The meaning of ‘life’ and the meaning of life

I recently had a discussion with a friend about whether there could be life on Venus. I contended, rather dogmatically, that there could not, based on our current theories about how biological life is understood and the limits that there might be on the biochemical complexity possible in the universe. My friend replied that we do not know what forms that life could take in the rest of the universe and I could not possibly make such a claim. It occurred to me later that we were both right, but also that each of us had weaknesses in what we were saying. It is indeed true that the meaning of the word ‘life’ is limited to what we know from our experiences on Earth, a vanishingly small sample of the whole of reality. As we explore beyond our little blue-green world, we may well encounter new forms of life that radically change our concepts. I should only have claimed that ‘to the best of our current knowledge and using only the current meaning of the words involved in the theories it is very unlikely indeed that there is life on Venus right now’.

However, this is all we can ever say. We revise, broaden and update our concepts as we encounter new ways of thinking or experience unexpected new potential applications of an idea. We do this by noting that the concepts still apply but that they are not quite adequate to the new job. We might, for example, have a good idea what a ‘business’ is, but revise it as we hear about a new way of working in a collaborative virtual space across organisational boundaries. However, when we encounter entirely new phenomena, particularly in a scientific context, it can be a matter of protracted debate and investigation to decide whether the old ideas should be applied or not. Biological taxonomy (a fascinating subject) is littered with examples of the discovery of life forms that have been initially classified as one kind of organism only later to be identified as requiring a family, class, phylum or even kingdom of their own. So, were we to encounter some radically different way of being in the far reaches of space, if the being(s) had little overlap in kind with the complex, carbon-based, self-maintaining, replicating way of existing that we currently call ‘life’, it is not at all clear that we would want to say that we had discovered ‘life, Jim, but not as we know it’. We might have to develop a whole new concept and field of enquiry for that sort of existence.

The point is, whether the future idea of ‘life’ will extend beyond what we currently include to the extent that we find there is life on Venus, there will be much to debate and consider before it does; and until that time the concept ‘life’ will just mean what it does now. We cannot second guess what ideas will mean in their future use, nor can we say ‘we can’t make a claim about life on Venus because we don’t know what life in the universe as a whole could be like.’ Concepts and ideas mean just what they mean now in the ways we use them in our best theories and our everyday use. If we started to withhold ideas or use them in an “unknown future” way, we would be saying nothing; we would not be able to discuss life on Venus or indeed anywhere else, and all our meanings would be empty because there is no theory and context for that future meaning. So, yes, the idea of what life is might be different in the future, and it is something we shall have to discuss, but right now I am fairly confident there is no life on Venus.

All of which brings me to the meaning of life, where I mean ‘life’ in a broader, ‘what is it all about?’, ‘what should I do with my life?’ kind of sense. I bring this up because my business and consultancy offer has been evolving to be increasingly philosophy-oriented over time, and I want to make clear what this implies.

I have been involved with academic philosophy since I first went to university around thirty years ago. I have not published very much to date, compared with academic writers, because my interests have tended to be practical, and applied to learning and teaching and debates about ethics, values, truth, science and knowledge in our wider society. This what I think philosophers should be doing: engaging with real applications.

However, what I am occasionally asked by people who have not studied philosophy formally is whether I can tell them the meaning of life: sometimes the question is intended to suggest that the subject is pointless and navel-gazing, but sometimes the enquirer seeks a serious response. My actual answer is that I cannot, for similar reasons to understanding the limits of what we can say about life on Venus. The meaning of ‘life’ in the more general context depends on what it already means to you, the questioner: it is given meaning by the context, beliefs and theories you already live by. I say that there can be no definitive answer that will be true for all people at all times, and if anyone tries to give such an answer in a sentence or three, it always turns out that he or she has smuggled in unsupported metaphors or empty concepts.

What philosophy can do, and what I help people to do is uncover and analyse those concepts, beliefs and theories, whether they are being applied to life, business, organisational design, development, change, motivation or individual improvement. Management and business studies can only take you so far before the values stall, and deeper assumptions (about what an organisation is, for example) forever remain hidden; and psychological approaches are more often than not very descriptive, without the power to find better ways of thinking, doing and working together.

So if you really want to know what makes your life or your work meaningful, what will improve how you understand and implement changes in your organisation, or how you should to respond ethically in a corrupt world, maybe – just maybe – you need a philosopher.