Chad McIntosh writes,
Your post We Cannot Be the Source of Our Own Existential Meaning touches on a puzzle that I’ve been wrestling with for several years now. I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts on the following.
Like you, I think meaning is bestowed, or endowed, by agents. However, I may hold a stronger view, which is captured by what I call the Endowment Thesis:
(ET) Any object x has meaning iff x has meaning by virtue of being endowed meaning by one or more agents.
BV: In the post in question I did not endorse the thesis that meaning is bestowed by agents; I made the conditional claim that if existential meaning is bestowed by each upon himself, then the identification of existential meaning with subjectively bestowed meaning collapses into an elimination of existential meaning. But your (ET) is plausible and its consequences are worth exploring.
(In fact, I normally state ET as true of value, not meaning. But I think ET holds for both value and meaning. But I’ll follow your post and state the puzzle with meaning instead of value).
BV: I think existential meaning has both a teleological and an axiological side. Thus a meaningful life is a purpose-driven life, but not every purpose-driven life is meaningful: the purpose must have positive intrinsic value. If someone sets himself as the central task of his life the parsing of every sentence in Moby Dick, his life has purpose; but since the value of such an accomplishment is questionable, the same goes for the meaningfulness of a life consecrated to such a task. See Teleological and Axiological Aspects of Existential Meaning.
The puzzle arises when we stipulate that x is God, God has meaning (or is a meaningful being, has a meaningful existence), and that God is the sole inhabitant of a world. So: God has meaning iff God has meaning by virtue of being endowed meaning by one or more agents.
There are two ways this could work: Either God, as a single agent, endows himself meaning, or God is in some way more than one agent (God is whole of which agents are parts—as agents, the parts can endow each other value, and God has meaning by virtue of each of the parts having meaning).
Now, both possibilities seem to require us to say that God does not have meaning logically prior to being endowed meaning (which leads me to think you may reject ET).
BV: Yes. Neither God nor Socrates can bootstrap himself into existence. And it seems that the same goes for meaningfulness: neither can bootstrap his existence into meaningfulness. So what I argued in my post with respect to finite agents like us holds also for God. It cannot be the case that God gives his existence meaning. Not even God can be a subjectivist about existential meaning!
But the former possibility—where God has meaning by virtue of endowing himself meaning—requires making sense of endowing oneself meaning, which you—as well as I—find problematic. I have my own objections to this possibility, but I’m curious to what you think of it. Assuming (ET) is true, can God sans creation endow himself meaning (or value)? Would your arguments in the post apply to God with equal force here?
BV: Yes, it seems to me that the arguments apply to God with equal probative force.
Also, I hope we can bracket divine simplicity for the sake of the argument. Thoughts?
BV: These considerations seem to add up to an argument against your (ET). The universal quantifier 'any' causes trouble. But surely some (many, most) objects are such that their meaning, value, and purpose are not had by them intrinsically but are bestowed upon them by one or more agents acting individually or collectively. I may assign a rock the purpose of being a paper weight, a purpose that it does not have intrinsically, and to a book that has collectively been assigned a purpose I can add an idiosyncratic purpose such as serving as a door stop or to fuel a fire. I can use a topographical map to swat a fly, and a flyswatter to scratch my back or direct an orchestra. Or consider the value of water. That value, it seems, is not intrinsic to water, but it is also not assigned by me or you or all of us collectively. But it is relative to our physical need for the stuff. Water is not intrinsically valuable, else it would be good for electronic gear, paper, and fires.
So it seems safe to say that some purposes, values, and meanings are relative to agents even if those agents don't have the power to assign them arbitrarily.
As for God, he is a counterexample to (ET). God does not have a purpose because he assigns himself one; he is intrinsically purposive, intrinsically good, intrinsically valuable, intrinsically meaningful. This intrinsicality would be nicely underpinned by the divine simplicity, but it is not clear that one needs that doctrine to underpin it.
Now suppose there is no God. Then human existence is ultimately (as opposed to proximately) meaningless, purposeless, and valueless. But we have the sense that it is none of these. This sense gives us reason to seek God, even though it does not furnish materials for a compelling proof of the existence of God.
I have gone out on a limb here, which will afford you an opportunity to practice your sawing skills.