Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Meaning of Life

I was reacquainted with the age old question "what is the meaning of life" recently when reading a book called War of the Worldviews by Deepak Chopra and Leonard Mlodinow.  Throughout the book, Deepak brings up the issue of the meaning of life numerous times.  This question, often described as the "ultimate question," the "big question," etc...  is an oft debated question and considered to be vastly important.  However, as anyone who has addressed this question knows there has never been an agreed upon answer and in fact there have been many vastly different answers to this question.

After reading Deepak's book and a recent article by Deepak discussing the meaning of life I felt I had to break down this question.  However, in this post I won't answer what the meaning of life is but I'll explain exactly why it hasn't been answered.  And the answer to that question lies in an understanding of language and rhetoric.  So what is the answer...
Answer:  "What is the meaning of life" is a bad question that can't be answered because it is far too ambiguous to be meaningful.  In fact, under some interpretations the question itself may simply be a meaningless question such as "what shape is an idea?" 
In other words, remember when your teachers told you there was no such thing as a dumb question.  Well, in a sense they were right because you can learn something from trying to answer any question.  But in another sense they were wrong, some questions can't be answered because the words composing the question aren't meaningful when strung together.  "What is the meaning of life?" is one of these meaningless questions (if you'll pardon my pun).

What is a Question
To start this post I first want to explain what a question is.  You might think this is a pointless exercise but there are some nuances here that most of us don't think about in day to day life.  A question is a sentence or phrase designed to elicit information from the listener.  Generally we ask questions because we want to learn something.  This means that usually we hope the answer we receive will be true.  But sometimes the format of the question can actually prevent us from getting a good answer to our query.

Luckily, most questions are easy to answer if the listener knows the answer: "what is 2 + 2?"  "how tall are you?" and "what causes the sun to set at night?" are all easy to answer by an educated listener.  The reason why is because these questions are clear, easy to understand, and ask for specific answers.  However, not every question is created equal.  Just because someone phrases something as a question doesn't mean that the question can be answered.  There are many problems that can arise in questions and I will discuss three here including: 1) questions that aren't meaningful, 2) questions that are ambiguous and 3) questions that are too broad.

1)  Meaningless Questions
To explain what a meaningless question is lets use my example from above: "What shape is an idea?"  Take a second and try to answer this question.... Now you might come to realize that whatever shape you shout out I can always say "wrong" because ideas don't have a shape.  This is what I call a meaningless question.  Any question that can't be answered is essentially meaningless.

The reason this "what shape is an idea?" can't be answered is because ideas are not physical objects and therefore don't have shapes.  Of course we could reinterpret the question to "what shape do you think an idea has" and the question could be answered but the original question cannot because ideas do not have shapes.  Thus, asking "what shape is an idea?" is a meaningless statement.

We can learn something from this bad question "what shape is an idea?"  If you look at the question you may realize that it is asserting a fact as well as asking a question.  The fact being asserted is that: ideas have a shape.  The question is: what shape is an idea?  Well since we know the asserted fact is wrong (ideas don't have a shape) then we know we can't answer the question that depends on that fact.

This idea can be applied to any questions.  Whenever you hear a question you should ask yourself whether that question is also asserting a fact that you disagree with.  If you don't agree with the fact you can't answer the question.   Here are some obvious faulty questions because they assert disputable facts:  "why are all liberals/conservatives dumb?" "where is Tupak living?" "how do penguins fly?" or (if you'll pardon my use of an unfortunately common and insensitive child's joke) "have you told your parents that you're gay yet?"  If someone ever asks you a question like this you shouldn't answer but instead argue the point you disagree with.  Otherwise you impliedly give in to their framing of the issue.

So remember, when someone asks you a question, take a quick second to pause and ask whether that question contains an implied assertion of fact that you think is wrong.

2)  Ambiguous Questions
A second common problem with questions arises when the question is ambiguous.  Lets start with an example:  imagine you are walking down the street and a driver stops and asks "which way to the store?"  This might leave you slightly confused because you don't know which store he is talking about.  You could assume he means the local department store and point him in the direction of the nearest Sears but he might be asking about something else (like a grocery store).

The problem with an ambiguous question is that you don't know what the speaker is actually asking.  Our mystery shopper could be asking how to get to the grocery store, a clothing store, a music store, or any other store or perhaps even a place enigmatically named "the store."

Ambiguous questions are problematic because the person asking may intend one interpretation (where is the grocery store) while the listener assumes a different interpretation (where is the department store).  Thus, when our ambiguous shopper follows the directions you give him and arrives at Sears rather than Albertson's he might be irritated about being at the wrong place but the fault is all his own for not telling you what store he was trying to get to.

3)  Broad Questions
A question that is too broad is a question that takes so much to fully answer that you can't practically answer the question in a short time.  This is somewhat similar to an ambiguous question in that there may be many right answers.  However, in order to completely answer the question you may need to sit down and write a book or the question might be impossible to ever fully answer.

An example of this would be: "what caused world war II?"  On its face this question appears easy to answer because it asks for a specific thing, the cause of world war II.  But if you think about it there is no one single cause and instead the cause lies in the intentions and actions of countless people whose decisions lead to the war.  Any short answer to this question would necessarily omit some causes and would likely need to simplify the issue.

The reason that I say this is problematic is because a broad question that cannot be answered briefly generally is composed of numerous sub-questions that must all be answered.  Lets go back to my world war II example.  To answer that question you first need to answer other questions like: "what countries fought in world war II?" "who lead the countries fighting in world war II?"  "what did these leaders do during this time?"... etc. Thus, when answering what caused world war II we must delve into a nearly endless onion of questions to fully answer.

If I ask you to tell me what caused World War II you would have to either write me a multi-volume treatise or pick specific sub-questions to answer and only answer those questions.  For example, you could simply say "world war II was caused by disputes among Nations arising out of World War I."  Your answer would be in a sense correct but it is incomplete and just like an ambiguous question that might not have been the answer I was looking for.

Thus, the listener is left to pick and choose which sub-questions to answer.  This leads to confusion because the person asking the question may not know which sub-questions are being answered.  Therefore, if you hear a question like this you should ask the speaker for a more detailed explanation of what they want you to answer or consider explaining that you are just giving a general answer to the question.

What is the Meaning of Life
Well now that we are equipped with some tools to analyze questions; lets apply those tools to the meaning of life.

If you have discussed the meaning of life you have probably found that people have vastly different answers to this question.  But, this doesn't mean some people are right and some people are wrong.  It means that people are answering different questions.  The "meaning of life" is actually just an ambiguous question as discussed above just like the question "where is the store."  The word "meaning" in the context of meaning of life is highly ambiguous.

If you take the question literally, the word meaning means definition and thus the ultimate question is just asking you to define what life is.  However, if you notice how people answer the question you soon realize that most people interpret the question as asking something else entirely.  This truly shows that the ultimate question is really just an ambiguous question and that each person interprets the question into their own version and then answers that question.

To find the meaning of life we really just need to figure out what the question is asking.  Wikipedia lists a number of questions that people actually mean when they say "what is the meaning of life." I want to address a few of these and show that when we become more specific it becomes much easier to answer what the meaning of life is.  I also want to show how some interpretations are meaningless questions.  I will address the following questions: 1. what is the origin of life, 2. what is the purpose of life, 3. what is the reason to live, 4.  what should we do with our life, and 5. what is the definition of life.

1.  What is the origin of life?
What is the origin of life is one interpretation of the ultimate question.  This is, in some ways, an easy question to answer but in other ways a difficult question to answer.  This question is not ambiguous, it is looking for an answer to the question of where life on earth began and how it began.  Thus, it is rather easy to know what this question requires as an answer. 

However, this question is actually a very difficult question to answer with absolute certainty because it would require us to be able to look back in time to the point where life began.  With our knowledge right now time travel is impossible and thus we must use other evidence to answer this question.  I don't want to get into the debate of where life came from or the science vs. religion debate that is inherent in this question because that isn't really the point of this blog post.  And if you think about it, you will realize that the question is an extremely broad question as discussed above because the answer to that question will require significant amounts of evidence and debate.

What I want to do is emphasize that once we become more specific and ask "what is the origin of life?" instead of "what is the meaning of life" the debate about the proper answer becomes much more clear.  Each side knows that they are trying to prove where life began.  Thus, this question is answerable unlike the meaning of life.

2.  What is the purpose of life?
I want to start out by pointing out that the word "purpose" in this question is ambiguous itself.  To clear up this ambiguity I'll list the two primary ways that the word "purpose" is used.

-Purpose Definition 1
First, some people use the word purpose to mean the reason for your behavior or a goal.  For example, if I am at a dinner party and suddenly I smack my hand down on the table someone may ask "what was the purpose of that."  That person is asking the reason why I slammed my hand down on the table and I may tell them that my fork was sliding off and I was trying to save it.  Under this definition of the word "purpose" we are really looking for the goal of an intelligent agent.

I would say "what is the purpose of life" is a meaningless question under this interpretation (though this may be subject to debate).  Even though every individual living being is capable of having a purpose (a reason for its behavior) life as a whole is not a living thing and thus cannot have a reason for its behavior.  Again this may be a debatable point, but I want to emphasize that it is much easier to debate the "purpose of life" than "the meaning of life."

-Purpose Definition 2
A second definition of the word purpose is generally applied to things that are designed by humans or other intelligent creatures.  For example, when I ask "what is the purpose of a hammer."  What I am really asking is when we created hammers what did we intend them to primarily do.  Now note, the primary purpose of a hammer is to nail.  Thus, the answer to "what is the purpose of a hammer" is: to nail.   However, note that I can also use a hammer to break a window, open nuts, or as a paper weight.  Even, though a hammer could be used for many things we would say that the purpose of the hammer is to nail, not to break windows.

This illuminates how the word purpose is used.  We use the word purpose to describe what the creator of an object intended that object to be used for.  So if we apply this version of the word purpose to our ultimate question we realize that it is asking "what is the primary thing we were intended to do by our creator."  Now, this of course is an extremely broad question that would require much debate.  To answer this we would not only need to prove that a creator in fact existed, we would also have to determine what his intent in creating us was.  Thus, this is a question that contains an implied assertion that a god exists.  If someone disagrees with this claim then before answering the question you must prove that a god exists.  Under this idea, this interpretation of "the meaning of life" could be a meaningless question as discussed above if you do not believe a god exists.

Again, I don't want to delve into this vast debate of why or even if we were created.  Instead I want to point out that when you make the question more specific it becomes much easier to tell what kind of answer we need and also allows us to determine if the question is meaningless.

3.  What is the reason to Live?
This question is really just a subjective question, or an opinion.  Really, this question is just asking why we should even try to perform things in our lives rather than just lying down to die.  This question could be answered in an infinite number of ways.  Every person may have their own reason for waking up every morning and doing what they do. 

4.  What should we do with our life?
Just like question 3 above this question is asking for your personal opinion on what we should do with our lives.  Anyone could say what they think people should do with their lives but there is no way to prove someone is right.

5.  What is the definition of life
This question is again an easy question to know how to answer but the answer is debatable.  This question is asking how to define what is alive.  Generally we want to include all large creatures and many small cellular organisms but we want to make sure our definition doesn't include things like fire which has some similar properties to life.

Just like all the questions above there is much room to debate what the answer to this question is, but we know exactly what we are debating.

Meaning of life is an ambiguous and overbroad question.  It is ambiguous because when someone asks you the ultimate question you don't know if they are asking you what you should do with your life or asking where life began.  This makes the meaning of life a poor question because so many different answers would be correct.  Only when we make the question more specific does the debate become useful because everyone then knows what the debate is about.

Meaning of life is also overbroad.  Many different interpretations of the meaning of life (such as where did life begin) are vastly complicated questions.  These questions are not ones that can be easily answered and would take vast amounts of research and debate to come to a conclusive answer.  For these reasons these questions are too broad for a simple answer.

One other issue as noted above is that the meaning of life may be asking for an opinion.  In these cases there is no right answer and anyone can believe what they want.

Overall, people should stop asking what the meaning of life is and try to be more specific with their questions.  Then they should realize that they may be asking for an opinion or a very complicated answer.  The versions asking for an opinion (i.e. what should I do with my life?) are much easier to debate on a casual basis.  However, the broad questions (i.e. where did life begin?) are much harder to debate and really require research.  Thus, the meaning of life is a complex question that becomes easier to understand once we realize it is ambiguous.

Analyzing answers to the meaning of life.
As discussed above the primary reason that "meaning of life" is a difficult question to answer is because the question is much too ambiguous.  Once we make the question specific it becomes much easier to answer.  With that being said I want to actually look at some answers people give to this question to demonstrate problems that people run into when they answer this question.

I want to start with some answers listed by Deepak Chopra as common answers.  He lists things like "to glorify god. . . [and] to be true to oneself."  Looking at these we can see that these answers are likely answering the question "what should I do with my life."  As we know from above, these answers are just opinions.  Deepak says "I find it difficult to imagine how these answers could be tested."  That is a good observation, but Deepak should take the next step and realize that is because they are opinions and thus by definition not facts.  You can't prove an opinion and thus you cannot test it.  The reason I note this is that if Deepak had framed the question as "what should I do with my life."  It would have been much easier to realize that the answers were in fact opinions.  By making the question more specific he would make it easier to understand the answers.

Deepak goes on to say that we could test the meaning of life by sending a meaning to a number of people at random and seeing if they all agree.  Deepak seems to believe that the meaning of life can determined by a democratic vote.  But, I think we all realize that just because most people hold an opinion does not mean that it is in fact the correct opinion to hold.  Again, Deepak might have avoided this problem if he corrected the question and realized that he was asking "what should I do with my life."

Finally, Deepak almost realizes the truth, that "the meaning of life" is ambiguous question, but just doesn't quite get there.  He notes that if we send "the meaning of life is everything" to people then they might agree.  Here he realizes that the question "what is the meaning of life" may have many correct answers.  He just needs to take the next step and realize that the question is ambiguous.

I discuss this because I want to show how asking a poor question can lead a person down the wrong path when answering the question.  I also want to show that by thinking about why a question is difficult to answer we may learn more about the question itself.

Here are list of answers to the meaning of life on wikipedia.  If you go through these answers you will find that each person is answering a different question, one that is much more specific than "what is the meaning of life."

What should we do instead of looking for the meaning of life?  We should try to answer the more specific questions that make up the ultimate question.

You can still pursue the goals that people have listed as the meaning of life, we just shouldn't ask the ultimate question anymore.  Instead we should look for meaningful questions such as "What principals are useful guides for living life" or "how did life begin."

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