Space Opera Q6: The meaning of life


An entirely serious question.

This book posits a universe that has no intrinsic meaning. There is no god, no creator, no higher purpose, no energy field that binds all life together. Life arrives spontaneously and is ubiquitous. Those lives are limited by reach and time. There's no afterlife: this one shot is all we get. No one life, or even one species, has inherent worth. There's no objective difference between people and meat.

This is, essentially, the point of view put forward by Western secularism.

In such a world, such a universe, what should we do? How should we live?

Valente recounted a letter sent to her by a reader. The reader thanked Valente for the book. She read it to her young husband while he was dying in hospital of cancer. They both enjoyed it and it was their last shared experience. The book brought some some beauty to the profoundly stupid terminal illness.

We're all in the same situation, but hopefully not so immediate. We don't have any deep effect on the world. We'll be dead in a few handfuls of years. When we're gone, almost no-one will notice, let alone care for long. What's the point?

In the book, Valente essentially says that we should accept that life is stupid, and work to make life more beautiful. Beauty, art, love: are those what we should be striving for? Are they enough?


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    Everyone is different, and nothing, no one solution, works for everyone. Let everyone find what works for them and let it be.

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    For some, the answer is to perpetuate human life.
    For others, the answer is to make sure they leave a meaningful legacy, to build something that will outlast them.
    Some want to leave the world in a better place.
    Others want to die with the most toys.
    The vast majority have no idea what they should do and follow each of these goals in different measure at different times of their lives.

    Another author said the answer to this question is '42'.

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    This was the one thing that lifted the book up for me. I didn't like the writing or the humour, but I did appreciate some of the ideas. The search for meaning, the importance of art and expression, and the meaning of sentience are all big themes, and well worth exploring in fiction. I enjoyed the exploration here.

    There's no answer to the question, and the question isn't one to formulate rigorously (I believe someone wrote a series of books about that), but the exploration of ideas is definitely worthwhile.

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    Something that struck me along these lines is that, whilst there were no overt religious structures in the book at all (so far as I recall), the quest for the transcendent / the numinous is what it's all about.

    On one purely physical level you can see the music competition as simply to do with patterns and structures - which I guess you could trace ultimately down to the resonances and symmetries of electton shells and quantum mechanical wave forms. But there is, I think, more to it than just idealised patterns that the author wants us to think about.

    The concept of there being _just_ the right combination of words, music, rhythm, etc is kind of central, and is in the book just as much a religious or spiritual quest as anything (arguably this could be thought of as true outside the book).

    So for me, a main appeal of the book was that even in an apparently secularised and largely hedonistic/self-indulgent world, life forms are still driven by a quest to find something authentically Real - "lead me to the rock that is higher than I" kind of sentiment. (And I kind of agree with @dr_mitch that a lot of the other trappings of the book left me cold).
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    @RichardAbbott well put. The quest for the transcendent. That's important to me, as well as being a religious/philosophical core.

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    I'm glad people picked up on this. This comment on the meaning of life is why I thought the book worthy of a read by us (a silly Adams pastiche may have been amusing, but not satisfying). As people have said, it's an entirely secular world, but that doesn't preclude people wanting to connect with others and/or create something better than what's demanded by their meat-based needs.

    For me, I think art has an important role to play. I'm not an artist or a musician, but I know some who are. You could (and I do) regard the play of RPGs as being an performance art of its own. On one level, art is just something that's pretty to look at or pleasant to hear. But art can also be a way for people to connect with each other, and a way of commenting on and exploring the world around us, and inspiring us to be better people.

    (There are other ways of getting to the same place. My day job is a university academic. Both teaching and research are about the same striving to make things better, for either my students or humanity at large.)

    But what does "better" mean? Again, the book's distinction of "people or meat" is useful. What makes people more than meat? Why should we care? Partly, it's empathy: I want to do things that relieve your pain and promote your pleasure. But ultimately, it's about our shared ability to seek and understand the transcendent.

    So, in summary. Art, beauty, love: I think that's about all there is, and are certainly worth striving for.

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    I like this discussion about the nobility of art - maybe we can explore this again in other books?

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