The answer to the question of meaning of life is for many the ultimate quest. I have found an answer by watching the delightfully silly science fiction series Red Dwarf.
The second episode of the fifth season is very different to most story lines, as it deals with the ultimate question: the meaning if life. The Inquisitor is on a journey through time, seeking out the worthless and erasing them from existence, allowing a different person to exist in their place:
Well, the legend tells of a droid – a self-repairing simulant, who survives till the end of eternity; to the end of time itself. After millions of years alone, he finally reaches the conclusion that there is no god, no afterlife, and the only purpose of existence is to lead a worthwhile life. And so the droid constructs a time machine and roams eternity, visiting every single soul in history, assessing each one. He erases all those who have wasted their lives and replaces them with those who never had a chance of life – the unfertilised eggs, the sperms that never made it. THAT is the Inquisitor – he prunes away the wastrels, expunges the wretched, and deletes the worthless!
After hearing this story, Lister asks how to determine who is worthless, which is a profoundly philosophical question. Not so much the question who is worthless and who is not, but the question whether there actually can be rational demarcation criteria to separate the ‘wastrels, wretched and the worthless’.
Dealing with these issues is seen by some as philosophical Russian roulette because the answer might lead to a totally different view of the world – some pointing directly to the Nazi eugenics projects. But this question is not about that – it is a meta question. Can we find rational means to determine which lives are worth living and which are not. The question whether a life that is found not worth living can be expunged is an ethical question and a whole different matter all together.
Is, as Rimmer eloquently puts it “eating sugar puff sandwiches for eight hours every day” more or less valuable than writing symphonies or painting the Sistine Chapel? The immediate gut feel answer is that the latter is more valuable than the former. The silent premise in this line of reasoning is that something has to have external value, e.g. value to something outside the person themselves in order to be worthwhile.
Kryten clearly follows this external view when he argues that: “you don’t have to be a great philanthropist, or a missionary worker, you simply have to seize the gift of life! … Make a contribution!”
If this would be the case, if a life was only worth living if it has external value, then all animals are leading worthless lives. Looking at our cats, I see totally egocentric beings, who do not care about anything else but their own please. To them, eating tuna, the feline equivalent of sugar puff sandwiches, is a perfectly good life and most certainly worth living.
In Religion as a Vehicle for Meaning I have already argued that there are no rational means to determine which life is worth living. Religion provides no philosophical justification and philosophical reasoning often leads to concluding that there is no meaning of life, outside life itself.
In Red Dwarf, the Inquisitor determines whether somebody’s life is worth living by letting people judging themselves: “a bit metaphysical … but it is the only fair way”. The Inquisitor thus judges each life on internal values. It is indeed the only fair way. Not very rational or scientifically justified and theologically surely not satisfactory, but it is the only thing we got!