Monday, June 26, 2017

God, Death and the Meaning of Life: Excerpt from an Essay

I don't know if any of the rest of you do this, but occasionally I find it interesting to go back and look at work I did in school. I was reading an essay I did for an introductory Philosophy class (God, Death and the Meaning of Life), and thought it may be interesting to share some snippets. Some of my thinking has changed - evolved - since I wrote this, but it's interesting to see what I still hold to be true. And the question is always a fascinating one - what makes our lives meaningful?

What are we living for? What makes our lives meaningful? Have we lived good lives if we were “happy” throughout but made no significant achievements? Or have we lived better lives if we were miserable throughout but dedicated them to a worthy cause?

I believe that in order for my own life to be meaningful, I need to be self-reliant and have self-love. I need to be happy with who I am, and have the love of the people important to me. I also need to be able to live for more than just myself. Learning to successfully overcome obstacles and appreciating the simple things in life are important too. Most importantly however, I believe that one needs to be able to accept, love, and rely on oneself before life can have any meaning at all.

According to David Swenson, much of what contributes meaning to life is happiness. However, this must not be unjustifiable happiness; there must be a reason for this happiness, a motive for its existence.  He believes that as human beings who make mistakes, there is always the danger that we can go wrong with our pursuit of happiness. While we may appear happy, leading everyone to believe that we are so, we might be pursuing empty happiness, in materialistic things. I beg to differ with this particular view. While the pursuit of empty things may not be the right thing to do in order to obtain happiness, there is no denying that the pursuit of such things in many cases does lead to our happiness. While this is not necessarily correct, and indeed does leave me feeling uneasy as to what we as human beings have come to, such happiness does give meaning to life; albeit maybe not substantial meaning.

Swenson also stresses on the importance of happiness being based on something that is intrinsically good, which I do agree with. Wealth, power and the like do have the potential to do good, but are not intrinsically so. These things give a sort of privileged status to the few individuals that possess them, and this is not always fair. They “rest upon differential capabilities and exceptionally fortunate circumstances.

Some people may argue that people will be able to find happiness in hurting others. If we think of serial killers who kill for the pleasure of it, they technically lead happy lives. They are doing what they enjoy; does that not mean that they have meaningful lives? In my opinion, absolutely not. While what they are doing does make them happy, it makes other people very miserable. The happiness that these killers obtain is completely selfish, and thus does not contribute to a meaningful life. Swenson goes on to say, “as the fundamental source of inspiration in my life, I need something that is not exclusive and differential, but inclusive and universal.” It is important to find happiness in something that will not take away happiness from other people, but preferably, add to it. This is true, selfless happiness, and I dare to say that we have all experienced it. How many times have we done something for someone whom we love that we did not necessarily enjoy doing? How many times have we experienced that specific feeling of happiness that comes from making this someone happy?

There are people who would rather live their lives believing that there is no higher power to judge us, like E. D. Klemke. He says that there are many cases of human beings who have led meaningful lives without faith in God. According to him, even if life had no meaning without faith in God, he would rather find some other meaning, as opposed to one that has “illusory hopes and incredulous beliefs and aspirations.” This is also the view held by Ricky Gervais, a comedian. He sums it up by saying “Do unto others… is a good rule of thumb". I try to live by that. Kindness is probably one of the greatest virtues there is. But that is exactly what a virtue is. Not just a religious virtue. No one owns being good. If am good, I do not believe I will necessarily be rewarded for it in heaven. My reward is here and now. It is knowing that I try to do the right thing and that I lived a good life. And that is where spirituality really lost its way; when it became a stick to beat people with. “Do this or you will burn in hell.”

While I realise that some people might be able to find more meaning in life without belief in a supernatural entity, I also realise that there are a countless number of people who have been unable to find meaning in life unless they turn to God. If religion were to be completely removed from the picture, then I believe that it may actually give people an incentive to be more moral, and kinder to their fellow human beings. It would take away from having to be good so that you can answer to a higher power, which we can argue is a motivation for many; and encourage people to be good for their own sake. In fact, it could be argued that being moral for one’s own self is the highest form of morality attainable, as you are not doing it to please someone else, even if that someone else is a higher power.

To conclude, I would like to say that every individual’s meaning of life would depend upon their own personal view of the world, and of themselves. For me personally, for example, if I was not able to be happy in my own company, then I would feel as though I am not leading a happy and meaningful life. We are our own first lines of contact with the rest of the world and all of existence; if we do not love ourselves, then we may not be able to meaningfully connect with the world around us.

Swenson, David F. "The Dignity of Life" The Meaning of Life III (2008): 17-26.
Klemke, E. D. "Living without Appeal: An Affirmative Philosophy of Life" The Meaning of Life III (2008): 184-195.

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