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A taxi driver once had that Bertrand Russell in the back of his cab. Since Russell was the most famous philosopher of his day, the cabby asked him “What’s it all about?” Russell, however, could not answer. No surprise there, you might think. For isn’t the meaning of life the most profound and elusive mystery of them all, unknown to even the greatest minds? Surely anyone who tells you they have the answer is joking, mad or simply mistaken.
I hope not, because I think I could answer the cabby’s question. It would need to be a reasonably long journey to give the full explanation, but I could give the outline in the time it takes to get from Charing Cross to King’s Cross. In fact, tell you what, I will give you the quick answer now.
I can do this, not because I am especially wise. If only! I can do it because it has all been done already. The history of western philosophy contains all the insights we need to understand the meaning of life. My view is more or less that of most other philosophers. Even the religious ones – who are in the minority – could agree with a great deal of it.
Why, then, was Russell left speechless by the taxi driver? Because the question itself is a hodgepodge. It defies a simple answer because it needs to be carefully unpacked and dissected before it even makes sense.
That’s why Douglas Adams’ gag about the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything being 42 is so insightful. You can’t expect to get a sensible answer unless you ask a sensible question. But what the hell is “What’s the meaning of life?” or “What’s it all about?” supposed to mean? They may be grammatical, but so are “What’s the meaning of cheese?” and “What’s grass all about?” – and I defy anyone to give a serious answer to either. We think of the quest for life’s meaning as like a journey along a yellow brick road which will lead us to an awesome, mysterious source of all the answers. The truth is that, like the Wizard of Oz, the grandeur and remoteness of the meaning of life is all front. Pull back the curtain and the mystery vanishes.
If the meaning of life is not some esoteric piece of wisdom, a hidden key that, once discovered, will unlock the secrets of the universe and end our quest for understanding, then what is it? It might help to start by trying to imagine what the taxi driver really wanted to know. The most natural interpretation is that he was puzzled by why we are all here. But even that is ambiguous. Is that a question about where we came from or where we’re going?
Compare that to a more mundane question, such as why on earth you are sitting in the front row waiting for a Celine Dion concert to begin. One answer is because you bought a ticket, took a train and then your seat. That explains why you’re there in a backward-looking way. Another answer is that you’re there because you want to hear Dion sing, which explains your presence in a forward-looking (though somewhat baffling) way. The explanation you are interested in depends on what you need to know. If you just wake up to find yourself in this nightmare scenario, it’s the backward-looking explanation you need. If you’re having last-minute doubts about the wisdom of your choice of entertainment, the forward-looking explanation is what should exercise you.
I never thought I would say this, but in this very particular sense, life is like a Celine Dion concert: if we want to know why we are here, we can look backwards or forwards, and the answers we get, or fail to get, are very different and satisfy different needs.
It is perhaps surprising how often it is assumed that a look back to our origins will lead us to the meaning of life. It certainly did not work out that way for Victor Frankenstein’s creation. He was desperate to know where he had come from and, unlike us, he discovered the awful truth. Yet the revelation did not shed light on his life’s meaning, it just pissed him off. What is true of the monster is true of us: knowing why your creator made you does not settle the question of life’s meaning, which is one reason why believing in God does not make as big a difference to how we understand the meaning of life as may be supposed. Not that there is much reason to suppose the creator had a purpose anyway: if we take a long, cold look back to our origins, we just find ape-like ancestors and an evolutionary trail that leads back to the big bang.
That doesn’t mean life has no meaning. It just means, as Jean-Paul Sartre argued, that human life does not come with any pre-assigned meaning. Life’s purpose, if it has one, is not given to it by its creator.
Perhaps, then, rather than answer the question of why we are here by looking backwards, we should look forwards. What future purpose or goal would make this life worth living? The problem with this line of inquiry was identified more than two millennia ago by the patron philosopher of common sense, Aristotle. His point was that we do many things for the sake of something else. We eat to live, work to pay the mortgage, study to pass exams and so on. But unless at least one thing is done for its own sake, there is no point in doing anything. Not everything can be a means to an end: there must be ends which are valuable in their own right. So if living must at some stage be valuable in itself if it is to be worthwhile, why not here and now?
To put it rather dramatically, what the cabby really wanted to know was the answer to what Albert Camus claimed was the only serious philosophical problem: why shouldn’t we kill ourselves? Why should we think that this life, with all its problems and pressures, really is valuable in itself?
It’s an excellent question and it doesn’t take a philosopher to answer it. We all of us know of things that give life value. In his movie Manhattan, Woody Allen’s character made his own personal list: Groucho Marx; Willie Mays; the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony; Louis Armstrong’s recording of Potato-head Blues; Swedish movies; Sentimental Education by Flaubert; Marlon Brando; Frank Sinatra; those incredible apples and pears by Cézanne; the crabs at Sam Wo’s; Tracy’s face. Another person’s list might focus less on their own pleasures: eliminating terrible suffering; helping one’s children build their lives; winning a personal struggle.
There are many things that make life worth holding on to and savouring. But life is unpredictable and we are often mysteries even to ourselves. We think success, happiness, helping others, or surpassing ourselves will make life worth living, but we can always be wrong or frustrated by events. Philosophers have a lot to say about the value of all these things, and a little less to say about one of the most valuable things of all – love. So we can be clear enough about what it means for life to have meaning and value, but when we put down our philosophy books and actually get on with living, meaning and value can be elusive. Living well is more art than science or philosophy.