, mercy, and love, written in the spirit of the BBC/WGBH Boston production, God On Trial

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Howie
    Dec 26, 2014 @ 19:47:36

    I’m not sure where I stand on determinism. It’s not clear now with quantum mechanics whether or not we live in a deterministic world. It could be the case, but it seems to be an open question right now.

    Either way, I still believe we can have purpose in our lives, and unconditional empathy is certainly a nice one.

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  2. Max T. Furr
    Dec 31, 2014 @ 16:20:56

    I fully agree that probably the most important question is quantum physics. We apparently understand very little about it, but I am not a fan of the idea that our physical, Newtonian reality grew from the womb of chaos. Still, my mind is open to evidence in any direction.

    Like

    Reply

  3. Marlowe
    Jan 04, 2015 @ 05:53:31

    I just stumbled on your blog. Wow, I wish I had discovered it sooner!

    Like

    Reply

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