There are Some Things Which are Better Unknown

The "Pillars of Creation" from the Eagle Nebula, courtesy of the Hubble Telescope

The “Pillars of Creation” from the Eagle Nebula, courtesy of the Hubble Telescope


One night earlier this week, I was perusing WordPress, looking for new things to read when I ran across a page entitled “The Return of the Modern Philosopher”. Having been a Philosophy student, I, of course, had to dive right in. I read through several of his daily posts until coming to something that made me really stop and think. In a post, he asked a most interesting question, which I haven’t been able to dismiss from my mind since reading it. This is from his post called Friday Night Think Tank: Discovery Edition:

“This week’s topic: If you could discover one of the following things, which would you choose? True love, an unpublished novel by your favorite author, a new planet, the meaning of life, buried treasure in your backyard, or the fact that you are a member of England’s Royal Family?”

My first thought was, Well, the meaning of life, of course! Wow, wouldn’t that be cool!  But then after only a moment, my thoughts turned sour, as I contemplated what that might actually mean.

I think that, realistically, there are three ways this knowledge could go. One, finding out the true meaning of life could be the best thing to ever happen to me. Two, it could be completely neutral information to my ears. I could hear it, and then say, “Meh, so what?” Or third, it could be the worst news that I have ever heard, and my life could be wrecked. Now that I have your attention, and assume that you are curious about at least one of these three options, I want to discuss “the meaning of life” so that we can agree on what exactly we are talking about.  I will then lay out a few scenarios that went through my mind, causing me to dismiss, very quickly, the idea that I might ever actually want to discover what this great secret is.

What do we mean when we refer to “the meaning of life”? Is this something that is true for everyone – every human who has ever lived? Is it some over-arching theme that applies to all of us, or instead, is it something that is so individual to each person that we cannot adequately define it? Okay, so I won’t pretend to know exactly what we’re talking about, but for the purpose of this post, I am going to talk about “the meaning of life” as if it were a universal truth of sorts; however, this truth is realized on an individual level in a multitude of ways. Clear? Perhaps not, but let’s proceed anyway.

Option One: The meaning of life is wonderful!  I wish I could have learned of this earlier

In our over-arching theme of a world, the meaning of life turned out to be that you should realize some of your potential, take a few steps back from time to time, and then possibly rise above the ashes to the first or second rung of success. By this definition, I am not quite a Phoenix, but neither am I someone who just can’t get up one more time. If being successful and achieving the goal for which we were all meant really translated into achieving some modicum of success – whether that be getting a job at McDonald’s or being the CEO of a multinational corporation – then we should all feel happy.

Option Two: The meaning of life is mundane. You may hope that you never learn of it.

What if the meaning of life were to simply “exist”. Wow. How boring is that. Or perhaps I am extremely successful at existing, based on the history of mankind, especially during the dark ages when the life expectancy probably was less than my current age, and people were executed for very insignificant reasons. This option is attractive in its own ways, but just has no real panache.

Option Three:  The meaning of life is crap.

How could this be? Wasn’t it supposed to be something good?  Why have I pondered this question for the entirety of my adult life, only to find that what I should have been doing all along was something that I find less than savory. For instance, what if the meaning of life turned out to be that I should have been following some God, or God-Head, of a weird religion that I personally find very creepy. If it turned out to be the truth, could I then even force myself to follow said religion, after all my preconceived notions of it?

After considering each of these scenarios, Option Two, the neutral option, is actually the best, if only in my neutral mind. This way, I haven’t really failed; but on the downside, I also haven’t succeeded. When offered the option to fail, succeed, or just get by, I am the “adequate” person every day of the week. Let me re-state this option in another way. If our actual purpose were to simply be mediocre at something, then Sa-weet!! I am mediocre at lots of things! Plus, there are also one or two things at which you might even say that I excel. I win! Ding, ding, ding, ding!

If, on the other hand, the purpose of life were very specific to each of us, that could spell a different kind of disappointment. What if my purpose was to discover a cure for cancer, and I never did it?  Since I haven’t actually done that, then by this standard, I have failed miserably. Since I would only know this by actually discovering the true meaning of life, then maybe it’s best not to know.

In closing, there doesn’t seem to be a real consequence for not discovering the meaning of life.  If I were to discover it, magically, on my deathbed, it would be only then that I truly realized my triumph or failure.  At that moment, when the knowledge was inconsequential to anything that had come before, I imagine that I would say, “That’s what it was?  Hmh. Oh well.”  So what if I never discover the true meaning of life. If there were some greater purpose out there for me, and I die without having achieved that purpose, then how is that bad? Once I’m dead, will I feel guilty about this great omission of mine? No, because I will be dead, and, dear god, if I can’t stop feeling guilty once I’m dead, then when can I, really? I won’t know that I never achieved this thing, whatever it was. And that’s good enough for me.