Does life have a purpose? Is there an ultimate meaning in life or is all this just meaningless? Is this whole show ultimately futile? After all, aren’t we just a tiny insignificant speck, on a slightly larger speck, zipping around a ball of gas somewhere in the outskirts of a mostly empty universe, doomed for cosmic extinction? Wow, that’s bleak. But as it turns out, that cannot be the full story. For, in asking the question, we’re proving just the opposite.
Futility cannot have the final word, for futility always implies a standard. As long as there are reasoners like ourselves, we can (and should!) ask: “futile compared to what?” Futility presupposes a standard of utility. Without an understanding of utility, the very concept of futility vanishes.
Two types of arguments can help us flesh out our reasoning here. The first is called a polar concept argument. These purport to show that one concept is understood as soon as you understand it’s polar opposite. Philosopher Gilbert Ryle, explaining polar concept arguments, says that, “There cannot be counterfeit coins… unless there are genuine ones, nor crooked paths unless there are straight paths, nor tall men unless there are short men.” (Dilemmas, 1960). His point is simple but profound. In a country which has no coins there can be no counterfeit coins. In order for there to be counterfeits, there has to be an official coin to be impersonated. In understanding a genuine counterfeit coin, you immediately capture the essence of its polar opposite, a genuine coin. Likewise, futility and utility are conceptually linked, there’s no way to jettison utility in order to have an ultimate futility. As soon as you grasp the concept of meaninglessness, then you also acquire the essence of meaning.
A second argument, closely related and coined by philosopher Jim Slagle, is called a Skyhook Argument (also very similar to a negative or ‘retorsive’ transcendental argument). This type of argument demonstrates that a line of thought is absurd if it has to presuppose the thing that it is seeking to deny. C.S. Lewis explains this type of argument well,
“An accusation always implies a standard. You call a man a bad golf player because you know what Bogey is. You call a boy’s answer to a sum wrong because you know the right answer. You call a man cruel or idle because you have in mind a standard of kindness or diligence. And while you are making the accusation you have to accept the standard as a valid one. If you begin to doubt the standard you automatically doubt the cogency of your accusation. If you are sceptical about grammar you must be equally sceptical about your condemnation of bad grammar.” (“De Futilitate” in Christian Reflections, 81)
Accusing life of having no purpose, no meaning, no utility presupposes a standard of purpose, meaning, and utility by which you can judge life as falling short of. So, if you have to presuppose meaning in order to doubt that life has meaning, then you can’t truly doubt that life has meaning- it’s like trying to lift yourself by your own hair while you saw off the branch you’re sitting on.
Elsewhere, Lewis drives this point about meaning home more succinctly, “If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.” (Mere Christianity, 39.)
Making Sense of Meaning
Meaning, purpose, utility are here to stay. So, since we’re stuck with them, what are we to make of them? Well, since It’s our faculties of reason which ultimately keep us from entertaining cosmic purposelessness, perhaps it’s best to start there. For as Blaise Pascal rightly asserts, “It is not in space that I must seek my human dignity, but in the ordering of my thought… Through space the universe grasps me and swallows me up like a speck; through thought I grasp it.” (Pensées, 113/348).
Rational, self-conscious persons like us can’t help but presuppose purpose when we ask if life has a purpose. Purpose is the presupposition which makes sense of the purpose and the lack of purpose we find in various situations in life. But while we are forced to acknowledge meaning/purpose/utility, we also can reason pretty quickly to the fact that we aren’t the ultimate source of meaning or purpose or utility. Although only self-conscious persons can recognize meaning, we know that meaning has been here befor we were born, and will be here long after we are gone. Even if all human persons died tomorrow, there would still be purpose in the world, though there wouldn’t be human persons around to recognize it. So, purpose transcends the realm of finite persons. It ultimately has to reside in a different kind of person, One who has always been around as the source of all meaning and purpose, The Tri-Personal Creator God.
Since we can’t escape purpose and meaning, and since futility can only apply to various examples in life but never to life as a whole, perhaps we should turn to the source of all meaning and find out His purpose for our lives.