Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 24, May 2002

The meaning of life (sort of...)

Suppose you are watching a very entertaining movie. Whatever movie it is that you might think of that way, it doesn’t matter. If your juices are set in motion by an “intellectual” film like My Dinner with André, so be it; if you go for romance or special effects and such, like Titanic, that would do, too. Chances are that, when the movie is over (let’s say, when the credits start rolling), you will feel both a sense of satisfaction and one of regret. It’s great that you managed to see such a good movie, but did it have to finish this soon? Couldn’t the director have given us an extra half hour of dialogue, or action, or simply of screen presence of the actors? Well, the director possibly tried, and the producer cut out the extra scenes to keep the movie to a manageable length (and, if you’re lucky, you’ll get to see the “uncut” version in DVD anyway).

Now, imagine that the movie is your life, and the closing credits are announcing your departure from this world. If you’re lucky, this particular movie (which at least in part you both directed and starred in) gave you the same sense of satisfaction. And, I bet you are also very saddened to see the credits scroll by, regardless of your opinion regarding an afterlife. I suggest that the reason for both these feelings (satisfaction and regret) is precisely because, very likely, there is no afterlife. Contrary to popular understanding, it is precisely the finiteness of our existence that gives meaning to our life. If we truly lived forever (in this or in any other world), we would be bored stiff and continually looking for a way to commit suicide (which, of course, would be impossible). Now, that is my definition of Hell.

How can this be? Well, think back to the movie we started with. Sure, you could have used another twenty minutes of André, and possibly were curious to see in a bit more detail what happened to some of the characters in Titanic after the ship went down (I mean those who survived). But, could you stomach a never-ending version of it? I mean, even soap operas, after a while, become redundant and boring (OK, maybe right after they begin, but that’s another story). Human beings are simply not made for ever-afters, happy or not.

On the contrary, what we thrive on is continuous challenge: always new problems to solve, new “finish lines” to pass. We contemplate our accomplishments with satisfaction; but the satisfaction quickly turns into unbearable boredom if we don’t have something else to look forward to. As Dante Alighieri makes Odysseus say in his (Divine) Comedy, “Fatti non foste per viver come bruti / ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza” (You were not made to live like brutes / But to pursue virtue and knowledge). The operative word here is “seguir,” to pursue. Odysseus is explaining to Dante (who is visiting Hell) why he kept wandering the world in search of adventures, even though he had a home, a lovely wife and a devoted son, and people to take care of (he was king of the Greek city of Ithaca).

Now, I’m not suggesting that we are all driven by Odysseus’ mania for new experiences, but isn’t this the same basic drive which we find at the root of so much depression, drug abuse, and even conflicts in the world? When human beings don’t have something to look forward to (either because they have too little, and no hope to achieve anything worth achieving; or because they have too much, and don’t have any distant finish-line to look forward to), they turn into themselves with invariably dark consequences.

But that is exactly the problem with eternity: if you’ve got all the time to do whatever it is that you can think of doing, you will exhaust any possible goal you can set for yourself. Then what? Then you’ll find yourself in the same situation of one of the races of aliens described in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (one of my favorite contemporary philosophical works). The aliens in question happened to be immortal, a very unfortunate condition which they coped with by inventing all sorts of ways to pass their endless time. At the moment they appear in the book, they are involved in the project of personally insulting every sentient organism in the universe in its own tongue. But, of course, it is a desperate (and meaningless) attempt to retard the inevitable: eventually, they’ll run out of beings to insult, and of insults to hurl at them.

The point was, arguably, already clear to Dante: his Comedy (in the sense of a play, not because it is particularly funny) is divided into three sections: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory, you know, he was Catholic), and Paradiso (Heaven). While the latter should have been the most exciting place to be (after all, you get to spend the rest of eternity—a contradictory concept in itself—basking in the light of God), it was, by far, the dullest, with the Inferno as the place where the action is interesting and the characters are endlessly fascinating and, well, so human.

Contemplating the meaning of life is one of humankind’s oldest occupations and we are peculiar for inventing all sorts of fabulous stories to make sense of our existence. One of the minimalist answers I run into puts the futility of such an effort in good evidence. It’s a cartoon with a series of living organisms, from simple creatures to more and more complex ones, ending, obviously, with humans. The caption says: “The meaning of life?” Every creature has a balloon that says “Eat, sleep, reproduce;” -- all except for the human’s, which asks: “What is the meaning of life?”

There is more to life than eating, sleeping and reproducing (though those are indeed fairly basic components). For example: writing columns or watching movies; being kind to your friends and relatives; and being at least decent to the rest of humanity. But, despite all our mythologies depicting an everlasting happiness in this or other worlds, we would condemn ourselves to a miserable eternity.

What then? Well, just make sure that your double role as director and star of your life’s movie is worthy of an Academy Award. It shouldn’t be that difficult…

Next Month: Ecology vs. ecophily: being reasonable about saving the environment

© by Massimo Pigliucci, 2002