From: Michael Rush
Date: 08 Oct 2003, 20:03:53
Subject: a philosopher writes…
I find myself all too infrequently pestered by self-confessed cranks and lunatics; your honesty is refreshing. Or it was, and then I looked at your website and discovered that the claim of lunacy was just a subterfuge. Still, never mind.
I couldn’t work out whether your real aim was an answer to
your question or the collective humiliation of all the philosophers in the country. If the first, I fear you’ll be disappointed – it’s a pseudo-philosophical question asked by non-philosophers, and any philosopher claiming to have an answer for you is cheeky, misguided or, possibly, both. If the second, I’m bound to say I hope you’ll be disappointed, if only by those respondents that admit to having no answer for you. This isn’t humiliating but, in its turn, refreshing. We never claimed (well, I for one never claimed) to be trying to answer that question, so you can’t catch us out there. It’d be like saying, ‘Ha! Bloody useless! No explanation of the meaning of life, and they call themselves milkmen?’ (to milkmen).
Most people asking for the meaning of life really want to be told the purpose of life, which is a subtly different thing. It seems clear to me that there really isn’t one, but equally clear that we shouldn’t be in the least bit troubled by this. Anyone tempted to think that God has a design for it all should be urged to remember that there is a species of frog that spends something like eleven and a half months of every year asleep, buried in the sand in Arizona, or some such place, because otherwise it would burn to death. This can’t possibly be in accordance with any sensible plan. And I’m sorry, boys, but telling me it’s ineffable just won’t cut it as an explanation.
The really important question is, ‘how should we behave?’ In this respect ethics is the most important branch of philosophy, though I think we’ll need to get the metaphysics sorted out before we can finally do the ethics properly. Aristotle might just have been right in saying that politics is the highest of the sciences, but he failed to add that it is in many ways the most boring.
I think it was Philippa Foot who said that if you ask a philosopher a question they talk for a bit and you go away no longer understanding your question. So there you go.
So, if we can’t ask about the meaning of life, and if we buy the claim that there’s no purpose, what’s left? Only to quote those well-known, kooky funsters, Bill and Ted: ‘Be excellent to each other, dudes.’ Aristotle might well have agreed (once we’d settled on a suitable Greek translation of ‘dudes’ ).
And I think we can all learn a lot from that.
P.S. I was pleased to have cleared up the mystery surrounding the origin of my free copy of the New Humanist. Thanks.