What’s it All About, eh?

Whilst waxing morbid this morning, I came to realise my convictions about the Meaning of Life are pretty strong nowadays. It seems clear to me the purpose of Life is life itself, and that this is served by our reproduction and the carriage of our genes.

That’s it.

Full stop.

Everything else is just detail.

Consider this bit of dog-eared nihilism. Unless you happen to be a Newton or a Mozart or a Shakespeare, nothing of your life remains for very long after your death. The things you say and write, your work, even the material effects of all your activities in the world- all these disappear like sand through an hourglass. By the time everybody who knows you first-hand is also dead, there’ll be nothing left to say who you were. I reckon in a hundred years there’ll be almost no physical trace that I ever lived. My existence is therefore almost totally insignificant, on any sensible scale. Except for one thing…

The only chance of our individually making a reasonably long-term difference to the universe is by way of our uniquely personal genetic code, which will be (partly) carried (we may hope) in our offspring, and (less partly) in their offspring, and so on. This is the only lasting (albeit exponentially diminishing) legacy of our existence (infinitesimally puny as it most certainly is).

That’s why, for me, the Meaning of Life is reproduction.

How about you?

First off, what is this question of the meaning of life mean–what is it asking for, exactly? Is it about some property all things that we call life share? Is it asking what life is intended for, much like one might ask what are staplers intended for? Is it about the end-goal of life? I’m truly at a loss with this question. I’ve spent like an hour trying to get my head around it.

Reproduction is important. But lists of ancestors are fragile things. No matter how venerated such texts are they are but a short flame from oblivion.

I know the names of Darwin, Mozart, Aristotle and so on; whereas I have great difficulty naming ancestors of my own that would have been contemporaries.

I’ll quote one of the most highly regarded warriors of all time. A man known not for his prowess in battle but for his guile – his ability to lie.

“My name is Odysseus and my kleos reaches to the sky!”

I agree that genetic contributions play a vital role in our kleos. But that is insufficient.

Reproduction is a symptom of life. Not it’s purpose. Otherwise, the next meal would be the purpose of life. The next drink. The next step toward the next drink, the next tensing of a muscle toward the next step… ad infinitum.

Life in the plural sense, evolution, whatever, are not purposeful things. What’s the purpose of a rock tumbling downhill…? To keep moving…? Purpose, and the concept of purpose are perspectives tacked on after the fact by… us. And as such, become all equally valid if not all equally convincing.

Some would say the purpose of life is to discover the nine billion names of God, others would say it is to make as much money as you can and die snorting coke out of a prostitute’s navel. Who’s right, and how would you know…?

Heh. You’re in good company. This question has been confounding people for millennia.

In case it was too garbled, my OP was a slightly tongue-in-cheek approach to perhaps The Greatest Single Philosophical Question of All Time- what is the meaning of life? Since this particular board is about asking simple questions and giving simple answers, it’s perhaps a little ironic, but I was hoping to invite casual attempts to answer it.

You might call this idle nonsense, and you’d probably be right!

Ah, yes. Kleos- the original celebrity culture!

Incidentally, as you surely know, Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, got all bent out of shape because his dad was prophesised (by Tiresias) to die very tamely (“…death will come to you off the sea, a death so gentle, and carry you off
when you are worn out in sleek old age”
) instead of heroically in some glorious bloody battle, and he was therefore anxious that he wouldn’t inherit sufficient kleos from his old man (which shows, as you say, the odd duality of how kleos is gained- by both our own mortal deeds but also situationally and quite accidentally by our heredity). The manner of our death therefore seems to be particularly important, perhaps more so than the manner of our lives.

I suppose it’s a feature of a great many cultures that the real purpose of our lives is thought to be the continuing legend of our fame and glory after we die. This is remarkably similar to the afterlife mythology of many religions, which mankind has surely conceived as a device to console itself for its own mortality. Perhaps because I don’t believe in any sort of afterlife, I don’t subscribe to either- preferring a utilitarian view that the meaning of our lives is something within our living of them. This ain’t a dress rehearsal, as they say. Having said that, what sort of ‘meaning’ can this living be, when our lives (however well-lived) are evidently so mind-bogglingly transient and insignificant?

No, fame isn’t ‘It’ for me, and kleos doesn’t float my boat (I don’t especially care whether people happen to remember my name in a thousand years from now). I do, however, rather like to indulge the vanity of imagining that some Thirtieth Century human beings will carry some tiny part of me in their physical lives- by the code of my genes. That’s the only decent antidote to my utter insignificance.

I don’t agree. As I’ve said, I reckon the only real purpose of life- although it’s clearly self-serving- is reproduction. Oh, and the meaning of life is living.

I take your point about conception, but what other ‘purpose’ (than reproduction) can there conceivably be for, say, amoebae?

Ah, I see the problem here. To be quite honest, I’m surprised this needs parsing out (since this is such a hugely popular philosophical preoccupation), but perhaps I should have been more careful to define terms. So be it.

In this discussion, by ‘the purpose of life’ I’m strictly talking about the classical metaphysical contemplation of a specific abstract concept- that is, an ontological enquiry into the significance and purpose of Life (with a deliberate capital L). This is a far broader and looser question than the literal one of the utility of life (cf., the utility of a car). This is about a contemplation of the abstract conception that there may be some deeper understanding to be realised about the nature of Life itself.

Note, in this arena, the terms ‘life’, ‘lives’, ‘Life’, and ‘living’ commonly have different contextual meanings. Although subtle, these are amenable to definition, and if necessary I could offer a rough set of terms. At any rate, when I say ‘the meaning of life is living,’ I’m trying to convey the idea that the primary values of our biological existence relate intimately to our experience of being alive. Obviously, then, this has little if anything to do with the purposes of cars or teeth brushing.

Of course, there doesn’t have to be any utilitarian purpose whatsoever in the life of amoebae, any more than there must be any for human life. However, I think you’ll find that a great many philosophical thinkers would argue against your pragmatist-Nietzschean-nihilistic viewpoint that nothing has meaning. It is almost universally the case that human beings instinctively identify the meaning and implications of the complexity of their sentient existence as categorically different from the meaning of the existence of a hammer. It is the human condition so to do.

But you don’t have to play. :wink:

I agree kleos is not without its problems but I have to say that I do believe people who have cultivated themselves in such a manner as to see to it that their names will be uttered throughout all of history had a better conception of the good than someone whose sole accomplishment was to have many children by many women and not know any of them.

That doesn’t surprise me, given your view of the nature of selfhood! :smiley:

Leaving aside the issue of ‘good’ (after all, it’s likely Hitler will be remembered for a very long time) I guess it much depends on how we define accomplishment in this context. Do you think Mother Theresa has left more or less of herself in the world than some unknown person who has a single child, who has a child, who has a child, &c.?

The problem exists, I think, because the notion of meaning hasn’t been fully defined. If the meaning of life is thought of as a sort of property of life much like shape or weight or texture or extension are thought properties of things, then a good case can be made for why no such meaning exists, or at the very least that we have no way of identifying it without some epistemic problems. To say that life in general has a property you would have to make the abstract generalized notion of life, i.e., life in all its forms, into some sort of single entity, a la plato’s forms in the intelligible realm. If life is thought as a linguistic categorizing device, then I don’t see a case for meaning-as-property being attributable to it, unless you start saying all life everywhere and always shares a property and this property is the meaning of life, and then I see no reason why this would be so or why it makes sense to say this property is the meaning of all life. And what implications does the claim that the meaning of life is reproduction have? Is it a moral claim? Normative? Ought all life reproduce to be good? And what makes you think that whatever the meaning of life is it must survive particular instances of life after they stop being life, i.e., die?

But perhaps meaning of life can be conceptualized differently. Maybe we can think of the meaning of life like we may think of the meaning of a stapler or some other human artifact. In that, the meaning or purpose of the stapler is to staple things together and this meaning exists in the mind of it’s creator as his intention or motivation for creating the stapler. It’s actual utility or function is of little consequence here because a stapler could still be said to have the purpose of stapling even though it is never used for stapling (because the stapler is thrown away just as it comes out the factory, or is placed in a museum or something and is thus never used to staple). The problem of conceptualizing meaning of life as intention is that we would need to show that there exists a God who created us just like to show that the meaning of staplers is stapling you would have to show that people exist and that they had a certain intention when they created the stapler. On top of that you would have to peer into the mind of life’s creator and see what his intention was in creating us. We want staplers for stapling, so what did the creator of life want life for…? Lacking the creator, this notion of meaning-as-intention goes nowhere.

So…how is it that you conceptualize meaning?

I modified this post a bit.

Sorry, I’m allergic to metaphysics. I break out in horrible rashes of pragmatism.

I agree the discussion of good is heavily enmeshed in value statements so it makes sense to leave that aside for now. As for your question, I’d say that MT has left more of herself in the world than the person with one child. Her example is one that will be referenced and emulated for a long, long time. Far longer than any meaningful genetic contribution the one person will have in his descendants.



It’s all about Survival. Thats it. Everthing else just revolves around it.

No, I don’t think so. Survival is only part of it (albeit very important!).

Survival is a means to an end, and is almost entirely meaningless in and of itself (in the philosophical sense of ‘meaning’ as we’re using it here). If the purpose of life were merely our individual survival, then the meaning of life would simply be our individual existence, which is of course infinitesimally insignificant. No, the true importance of survival is not the sustenance of an individual life, but the sustenance of species.

Evidence of this is widely seen in nature- for example, kin altruism in eusocial creatures like ants, in which the survival of the group has higher strategic importance than individual survival and/or reproduction.

I’m afraid we survive merely in order to reproduce, which fact affords me inadequate consolation this morning, having been kept awake all bloody night by my two infant offspring.

:laughing: But how is reproduction not just another facet of survival…?

Yes, I was almost certain you’d see it that way, and I’m afraid we may have to agree to differ again!

My chief objection is that your view places the importance of our lives outside of ourselves, even to the extent that the opinions others have of our life matters more than our life does itself. In the case of MT, you’re more or less saying her reputation is more important than her being. I have a problem with this, because, however beneficially influential they may be, things like repute and opinion are entirely subjective, and they often run foul of fallacy. Public opinion is woefully unreliable, and it wouldn’t surprise me, for example, if MT eventually ended up with an entirely different notoriety through denouements like this:


In any case, our fame and reputation are abstract and insubstantial things compared with the corporeal embodiment of our physical selves as expressed in the genetic makeup of our offspring.

Because you, individually, do not need to reproduce to survive. Reproduction is necessary for the survival of species.