There is a new volume out from Wiley Blackwell entitled: “Exploring the Meaning of Life: An Anthology and Guide.” The volume contains many of the classic essays from philosophers on the subject, most of which I have summarized in my recent book. But there are a few new articles, and the next few weeks I will read and summarize them for my readers. This first entry summarizes the introduction to the volume written by Joshua Seachris, who teaches at Notre Dame University.
Seachris begins by contrasting the passion with which a continental thinker like Camus approaches the question with the skepticism about the question expressed by an analytic philosopher like Russell. He wonders which approach is more appropriate. The juxtaposition of the importance that most people give to the question with the disdain in which it is held by many professional philosophers is striking. This volume suggests that some analytic philosophers are now less suspicious of the question.
Seachris further contrasts the cosmic dimension of the question, the search for a deep universal narrative to render our lives intelligible, with the local or individual dimension, which refers to the search for a good or valuable way of living. Most philosophers argue, as I did in my book, that these questions are related but exactly how they are is debatable.(In my book I put the question in its broadest form: “what does our individual life mean in the context of all actual, possible, and conceivable things taken in their totality?”) Seachris notes that most of the essays in the volume are concerned with the individual dimension; thus issues of ethics, aesthetics, and happiness will be relevant. This makes it a more manageable question than the way I pose it.
The question arises because humans can step outside themselves and ask questions like: “Who are we?” Why are we here?” “Does reality care about us?” In short we can see our lives from an eternal, yet seemingly trivial, perspective. The question is born out of both existential angst and philosophical wondering about the nature of the cosmos and how best to live in it. But the question has taken on a new urgency in the Western world with the decline of the influence of the religious worldview, and the arrival of the modern scientific one. As religion lost cultural respectability, so too did the worldview that accompanied it. In response to this loss, we are left with a question that torments existentialists like Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre, while the analytical philosophers simply try to clarify, understand, or assess the very meaningfulness of the question. Philosophers have made some progress in clarifying the question, especially by viewing it, not as one question, but as an amalgamation of many questions: “Why does anything exist?” “What’s it all about?” or “What makes life purposeful, valuable, worthwhile or significant?”
Most of the rest of this introduction cover the same territory that my book did, especially in setting up the supernatural, nihilistic, and naturalistic alternatives as possible answers. The author does note that work needs to be done to: 1) understand the extent to which death makes life futile; 2) clarify the relationship between the meaningful and the moral, aesthetic, and eudaimonistic; 3) determine the existent to which values can be part of the natural world; 4) satisfy our need to understand how evil can be related to meaning; and 5) investigate the question of whether something besides religious narratives can give life meaning. (I question whether religious narratives can justifiably do this.) But Seachris is correct, and these are all issues that need work.
As long as the scientific worldview is incomplete—which it always is given its provisional nature—then a final answer to the meaning of life will never accompany the scientific worldview. Moreover, if humans have an innate need for a narrative, which I suspect they do, then humans desperately need new narratives to replace the less plausible religious ones. In my view there are such narratives available, narratives of cosmic evolution leading to the realization of transhumanist dreams, accompanied by hope in a more meaningful future. And while these narratives lack the supposed eternal truth of religious narratives, they have the advantage of being much more likely to be true.