Paul P. Mealing

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Saturday, 25 August 2007

The Meaning of Life

This is a submission I made to the magazine, Philosophy Now, in response to their 'Question of the month' last February. The entries had a strict word limit, which I incorporated exactly.

This blog has similar themes to my very first posting on Self, unsurprisingly, as the meaning of life is a purely subjective concept. One can also see a similar perspective to Victor Frankl's philosophy (Man's Search for Meaning and The Unconscious God). I think it's fair to say that we came to similar conclusions via different paths. When I read Frankl over 20 years ago, I couldn't have written this treatise; it's only in hindsight that I can see the connection.

For each and every one of us there exists an internal and external world. Some argue that only the external world can be discussed with any definition, and besides, the internal world is completely dependent on the external world, even to the extent that we think. This is because we all think in a language, and, for all of us, our language was gained from the external world. If we took this at face value then it could be argued that the internal world is irrelevant. However, this ignores the undeniable sense, we all have, that the internal world is the Self, and therefore has a significance that belies this simple analysis. There is another argument put forward by some evolutionary psychologists that the only reason we have a self is so we wouldn’t become automatons. This leads to the plausible hypothesis that nature doesn’t really require us to have a sense of self at all; it’s sole purpose, from a biological perspective, is that it provides an effective conscious compulsion for us to survive and propagate our genes.

But both these arguments suffer from an examination of the internal and external world as if they are independent entities. They ignore the interaction that we all experience, and how, through our responses to the external world over a lifetime, we develop and grow into complex psychological beings. No one passes through life without experiencing pain or emotional hardship at some level. The Buddha, according to legend, lived a sheltered and unscarred life until he went outside his palace walls and witnessed poverty, illness and death for the first time. The allegorical and truly insightful aspect of this story, is not the four noble truths that apparently arose from his observations, but that pain and suffering at some level are unavoidable for each of us.

We all yearn for stories, both fictional and biographical, that deal with the overcoming of adversity; it’s universal. Wisdom does not come from an extensive education, nor does it come from high achievements. Wisdom comes from dealing with all the adversities and misfortunes that fate throws in our path. Ultimately, it is how we respond and deal with life’s misfortunes that leads us to becoming someone we are happy to be or someone we inwardly despise. Adversity is the universal means through which we all gain wisdom and self-knowledge, and that is the meaning of life.

This subject is also touched upon in a later posting: Does the Universe have a Purpose? (Oct.07)

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