The Meaning of Life (No Less)

By | November 23, 2017

I’ve just started Terry Eagleton’s The Meaning of Life. I have no doubt that I will enjoy it, agree with him or not. There are few more entertaining ‘academic’ writers around. I’m only on page 5, but I’m encouraged to venture my own answer before tuning in to his. Fortunately blogs allow for spontaneous thinking out loud, so here goes.

I can find no reason to depart from the notion that we humans are but one of numerous species who find themselves on this particular planet, having – yes – ‘evolved’ alongside them. I have long seen theology as the articulation a faith that – indoctrination aside – can only be achieved after a randomized Kierkegaardian ‘leap’ to … well, into the ether (as it were). I’ll return to gods later. Nor is our species alone in either imperilling or visiting collateral damage on others. It is to me obvious that any idea that we humans are pre-eminent or ‘in charge’ is disconcertingly species-specific.

It is part and parcel of our unavoidable sociality that we have developed common modes of communication, extra-linguistic as well as straightforwardly conceptual. We attribute this much to many companion species, but let’s stick with humans. These modes of communication are bounded by the environments in which we find ourselves; indeed, they mesh with them, not least in the business of survival. Clearly we are born and socialized into families or networks of concepts that present these environments as ‘realities’ or ‘givens’. Time and place matter in that what is taken as real or given is filtered through (sub)cultures that can be highly localized. Does it follow that this blog and the account it contains is conditioned by time and place? Yes of course. But it does not follow that I cannot both be reflexive about this conditioning and offer a narrative about it. In fact, I am doing just that (moreover if you are inclined to object that I cannot, so are you).

Congruent with what I’ve said so far is a fundamental thesis. In plainspeak, there’s lots of stuff we humans don’t get. While the hypothesis that we know and understand more than earwigs may strike us as reasonable, I can see no grounds for maintaining that our refexivity and extended reach through ‘science’ – and yes, I take science to indicate progress beyond religion, just as religion was less inhibiting than myth – affords us finite ‘wrap-up’ answers to any, let alone all, of the queries it is within our compass to raise. This is another way of announcing fallibilism: what we presently believe to be the case, even our science, is unlikely to survive indefinitely (as when Einstein required revisions of Newtonian physics).

Some of our queries find us caught in the headlights. Did the universe have a beginning? How did life begin? Even, what is the meaning of life? Our bewilderment worries me not a jot. Nor is it disconcerting to discover that myths, most notably, and religions seem to have been more adept at providing answers than science. Why?

Humans may have advantages over earwigs, but we comprise (just) another species on a Planet Earth. How can we be so confident that the questions we ask ourselves, and for which we especially commend our species, are where it’s at. A fallibilist queries even our queries.

But does this not leave us in constant need of therapy for life-sapping confusion and uncertainty? Not if we abandon the urge to wrap things up for once and all (most philosophers have taken leave of foundationalist epistemologies for this reason above others), and if we reflexively ‘position’ our always-contextual narratives.

Myths and religions have offered, and their advocates, disciples and institutions profited from, wrap-up or foundationalist narratives. That such narratives provide comfort in the face of reflexively constructed fears beyond human imagination is undeniable. But there is too an ideological dimension: these same narratives can afford comfort, and ‘reconciliation’, that suits more powerful humans. For some sociologists, including me, it is our very job to expose and counter ideological components in the narratives of the day.

Questions as to the ‘meaning of life’ – I’m getting there at last – have long given rise to narrative responses, with or without the strategic ideological input of the powerful. I can understand their appeal, most obviously to the disadvantaged and vulnerable who have less else to compensate them (the more so in the unforgiving neoliberal era). The very posing of ‘the meaning of life’ as a vital issue often hides ideological intent.

But is it an apt focus? And if it is, what are the origins of its salience, which many would contend remains ubiquitous across types of society? Maybe it is a function of sociality per se, at least after nomadism and the hunter-gathers (but likely even then). Certainly narratives matter to many humans now. I would suggest that there are perfectly serviceable narratives – and this blog offers one in embryo –-that embrace fallibilism and leave doors open, that do not bow the knee to ideology-prone and ‘dangerous’ fundamentalisms. In short, by all means construct a narrative that ‘suits’, that invests meaning in the human condition; but accept as an underlying premise its time/place foothold and impermanence, and prepare to amend it at short notice.

This is another way of saying that we must accept narratives touching on ‘the meaning of life’ for what they are, namely, recipes for lending our biographies a degree of coherence, if and when coherence is experienced as a psychological need. And as a final rider: why not underpin our narratives with an optimal (scientific) evidence-base? It would seem foolish not to.





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