A short piece that I wrote for a UChicago friend. She probably didn’t expect the reply to be so long when she asked me “What is the meaning of life?” and “What is the meaning of love?” But you don’t get what you want in life. You get what you need.
“Well, I got an answer. But it’s, em, quite long and drawn out.”
Answer to “What is the meaning of life?”
1. I don’t think it’s the right question to ask, or at the very least too hard to answer, with the answer never convincing anyone (God? Nothing? Some Hippy Pantheism? Mother Nature?). The whole thing is made a ton easier if we reframe the question into something like: “Where is the meaning of life?”, or “From what things, realistically, do we find meaning?” This type of questions is quite straightforward to answer: Meaning comes from learning/friendship/love/family/adventure/helping people/helping yourself etc. etc.
- Still, though, although changing the question to “what” to “where” makes the question easier and is the right step, it’s also makes it superficial and much less interesting or meaningful. So to go beyond the first attempt at reformulation, I want to reframe the answer into the form of: “What makes meaning possible?” or “What is the condition that enables us to experience meaning?” (If you’re interested in some history of thought, this is basically Kant’s big famous kill shot and what people refer to by the “transcendental deduction”.)
- For this new question, the best answer that I can come up with is Art. Art broadly defined as things worth remembering that are passed down through the generations in culture—so not only things like novels and paintings but all kinds of knowledge in general, scientific and even social.
- But Art alone doesn’t cut it, because you need lived experiences to realize art and enable art to be understood. For example, (this is the “realize” part), maybe you read novels about road-trips, like On the Road or something. Reading is not enough, you do justice to the art by realizing (that is, living out) the way of life that the works of art present you with—in this case, something like embodying its spirit of adventure, of friendship, of confronting big existential questions away from the normal humdrum of life once in a while—and it is this realization of art beyond merely absorbing it that saturates your life with meaning. What’s more awesome, it’s the accumulation of these artistically inspired lived experiences that expands your capacity to understand art—this is why when you reread something it can be so much more meaningful than the first reading, cause you’ve accrued lived artistic experiences that increases your receptivity towards art. (This doesn’t only apply to novels and the more “fine arts,” but also to, for example, a scientist. Because what you’re doing when you’re doing science is not only the dry accumulation of knowledge—that doesn’t motivate anyone—but the participation in the process of, let’s say, the gradual revelation of truth, with the belief, an artistic one, that “truth will set you free.” And part of becoming a scientist is to not only know the corpus of knowledge, but to inherit and embody the spirit of scientific endeavor as represented by heroes of the past—e.g. Einstein, Newton, Galileo, the usual bunch—which is also, incidentally, why we give out stuff like the Nobel prizes. This, I think, can be extrapolated to all forms of life, and I’m emphasizing this because I don’t want it to come off as “only rich spoiled kids who has the leisure to read novels and learn Art History are capable of a meaningful life.”)
- There’s then a further stage after this reciprocal interaction, mediated by yourself, between Art and lived experience that enhances Art itself, your receptivity to art, and your lived experiences, which is you contributing to culture by creating art in any of its myriad forms. You do this by observing those small openings between lived experiences and Art where your lived experience and your enriched understanding of those lived experiences through art allow you to draw connections between different artistic objects that are not previously drawn and discover potentials in art that no one hitherto knew existed. By, in other words, understanding networks of art better than their authors and synthesizing those networks through the creation of new art that advances the whole artistic, and thus human, enterprise.
- I kinda visualize this as the vector field for a dipole, where there are the two poles, Art and lived experience, and you’re like the underlying field that both affects the charges and is affected by them, generating ever increasing circles around the poles that extends its sphere of influences. (I’m not entirely sure that I am faithful to the physics. But what the hell, the image is nice.) So you’re, in the process of art-creation, a person who is both a descendent of art and a progenitor of it—giving back to art as an act of gratitude for what it has given you—and both, in theological speak, the alpha and omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end, and that’s what keeps the whole world running and what allows meaning to emerge.
- Although we don’t hereby really answer the question “What is the meaning of life?”, because here meaning is viewed as inherently unstable and unspecified, constantly evolving, we do answer “thanks to what do I live a life filled with meaning—and how do I empower this nexus of meaning, both for myself, but for everyone else, as both a selfish action, but also one that comes out of gratitude, the gratitude of knowing that my life is, somehow, meaningful.” And that’s the extent of what I can answer with my abilities (and even with this question, I have definitely answered imperfectly).
Then, we can see the follow-up “What is love?” in the light of the previous question, making it much more straightforward. Love is our most direct contact with meaningfulness, the strongest proof that it exists, and therefore that which provides us with the motivation and courage to go through the process of artistic creation. Therefore, love, as you said before, necessarily strengthens the self and empowers the self to keep to its principles, because love is the living proof that I am a human being who is capable of experiencing meaning with a specific dignity that I am to stand by. But then, I’d add that love, whilst strengthening the self, also stretches the self across the social and the temporal, and therefore expands it. Social because it is in love that we truly understand the humanity of another person and that they are equally dignified individuals capable of art; temporal because love connects us with the past in the form of culture, art, and biology (our biology being a product of the struggle of human beings across generation to survive and exploring what is the most optimal way to live, so can also be conceptualized as art and culture), towards the future because it provides us with the hope and courage to act, action being something that is guided towards some end that is not yet realized.
Love is therefore that kernel of lived experience, passed down to us by art, that makes art itself, and art’s development through individual contributions, possible. Although here love has a strange causality because it causes the thing (art) that causes itself (art), I’d argue that this strange loop is essential to love—like the Big Bang—as the thing that makes the causal chain possible though in itself inexplicable.