Meaning of Life Answers and Other Philosophical Views

A recent post provided a taxonomy of the answers to the meaning of life question. It may be helpful if we note at the outset how answers to meaning of life questions are extensions of other views in philosophy. Thus:

Negative answers – These are extensions of metaphysical, epistemological, and moral nihilism. If one argues that nothing ultimately matters—not reality, knowledge or morality—then one is probably committed to nihilism regarding the meaning of life. This view can be further divided between those who positively affirm that life is meaningless, and those who begrudgingly accept life’s meaninglessness.

Agnostic answers – These are extensions of metaphysical, epistemological, and moral skepticism. If one is skeptical of our ability to ask or answer pertinent questions in metaphysics, epistemology, or ethics, then one is likely to be skeptical of our ability to ask or answer questions about the meaning of life.

Positive answers (theistic) – These are extensions of metaphysical, epistemological, and moral supernaturalism. If one holds there to be a supernatural basis for metaphysical, epistemological, and moral truth, then one is probably committed to a supernatural basis for meaning.

Positive answers (non-theistic) – These are extensions of metaphysical, epistemological, and moral naturalism. If one holds there to be only natural metaphysical, epistemological, and moral truth, then one is surely committed to a naturalistic view of meaning. This view can be further subdivided between objectivists, who think you primarily discover value and meaning in the natural world; and subjectivists, who think you primarily create your own value and meaning in an otherwise meaningless cosmos.

This connection between metaphysical, epistemological, ethical issues, and questions of meaning should be self-evident. It is easy to see that the question “is meaning objective or subjective?” is similar to the questions: “is reality objective or subjective?” or “is truth subjective or objective?” or “is value subjective or objective?” Again the question “what is meaningful?” is similar to the questions “what is real?” or “what is true?” or “what is good?” Thus we find striking parallels between answers to the question of meaning, and answers to other basic philosophical questions.

Such parallels suggest that answers to the meaning of life question must await answers to these other philosophical issues. Unless we know which metaphysical, epistemological or ethical view is correct, how can we know which view of the meaning of life is best? So the problem with choosing between our various answers—nihilism, skepticism, supernaturalism, and naturalism—is that they are parts of differing philosophies of life or world views. And if our view of the meaning of life follows from our world view, then our question becomes: how do we choose between world views? This suggests that answers to the meaning of life question depend on our choosing a world view. In that case, we could dispense with the meaning of life question and investigate the philosophical world views upon which our view of meaning rests. Then, after determining which world view is best, our view of the meaning of life would inexorably follow.

But we should not draw this conclusion too hastily. It is not certain that our view of meaning follows from our world view. Furthermore, the process may work in reverse; perhaps our view of meaning comes first, and then leads us to our world view. Yes, it will be difficult to answer questions of meaning first, but it is difficult to answer other philosophical questions as well. Our question may be no harder to answer than the other questions to which philosophers devote effort. If investigations of other philosophical questions are worthwhile, then so is this investigation. In fact, an analysis of the question of meaning may tell us something important about what is real, what we can know, and what we should value. Thus there is no a priori reason to postpone our pursuit.

5 thoughts on “Meaning of Life Answers and Other Philosophical Views

  1. Why identify non-theism with naturalism? The rejection of the existence of the God of theism, and indeed the rejection of the existence of any gods or supernatural agency, doesn’t obviously imply the acceptance of the naturalistic view that all genuine questions, if answerable, are answerable by means of the natural sciences. Isn’t there room for what, following G.E. Moore, we might call non-naturalism – the view that nothing is supernatural, but some perfectly familiar things are in principle unamenable to scientific reduction or explanation (at least as long as words like ‘scientific’ and ‘science’ aren’t re-defined persuasively and question-beggingly)?

  2. Apophenia underlies both the development of religion as well as conspiracy theories. It is an all-too-human phenomena to which we are all susceptible to one degree or another. It is rooted in existential anxiety which itself is a simple result of our own sentience.

    There are also several human phenomena which interact with apophenia. One is the syncretic concept which Orwell coined as “doublethink”. One example of doublethink is demonstrated by the 50 percent of physicists who readily agree with the Axiom of Causality but then refuse to believe that it applies to human behavior — they reject true determinism, even if compatibilisitic free will is scientifically indistinguishable from indeterminism. Their denial is rooted in the inconvenience of the logical conclusion of determinism, much as many people reject the proper solution of the “Monty Hall problem” because it is veridical.

    In his 12/21 article on Salon titled, “Religion’s smart-people problem: The shaky intellectual foundations of absolute faith”, Messerly fails to mention apophenia. Perhaps because to point it out is to admit that it isn’t only the religious that are weak — we all are — himself included.

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