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The Meaning of Life; or, Why 42.

March 30, 2013

I’m studying Psychology at university. I figure I should probably start with that so you know why this is something of a strange topic for me to be talking about. I absolutely adore psychology. What I don’t adore is the way my program/degree is structured at my university, as it means that I have to take a certain amount of electives from other [non-science (read: unimportant to me)] areas. The reasons and process are full of university-specific jargon and all that relative bullshit, but none of that really matters.

What matters is this – the elective I chose to do this semester is a philosophy subject, Truth and Belief.

I love it and hate it. That seems bizarrely apt.

And, funnily enough, I love it and hate it for the same reason; it requires such a different mindset from psychology that it is difficult to wrap my head around.

But it is also ridiculously interesting.

The topic for the coming week, as you might have guessed from the title of this post, is The Meaning of Life.

Philosophers don’t seem to have any satisfactory answer to this question (as per freaking usual. I’m not kidding. Philosophy has more open ends than a… than a… open-end convention. Don’t judge me, I dropped my Analogy move so I could learn Philosophise. My skill set apparently operates on Pokémon logic).

But one person did give a definitive answer to the fundamental question “What is the meaning of life?”

Douglas Adams.

And it’s 42.

(“But, Molly –“

Shut up, don’t ruin this for me. I know that the question is technically “What is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?” and that isn’t even the question that this is the answer to, but just wait, you impatient people.)

Apparently, the only living person to know why 42 is Stephen Fry, one of the celebrities I adore the most in this entire world.

Until now. I know why 42 is the meaning of life.

However, a few caveats are necessary;

–           Firstly, 42 is the Answer to the Ultimate Question. That question, as dictated by Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, is not known, and cannot be known in the same existence as the Answer. If this happens, the Universe is wiped out and takes life and everything with it and replacing it with something more bizarre and/or stupider (which may have already happened. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, read the books!). As such, I’m claiming to know (but see the next point!) why 42 is the meaning of life, NOT the Ultimate Question.

–          The way I know it is sufficient, in a philosophical sense, for me. It answers my questions. It might not be enough for you, and if it isn’t, feel free to let me know. Yes, this is something of a cop out, but I’m a philosopher-in-training, and from my understanding so far, philosophy is full of these. Come at me. I’ll take you all on from my armchair. With my brain, motherfuckers.

–          I’m not saying I know why Adams chose 42. I’m saying why, when you ask “What is the meaning of life?”, 42 is the answer.

–          We need to talk about “meaning” and “of life” first. You need to understand what I mean by the question before you understand why 42 is the answer.

So, what is a meaning?

“Meaning”, funnily enough, is one of the hardest phrases to explain and/or define.

I understand something’s meaning to be what it intends to convey, its purpose or point.  Pretty straight-forward so far. I think, intuitively, we all have an idea of what a meaning is. Meanings are fairly objective.

The problem is that what it means to have a meaning is entirely generated subjectively. What it means that something has a meaning depends entirely on how you view it.

I wish I had an amusing anecdote or analogy to convey this a little more clearly, but I can’t really think of anything (dammit, Pokémon, you ruined my life).

Essentially, what I am trying to get across here, is that you, personally, decide what the meaning of something is to you. It just so happens that most of the time, everyone else will agree!

(Which makes language a fuck-tonne easier than it would be if everyone always meant something different!)

Maybe some things have concrete meanings (which is what words tend to try and do). Maybe some things you feel intuitively. But the meaning of something is tied up in how it is represented, thus language. So, technically speaking, you can talk about the meaning of something by talking about how it is represented.

What is a life?

Oh, fuck.

You have stumbled into a mine-field of philosophy here. It is seriously like a war zone up in here. If you’ve ever done any philosophy, or even if you just have a passing interest in it, you’re aware of what a clusterfuck this question is. Look out for the philosophical crossfire.

If you’re reading this without any background in philosophical knowledge, good for you! Don’t go there, don’t do it, man. Your life is simpler without knowing (conversely, though, that’s exactly why I was lying earlier, and would actually actively encourage you to look at some philosophy).

But basically in philosophy, “What is a life?” is a question that can be further broken down into hundreds and hundreds of sub-topics that all somehow manage to ignore their origin.

What has a life?

What does it mean to have a life? (Different to “What is the meaning of life?”)

How do we know we have a life?

Do you have to be a person to have a life?

–          What is a person?

–          How do you know you are one?

And none of those have definitive answers, because philosophy is about the questions.

As a woman of science, I like answers. Answers are definitive, you can mount them up for everyone to look at, and they’ll all go “Yep, that’s an answer, all right”. But, increasingly, I’m discovering that I’m also a question person. The questions are more interesting, I’m finding.

But I’ve digressed, slightly, and if you want an answer to “What is a life?”, which we need in order for me to fully explain the meaning of it, I’m going to go with the simplest common denominator.

A life is the thing that you are experiencing right now, and it encompasses all aspects of that experience. Easy.

What would give our lives a meaning?

First of all, let me ask you a question.

Do lives need meanings? Is there any inherent value in having a meaning?

One of the assigned readings for my class next week is Chapter 4, ‘Life’s Meaning’ of Stephen Hetherington’s Reality? Knowledge? Philosophy! (which I recommend as a jumping-off point for those interested in epistemology  and/or metaphysics). Although it covers a lot of interesting ground about what would constitute a meaning (we’ll come back to this later) and what implications this has for our lives, I have a problem with the way Hetherington presents this discussion.

It’s philosophy – it is inherently subjective. So that isn’t my issue. He can (in fact, he must) have his own opinion. Not a problem.

My problem is that as a well-balanced philosopher, you’re supposed to be able to accept and acknowledge all logical possibilities, and deal with this in defence of your position.

But Hetherington appears unable to accept that, perhaps, life has no meaning. This is a logical possibility, and he touches on it, but he seems unwilling to permit this to be the case. Why should life inherently have a meaning?

Does life need a meaning?

Does it matter to our lives if there is no meaning?

Do you need a meaning to live a good life?

Personally, I think the answer to each of those questions is “No”. A cat can have a good life, but you wouldn’t necessarily say it is a life with a meaning.

Anywho, that was just a small detour. That seems to happen a lot in this area.

Back to topic.

So, if there is a meaning, what makes it up?

Hetherington, and another of my readings from Peter Singer, provides us with a few possibilities;

–          Pleasure – enjoying whatever it is that you’re doing in your life.

–          Money – a human construct, meaning that the things that can be put in our lives that give it meaning, can come from us.

–          Companionship – just not being alone.

–          Free will (a whole other battle-field in philosophy).

–          Achievement.

–          Complexity.

–          Enjoying what we do (different to pleasure, because this can be a conscious choice).

–          Working towards an external purpose.

–          Hope.

But pleasure is only transient. When something makes us happy, it does not necessarily keep us happy. Meaning should be more stable than that.

Money isn’t universal – so do the lives of some cultures have more meaning than the lives of other cultures?

Companionship is an interesting thing, because it isn’t quite clear how this could contribute meaning. If you have a meeting of many lives without meaning in one place, does this somehow give them meaning? We also have the questions of whether or not you can actually know another person, or whether we are ever truly not alone.

Free will is contentious, but I take it to mean having the choice of what to do. I am not sure why this would give meaning, but I can see how this would allow us to generate meaning.

Achievement has some of the same problems as pleasure – it is transient for the most part. All comes from dust, and must return to dust.

Complexity just adds levels, not inherently adding meaning.

Enjoying what we do is basically Pleasure + Free Will (even though I said this was different to Pleasure earlier, which I now take back, because past me is an idiot, but present me is too proud and lazy to go back and delete what I said), so you get the problems of both mixed in there like the floating Freddo heads in Freddo ice-cream cakes.

Working towards an external purpose is the position favoured by Singer. But what if you’re selfish? Incapable? Disabled, or otherwise debilitated? What if there is something that stops you from working towards an external purpose, such as your own circumstances? Does your life therefore lack meaning? Are you just a modern Sisyphus?

I suppose all this sounds bleak, but I do not necessarily think that this is so. There is no inherent, logical reason that I can see that states you need a meaning in your life for your life to be good, or happy. So whether or not there are things that make up a meaning, and whether or not there is a meaning, has no direct standing on why and how you live your life.

But the purpose of this post is the question “What is the meaning of life?” and why the answer is “42”.

Here’s where I piss you all off. Because remember when I said you can look at the meaning of something by looking at what represents it?

To look at the “meaning of life”, we can look purely at what symbolically represents these notions, i.e. the two clauses “meaning” and “of life”, and how these two things interact or combine (not necessarily in the strict mathematical sense of a “combination”).

Meaning is the word that represents, well, meaning. A word is a macro-unit, made of sub-units that are the foundational building blocks of the word, and therefore what it represents. “meaning” has 7 sub units.

“of life” has 6.

To look at the interaction of what the macro-units represent when you condense them down to their pure sub-units, you can do this;

7 x 6.

Which is?

[*Proceeds to hide from the angry philosophers and Douglas Adams fans that are clearly now baying for my blood, slowly sharpening my own pitchfork, ready for the Final Showdown*]

From → Philosophy

  1. I loved this post because it opens up the mind… (put a link to it at my latest blog post)

    • Thank you! I’m glad that you liked it… I find that doing a philosophy subject has opened my mind, too! Keep on pondering, dear.

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