The meaning of life

The Guardian:

A taxi driver once had Bertrand Russell in the back of his cab. Since Russell was the most famous philosopher of his day, the cabby asked him “What’s it all about?” Russell, however, could not answer. No surprise there, you might think. For isn’t the meaning of life the most profound and elusive mystery of them all, unknown to even the greatest minds?

But, I think the cabby’s question could be answered. Infact, it has all been done already. The history of western philosophy contains all the insight we need to understand the meaning of life. Even the religious ones — who are in the minority — could agree with a great deal of it.

Why, then, did the taxi driver leave Russell speechless? Because the question itself is a hodgepodge. It defies a simple answer because it needs to be carefully unpacked and dissected before it even makes sense. That’s why Douglas Adams’ gag about the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything being 42 is so insightful. You can’t expect to get a sensible answer unless you ask a sensible question. But what on Earth is “What’s the meaning of life?” or “What’s it all about?” supposed to mean? They may be grammatical, but so are “What’s the meaning of cheese?” and “What’s grass all about?” We think of the quest for life’s meaning as like a journey along a yellow brick road, which will lead us to an awesome, mysterious source of all the answers. The truth is that, like the Wizard of Oz, the grandeur and remoteness of the meaning of life is all front. Pull back the curtain and the mystery vanishes.

If the meaning of life is not some esoteric piece of wisdom, a hidden key that, once discovered, will unlock the secrets of the universe and end our quest for understanding, then what is it? It might help to start by trying to imagine what the taxi driver really wanted to know. The most natural interpretation is that he was puzzled by why we are all here. But even that is ambiguous. Is that a question about where we came from or where we’re going?

It is perhaps surprising how often it is assumed that a look back to our origins will lead us to the meaning of life. What is true of the monster is true of us — knowing why your creator made you does not settle the question of life’s meaning, which is one reason why believing in God does not make as big a difference to how we understand the meaning of life as may be supposed.

Not that there is much reason to suppose the creator had a purpose anyway — if we take a long, cold look back to our origins, we just find ape-like ancestors and an evolutionary trail that leads back to the Big Bang. That doesn’t mean life has no meaning. It just means, as Jean-Paul Sartre argued, that human life does not come with any pre-assigned meaning. Life’s purpose, if it has one, is not given to it by its creator.

Perhaps, then, rather than answer the question of why we are here by looking backwards, we should look forwards. What future purpose or goal would make this life worth living? We eat to live, work to pay the mortgage, study to pass exams and so on.

But unless at least one thing is done for its own sake, there is no point in doing anything. Not everything can be a means to an end — there must be ends, which are valuable in their own right. So if living must at some stage be valuable in itself if it is to be worthwhile, why not here and now?