we reflect on our life, how do we make sense of it? We might
look for a theme, or evaluate our impact on, or importance to,
the world. Each of us would likely focus upon different elements.
For me the narrative would revolve around three concepts and
my relationship to them: Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Or is it
just one concept, as Plato wanted to suggest? Truth is beautiful
and good. Beauty is good and true. Goodness is true and beautiful.
Plato may have been onto something, but for our investigation
let us explore each one in turn.
For nearly thirty years my life was not about anything definitive.
As a child I often had the sense that I had forgotten something
important. The feeling haunted me, as the realization of a forgetting
often will. Maybe this tease, suggesting that I was so close
to something significant, explains why I later found seeking
so important. For whatever reason, truth became my first meaningful
focus, and the most compelling mysteries concerning truth were,
and I still believe are, the philosophical ones.
It was academic philosophy that provided me with a set of values
and tools for revealing these truths. The values were clarity
and precision. The tools were about how to conceive definitions
and form distinctions crucial for both clarity and precision.
The overriding structure was logic, with it's aspiration to fathom
language and its connection to the world.
So the beginning of my reflective life had the pursuit of philosophical
truth at the heart. This path was not without complexity or dissonance,
but it led me to commit to one principle over all others: That
I should strive to believe things to the degree to which they
are justified or evidenced, by no more, and no less. As David
Hume says, "A wise man proportions his belief to the
As a result, believing an unpleasant truth became more important
to me than finding solace in a reassuring or seductive lie.
So belief comes in degrees, as evidence does, since unconditional
proof for most things is elusive. Thus, with the commitment to
evidence as the foundation of my beliefs came the acceptance
that sometimes my beliefs would not correspond to the truth,
and because acts are based upon beliefs, sometimes my actions
are going to be imperfect. I had to accept this. I did and moved
After a while it became evident that I had answered most of the
important questions in philosophy to my satisfaction, but I still
needed clarity about issues in ethics. This would be my next
After jousting with the concepts in ethics for a while I began
to lean firmly in one direction: that the primary role, and original
reason for invention, of the language of ethics was to communicate
information about another person's character. When we talk about
character we sometimes talk about courage, humility and loyalty,
for instance. But the most general categories for character appraisal
are the notions of "good" and "bad".
Although these terms are vague, they are not without meaning.
I became convinced and wedded to the view that the most important
character traits that make up being a good person are kindness
and honesty. There are others and we cannot always say with precision
when a person should be more kind than honest or more honest
than kind, or when we should give more weight to other personal
commitments, but it was clear to me that being kind and honest
should be the focal points of a good life and central to the
commitment to be a good spirit.
But then I wondered: Is this what I should be doing with my life?"
Should I be focused on being a better person? Or should I go
back to my initial quest for truth? Maybe I should I do both?
How do I discover the guiding principles for what is worth doing?
No clear answer presented itself.
Then one day I realized that there is another concept worth special
consideration: Beauty. I noticed upon reflection that my experiences
of beauty were many of the best experiences of my life.
In a parallel pursuit I'd been exploring issues concerning value.
Upon reflection, it became clear to me that there is only one
thing is of intrinsic worth: experience. If a physical object,
for instance, is of value it is because it enables positive experiences
or prevents negative ones. To discover, then, what the value
of some physical thing is to you, you only need to reflect upon
how your experiences with that object are distinct from the experiences
without it and follow this with an assessment of the value to
you of those experiences.
Thus, if experience is the only thing of intrinsic value and
if there is a real answer to the question "what is the meaning
to life?", and if the question about the meaning of life
is about the value of a life then "the meaning of life"
must be expressed in terms of experience i.e., the experiences
that make a life meaningful.
Now, consider this thought experiment. Suppose there were an
entire universe that contained no life. Nothing in that universe
experiences any part of that universe. Could there be something
meaningful in or about that universe? It's hard to imagine what
it would be. It seems empty and a little tragic.
But now let us imagine a universe where there are things that
experience it, but theyonly experience it, they don't reflect
upon that experience at all. This is a better universe, not as
sad, but still it lacks something, something significant.
For our third universe, let us have beings that experience it
as in the second universe, but let those beings reflect upon
that experience and furthermore let some of this experience take
the form of appreciation of the wonder, the awe and thebeauty
in and of that universe. Now we have a universe that is worth
the effort to be!
As an aside, what does it mean to wonder? It emerges from our
need to know the answer to a profound question, together with
a reflection on our awareness that we don't know it now, but
someday we might. What does it mean to feel awe? Awe is the feeling
we have when we realize that we will never know the whole truth.
We will never satisfy our desire to possess and entirely contain
So why are we here? What is our place in all of this? We are
here to experience the wonder, awe and beauty of the universe.
We are the witnesses to this amazing universe. Without us, the
audience, the universe would be lonely, isolated and sad. It
would have no witnesses. Without us, it could still be amazing
and beautiful, but the tragedy would be even greater if it were
exceedingly wondrous and beautiful, because no one would ever
Please realize that for most of my life I haven't really given
much weight to the question of the meaning of life, mostly because
I was convinced that it presupposed the false idea that the universe
wants us to do something and that somehow doing what the universe
wants us to do gives an importance to our life.
At other times the question seems to suggest that there exist
rules that are a certain guide to how one must lead a life, and
that following those rules for some reason gives meaning to a
life. This suggestion was also hard for me to accept and so the
question of meaning in this context had no emotional resonance
But on an emotional level the notion of being a witness to an
awesome universe seems to satisfy any impulse I'd ever had for
wanting to ask the question. And so this answer, even though
it may not fulfill others, gives me a sense of resolution. It
serves to remind me at those times when I wonder about my own
worth, what gives value to my life: Reflecting on the wonder
and beauty of the universe. Not that the universe "needs"
a witness, but for me it's assuring to know that it has at least
one. It makes me smile.
Why would the experience of beauty be so special? Why would it
be more special than the pleasures of physical sensation? These
are good experiences also, but the appreciation of beauty is
unique in at least one sense. It is not self-centered. It is
(most of the time) about something outside ourselves. It provides
us with a connection to the universe that is not based upon our
needs, but upon our realization that something outside of us
This view also fits well with a view of what it means to be
To be spiritual involves:
1) A sense of being connected to the universe.
2) A sense of awe and wonder about the universe.
3) A sense that there is something in the universe greater than
Beauty is closely aligned with one and three, and perhaps even
We must realize, of course, that the meaning of life in general
may be different from the meaning of a particular life, but the
two are likely connected. The possible relationship is worth
exploring at another time.
Because beauty is often hidden, since it comes in various unexpected
forms, if we want to see it in those hidden places we must pay
close attention or we might miss it.
So, I decided on balance. Besides seeking truth honestly, and
trying to learn to be a better person, I will try to stay aware
of the beauty and wonder of this amazing universe, and thereby
stay connected to it.
I will not forget that attentiveness and reflection are crucial
to seeing the world as it really is, flawed but sometimes perfect,
serious but sometimes humorous, callous but sometimes loving.
We live in an astonishing world at a compelling time and, in
fact, the only one who can keep me from savoring and focusing
upon the uniquely wonderful things in it is me.
Maybe this perspective is what I initially forgot.