My meaning of life is my family and friends
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My meaning of life is my family and friends
Claims that descriptive science can shed light on normative issues such as the meaning of life are highly disputed within the scientific and philosophy-of-science communities. Nevertheless, science may be able to provide some context and sets some parameters for conversations on related topics.
Psychological significance and value in life
Science may or may not be able to tell us what is of essential value in life, but some studies bear on related questions: researchers in positive psychology (and, earlier and less rigorously, in humanistic psychology) study factors that lead to life satisfaction, full engagement in activities, making a fuller contribution by utilizing one's personal strengths, and meaning based on investing in something larger than the self.
One value system suggested by social psychologists, broadly called Terror Management Theory, states that all human meaning is derived out of a fundamental fear of death, whereby values are selected when they allow us to escape the mental reminder of death.
Neuroscience has produced theories of reward, pleasure and motivation in terms of physical entities such as neurotransmitter activity, especially in the limbic system and the ventral tegmental area in particular. If one believes that the meaning of life is to maximize pleasure, then these theories give normative predictions about how to act to achieve this.
Economists have learned a great deal about what is valued in the marketplace; and sociology examines value at a social level using theoretical constructs such as value theory, norms, anomie, etc.
Origin and nature of biological life
The exact mechanisms of abiogenesis are unknown: notable theories include the RNA world hypothesis (RNA-based replicators) and the iron-sulfur world theory (metabolism without genetics). The theory of evolution does not attempt to explain the origin of life but the process by which different lifeforms have developed throughout history via genetic mutation and natural selection. At the end of the 20th century, based upon insight gleaned from the gene-centered view of evolution, biologists George C. Williams, Richard Dawkins, David Haig, among others, conclude that if there is a primary function to life, it is the replication of DNA and the survival of one's genes.
However, though scientists have intensively studied life on Earth, defining life in unequivocal terms is still a challenge. Physically, one may say that life "feeds on negative entropy" which refers to the process by which living entities decrease their internal entropy at the expense of some form of energy taken in from the environment. Biologists generally agree that lifeforms are self-organizing systems regulating the internal environment as to maintain this organized state, metabolism serves to provide energy, and reproduction allows life to continue over a span of multiple generations. Typically, organisms are responsive to stimuli and genetic information tends to change from generation to generation as to allow adaptation through evolution, these characteristics optimalizing the chances of survival for the individual organism and its descendants respectively. Non-cellular replicating agents, notably viruses, are generally not considered to be organisms because they are incapable of "independent" reproduction or metabolism. This controversy is problematic, though, since some parasites and endosymbionts are also incapable of independent life. Astrobiology studies the possibility of different forms of life on other worlds, such as replicating structures made from materials other than DNA.
The Big Bang and humanity's fate in this universe
The metric expansion of space. The inflationary epoch is the expansion of the metric tensor at left. (WMAP image, 2006)
Though the Big Bang model was met with much skepticism when first introduced, partially because of a connection to the religious concept of creation, it has become well supported by several independent observations. However, current physics can only describe the early universe from 10-43 seconds after the Big Bang (where zero time corresponds to infinite temperature), a theory of quantum gravity would be required to go further back in time. Nevertheless, many physicists have speculated about what would have preceded this limit, and how our universe came into being. Some physicists think that the Big Bang occurred coincidentally, and when considering the anthropic principle, it is most often interpreted as implying the existence of a multiverse.
However, no matter how the universe came into existence, humanity's fate in this universe appears to be doomed as —even if humanity would survive that long— biological life will eventually become unsustainable, be it through a Big Freeze, Big Rip or Big Crunch. It would seem that the only way to survive indefinitely would be by directing the flow of energy on a cosmic scale and altering the fate of the universe.
Scientific questions about the mind
The true nature and origin of consciousness and the mind itself are also widely debated in science. The explanatory gap is generally equated with the hard problem of consciousness, and the question of free will is also considered to be of fundamental importance. These subjects are mostly addressed in the fields of cognitive science, neuroscience and philosophy of mind, though some evolutionary biologists and theoretical physicists have also made several allusions to the subject.
Hieronymus Bosch's Ascent of the Blessed depicts a tunnel of light and spiritual figures, often described in reports of near-death experiences.
Reductionistic and eliminative materialistic approaches, for example the Multiple Drafts Model, hold that consciousness can be wholly explained by neuroscience through the workings of the brain and its neurons, thus adhering to biological naturalism.
On the other hand, some scientists, like Andrei Linde, have considered that consciousness, like spacetime, might have its own intrinsic degrees of freedom, and that our perceptions may be as real as (or even more real than) material objects. Hypotheses of consciousness and spacetime explain consciousness in describing a "space of conscious elements", often encompassing a number of extra dimensions. Electromagnetic theories of consciousness solve the binding problem of consciousness in saying that the electromagnetic field generated by the brain is the actual carrier of conscious experience, there is however disagreement about the implementations of such a theory relating to other workings of the mind. Quantum mind theories use quantum theory in explaining certain properties of the mind. Explaining the process of free will through quantum phenomena is a popular alternative to determinism, such postulations may variously relate free will to quantum fluctuations, quantum amplification, quantum potential and quantum probability.
Based on the premises of non-materialistic explanations of the mind, some have suggested the existence of a cosmic consciousness, asserting that consciousness is actually the "ground of all being". Proponents of this view cite accounts of paranormal phenomena, primarily extrasensory perceptions and psychic powers, as evidence for an incorporeal higher consciousness. In hopes of proving the existence of these phenomena, parapsychologists have orchestrated various experiments. Meta-analyses of these experiments indicate that the effect size (though very small) has been relatively consistent, resulting in an overall statistical significance. Although some critical analysts feel that parapsychological study is scientific, they are not satisfied with its experimental results. Skeptical reviewers contend that apparently successful results are more likely due to sloppy procedures, poorly trained researchers, or methodological flaws than to actual effects.
The philosophical perspectives on the meaning of life are those ideologies which explain life in terms of ideals or abstractions defined by humans.
Ancient Greek philosophy
Plato and Aristotle in The School of Athens fresco, by Raphael.
Main article: Platonism
Plato was the earliest, most influential Western philosopher to date — mostly for realism about the existence of universals. In the Theory of Forms, universals do not physically exist, like objects, but exist as ghostly, heavenly forms. In The Republic, the Socrates character's dialogue describes the Form of the Good. The Idea of the Good is ekgonos (offspring) of the Good, the ideal, perfect nature of goodness, hence an absolute measure of justice.
In Platonism, the meaning of life is in attaining the highest form of knowledge, which is the Idea (Form) of the Good, from which all good and just things derive utility and value. Human beings are duty-bound to pursue the good, but no one can succeed in that pursuit without philosophical reasoning, which allows for true knowledge.
Main article: Aristotelian ethics
Aristotle, an apprentice of Plato, was another, early, most influential Western philosopher, who argued that ethical knowledge is not certain knowledge (like metaphysics and epistemology), but is general knowledge. Because it is not a theoretical discipline, a person had to study and practice in order to become 'good', thus if the person were to become virtuous, he could not simply study what virtue is, he had to be virtuous, via virtuous activities. To do this, Aristotle established what is virtuous: Every skill and every inquiry, and similarly, every action and choice of action, is thought to have some good as its object. This is why the good has rightly been defined as the object of all endeavor (NE 1.1) Everything is done with a goal, and that goal is 'good'.
Yet, if action A is done towards achieving goal B, then goal B also would have a goal, goal C, and goal C also would have a goal, and so would continue this pattern, until something stopped its infinite regression. Aristotle's solution is the Highest Good, which is desirable for its own sake, it is its own goal. The Highest Good is not desirable for the sake of achieving some other good, and all other ‘goods’ desirable for its sake. This involves achieving eudaemonia, usually translated as "happiness", "well-being", "flourishing", and "excellence".
What is the highest good in all matters of action? To the name, there is almost complete agreement; for uneducated and educated alike call it happiness, and make happiness identical with the good life and successful living. They disagree, however, about the meaning of happiness. (NE 1.4)
In the Hellenistic period, the Cynic philosophers said that the purpose of life is living a life of Virtue that agrees with Nature. Happiness depends upon being self-sufficient and master of one's mental attitude; suffering is consequence of false judgments of value, which cause negative emotions and a concomitant vicious character.
The Cynical life rejects conventional desires for wealth, power, health, and fame, by being free of the possessions acquired in pursuing the conventional. As reasoning creatures, people could achieve happiness via rigorous training, by living in a way natural to human beings. The world equally belongs to everyone, so suffering is caused by false judgments of what is valuable and what is worthless per the customs and conventions of society.
Cyrenaicism, founded by Aristippus of Cyrene, was an early Socratic school that emphasised only one side of Socrates's teachings — that happiness is one of the ends of moral action and that pleasure is the supreme good; thus a hedonistic world view, wherein bodily gratification is more intense than mental pleasure. Cyrenaics prefer immediate gratification to the long-term gain of delayed gratification; denial is unpleasant unhappiness.
Main article: Epicureanism
Bust of Epicurus leaning against his disciple Metrodorus in the Louvre Museum.
To Epicurus, the greatest good is in seeking modest pleasures, to attain tranquility and freedom from fear (ataraxia) via knowledge, friendship, and virtuous, temperate living; bodily pain (aponia) is absent through one's knowledge of the workings of the world and of the limits of one's desires. Combined, freedom from pain and freedom from fear are happiness in its highest form. Epicurus's lauded enjoyment of simple pleasures, is quasi-ascetic abstention from sex and the appetites:
When we say . . . that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do, by some, through ignorance, prejudice or wilful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not by an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not by sexual lust, nor the enjoyment of fish, and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul.The Epicurean meaning of life rejects immortality and mysticism; there is a soul, but it is as mortal as the body. There is no afterlife, yet, one need not fear death, because "Death is nothing to us; for that which is dissolved, is without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us."
Stoicism teaches that living according to reason and virtue is to be in harmony with the universe's divine order, entailed by one's recognition of the universal logos (reason), an essential value of all people. The meaning of life is freedom from suffering through apatheia (Gr: απαθεια), that is, being objective, having "clear judgement", not indifference.
Stoicism's prime directives are virtue, reason, and natural law, abided to develop personal self-control and mental fortitude as means of overcoming destructive emotions. The Stoic does not seek to extinguish emotions, only to avoid emotional troubles, by developing clear judgement and inner calm through diligently practiced logic, reflection, and concentration.
The Stoic ethical foundation is that good lies in the state of the soul, itself, exemplified in wisdom and self-control, thus improving one's spiritual well-being: "Virtue consists in a will which is in agreement with Nature." The principle applies to one's personal relations thus: "to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy".
Further information: Enlightenment philosophy
The Enlightenment and the colonial era both changed the nature of European philosophy and exported it worldwide. Devotion and subservience to God were largely replaced by notions of inalienable natural rights and the potentialities of reason, and universal ideals of love and compassion gave way to civic notions of freedom, equality, and citizenship. The meaning of life changed as well, focussing less on humankind's relationship to God and more on the relationship between individuals and their society. This era is filled with theories that equate meaningful existence with the social order.
Classical liberalism is a set of ideas that arose in the 17th and 18th centuries, out of conflicts between a growing, wealthy, propertied class and the established aristocratic and religious orders that dominated Europe. Liberalism cast humans as beings with inalienable natural rights (including the right to retain the wealth generated by one's own work), and sought out means to balance rights across society. Broadly speaking, it considers individual liberty to be the most important goal, because only through ensured liberty are the other inherent rights protected.
There are many forms and derivations of liberalism, but their central conceptions of the meaning of life trace back to three main ideas. Early thinkers such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith saw humankind beginning in the state of nature, then finding meaning for existence through labour and property, and using social contracts to create an environment that supports those efforts.
Immanuel Kant is regarded as one of the most influential thinkers of the late Enlightenment.
Kantianism is a philosophy based on the ethical, epistemological and metaphysical works of Immanuel Kant. Kant is known for his deontological theory where there is a single moral obligation, the "Categorical Imperative", derived from the concept of duty. Kantians believe all actions are performed in accordance with some underlying maxim or principle, and for actions to be ethical, they must adhere to the categorical imperative.
Simply put, the test is that one must universalize the maxim (imagine that all people acted in this way) and then see if it would still be possible to perform the maxim in the world. In Groundwork, Kant gives the example of a person who seeks to borrow money without intending to pay it back. This is a contradiction because if it were a universal action, no person would lend money anymore as he knows that he will never be paid back. The maxim of this action, says Kant, results in a contradiction in conceivability (and thus contradicts perfect duty).
Kant also denied that the consequences of an act in any way contribute to the moral worth of that act, his reasoning being that the physical world is outside our full control and thus we cannot be held accountable for the events that occur in it.
19th Century philosophy
Further information: 19th century philosophy
The origins of utilitarianism can be traced back as far as Epicurus, but, as a school of thought, it is credited to Jeremy Bentham, who found that nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure, then, from that moral insight, deriving the Rule of Utility: that the good is whatever brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. He defined the meaning of life as the "greatest happiness principle".
Jeremy Bentham's foremost proponent was James Mill, a significant philosopher in his day, and father of John Stuart Mill. The younger Mill was educated per Bentham's principles, including transcribing and summarising much of his father's work.
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