David Lund is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Bemidji State University in Bemidji, Minnesota where he taught for many years. His 1999 textbook, Making Sense of It All: An Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry, concludes with a chapter devoted to the meaning of life. He asks: What is the point of it all? Is this point found in our daily lives, or is there a higher purpose to our lives? How can anything matter if all ends in death? The basic problem with answering such questions is that they depend upon our answers to other philosophical questions such as: Is there objective truth? Are we free? Is there personal identity over time? Does a non-natural realm exist? Do we survive death?
It is tempting to think of the meaning of life as something beyond life, and we do say meaning of life instead of meaning in life. Yet, from the cosmic standpoint, it does not seem to matter much whether we lived or not, as all ends in universal death. Of course our day to day lives seem significant, as we concern ourselves with happiness, self-actualization, love or other aspects of our lives. But the universe does not care about our interests: “It is indifferent to our ideals, our achievements, our values, our very existence. It is a vast spiritual emptiness. There is no cosmic plan in which our lives have a permanent value.”[i]
In response we might look to the gods’ purposes, but this merely pushes the question back. How does fulfilling the god’s purposes make our lives meaningful? For this answer to terminate our search for meaning, we must embrace the god’s purposes, they must become our own. So meaning comes largely from within us. The same with an afterlife, either it is intrinsically meaningful or not. If it is not meaningful, then we would have to look to some other world for its meaning; if it is meaningful, then this life could be too. This suggests that the meaning of life must be found within us, in this life. In fact most of us do think our lives are intrinsically valuable and most of us try to live well no matter what. Questions about the meaning of life then are about whether our lives are valuable beyond their intrinsic value.
Lund proceeds by distinguishing activities that have intrinsic value for people but which are not goal oriented, with activities that are not intrinsically valuable but which have derivative value because they are goal directed. Lund concludes that for an activity to be meaningful:
It must have enough intrinsic value to be worthwhile in itself; it must also have derivative value in virtue of being directed toward a goal; and this goal must be important and achievable. An activity would be meaningless if it lacked all of these features. And though it may still have meaning, it would be meaning-deficient to some degree if it lacked at least one of them.[ii]
Unfortunately our lives may be futile because of the nature of the world itself. If we cannot achieve our goals, the goals that if achieved would prevent life from being meaningless, then we can say that life is futile. We may think that our lives have value beyond their intrinsic value, but if they do not then our lives are futile whether we know it or not. Perhaps it is only our illusions that prevent us from seeing them this way. We might assume that there is objective truth and pursue it, but if we found there was no such truth our pursuit of it would be futile. Or it might be that moral values are subjective. If we had lived as if values were objective, then we gave our lives for things which were ultimately insignificant. Of course we could simply accept that moral subjectivism holds and find meaning in our subjective values.
The loss of theism makes the meaning problem worse for many people since the truth of theism solves the problem of the indifferent universe, and the futility that accompanies it. This is why atheism is so devastating for meaning and why it is so difficult to accept. In response, Lund suggests we face our probable fate with honor.
It is unbecoming of us, indeed unworthy of us, to be unwilling or unable to face the truth, whatever that should turn out to be. If a more uplifting view of the world—one more in accord with our hopes—can be sustained only with a faith that has no concern for the truth, then it is not worth having; and we should have the intellectual courage to reject it.[iii]
The quest for meaning is a quest for understanding and truth—a truth we must find for ourselves.
… there are churches and other institutions or organizations that would have us passively accept, without critical reflection, the dogmas they foist upon us. But we must not succumb to this, even if what we hear from these sources is what we would very much like to believe. We must insist on thinking things out for ourselves and on having our beliefs reflect our understanding of truth, rather than our desires or the opinions of some self-proclaimed authority.[iv]
To live this way is courageous and wise; it is to reject the dogma imposed by authority. It also evokes compassion at the real suffering and lack of meaning that we all endure. “Such compassion, especially in conjunction with courage and wisdom, will help us to live so as to leave a good legacy, and to see that one’s legacy is of great importance, despite the likelihood that it be short-lived.”[v] The search for truth and meaning may never succeed, but the search itself is all the meaning that there probably is, and is as close to the meaning of life as we will probably come.
Summary – Our lives may well be futile, but we can find some small meaning by searching for truth, and accepting whatever it is that we find.
[i] David Lund, Making Sense Of It All: An Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2003), 195.
[ii] Lund, Making Sense Of It All: An Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry, 198.
[iii] Lund, Making Sense Of It All: An Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry, 203.
[iv] Lund, Making Sense Of It All: An Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry, 204.
[v] Lund, Making Sense Of It All: An Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry, 204.