I first wrote this piece in Russian. The original appeared in Snob on 12 June 2020 and can be accessed here. The English translation is mine except for the quotes from Stanisław Lem, translated from the Polish by Kandel Michael, and the Wittgenstein quote from the Tractatus.
This is a text about the meaning of life. It has little chance of harbouring any original ideas, and it definitely won’t offer any esoteric revelations. My goal is to gather in one place and state in Russian a few obvious points that unfortunately tend not to become obvious right away. For example, it took me about twenty years to notice some of them. And then it took me another decade to find the right words for them.
Let me start with the most obvious thing: “What is the meaning of life?” is a stereotype of a philosophical question. It is so hackneyed that it is difficult to take seriously.
Once, I got to experience that first-hand. Nemi Pelgrom, whom I met thanks to a course in model theory, persuaded me and Sopho Machavariani to spend some time standing in central Uppsala with a sign saying “FRÅGA EN FILOSOF/ASK A PHILOSOPHER”.
People did actually stop by and ask us all sorts of questions. Some were happy to argue. In two sessions of this sociological performance art, at least ten passers-by asked about the meaning of life. Yet not a single one of them posed the question without a smirk. They all brought up the meaning of life just to be funny, without expecting an answer.
Why does this question feel so incredibly hackneyed? Well, one reason is that, unlike many other questions, it can be asked by anyone.
Some philosophical problems are relatively simple. “Simple” here doesn’t mean that these problems have one obvious solution that any reasonable person will happily embrace. Far from it; different people can solve them in different ways. Instead, they are simple in the sense that they are not very hard to formulate. In philosophy, to ask a question is to get half the job done. Sometimes it even gets the whole job done. Sometimes, if you pose the question right, the solution presents itself right away and later seems obvious.
In this sense of the word “simple”, the question of the meaning of life is one of the simplest philosophical questions. To ask about the meaning of whatever, all you need to do is take that whatever and add a “what for”. What is voting for? What is studying for? What is getting out of bed in the morning for?
What is living for?
Compare that to some trickier question. Here is one: are a priori synthetic statements possible? Or take this question, put by Socrates to Euthiphro in one of Plato’s dialogues:
“What do you reckon, Euthiphro”, says Socrates, rendered loosely into modern Russian, “do the higher powers love everything that’s good because it’s good? Or is everything that’s good good because the higher powers love it?”
“What on earth are you on about, Socrates?” Euthiphro replies. “I don’t get it.”
The question “What do we live for, Euthiphro?” would hardly have provoked the same kind of bafflement.
Whatever the reason, adults rarely discuss the meaning of life in earnest. Brooding about the meaning of life is the business of teenagers who listen to music featuring lots of shrieking, howling and minor chords. Any self-respecting adult has already found their own obvious answer to the question. In light of that answer, ever so simple and inevitable, the whole existential morass, all the shed tears, ink and pixels strike one as cute and childish.
That’s how they normally strike me, too. I too have my own obvious/simple answer to the question “What’s the meaning of life?” That said, it also strikes me that the most important thing about the question “What do we live for?” is not how we answer it. The most important thing is why we want an answer in the first place.
This is the subject of part one.
Part One. The meanings of the meaning of life
Any philosophical question comes with meta-questions. A meta-question is a question about a question. An attempt to clarify what exactly is being discussed. For example, the thing that Socrates interrogates Euthiphro about in my loose modern rendering is a meta-question with regard to any problem involving the concept of good or bad.
Suppose we want to debate whether it’s bad to physically punish children. This question comes forever haunted by its meta-bedfellow: “What do you actually mean by ‘bad’?” After all, “bad” can surely mean a lot of things. For example, it may mean “frowned upon by the higher powers”. Or “goes against the Bible”. Or “causes pain”. “Harms one’s personal development”. Or why not “grosses me out”, for that matter.
The moment all these different versions are out in the open, it becomes clear: debating physical punishment without clarifying first what kind of bad we have in mind is a dubious pastime. Because yes, some kinds of bad do include violence against children. But others don’t, putting it mildly.
“What’s the meaning of life?” has its own meta-company. We might, for instance, want to clarify what we mean by “life”. A biological life, i.e. from the birth of an organism until its death? If so, then we’re talking about what we live for until we die. Once we’re dead, the problem is off the agenda. Or do we mean a biological life plus that endless post-mortem existence that many believe in? If so, then death doesn’t liberate us from the existential morass. Now we aren’t simply asking “Why live?”; we are asking “Why live forever?” Whatever answer we come up with has to take that into account.
Having said that, I am more interested in a different meta-question that has to do with the meaning of life. For the sake of clarity, I will present that question in the form of a little dialogue:
“What do we live for?”
“Well, what do you need to know that for?”
One might wish to know the meaning of life for various reasons. Here is one:
“My daughter asked me this morning. I promised I’d tell her when I picked her up from school.”
Here is another one:
“See, I’m writing this paper for my philosophy course…”
“No particular reason. Just curious.”
Sometimes though, someone might explain their interest in the meaning of life along these lines:
“I don’t feel too great. Everything seems meaningless. Every time I’m about to do something, I just can’t. I can’t do anything at all.”
This reason is radically different from the rest. To see the difference, we need to do something that philosophers do a lot, namely draw a previously undrawn but important distinction. In other words, we need to notice this: when we talk about the “meaning of life”, we often mix up two very different things.
Let’s call one of them worded meaning. A worded meaning of life is some sort of goal stated in words. “We live to bear children.” “We live to explore the world.” “We live to help others.” “We live to serve God and Fatherland.” Those are all examples of worded meanings of life. The claim “Oh come on, life doesn’t have any meaning” as well as all the wordy variations on that theme are another example.
Sometimes, if we don’t want to say a lot of stupid things, we need to distinguish worded meaning of life from its wordless counterpart. The wordless meaning of life is a state of your body or, if you will, a state of the soul linked to your body. At any rate, it is not a set of words answering a “what for?” question. It is a sensation. It is the background feeling that whatever you’re doing is somehow justified and meaningful. When it vanishes, you can’t get it back in five minutes by words alone. Not even if the words are extremely intelligent and correct.
Here is a trivial example from my day-to-day life. I am lucky, in the sense that I am one of those people whose emotional state follows the same stable curve nearly every day. To live a day while being me is like to sleigh down a hill with a bump near the bottom.
In the morning, about half an hour after getting up, I am full to the brim with a feeling of the meaningfulness of all being. Whichever of my projects or routines I turn to, everything seems interesting or at least necessary. After about two in the afternoon, this feeling gets weaker. The world starts leaking meaning the way a balloon leaks air. By evening, almost everything that seemed so meaningful in the morning becomes ridiculous and pointless. Especially if I didn’t get a proper meal in the afternoon—then, come evening, even the most routine activities begin to bug me with their absurdity.
It is only a couple of hours before bed that quiet, weary meaning fills the world again. Long-term goals and big ambitions still seem worthless and pathetic, like they did earlier in the evening, but what does come back is the sensation that my everyday life has value even without any supreme goals; that it has value such as it is, by virtue of having what people call “the simple joys of life”.
Thus it goes on day after day. Needless to say, you can flatten the curve. For instance, by having a good night’s sleep. Or else by means of a good healthy lunch, or an afternoon walk, or some particularly exciting thing to do. Sometimes the curve may even turn into a straight line—say, if your plan for the evening is to meet some interesting new people or to see friends you haven’t seen in ages.
But it’s no use trying to straighten the slope by words alone. I can (I have tried to a thousand times) remind myself around five or six in the evening how many different goals I have. All to no avail. Reminders won’t crank up the level of wordless meaning.
The reverse is also true: while I’m still at the top of the hill, you won’t push me off with any number of words about the pointlessness of life. While I’m up there, everything is soaked in wordless meaning. Even reflections on how life has no meaning feel like a pleasant and necessary activity in a long series of pleasant and necessary activities.
Let me say it again: that was an example from a lucky life, in which the ebb and flow of meaning happens by daily schedule. When talking to someone like me, you can mix up worded and wordless meaning of life all you want. However worthless my life feels at a given moment, and no matter how much your haranguing annoys me, within just a few hours the curve will turn upwards again.
In other cases though, minding the difference between the worded and wordless meaning of life is far more important. For instance, a woman suffering from postnatal depression won’t find any meaning in your talk about how rewarding and fulfilling it is to raise children. On the contrary, that kind of lecturing will only make her feel worse. The meaning of life that a person suffering from depression lacks is the wordless kind. You won’t fill that gap by listing inspirational goals or simple joys. Discussing what we live for, if it helps at all in cases like these, does so thanks to who is talking to you and how they are talking to you—not because of any particular propositions.
Let’s go back to our little dialogue:
“What do we live for?”
“Well, what do you need to know that for?”
“I don’t feel too great. Everything seems meaningless. Every time I’m about to do something, I just can’t. I can’t do anything at all.”
I put an ellipsis there because I don’t know what the most appropriate response would be. How one deals with a chronic loss of felt meaning is covered by authors who have more tact and empathy, as well as dramatically more knowledge and experience of clinical psychology.
All I can do is stress one more time that mere talk about the meaning of life, no matter how subtle and philosophical, will not help. Another thing that won’t help is a smug litany of the standard meanings of life known to everyone. Finally, what definitely won’t help is insincere parroting along the lines of “Oh, I also realized ages ago that nothing has any meaning”.
The upshot of part one is this:
Any earnest discussion of the meaning of life ought to begin with the distinction between worded and wordless meaning. In other words, it ought to begin with the distinction between a stated goal and a state of your body. We tend to confuse these two very different things. As a result, we sometimes say and do stupid things with tragic consequences.
That said, drawing that distinction doesn’t have to end the discussion. The question of the meaning of life has other facets that are worth discussing even if you are a very grown-up, incredibly busy person. One such facet is the subject of part two.
Part Two. It’s all obvious anyway
With the benefit of hindsight, I realize that I caught the philosophy bug thirty years ago, when I first read a short story by Stanisław Lem translated into English as “In Hot Pursuit of Happiness”. In the story, the “famed constructor” Trurl attempts to design Absolute Happiness. He begins by building the Contemplator, a machine that goes ecstatic as a result of any interaction with its environment:
The Contemplator, resting on three metal legs, slowly swept the room with its telescopic eyes, and whether they fell upon the fence outside, or a rock, or an old shoe, it oh’ed and ah’ed with delight.
Would you like to be the Contemplator? I suspect not. Brainless omnivorous bliss is a poor fit for how we imagine genuine happiness. The moment Trurl hooks up “an intelligence component” to the Contemplator, the oh’ing and ah’ing immediately cease. When asked by Trurl if anything is wrong, the Contemplator, equipped with the intelligence component, replies thus:
Everything continues to be just fine; I only contain my admiration in order to reflect upon it, for I wish to know, first of all, the source of this fineness, and secondly, what end or purpose it may serve.
To be sure, the feeling of meaning is neither ecstasy nor admiration, nor even any mild kind of happiness. It is a background state of your body that keeps you afloat day after day. That said, we do expect this state of minimum required motivation to meet roughly the same criteria as happiness. Like happiness, it ought not to be omnivorous.
Suppose someone has already created a neural stimulator that allows you to engage in any activity with an equally robust sensation of the meaningfulness of your actions. It helps you do cross-stitch. Play the stock market. Sell stuff over the phone. Watch an entire season of Game of Thrones until the end. Would you buy that stimulator? I sure would. A small dose, maximum for a week. It’s a cool thing to try.
But I’d never agree to get a permanent chip with that kind of stimulator. To live in a state of indiscriminate meaningfulness of everything that happens is like turning into the Contemplator without an intelligence component. No, thanks. I don’t need universal motivation. I don’t want to spend my life on whatever comes my way. I want to spend it on something worthwhile. As for the breaks between the worthwhile things, I want to fill those with harmless silly little fun things that appeal to me—such as I am—more than other silly little fun things.
In other words:
If you’re lucky—if the background sensation of meaning never quits your body for long—then the question of the meaning of life finally leaves the purview of clinical psychology and enters the realm of philosophy. It becomes a question of values: of what is good and what is bad. What is “worthwhile”? What is “harmless”? What ratio should one maintain between worthwhile causes and harmless fun? And why should one maintain any such ratio in the first place?
That is part of the reason for the much-touted complexity, “unsolvability” of the problem of worded meaning of life. The question “What do we live for?”, if taken seriously, quickly turns into “Supposing we go on living, how should we live?” The question of how to live, for its part, is nothing less than all of ethics, all of Kant’s Was soll ich tun?, as well as all of metaethics, i.e. questions about the sense of ethical questions (including the one Socrates pestered Euthiphro with).
Needless to say, in our day-to-day lives we care little for either ethics or metaethics. Every adult has their own random accretion of ideas about how one should and shouldn’t live—a so-called value system. Lidia Ginzburg used to call it “a moral routine”:
Habits acquired in childhood, irrational vestiges, remnants of outdated moral systems that have lost their meaning but kept their form, one’s ego, a natural striving towards a conventional average, that sickly feeling that many experience when seeing others suffer…
We build our moral routine as we go and replace bits and pieces of it as needed; it is full of gaps and contradictions. But it usually suffices to maintain the status quo and our relationships with other people.
As a consequence, we tend to deem it adequate and self-evident. Many of us are happy to agree that ethical problems are hard in some “abstract”, “philosophical” sense. Bespectacled eggheads can debate them to their heart’s content in their ivory towers. Yet even this concession is just another way to convince yourself: “in practice”, “in real life” it’s all obvious anyway.
If the argument about what we live for is an argument about values, then our condescension towards the meaning of life has the same roots. That’s why I referred to its complexity as “much-touted”. We are willing to grant that bespectacled nerds in philosophy seminars have reason to dance around this topic endlessly. But “in real life” we are fully content with our very own Top 40 of randomly accrued values. We get by on a moral routine propped up by the wordless meaning of life—the kind of meaning of which people who are not suffering from depression have plenty by mere default.
The clearest manifestation of this can be found in nuggets of worldly wisdom like this one:
“Take it easy, man. Of course life doesn’t have any meaning. Just live and be happy while you can.”
Here is the same line translated from not very honest Russian to honest Russian:
“You wanna know how to live? Take a look at me. I’ve got it all figured out.”
The claim that “of course life doesn’t have any meaning” is especially telling. What hides behind it is a very popular value system that often unites the most militant atheists and the most ardent believers. Because the system in question happens to be not only popular but also inhuman, it is also worth discussing.
In part three.
Part Three. On the Higher Meaning
There once was a pretty good Soviet philosopher named Evald Ilyenkov. In his archive, they eventually found an early work entitled “A Cosmology of Spirit: An Attempt to Establish the General Nature of the Objective Role of Thinking Matter Within the System of Cosmic Interaction”.
The work was first published in 1991, 12 years after Ilyenkov committed suicide. It’s too bad it happened so late. Had it come out back in the 1950s, when it was written, it might have become one of the sacred texts of the Soviet “scientific-technical” intelligentsia of the Thaw. Be that as it may, “A Cosmology of Spirit” is probably one of the best (and certainly one of the more sane) specimens of the genre commonly known as “Russian Cosmism”.
The main idea is this. Ilyenkov asks us to suppose that the universe has a cyclical nature. Each cycle lasts many billions of years and ends shortly before an impending heat death of the universe.
(The heat death of a universe happens when entropy reaches the same maximum level throughout the cosmos. Roughly speaking, space everywhere gets equally cold, dark, dead and empty. Modern cosmologists who believe such an outcome possible expect it in about 10100 years.)
Suppose, Ilyenkov goes on, that every time some mechanism stops the universe from dying a full-scale heat death. What this mechanism does is set off a chain reaction in the diffuse, squandered energy of the cosmos. It turns the “dying, freezing worlds” into the “red-hot firestorm” of a newly reborn universe. As we would say today, a new Big Bang goes off. The history of the cosmos restarts from square one.
What mechanism could that be? According to Ilyenkov, what saves the universe every single time from irreversible freezing is “thinking matter”. The laws of nature, Ilyenkov maintains, make the emergence of thinking matter inevitable. Once it has emerged, “thinking spirit” sooner or later repays its “debt to Mother Nature”.
…at some very high point in their development sentient beings fulfil their cosmological duty and sacrifice themselves by purposefully effecting a cosmic catastrophe—by starting a reversal of the “heat demise” of cosmic matter…
Ilyenkov is excited about the prospect:
It is in this realization of the cosmic scale of his role in the universe that man will find a high sense of his higher purpose—of the highest goals of his existence in this world. A new pathos will permeate all his activity, and the cheap pathos of religion will pale by comparison.
As you can see, Ilyenkov stresses the difference between his view of humanity’s cosmological calling and the religious worldview. On the one hand, it is hardly surprising: Ilyenkov was a Marxist, and a thinking one to boot. Had he lived to see the perestroika, one doubts he would have found Jesus, unlike many of his colleagues who quickly forgot all their years of going through the motions of dialectical materialism in front of mortally bored students.
On the other hand, Ilyenkov fails to notice (at least not in “A Cosmology of Spirit”) that all the time he is playing by the other side’s rules. Seeking “a higher purpose” and “the highest goal” beyond human life is a very religious way to tackle the problem he is trying to solve. The religious pedigree of his solution is especially striking when Ilyenkov paints the fate of sentience that has no higher objective, no “cosmological duty”:
In this case […] sentience is ultimately a barren flower, beautiful but bearing no fruit; it blooms somewhere at the periphery of universal evolution only to wither the very next moment in a freezing or red-hot gust of the cosmic hurricane in an infinite universe…
Basically, this is a variation on “If there is no God, everything we do is futile”. Except here, instead of God you have the mighty humans of the future, who will die selflessly on the cosmological cross to deliver the universe.
“A Cosmology of Spirit” is a nice illustration of the long shadow that Judaism, Christianity and Islam cast upon our mode of thought. The religious frame of reference contains the concept of a higher meaning of life, roughly equivalent to God. This Higher Meaning is placed beyond our world and declared a mystery. By definition, humans are not meant to ever fully fathom it. (This, by the way, is another reason why the question of the meaning of life is often said to be “unsolvable”.)
This otherworldly unfathomability is one of the most psychologically attractive features of the religious worldview. For one thing, it guarantees that there is meaning not only in individual actions—there is meaning in life as a whole. Secondly, it promises that this meaning surpasses our wildest expectations. For as long as we live, it will remain a beautiful mystery, shining tantalizingly high above our petty rat races in the twilight.
Another advantage of this meaning of life is that it tries to be both worded and wordless at the same time. It strives to use language to get beyond language—right into the luminous emptiness of all Eastern and Western mystics, fenced in on all sides by the famous Wittgenstein quote: Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.
“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
This sentence ends the only booklet (it’s really thin) published by Wittgenstein, the main Tortured Genius of 20th century Western philosophy, in his lifetime. If you fully subscribe to the religious worldview, consider it the final curtain of my text as well:
YOU HAVE FOUND THE HIGHER MEANING!
If you don’t subscribe to it though, or at least not fully, you might want to recall a different contribution made by Wittgenstein to the history of thought. The later Wittgenstein was inclined to believe (and managed to convince an entire generation of British philosophers) that there weren’t any actual philosophical problems. What there was, Wittgenstein held, was a lot of linguistic confusion. All so-called philosophical questions are but the fog in our heads that spreads when we start using ordinary words in extraordinary ways.
To see how that can happen, let’s take the concept of Nothing. The idea of Nothing with a capital “N” must surely go back to trivial expressions such as “There’s nothing there”, “I ain’t breaking nothing”, “I have nothing to say to you”, and so on.
When we say “nothing” in our everyday speech, we always mean the absence of something somewhere at some point in time. In a head filled with philosophical fog, though, this humble mundane nothing turns into the Complete and Absolute Absence of anything whatsoever, including space, time, particles, fields, strings, branes, logoi, eide, or any laws of nature. As a consequence, we are suddenly plagued by questions: “How did Something emerge from Nothing?” and “Why is there Something rather than Nothing in the first place?” It matters little that no one has actually ever seen any Complete and Absolute Nothing, either with their own eyes or in the Large Hadron Collider.
Don’t get me wrong: Wittgenstein probably went a bit overboard when he declared that all of philosophy was nothing but language therapy for those who got lost in words. But there are times when his approach works like a clockwork. In particular, it helps to disperse a significant amount of the fog in which we wander seeking a Higher Meaning of life.
The difference between a Higher Meaning of life and ordinary meaning is more or less the same as the one between Absolute Nothing and nothing. Absolute Nothing is a product of adding “no” to whatever you can think of: no money, no cats, no Earth, no space, no time—and thus all the way to “no anything at all”. To derive a Higher Meaning, apply the same procedure to “why”. Start with everyday activities (why get up, why wash, why go to work, why have a drink with Tanya after work) and work yourself up to “Why humanity?”—that is to say, to the question “Why live if we’re all going to die anyway?”
Once we realize that, it is easier to spot one particular side effect of the search for a Higher Meaning. Questions like “Why anything at all?” might not be as harmless as other exercises in linguistic combinatorics. When we pull “why” and “what for” questions out of their natural habitat—out of one human life in the midst of other human lives—we can’t help answering them accordingly: in a way that has nothing whatsoever to do with human lives.
One example of that kind of answer—the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God—already came up a few paragraphs ago. The worship of that particular supreme value serves as a template for the cults of many others: Fatherland, Nation, Revolution, or indeed The People (not to be confused with people). At first glance, such Higher Meanings seem to have a little more to do with life and humans than God. In theory, they are closer to the source of our yearning for external purposes: our constant need to live not just for ourselves but also for other living beings. In practice, however, they keep proving to be just as inhuman as any god. At any rate, all the suffering, torturing, dying and killing done in their name is just as ubiquitous.
The upshot of part three:
The assumption that the “real” meaning of life must necessarily reside somewhere higher than the actual lives of actual people is a product of language play with the word “why”, multiplied by thousand years of monotheistic religion. Many of us—perhaps most of us—find this assumption self-evident.
What is particularly telling in this regard is not the fact that this assumption was not questioned by mid-20th-century Marxists, such as Ilyenkov. As Hegel’s descendants, they had no choice but to believe in the progress of history towards a great goal. What is more striking is that the Higher Meaning doctrine is often held by people who don’t believe in God or the Devil or Hegel or Fatherland or anything of that sort. It is precisely those people who will give you a condescending smirk and then tell you to take it easy because “of course life doesn’t have any meaning”.
I began this piece by reminiscing about hanging out with Nemi, Sophi and a sign saying “Ask a philosopher” in downtown Uppsala. Every now and then passers-by would ask us: “What’s the meaning of life?” But they would do that just to be funny, as an ironic ice-breaker before moving on to other, “respectable”, philosophical questions.
What would I have said if at least one person had posed the question in earnest?
It’s hard to say. Any conversation has its own participants and its unique dynamic.
I might have remembered what Susan Haack said on the topic. Haack is a major Anglophone philosopher of our time. “‘What is the meaning of life?’”, she once complained, “is a really bad question.” At best, it suggests that you lump together worthwhile causes and silly little fun things, common ethical values and personal pleasures. At worst, it throws out the life of a human and replaces it with the fate of humanity. It drags in tow a Higher Meaning in the shape of some god or some universal happiness in some bright future.
I hope I would have said: the question is bad because of the grammar alone. It always features the word “meaning” (смысл, meningen, le sens, der Sinn, il senso etc.) in the singular. It tries to reduce all the thousands of different things that we do even in a short lifetime to one common denominator.
I really hope I would have remembered the fundamental difference between worded and wordless meaning; the difference between goals and that state of your body which allows you to choose and pursue goals in the first place. The state which allows you to think in terms of “important/unimportant”, “interesting/uninteresting” or “will do/won’t do”.
I might also have ended up talking about my favourite topic: how seeking the meaning of life is of course a luxury that is not available to everyone. In order to choose goals and agonize over your “true self”, you need health, education, a social safety net, people who care about you, and a liberal society that doesn’t make all the choices for you.
At the end of the day, as I said earlier, who knows what I would have said. Then there’s the even harder and way more interesting question of what I would have heard in return. It’s interesting to talk to someone who is willing to have an earnest conversation about the meaning of life with a random person in the street. After all, “a bad question” doesn’t have to mean “a pointless question”. Sometimes, if you press it hard enough, a bad question may turn out to have more points than you ever bargained for.
Perhaps next time we should slightly edit the text on our sign. We could add some small print: Vi tar alla frågor på största allvar, inkl. meningen med livet.
We take all questions very seriously, incl. the meaning of life.