by Quentin Long
©2010 Quentin Long
What, exactly, is The Meaning Of Life? Answer: Whatever you want it to be.
Do you think that sounds like a cop-out? If so, youre wrong. It is, in fact, the most accurate answer I can give to that question. The problem is, meaning isnt an objectively measurable quality, like weight or density or temperature; rather, meaning is something we humans attach to stuff, and whatever relationship (if any!) that meaning may have to the physical universe is purely arbitrary. If you ask a bunch of people to tell you the meaning of some particular objecta soccer ball, sayyoure likely to get at least as many different answers as there are people giving you said answer. Now ask that same bunch of people to measure the weight of that object, and theyll all give you pretty much the same answer.
In short, there just isnt any One True Meaning of anything, only a (potentially infinite) Set of Possible Meanings. This is analogous to how there isnt any One True Language; the English word dog refers to the same thing as the French word chien, and theres no Eternal, Absolutely Correct justification for preferring one word over the other. Instead, theres just arbitrary, practical justifications, such as am I talking to someone who only speaks French?
When you get right down to it, meaning is one of those things which falls into the category of its all in your heador, to coin a term which carries decidedly less emotional baggage, meaning is a part of internal Reality. Lots of other things are also part of internal Reality, including preferences in food (i.e., is chocolate ice cream better than strawberry?), moral judgements (i.e., when is it permissible to injure other people?), and religious faith (i.e., are we waiting for the Messiahs reunion tour, or are we waiting for His debut appearance?).
Now, I can already hear the outraged howls from a certain segment of Anthros readership: What do you mean, religious faith is part of internal Reality? I know for certain that God really does exist, and so-called external Reality wouldnt even be here without Him! How dare you dismiss my sincerely-held Faith as just being all in my head, you arrogant so-and-so!? I dare quite easily, thanks. Yes, if youre a Christian (as roughly 4/5 of all United States citizens are), your faith tells you that Jesus Christ is the son of God, that Hes the Messiah, and that His Second Coming is due to happen any day now. But if you happen to be a Muslim, your faith tells you that Jesus Christ is neither the Son of God nor the Messiah; rather, your faith tells you that Christ was just a particularly gifted prophet. And if youre a Jew, your faith tells you that youre still waiting for the Messiah to show up.
At least one of these three belief systems must be wrongand yet, adherents of all three belief systems can and do assert that the one they happen to believe in, really and truly is the One True Religion. So yeah: Whether you like it or not, whether you want to acknowledge it or not, religious faith simply is part of internal Reality, every bit as much as meaning is.
The two paragraphs just previous are more than a diversionary aside; theyre also an indirect reference to some of the problems that can arise when people arent clear on the distinction between internal Reality and external Reality. And there very definitely is such a distinction: Internal Reality has no rules other than those you happen to accept at the moment, and those rules, like everything else about internal Reality, are subject to change with your opinions. But the rules of external Reality are always in operation, nor do theynor can theycease to apply merely because you prefer a different set of rules (or even none at all)! If any of you readers disagree with that, feel free to decide not to be bound by the law of gravityand then go jump off a bridge. Let me know how that experiment works out for you, okay?
To repeat, the problem is failing to distinguish between internal Reality and external Reality. Its one thing if your internal Reality includes daydreams about being married to [insert name of famous performer]; its something else again if you base your behavior on the presumption that said imaginary marriage is a genuine part of external Reality perhaps by, say, moving into that performers house. Because what could be more logical and natural than moving into your spouses home, right? And then theres all the fun which can occur when somebody decides to maim and/or kill another person because of some bizarre facet of their internal Reality
Heres the bottom line: If your internal Reality includes facets which are neither dangerous to other people nor compatible with external Reality? In that case, its harmless, so live and let live applies. But if your internal Reality includes facets which both clash with external Reality and cause you to torment, kill, or otherwise abuse other people? Now, that is anything but harmless and