I like animals because I think they're a higher form of life. They have no pretenses about what they are; a dog can achieve levels of serenity and fulfillment of which I cannot conceive by merely being a dog and doing dog things. Myself, on the other hand, I could be the next Einstein with the face of James Dean and still very likely be miserable all my life.
I like animals too, but not because they are a higher form of life. They are lower forms of life. The ascription of pretentiousness to a cat or dog is of course absurd, but equally so is the ascription of serenity and fulfillment to them if these words carry the meaning that we attach to them. It is because man is a spiritual being that he can pretend and fake and dissemble and posture and blow up his ego like a balloon to blot out the sun. And it is because man is a spiritual being that he can know serenity, fulfillment, and in rare cases the peace that surpasseth all understanding. Man has not only the power of thought but also the mystical power to transcend thought. All of this is beyond the animal. If you disagree, then I will ask you to produce the mathematical and metaphysical and mystical treatises of the dolphins and the apes. Who among them is a Paul Erdös or a Plato or a Juan de la Cruz? As Heidegger says somewhere, "An abyss yawns between man and animal."
On the other hand no animal knows misery like we do. Barred out heights, they are also barred our depths of wretchedness and despair.
So while I have many bones to pick with John Stuart Mill on the score of his utilitarianism and his hedonism and his psychologism in logic and his internally inconsistent attempt at distinguishing higher from lower pleasures, his is a noble soul and I agree with the sentiment expressed in this well-known passage from Utilitarianism, Chapter II:
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they know only their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.
I wonder if Mill can validate this noble thought within his paltry hedonist scheme. It is in any case a value judgment and I am not sure I would be able to refute someone who preferred the life of a cat or a dog or a contented cow to that of a man, half-angel, half-beast, tormented, crazed, but participant in highest bliss. But I agree with Nietzsche that man is something to be overcome, though not along the lines he proposes. He needs perfecting. I cannot forbear to quote his marvellous jab at the English hedonists from The Twilight of the Idols:
If we have our own why of life, we shall get along with almost any how. Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does. ("Maxims and Arrows," #12, tr. W. Kaufmann.)
Or if not literally obsess, care deeply? Karl White passes on the following from one of his correspondents:
Why are we all so obsessed with infusing things with meaning anyway? Isn't this craving a mere artifact of being brought up under systems of belief that insist on the fact that life has to serve some purpose? Maybe if we hadn't been presented with such presumptions from the beginning, we wouldn't have such a hard time accepting existence?
These are reasonable questions. Perhaps we cannot be satisfied with finite meanings and relative satisfactions and cannot accept the utter finality of death only because we have have been culturally brainwashed for centuries upon centuries into thinking that there is some Grand Purpose at the back of things that we participate in, and some Final Redemption, when there is none. Perhaps we have been laboring under a God Delusion or a Transcendent Meaning Delusion for lo these many centuries. But now these delusions are losing their grip. One sort of person responds to the loss despairingly and pessimistically. Call it the Woody Allen response. Allen laments the absurdity of life and makes movies to distract himself and others from the dismal reality. Another sort of person digs in his heels and frantically tries to shore up the delusions by concocting ever more subtle metaphysical arguments when he knows deep down, as Allen would insist, that it's all "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
The cure for both is the same: drop the delusions. Stop measuring reality against a nonexistent standard. To paraphrase Nietzsche, when the supposedly Real World falls, then so does the Apparent World. (See The Twilight of the Idols.) The erasure of the Transcendent abrogates the denigration of the Immanent. The Immanent, now no longer immanent, is the sole reality. Live it, love it, affirm it. The finite suffices. Its finitude is no argument against this life if the only alternative is an Infinity that doesn't exist. Death is no argument against life if this is all there is. Drop the delusion and its hinterworlds and you will neither despair nor hope. You will learn to be true to the earth, your natural and only home.
The above considerations don't sway me.
What explains the origin of the systems of belief whose appropriation makes us hanker after Transcendence? Is the longing an artifact of the belief, or the belief an artifact of the longing?
I would say that the longing explains the belief. The belief cannot explain the longing since the belief had to first be there to explain anything, and what explains it is the longing. From time immemorial, people have experienced a deep dissatisfaction with the here and now and with it a longing for a better, truer, higher life. These experiences are real, though not had by everyone, and not equally by those who have them. Outstanding individuals translated these recurrent and widely-distributed experiences of dissatisfaction and longing into systems of belief and practice of various sorts, Buddhism being one example, with its sarvam dukkham. These systems were developed and passed on. They 'resonated' with people, all sorts of people, from every land, at every time. Why? Because they spoke to some real inchoate longing that people everywhere have. They answer to a real need, the metaphysical need. (Cf. Schopenhauer, "On Man's Need for Metaphysics" in WWR vol. II) So it is not as if people were brainwashed into accepting these symbolic forms; they express and articulate real dissatisfaction with the mundane and ephemeral and real longing for lasting beatitude.
In sum: the experiences of deep dissatisfaction and deep longing are real; they come first phylogenetically, ontogenetically, temporally, logically, and epistemically. They give rise to systems of belief and practice (and not the other way around). Both the experiences and the beliefs are evidence of a sort for the reality of that which could remove the dissatisfaction and assuage the longing. Of course, it takes some careful arguing to get from longing for X to the reality of X.
This leads us to the topic of Arguments from Desire, a topic to be pursued in subsequent posts.
Since I mentioned Nietzsche above, I will end with Zarathustra's Roundelay, which never fails to bring tears to my eyes. It shows that Nietzsche, though possessing the bladed intellect of the skeptic, had the throbbing heart of a homo religiosus. In his own perverse way he testifies to the truth above suggested. "All joy wants eternity, wants deep, wants deep eternity!"
According to Woody Allen, we all know that human existence is meaningless and that it ends, utterly and meaninglessly, with death. We all know this, he thinks, but we hide the horrible reality from ourselves with all sorts of evasions and distractions. Worldly people, for example, imagine that they will live forever and lose themselves in the pursuit of pleasure, money, name and fame. Religious people console themselves with fairy tales about God and the soul and post-mortem bliss. Leftists, in the grip of utopian fantasies, having smoked the opium of the intellectuals, sacrifice their lives on the altar of activism. And not only their lives: Communists in the 20th century broke 100 millon 'eggs' in pursuit of an elusive 'omelet.' Ordinary folk live for their children and grandchildren as if procreation has redemptive power.
Pushing the line of thought further, I note that Allen is deeply bothered, indeed obsessed in his neurotic Manhattanite Jewish intellectual sort of way, by the apparent meaninglessness of human existence. Why does the apparent lack of an ultimate meaning bother him? It bothers him because a deep desire for ultimate sense, for point and purpose, is going unsatisfied. He wants redemptive Meaning, but Meaning is absent. (Note that what is phenomenologically absent may or may not be nonexistent.)
But a deep and natural desire for a meaning that is absent may be evidence of a sort for the possibility of the desire's satisfaction. Why do sensitive souls feel the lack of point and purpose? The felt lack and unsatisfied desire is at least a fact and wants an explanation. What explains the felt lack, the phenomenological absence of a redemptive Meaning that could make all this misery and ignorance and evil bearable? What explains the fact that Allen is bothered by the apparent meaninglessness of human existence?
You could say that nothing explains it; it is just a brute fact that some of us crave meaning. Less drastically, and more plausibly, one could say that the craving for meaning has an explanation in terms of efficient causes, but not one that requires the reality of its intentional object. Let me explain.
Craving is an intentional state: it is an object-directed state of mind. One cannot just crave, desire, want, long for, etc. One craves, desires, wants, longs for something. This something is the intentional object. Every intentional state takes an object; but it doesn't follow that every such state takes an object that exists. If a woman wants a man, it does not follow that there exists a man such that she wants him. She wants Mr. Right, but no one among us satisfies the requisite criteria. So while she wants a man, there is no man she wants. Therefore, the deep desire for Meaning does not guarantee the existence of Meaning. We cannot validily argue, via the intentionality of desiderative consciousness, to the extramental reality of the the object desired.
Nevertheless, if is it a natural (as opposed to an artificially induced) desire we are talking about, then perhaps there is a way to infer the existence of the object desired from the fact of the desiring, that is, from the existence of the desiderative state, not from the content or realitas objectiva of the desiderative state. The inferential move from realitas objectiva to realitas formalis is invalid; but the move from the existence of the state to the reality of its object may be valid.
Suppose I want (to drink) water. The natural desire for water is rooted in a natural need. I don't just desire it, the way I might desire (to smoke) a cigar; I need it. Now it doesn't follow from the existence of my need that there is water hereabouts or water in sufficient quantity to keep me alive, but the need for water is very good evidence for the existence of water somewhere. (Suppose all the water in the universe ceases to exist, but I exist for a little longer. My need for water would still be good evidence for the existence of water at some time.) If there never had been any water, then no critter could desire or need it; indeed no critter could exist at all.
The need for water 'proves' the existence of water. Perhaps the desire/need for Meaning 'proves' the existence of Meaning. The felt lack of meaning -- its phenomenological absence -- is grounded in the natural (not artificial) need for Meaning, and this need would not exist if it were not for the extramental reality of a source of Meaning with which we were once in contact, or the traces of which are buried deep within us. And this all men call God.
Mr. Allen, meet Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange:
Since natural desire can never be in vain, and since all men naturally desire beatitude, there must exist an objective being that is infinitely perfect, a being that man can possess, love, and enjoy. (Beatitude, tr. Cummins, Ex Fontibus 2012, p. 79)
This argument, studied in the context of Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics, is more impressive than it may seem. If nothing else it ought to undermine the belief of Allen and his like that it is known by all of us today that human existence is ultimately meaningless.
Here is a video with relevant excerpts from G-L's Life Everlasting and the Immensity of the Soul.
Excerpts from an interview of Woody Allen by Robert E. Lauder (bolding added):
RL: When Ingmar Bergman died, you said even if you made a film as great as one of his, what would it matter? It doesn’t gain you salvation. So you had to ask yourself why do you continue to make films. Could you just say something about what you meant by “salvation”?
WA: Well, you know, you want some kind of relief from the agony and terror of human existence. Human existence is a brutal experience to me . . . it’s a brutal, meaningless experience—an agonizing, meaningless experience with some oases, delight, some charm and peace, but these are just small oases. Overall, it is a brutal, brutal, terrible experience, and so it’s what can you do to alleviate the agony of the human condition, the human predicament? That is what interests me the most. I continue to make the films because the problem obsesses me all the time and it’s consistently on my mind and I’m consistently trying to alleviate the problem, and I think by making films as frequently as I do I get a chance to vent the problems. There is some relief. I have said this before in a facetious way, but it is not so facetious: I am a whiner. I do get a certain amount of solace from whining.
RL: Are you saying the humor in your films is a relief for you? Or are you sort of saying to the audience, “Here is an oasis, a couple of laughs”?
WA: I think what I’m saying is that I’m really impotent against the overwhelming bleakness of the universe and that the only thing I can do is my little gift and do it the best I can, and that is about the best I can do, which is cold comfort.
RL: In Everyone Says I Love You, the character you play gets divorced, and as he and his former wife review their relationship near the end of the film, she says, “You could always make me laugh,” and your character asks very sincerely, “Why is that important?” Do you think what you do is important?
WA: No, not so much. Whenever they ask women what they find appealing in men, a sense of humor is always one of the things they mention. Some women feel power is important, some women feel that looks are important, tenderness, intelligence…but sense of humor seems to permeate all of them. So I’m saying to that character played by Goldie Hawn, “Why is that so important?” But it is important apparently because women have said to us that that is very, very important to them. I also feel that humor, just like Fred Astaire dance numbers or these lightweight musicals, gives you a little oasis. You are in this horrible world and for an hour and a half you duck into a dark room and it’s air-conditioned and the sun is not blinding you and you leave the terror of the universe behind and you are completely transported into an escapist situation. The women are beautiful, the men are witty and heroic, nobody has terrible problems and this is a delightful escapist thing, and you leave the theatre refreshed. It’s like drinking a cool lemonade and then after a while you get worn down again and you need it again. It seems to me that making escapist films might be a better service to people than making intellectual ones and making films that deal with issues. It might be better to just make escapist comedies that don’t touch on any issues. The people just get a cool lemonade, and then they go out refreshed, they enjoy themselves, they forget how awful things are and it helps them—it strengthens them to get through the day. So I feel humor is important for those two reasons: that it is a little bit of refreshment like music, and that women have told me over the years that it is very, very important to them.
RL: At one point in Hannah and Her Sisters, your character, Mickey, is very disillusioned. He is thinking about becoming a Catholic and he sees Duck Soup. He seems to think, “Maybe in a world where there are the Marx Brothers and humor, maybe there is a God. Who knows.” And maybe Mickey can live with that. Am I interpreting this correctly?
WA: No. I think it should be interpreted to mean that there are these oases, and life is horrible, but it is not relentlessly black from wire to wire. You can sit down and hear a Mozart symphony, or you can watch the Marx Brothers, and this will give you a pleasant escape for a while. And that is about the best that you can do…. I feel that one can come up with all these rationalizations and seemingly astute observations, but I think I said it well at the end of Deconstructing Harry: we all know the same truth; our lives consist of how we choose to distort it, and that’s it. Everybody knows how awful the world is and what a terrible situation it is and each person distorts it in a certain way that enables him to get through. Some people distort it with religious things. Some people distort it with sports, with money, with love, with art, and they all have their own nonsense about what makes it meaningful, and all but nothing makes it meaningful. These things definitely serve a certain function, but in the end they all fail to give life meaning and everyone goes to his grave in a meaningless way.
RL: That brings us to the end of Crimes and Misdemeanors. Your character and an ophthalmologist named Judah are having a conversation, and Judah pretends he’s talking about a screenplay but he’s really talking about his own life. He says people do commit crimes, they get away with it, and they don’t even have guilt feelings. And your character says this is horrible, this is terrible, and then you cut to a blind rabbi dancing with his daughter at her wedding, and we hear a voiceover from a philosopher your character admires. He says something like, “There is no ultimate meaning but somehow people have found that they can cope.” The philosopher didn’t really cope; he committed suicide. When I first saw the film I thought you were offering the audience several views of life and leaving it to them to decide which is closest to the truth—Judah’s, Cliff’s, the philosopher’s, or the rabbi’s. (He’s the one who seems to be the happiest and most fulfilled character in the film, despite his blindness.) But in an interview you said that really the ophthalmologist is basically right: there is no benevolent God watching over us at all, and we embrace whatever gets us through the night. Is that right?
WA: I feel that is true—that one can commit a crime, do unspeakable things, and get away with it. There are people who commit all sorts of crimes and get away with it, and some of them are plagued with all sorts of guilt for the rest of their lives and others aren’t. They commit terrible crimes and they have wonderful lives, wonderful, happy lives, with families and children, and they have done unspeakably terrible things. There is no justice, there is no rational structure to it. That is just the way it is, and each person figures out some way to cope…. Some people cope better than others. I was with Billy Graham once, and he said that even if it turned out in the end that there is no God and the universe is empty, he would still have had a better life than me. I understand that. If you can delude yourself by believing that there is some kind of Santa Claus out there who is going to bail you out in the end, then it will help you get through. Even if you are proven wrong in the end, you would have had a better life.
RL: Seven or eight years ago the New York Times asked you to name a favorite film and you picked Shane. It seems to me that the character of Shane is a Christ figure. At one point, Chris Callaway, the guy Shane has beaten in a fistfight in the saloon, changes sides. He leaves the villains and joins Shane and the good guys. When Shane asks him why, he says something has come over him. Shane has had some mysterious impact on him. Shane does not ride off into the sunset as heroes usually do in old Westerns. He rides off into the sunrise, and as he does so the director does this strange thing: he holds a dissolve of a cross from the cemetery, and he keeps it on the screen for about five seconds. Do you remember that at all?
WA: I do remember it. Yes, now that you bring it up, I do.
RL: So the film seems to end with resurrection imagery.
WA: I didn’t see him as a martyred figure, a persecuted figure. I saw him as quite a heroic figure who does a job that needs to be done, a practical matter. I saw him as a practical secular character. In this world there are just some people who need killing and that is just the way it is. It sounds terrible, but there is no other way to get around that, and most of us are not up to doing it, incapable for moral reasons or physically not up to it. And Shane is a person who saw what had to be done and went out and did it. He had the skill to do it, and that’s the way I feel about the world: there are certain problems that can only be dealt with that way. As ugly a truth as that is, I do think it’s the truth about the world.
Comment. I think things are actually worse than Woody Allen makes them out to be. According to him, we all know that human existence is meaningless and that it ends, utterly and meaninglessly, with death. We all know this, he thinks, but we hide the horrible reality from ourselves with all sorts of evasions and distractions. Worldly people, for example, imagine that they will live forever and lose themselves in the pursuit of pleasure, money, name and fame. Religious people console themselves with fairy tales about God and the soul and post-mortem bliss. Leftists, in the grip of utopian fantasies, having smoked the opium of the intellectuals, sacrifice their lives on the altar of activism. Ordinary folk live for their children and grandchildren as if procreation has redemptive power.
But it is worse than Woody Allen makes it out to be because we don't know that human existence is meaningless and that salvation from it is an illusion. We suspect that this is the case and we fear that it is the case, but surely we don't know that it is the case. And so our predicament is an uneasy and anxiety-ridden one. Maybe it does ultimately matter how I live. Perhaps something really is at stake in life beyond the petty, mundane, and ephemeral. If we knew that it is all "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," then we would enjoy a measure of peace and doxastic security. We could rest in this knowledge and commit suicide fearlessly and with a good conscience when and if it becomes necessary or desirable.
But as things are, we are left with the anxiety of Hamlet:
To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep; No more; and by a sleep to say we end The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause: there’s the respect That makes calamity of so long life; For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, The insolence of office and the spurns That patient merit of the unworthy takes, When he himself might his quietus make With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear, To grunt and sweat under a weary life, But that the dread of something after death, The undiscover’d country from whose bourn No traveller returns, puzzles the will And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises of great pith and moment With this regard their currents turn awry, And lose the name of action.–Soft you now! The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons Be all my sins remember’d.
Here is the penultimate paragraph of John Lach's In Love with Life: Reflections on the Joy of Living and Why We Hate to Die (Vanderbilt UP, 1998):
When the time comes [to die], we must surround ourselves with life. In a bustling hospital or a loving home, let everyone get on with their [sic] activities. To die in the midst of energy is not to die at all, but to transfer one's life and hopes to those who carry on. The continuity of our lives and our personalities makes the death of any one individual an event of little moment: the great celebration of existence goes on. (p. 123)
This is an example of one sort of self-deception secularists fall into when they attempt to affirm the value of life. If this is it, it is at least a serious question whether this life can be ascribed a positive value. One doesn't have to go all the way with Schopenhauer to appreciate that this life with its manifold miseries and horrors and injustices is of dubious value. It is certainly not obvious that "Life is good" as one sees emblazoned on the spare tire covers of SUVs in the tonier neighborhoods.
One response to the evils of the world is denial of such facts as are adduced by Schopenhauer:
The truth is, we ought to be wretched and we are so. The chief source of the serious evils which affect men is man himself: homo homini lupus. Whoever keeps this last fact clearly in view beholds the world as a hell, which surpasses that of Dante in this respect, that one man must be the devil of another. (The Will to Live, p. 204)
Judging from the above passage, Lachs appears to be in denial. Surely the following is a silly and well-nigh meaningless assurance: " To die in the midst of energy is not to die at all, but to transfer one's life and hopes to those who carry on." So if I die in the midst of energetic people I haven't died? That is false to the point of being delusional, a flat denial of the fact of death. It is an evasion of the fact and finality of death. And it is nonsense to say that at death "one's life" is transferred to others. One's life is one's individual life; on a secular understanding it ceases to exist at death. It is nontransferrable. As for the "celebration of existence," try explaining that to Syrian refugees or to those who at this very moment are being tortured to death.
Other secularists such as Adorno deny value in a manner most extreme to this present life, but look to the future of this life for redemption. This too is delusional in my judgment. See After Auschwitz.
Secularists need to face the problem of evil. This is not a problem for theists only. It is a problem for anyone who affirms the value of life. If the fact of evil is evidence (whether demonstrative or inductive) of the nonexistence of God, then it is also evidence of the nonaffirmability of this life.
According to David Hume, "Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent." (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion) I've long believed Hume to be right about this. I would put it this way, trading Latin for plain Anglo-Saxon: Our minds are necessarily such that, no matter what we think of as existing, we can just as easily think of as not existing. This includes God. Now God, to be divine, must be a necessary being, indeed a necessary concretum. (God cannot be an abstract entity.) Therefore, even a necessary being such as God is conceivable or thinkable as nonexistent.
Try it for yourself. Think of God together with all his omni-attributes and then think of God as not existing. Our atheist pals have no trouble on this score. The nonexistence of God is thinkable without logical contradiction.*
Note the ambiguity of 'conceivable.' It could mean thinkable, or it could mean thinkable without (internal) logical contradiction. Round squares are conceivable in the first sense but not in the second. If round squares were in no sense conceivable, how could we think about them and pronounce them broadly logically impossible? Think about it!
Now try the experiment with an abstract necessary being such as the number 7 or the proposition *7 is prime.* Nominalists have no trouble conceiving the nonexistence of such Platonica, and surely we who are not nominalists can understand their point of view. In short, absolutely everything can be thought of, without logical contradiction, as not existing.
Humius vindicatus est.
I now define the sense of contingency as the sense that everything is thinkable without logical contradiction as nonexistent. I claim that this sense is essential to the type of mind we have. I also claim that the sense of contingency does not entail that everything is modally contingent, i.e., existent in some but not all metaphysically (broadly logically) possible worlds. So from the mere fact that I can think the nonexistence of God without logical contradiction, it does not follow that God is a contingent being. I further claim that we have a hard-to-resist tendency to conflate illicitly the sense of contingency (precisely as I have just defined it) with genuine modal contingency.
So, if someone argues a contingentia mundi to God as causa prima, he can expect the knee-jerk response: what caused God? Behind that reflexive question is the sense of contingency: if the universe is contingent (because conceivably nonexistent) and needs a cause, then so is anything posited as first cause. What then caused the First Cause? If nothing caused it, the knee-jerk responder continues, then it just exists as a matter of brute fact; and if we can accept brute-factuality at the level of the First Cause, then we can accept it at the level of the universe and be done with this nonsense. We can say, with Russell, that the universe just exists and that's all.
My point is that it is the sense of contingency, together with the illicit conflation just mentioned, that fuels the knee-jerk response to the argument to a causa prima.
The sense of absurdity as described by Thomas Nagel is analogous to the sense of contingency, or so I claim. The sense that our lives are Nagel-absurd does not entail that they are objectively absurd. And yet we are necessarily such that we cannot avoid the sense of Nagel-absurdity. About absolutely everything we can ask: what is the purpose of it? What is it good for? What is the point of it? The subjectively serious, under the aspect of eternity, viewed wth detachment from nowhere, comes to appear objectively gratuitous. This holds for every context of meaning, no matter how wide, including the ultimate context. Suppose the ultimate context is eternal fellowship with God. Reflecting on it from our present perspective, viewing it from outside, we can ask what the point of it would be, just as we can ask what caused God.
The classical answer to 'What caused God?' is that God is a necessary being. He has no external cause or explanation, but his existence is not a brute fact either. God is self-existent or self-grounding or self-explanatory. Nagel has trouble with this idea: "But it's very hard to understand how there could be such a thing." (WDIAM, 99) Why does our man have trouble? Because there is nothing that could put a stop to our explanation-seeking 'Why?' questions. In a sense he is right. The structure of our finite discursive intellects makes it impossible to stop definitively, makes it impossible to have self-evident, question-squelching, positive insight into the absolute metaphysical necessity of God's existence in the way have self-evident positive insight into the impossibility of round squares or the necessity of colors being extended. The best we can do is see the failure of entailment from 'Everything is conceivably nonexistent' to 'Everything is modally contingent.'
Just as Nagel cannot suppress the question 'What explains God?,' he cannot suppress the question 'What is the point of God?' or 'What is the point of fulfilling God's purpose for our lives?' Nagel cannot see how there could be something that gives point to everything else by encompassing it, but has no external point itself. He cannot see how God can be self-purposing, i.e., without external purpose but also not purposeless. Nagel thinks that if the point of our lives is supplied by a pointless God, and a pointless God is acceptable, then we ought to find pointless lives acceptable.
Nagel can't see how the ultimate point could be God or eternal life with God. "Something whose point cannot be questioned from outside because there is no outside?" (100) Given the very structure of our embodied awareness, there is always the possibility of the 'outside view' which then collides with the situated subjective 'inside view.' It is this unavoidable duality within finite embodied consciousness, and essential to it, that makes it impossible for Nagel to accept a self-purposing, self-significant, self-intelligible ultimate context.
So for Nagel objective meaninglessness is the last word. For me it is not: our lives are ultimately and objectively meaningful. But Nagel has a point: we cannot, given the present configuration of finite, discursive, embodied awareness, truly understand with positive insight God's metaphysical necessity or how there could be an ultimate context of existential meaning that is self-grounding axiologically, teleologically, and ontologically.
So I suggest that ultimate felicity and ultimate meaningfulness can be had only by a transfiguration and transformation of our 'present' type of finite, discursive consciousness with its built-in duality of the subjective and the objective.
But I can only gesture in the direction of that Transfiguration. I cannot present it to you while we inhabit the discursive plane. All I can do is point to the Transdiscursive, and motivate the pointing by exfoliating the antinomies and aporiai that remain insoluble this side of the Great Divide.
*One way to oppose this is via the Anderson-Welty argument lately examined. If the exsistence of God is the ultimate presupposition of the laws of logic, then all reasoning, whether valid or invalid, to God or away from God or neither, and all considerations anent logical possibility, necessity, impossibility, contradiction and the like presuppose the existence of God.
A second way of opposition was tread by me in my A Paradigm Theory of Existence.
Thomas Nagel suggests as much at the end of Chapter 10, "The Meaning of Life," of his little introductory text, What Does It All Mean? (Oxford UP, 1987):
If life is not real, life is not earnest, and the grave is its goal, perhaps it's ridiculous to take ourselves so seriously. On the other hand, if we can't help taking ourselves so seriously, perhaps we just have to put up with being ridiculous. Life may be not only meaningless, but absurd. (101)
Did you catch the allusion to Longfellow? It is to the second stanza of "A Psalm of LIfe":
Life is real! Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal; Dust thou are, to dust thou returnest, Was not spoken of the soul.
Now one might naturally think that life is meaningless if and only if life is absurd, that in this context 'meaningless' and 'absurd' are equivalent expressions. The Nagel quotation, however, suggests that the equivalence fails. While an absurd life is a meaningless life, a meaningless life needn't be absurd.
But how? How can a life be meaningless but not absurd?
Well, suppose your life (and everyone's life) is objectively meaningless, objectively without point or purpose. That does not translate into the "philosophical sense of absurdity" (phrase from Nagel's 1971 article) unless one takes one's life seriously. To take one's life seriously, Nagel suggests, is to aim at more than comfort and survival. It is to dedicate oneself to something important, "not just important to you, but important in some larger sense: important, period." (101) The problem, as we have seen from earlier discussions, is that seriousness collides with the view from nowhere. Viewing my life from the outside tends to drain it of seriousness. The sense of absurdity arises when "the incurable tendency to take ourselves seriously" comes into conflict with the view "from the outside." The serious appears gratuitous under the aspect of eternity.
To avoid absurdity, then, we must stop taking our lives seriously. Nagel's message, at least in his little 1987 text, seems to be that our lives are objectively meaningless whether or not we take ourselves seriously. If we take ourselves seriously, then our lives are both meaningless and absurd. If we stop taking our lives seriously, then our lives will be meaningless but not absurd.
We ought to distinguish two problems:
P1. How are we to deal with the objective meaninglessness of human existence?
P2. How are we to deal with the absurdity of human existence?
Nagel seems to be saying that we solve the first problem by simply accepting objective meaninglessness, and that we solve the second by taking short views and not worrying about the point or pointlessness of one's life as a whole: "The trick is to keep your eye's on what's in front of you, and allow justifications to come to an end within your life, and inside the lives of others to whom you are connected." (100)
Objective meaninglessness is not up to us: it is a given. Absurdity, which for Nagel is indistinguishable from the sense of absurdity, is up to us: we can mitigate it by taking short views even if we cannot entirely eliminate it.
So absurdity is not much of a problem for Nagel. It certainly does not call for suicide or for existentialist heroics of the Camusian sort whereby man shakes his fist in defiance at the unintelligible and heartless universe. Irony, Nagel tells us, is the proper response.
But is human existence objectively absurd? Problem (P1) above presupposes that it is. But is it? Nagel gives an argument in WDIAM that we ought to examine. Please note that he is is arguing, not from the sense of absurdity as he describes it, but from objective considerations. Note also that his argument seems to contradict his rejection of the "chains of justification" argument he examines near the beginning of the 1971 article. (MQ, p. 12) The WDIAM argument seems to be the following.
1. If x has meaning, then x is a proper part of a whole within which it has its meaning. Thus the particular activities and projects of my life have their existential meaning within the whole of my life. Therefore
2. My life as a whole has meaning only if there is a wider whole within which my life as a whole has meaning. Such a wider context might be my family, my profession, a political movement.
3. But each such wider context can be viewed from outside and questioned as to its meaning. This includes the ultimate context if there is one, for example, God's plan for humanity. Therefore
4. The ultimate context, if there is one, must be meaningless. This is because nothing has meaning apart from a context, and no context is immune from questioning as to its point or purpose. Therefore
5. Since the ultimate context must be meaningless, my life as a whole must be ultimately meaningless, whatever proximate meaning it may have for my family, my profession, the party, etc.
By way of illustration, consider the catechism answer to the question of the purpose of human existence: Our purpose is to love and serve God in this world and be happy with him forever in the next. In Thomistic terms, the purpose of life is to achieve the visio beata, the Beatific Vision.
Now should anyone who accepts this Thomistic answer be troubled by Nagel's argument? He needn't be. For the argument rests on a questionable assumption, namely, that no context is the source of its own meaningfulness. Now that is true of all sub-ultimate contexts, but why should it be true of the ultimate context?
What is the point of the Beatific Vision? That is like asking, What caused God? God is causa sui, a necessary being. He is self-existent. Similarly, the Beatific Vision is self-intelligible, self-purposive, self-significant. The buck stops there.
Of course, given the nature of our consciousness with its in-built duality of subjective and objective modes of consideration, we can question the point of the BV (or the VB if you prefer). But we have no reason to think that this questioning by us reveals anything objective about the VB. Similarly, one can question whether God exists and why God exists, but that does not show that there is a real distinction in him between essence and existence.
The fact that I can think of God as nonexistent does not show that God is not a necessary being. The fact that I can wonder about the point of the ultimate context does not show that the ultimate context is without point, that it is not self-intelligible, self-purposive, and self-significant.
The sense of the absurd will always be with us in this life. But the sense of the absurd does not entail objective or absolute absurdity. Life can be absurd without being meaningless, just as it can be meaningless without being absurd.
In his essay "The Absurd," Thomas Nagel maintains that "the philosophical sense of absurdity" arises from "the collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary, or open to doubt." (13) But then, on the next page, Nagel shifts from the sense of the absurd to the absurd itself, telling us that "what makes life absurd" is the collision of "the two inescapable viewpoints," namely, the situated POV from which we live straighforwardly, immersed in our projects and taking them in deadly earnest, and the transcendental POV from which we coolly comtemplate our lives and everything else sub specie aeternitatis.
Nagel's question concerns the 'absurdity-maker.' What is it that makes our lives absurd if they are absurd? He begins his essay by dismissing three or so objective grounds of absurdity, among them, life's brevity and the 'size' argument: we are so tiny, the universe so vast. (I discuss a particularly mephitic variant of this latter argument by Lawrence Krauss here.) Nagel seeks and finds a purely subjective source of our absurdity: the collision within us of two points of view each of which is essential to our being the embodied consciousnesses we are.
Suppose we grant that our lives must appear absurd when we reflect upon them from on high, 'under the aspect of eternity.' Does it follow that they are absurd? What appears to be the case, and what cannot fail to appear to be the case for beings of our (present)constitution, might still not be the case.
It seems we can go two ways. We can say: the sense of the absurd just is the absurd. (I noted that Nagel shifts from the first to the second between pp. 13-14.) Or we can say that the sense of the absurd reveals the absurd. If the latter, then my life is absurd whether or not I reflect on it sub specie aeternitatis. If the former, my life is absurd only when I so reflect. It seems we ought to distinguish between a weak and a strong thesis:
Weak Absurdity Thesis: The essential structure of embodied consciousness as we find it in our own case entails that our lives, when we reflect on them, must appear absurd, hence without objective meaning/purpose, whether or not in reality they are bereft of objective meaning/purpose.
Strong Absurdity Thesis: The necessary appearance of absurdity (when and so long as we reflect) just is the absurdity of human existence. (Analogy: the percipi of felt pain = its esse.) The sense of the absurd constitutes the absurd. It does not reveal it. We generate our absurdity simply by being what we must be and exercising the powers that we have. Absurdity is essential to our embodied consciousness. Our lives are objectively absurd, even though this absurdity is grounded in the nature of our subjectivity.
If the Weak Thesis is correct, then the problem of the absurd can be solved by refusing to take long views. On the Weak Thesis, it is up to us whether life is absurd since the absurd just is the sense of the absurd and the sense of the absurd can be avoided by freely abstaining from occupying the transcendental standpoint. It would then seem reasonable to take the following line:
For all we know, life has an objective meaning. Let's leave that to God or the nature of things. We shall live as if it is true while avoiding the sometimes paralyzing doubts that accrue from taking long views. We shall focus on foreground concerns, live our lives with zest and committment, taking seriously what does appear serious from our situated perspectives, and view the ultimate solution to the cosmic riddles as above our paygrade.
We might call this stance 'ostrich anti-absurdism.' I am pretty sure that this is not what Nagel is advocating. I read him as pushing the Strong Thesis.
The Weak Thesis, however, is much more plausible. How does Nagel know that the sense of absurdity is veridical? How does he exclude the possibility that, while our lives must appear absurd when we reflect, they are not in reality absurd?
Maybe your mother was right when she said, "You think too much. Put down those books and go outside and play."
The long views of philosophy are not to everyone's taste. If not bored, many are depressed by the contemplation of death and pain, God and the soul, the meaning or meaninglessness of our lives. They prefer not to think of such things and consider it best to take short views. If as Thomas Nagel maintains, the contemplation sub specie aeternitatis of one's daily doings drains them of seriousness, one is under no obligation to take the view from nowhere.
Is it best to take short views? Sometimes it is. When the going gets tough, it is best to pull in one’s horns, hunker down, and just try to get through the next week, the next day, the next hour. One can always meet the challenge of the next hour. Be here now and deal with what is on your plate at the moment. Most likely you will find a way forward.
But, speaking for myself, a life without long views would not be worth living. I thrill at the passage in Plato’s Republic, Book Six (486a), where the philosopher is described as a "spectator of all time and existence." And then there is this beautiful formulation by William James:
The absolute things, the last things, the overlapping things, are the truly philosophic concerns; all superior minds feel seriously about them, and the mind with the shortest views is simply the mind of the more shallow man. (Pragmatism, Harvard UP, 1975, p. 56)
I wrote above, "speaking for myself." The expression was not used redundantly inasmuch as it conveys that my philosopher’s preference for the long view is not one that I would want to or try to urge on anyone else. In my experience, one cannot argue with another man’s sensibility. And much of life comes down to precisely that -- sensibility. If people share a sensibility, then argument is useful for its articulation and refinement. But I am none too sanguine about the possibility of arguing someone into, or out of, a sensibility.
How argue the atheist out of his abiding sense that the universe is godless, or the radical out of his conviction of human perfectibility? If the passages I cited from Plato and James leave you cold, how could I change your mind? If you sneer at my being thrilled, what then? Argument comes too late. Or if you prefer, sensibility comes too early.
One might also speak of a person’s sense of life, view of what is important, or ‘feel for the real.’ James’ phrase, "feel seriously," is apt. To the superior mind, ultimate questions "feel real," whereas to the shallow mind they appear pointless, unimportant, silly. It is equally true that the superior mind is made such by its wrestling with these questions.
Maximae res, cum parvis quaeruntur, magnos eos solent efficere.
Matters of the greatest importance, when they are investigated by little men, tend to make those men great. (Augustine, Contra Academicos 1. 2. 6.)
Of course, with his talk of the superior and the shallow, James is making a value judgment. I myself have no problem making value judgments, and in particular this one. Evaluate we must.
Although prospects are dim for arguing the other out of his sensibility, civil discussion is not pointless. One comes to understand one’s own view by contrast with another. One learns to respect the sources and resources of the other’s view. This may lead to toleration, which is good within limits. For someone with a theoretical bent, the sheer diversity of approaches to life is fascinating and provides endless grist for the theoretical mill. If the theoretician is a blogger, he has blog-fodder for a lifetime.
As for the problem of how to get along with people with wildly different views, I recommend voluntary segregation.
I have been re-reading Thomas Nagel's seminal paper, "The Absurd," which originally appeared in The Journal of Philosophy, October 1971, and is collected in Nagel's Mortal Questions (Cambridge UP, 1979, 11-23.) Damn, but it is good. Nagel is one of our best philosophers. He's the real thing.
Nagel's central contention is that human existence is essentially absurd. Thus the absurdity of our predicament is not in any way accidental or contingent or due to some remediable (by God or man) disproportion or 'disconnect' between the demands of the human heart and mind for meaning and intelligibility, on the one hand, and the world's 'indifference' to our concerns, on the other. In this regard Nagel's position is far more radical than Camus' as the latter presents it in The Myth of Sisyphus. For Camus, something is dreadfully wrong: the world ought to meet our demands for meaning and intelligibility but it doesn't. For Camus, absurdity is rooted in the discrepancy between demand and satisfaction, a demand that in some way ought to be satisfied and therefore in some sense could be satisfied. (The 'ought' in question is non-agential; here is some discussion of such oughts.)
Camus protests that things are not the way they are supposed to be, but they are, alas, the way they are, and so all we can do is shake our fists at the universe in defiance. Nagel's posture is less heroic and more ironic.
For Nagel there is no non-agential ought to have been otherwise or could have been otherwise with respect to the meaning of human existence: our lives are necessarily absurd because there is in us a conflict that is unavoidable, a conflict between our limited, perspectival, situated, individual points of view and the transcendental point of view from which we observe ourselves and everything else sub specie aeternitatis. The general and philosophical sense of absurdity arises when these two points of view come into conflict. Nagel speaks of "the collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpretual possibility of regarding everything about which which we are serious as arbitrary or open to doubt." (13)
Immersed as I am in in my quotidian toilings and moilings, I take my life and its projects with utmost seriousness. For example, the other day I went back into my archives to correct a minor mistake I had made in a post from years ago. But while I was very concerned to make this correction and make it right, I was also aware of the 'absurdity' of being worried about such a bagatelle. Who cares? As transcendental spectator even I don't much care. It is easy to detach oneself in thought from one's projects and purposes and very life and see them as arbitrary, contingent, and without objective meaning or purpose or significance. What matters greatly from our situated perspectives can seem to matter not at all when we ascend to the transcendental perspective. But of course I am not just a transcendental spectator of "all time and existence" (Plato, Republic) but also this here measly chunk of animated aging flesh with a very personal history and fate and a reputation to maintain.
It is most marvellously true that I am a conscious and self-conscious being, projective of plans and purposes, sensitive to reasons as opposed to causes, and alive to the full range of the normative; but I am also an embodied conscious and self-conscious being with all that that entails: I can be crushed, blown apart, invaded by microorganisms, . . . . Human existence cannot be reduced to the existence of specimens of a highly evolved zoological species, but I am a specimen of such a species. Thus when we ask about the meaning of life we are really asking about the meaning of embodied consciousness. I believe this is a very important point. For it implies that the question cannot be addressed in a a wholly objectifying manner.
As I read him, Nagel is telling us that the root of absurdity is in us as embodied consciousnesses, not in the world or in any disproportion between us and the world. It is an ineradicable root. Both POVs are available to us -- and we must avail ourselves of both if we are to live fully human lives -- but they are necessarily in conflict. Or so it seems. If I am to live my life with zest and passion and commitment, then I cannot live the detached life of the transcendental ego who merely observes while his physical vehicle negotiates the twists and turns of this gnarly world. (This is a deep and complicated theme requiring much more discussion.) Borrowing some Heideggerian jargon we can say that for Nagel the sense of the absurd is constitutive of human Dasein. To be a fully awake human being, one who avails himself of both POVs, is to live with the sense of the absurd. The only way to escape our absurd predicament would be by causing the cessation of embodiment (suicide) or by somehow-- via meditation perhaps-- emptying the 'I' out into something pre- or non-egoic.
I think it is important to point out that for Nagel and in truth the absurd exists only as the sense of the absurd. This is another way of saying that the absurdity of the human predicament is not a merely objective fact if it is a fact: it involves consciousness/self-consciousness.
Is the absurdity of human existence a problem to be solved? It cannot be a problem that we can solve since it arises necessarily from the collision of the two POVs both of which are essential to being human. If the problem arises for a person, then that person cannot both solve the problem and continue to exist. (This is not to say that the problem must arise for every person since not everyone exercises his capacity to reflect on matters under the aspect of eternity.) Nor is absurdity a predicament. To call a state of affairs a predicament is to suggest the possibility of extrication. But there is no escape from absurdity. So it is neither a problem nor a predicament. What is called for is not the defiant posturing of an Algerian existentialist but irony: "If sub specie aeternitatis there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that does not matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair." (23)
As for Peter Lupu, he seems to be maintaining the exact opposite of what Nagel maintains. Peter's thought seems to be that the meaning of an individual life is constituted by the power to reflect. Every agent of a life has this power essentially even if not all choose to exercise it. Meaning is therefore not bestowed by the agent upon himself or by something or someone outside the agent such as God. Existential meaning inheres in the agent's power to reflect on his life, his values, desires, and purposes. For Lupu, meaning is not subjective . Nor is it externally objective, imposed from without. Every life is meaningful just in virtue of the agent's power to reflect.
I questioned whether existential meaning could be both objective and subjectively appropriable by all. Lupu thinks he can answer this by saying that meaning is objective albeit internally objective in virtue of every agent's having essentially the power to reflect; but meaning is also subjectively appropriable by each agent if he chooses to actualize his power to reflect. Here again is my aporetic tetrad:
A. If life has a meaning, then it cannot be subjective.
B. The meaning of life must be subjectively appropriable by all.
C. There is no meaning that is both nonsubjective and subjectively appropriable by all.
D. Life has a meaning.
Lupu solves my tetrad by rejecting (C) while accepting the remaining limbs. Nagel, I would guess, would solve the tetrad by rejecting (D) while accepting the other limbs.
There are several questions I need to pose to Lupu, but for now let me just pose a Nagelian question/objection. Nagel is surely on to something when he underscores the power of reflection to undermine the seriousness of our projects and make them appear arbitrary, contingent, and dubious. When this power is exercised it collides with our tendency toward straighforward unreflective living under the guidance of taken-for-granted norms and values imbibed uncritically from the circumambient culture. How can Lupu accommodate Nagel's point? Is it not more plausible to hold that it is absurdity, not meaning, that is the upshot of reflection?
For present purposes, an aporia is a set of propositions each member of which has a strong claim on our acceptance, but whose members are collectively inconsistent. Like many a philosophical problem, the philosophical problem of the meaning of life is usefully approached from an aporetic angle. So consider the following aporetic tetrad:
A. If life has a meaning, then it cannot be subjective.
B. The meaning of life must be subjectively appropriable by all.
C. There is no meaning that is both nonsubjective and subjectively appropriable by all.
D. Life has a meaning.
Good though not absolutely compelling reasons have been given for both (A) and (B). But they are in tension with one another, a tension recorded in (C), the third limb of our aporetic tetrad. One who inclines towards compatibilism with respect to existential meaning inclines toward the rejection of (C). Unfortunately, (C) is not easily rejected, as I will try to show in this post. The main difficulty concerns the subjective appropriability of an objective purpose by all even if it is granted that there is an objective purpose applicable to all.
First of all, one cannot appropriate an objective purpose unless one knows or at least has good reasons for believing that there is one. More importantly, one must know what the purpose is and what one must do to live in accordance with it. Three different questions: Is there an objective purpose? What is it? How do I live in accordance with it? Countless millions of people, however, have lived who lacked the abilities or the opportunities to form reasonable beliefs about these matters, let alone to come to have knowledge about them. It is not enough that the objective purpose be knowable by some; it must be knowable by all. This was argued earlier. But for the countless millions just mentioned there was no real possibility of appropriating the objective purpose. By ‘real possibility’ is meant something far stronger than a mere logical possibility or even a nomological possibility. It is logically and nomologically possible for a human being to run a four-minute mile. But it is not possible for me and plenty of others to run that fast. So even if it is logically and nomologically possible for all human beings to know the objective purpose of life, it does not follow that all have any serious possibility of knowing it. It is as impossible for the countless millions just mentioned to know the objective purpose of life, supposing there is one, as it is for people like me to run a four-minute mile. It follows that the objective purpose of life, supposing there is one, is not subjectively appropriable by all, which is to say that it is not subjectively appropriable in the way it would have to be for life to be objectively meaningful. Again, if life has a meaning, it has a purpose, and the purpose must be the same for all and appropriable by all. Redemption from absurdity must be possible for all if it is be possible for any. If the world is so arranged that you are barred from redemption through no fault of your own, then my redemption is not a redemption from absurdity.
Those with the abilities and opportunities to investigate the three questions just mentioned are not in a much better position. For they are confronted with a welter of conflicting doctrines. The fortunate have the leisure to inquire and the intellect with which to inquire, but our intellects are weak and the problems stare us down with a face of seeming intractability. If all we have to rely on are ourselves and the resources of this world, then the conclusion to draw is that human life has no meaning that is both nonsubjective and subjectively appropriable.
Some will reply that what we cannot supply has been supplied by divine revelation. But this is no real solution. Even if God has revealed the purpose of human existence to us, together with the means of achieving that purpose, and in a way that respects our freedom and dignity, this will not do us any good if we do not know the purpose and how to achieve it. That, however, is precisely what we do not know as is clear from the conflicting accounts of the content of revelation, not to mention conflict over whether revelation is actual or even possible. All of these are ‘up for grabs’: the existence of God, the possibility of divine revelation, the actuality of divine revelation, not to mention its content and interpretation. If I merely believe in the content of a particular (putative) revelation, the Christian revelation for example, as interpreted in a certain way by a certain ecclesiastical authority such as the Roman Catholic magisterium, that is not good enough for it leaves me with reasonable doubts. But as long as I doubt the meaning of life and must continue to inquire, I have not yet subjectively appropriated the objective meaning of life. The subjective certainty of faith is not enough. What is needed is the objective certainty of knowledge. And it must be available to all – which is not the case for those who lived before the time of the historical revelation.
D. Life Has a Meaning
A case has been made for each of the first three limbs. Should we therefore conclude that life has no meaning? That would be hasty. It is arguable, though not compellingly arguable, that the living of a life presupposes the objective meaningfulness of life. E. M Adams writes,
Just as belief in the intelligibility of the world is presupposed by our quest for understanding, the meaningfulness of life is presupposed in living a life. We have to believe that life is not absurd, that it is not a tale told by an idiot, that it makes sense, in order to keep on with the struggles of life. (“The Meaning of Life,” International Journal of the Philosophy of Religion 51, 2002, pp. 71-81.)
I take Adams’ point to be that we cannot live without presupposing that our lives have meaning, objective meaning, a meaning whose source is external to us. One who believes, not just in his study, but throughout the activities of his life, that his life and its activities have only the meaning that he gives them must suffer a loss of motivation. If he does not, he is simply fooling himself about what he really believes and lives in a state of self-deception, or else he conveniently forgets his theoretical conviction when it comes time to act. He maintains at the level of theory that his life has only the meaning he confers upon it, but he ‘contradicts’ this theoretical belief by the energy and passion with which he pursues his projects and perhaps also by the passion with which he tries to convince the rest of us that nothing matters except what we make matter. For if he fully appreciated what his subjectivism amounts to he would see that his acts of meaning-bestowal are as meaningless as everything else in his life. You could say that such a person has not subjectively appropriated his subjectivism. This is true whether the subjectivism is extreme or moderate.
Living our lives with zest and vigor and passion and commitment, we presuppose that they are objectively meaningful. One who denies this I would suspect of self-deception or a lack of intelligence or spiritual superficiality. One who responds, “I live a rich and full life despite my conviction that life has no objective meaning applicable to all” simply does not appreciate the existential implications of what he believes. This is a bold assertion, many will disagree with it, some will be offended by it, and I cannot prove it; but it is reasonable to maintain it. It must also be conceded that, even if we cannot live full lives without the presupposition of objective meaningfulness, it does not follow that there is an objective meaning. It is not easy to exclude the possibility that what we must presuppose does not hold in fact. We must presuppose the intelligibility of the world if we are to embark seriously upon the arduous quest for understanding, but it is logically and epistemically possible that the world is unintelligible in itself. Likewise, we must presuppose the objective meaningfulness of life if we are to live rich and full and committed lives, but it is logically and epistemically possible that our lives are objectively meaningless nonetheless.
But if these possibilities are actual, then all the more are our lives meaningless, for then the way things are thwarts us: there is a ‘disconnect’ between what we need and must presuppose and what is true. Given that we cannot know that this is the case, we are entitled to believe that it is not the case. It may be that the ultimate nature of the world is such as to frustrate our purposes. But we cannot know this and there is no point in believing it, while there is every point in believing that the presupposition of meaning is true. Our very lives are the ‘proof’ of it. When it comes to life and its living it is reasonable to hold that the ‘proofs’ will be vital and pragmatic rather than theoretical. We are participants first and spectators second. We are parts of the world-whole and we are beings of meaning; it is reasonable to extrapolate that the world-whole of which we are parts is also a world of meaning and intelligibility. If we are wrong and the truth thwarts us, then why should we value truth? With this I conclude my case that life has meaning, whatever that meaning might be. It has some objective meaning or other and part of what contributes to the zest and passion and subjective meaningfulness of a life is the quest for that objective meaning.
The limbs of the aporetic tetrad are all of them defensible, yet they cannot all be true. I leave it to the reader to find his way forward if he can. If nothing else, I have elucidated the philosophical problem of the meaning of human existence and have blocked some facile (non)solutions.
The meaning of life, if there is one, cannot be subjective. This was argued in an earlier entry in this series on the meaning of life. But the meaning of life cannot be purely objective either. The meaning of life, if there is one, must somehow involve a mediation of the subjective and the objective: the meaning of life must be subjectively appropriable. I will now explain what I mean by ‘objective,’ ‘purely objective’ and ‘subjectively appropriable.’
An objective meaning or purpose of X is a purpose that is as it were assigned to X from without. An objective purpose is exogenous while a subjective purpose is endogenous. A purely objective purpose of X is one that is objective, but also such that X cannot subjectively appropriate or make its own the objective purpose. Thus if X has a purely objective purpose, then X plays no role in the realization or enactment or embodiment of its purpose.
A tool made for a specific purpose is an example of something that has a purely objective purpose. The Phillips head screwdriver has the specific purpose of driving crosshead screws. It was designed for just that job. Such a tool has an objective purpose which derives from the plans and intentions of human artificers. To invert the famous formula of Jean-Paul Sartre's manifesto, "Existentialism is a Humanism," its essence precedes its existence. Artifacts like screwdrivers are produced according to a plan or design that is logically and temporally antecedent to their production. But the purpose of a screwdriver is not only objective, it is also purely objective in that there is no possibility of a screwdriver's subjectively appropriating its objective purpose. And this for the simple reason that no screwdriver is a subject of experience. It is not just that screwdrivers are not biologically alive; they lack subjectivity. No inanimate artifact can discern its purpose, let alone freely and consciously accept or reject it. It makes no sense to speak of a screwdriver existentially realizing, or subjectively appropriating, or living, or enacting its purpose. The purpose a screwdriver has, it cannot be. No screwdriver is in a position to complain that the purpose it has been assigned is not its purpose.
With us it is different. We may or may not have an objective purpose, but if we have one, it cannot be a purely objective purpose; it must be a purpose that can be made our purpose. But it is best to speak in the first-person. A purpose that I cannot make my purpose is of no consequence to me. Such a purpose would be meaningless to me. An objective purpose that I could not come to know about, or could not realize, or an objective purpose that I knew about and could realize but whose realization would destroy me or cause a preponderance of misery over happiness or thwart my flourishing or destroy my autonomy would not be a purpose I could make my own. It is essential to realize that the question of the meaning (purpose) of human life arises within the subjectivity of the individual: it cannot be understood in a purely objective way. We are not asking about the purpose of a certain zoological species, or even of the purpose of a given specimen of this species viewed objectively, 'from outside.' The question, properly understood, is necessarily such that each must pose the question for himself using the first-person singular pronoun. The question is not: What is the purpose of the human species? Nor is it: What is the purpose of this specimen of the human species? The questions are: What is the purpose of my existence? Why am I here? and the like. The question must be posed from within one's life, and not directed at one's life from a third-person point of view. It is man as subject who asks the question, man as Dasein in Heidegger's lingo, not man as object.
We can sum this up by saying that an objective purpose, if there is one, must be subjectively appropriable if it is to be relevant to existential meaning. To appropriate a thing is to make it one's own, to take possession of it. This is not to be taken in a crass material sense. To subjectively appropriate an objective purpose is to existentially realize it, to realize or embody it in one's Existenz (to borrow a term from the German existentialist lexicon). It is to adopt it freely and consciously and live it as an organizing and unifying principle of one's life. This subjective appropriation is obviously consistent with the purpose's remaining objective. It is a bit like realizing an ideal. If a couple realizes the ideal marriage, the ideal does not cease being ideal in being realized. Or if you do what you ought to do, your doing it, which is a translation of a norm into a fact, does not obliterate the distinction between facts and norms. Similarly, the subjective appropriation of an objective purpose does not render the purpose subjective; what is subjective is the appropriation, not the purpose.
Subjective appropriability has a normative element. Suppose a slave knows the purpose assigned to him by his master and comes freely to accept that purpose as his purpose, a purpose he then carries out in his daily activities. On my use of terms, although the slave has freely accepted the master’s purpose as his purpose, he has not subjectively appropriated the purpose. And this for the reason that the slave’s acceptation is inconsistent with his autonomy and dignity. The subjectively appropriable is not merely that which is able to be appropriated, but that which is worthy of being appropriated. I take it as axiomatic that a meaningful life for a human being must be a life worthy of a human being.
What is meant by 'objective'? An objective purpose is (i) exogenous and (ii) available to all, the same for all, applicable to all. But to avoid triviality, a codicil must be appended: the objective purpose cannot be a vacuously general meta-purpose. It cannot be something like: the purpose of life is to do whatever you want to do and can do within the limits of your situation. That would apply to everyone but in a vacuous way that would allow the purpose of life for one person to consist in exterminating Jews, for another in collecting beer cans, for a third in medical research, etc. The question about the meaning of life is not a question about a vacuously general meta-purpose, but about a substantively general first-order purpose. An objective purpose must impose first-level constraints on our behavior. At the same time, an objective purpose is one whose realization contributes to human flourishing.
But why must an objective purpose be available to all persons? Why can't it be available only to some and still be objective? Why couldn't some be excluded from the meaning of life, 'predestined' as it were to be left in the cold? It is built into the very notion of an objective purpose for rational beings that it be available to every rational being. We have insisted that the philosophical problem of the meaning of life has an answer only if human life has an objective purpose, the same for all. If this purpose were not also available to all, then it could not be claimed to be ingredient in an answer to the completely general philosophical problem, one that must not be confused with the psychological problem of the meaning of a life. This might sound too sketchy to be satisfactory. A bit more can be said.
One source of a sense of life's absurdity is the observation that suffering is irrationally distributed. An observation as old as Ecclesiastes and the Book of Job is that often the wicked prosper and the just suffer. Happiness and virtue are not properly adjusted one to the other in this life as Kant observed. Reason is scandalized, not by the mere fact of suffering, but by its intensity and unfair distribution. Now if human life, rational life, has an objective meaning or purpose, then this meaning or purpose must be rational. This strikes me as a near-tautology: life cannot make objective sense unless it makes sense, i.e., is rational, understandable, intelligible. And if the objective meaning or purpose of life is rational, then no person can be arbitrarily excluded from partaking of it. For that would be a form of evil. If the world’s constitution were such that only some rational beings could partake of life’s meaning, then that would be a decidedly suboptimal arrangement, indeed an evil arrangement. Recall our earier point that the meaning-of-life question can be formulated as a human or ‘anthropic’ question but also as a ‘cosmic’ question. Anthopic 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? My present point is that the world-whole must be such that no rational being is excluded from partaking in the objective meaning of life. The meaning of life, if there is one, must be the same for all and available to all. A rational world plays no favorites. If the objective meaning of life were not available to all, then that would be an evil arrangement, one that could not be objectively meaningful. An illustration follows.
On a theistic scheme, the objective purpose of life is to participate in the divine life. Now if God were arbitrarily to exclude some from participating in it, for no reason, but just as a display of power, that would make no sense. It would be irrational, and indeed evil. But then would it not be obvious that the meaning of life would not be guaranteed on such a theistic scheme? If God is an arbitrary despot, then God is a threat to life's having an objective meaning. A theism of divine despotism is a higher-order absurdity: both life here below and life beyond would be absurd on such a theism. So I cannot see how life could have an objective purpose if that purpose is not available to all. It is perhaps not unnecessary to point out that not all will avail themselves of the available.
Putting together the results of this post and one preceding it in this series, we can say that the meaning of life cannot be subjective, but it must be subjectively appropriable, not just be some, but by all.
We should distinguish between an extreme and a moderate version of the thesis that the meaning of life is subjective. They can be referred to as extreme and moderate subjectivism about existential meaning. ‘Subjective’ in my thesis covers both. The thesis, agaiin, is that if life has a meaning, then it cannot be subjective.
Note that the subjectivist theory in either version is intended to be identitarian as opposed to eliminativist. The subjectivist claim is not that there is no meaning, which would amount to nihilism. The claim is that there is meaning but it is subjective by its very nature. Nevertheless, despite its identitarian intentions, both extreme and moderate subjectivism collapse into nihilism as will be argued below. As here used, ‘nihilism’ is just eliminativism about objective meaning. So if human life has a meaning, in the sense of ‘meaning’ relevant to the philosophical question about the meaning of life, then it cannot be subjective.
On extreme subjectivism any meaning or purpose your life has is one you give it. Meaning is conferred or bestowed on a life by the agent of the life. In themselves, lives lack meaning, and they acquire meaning only when and if the agents of the lives impart meaning to them. That a life has meaning and what that meaning is are both up to the agent. This goes well beyond the notion that the agent’s appropriation of existential meaning is up to the agent. For on any theory it is up to the agent whether he realize or live out the meaning that he takes to be the meaning of his life. Extreme subjectivism involves the further notion that the meaning the agent takes to be the meaning of his life is a meaning he takes from himself: it is a meaning he invents for himself. On extreme subjectivism, then, the agent freely decides (i) whether or not his life will have meaning, (ii) what meaning it will have, and (iii) whether and to what extent he will live out this meaning day by day.
Since a meaningful life cannot be merely purpose-driven but must also have positive value at least for the agent, one route to subjectivism is via the subjectivity of value: the value of the goals one pursues —— the goals in terms of which one's life assumes point and purpose —— is due to the individual's valuations, and these valuations are irremediably subjective and thus potentially different for different individuals. Accordingly, no goal is objectively worth pursuing or objectively more worth pursuing than any other goal. By freely selecting which goals will constitute the point and purpose of his life, the individual freely creates and maintains his own meaning and he freely creates it out of nothing or out of himself. This endogenous theory of meaning implies that there are no exogenous or objective constraints on existential meaning. A life has meaning if and only if the agent of the life is sincerely convinced that it does: your conviction that your life has meaning is both necessary and sufficient for its having meaning.
The extreme subjectivist view of existential meaning is deeply incoherent. To be blunt, anyone who answers the meaning question by saying ‘The meaning of one’s life is the meaning one gives it’ simply has not understood the question. The question arises concretely when one begins to doubt the value of the dominant projects and purposes one has been pursuing. A novelist, a stockbroker, a philosopher, a professional chess player, even if successful, can come to doubt the point of being a novelist, a stockbroker, a philosopher, a professional chess player. ‘Have I wasted my life helping the rich get richer?’ ‘Have I dribbled my life away among bloodless abstractions in an illusory quest for an unattainable knowledge?’ ‘Am I squandering my life’s energies on a mere game?’ These are possible questions. Even if one has been entirely successful in achieving one’s life-goals, these questions can and do arise. They are not questions about success or failure within a life-plan but questions about the success or failure of a life-plan as a whole. Anyone who sincerely asks himself whether he is wasting or has wasted his life presupposes by his very posing of the question that there are objective factors that bear on the question of the meaning of life. To raise the question is to presuppose that existential meaning cannot be identified with agent-conferred meaning. One who wonders whether he is wasting his life perhaps does not thereby presuppose that there is exactly one recipe for a meaningful life applicable to all, but he does presuppose that there are one or more objectively meaningful uses of a human life. He presupposes that one can throw away one’s life, waste one’s time, fail to live a meaningful life. But if the meaning of one’s life is the meaning one gives it, then one cannot fail to live a meaningful life since any meaning is as good as any other. To tell such a person that it suffices for his life to have meaning that he invest it with meaning shows a failure to understand the question. The person can respond with an analog of G. E. Moore’s Open Question Argument: “You tell me that the meaning of my life is identical to the style of life I choose as meaningful. But is this style of life truly meaningful?” The fact that the question remains open even after the subjectivist answer has been proffered shows that the subjectivist answer is no answer at all.
So my first argument against extreme subjectivism may be summed up as follows. The extreme subjectivist answers the question, What is the meaning of human life? by identifying existential meaning with agent-conferred meaning. This answer, however, negates the presupposition of the question, namely, that one can waste one’s life and fail to live meaningfully. Since the question obviously makes sense, but the answer negates the presupposition of the question, a presupposition essential to the very sense of the question, the answer is mistaken.
My second argument is that extreme subjectivism collapses into nihilism or eliminativism about existential meaning. For if the meaning of my life is the meaning I give it, then my life has no meaning in the sense of ‘meaning’ that gave rise both to the question and the extreme subjectivist answer. There is no real or nonverbal difference between ‘Human life is meaningless’ and ‘Human life has the meanings that agents give it.’ A conferred meaning is no meaning. Intellectual honesty demands that the subjectivist speak plainly and say ’Life has no meaning’ rather than obfuscate the issue by saying ‘Life has the meaning one gives it.’
My third argument is that extreme subjectivism entails a vicious infinite regress. If the activities of my life have only the meaning that I give them, then this would have to hold also for the acts of meaning-bestowal whereby certain goals and activities become meaningful for me. These acts, which are integral to my life, must be meaningful if my life is to be meaningful. But the acts of meaning-bestowal cannot be intrinsically meaningful on the subjectivist theory: nothing is intrinsically meaningful on the subjectivist theory, but meaningful only in relation to one who confers meaning. So I must be the source of the meaning of my acts of meaning-bestowal if these acts are to have meaning. And this seems to lead to an infinite vicious regress. Suppose we spell this out.
Let A be an act of meaning-bestowal. A is either meaningful, meaningless, or neither. Those are the only three possibilities worth considering. If A is meaningful, and no meaning is intrinsic as per the extreme subjectivist theory, then A can acquire meaning only if the agent freely bestows meaning on A by means of a distinct act of meaning-bestowal A*. Now if A* is meaningful, then its meaning must derive from a third act of meaning-bestowal A**. And so on into an infinite regress. The regress is vicious because every A is in need of a meaning that it cannot itself provide.
If, on the other hand, A is meaningless, then the life of which A is a part is meaningless. For if a life is meaningful due to acts of meaning-bestowal, and these latter are meaningless, then the life as a whole is meaningless. Consider a person who organizes his life around the central goal of the alleviation of animal suffering. On subjectivism, this goal is worthwhile, not intrinsically, but only in relation to a free decision on the part of the agent to give it meaning and value. But if this free donation of meaning and value is itself meaningless, then it is difficult to see how the person's life can be said to be meaningful. As soon as the agent reflects that the bestowal of meaning on his chosen purpose is not a response to any objective value such as the elimination of unnecessary suffering, he should see that his meaning-bestowal is a gratuitous and arbitrary and meaningless act. A meaningful life, one wants to protest, is one in response to objective values, where one's responding is itself an objective value. But the objectivity of value is precisely what the subjectivist will not countenance.
Could it be said that the acts of meaning-bestowal are themselves neither meaningful nor meaningless inasmuch as they are at the foundation of all existential meaning? It is difficult to attach any sense to this. These acts of meaning-projection are integral to a life as meaningful. It is difficult to see how they could fail to be meaningful if the life of which they are parts is meaningful. So in the end the subjectivist appears to be astride the horns of a dilemma. Either the acts of meaning-bestowal are meaningful or they are meaningless. If the former, then a vicious infinite regress ensues. If the latter, then the life of which they are essential parts is meaningless.
On moderate subjectivism about existential meaning there is due recognition of the fact that the satisfaction of certain objective conditions is necessary for a life to be meaningful, but this is held in tandem with the thesis that there is no general answer to the meaning-of-life question applicable to every life. So moderate subjectivism is midway between extreme subjectivism and objectivism. On extreme subjectivism, the sincere conviction that one’s life has meaning is both necessary and sufficient for it to have meaning. On moderate subjectivism, the sincere conviction that one’s life has meaning is necessary but not sufficient for the life’s having meaning: consideration of objective factors, factors not in the control of the agent, are also relevant for assessing the meaningfulness of a life. A moderate subjectivist will point out, for example, that not having one’s wants manipulated from the outside by other people, the media or the gods is a necessary condition of a meaningful life, and that this absence of manipulation is an objective factor. Other objective considerations are whether one’s chosen goal is achievable and not self-destructive. If one’s central goal is to get drunk and stay drunk, then this goal is achievable but self-destructive, and meaningless because self-destructive. The goal’s being achievable is an objective matter as is also its being self-destructive. Despite these objective factors, there is on the moderate subjectivist approach no such thing as the meaning of life. But on objectivism there is. For the objectivist, human life has meaning only if it has an objective purpose, the same for all, which is nevertheless subjectively appropriable by each, albeit in different ways.
It is undeniable that moderate subjectivism is superior to extreme subjectivism. It cannot be that the meaning of a life depends entirely on the agent of the life. Objective factors, factors outside of the control of the agent, come into consideration. But it doesn’t follow straightaway that there is one objective meaning-conferring requirement that applies equally to all lives. It may be that the blank in ‘The meaning of life is _____’ cannot be filled. This is John Kekes’ pluralistic view: “. . . there is no such thing as the meaning of life.” The philosophical problem of the meaning of life “. . . has a general form, but it does not have a general solution.” (John Kekes, Pluralism in Philosophy: Changing the Subject (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000, p. 83 et passim.)
Although there is no general solution, individuals can “resolve the problem for themselves.” (Ibid.) So although there is no general answer to the meaning question, it is possible to list conditions individually necessary and jointly sufficient for a life’s being meaningful. I won’t reproduce Kekes’ entire list but it includes such constraints as that the life not be pointless, misdirected, trivial, futile or vitiated by the belief that all human projects are absurd. Crucial to his list are that the objective conditions of a meaningful life be located in the natural world, and that the projects one pursues be either morally good, immoral, or nonmoral. Kekes thereby rules out a general solution applicable to all in terms of religion or morality. Irreligious and immoral lives can be just as meaningful as any life. The life of a mass murder such as Stalin fulfills all of Kekes’ conditions for a meaningful life. Kekes allows that religious and moral lives may be meaningful; what he disallows is that only religious and moral lives are meaningful.
The main problem with Kekes’ moderate subjectivism is that he changes the subject. Since “Changing the Subject” is the subtitle of his book, Kekes is unlikely to see this as a problem. But it seems to me that it is since he substitutes the psychological problem of the meaning of life for the philosophical problem while at the same time seeming to be grappling with the philosophical problem. He tells us that the problem of the meaning of life “. . . has a general form but it does not have a general solution.” He also tells us that individuals can “resolve the problem for themselves.” But is there one problem that both lacks a general solution and can yet be resolved in many different particular ways (though not all particular ways given that certain objective constraints must be satisfied)? What would that one problem be? It cannot be the philosophical problem of the meaning of life. The philosophical problem is a completely general problem, and is not to be conflated with any psychological problem about the meaning of a life. The distinction was esplained above near the end of section II. If the philosophical problem has a solution, then it has a general solution. For it is a general problem.
If an individual “resolves the problem of life for himself” in a sense that allows the resolutions to be different for different people, the problem he has resolved is not the impersonal philosophical problem but a personal psychological problem. Suppose a twenty year old doesn’t know what to do with himself. His life lacks direction. But gradually he comes to ‘find himself.’ He manages to choose an attainable nontrivial nondestructive goal, one right for him, that satisfies all of Kekes’ constraints. Our young man has surmounted his identity crisis and has installed himself in a subjectively meaningful mode of existence. He has solved a psychological problem, a problem of adjustment and motivation, but it cannot be said that he has “resolved for himself” the philosophical problem of the meaning of life. The latter might not be a problem for him at all. He may be firmly convinced that the purpose of human life is to serve God in this world and be happy with him in the next. But he cannot decide which line of work to choose, or he doubts his abilities, or he cannot muster the motivation to persevere in anything, or ‘life throws him a curve ball’ in the form of ill-health or unrequited love or financial trouble.
My conclusion, then, is that moderate subjectivism as exemplified by Kekes’ position changes the subject: it does not address the philosophical problem of the meaning of life but diverts attention to a related but distinct psychological problem. Once the two questions are cleanly distinguished one sees that Kekes’ view is just as eliminativist about objective meaning as is the view of an extreme subjectivist like Richard Taylor. What I am opposing in both is the identification of existential meaning with agent-conferred meaning, without the concomitant admission that such an identification collapses into an elimination of existential meaning. This concludes my defense of the thesis that If life has a meaning in the sense of ‘meaning’ relevant to the impersonal philosophical question about the meaning of life, then this meaning cannot be subjective, whether Taylor-subjective or Kekes-subjective. It must be objective in the sense of being the same for all and applicable to all.
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.
Bill reveals in his post, Could the Meaning of Life Be the Quest for the Meaning of Life, that he “toyed with the notion that the meaning of life just is the search for its meaning.” He concludes that if the meaning of life were merely the searching for it, then there would be no meaning, strictly speaking. Why? In Part A I outline Bill’s reasoning in the form of a reductio where (*) sentences are assumptions and (1*) is the assumption Bill entertains. In Part B I outline Bill’s argument that he gives elsewhere that supports the crucial premises of his Reductio Argument. In Part C I will show that his argument outlined in Part B is not sound and briefly describe a theory that is not subject to his argument.
A. Bill’s Reductio Argument
Suppose for the sake of the argument that
1*. The meaning of life is identical to the search for meaning;
2. If the meaning of life is the search for it, then the meaning of life is subjective;
3. If the meaning of life is subjective, then life has no meaning;
4. If the meaning of life is the search for it, then life has no meaning; (from 2 and 3)
5. If life has meaning, then it cannot be identical to the search for meaning; (from 4)
Suppose one holds that
6*. Life has meaning.
It follows that
7. Necessarily, the meaning of life is not identical to the search for meaning.
7. (1*) is false.
BV responds: So far, so good, except that there is no call for the importation of the modal operator 'necessarily' in (7). (7) follows from the conjunction of (5) and (6), but from the necessity of the consequence one cannot validly infer the necessity of the consequent. The modal fallacy is explained here. I am not denying that (7) is necessarily true; I think it is. My point is that its necessity is not supported by the premises Peter adduces.
Bill wholeheartedly endorses the view that the search for meaning is necessary in order to enjoy a meaningful life. He rejects, however, (1*) (his (1)), I suspect due to something like the argument I outlined above. However, I do not think that Bill’s short post and my outline of his argument tells the most important part of the story; far from it.
B. Bill’s Sling-Shot Argument
Bill’s reductio argument heavily depends upon premises (2) and (3). Both are in dire need of justification. Bill offers no such justification in this post, but he does in some others. What justifies premises (2) and (3)? I will outline what I take to be Bill’s argument for (2) and (3) and call it “Bill’s Sling-Shot Argument”.
I think Bill has in mind an argument he gave in a previous post titled “We Cannot Be the Source of Our Own Existential Meaning” (Saturday, September 22, 2012 at 12:49 pm; henceforth, ‘EM’). We are assuming throughout that by ‘meaning’ we do not mean linguistic meaning, but rather what Bill calls existential meaning.
Bill thinks that any theory of meaning that identifies meaning with a source internal to the individual will ultimately collapse into an eliminativist theory: i.e., a theory that denies that there is any meaning to life. Premises (2) and (3) together summarize this view. It follows, then, that if there is going to be any meaning to life, then its source must be external to the individual.
Why should one think that any internalist theory of meaning collapses into an eliminativist theory? Bill offers what I have called the “Sling-Shot-Argument” in order to establish this claim. Bill thinks that all internalist theories are subject to the Sling-Shot Argument. Below is Bill’s Sling-Shot-Argument:
(SI) All internalist theories are committed to the view that the source of meaning is some action (typically mental) of individuals.
(SII) If the source of meaning is some action(s) of individuals, then meaning itself is a consequence of such actions.
(SIII) If meaning is a consequence of actions of individuals, then there cannot be any meaning prior to, and independently from, the resulting consequences of such actions.
(SIV) But “logically and temporally” (EM) individuals must exist prior to undertaking any meaning-bestowal actions and actions must exist prior to their consequences.
The above entails that:
(SV) “…the acts of meaning-bestowal and the subject whose acts they are, exist meaninglessly.” (EM) 4th paragraph)
(SVI) “…my existence and my acts of meaning-bestowal are meaningless.” (ibid)
The “Sling-Shot-Argument”purports to show that any internalist theory must collapse into an eliminativist theory. Is the Sling-Shot-Argument sound? I don’t think so.
C. The Sling-Shot Criticized
I deny premise (SI) of Bill’s Sling-Shot-Argument: i.e., I deny that all internalist theories must hold that the source of meaning is some action of individuals and that, therefore, meaning is a consequence of such actions. I deny this premise because I think that it is compatible with an internalist theory to hold that the source of meaning (or its ground) is a certain kind of property that all individual agents possess; namely, the potential of self-reflection. Actions (mental or otherwise) enter the picture only as the means to realize this potential. The picture is this. The meaning of life is the potential to self-reflect. All agents have the potential to self-reflect in virtue of being agents. Therefore, all agents have meaning to their life essentially and not merely as a result of the consequences of undertaking certain actions. The more one self-reflects (i.e., performs suitable mental actions), the more one realizes this potential and, therefore, the more one fulfills the meaning of his life. So far as I can see, this version of an internalist account, which we may call The Potentiality Account of Meaning (PAM) is not vulnerable to Bill’s Sling-Shot-Argument. Therefore, such an internalist theory does not collapse into an eliminativist theory. Hence, Bill’s Sling-Shot-Argument is not sound. I view Thomas Nagel’s theory of the meaning of life as a good example of an internalist theory which is at heart a PAM.
BV asks: reference?
Nevertheless, I agree with Bill that (1*) is too strong. The meaning of life is not identical to the search for meaning, if by ‘search’ we mean undertaking certain actions the consequences of which result in a meaningful life. On the other hand, if we think of searching for meaning as essentially a self-reflective activity, then searching for meaning is essential in order to realize the meaning of our life; namely, the potential we already posses. Therefore, viewed in this light, searching for meaning just is part of having meaning.
Peter tells us that we have a certain power or potential, the potential to reflect upon our lives. I of course agree. Peter then goes on to say, rather more controversially, that "The meaning of life is the potential to self-reflect." His thought is that our lives have meaning in virtue of their possession of a certain dispositional property (the property of being disposed to self-reflect). This is a property that we all have, and indeed essentially as opposed to accidentally. Since we have the property essentially, it is not in our power to either possess it or not, which implies that our possessing it is not a consequence of anything we say or do. The possession of theproperty is thus not a consequence of acts of meaning bestowal. So if the meaning of life consists in the possession of this dispositional property, then the meaning of life is objective as opposed to subjective. And yet on Peter's theory, meaning is endogenic rather than exogenic: it has its source in us, not in something outside of us such as God. Peter's theory, then, is a theory on which the meaning of life is both objective and internal.
If Peter is right, then I am wrong. For what I maintain is that internalist theories of existential meaning, according to which meaning is conferred upon one's life by acts of meaning-bestowal, are unable to confer meaning upon the objective presupposition of meaning-bestowal, namely, the acts themselves and their subjects, which acts and subjects must be logically and temporally prior to the meanings bestowed. In consequence, internalist theories deliver only subjective meaning. But if the meaning of life can only be subjective, then there is no such thing as THE meaning of life.
Do I have a good reason to reject Peter's theory? He tells us that "The meaning of life is the potential to self-reflect." But surely the actual meaning of my life -- if it has one -- cannot be identified with a power I possess, a power that is what it is whether or not it is ever exercised. A man who lives the unexamined life, who goes through life unreflectively, never pondering the why or the wherefore, arguably lives a meaningless life despite his power to reflect. I am assuming that one cannot live meaningfully without choosing and appropriating meanings -- which acts require reflection. But now suppose our man begins to actualize his reflection potential. Now his life begins to acquire actual meaning by his choices and decisions. But now the problem I raised arises again. The decisions and choices whereby a person's life acquires actual and concrete meaning are, in themselves, meaningless, as is their subject.
Peter is telling us that there is a property objective and essential possession of which by individuals confers existential meaning upon them. But of course they cannot have this or any property unless they exist. Since their existence cannot be accounted for by their possession of this or any property, the meaning (purpose) of their existence cannot be accounted for by possession of this or any property.
I go to Peter. I ask him, "What is the purpose of my existence?" He tells me, "The purpose of your existence and of every agent's is to reflect on its existence." That seems no better than saying: You exist for no purpose except to reflect on your purposeless existence.
I have toyed with the notion that the meaning of life just is the search for its meaning. But this is really no better than saying that the meaning of life is subjective: posited and maintained by the agent of the life, and potentially different for different agents. If the meaning of human life is subjective, however, then it has no meaning. Similarly, if the meaning of life is exhausted in the search for life's meaning, then there is no meaning apart from the search, which is to say that life has no meaning, strictly speaking. The following, then, is a nonstarter:
1. The meaning of human life consists in the quest for its meaning.
But (1) is to be distinguished from
2. No human life can count as truly meaningful unless some portion of it is devoted to raising, investigating, and answering for oneself the question as to the meaning of human life.
(2) I heartily endorse. The difference between (1) and (2) is that (1) identifies the quest for meaning with meaningwhereas (2) does not.
I knew a guy who maintained that getting married and having kids was "what it's all about." I incline to the view that figuring out what it's all about is what it's all about. And depending on how seriously one takes that task, one might decide that having children is contraindicated. When Prince Siddartha got word that his wife had bore him a son, he name him 'Rahula,' meaning fetter. Or so the story goes.
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.
Some say that life has no meaning except the meaning that we, individually, give it. Thus the meaning of my life is the meaning I give my life, and the meaning of your life is the (perhaps different) meaning that you give your life, and that, apart from these individual projects of meaning-bestowal, one's life has no meaning. Thus meaning does not come from God or der Fuehrer or il Duce or the government (as some contemporary liberals seem to think) or the state or society or other people, or anything exogenic, but comes, if it comes at all, from the wellsprings of one's own selfhood.
One could call this subjectivist theory an identity theory of existential (as opposed to linguistic) meaning: there is such a thing as the meaning of an individual human life, but what that meaning is is identical to the meaning the individual in question gives to its life. By contrast, an eliminativist theory of existential meaning would have it that there is no such thing as existential meaning.
Now it seems to me that the subjectivist identity theory just sketched is untenable, precisely for the reason that it cannot be kept from collapsing into an eliminativist theory. (This is a special case of how identity theories, which attempt to reduce A to B without denying the existence of A, often collapse into eliminativist theories. See here and here for more on the general issue.)
Note that if I must first give my life meaning, if it is to have some, then it has no meaning prior to and independent of my giving it meaning. And yet I must exist prior (both logically and temporally) to the decisions, resolutions, declamations, and whatnot whereby I give my life meaning. This implies that the acts of meaning-bestowal and the subject whose acts they are, exist meaninglessly. These acts, however, are mine, and their subject is me. It follows that my existence and my acts of meaning-bestowal are meaningless.
The attempted identification of meaning with subjectively bestowed meaning collapses into an elimination of meaning.
What we have here is a 'bootstrap problem.' Just as I cannot bootstrap myself into existence, i.e., cause my own existence (since that would require me to exist before I exist), I cannot bootstrap my existence into meaningfulness, i.e., bring it about that my existence has meaning. Just as I cannot exist before I exist, I cannot have meaning before I have meaning. I cannot be the source of my own meaning.
If the only meaning my existence has is the meaning I give it, then that I exist at all is meaningless.
And here we have an animal who aspires. Unfortunately, his aspirations arise from a material substratum that mocks them, and whose collapse will soon enough spell their end. Or so it seems. If the seeming is so, is not the life of these animals absurd?
I go back and forth on this question. I should be ashamed of myself. Forty years a philosopher and no fixed view on such a fundamental question? What am I (not) being paid to do? To gain some clarity, I will sketch some possible views. I will also sketch the view to which I incline (despite my vacillation).
But first I define 'mortalist.' A mortalist is someone who holds that we human beings are mortal, i.e., subject to the natural necessity of dying, both in body and in mind. Accordingly, all human beings will eventually die, and when they do they will utterly cease to exist as individuals, even if they persist for a while after death as corpses or as smoke and ashes. (By the way, I consider transhumanist dreams of immortality here below to be the worst sort of self-deluding, ultra-hubristic sci-fi nonsense. Pox and anathema be upon this house of cards.) For the mortalist, then, as I define the term, there is no natural immortality, as in Platonism, nor any supernatural immortality via divine agency as in Christianity.
A. Views According to which Death is not an Evil
1. The first view, that of the pessimistic mortalist, we can label 'Silenian.' On this view, death is not an evil because it removes us from a condition which on balance is not good, a condition which on balance is worse than nonexistence. This is the wisdom, if wisdom it is, of Silenus, reported by Sophocles (Oedipus at Colonus, ll. 1244 ff.) and quoted by Nietzsche in The Birth ofTragedy, section 3:
There is an ancient story that King Midas hunted in the forest a long time for the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, without capturing him. When Silenus at last fell into his hands, the king asked what was the best and most desirable of all things for man. Fixed and immovable, the demigod said not a word, till at last, urged by the king, he gave a shrill laugh and broke out into these words: "O wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do you compel me to tell you what it would be most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is -- to die soon."
Better never to have been born, but here we are. So second best is to die as soon as possible. Death is not an evil, but a good, since it releases us from an evil condition, that of being alive.
2. The second view is that of Epicurus. On the Epicurean view, death is not an evil for the one who dies because when death is, one is not, and when one is, death is not. My being dead is not an evil state of affairs for me (though it may be for others) because there is no such state of affairs (STOA) as my being dead. There is no such STOA because when I am dead there is no bearer of the property of being dead. And there being no such STOA entails that it it cannot be an evil STOA, or a good one for that matter.
I must point out that some find this reasoning sophistical. Well, if it is, is is not obviously sophistical. Some of the complexities of the reasoning are explored in a number of posts collected in the Death and Immortality and Epicureanism categories. I can't go into this now since this post is mainly just taxonomic.
The Epicurean line is consistent with life affirmation. The Epicurean is not saying that being dead is good and being alive evil; he is saying that being dead is not evil. It is not evil because it is axiologically neutral. The Epicurean is therefore also committed to saying that being dead is not a good.
The Silenian pessimist renders a negative value verdict on life as a whole: it's no good; better never to have been born, with second best being to die young. By contrast, the Epicurean's point is that the ontology of the situation makes it impossible for death to be an evil for the one who has died.
3. Platonism. For the Silenian, death is not evil because it releases one from life, which is evil. For the Epicurean death is not evil because the decedent is nonexistent, hence removed from all goods and evils. One cannot experience loss, or suffer in any way, if one does not exist. On the Platonic view death is also not an evil but for a different reason: death is release of the naturally immortal soul (the person in his essence) from embodiment. From a sub-standard 'cave-like' existence, the soul is freed to enjoy a true existence. On Platonism, the true self continues to exist post mortem in better conditions.
4. Illusionism. Whether or not actually held by anyone, there is the possible view according to which dying and being dead are illusions. If so, then how can they be evil? The enlightened sage sees through the veil of maya and recognizes his true identity as the deathless Atman (=Brahman). We don't exist as separate individuals and we don't die as separate individuals. I am the eternal Atman, and as such deathless. Moksha, enlightenment, liberation, is to realize my identity with the eternal Atman thereby seeing through the illusion of separateness. For some puzzles relating to moksha, see here.
5. The view to which I incline. Although the process of dying for most of us won't be easy, physically or mentally, the evil of dying is outweighed by the good of being dead, the good of being released from a predicament which is plainly unsatisfactory, whether or not we survive our bodily deaths as individuals. One aspect of the unsatisfactoriness of our present predicament -- and it is indeed a predicament -- is our deep ignorance, an ignorance that in some takes the form of delusion. (We are de-luded, played for fools, by a world which obtrudes itself upon us as the ne plus ultra of reality when calm reflection shows that it can be no such thing.)
If you deny that this life is plainly unsatisfactory, and can in the end offer us nothing that truly satisfies, then you live on a different planet and I can't help you except to refer you to Buddha, and the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, and Plato, and Augustine, and Thomas a Kempis, and Schopenhauer, and a thousand other philosophers and sages East and West.
Mine is not the position of the pessimistic mortalist, the Silenian, because I am neither an out-and-out pessimist nor a mortalist. Life is not thoroughly bad, but a mixture of good and bad, a chiaroscuro of axiological light and shade if you will. It's not all night and fog; there is daybreak and sunshine and thus intimations of Elsewhere. And if this life is a vale of soul-making, as I am inclined to think, then it is instrumentally good.
Mine is not the Epicurean position because I am not a mortalist.
Mine is not the Platonic position because I do not dogmatically affirm the immortality of the soul. (By 'Platonic' I do not mean the actual views of Plato, whatever they were, but something much broader and caricature-like.) I maintain merely that belief in it is rationally acceptable. The rationality of the belief supports the hope that we may come to learn in death what we cannot learn in life. On this view death is not an evil but an adventure into Shakespeare's "undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns." (Hamlet's soliloquy.) Death is an adventure, and one to be embraced and prepared for, given that one has perceived that this world has nothing much to offer us.
The poet and drunkard Dylan Thomas had it exactly wrong when he advised not going gently into that good night but raging, raging against the dying of the light. I liked his famous lines (which I did not just now quote but paraphrase) when I was an adolescent, but I have put aside childish things.
Peter Lupu once asked me why, if I believe that being dead is good insofar as it is a release from this unsatisfactory predicament, I take such good care of myself. My answer follows from what I have said. This vale of tears is also a vale of soul-making. So I need to 'do my time.' (Here, in nuce, is an argument against suicide.) I need more time here below to earn merit and make up for earlier transgressions. I need more time to complete my philosophical projects and prepare for death. No reasonable person embarks upon a long journey to a foreign land, there to take up permanent residence, without adequate preparations. How foolish, then, not to prepare for the journey to Shakespeare's "undisovered country"? You say there is no such "undiscovered country"? Well, then you need to inquire into the grounds of your belief. Or do you hold beliefs about matters of the utmost importance thoughtlessly?
B. Views According to Which Death is an Evil
6. Optimistic Mortalism. Death is an evil because life is unqualifiedly good and death deprives us of it. Does this need refutation?
7. Christian Mortalism. Death is an evil because we were intended to live in an embodied state forever in paradise with God. But now we are under sentence of death due to Adam's sin. Death was not intended by God but is a punishment for Adam's sin. Death, though an evil, is yet a portal to eternal life for those who accept Jesus as savior. So Chrisitan mortalism is not mortalism full-strength as I defined it at the outset, but a mitigated mortalism which pins its hopes on supernatural divine agency and the resurrection of the body.
He is an animal, but also a spirit -- and thus a riddle to himself. He reasons and speaks, he objectifies, he says 'I' and he means it. Thus he does not parrot the word 'I'; uttering 'I' he expresses self-awareness. Man has a world (Welt), not merely an environment (Umwelt). Man envisages a Higher Life, a higher destiny, whether within history or beyond it. And then he puzzles himself over whether this is a mere fancy, a delusion, or whether it presages the genuine possibility of a higher life.
More than an animal, he can yet sink lower than any animal which fact is a reverse index of his spiritual status. He can as easily devote himself to scatology as to eschatology. The antics of a Marquis de Sade are as probative of man's status as the life of a St. Augustine.
Kierkegaard writes that "every higher conception of life . . . takes the view that the task for men is to strive after kinship with the Deity . . . ." (Attack Upon Christendom, p. 265) We face the danger of "minimizing our own significance" as S. K. puts it, of selling ourselves short. And yet how difficult it is to believe in one's own significance! The problem is compounded by not knowing what one's significance is assuming that one has significance. Not knowing that it is or what it is, one cannot minimize it.
Kierkegaard solves the problem by way of his dogmatic and fideistic adherence to Christian anthropology and soteriology. Undiluted Christianity is his answer. My answer: live so as to deserve immortality. Live as if you have a higher destiny. It cannot be proven, but the arguments against it can all be neutralized. Man's whence and whither are shrouded in darkness and will remain so in this life. Ignorabimus. In the final analysis you must decide what to believe and how to live.
You could be wrong, no doubt. But if you are wrong, what have you lost? Some baubles and trinkets. If you say that truth will have been lost, I will ask you how you know that and why you think truth is a value in a meaningless universe. I will further press you on the nature of truth and undermine your smug conceit that truth could exist in a meaningless wholly material universe.
The image is by Paul Klee, Engel noch tastend, angel still groping. We perhaps are fallen angels, desolation angels, in the dark, but knowing that we are, and ever groping.
So is death evil or not? What is my answer? The answer depends on metaphysics.
1. If we are natural beings only, nothing but complex physical systems, continuous with the rest of nature and susceptible in principle of complete explanation by physics and biology, then I cannot see how death in general could be accounted evil. The premature death of some is perhaps evil on the ground that death deprives the decedent of what he might otherwise have enjoyed. The happy and healthy 20 year old who is cut down by a stray bullet arguably suffers a loss, not one that he can experience, but a loss nonetheless. (One can suffer a loss merely by being the subject of it without actually experiencing it.) There is of course a residual technical puzzle about how a person who no longer exists can be the subject of loss, but for present purposes I won't worry further about this.
My main point is that it cannot be maintained on naturalistic principles that death in general is evil for humans. For suppose a person lives a productive life of 90 or so years, a life which on balance has been satisfying to the person and enriching to those who have come in contact with him. What is evil about the death of such a person? And if death is not evil for such a person, then the philosophical question whether death in general is evil must be answered in the negative. Here are some further considerations:
a. It is a conceptual truth that one cannot be deprived of the impossible. Now healthy productive living after a certain age is nomologically impossible. So a person who dies at a ripe old age of 90 or 100 is not being deprived of anything by dying. (Adjust the numbers upwards if you care to.) At the point at which further living become nomologically impossible, one cannot be said to be deprived by death of a good. Of course, the old person may want to live on a another year or decade, but that is irrelevant.
b. Death removes from the decedent the goods of life but also removes the evils, which are not inconsiderable. I will spare the reader a litany of the miseries and horrors of this life. If he opens his eyes he will quickly become apprised of them. (But don't generalize from your own favorable experience: readers of this blog are members of an elite cadre of well-placed and fortunate individuals.)
c. Even if being dead involves a loss for the decedent after a long and satisfying life, there cannot on naturalistic principles be any experiencing of this loss by the decedent, so how big a deal could it be? Suppose your will stipulates that on your death $100, 000 of your estate shall go to Oxfam. Your executrix blows the whole wad at Nordstrom's. It is arguable though not perfectly clear that you have been violated -- but you'll be able to 'live' with it, right? Others can say that you were wronged. But what could that be to you who no longer exists?
On this naturalistic way of thinking, then, death cannot in general be an evil for humans. At most, the premature death of some individuals is evil. But even this is not clear because of the problem of 'the subject of loss/deprivation.'
But how do you know that naturalism is true? That you believe it with great conviction cuts no ice. As Nietzsche says, in his typically exaggerated and febrile way, "Convictions are the greatest enemies of truth." Can you prove naturalism? If you try, you will soon entangle yourself in a thicket of thorny metaphysical questions from which you will not escape unbloodied. You cannot prove it. I guarantee it.
2. How then could death be evil? Here is one way. Suppose there is the possibility of personal survival of bodily death (with divine assistance) and the possibility of further intellectual, moral, and spiritual development in fellowship with others who have survived and in fellowship with God. Now if some such version of theism is true, and if one dies and becomes nothing -- the possibility of survival not having been realized either because the person in question refuses the divine offer or is judged unworthy of it -- then one will have been deprived of a great good. One will have missed out on the beatitude for which we have been created. So death (annihilation) would be a very great evil on this scheme, an incomparably greater evil than the evil of death on a naturalistic scheme, assuming it could be said to be evil on a naturalistic scheme. (You will have noticed that 'the problem of the subject' arises on both schemes.)
As I see it, death is evil because it deprives us of what some of us feel is our 'birthright' as spiritual beings: continued intellectual, moral, and spiritual progress. We cannot quite believe that we are nothing more than complex physical systems no more worthy of continuance than trees and swamps and clouds. We feel it to be absurd that the progress we have made individually but also collectively will be simply obliterated, that our questions will go unanswered, our hopes dashed, that the thirsting after justice will go unslaked. We are not reconciled to the notion that there will be no redemption, that there will be no answer to or recompense for the terrible crimes that have been inflicted on the innocent. As easy as it is to be reconciled to the death of others viewed objectively, it is difficult to be reconciled to the utter annihilation of those we love. If death is annihilation, then this life is absurd, a big seductive joke, and we are the butt of it.
Think of the great questions that have tormented the best minds for millenia. Does it not strike you as a perfectly absurd arrangement that one day these questions will just cease with the last human being and go unanswered forever? All that painstaking inquiry and no answer, not even the answer that the questions posed were meaningless and unanswerable!
There is a certain sort of secular humanist who fools himself with dreams of human progress toward a 'better world' in which a sort of secular redemption will be achieved. But this is pure illusion and pure evasion. It is nothing but feel-good claptrap. On a naturalistic scheme there can be no redemption for the billions who have been the victims of terrible injustice. Be a naturalist if you must, but don't fool yourself with humanistic fantasies. There is no secular substitute for the redemption that only God could bring about. Be an honest naturalist, a nihilist naturalist.
But of course what I have just said in exfoliation of the sense some of us have of being more than complex physical systems, a sense of having a higher destiny, proves nothing and can be easily rebutted: Death is not an evil because none of what some feel is their birthright as imago Dei is really possible. It is just pious claptrap born of dissatisfaction with the way things are. One may feel that it is 'a rotten deal' and 'a bad arrangement' that one must die and be annihilated just when one is starting to make real progress toward understanding and enlightenment and happiness. But that feeling is just a quirk of some (malcontent) natures: it doesn't prove anything.
3. So once again we end up in good old Platonic fashion, aporetically, at an impasse. There is simply no solution to the problem of whether death is evil without a solution to the underlying metaphysical question in philosophical anthropology: What is man? (The fourth of Kant's famous questions after: What can I know? What ought I do? What can I hope for?) And to the question What is man? there is no answer that can withstand the scrutiny of, and receive the endorsement of, all able practioners.
That is not to say that there is no correct answer. It is to say that, even if there is, one cannot know it to be correct. And if one cannot know it to be correct, then it is not an answer in any serious sense of the term.
So I arrive once again at the following long-held conviction. In the final analysis one must DECIDE what one will believe and how one will live. There is no evading one's doxastic and practical freedom and responsibility. When it comes to the ultimate questions one must decide what is true and how one will live. No one can help you, not even God. For supposing God, or a divine emmisary, to appear to you right now, you would still have to decide that it was indeed God or a being from God who was appearing to you; and you would still have to decide whether or not to credit his revelation. What if the divine intermediary told you to murder your innocent son? What would you say? If you were rational your would say, "Get the hell out of here; by commanding me to do what is plainly immoral you prove that you are an illusion." Or maybe you would decide to accept the veridicality of the experience. Either way you would be deciding. (See Abraham and Isaac category and Doxastic Voluntarism category)
The decision as to what to believe and how to live is of course not whimsical or thoughtless or quick or light-hearted. It must be made with all due doxastic vigilance and fear and trembling, but there is no getting around the need for decision. But what if you refuse to decide and simply acquiesce in something imposed from without? Then that too is a decision on your part.
It is the hour of death. You are informed by an utterly reliable source that you have exactly two options. You can either accept death and with it utter annihilation of the self, or you can repeat your life with every last detail the same. But if every last detail is to be the same, and you decide to sign up for another round on the wheel of becoming, you realize that you are signing up for an infinity of rounds.
So which will it be? Has your life been so valuable that you would be willing to repeat it, and indeed repeat it endlessly?
Giles Fraser in his provocative Redeeming Nietzsche: On the Piety of Unbelief (Routledge 2002) maintains that "Nietzsche is obsessed with the question of human salvation" and that his work is "primarily soteriology." (p. 2) I don't disagree with this assessment, but there is a tension in Nietzsche that ought to be pointed out, one that Fraser, from what I have read of his book, does not address.
1. Talk of salvation presupposes, first, that there is some general state or condition, one in which we all find ourselves, from which we need salvation, and second, that this general condition is profoundly unsatisfactory. In The Birth of Tragedy, section 3, Nietzsche invokes "the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus" who, when asked by King Midas about that which is most desirable for man, replied that the best of all is utterly beyond human reach: not to be born. The second best, if one has had the misfortune of being born, is to die soon. Now it is clear that some such negative assessment of life, or of human life, is a precondition of any quest for salvation, no matter what form it might take, whether Buddhist, Stoic, Christian, whatever. The negative judgment on life as a whole need not be as harsh as the Silenian one, but without some negative judgment or other as to the value of life the question of salvation makes no sense. To take the question seriously one need not believe that salvation to some positive state is possible; but one has to believe that the general state of humanity (or of all sentient beings) is deeply unsatisfactory, to use a somewhat mild term.
2. But here's the rub. It is well known that Nietzsche maintains that the value of life is inestimable. As he puts it in Twilight of the Idols ("The Problem of Socrates," sec. 2) : der Wert des Lebens nicht abgeschaetzt werden kann. His point is that objective judgments about the value of life are impossible. Such judgments can never be true; they count only as symptoms. Saying nothing about life itself, they merely betray the health or decadence of those who make the judgments. Buddha, Socrates, and all those belonging to the consensus sapientium who purport to say something objective about this life when they pronounce a negative judgment upon it, as Buddha does in the First Noble Truth (sarvam dukkham: all is suffering) merely betray their own physiological decline. There is no fact of the matter as to the value or disvalue of life. There is only ascending and descending life with the value judgments being no more than symptoms either of life ascending or life descending. Thus spoke Nietzsche.
3. The tension, then, is between the following two Nietzschean commitments: (1) Man needs salvation from his present predicament in this life; (2) The value of life cannot be objectively assessed or evaluated. The claims cannot both be true. The need for salvation implies that our predicament in this life is of negative value, when this cannot be the case if there is no fact of the matter concerning the value of life.
4. Finding contradictions in Nietzsche is not very difficult, and one could even argue that the conflicting trends of his thought show its richness and its nearness to the bloody bone of the predicament in which we find ourselves; my present point, however, is that Fraser's essentially correct claim that Nietzsche's work is "primarily soteriology" needs to be qualified by his fundamental thesis about the inestimability of life's value, which thesis renders soteriology impossible.
5. Well, is the value of life objectively inestimable? A most vexing question. Life is always an individual life, mine for example. Heidegger spoke of the Jemeinigkeit des Daseins; I will speak of the Jemeinigkeit des Lebens. There is no living in general; it is always a particular affair. What's more, every individual life is stretched on the rack of time: one does not live one's individual life all at once but bit by bit. If there is a problem about how any given individual life can judge the value of life in general, then there will also be a problem about how any phase of an individual's life can judge the value of that individual's life as a whole.
I am tempted to give the gastroenterologist's answer to the question whether life is worth living. Itdepends on the liver. Joking aside, the point would be that there is just no objective fact of the matter as to whether or not life in general is worth living. You either experience your particular life as worth living or you don't. If you do then your particular life has value, at least for the moment. There is no standard apart from life, and indeed apart from the life of the individual, by which the value of life could be measured. No standard apart from life does not imply no standard: individual life is the standard. The value of life's being objectively inestimable therefore does not imply that its value is merely subjective. The implication seems to be that the individual life is an absolute standard of value in which subjective and objective coalesce.
6. "But aren't there certain general considerations that show that no life is worth living or that no life is worth very much?" And what would those be?
a) Well, there is the fact of impermanence or transience. In a letter to Franz Overbeck, Nietzsche himself complains, "I am grieved by the transitoriness of things." I feel your pain, Fritz. Doesn't universal impermanence show that nothing in this life is worth much? How important can anything be if it is here today and gone tomorrow? How can anyone find value in his doings and strivings if he faces up to the universality of impermanence? Does not the certainty of death mock the seriousness of our passions and plans? (Arguably, most do not honestly confront impermanence but vainly imagine that everything will remain hunky-dory indefinitely. They live in illusion until driven out of it by some such calamity as the sudden death of a loved one.) But on the other hand, how can impermanence be taken to be an argument against worth and importance if there is no possibility of permanence? As Nietzsche says in Twilight, if there is no real world, if there is no world of Platonic stasis, then there is no merely apparent world either. Is it an argument against this life that it fails to meet an impossible standard? And is not the postulation of such a world a mere reflex of weakness and world-weariness? Weltschmerz become creative conjures up spooks who preside over the denigration of the only world there is.
b) And then there is the fact of misery and affliction. (Simone Weil is one of the best writers on affliction, malheur.) Don't we all suffer, and doesn't this universal fact show that Silenus was right after all: better never to have been born, with second best being an early death? But again, and taking the side of Nietzsche, is it not the miserable who find life miserable, the afflicted who find it afflicting? The strong do not whine about pain and suffering; they take them as goads to richer and fuller living. Or is this just Nietzschean romanticism, a failure to fully face the true horror of life?
These questions are not easy to answer! Indeed, the very posing of them is a difficult and ticklish matter.
This is a guest post by Peter Lupu. Lightly edited by BV with his comments in blue.
In a post titled Imago Dei, (December 4, 2009), Bill clarifies the meaning of this important theistic concept. However, in his typical way, he does much more. He offers us guidelines to see and appreciate the broader implication of a proper understanding of imago Dei. In the present post I shall confine myself to the task of fleshing out these implications, as I understand them. In subsequent posts, and with the gracious cooperation of Bill, I will try to wrestle with these implications to the best of my abilities. I should make clear at the outset that I agree with Bill’s exposition of the meaning and significance of imago Dei within a theistic conception. If there is anything with which I disagree, or have some reservations, is the principal conclusion Bill draws from the concept of imago Dei regarding the meaning of life.
Life can be good. Middle-sized happiness is within reach and some of us reach it. It doesn't require much: a modicum of health and wealth; work one finds meaningful however it may strike others; the independence of mind not to care what others think; the depth of mind to appreciate that there is an inner citadel into which one can retreat at will for rest and recuperation when the rude impacts of the world become too obtrusive; a relatively stable economic and political order that allows the tasting of the fruits of such virtues as hard work and frugality; a political order secure enough to allow for a generous exercise of liberty and a rich development of individuality; a rationally-based hope that the present, though fleeting, will find completion either here or elsewhere; a suitable spouse whose differences are complementations rather than contradictions; a good-natured friend who can hold up his end of a chess game. . . .
Near the end of Part One of this two-part series, I wrote,
. . . Sartre, denying God, puts man in God's place: he ascribes to man a type of freedom and a type of responsibility that he cannot possibly possess, that only God can possess. He fails to see that human freedom is in no way diminished by an individual's free acceptance of an objective constraint on his behavior. This is because human freedom is finite freedom; only an infinite freedom, a divine freedom, would be diminished by objective constraints.
This may well be the crux of the matter. But we need to explore it in greater depth. For a theist, God is the absolute. But Sartre famously denies God on the ground that a for-itself-in-itself is impossible: see Being and Nothingness. For Sartre the God-denier, man is the absolute. But there is no Man, only men. Man is an abstraction. So the absolute fractures into finite individual subjectivities, each of which exists contingently. Here is a crucial passage:
Suppose we divide theories of the meaning of human life into the exogenous and the endogenous. According to the exogenous theories, existential meaning derives from a source external to the agent, whereas on endogenous theories, meaning and purpose are posited or projected by the agent. Classical theism provides an example of an exogenous theory of meaning: because man was created by God for a purpose, namely, to serve and glorify him in this world and commune with him in the next, the purpose of human life is to live in accordance with the divine will so as to achieve one's higher destiny of unending bliss. Jean-Paul Sartre's theory as presented in the manifesto "Existentialism is a Humanism" is an example of an endogenous theory. Indeed, it is the polar opposite of a theistic theory of existential meaning: "Existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position." (369, Kaufmann anthology) Herewith, some critical commentary on Sartre's theory as we find it in the essay mentioned.
. . . our reason naturally aspires to encompass the totality of being; and our will for order and our need to make sense of existence lead us instinctively to seek that which is both the root and the keystone of existence, and gives it its meaning. Even atheists, Nietzsche among them, knew this: order and meaning come from God, and if God really is dead, then we delude ourselves in thinking that meaning can be saved. If God is dead, nothing remains but an indifferent void which engulfs and annihilates us. No trace remains of our lives and our labours, there is only the meaningless dance of protons and electrons. The universe wants nothing and cares for nothing; it strives toward no goal; it neither rewards nor punishes. Whoever says that there is no God and all is well deceives himself.
Our lives have definite limits both in space and in time. At any given time, my body occupies a vanishingly small portion of space, and if one were to plot my path over time, the resulting space-time ‘trajectory’ would pass through an exceedingly small number of spatiotemporal positions. And yet my spatial limitations do not bother me. What bothers me is that my life is approaching a temporal limit. Setting aside questions of a possible survival of bodily death, this temporal limit looms as a sort of calamity, unlike my spatial limits which I accept with equanimity. It bothers me that my life will not extend much beyond three score and ten, but it bothers me not at all that my height does not extend beyond 6' 1". I suspect that this difference in attitude, the difference between dread at coming to an end in time, and equanimity at coming to an end in space, is shared by most of us. If the difference in attitude is justified, it would seem to point to a fundamental difference between spatial and temporal limits, and thus between space and time.
To put it more sharply: A justifiable difference in attitude (dread vs. equanimity) seems to entail a fundamental difference between space and time. Contrapositively, the lack of a fundamental difference seems to entail that the difference in attitude is not justifiable.
What do we mean by 'meaning' when we ask about the meaning of life? It is perhaps most natural to take the meaning of life or of a life to be its purpose, point, end, goal, or telos. Accordingly, (human) life is meaningful only if it has a central organizing purpose. Existential of life meaning bears a teleological aspect in that a meaningful life is a purpose-driven life.
Having a purpose, even if necessary for the meaningfulness of a life, is not sufficient. A meaningful life must also embody positive intrinsic value. The lives of terrorists and mass murderers can be purpose-driven, subjectively meaningful, and satisfying to their agents, but we ought to resist the notion that such lives are objectively meaningful. At best, such destructive lives are subjectively meaningful only. If so, existential meaning is not merely a teleological concept but a teleological-cum-axiological concept. An objectively meaning ful life must be both purpose-driven and such as to realize positive objective intrinsic value.
The last book Milton K Munitz published before his death in 1995 is entitled Does Life Have a Meaning? (Prometheus, 1993). It is a fitting capstone to his distinguished career and exemplifies the traits for which I admire him: he is clear and precise like a good analytic philosopher, but he evinces the spiritual depth conspicuous by its absence in most analysts. Philosophy for him was not a mere academic game: he grappled with ultimates. Herewith, some notes toward a summary and critique of Munitz's position on the meaning-of-life question. I will also draw upon his penultimate book, The Question of Reality (Princeton 1990), as well as Existence and Logic (NYU Press, 1974) and The Mystery of Existence (NYU Press, 1974). These titles will be abbreviated by 'LM,' ' QR,' 'EL,' and 'ME,' respectively. Words and phrases enclosed in double quotation marks are quotations from Munitz; otherwise I use single 'quotation' marks.
Like many American boys, I read plenty of Jack London: The Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Sea Wolf, Martin Eden, not to mention numerous short stories, some of them unforgettable to this day: "Love of Life," "Moonface," and "To Build a Fire." But I never got around to John Barleycorn until years later after I had read a lit-crit study of the American booze-novel, and decided to read every booze-novel I could get my hands on. You could say I went on a booze-novel binge. So I read Charles Jackson's Lost Weekend, things like that, until I was ready for the grandpappy of them all, John Barleycorn.
Here are some notes from a journal entry of 7 March 1998.
Finished John Barleycorn in bed last night. One of London's best books. What's the gist of it?
One cannot live and be happy unless one suppresses the final truth which is that life is a senseless play of forces, a brutal and bloody war of all against all with no redeeming point or purpose. Man is a brother to the dust, "a cosmic joke, a sport of chemistry." (319).
Only by telling himself "vital lies" can a man live "muttering and mumbling them like charms and incantations against the the powers of Night." (329) All metaphysics, religion, and spirtuality are half-believed-in attempts to "outwit the Noseless One [the skull behind the face] and the Night." (329) "Life is oppositional and passes. You are an apparition." (317) "All an appearance can know is mirage." (316) Ah, but here is a weak point in the position. An appearance can't know anything, can't even dream or doubt anything. If I am dreaming, then I am, and cannot be a mere dream-object. Here the "White Logic" shows itself to be illogic. Let your experience be as deceptive, delusive, mirage-like as you want, the experiencer stands above it, apart from it -- at least in his inner essence. Thus there is the hope that he may unfold his inner essence, disentangling himself from the play of specters. But this is exactly what London, worldling and sensualist, did not do.
There is the 'truth' we need to live and flourish -- which is a bunch of "vital lies" -- and the real truth, which is that our life is a tale told by an idiot . . . signifying nothing. Religion and metaphysics are further life-enhancing illusions. Alcohol revealed all this "White Logic" to London. What is his solution? Stay sober and dream on, apparently. Close the books of despair (Spencer, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche) and lose yourself in the daily round, the social whirl, the delights of the foreground.
What is noteworthy here is that booze for London is not anodyne and escape but truth-serum.
Three paths are suggested:
A. The Superficial Man. Lives in immediacy and illusion, oblivious to sickness, old age, and death. Doesn't see that there is a problem of life to be solved.
B. The 'London Man.' Sees through the average schlep's illusions. He experiences the nullity, the vanity of success, recognition, love of woman, money and the rest. (See p. 254) But beyond this there is only the horror of the senseless and brutal struggle for existence. So he turns against the "ancient mistake of pursuing Truth too relentlessly." (254) He returns to the Cave, believing that ultimately there is No Exit.
C. The Quester. For whatever reason, he has been so placed in life that he has a glimpse of the possibility of salvation. He sees deeper than the 'London Man.' He has been granted a fleeting vision of the Light behind and beyond the Noseless One and Night. He works to attain that vision in fullness.
Some feel that if the fact of bodily death spells the extinction of the person, then this fact, if it is a fact, consigns human life to meaninglessness. This is a very strong intuition among those who have it, and I have it. But there are certain arguments from the naturalist camp that need to be addressed. I will now examine some of these arguments.
One can imagine a naturalist conceding arguendo that our lives do not end with bodily death, but then proceeding to question the bearing this could have on the meaning of life. For how could an extension of life beyond the grave give meaning to life this side of the grave? Wouldn't the same problems about existential meaning that arise on this side also arise on the far side? If this is so, then the postulation of an afterlife would accomplish nothing towards giving life a meaning.
The germs of these thoughts came to me while climbing the Allan Blackman trail to Circlestone Ruins in the Eastern Superstition Wilderness in May of 1998.
Does it matter whether life has an ultimate meaning or not? Someone might be satisfied if he has a good chance of attaining middle-sized happiness: peaceful days, restful nights, an adequate supply of health and wealth, satisfying employment, a loving spouse, friends, progeny, long life, and the like. Why not rest our hopes in what is known to be possible rather than in what is not known to be possible, such as immortality, the resurrection of the body, the visio beata, entry into Nirvana? Why hanker for what is beyond our mortal scale? Why not accept the finite? Are we not just a particularly clever species of land mammal?
What is my life's point and purpose? How silly to say, as many do, that it is wholly up to the individual to give it sense and purpose! If I must give my life meaning, then it has no meaning prior to and independent of my giving it meaning, which is to say that it has no meaning, full stop. Am I my own source? Can I 'recuperate' every aspect of my facticity by acts of goal-positing? If my life depends on me for its meaning, then it has no meaning. To suppose that an otherwise meaningless existence can be made meaningful by subjective acts of meaning-bestowal is like supposing that one can pull oneself up by one's own bootstraps.
If, for whatever reason, one denies that human life possesses objective meaning, then one ought to have the intellectual honesty to maintain that it has no meaning, and not seek refuge in the shabby evasion of subjective meaning.