Monday, 18 November 2013

Notes for a talk on the meaning of life

I am giving a short 20 minute talk some time between 7:45 and 8:30am tomorrow in Scholars on campus on the meaning of life. It is one of those things that non-philosophers find disappointing about academic philosophy that this subject doesn't come up all that often and I must say that I feel rather fraudulent.

Exploring the Meaning amongst the Doing
Or: What we talk about when we talk about ‘the meaning of life’
1: The problem of talking about ‘the meaning of life’
Douglas Adams, Deep Thought, 42 and the ‘Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything’.
We already know the absurdity of that being the right answer. And yet we also realise that there is something very odd about the question.
Philosophers’ quick ways with such things: declare such issues meaningless via tests of meaning such as the verification principle. Too quick.
2: Making sense of our actions
We explain our actions differently from other happenings. We shed light on / make sense of / justify them.
Two forms of explanation. “Why are you gathering kindling?”.
Either: “I am building a fire”.
Or “I want to build a fire.”
The latter may better fit a scientific explanation but the former is basic.
Rational explanation.
3: Action explanation iterates
“Why are you building a fire”. “I’m cooking / I want to cook a meal”.
“Why are you cooking a meal?”…
We make sense of individual actions by putting them into a broader context. Without limit?...
4: The danger of contemplation
The iteration of practical action explanation stops with what is not (<> cannot be) called into question: eg a local conception of a life. (Links to a sense of identity.)
But at 4am:
“Why am I – do I live as – a chef?”
“Although I am a chef, should I be one?”
For example, for anything I have been told to do by an authority, at 4am I can ask, should I listen to that authority? Eg, the law. Nothing written down actually compels. Nothing is intrinsically compelling. We have to agree to be so bound.
5: The meaning of life?
The problem: without some yet broader context, any project / conception of life could always be questioned.
Hence we want a context for our actions which itself needs no further explanation / justification: the Meaning of Life itself.
But a) the more from a local, assumed conception of a life – eg. being a chef – to a completely general one, the more possibilities are open and hence the stronger the selective justification needs to be. What general conception of a Meaning of Life would enable the derivation of all the different local conceptions of life which, as a matter of fact, turn out about right? (Would it also apply to life on Mars?)
And b) (as above) we have no model for an intrinsically compelling conception of what we ought to do.
6: The moral
The meaning of a life is found only within some local conception of a life. There are limits to disengaged contemplation, explanation and justification: the meaning is in one sense ineffable.
We can only explain the attraction of a local conception of a life to those who already share similar sensibilities.
We demonstrate it. The meaning is in the doing.