Meaning in Life and the Point of Getting and Education

Imagine a world devoid of conscious experience. Not even at the level of mollusks or moths. This is a world where nothing matters. Nothing has meaning or value. Now let’s admit some mollusks and moths. And let’s suppose that getting meal and avoiding toxins matters to mollusks and moths. Doing so presumes some degree of conscious experience. Unconscious mollusks might seek food or avoid toxins, but for this to matter to the mollusk, there must be some being that is having some experience. So, this will be my starting point, that things mattering, having value, or meaning something depends on things mattering, having value, or meaning something to some conscious being. This a central idea in Irving Singer’s work on meaning in life.

Note, we are not talking about the meaning of life. Talk of the meaning of life suggests that meaning is something that life has, as opposed to being something that is realized in living. Religiously inspired views of the meaning of life often take life to have some meaning or purpose attached to it. But even here, the meaning or purpose of a person’s life comes from things mattering to another conscious being, a personal God. We’d be hard pressed to fathom what sort of meaning or significance we might glean from a God that was not personal, not a conscious, self-aware being like us.

So, we’ll start from the idea that the seat of value is conscious experience. Meaning, value and purpose flow from conscious experience. These needn’t be sought outside. I won’t offer a detailed defense of this idea, though I think we’ve already motivated it. We can now entertain a more contentious elaboration on this thesis that takes the degree to which something matters to be a function of the degree or kind of conscious experience associated with it. We should worry that this idea is speciesist or elitist in some way. Who am I to say that my career matters more to me than a mollusk’s next meal matters to the mollusk? In both cases, the scale of mattering is topped out. The stakes are existential. Well, only existential regarding a certain professional identity in the case of my career.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the idea that the fate of my career matters no more than the starvation of a mollusk. But if pressed to explain why the fate of my career matters more, there are a few things I can say. My conscious experience is more sophisticated than the mollusk’s in a number of ways. I have self-awareness, a capacity for practical reason, a memory. The mollusk has sensory experience, but none of these other things (we’ll suppose). And even in the realm of sensory experience, mine is richer and more varied. So, we can account for the intuitive idea that how and how much things matter varies with the kind of conscious experience associated with them. We seem to take this much for granted whenever we obliterate the conscious experience of a mollusk for an oyster appetizer.

To whatever degree I can enrich someone’s conscious experience, my own or another’s, I’m adding value to the world. As Singer puts it, the key feature of caring, of loving a conscious being, is the bestowal of value on that being. It’s a good thing that we care about each other. We make those we love matter more when we enrich their conscious experience. This is just what we should expect when we take conscious experience to be the seat of value. There is value in my experience and there is value in the ways I can enhance the experience of others.

The point of this little meditation on what matters and why is to provide a corrective to a pervasive tendency to evaluate our lives in practical terms. So much of our sense of self-worth is tied to what we are good for, what we achieve, how we impact or impress others. As highly social beings, this is to be expected. It matters to me how I impact others, how I’m seen by others, what I am good for in the lives of others and what matters for them. Our social nature embeds us in a pervasive economy of usefulness. And this is largely to the good. We show that we care about others and our communities by making ourselves, in one way or another, useful to them, often and appropriately with the hope that this will be reciprocated in ways that enrich our own conscious experience. Usefulness is not to be scoffed at.

But then we should be wary of the tendency to instrumentalize everything. We are at risk of focusing on the practical, the useful, to the point where we reflexively ask how something is useful to the exclusion of contemplating what things are ultimately useful for. When we lose sight of value worth pursuing for its own sake, not merely as a means to some further value, all of our valuing become unmoored. Down this path, nihilism threatens. Educators often encounter this kind of listlessness in the student who asks, “Why should I care about this? What is it good for?” in a demanding rather than inquisitive tone. We’d better have good answers.

A blunt answer to the “Why should I care?” demand is simply, “Because then you’ll care about something!” This is just a direct way of saying what we’ve already said a little more diplomatically, that caring about things makes them matter. Our lives become meaningful when we care about things.

Educators will have a tough row to hoe if we set out directly to make our students care about things. Our path has traditionally been a little less direct, but more effective because of it. We help students get acquainted with things worthy of caring about. Things don’t matter in a vacuum. History and philosophy aren’t magically endowed with value by the universe at large. But these are things that have sustained the interest of many people for a long time. They are apt for being valued beyond their usefulness because they speak to our condition as conscious beings that matter.

Things mattering to people presupposes some conscious awareness and understanding of them. I’m not in a position to care about the suffering of marginalized people unless I’ve had some introduction to their circumstances and experience. My understanding may never be complete, but that’s not necessary for taking an interest and being motivated to seek justice out of concern.

Similarly, I can’t care about art and culture from a position of complete ignorance about these things. Getting acquainted with art and culture is a first step towards appreciating it. And let’s understand “appreciating” literally. We make art matter, we bestow value on it, through taking an interest and valuing it. At the same time, our appreciation of art and culture constitutes value and meaning in our own lives. There is nothing zero-sum about meaning, caring, and appreciating.

Introducing students to things worth caring about is how we as educators build meaning and purpose in our student’s lives. The value of education here is not instrumental. Though we seldom talk this way anymore, when we speak of education as worth pursuing for its own sake, I think this is what we are getting at. Education can make our lives more interesting, more meaningful, ultimately more purposeful. When we introduce students to things that are interesting, beautiful, speak to our own humanity or the humanity of others, we grant them an opportunity to take an interest, join the broader human community that makes these things matter, and, if things go well, care about something.

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