While pondering “the meaning of food” is rare, pondering “the meaning of life” is common. Deservedly? Buckle up and enjoy the ride.
Meanings are tricky. Colors provide a simpler way to explore some of the relevant ideas.
§1.1: What Color is the Number Six?
The question heading this subsection is nonsense. Many different kinds of thing have colors, but numbers don’t. Making sense is harder than just having sensible-looking syntax.
One of the ways that philosophy made substantial progress in the past century was the realization that some “deep” questions could be as nonsensical as the one heading of this subsection. Determining which ones are really deep will take a while. Nonsensical questions may sometimes be failed attempts to pose serious questions that would be more tractable with better wording, so some nonsense may deserve more sympathy than the heading of this subsection.
§1.2: What Color is the US Flag?
Flags do have colors, but the question heading this subsection is still nonsense. The US flag is red, white, and blue. While mostly red, the Chinese flag also has some yellow. How many nations have flags of just one color?
Nobody is silly enough to speak of “the” color of a nation’s flag, but people often do fall into the trap of speaking of “the” thingamajig when there are in fact several relevant thingamajigs. I posted 4 varied examples (and there are many more).
It does make sense to say that white is the color of the stars in the US flag, that green is the color of the fake foliage in my Xmas wreath, and so on. But look at the ribbon on my wreath:
The color I see at any place on the ribbon is intricately context-dependent. Where is the light coming from? Where am I standing? While the solid red ribbons on other wreaths are easier to describe, my iridescent ribbon is prettier to see.
The word mole has utterly different meanings in chemistry, dermatology, and espionage. Even if we suppose it makes sense to attribute a meaning to life, pondering “the” meaning of life may still be like pondering “the” color of the US flag, “the” color of an iridescent ribbon, or “the” meaning of mole.
Like mathematical notations (and many hand gestures), words are arbitrary symbols with enough consensus about what they mean to support use in communication. Who uses life to say what to whom?
I posted 4 imagined responses by an old Yankee to a novice philosopher’s bloviations; one of the responses is
Wehrds need meanings; life don’t.
§3: How to Live
Your life and mine are not arbitrary symbols used by a third party to communicate with a fourth party. Maybe some concerns about “the meaning of life” are poorly worded concerns about how to live. Preferring the workable to the grandiose, I go with a simple short list:
- Try to have some fun.
- Try to do more good than harm.
- Don’t sweat “the meaning” of it all.