2.16 Meaning of Life, Transience, and Hope
2.16.1 This essay will conclude section 2.0 - Ethics. Throughout this section, I have attempted to give a panoramic view of ethics, as I see them, which I believe spring from the worldview explained in section 1.0 - Epistemology. How then does all of this figure in when we step back and look at the big picture? What is the meaning of life under such a worldview and from where does hope spring?
2.16.2 To ask what the "meaning" of life is, is a loaded question. The very use of the word "meaning" implies meaning to someone. To a person without a belief in a deity, there is no "someone" for their lives to have meaning to, other than themselves and others around them. Also, the question of meaning in life is over generalized. Different aspects of our lives may have different meanings to different people. Albert Einstein’s life as a scientist has meaning to us, but his life as a father, husband, and friend had different meanings to those close to him. All of these aspects of his life had meaning to him.
2.16.3 Most late-blooming humanists and other nontheists, when recalling their "moment of conversion" will refer to a great sense of freedom coming upon them, like a weight being lifted from their shoulders. Many freethought authors have elaborated on such moments with great poetry and feeling. What the humanist outlook offers is freedom; the freedom to see without the smoke screen of ideological taboos and the freedom to think without arbitrary boundaries. It also allows us the freedom to choose our own meaning in life.
2.16.4 What about the transience of life - its finality? How can a life that ends have meaning? One individual’s life can have value, simply because of the enjoyment of that individual. It is the experience of life itself which has meaning. One might say that it is the limited nature of life which makes it so valuable. It is not convincing to me that a finite life lacks meaning. Everyone has heard of people who were told by their doctor that they only had a short time to live. They are usually advised to "make the most" of the time they have left. This is because the value of each day has just increased due to its new status as a rare commodity (supply and demand). Have you ever considered what the abysmal value of an infinite life would be? It seems to me that many immortal people would eventually commit suicide. What would not be boring to you after 1,000 years, or a million?
2.16.5 Life should not be viewed as a means to an end as in, "What did I live for?" Instead, life should be viewed as an end unto itself; to be enjoyed for its own sake. The value in life is in the living of it. In addition, we often find that the positive contributions we make to others can give great meaning to our lives. Let us look at other finite experiences: sand castles and ice sculptures. Why do we build these? Neither structure is permanent and yet, for the audience the value is higher because of the transience of the experience. For the artist, the joy is in the creation process, rather than the finished product per se. This is not unlike the Tibetan Monks who go to great lengths to create elaborate designs out of pouring colored sand. These designs do not last but, for the monks, it is the process of creating them that serves as a spiritual experience. In life, it is each day we live and the experiences we have that have a value in and of themselves. This is the "now" of eastern and stoic thought and it is one way to find great meaning in life.
2.16.6 What this means is that the meaning I may choose for my life may be different than the meaning you choose for yours. If you’re thinking you would like to choose a meaning that is unethical, then I have shown in 2.4 that this is most unwise and we would be squandering our one and only life. When we act within the realm of acceptable human conduct and responsible living, we literally have an infinite variety of options for giving our lives a meaning of our own choosing. This is what humanism offers those who hope to find meaning in life.