Ellen Watson - The Meaning of Life
Delivered 03 Jan 2007

I'm going to answer the question, "What is the meaning of life?" by breaking it into two subquestions: What is the nature of the self, and, given the answer to that, what should one do to lead the best life?

I'm going to look at a number of candidate answers to these questions, and I'll evaluate which ones seem to give the best answer.

The five candidates fall into these categories:

And a subcategory of "I am my relationships",

I'll outline each one first, and then I'll come back and evaluate them as candidate answers to the big question, "What is the meaning of life?"

I am my body

The first candidate answer to "What constitutes a self?" might be to just identify your self with your body. Use the skin as a boundary, and everything inside the skin is you. Very straightforward, and it also leads to a pretty straightforward set of rules for living - eat right, exercise, look after your health, etc.

However, these are the same rules for living that apply to a paramecium, or a plant. So, while they're probably not bad as a minimum standard, since human beings are more than just bodies, I think we might be able to do better.

I am my mind

This category includes several different candidates for theories of the self:

  1. I am my personality- I don't have a precise clinical definition of personality to use here, but we can say it's one's typical reactions to different situations - the behavior, thoughts and feelings one tends to have.
  2. I am my ideas/values- You might also identify yourself with your ideas, or with your values. We can define values quite broadly, to encompass everything from your tastes and preferences, like whether you prefer vanilla or chocolate ice cream, to your positions on thorny moral issues like stem cell research or capital punishment.
  3. I am my experiences/memories- Finally, you might identify yourself with your experiences or memories of things you've done, the collection of memories you've made over your life.

What rules for living follow from these theories of the self?

  1. Personality- not much. If you are identified with your personality and your personality is a set of your typical behaviors, thoughts and feelings, then the idea is that you will go through life continuing to act in these typical ways. This view seems to entail that as you go through life you'll just do what you do, and there's nothing much you can or should do to change it.
  2. Ideas/values- This view gives you a bit more guidance - you would presumably go through life trying to have more ideas, and to refine your theories and values. You can refine them by performing experiments, testing your views against the world and getting a more precise articulation of them.
  3. Experiences/memories- This view might lead to the prescription that you should live life trying to have as many experiences as possible, or maybe a wide variety of experiences. We'll come back to this one later when we're evaluating all the different theories, because I think there's some more to say about this.

But first I'll outline the other three candidates.

I am my achievements

Many different systems of thought identify the self with achievements. One version is Protestantism, which says you earn salvation through your good works - you define yourself as a person worthy of going to heaven on the basis of what you do in this life. Another philosophy that identifies the self with achievements is Existentialism. According to Existentialist philosophy, the self is undefined, is pure nothingness at the start, and the individual has the responsibility for defining oneself anew into each new second of life through one's choices and actions. You have no essential nature as a human being when you're born, you are pure potentiality, but after you've lived your whole life, you have an essence built up of all the actions you've chosen throughout your life.

This is my view. I think I've believed in this all my life, maybe from my protestant upbringing or maybe from being raised an American, and I definitely believed it when I was a young Existentialist at University. However, I've lately begun to have doubts, so I'll go over those when I'm evaluating the various positions at the end, and explore some alternatives that I'm considering changing to.

But finally, I'll outline the last two candidates:

I am my relationships

Lots and lots of people identify themselves via their relationships with other people. People also often identify themselves with their spouse, or their family if they're from a prominent family, or maybe by their relationship to their ancestors - identifying with your race or bloodline or home culture. The rule for living that comes out of this identification of the self with others would probably be just to foster these relationships.

I am my stuff

Finally, I want to mention one specific sort of relationship on which you can base your identify - your relationship to your stuff. This view is much maligned - it's supposed to be wrong to be materialistic or to focus on possessions - but I think it deserves a bit more consideration than it usually gets. I think it's quite possible to express yourself through the material things you choose to keep around you - maybe a collection, maybe clothes or other adornments, or maybe the tools of your trade, like a musical instrument or a laptop. And in a more literal way, if you think of prosthetic devices such as artificial limbs, cochlear implants, wheelchairs, etc., the people who have them do incorporate them into their being, into the way they act in the world. In all these ways people might scaffold their selves out into the material world, and I don't think they are always bad. So, "I am my stuff" is a candidate theory of the self, and the rule for living that follows is not just "He who dies with the most stuff wins", it would be something more like "Express yourself."

So that's the five candidates. Now I'll turn to evaluating them as answers to the Meaning of Life question.

Let's look at the easy ones first.

Evaluating "I am my body"

I said at the outset that while this led to some good minimum conditions for living a good life, if human beings are more than just bodies, then we need something more.

Evaluating "I am my personality"

As I mentioned earlier, this theory of the self ends up being quite static, so if you identify yourself with your personality there's nothing really that you should do or not do as you live your life. Not quite as bad as a paramecium, but almost.

Evaluating "I am my relationships"

While it's important to foster good relationships in life, my own feeling is that it's a very bad idea to look for other people for your own identity. Children grow up and leave to live their own lives, spouses leave, ancestors are gone already, people can betray you, and if you identify yourself through them, it makes your identity too vulnerable to being destroyed. I think it's much better to make the locus of your identify inside yourself. I don't think you should derive the meaning of your life from other people.

Evaluating "I am my stuff"

In some ways, stuff is less likely to betray you because it's easier to control, but stuff can leave you too - it might get stolen, your house might burn down or your hard drive crash, etc. For the same reasons as I mentioned above, you probably shouldn't derive the meaning of your life from your stuff either.

This leaves us with the two candidates that I find most attractive, so let me conclude by looking at their pros and cons.

Evaluating "I am my achievements"

As I mentioned, this is what I've always thought, but it leads to some problems. If you are your achievements, how do you determine which achievements are the right ones? You either need to evaluate them based on some external standard, as in Protestantism, in which case the standard itself is giving meaning to your life and not the achievements themselves, or the evaluation is completely up to you, in which case you might end up in Existential despair, where you are bound to act but every choice is equally valuable and there's no real way to choose between them - classic meaninglessness.

Also, if your ethical framework has a humanist grounding and you believe that every human life is equally valuable, intrinsically, then this view applies assymetrically to one's own self. Your own value is based on your achievements, but everyone has value just by existing as a human being, which seems a bit unfair.

Evaluating "I am my experiences"

Can we do better? The other candidate that's been looking attractive to me lately is "I am my experiences." In this view, the self is placed in the world to receive things, to be entertained in a way, rather than with a fierce obligation to achieve things and contribute. Is this receptive stance better for living a good life? Not on its own, I don't think, because if you lived by the rule "Have as many experiences as possible," you might feel obliged to experience some horrible things, like finding out what it's like to torture kittens, or to burn your arm with cigarettes, or to jump off a high building. I think if you take this stance you have to do it in conjunction with refining your values, so that you pursue experiences that are not in violation of them. It works well, because you experiences can act as tests that help you refine your values. But if you do this, I'm thinking you may end up having a richer life than Existentialism or Protestantism can provide.