What are we asking when we ask about the meaning of life? Herewith, some preliminary distinctions.
Existential versus Linguistic Meaning
Those for whom meaning is primarily at home in the semantic domain might wonder whether it makes sense to speak of the meaning of a life or of the actions and projects and events that make up a life. But surely it does make sense. Pace some older writers, there is no category mistake or any other fallacy involved in asking about the meaning of human life, or what I will call existential meaning. When we ask philosophically about the meaning of life we are asking about the ultimate and objective point, purpose, end, or goal of human willing and striving, if there is one. We are asking whether there is an ultimate and objective point, and what it is. These questions about existential as opposed to linguistic meaning obviously make sense and there is no need to waste ink defending their sense. The days of a crabbed positivism are long gone.
That being said, the similarities and differences of existential and linguistic meaning are worth noting. Two quick points. One is that a human life could be construed as a vehicle of linguistic meaning. Suppose a misspent youth issues in a man’s life-long incarceration. One might say of such a man, ‘His life shows that crime does not pay.’ This is a bit of evidence for the thesis that a life can have linguistic meaning: the miscreant’s life can be reasonably taken to express the proposition that crime does not pay. There is also the phenomenon of meaningful gestures and looks. There is the look that says, ‘I don’t believe a word you are saying.’ From some students I have received the look that bespeaks, ‘I don’t believe a word you are saying, and you don’t either.’ So if looks and gestures can carry rather specific linguistic meanings, then perhaps lives can as well. This is not to say that existential meaning is a species of linguistic meaning, but that there are analogies between them worth exploring. Indeed, if one were to assimilate one to the other, it would be more plausible to assimilate linguistic meaning to existential meaning.
The second point is that there is an analogy between the way in which context is essential for both linguistic and existential meaning. Words and sentences have their meanings only in wider linguistic contexts. An individual life, too, has what meaning it has only in a wider social and perhaps even cosmic context. This will be explored further below when a distinction is made between anthropic and cosmic existential meaning.
Teleological and Axiological Aspects of Existential Meaning.
Meaning bears a teleological aspect in that a meaningful life is a purpose-driven life. It is difficult to see how a human life devoid of purposes could be meaningful, and indeed purposes organized by a central purpose such as advancing knowledge or alleviating suffering. The central purpose must be one the agent freely and self-transparently chooses for himself, a condition that would not be satisfied by Sisyphus if the gods, to modify Taylor-style a classical example, had implanted in him a burning desire endlessly to roll stones. Of course, the dominating purpose must be both nontrivial and achievable. A life devoted to the collecting of beer cans is purpose-driven but meaningless on the score of triviality while a life in quest of a perpetuum mobile is purpose-driven but meaningless on the score of futility. But even if a life has a focal purpose that is freely and consciously chosen by the agent of the life, nontrivial, and achievable, this still does not suffice for meaningfulness.
A meaningful life also bears an axiological aspect in that a meaningful life is one that embodies some if not a preponderance of positive noninstrumental value at least for the agent of the life. A life wholly devoid of personal satisfaction cannot be called meaningful. But even this is not enough. The lives of some terrorists and mass murderers are driven by nontrivial and nonfutile purposes and are satisfying to their agents. We ought, however, to resist the notion that such lives are meaningful. A necessary condition of a life’s being meaningful is that it realize some if not preponderance of positive noninstrumental objective value. A radically immoral life cannot be a meaningful life.
Restriction to Human Life
The question about the meaning of life is restricted to human life. We are not asking about the purpose of life in general. For what concerns us is not life as such, life in its full biological range, but our type of life, life that supports subjectivity, life that is lived from a subjective center, life that can express itself and question itself using the first-person singular pronoun as in the questions Who am I? and Why am I here? Human life is self-questioning life. And as far as we know, only human life is self-questioning life.
Life and Subjectivity
The restriction of the meaning question to human life is not a restriction to human life as a biological phenomenon but a restriction to human subjectivity. We must distinguish between the occurrence in nature of biologically human animals and human subjectivity, the subjectivity that encounters itself in human animals. Our concern is not with the purpose of human animals but with the purpose of human existence, human subjectivity, human Dasein to use Heidegger’s term. What is the purpose of my existence as a subject, as a conscious and self-conscious being whose Being is an issue for it? Not: Why do human animals like me exist? It might be better to speak of the meaning of consciousness rather than of the meaning of life. What is the meaning of our being conscious with all that that entails: the positing of goals, the questioning of goals, the experiencing of moods, the being driven by desire while being haunted by conscience?
To appreciate the distinction between human life as a biological phenomenon and human subjectivity, note that the meaning question could arise even if I were not a human animal. If I were a finite pure spirit, my living would not be a biological living but it would be a conscious and self-conscious living nonetheless. A finite pure spirit could ask: Why do I exist? For what purpose? What is the meaning of my life? Imagine surviving your bodily death and finding yourself wondering about the point of your post-mortem existence. Wondering about the meaning of your post-mortem life you would not be wondering about the meaning of your biological life or the purpose of your embodiment (since you are disembodied) but about your life as a pure spirit. But I am now a human animal, and it may well be that my subjectivity cannot exist without the support of my human animality. Nevertheless, it is not the meaning (purpose) of the biological living of this animal that is me that I am inquiring into when I ask about the meaning of my life, but the meaning of my subjectivity, the meaning of my being a subject who lives in and though his projects and wonders about their ultimate point and purpose. The body is the vehicle of my projects in this material world, and it may be that I cannot exist without this vehicle. (I am certainly not identical to it.) But the meaning question does not concern the purpose in nature of this animal that is my vehicle, but the purpose of my willing and striving as a subject of experience for whom there is a natural world. The subject of experience is not just another object in the natural world, but precisely a subject for whom there is a natural world. The intelligent reader will of course appreciate that nothing said above presupposes the truth of substance dualism in the philosophy of mind.
The Irreducibly Subjective Tenor of the Meaning Question
What the foregoing implies is that the question about the meaning of human existence has an irreducibly subjective tenor. It cannot be posed as a purely objective question about either the cause or the purpose of the occurrence in nature of a certain zoological species. If this is right, then we shouldn’t expect natural science to provide any insight into why we are here and what our existence means. We should not take the following oft-quoted passage from Stephen Hawking as having any relevance to our question:
However, if we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable by everyone, not just by a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason -- for then we should know the mind of God. (A Brief History of Time, Bantam 1988, p. 175)
Total natural science, including evolutionary theory, is in a position to provide a causal explanation of why we are here as members of a zoological species. But even if natural science could tell us the purpose of the human species, it cannot give us any insight into why we exist if this question means: for what ultimate purpose do we individual subjects of experience exist? Hawking conflates the question of the ultimate meaning (purpose) of human existence with the question of the causal explanation of a certain zoological species. That is a mistake. And this for two reasons.
First, to assign a cause is not to assign a purpose. Second, an animal species could have a purpose even if no specimen of that species has that purpose or any purpose. There is a logical gap between ‘Species S has purpose P’ and ‘Each member of S has P.’ To think otherwise is to commit the Fallacy of Division. Suppose the purpose of the human species is to serve as food for a race of farsighted and very clever extraterrestrials who long ago interfered with evolution on Earth so as to have delectable provisions for an extraterrestrial delicatessen which is projected to come online in 2050. On this scenario the human species has an objective purpose. But it is not a purpose that could serve as the meaning of the life of any member of the human species. Such a purpose is not subjectively appropriable. It cannot be the meaning of my life to be eaten or to have progeny who will be eaten. A purpose whose realization would destroy me or impede my flourishing or negate my dignity and autonomy is not a purpose that could serve as the meaning of my life. We will return to the topic of subjective appropriability.
In sum, the idiomatic ‘Why are we here?’ does not ask why certain organisms are on the Earth, or why certain organisms are parts of the physical universe. Nor does it ask about the purpose of an animal species. It asks: What is the ultimate and objective, yet subjectively appropriable, purpose of human subjectivity, if there is one? To exist for a human being is to exist as a subject of experience; it is not to be a mere object in a world of natural objects. No adequate treatment of the meaning-of-life question can ignore the insights of the existentialists.
Anthropic and Cosmic Aspects of the Meaning Question
Although the question of the meaning of human existence has an irreducibly subjective tenor as just explained, there is no denying that the question has a ‘cosmic’ side in addition to its ‘human’ side. A meaningful life is one that in some measure fits into a wider context and has its meaning in part supplied by that context. Meaningfulness is connected with belongingness. We feel our lives to be meaningful when we feel them as parts of something larger than ourselves. Now the widest context is the world whole. It embraces everything of every ontological category. The world whole is the totality of what exists including God if God exists. And we are parts of the world whole. Even if you understand that the agent and subject of a life is not identical to a specimen of a zoological species, you must grant that we as subjects of experience are parts of the world whole. Since we are parts of the world whole, and the world whole is the widest context in which our lives unfold, the nature of the world whole cannot be unrelated to the meaningfulness or lack thereof of human existence. Thus the meaning-of-life question can be formulated ‘cosmically’ as follows: Is the world, the totality of what has being, of such a nature as to confer meaning and purpose, wholly or in part, on human life? Relative to us, is the world benign, hostile, indifferent, or none of these? Is the ultimate nature of the world such as to frustrate our purposes, as a cosmic pessimist would maintain, or such as to enable and further them, as the cosmic optimist would say? Or neither?
Thus the meaning-of-life question can be formulated as a human or anthropic question but also as a ‘cosmic’ question. Anthropic question: What is the objective purpose of human existence? Cosmic question: Is the nature of the world whole such as to enable and further the meaningfulness of human existence?
Exogenous versus Endogenous Meaning
Our problem concerns the objective meaning of human life in general, if any, and not the subjectively posited meaning of any particular human life, or the intersubjectively posited meaning of a group of particular human lives. An objective meaning is one that is assigned by God or some other external agent or 'assigned' by the nature of things, as opposed to one that is subjectively or intersubjectively posited. Objective meaning is exogenous as opposed to endogenous. It comes from without as opposed to from within. For example, if the purpose of our lives is to live in accordance with God’s will, then our lives have a meaning that is objective inasmuch as it is assigned by God. But even if there is no God as traditionally conceived, there could still be an objective meaning, one inscribed in the nature of things. On the atheistic cosmic scheme of Buddhism, entry into Nirvana is the summum bonum, the ultimate end (both goal and cessation) of all human striving. Similar points could be made about Hinduism, Taoism, neo-Platonism and other systems. Life could have an objective point even if there is no God.
Philosophical and Psychological Problems of the Meaning of Life
Suppose a person’s bipolar disorder renders his particular life subjectively meaningless. That is compatible with life’s having an objective meaning. It is equally obvious that life’s lacking an objective meaning is compatible with a particular life’s being subjectively meaningful. Our question is the philosophical question about the objective meaning of human life in general, whether there is one and what it is. It is not to be confused with any personal or psychological question.
There are existential drifters, directionless individuals whose lives are desultory because they cannot muster the motivation to pursue any definite goal. Imagine a person who believes that the ultimate purpose of human existence is to attain Nirvana, but simply has no motivation to meditate, practice austerities, etc. This person’s problem is psychological, not philosophical. This is not to deny that the philosophical problem cannot become a psychological problem for a given person. A person who is led by philosophical inquiry from a naive belief in the meaning of life to a conviction of life’s absurdity might be plunged into debilitating mental anguish. Compare this case to one in which a person arrives by philosophical means at a conviction of the absurdity of human existence and then calmly considers Camus’ question whether absurdity demands suicide as the only appropriate response. If the person, disagreeing with Camus, decides that suicide is the proper response and commits the act, we should not say that his philosophical inquiry has induced in him a psychological problem, but that he has put into practice his theoretical conviction. So when I insist that the meaning-of-life question is a philosophical, not a psychological, question, that is not to be taken as implying that it is a merely theoretical question with no possible practical upshot for an individual life.
Two Sides of the Philosophical Problem
Our question is not only a question about the objective meaning of human existence, but also a question about this very question, a question about its sense and solubility. Call this the meta-side of the question. It is our focus here. I have just said something about the sense of the question. The next step is to question its solubility.