A Minimal Theory of A Meaningful Life

by F.

“Why do secular thinkers fear that biology drains life of meaning?” asks Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate. For anyone besides Pinker who doesn’t know the answer to this question, I suggest watching March of the Penguins three times in succession. I can almost guarantee that this experience will leave you with a deep, intuitive sense of the absolutely meaninglessness of life when considered from a biological point of view.

The story starts with penguins walking 70 miles in Antarctica to their breeding ground. There, with winter set to approach, they choose mates and breed, the result of which is a single egg. Once the egg is laid, the females try to keep it warm in the freezing cold, while the males return on the 70 mile journey to find food.

Then they come back and take care of the egg, while the females go on the 70 mile trip to the supermarket. Then the females come back, by which time the egg has hatched (if it didn’t already freeze), and the pair try to keep their offspring from dying of cold, or hunger, or the predations of another mother who has lost her own baby.

Then the family splits up. The mother and father go their way and the chick goes to the sea to swim around for five years until it is his turn to make the 70 mile journey to the breeding ground. Repeat year after year, and you have the chronological story of the penguins as a group. And, more or less the, story of human life.

Ouch.

And yet, we can’t really believe, day to day, that our life has no meaning. It’s a little like free will. We don’t have any, but it is impossible to believe this for any length of time. This idea of “psychological impossibility” has I’m sure been stated in many places, but I heard it first from Charles Marks and it has stuck with me ever since as a simple and powerful explanation for a number of paradoxes—of which more later.

So what do you do?

You either turn to whichever theory of a meaningful life appeals to you or invent your own. There’s a good summary of the different theories over on Wikipedia, so I won’t waste bits repeating them here. The menu is pretty long, but you may find something that suits your taste.

Many people find one or more of these theories satisfying, but none have every really worked for me for an extended peried of time. For me, reading these theories is a little like watching a Spielberg movie: I feel emotionally satisfied for a while afterward but then utterly empty.

This caused me to think up my own minimal theory of how to live a meaningful life. Such a theory had to be simple and flexible, and had to make no metaphysical assumptions, such as that there in a God, or we can be reincarnated, or that we are inhabited by Body Thetans. What did I come up with? As far as I can see, in order to have a meaningful life, strive to

  • do what you want to do
  • for the benefit of others

After reviewing the various mainstream theories of how to lead a meaningful life, I found that many of not most focus on other people, or at least other living things. This felt right to me. So “others” have to be involved in any theory of a meaningful life, I think. But we have to strike a balance between narcissism and martyrdom.

If we focus entirely on others, we are martyrs, and that’s not a very good way to live a meaningful life. If we focus entirely on ourselves, we become Narcissus, and that won’t work either, as experience will demonstrate. If we focus on neither…well, I don’t think I have to even say it. So the answer has to be “both:” neither martyr nor narcissist, but somewhere in between.

Where exactly? I don’t know. I think this has to be found by trial and error and I suspect in varies from person to person given their genetic predispositions and life experience. But I think this heuristic does a pretty good job of narrowing the issue so different approaches to a meaningful life can be tried. At least it works for me currently.

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