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What is the meaning of life? A philosopher might respond in the following way. There are things that possess meaning -- such as words, sentences, and signs -- and there are things that neither possess nor lack meaning -- such as stag beetles, mountains, and cricket. Life falls into the latter group. Those who worry about the meaning of life, then, confuse items that are candidates for meaningfulness with items that are not. The 'meaning of life' question is nonsensical, and so best ignored.
Christopher Belshaw labels the foregoing approach (associated with mid-twentieth century English-speaking analytic philosophy) "brisk", "tweedy", "complacent", and neither "impressive" nor "convincing" (p. 109). Belshaw's point is that those who are troubled about the meaning of life are not really that interested in semantics, but are giving voice to worries of an all-embracing kind -- that is, worries about matters of value. In a decidedly non-tweedy way, Belshaw takes these concerns seriously. His style is popular, but does not lapse into philosophical journalese; and his clear-headed arguments are nearly always thought provoking. 10 Good Questions About Life and Death is definitely worth a read.
Contrary to the book's title, Belshaw actually deals with life and death on nine occasions. In chapter one, called "Where Can I Find Answers?", he defends the view that contemporary philosophy has the capacity to handle weighty questions, and justifies the particular philosophical approach that he adopts. The remaining chapters divide into three groups.
In chapters two, three and four, Belshaw reflects on life against the backdrop of death. He claims in chapter two -- "Is Life Sacred?" -- that to invoke the concept of the sanctity of life in discussions about the value of a human life, and the various dilemmas involved therein, is to distort the issue. In chapter three, "Is It Bad to Die?", Belshaw argues, contrary to the Epicurean view that death is not bad because not experienced, that death is bad because it can deprive us of something of value. In chapter four -- "Which Deaths Are Worse?" -- Belshaw examines the difficulties that attend the deprivation view, which states that the worse deaths are those that end the most valuable lives.
Belshaw turns to the notion of immortality in the next two chapters. To the question 'might I live on?', the subject of chapter five, Belshaw replies 'no'. For him, the afterlife is a coherent, but bare possibility -- there is, however, no strong evidence to believe that it exists. Chapter six, "Should I Take the Elixir of Life?", will be examined more closely in a moment.
In the final four chapters, Belshaw tackles a wide variety of fundamental questions. Chapter seven is concerned with personal identity, and is called, appropriately enough, "Who's Who?". Belshaw examines three attempts to provide criteria for the persistence over time of a particular person. The meaning of life is addressed in the next chapter: "Is It All Meaningless?". At a local level, according to Belshaw, we have the power to give meaning to our lives; but on a global or universal level, there is no meaning. Belshaw gives negative answers to the rather odd questions pursued in chapter nine, "Should There Be More, and Better, People?". Finally, in chapter ten, "Does Reality Matter?", Belshaw's underwhelming conclusion is that sometimes reality does matter, and sometimes it does not.
While most of the questions that Belshaw considers are familiar in one form or another, this is not really the case with respect to the sixth question: should I take the elixir of life? Belshaw sets up things as follows. There is an elixir that confers immortality upon those who imbibe it. Should we take it? One answer is: absolutely not. This is because immortality, in whatever form imaginable, would "necessarily not be good" (p. 78). Belshaw draws the latter view from Bernard Williams' superb essay "The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality".
The chief snag with immortality (Belshaw does not quite put it in these terms) is that in the immortal life the constraint that endows human life with its unique significance is absent. Finitude is the precondition of human value. We live by our choices, but the immortal do not. For the immortal, choice is without significance: if you choose wrong, just choose again, and if required, again and again. Moreover, the constraints of time and space bestow a particular personality or character upon a human being. The immortal are not shaped by finitude, and thus are without specificity; immortal individuals are open drains through which endless streams of distinct and novel interests pass, interests that keep boredom at bay.
There is, then, a "stubborn incompatibility", Belshaw writes, between an endless life and a human life (p. 85). 'Good', a proponent of immortality might say, 'that's precisely the point!'. But the problem is that if immortal life is necessarily incompatible with human life, then it is also the case that immortal life cannot be compatible with any particular human being's life. On this view, the elixir will not make Syd immortal, but rather it will transform him into that which will become an anonymous receptacle of infinite experience. Although Belshaw prefers death to immortality, he entertains the possibility that the apparent incompatibility between mortality and immortality can be surmounted. But that's another story.
Bernard Williams, "The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality" in Problems of the Self (Cambridge: CUP, 1973), 82--100.
© 2007 Ruben Berrios
Ruben Berrios is a philosopher whose research interests are in ethics and aesthetics. He has taught philosophy at University College Dublin, the University of Ulster, and Queen's University Belfast.