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Friday, April 12, 2013


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This is a topic that interests me greatly, thank you for posting this Bill. The centre piece of the argument here is the statement: "The meaning of life is the potential to self-reflect". Let me call this statement: S1. It seems to me that we can create an opposite statement: "The meaning of life is the actual act of reflection itself"; let me call this statement: S2. Peter advocates S1; it seems to me Bill that you advocate something closer to S2, but not entirely. The reason I say "not entirely" is that BOTH S1 & S2 are still subjective claims of meaning and it seems to me that you (Bill) are seeking an objective meaning. You seek a meaning not provided by man for man (i.e. subjective), but by "something other than man" (God for example) for man.

S1 is shown to be subjective by the simple example of still-births where the "potential of self-reflection" never even "got off the ground" so to speak. Even just one instance of a still-birth shows that S1 cannot be objective for it is contradicted by clearly observable objective natural examples. Simply put: the potential for self-reflection cannot be divorced from the conditions giving rise to that potential in the first place and those conditions (which are born from nature) are not subjective. S2 is subjective due to the simple fact that there is more than one reflecting entity in existence and that these entities are not equivalent. This assumes three conditions: 1: that nature (or if you prefer: existence) is objective; 2: that there is a category difference between "meaning" and "existence" & 3: that difference (any difference) is real.

I surmise that you (Bill) seek this: an objective meaning realized subjectively. In plain English: you seek that there is a specific objective meaning that God (who is the source of said objective meaning) has for nature (and by extension: us) being here, but that we also somehow facilitate via our own individual/subjective meanings said objective meaning born from God.

Is my surmisal correct Bill or do you in fact seek exclusively objective meaning without any reference to subjective meaning. I think seeking solely objective meaning without acknowledging that subjective meaning really exists is foolish; likewise at the same time concluding that solely subjective meaning exists is foolish (this to me is what Peter is doing). Something (call it a philosophical intuition) tells me...that both must exist and do so in a very intricate manner as of yet not explicated by man.

Before I go any further with my argument I would appreciate it if you could just indicate to me whether my surmisal of your stance in this is correct; I also would appreciate any questions and counter-arguments you can provide to me. I am interested in taking this discussion a bit further (if you and even Peter feel so inclined). Make no mistake: I am very sympathetic to your search for universal objectively justified meaning (i.e. God) Bill, but for me the individual subjectively justified meaning is equally important and must be considered. Perhaps one can express it as such: I seek both myself, my true self (my “soul”, i.e. subjective meaning), and also God (i.e. objective meaning) and I do not consider that the search for the one is at the complete exclusion of existence of the search for the other; that the subjective and objective are far more intimately connected...but that in the end they both MUST BE. I am aware that one can construe this as a simple contradiction or extreme relativism or a “divine paradox” of sorts, but I believe it is justified. If you show interest and confirm to me whether my surmisal of your position is correct (and if not please elaborate), we can further discuss this argument and its justification.

Thank you again for this post and everything you for the project of philosophy.

- Phil

Response to Bill on Existential Meaning

First, two editorial comments. The last sentence that appears in the first batch of comments by Bill in blue is my sentence, not Bill’s. Second, the essay by Nagel I had in mind is The Absurd, in his collection Mortal Questions, (1979), Cambridge University Press.

1. The centerpiece of Bill’s objection is that internalist theories of existential meaning cannot confer meaning on meaning bestowal-acts as well as the actor because the later are “logically and temporally prior to the meanings bestowed.”

2. The first point to make is that this argument presupposes that meaning cannot be conferred retroactively: i.e., that existential meaning is time-sensitive insofar as it cannot be imparted to times prior to its bestowal. While this assumption may make sense initially, upon further reflection it does not seem to be as obvious as Bill makes it out to be. In any case, it needs to be justified. I will assume for now that existential meaning is not retroactive.

3. It is the second point, however, that I wish to focus upon. Bill’s objection against internalist accounts of existential meaning points towards an important distinction which Bill seems to misidentify. I will now identify the proper target of Bill’s argument.

4. Bill’s argument properly applies to any theory which identifies existential meaning with some feature of the *consequences* of actions (mental or behavioral). Assuming Bill is right about the impossibility of retroactive existential meaning, this will inevitably leave the person and the actions that cause these consequences barren of any meaning due to the logical and temporal priority of the former.

5. I wish now to distinguish between *Consequentialist* vs. *Constitutive* theories of existential meaning. Consequentialist theories of meaning maintain that meaning is conferred only by the consequences of actions performed by an agent. Hence, prior to such acts and the ensuing consequences (and given non-retroactivity) the meaning bestowal acts and the agents that perform such acts lack meaning. Constitutive theories, on the other hand, hold that meaning is imminent in the acts of meaning bestowal and this is made possible because existential meaning already exists, in some form, within the agent who acts.

6. Note that the internalist vs. externalist distinction is not the same as the consequentialist vs. constitutive distinction, since both internalist as well as externalist theories may be of the consequentialist variety.

7. Bill’s argument outlined in (1) is effective only against consequentialist theories, whether these are internalist or externalist. It leaves constitutive theories untouched. The reason for this is very simple. Since constitutive theories do not maintain that meaning is conferred by the consequences of acts, they are free to hold that existential meaning exists prior to any acts, in whatever form, and is imparted by means of the acts. Thus, according to constitutive theories, existential meaning is constitutive of suitable acts of the agent. Thus, devotion, for instance, is not a consequence of devotional acts, but it is a constitutive element of devotional acts.

8. My original proposal that existential meaning is the potential of autonomous agents to self-reflect is not a consequentialist theory but rather it is a constitutive theory. Therefore, Bill’s objection fails against such a theory. Yet it is by all accounts n internalist theory, as far as the internalist vs. externalist distinction is concerned.

9. Acts of reflection realize a man’s potential to self reflect and thus realize a man’s existential meaning. The more one self-reflects, the more one has a meaningful life. A man who fails to self-reflect (if that is even possible) still has existential meaning as a potential, albeit he fails to realize it and, thus, lacks a meaningful life. Therefore, Bill’s imagined unreflective man still has existential meaning, but fails to realize it.

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