February 10, 2015

The Meaning of Life: Some Notes

When philosophers talk about “the meaning of life,” they usually mean that life has some sort of purpose. But not just any purpose. They usually hold that this purpose must be a good purpose, an animating purpose, the type of purpose that makes one feel that life is worth living. Edwards (2008) has this sort of definition in mind. A person, he writes, can be said to have a meaningful life when they devote much of their time to achieving “some dominant, over-all goal or goals” and when they do so “with a special zest that was not present before” (pp. 124-125).

Taylor (2000) adds two more attributes to the definition of “meaning”: significance and permanence. An activity, he writes, can be said to be meaningful “if it has some significant culmination, some more or less lasting end that can be considered to have been the direction and purpose of the activity” (p. 23).

Life can be said to be meaningful in two different senses. First, life can be meaningful in an objective sense, meaning that life itself has a meaning, one that is either “structurally part of the universe, apart from human subjective evaluation; or dependent upon some external agency other than human agency” (Klemke, p. 190). Second, life can be meaningful in a subjective sense, meaning that an individual’s life has meaning, that is, a consuming purpose which makes that individual excited to go on living.

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Many find life meaningless viewed sub specie aeternitatis, that is, from an eternal or cosmic perspective. Seachris (2013) writes that there are four components to this perspective. (1) Temporal component: “From the cosmic perspective, humanity exists against the backdrop of temporal vastness; human history is but a momentary flicker" and in a relatively brief period of time “humanity and all its traces [will] have vanished” (p. 608). (2) Spatial component: “In this viewpoint, one takes an expansive perspective on the entire cosmos, and one finds a tiny little earth populated by, among others, the human race. The accompanying pessimistic worry is: how could something so small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things really matter all that much?” (p. 609). (3) Modal component: “human existence...appears to be radically contingent. There is no deep reason for why you or I exist.” As Stephen J. Gould wrote: “We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because comets struck the earth and wiped out dinosaurs, thereby giving mammals a chance not otherwise available” (p. 609). (4) Ontological-normative component: “Ultimate reality, on this view, is, at bottom, merely mindless, intentionless, purposeless, and valueless matter in motion. Value and normativity have no place in what is real on this view” (p. 610).

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Given the above definitions, it follows that if God does not exist, then life very likely does not have an objective meaning. This realization causes many to feel that life is absurd and thus very possibly not worth living (Camus, p. 8). But this does not necessarily follow. Klemke (2008) believes that, even if life does not have an objective meaning, it can still have a subjective meaning. He writes: “I, for one, am glad that the universe has no meaning, for thereby is man all the more glorious. I willingly accept the fact that external meaning is non-existent (or if existent, certainly not apparent), for this leaves me free to forge my own meaning. The extent of my creativity and thereby my success in this undertaking depends partly on the richness of my own psyche” (p. 193).

Conversely, it does not necessarily follow that the existence of God would make life worth living. Put differently, even if life had an objective purpose, even if this purpose had the attributes of significance and permanence, we still might not find that life meaningful, worth living. To make this point, Crosby (1988) reminds us of the Euthyphro dilemma. He writes: “[I]t is at least conceivable that the gods could command something which we would not be able to recognize as good, in terms of our own experience or reflection. In such a case, it would not be good for us, in any meaningful sense of “good,” no matter how insistent the gods might be upon our accepting it as such. They might punish us terribly for violating or failing to respect their commands, but no amount of punishment in itself could convince us that the commands were good” (132).

Crosby suggests that many deem that life without an objective meaning is not worth living because they come from an anthropocentric culture, one which has held for millennia that the universe was created for humans. By contrast,he writes, a Buddhist culture would not have been shocked by the revelations of Copernicus or Darwin (p. 128). Consequently, Crosby suggests that we should challenge this long-held assumption and try to find comfort in believe that we exist, not as the center of the world, but with “a democracy of creatures” (pp. 129-130).

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Camus, A. (1991). The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. (J. O’Brien, Trans.) New York: Vintage Books.

Crosby, D.A. (1988). The specter of the absurd: Sources and criticisms of modern nihilism. New York: State University of New York Press.

Edwards, P. (2008). The meaning and value of life. In. E.D. Klemke & S.M. Cahn (Eds.), The Meaning of Life: A Reader (pp. 114-133). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Klemke, E.D. (2008). Living without appeal: An affirmative philosophy of life. In. E.D. Klemke & S.M. Cahn (Eds.), The Meaning of Life: A Reader (pp. 184-195). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Seachris, J.W. (2013). The sub specie aeternitatis perspective and normative evaluations of life's meaningfulness: A closer look. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 16(3), 605-620.

Taylor, R. (2000). Good and Evil. Amherst: Prometheus Books.

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