Is life meaningless?

The question “is life meaningless?” masquerades as a profound question. But as formulated it is not. It is simply misleading. Consider the analogous “is there truth?” or “is the truth out there?” Both questions sound like they’re in principle answerable with a simple “yes” or “no”. But I want to suggest that both are bad questions.

The truth, for starters, is not ‘out there’. The world is ‘out there’. Truth is a property of sentences. Sentences are parts of language, and language is a product of human activity. Our descriptions of the world can be more or less truthful. And perhaps when we’re looking for information about an uncharted part of the world or of human experience, the fact of the world’s being ‘out there’ tempts us to talk of “the truth” being ‘out there’. Such talk may well be harmless in most circumstances. But taking seriously the fact that language is a function of human engagement with the world requires that, in our more philosophical moments, we refrain from the useful fiction of a disembodied ‘truth’ floating outside the realm of human affairs. Nature does not speak to us in sentences that can be true or false. Nature just is. “Is there truth?” Bad question. “Can human beings work towards truthful accounts of the world and of themselves?” Yes.

Similarly, the question “is life meaningless?” is a bad question. Meaning, like truth, doesn’t float ‘out there’, beyond the realm of human experience. Meaning is a human achievement. What this means is that a particular individual’s life can be meaningless, or it can be meaningful. For most of us, there’s going to be a bit of both. But meaning is not and cannot be something which comes to us merely from outside of ourselves. We find meaning–we make meaning–when we are engaged in pursuits we experience as life-giving.

I find meaning in my life through my various roles. I’m a father, a husband, a student, a philosopher. And occasionally a guitarist, and a capoeirista. I find meaning through activities I enjoy–hiking, slacklining, dancing, reading, and so on. And I find meaning in friendship. Have I experienced meaninglessness? Yes. I think most reflective adults have. But the way you get back on the horse isn’t by waiting for the world to foist meaning onto you. You get back on the horse by… getting back on the horse. By getting out and living. Meaningfulness, like happiness, is a byproduct of a certain kind of living. I suppose you could say that life is meaningless, insofar as meaning is not ‘out there’. But that would be to imply that one cannot live a meaningful life. Which is false. Better then to reject the presuppositions of the question.

Life is what you make it.

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