The Problem

In a brief item posted today, Bill Vallicella wonders:

Does it matter whether life has an ultimate meaning or not? Someone might be satisfied if he has a good chance of attaining middle-sized happiness: peaceful days, restful nights, an adequate supply of health and wealth, satisfying employment, a loving spouse, friends, progeny, long life, and the like. Why not rest our hopes in what is known to be possible rather than in what is not known to be possible, such as immortality, the resurrection of the body, the visio beata, entry into Nirvana? Why hanker for what is beyond our mortal scale? Why not accept the finite? Are we not just a particularly clever species of land mammal?

Indeed, we are finite, and we are mortal, as are all living creatures. The problem is that we, and we alone, are in the poignantly unfortunate position of knowing it. The unique gift that evolution has bestowed upon us allows us — nay, forces us — always to imagine the future, and we do it very well: so well, in fact, that we see very clearly that soon we will not be a part of it. Is it any wonder that, clever mammals that we are, we have found so many imaginative ways to make that gift shut the hell up, and will pay dearly for them?

Bill continues:

Death, as signalling radical and irreversible change, is the muse of philosophy. What Jack London in John Barleycorn called “The Noseless One” refutes myopic worldliness.

To one on his deathbed, this fleeting life, about to vanish, must appear empty and worthless, much ado about nothing, a vain struggling and jockeying for position in a parade going nowhere. But the possiblity of death is here right now for all of us, and this metaphysical insecurity demonstrates the impossibility of myopic world-immersion for one who sees clearly. One cannot be satisfied by a merely mundane meaning. Whether or not life has an ultimate meaning, one cannot live meaningfully except in quest of it.

Indeed, once the message becomes clear, it is difficult to sit comfortably, even if it appears we may fidget in vain. As the late John Updike’s Henry Bech reminds us: man is “a fleck of dust condemned to know it is a fleck of dust.”

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