Is the Meaning of Life Subjective?

(This post summarizes and comments on posts of the previous few weeks. For more about the specific philosophers mentioned here see those posts.)

Baier’s arguments against the religious conception of objective meaning are convincing, as is his claim that life can have subjective meaning nonetheless. Edwards expands on this theme, arguing that life can have terrestrial meaning even if we cannot show that existence itself is ultimately worthwhile. Edwards also claims that subjective meaning is enough for most people, but this argument is problematic. I do not think that ordinary people are content with subjective meaning. To the contrary nearly the entire edifice of human culture—art, science, religion, philosophy—emanates from the desire to have our lives mean something in the cosmic sense. Those content with meaning in the terrestrial sense are the exception; those searching for the meaning of their lives in the cosmic context don’t have special standards as Edwards claims.

Flew makes the same basic claim, meaning is found in life even if there is no meaning of life, but he asks us to forego our dreams of immortality and make a better world. Barnes asks us to grow up and create meaning in a world without gods, comforted by the fact that there is some small immortality in the repercussions that emanate from our lives. For Barnes we create the rules of the game. In the end neither Flew nor Barnes satisfies our desire for meaning anymore than Baier or Edwards. They all counsel us to accept that meaning in life is all we can get. But we want more than subjective meaning even if that’s all we can have.

In Martin’s analysis we find despair—a fast car and a good woman cannot satisfy for long. The only comfort in his analysis is that death is a welcome relief from our insatiable appetites. Kekes moves the argument further along, detaching meaning from anything objective, including morality. He thus brings us back to active engagement in our lives without moral limitations as the source of meaning. For Schmidt finding meaning in whatever we are engage—such as coaching little league football—is about the best we can do, while Solomon suggests we choose a vision of life without telling us how to do this or whether some vision is better than others. Lund recommends that we give our lives meaning by searching for what we will probably never find, but that the searching is as close to meaning as we will probably ever come. These are all brave words from brave men, and their poignancy is felt deeply. Baggini’s account is the most uplifting, we can give our lives meaning by loving, but even love has its limits, is fragile, and exists without transcendental support.

Russell argued that persons free of metaphysical narratives can find some meaning in the beauty they create and the truth they find; Taylor argued that our labors are precisely what give our lives meaning, since they are motivated by our inner nature; Hare claimed that we bestow mattering on the world; Singer that we create meaning by creating and loving; and Klemke claimed that we can live without appeal by finding subjective meaning in art, work and love. All these thinkers maintain that creating meaning is all we have left once objective meaning is lost. Still, something important is missing from all of these accounts. Something we deeply long for—that our labors matter not just to us but to the cosmos, and that we are part of something bigger than the attachment to our will. What such lives lack is objective meaning. Is loving computers, golf, sunsets, or children really enough?

Consider for example Hare’s response to his young guest. The reason that Meursault was relevant for the boy was because he identified with Meursault. True, the boy was not facing execution, but he recognized that we all die. The young boy was moved because he saw his own life revealed in a new way by the novel. Yes, the young man later admitted that things did matter to him, but suppose when asked if anything mattered to him the boy had said no? How then would Hare reply? Would he have screamed: “No, some things do matter to you!” If the boy demurred, then they would have been at an impasse, and that is why Hare counsels that some things are objectively valuable. But what if the young man denied this?

In the same way the beauty, perfection, work, art, and love that Russell and Taylor and Klemke appeal to seems tainted, not because they are not worthwhile and not because we might not care about them, but because they are not worthwhile enough to satisfy us. The foregoing discussion reveals the basic problem with creating your own meaning—such a requirement asks too much. How is a lone individual to make their lives meaningful by themselves against the backdrop of the infinity of space and time? Is it really something we can create, all by ourselves? Yes, we can collect baseball cards and find that meaningful, but surely that is not enough and we are right to be dissatisfied if there is nothing more to life than that. And even if we can shake our fist at the world, create some momentary perfection, have relationships or coach little league, how can we resist asking: is that all there is?

If transcendental support for meaning is absent, and subjective meaning is not enough, then we must turn to objective meanings and values inherent in human experience, ones that exist in the natural world. It is to such considerations that we now turn. (I will resume this discussion of the meaning of life the day after tomorrow.)

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