Sunday, February 17, 2013

Goldberg on the Meaning of Life

In his latest G-File (an emailed newsletter), Jonah Goldberg ruminates on the meaning of life. After mentioning Robert Wright and Wright's interview with Edward Fredkin, and Fredkin's take on information as fundamental to the universe, Goldberg gives his view of things: 
But here's the thing. It doesn't matter whether it is literally true. It is metaphorically true. And in a way, metaphorical truth is more important. The meaning of life is found in the living of it. This not a materialistic, "you only live once" argument for hedonism. Rather, I'm simply acknowledging the fact that whatever meaning there is to our existence can only be gleaned from existence. If all you've got are shadows on the wall of Plato's cave, you learn what you can from the shadows.

We are all individually working out the math. I don't mean to belittle or sidestep religion, but to bolster it. Religion is metaphorical too, insofar as God's will is always a mystery and out of reach. But religion helps most people look beyond the material to the deeper purpose of all things. Atheists who hate religion, it seems to me, often really hate the language of religion because it doesn't speak to them or because they lack the imagination to see it in anything but the strictest and most literal terms.

Meanwhile, John Donne was right in the small-c catholic and big-C Catholic sense: No man is an island. And whether you want to say that we are "Each ... a piece of the continent, a part of the main," or whether you want to say that we are each working on our own little bit of the big math problem, you are still grasping at the shadows to describe a truth too big for your hands to recognize, but that your soul can feel
There are some things well said here, in particular "The meaning of life is found in the living of it." The reason is that what is known in the meaning of life is one and the same with the process of knowing it; the life that knows the meaning of life is no other life than the one for which the meaning is known. This is different from an objective pursuit like science, where the life of the scientist knowing science is entirely separate from the science known. It is thus possible to know science well but be utterly confused about the meaning of one's own existence. On the comic side, this results in shows like The Big Bang Theory, which feature brilliant scientists who give disquisitions on quantum mechanics one minute and display a childlike level of sophistication in social relationships, empathy and ethical reasoning the next. On the sinister side, it results in the phenomenon of Nazi scientists, who could perform experiments on subject persons that followed the strictest scientific protocols but were justified by the most crude moral reasoning. In contrast, a man such as Socrates, who understands the meaning of his own existence, necessarily reveals this knowledge in the manner in which he lives (see Crito and Phaedo). Offered an opportunity to escape from prison in the Crito so that he might pursue philosophy in some other city than Athens, Socrates demurs because such an escape would prove he is not truly a philosopher. The knowledge Socrates seeks is self-knowledge, which is nothing other than the meaning of his own life,  and since his reasoning has convinced him the citizen must submit to law, he must live that meaning in his own life or prove he doesn't really know what he says he knows.

But where Goldberg goes astray is in the common assumption that since the meaning of life must be found in the living of it, that meaning must be murky or only something you feel. The example of Socrates contradicts this. There is nothing murky or merely emotional about what Socrates tells us in the Crito. In fact it is perfectly clear and stated with Socrates's customary equanimity. What confuses us is that, unlike a solution to a math problem, we can't really know what Socrates tells us merely through his telling it; we can only know it to the extent that we have subjectively appropriated it, and no one can do that but ourselves. As Kierkegaard tells us, the subjective thinker understands that the difficulty with subjective knowledge is not knowing what is required, but in doing it. The modern way of thinking, however, only recognizes the objective aspect to knowledge, and so sensing that something is missing in the objective assertion of the meaning of life, but not grasping the missing element as a subjective thinker, the modern thinker collapses that missing subjective element into the objective equation, perceiving what is in fact plain to be murky or merely a matter of emotion.

There is also the unwarranted conclusion that since God is greater than us, God's will is always a mystery and out of reach. This is true if the only way we can know God's will is through our own efforts, i.e. our own attempts to reach up to God. But what if, rather than leaving us to our own devices, God chooses to reveal Himself to us in a manner that we can appropriate? Then we again have the situation where the real problem is not the objective content of what is known, but the manner and fact of its subjective appropriation.

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