|Why is this image at a jaunty angle?|
Most of us at some time in our lives have
reflected on the deep mystery concerning the 'meaning of life’. Those of a
religious persuasion are generally sure in their conclusions. This life is a mere preparation for
the next ethereal and eternal existence in paradise or life is part of an endless
cycle of growth and rebirth. Thus there is
solace and meaning for religious folk. The reason why we are born at all or why
we require a testing corporeal interlude is rarely addressed. As an atheist, by default, I cannot think or
gain consolation from these doctrines. And in a way I feel a grudging envy for
those whose minds find satisfaction and stillness in religious belief. But the
distraction is fleeting. Gaining any degree of cheer or comfort from something
fantastic and patently false is a wondrous diversion and a sweet lie.
As a biologist living in a post
Darwin/Dawkins intellectual paradigm it is hard to consider life in the sense
of purposeful direction. Life I suspect, in the universe, is relatively common,
'life' as is understood by a professional biologist anyways. Complex life,
however, I suspect is a rare beast indeed. Mayhap we are lucky that conditions
on earth fostered complex life that eventually evolved into sentient
intelligent life capable of self awareness and self contemplation. Indeed,
evolution is not progressive in any sense. Any organism which
survives its environment and passes on its genes is an evolutionary success. I
suspect that the evolutionary line resulting in increasing brain capacity and
ultimately intelligence has proved a successful strategy, for now. Remember,
that some of the most prolific organisms on earth are bacteria- creatures
without a nervous system and hence consciousness. Evolution does not favour the
brave or the smart, just the reproductively successful and on occasion, the
lucky; evolution can be capricious.
Classical Greek philosophers tended to
consider the ‘meaning of life’ in terms of living a good and virtuous life
without malice and evil. There is a down play of the pleasures of the flesh to
be replaced with the attainment of knowledge and mental development.
However, Aristippus, a pupil of Socrates, emphasised life’s pleasures of wine,
food and sex. Although not as morally uplifting as some of the other classical
notions, it is probably more in tune with reality, at least for most of us.
Even the lofty distracted intellectual must climb down from his/her ivory tower
for a belt of single malt and a gentle caress once in a while, unless their
aesthetic is rigid and severe. Aristippus certainly bucks the main
philosophical trend. For Aristippus, hedonism is the way to go and physical
gratification is more intense than mental pleasure. Later Christian philosophy
was subsumed to devotion to the one true God and the meaning of life was
meaningless. Life itself a mere passport to heaven or if you failed to gain
the entry stamp, hell.
So if there is no God, heaven or eternal
paradise how can life have meaning? Surely a disbelief in a redemptive God
leads to nihilism? And I agree nihilism can be an attractive alternative for
the non-believer. On dark winter nights, whilst alone in my unlit study, the
state of nihilism can be alluring, like a perfumed whore. However,
in my rational and lucid moments, depending on medication cycle, I realise that
nihilism is not a real concept as such; just a negation of life and therefore
an epistemological dead end. Nihilism is not a new concept and certainly the Ancient
Greeks articulated something akin to metaphysical nihilism. Nihilism has never left us and paradoxically raises it’s
truncated and muddled head in times of relative comfort among contemplative
folk who really should know better.
With the coming of the Enlightenment in the
West, secular philosophers by their very designation discarded much of the
religious focus and swerved to a consideration of ‘life’s meaning’ according to
the individual and social interaction. Lofty ideals
came to the fore without a consideration of mundane humdrum human nature and
reality. Surely there is nothing new under the sun.
Nietzsche is sometimes associated with
nihilism. Undoubtedly Nietzsche wrote about nihilism but I see little evidence
that the man was a nihilist himself. In fact his attitude to the meaning of life
was one of subjectivity. Each can find an answer which is valid for the
individual. This is a sound pragmatic viewpoint not overly dressed up in philosophical finery but Nietzsche, towards the end of his life, was completely barking mad. Make of his
philosophy what you will.
There you have it: no great insight from
the golden haired one and I confess that I side with Nietzsche on this one. The
meaning of life is not an objective or empirical question. Each individual must
make up their own answer. The subjective conclusion, if there is one, is in the
eye of the beholder. Of course, I could be writing total, utter and complete pretentious
bollocks. I have a tendency to do this, especially when drunk. Arse.