Agnosticism Regarding the Meaning of Life

(This essay was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, December 10, 2015)

For the past ten days I have discussed various thinkers whom I’d classify as agnostic on the question of life’s meaning. I’d like to summarize and reflect on all of the now.

Edwards, Ayer, and Nielsen all advance the most basic reason to be skeptical of an answer to the question of the meaning of life—there cannot logically be an answer to it, insofar as there cannot be anything outside of everything to give life meaning. In response we pose two questions: 1) should we be confident that the ultimate why question cannot be answered; and 2) should we be confident that we need to answer this question? I propose that the answer to both is no.

Regarding the first question, the first reason to reject these authors’ conclusion is that we simply do not know whether the question is meaningless or meaningful, answerable or unanswerable. I am skeptical of the capacity of our minds to wrap themselves around this ultimate question, as our minds did not evolve to answer it. These authors may be correct that if it were impossible to answer a question then the question would be meaningless. But how can we know that it is impossible to answer the question? We cannot rule out all possible answers beforehand; we cannot even know all the possible answers. Thus we should draw no conclusions whatsoever about answers to the ultimate why question; in other words, we should be skeptical of skepticism.

A second reason to reject the view that the question is meaningless is found in the essay by Wisdom. His argument that the question is meaningful as well as possibly answerable is a strong one. I think he is correct; the question is meaningful. It is a relatively straightforward question even if we cannot answer it. There is nothing outrageous about asking what the whole thing means, with the caveat that that answer cannot come from outside of everything but must come from within everything.

A third reason to reject the claim that the question is meaningless has to do with our intuition. It is philosophically problematic to appeal in this way, but there would be something very strange and irrational about the world if such a universal question turned out to be baseless. Of course the nihilists will draw this exact conclusion but the counter-intuitive nature of the claim that the question is meaningless counts slightly against the claim. Putting all these reasons together, we have not been given sufficient rationale for concluding that our question is meaningless.

Turning to our second question—do we need to answer the question—Ayer’s claim that we can reduce our big question to littler ones is instructive. Perhaps we don’t need to answer the super ultimate why question; perhaps we need mostly concern ourselves with how we should live. After all we can know something about how to live without knowing everything about the universe. We may not know why there is something rather than nothing, but we know many things—what makes us happy or what we find worthwhile. In short this second question is more manageable. So we can say something about the meaning of life—how we should live given what we know about ourselves and the world—without having to say everything about the meaning of life.

Nielsen agrees that we cannot answer the ultimate why question and he also agrees with Ayer that the meaning question reduces to the question of what we find valuable. But he goes a bit further than Ayer’s appeal to subjective values, claiming that we can at least give reasons why we value one thing or another. Nevertheless, we cannot answer the question: what gives value to all things that is independent of human choices and attitudes? Thus we cannot ultimately ground value objectively outside of ourselves. Furthermore, if our values ultimately come from us asking for objective value or meaning invites despair and reveals our insecurity. We should be content with finding reasons for doing one thing rather than another, even if such a distinction is not based on objective values.

Given the above considerations it is not surprising that so many of our thinkers will turn to subjective value. For example Hepburn argues that the question is likely to be both meaningless and unanswerable objectively, forcing him to turn to subjective values as the only source of meaning. Like many of the thinkers we have examined, he sheds serious doubt that meaning can be grounded on some metaphysical or theological concerns. Thus Hepburn must reduce the abstract question of universal meaning to more concrete issues concerning subjective values. Nozick also rejects external meaning from the gods, leaving meaning to be found in subjective values. But Nozick goes further than Hepburn or Nielsen by considering that creating meaning may not really be enough. He asks: How can meaning exist at all, in any form? How can meaning, by itself, just shine? He hints that the answer to both questions is—it cannot. If he is correct we are left forlorn.

The pessimism hinted at by Nozick is picked up by Joske. While he agrees with Wisdom that the question is meaningful, there are multiple reasons why life is probably meaningless. What a depressing thought. No wonder that Joske thinks that philosophy is dangerous; it effectively removes all our moorings. If we combine Nozick’s concern that subjective values are not enough to satisfy our thirst for meaning with Joske’s radical skepticism about meaning in life, we are left with a skeptical cynicism regarding the very possibility of living a meaningful life. Hanfling suggests putting these questions out of our minds and just pretending or playing at life. But could we really sustain such an outlook? Would not existential concerns intrude in our merriment? Perhaps such questions motivate Wittgenstein to conclude that we might as well remain silent; remain skeptics; remain agnostics.

Since we cannot say that our question is definitely meaningless or unanswerable, we ought to be skeptical of those conclusions. Yet even if there cannot be an answer or we cannot know an answer to our big question, we can meaningful ask and propose answers to the queries: How should we live? And, what should we value? These questions are not overwhelming or unsolvable. Still, we remain deeply disturbed by Nozick’s insinuation that answers to these questions may not be enough, and by Joske’s implication that all may be for naught. And nothing Hanfling or Wittgenstein says comforts either. We don’t want to deceive ourselves and we don’t want to remain silent. In the end then it is not agnosticism that disturbs us, but the indication that it hints at something worse—at nihilism. What terrifies us is not that there is no answer or that we don’t know it. What terrifies is that there is an answer and that answer is that life is meaningless. It is to nihilism that we will now turn.

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