A Meaningless Question and Subjective Values
A.J. Ayer (1910 – 1989) was the Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College London from 1946 until 1959, when he became Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford. He is one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth-century. Ayer is perhaps best known for advocating the verification principle, the idea that statements and questions are meaningful only if we can determine whether they are true by analytic or empirical methods.
In his 1947 article “The Claims of Philosophy,” Ayer asks: does our existence have a purpose? According to Ayer to have a purpose means to intend, in some situation “to bring about some further situation which … he [she] conceives desirable.”[i] (For example, I have a purpose if I intend to go to law school because that leads to becoming a lawyer which is something I consider desirable.) Thus events have or lack meaning to the extent they bring about, or do not bring about, the end that is desired. But how does “life in general” have meaning or purpose? The above suggests that overall meaning would be found in the end to which all events are tending. Ayer objects that: 1) there is no reason to think that there is an end toward which all things are tending; and 2) even if there were such an end it would do us no good in our quest for meaning because the end would only explain existence (it is heading toward some end) not justify existence (it should move toward that end). Furthermore, the end would not have been one we had chosen; to us this end is arbitrary, that is, it is without reason or justification. So from our point of view, it does not matter whether we receive a mechanical explanation (the end is universal destruction) or a teleological explanation (the end is union with a god). Either way we merely explain how things are but we do not justify why things are—and that is what we want to know when we ask the meaning of life question. We want to know if there is an answer to this ultimate why question.
Now one might answer that the end toward which all is tending is the purpose of a superior being and that our purpose or meaning is to be a part of the superior being’s purpose. Ayer objects that: 1) there is no reason to think that superior beings exist; and 2) even if there were superior beings it would do us no good in our quest for meaning because their purposes would not be our purposes. Moreover, even if superior beings had purposes for us, how could we know them? Some might claim this has been mysteriously revealed to them but how can they know this revelation is legitimate? Furthermore, allowing that superior beings have a plan for us and we can know it, this is still not enough. For either the plan is absolute—everything that happens is part of the plan—or it is not. If it is absolute then nothing we can do will change the outcome, and there is no point in deciding to be part of the plan because by necessity we will fulfill our role in bringing about the superior being’s end. But if the plan is not absolute and the outcome may be changed by our choices, then we have to judge whether to be part of the plan. “But that means that the significance of our behavior depends finally upon our own judgments of value; and the concurrence of a deity then becomes superfluous.”[ii]
Thus invoking a deity does not explain the why of things; it merely pushes the why question to another level. In short even if there are deities and our purpose is to be found in the purposes they have for us, that still does not answer questions such as: why do they have these purposes for us? Why should we choose to act in accord with their plans? And regarding the answers to these questions we can simply ask why again. No matter what level of explanation we proceed to, we have merely explained how things are but not why they are. So the ultimate why question—why does anything at all exist—is unanswerable. “For to ask this is to assume that there can be a reason for our living as we do which is somehow more profound than any mere explanation of the facts…”[iii] So it is not that life has no meaning. Rather it is the case that it is logically impossible to answer the question—since any answer to why always leads to another why. This leads Ayer to conclude that the question is not factually significant.
However, there is a sense in which life can have meaning; it can have the meaning or purpose we choose to give it by the ends which we choose to pursue. And since most persons pursue many different ends over the course of their lives there does not appear to be any one thing that is the meaning of life. Still, many search for the best end or purpose to pursue, hence the question of meaning is closely related to, or even collapses into, the question: how should we live? But that issue cannot be resolved objectively since questions of value are subjective. In the end each individual must choose for themselves what to value; they must choose what purposes or ends to serve; they must create meaning for themselves.
Summary – There is no reason to think there is a purpose or final end for all life and even if there were one, say it was to fulfill a god’s purpose, that would be irrelevant since that purpose would not be ours. Regarding such a plan either we cannot help but be part of it—in which case it does not matter what we do—or we must choose whether to be part of it—which means meaning is found in our own choices and values. Moreover, all this leads us to ask what is the purpose or meaning of the gods’ plans; but any answer to that question simply begets further why questions indefinitely. Thus it is logically impossible to answer the ultimate why question. In the end, the question of the meaning of life dissolves into or reduces to the question of how we should live.
[i] A. J. Ayer, “The Claims of Philosophy,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 199.
[ii] Ayer, “The Claims of Philosophy,” 200.
[iii] Ayer, “The Claims of Philosophy,” 201.