A Causal Post Featured in (Re)constructing “A is A” by O.G. Rose
On a Staircase
Before asking about the meaning of life, we should first ask about the meaning of a staircase.
“What is the meaning of life?”
Do you mean the word “life” or the phenomenon of life? If I were to ask you, an English speaker, “What is the meaning of (insert French word for life)?” you would probably answer with a definition, while a French speaker may leap straight into existentialism. Likewise, when we ask, “What is the meaning of life?” we are asking life to give us a definition (though we may not realize it, looking at someone). Unfortunately, life is silent. Therefore, we can only ask other people, who, assuming they share our language, will interpret the question to directly be a philosophical one, when a philosophical understanding of the question cannot be answered until after the word “life” is defined (which only “life,” forever silent and inanimate, can completely define).
That said, life isn’t a thing in of itself or even a thing in the world, so even if we could answer such a question, it doesn’t seem like it would matter much for beings like us, living in the world. Even if we could answer “What is the meaning of life?” the answer would probably apply to a state of being we do not share. Yet even the less abstract question “What is the meaning of my life?” is dealing with a construct that isn’t in the world: we only undergo “the spacetime frame of life that is ‘now,’ ” never “life (as the simultaneous total of spacetime frames I ever undergo).” No one possesses an omniscient memory, so no one can fully answer “What is the meaning of life (as the simultaneous total of spacetime frames I undergo)?” At best, we can only answer “What is the meaning of my life ‘now?’ ”
Alright. “What is the meaning of my life ‘now?’ ”
Hard to say: let’s start with a smaller question. I’m currently sitting outside looking at a staircase. What I am undergoing during this “now” are the things that define my life. Since that staircase is a thing in my life “now,” let’s first ask “What is the meaning of that staircase?” and, after answering that, we’ll ask, “What is the meaning of that bird?” and keep asking such questions until we’ve answered them regarding all phenomena that make up life “now.” We’ll then combine all the answers together and answer “What is the meaning of life?”
You really think that will work?
Well, come to think of it, whatever answers we find “now” won’t apply to a “now” tomorrow, nor will the answer we find “now” about the staircase necessarily still be valid a minute from now while we’re asking, “What is the meaning of that bird?” (we’d have to ask the question again to be sure). Five minutes from “now,” the question “What is the meaning of that staircase?” will probably be different from the answer to that same question “now.” Therefore, it’s not really possible to answer the question “What is the meaning of my life ‘now?’ ” since we cannot simultaneously ask and answer such a question in regard to all phenomena that compose this given “now.” However, we can at least approach an answer (like asymptote lines), and closer is probably better, so let’s continue our investigation.
Well, actually, “What is the meaning of a staircase?” is still too large of a question; first, let’s ask, “What is the meaning of the atoms that make up the staircase?” No — sorry — we should ask first “What is the meaning of atom1 (of insert large number)?” No — I always forgot about string theory — “What is the meaning of string1 (of insert super large number)?” — that’s where the “staircase (of being)” begins, right?
Okay. “What is the meaning of string1?”
The meaning of the word can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary. But each word in the definition has its own definition (dang it, Derrida), which we’ll have to look up to fully grasp the first definition, and each of those definitions consist of words we’ll have to look up, and…Alas, words are impossible to define.
This being the case, I take it you must have meant the question regarding the phenomenon to which the term “string1” refers? But how can we experience that object without the term “string1” (or any words at all) overlaying/blocking it? If we can’t do that, we can only find “What is the meaning of string1 (as understood by beings who must ascribe words to phenomena)?” not “What is the meaning of string1 (as understood without words and unto itself)?” If we have to use words, to fully grasp the phenomenon, I think we’ll have to define those words, which seems ultimately impossible. Therefore, when we asked, “What is the meaning of string” we must have meant “without and/or outside of words.”
But we asked the question with words (none of which can ultimately be defined), and so we can only mean the question “as understood by beings who must ascribe to words,” even if we wanted to ask “without words.” We can’t even ask the right question! And even if we could, unless our minds were wired differently, we couldn’t experience string1 without language. “No exit.”
Wait — isn’t it the case that by using words to write this document in which I’m pretending to talk to (and be) you, I’m not talking about the phenomenon of string1 but just an “idea of string1?” How can I even write/talk about not being able to ask “What is the meaning of (string1/(that staircase)/life)?”
‘All is vanity.’¹ ²
Are you still talking to me?
Yes, I’m talking to me. Anyway, to ask the question, “What is the meaning of a staircase?” is to frame the question within the construct of what makes us human (and so capable of asking the question). The question cannot be about the object itself but in regard to our experience of the object, which must always be in relation to words. We cannot encounter a floor without encountering our word “floor.”³ Therefore, we can only ask “What is the ‘meaning’ of life?” but never “What is the meaning of life?” Does that make sense?
The meaning of a rock is rock. The “meaning” of a rock to a human could be “Mom’s favorite.” Humans never think or talk about a rock as a rock, per se, but as a “rock” (like my grammar moves?): we don’t conceptualize things, per se, but “things with meanings.” Hence, the question “What is the meaning of life?” must be “What is the ‘meaning’ of life (to human beings)?” Furthermore, it must mean “What is the ‘meaning’ of life (to me)?” Keep in mind that this question isn’t the same as “What is the ‘meaning’ of my life ‘now?’ ” — a different question that is impossible to answer. The question “What is the ‘meaning’ of life (to me)?” must signify “What do I think life, as a whole, ‘means?’ ” (even though there is technically no such thing as “life” and though what I think doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on actuality).
I care, I promise I care.
Don’t use words! Wait, I just realized that the very concept of “life” is invalid. There are only non-unified particularities in the world, yet by saying “life” I attempt to unify countless particularities into a single thing before then asking about the “meaning” of that unified thing. “Staircases” are not one with “airplanes,” yet humans attempt to merge them into “life” as if humans experience “staircases/airplanes” versus “staircases and airplanes.” This is similar to how humans attempt to merge countless atoms into “(a) staircase(s).”⁴ This is as impossible as defining words, right?⁵
Hence, even if I did break apart “life” into particularities and began answering questions like “What is the ‘meaning’ of string1?” I could never merge the particularities and corresponding answers together. In other words, I could never merge the answer to “What is the ‘meaning’ of string1?” with “What is the ‘meaning’ of string2?” etc., as I could never merge “What is the ‘meaning’ of that staircase?” with “What is the ‘meaning’ of that airplane?” etc. All my answers would have to remain separate.
I’m sorry, what are you talking about?
Nothing. As “life” doesn’t exist because particularities in the world cannot be unified, so “I” don’t exist, because the atoms which supposedly make up “me” cannot be unified. Furthermore, “you” can’t exist.⁶
Thanks for the heads-up.
Who are you? Well, that question is too big: let’s start with “What is your arm?” Actually, “What are the atoms that make up your arm?” Actually, “What is string1?” Any thoughts? Actually, neurons; actually —
²Unless humans are infinitely able to surmount eternal regressions.
³Inspired by Derrida.
⁴To do this is to unify a collection of “A(s)” into a new “A” and to ask “A =…?” Hence, to ask the question “What is the meaning of life?” is to ask for the “meaning” of a phenomenon which doesn’t exist “in the world” (where countless “A(s)” are not “one” (“A”)).
⁵Unless humans are infinitely able to surmount eternal regressions.
⁶And yet do.
1. If a cow turns and faces the herd and says, “We’re cows” and one of the cows says, “No, we’re not,” and then the first cow says, “I’ll prove it to you” and begins herding the others around like a farmer, those in the herd may believe “He’s right, we’re cows,” and yet the very act of the one cow treating the others like cows proves that the cows are not just cows: clearly these cows are special, human-like.
If a human turns to others and says, “Metaphysics is junk,” and the others reply, “No, it’s not,” and then the first person teaches them about the world through a purely positivist lens, the others might nod, “He’s right; we don’t need metaphysics, philosophy — any of that junk,” and yet the very act of approaching the world as solely materialistic suggests that humans are not purely physiologically: clearly, we’re capable of deciding which lens to view the world through. Thus, metaphysics is unavoidable, for “lenses” are unavoidable. To be humans is to be metaphysical.
1.1 Metaphysics is necessary because humans can move between frameworks and scopes. For example, people can choose to believe in metaphysics and then change their minds.
2. A thing is recognized as part of a whole if the whole is recognized prior to the part(s). Failure to recognize the “whole-ness” of a part though, doesn’t mean a thing isn’t a part. Humans build upward after descending; humans do not start at the bottom and then build up. The Tower of Babel is only built by people created in Heaven.
3. The question “What is the meaning of life?” requires multiple answers.
First, for scientists: “What is the meaning of life (to the world)?”
Second, for all humans: “What is the ‘meaning’ of life (to us)?”
Third, for the linguist: “What is the definition of ‘life?’ ”
Finally, for each person: “What is the ‘meaning’ of life (to me)?”
4. To allude to “On Thinking and Perceiving”: meaning is related to perceiving; “meaning,” thinking. And perhaps to think about the question “What is the meaning of life?” is to think about something we can only perceive.
5. To ask, “What is the meaning of life?” is to create the possibility of an answer, for it is possible to define, linguistically, “What is the meaning of life?”
6. The “infinite regression” of definitions into definitions, identified by Derrida, suggests the correctness of David Hume: we know by “common life” (our best answer to Gödel’s “essential incompleteness”) before we know by ideas.
7. “What is the meaning of life?” might be an invalid question, but “What is the Meaning of Life?” may not be. If it isn’t, “What is the meaning of life?” could have Meaning insomuch as it reflects “The Meaning of Life,” though the question perhaps lacks meaning by itself.