Saturday, September 12, 2009

The meanings of life and "life"

The question of the meaning of life obviously differs from the also interesting question of the meaning of "life". The latter asks for the meaning of the word "life", while the former asks for the meaning of the thing which is signified by that word. Suppose we take seriously, however, the idea that in asking for the meaning of "life" and in asking for the meaning of life, we are using "meaning" univocally. Then the question presupposes that life, just like "life", is communicative unit. For it is only communicative units that have meaning.

But if life is a communicative unit, then who is communicating to whom? Is it the living person who is communicating, with her life? If so, to whom? Herself? But then living is like talking with oneself, which does not seem right, though I can see that it could be defended. So, maybe, with another. But which other? Presumably either God or fellow human beings (or both). No other options seem available. If only fellow human beings, then if someone is on a desert island and does not expect to meet anybody, her living is just like her talking to the wall—pointless. And that's not right. So, if it is the living person herself who is communicating with her life, she is communicating with God.

Suppose, then, that it is someone else who communicates by means of our lives. There are two options. One is God. The other is society. In the latter case, the life of the person on the desert island, largely formed by desert island experiences, is of questionable meaning.

So if life is a communicative unit, the communication is either by God or with God (or both, a gnostic might add). If so, then the meaning of life does depend on the actual or at least presupposed existence of God.


Unknown said...

Hello Alexander Pruss!

In the blog ( ;left menu) there is an article that proves the existence of an Intelligent Creator (for atheists reading this) and His purpose of humankind using formal logic and science.

After proving this one can easily argue that doing the purpose of the Creator is the meaning of life.

Anders Branderud

JDB said...

Isn't it a bit odd to take seriously a univocal usage of "meaning" between these two questions? After all, asking about the meaning of "life" is essentially asking for a definition - is this how you understand it? But asking for a definition of what life signifies will reduce to asking for a definition of "life."

In any case, I simply don't understand the idea of life as a communicative unit. If by "meaning" we are referring to something like purpose, then it makes sense to ask what God's purpose is in creating life. Indeed I think this is more what people are after when asking about the meaning of life.

Dennis Whitcomb said...

I agree, Joshua, with point that it is odd to take "meaning" to be univocal across the questions. Maybe the way to get at what the "meaning of life" question about is by examining a clear case where a life lacks meaning. So take Sisyphus' life, or at least the part of his life where he is rolling the ball over and over. That is a paradigm case of a life without meaning. When we ask whether life has meaning, then, we are asking a question roughly synonymous with:

Does life in general lack the thing Sisyphus' life lacks, and the lack of which in Sisyphus' life makes his story so particularly compelling and striking?