The meaning of life

Fri, 26 Dec 2014

Much of my blogging and thinking in 2013 was focussed on workplace and specific economic issues. These are still important to me, but quite often I struggled to justify answers to questions. I lacked satisfactory answers to some of the bigger questions - I lacked the framework that I needed to tackle the specific questions. For example, why should we even be at work in the first place?

So in 2014 I’ve been doing some deeper thinking about the world and our place and purpose in it. Essentially I’m trying to come up with some rules that are useful, that are specific enough to actually improve my decisions and views on more specific questions (so it can’t just be common sense or things that go without saying). And I want to minimise the risk of my rules leading to bad outcomes or needing fundamental changing (though as always, I reserve the right to change my views if I feel the need).

I know it is scientifically and philosophically fashionable to try and tackle these sorts of questions with a blank slate - without making prior assumptions. I’ve tried that approach before without reaching any conclusions. So this time I thought I’d start from where I already was - and at least try to acknowledge the preconceptions that would influence my conclusions.

Firstly, I didn’t want to reach a conclusion that would be socially isolating. I suppose had I come to some socially unacceptable conclusion with absolute certainty, I would have had to believe it, but where there is doubt, I’d prefer to be in good company.

Next, I didn’t want to reach a view that seemed either irrational or wrong in my heart. I know that human knowledge and instinct is limited, and often flawed. It is often evolutionarily optimised or a product of values that we’ve been taught, rather than anything that is objectively proven to be right. But I don’t think I could live a life, no matter how well reasoned or right it felt, that I couldn’t justify in both my head and my heart.

Finally, my prior beliefs and values have served me pretty well (at least the ones I hadn’t already thrown out!). So I had a preference for conclusions that were consistent with those prior beliefs. For example, with my Christian faith, I’d need pretty good evidence of it being untrue or inherently harmful in order to give it up.

Taking all that into account, I believe I’ve ended up somewhere that I’m happy with. I’m comfortable that the rules I come up with are very much a product of my previously mentioned criteria and what I was looking for, that they aren’t absolute or completely objective.

This doesn’t mean I’m a moral relativist. I do believe some outcomes are better than others. And I do believe there is such thing as ultimate truth (I just don’t fully know what it is, and don’t think there’s much point putting life on hold to try and find it). It does mean that when I’m asking people to do things or saying what I want, it shouldn’t be a moral judgement. And it should be tempered by doubt - I might be wrong about things.

Congratulations if you’ve made it this far. You’re now ready to hear what I currently believe the purpose of life is: to live, to love, and to make the world a better place.  Sorry, they may not be completely remarkable, and yes, plenty of people do live by these ideals every day.   But I also know plenty of times when I and others suffer from prioritising lesser goals above these (for example, status or security), so do genuinely believe they are worth keeping firmly in mind.

Finally, I know that these rules still leave a lot of open questions - it isn't always obvious what the living, loving and world improving decision is in every specific situation - but at least they gives us a framework to ask those other questions.