What’s the meaning of life? It’s a timeless question apt to induce eye rolls. Ever since cave people digested a dinner of mastodon under moonlight, humans have pondered purpose and mulled meaning. As denizens of the universal cave of AU, the question of life’s meaning is eminently answerable for us at some level simply because we’re here as students. No matter our broader motivation, returning to school as adults illustrates a personal distance between where we are today and where we want to go with our future lives. Athabasca. for us, represents one means to a meaningful life. And, chances are, if we are enjoying our learning process. we’re probably experiencing success in our grades as well. As the sports metaphor goes, winning is contagious. AU is not only a means to an end but also an end in itself; the journey is rewarding as a meaningful addition to our lives.
The creation of meaning implies a process of definition and discovery. Like a string of frog eggs or a trail of papaya seeds, the creation of a meaningful life requires a concatenation of reality held together with an invisible thematic thread. Bounding the meaning of our AU studies is our disciplinary major. If our major is psychology, we’re looking at topics like individual meaning and motivation. If it’s history, we’re investigating past events and their larger setting. Cycles recur wherever the gathering of information occurs; a scholar, when tossing a stone into a pond, can’t help but note the impact of the ripples. Toss many stones and you have a scholarly study complete with statistics. And when you have enough evidence patterns appear.
Meaning appears from a conjunction of facts and feelings and their relation to the ongoing saga of existence. As Socrates said on many a bumper sticker (not to mention as quoted by Plato in antiquity), the unexamined life is not worth living. But what of philosophy, surely it’s the master discipline when we consider the meaning of life?
Interrogating Philosophy: Minds Terribly Wasted?
All too often philosophy is decried as a domain of useless lackadaisical speculation that rarely leaves campus lawns or parental basements. And yet, inspiration often comes in fleets and starts, arriving in snatches of desperate bravado and instants of titanic heroism. As Oscar Wilde famously put it, we’re all in the gutter, but some of us are gazing at the stars. And to get the meaningful poetry of a moment isn’t something you just sit down and do. One has to be in a certain state of open mind.
The blogger, Mark Manson, notes that when we’re truly productive it’s often only for short, blisteringly effective segments of time. Regrettably this applies more to creative academic work than more mundane tasks such as mowing a lawn. Manson notes that when we over-apply ourselves to our creative and academic labours there are not only diminishing returns, but at a certain point, we actually produce an overall negative return when we have to chuck out low quality excess dross. It’s like in golf: if you practice putting excessively, you’ll get a case of the yips, and then even basic success becomes elusive (GolfYipStudy, online). We can practice ourselves out of perfection.
Manson explains that this regression happens “because bad writing isn’t just bad—bad writing creates more work for yourself because it requires way more time to revise and edit” (Manson, online). So, philosophizing about the meaning of life may merely complicate an otherwise pleasant existence. Why ask why? However, this sort of anti-intellectual stance plays into the stereotype of philosophers as idlers who live a life composed of sitting and talking and wandering and pondering. In fact, as with one’s evolution as a student, our philosophical journey toward a meaningful life takes on many concrete forms. We act according to our beliefs, after all. And when we are passionate is when we are the most effective. As holocaust survivor and renowned psychologist Victor Frankl put it: “he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how” (Frankl, online). To be a philosopher. in some sense then, is part of being a human. Either consciously or unconsciously, we compose and abide by some sort of tract, some mission statement.
Problems of Addressing Problems with Definitions
At AU, our discipline tends to bound our studies, with glorious exceptions in the form of electives. Disciplines naturally have limits, the better to maintain their form. And yet, even though philosophy deals with the love of wisdom (thus living up to the literal linguistic origins of its name), it can lead itself into a corner by emulating the boundedness of other disciplines. This process of appeasement isolates philosophy, leaving it immured apart in a certain anchorite squalor. Contemporary philosopher. Daniel Dennett, notes that much philosophy is mere game-playing—where everyone agrees on a series of rules and then, with blithe and bland certitude, goes about following them with minion-like precision.
Dennett, pieced together by Justin Weinberg, summarizes his stance:
“Philosophy in some quarters has become self-indulgent, clever play in a vacuum that’s not dealing with problems of any intrinsic interest.” Much if not all philosophical work in analytic metaphysics, for example, is “willfully cut off from any serious issues” (Dennett, Weinberg, online)
Dennett saves his deepest jabs for the seemingly decadent essence of philosophers in general, calling them a “luxury decoration on society,” whose useful thoughts are scuttled to make room for “just games.” (ibid). Philosopher’s play is useless and frivolous, Dennett pounces with. That’s one playground it’s tough to justify in the real world! To illustrate this gamey realm Dennett references chess aficionados who can play with and watch each other for days and never leave the mental space of their game’s rules. Chess enthusiasts and philosophers, claims Dennett, are too hidebound and immobile to meaningfully impact the social and academic world. At AU we know all too well that the first question an interlocutor asks about our studies is what is that good for?
Meaning: What Can We Rule Out?
This questioning of the possibility for philosophy to achieve useful, even timeless, meaning goes back, way back, to Ancient Greece. Protagoras argued that “man is the measure of all things” (Protagoras in Mark, online). Surely some truths are timeless, though. Geometry would seem an ideal candidate for this trophy. What’s more verifiable and absolute than a freakin’ triangle? If the phrase ‘it is what is’ ever applied literally, it’s surely to that three pointed paragon of calculable virtue. Plato noted that the abstract idea of a triangle supersedes triangular referentials down here in the lowly earthly realm. He famously claimed that there existed an etheric form of Absolutes up in the heavens, of which corporeal versions were only a series of imperfect copies. So maybe there’s an abstract and absolute meaning of life out there, only that we might find it.
Yet, geometry too has limits, and, specifically, the limits of what counts as a geometric statement. W.H. Walsh noted that “the mathematician starts with definitions that are in effect arbitrary combinations of concepts; the philosopher must work toward definitions not argue from them” (Walsh, 307). So just to denote meaning, as such, would seem a weighty task. Crucially too, it’s a job without utensils, tools or physical corollary. It’s all in the brain. Or mind, Or head. Everything depends how we define things, how we create and identify meanings. Protractors, compasses and patience may be required to draw a an artistic face and are even more necessary when engineering, say, a bridge over the Fraser River or a trip to Mars. Yet with the meaning of life we have to pick our spades even more carefully; meaning may be the ultimate personal construction. Next week we’ll enlist Immanuel Kant to further our inquiry into life’s meaning as it applies to we academic vagabonds of distance education wisdom.