Oct 042009

What is the meaning of life?

You may have heard this question before. (Have you guessed the riddle yet? – Mad Hatter, Alice in Wonderland) Of course not. Because this question is actually logically invalid. See category mistake (the philosophical error of putting a thing into a class to which it does not belong). You programmers out there are nodding your heads in affirmation and need no further exposition on this topic. For the rest of us, a little more may be needed here…

Without getting tangled up in meta analysis and self referential loops and a discussion of the meaning of meaning, let me try to cut the infinite regression off at the knees and simply suggest that the question itself is flawed and perhaps can be improved with the following form:

What is the meaning of YOUR life? Better yet, is the question, “what is the meaning of YOU?”, or even, “what is the meaning of your life NOW?”

I believe that the error of the first question (see category mistake) is resolved in the second and improved further with these other forms. Once you realize that the concrete meaning in question cannot be ascribed to an abstraction, you are back on track to finding a specific answer. And specific is the key word here.

I have written more on this topic in my post, Strange Loops.


It is interesting to notice the difference of how a computer responds to invalid question and how a human responds. Because as humans we are less sensitive to errors in logic, we often respond to illogical proposistions – philosophical paradoxes, for example – as if they are either great mysteries worthy of pondering, or hold some clue to higher meaning when in fact in almost all cases they are merely products of poorly formed logical input. Instead of recognizing the poorly formed question for what it is, we go off on wild goose chases seeking impossible answers.

The question of the meaning of life can only be answered by life itself, so before we go chasing this particular windmill, we might do better to ask ourselves what the meaning is of our particular lives. And yet this will not get us very much farther, for what is “my life”? What is the past? What is the future? I think best of all is to ask, what is the meaning of this moment, for me? Right now, “my life” means reflecting on my life. Yesterday my life meant finding the perfect balance to the furniture in my living room. Who knows what my life will mean tomorrow? Hopefully in a few hours the meaning of my life will be bagels, eggs and orange juice.

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