Given that life begins and ends on the Earth for every person, now and into the future, i.e. the
possibility of an 'after-life' for the purpose of this question is nil, how does one overcome the sense of
futility and instead obtain a sense of purpose for one's own life and others, knowing that ALL are
destined for the same fate?
Many philosophers (including such polar opposites of each other as Martin Heidegger and Karl
Popper) have suggested that, far from rendering everything futile, the finitude of life is in fact the only
thing that can give it meaning. If there was too much life available, there would be inflation the way
there is when too much money is circulating in the economy. Like money, life would be completely
worthless if everyone had as much of it as he wanted — you "couldn't give it away for free".
For a nice illustration of this argument, I can recommend the last chapter of Julian Barnes's novel A
History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters,in which a man becomes mortally bored in the afterlife
because his every wish is always instantly granted — and he can't even be thrilled by the risk of dying
in adventure or the like, as he has already died.
T. P. Uschanov
Department of Philosophy
University of Helsinki
Ian believes that that it matters whether one can overcome the sense of futility and obtain a sense of
purpose, given his factual presuppositions, which he regards as "given" and "known." He wants to
know how to make sense of this mattering. Now to the degree that Ian thinks that this is a real
question, to that degree I would want to hear hisreasons for presupposing what he does about our
destinies. To the extent that skepticism about his reasons can be sustained, to that extent his
problem loosens its grip. The question of the meaning of human life in prospect of the eventual
heat-death of the universe is a serious one, but it is up to the one posing the question to make the
case for its gravity, not for others to make it for him and then to answer theirown construction. They
risk misinterpreting his question in order to make an answer more likely. But the philosopher may
have set up the question in a way that makes an answer impossible, and so he will probably not
recognize his question in their interpretation of it.
The short answer is that perhaps one doesn't"overcome" or "obtain" if what Ian presupposes is true,
but perhaps he has presupposed what is false. The feeling that this short answer is unsatisfactory
should goad him to explicate and defend his presuppositions.
Yes, this is the position that every religion wants you to believe. But let's look at it. Suppose that you
(and everyone) lived forever; we had "souls" (whatever those are) and our lifespan (never mind the
body — that's just "clay") was thus infinite. Ok... now, given that, why shouldwe act morally,
compassionately, etc., while we're alive on earth? Our lifespan here is literallyan infinitesimal fraction,
totally insignificant, of our total lives, which are infinite, right? So what difference do our actions over
anyfinite time span make? None whatsoever. We could be the most vile tyrants for, say, 50 million
years, but in an infinite span, that is precisely as long (relative to our whole span) as any other finite
length: five seconds, for example. I'm not being metaphorical here. Given an infinite life span, if any
finite part of that is removed, there is still an infinite length of time left (in fact, you can remove infinite
amounts, if you do it in particular ways, and have infinity left also). So why bother? You have an
infinite time left in which to change things or to act morally, however long you have been evil,
however much pain you have inflicted.
It is, in fact, just when we realize that we have onlya finite life span that we should realize that we
must act ethically in that span. That's all we have; we can'tcorrect for it in the next few billion years.
In addition, although we do not know the consequences of our actions, we have evidence that "good"
actions produce "good" (I'm not going to go into what these mean here) results. So, we will be dead,
and indeed everyone else now living, in, say, 100 years, so what? The odds are good that humans
will still exist, and human culture, and that our actions may have effects, which we cannot foresee
(except, as I say, to expect that moral actions will have good results), for an indefinite length of time.
Who knows? But it's possible that some act of ours may echo, even covertly, for weeks or for aeons.
We just don't know, and indeed probably (given chaos theory) cannot.
As for purpose. Here's another one the religions love to seize on. God gives us purpose, right?
Otherwise we'd have none. Poor us. Well, how about this: wecan create our own purposes. Where
does a god get its purposes, anyway... from itsgod? A nice regression there. How about your trying
to come up with a purpose, and living that purpose, with the expectation that even though you will die,
that purpose will have given your life meaning, may help others to find meaning, and may in addition,
through your actions based on it, have beneficial consequences for the future?
Steven Ravett Brown