Christopher Belshaw is a Senior Lecturer in philosophy at the Open University. He received his PhD from the University of California-Santa Barbara. In his 2005 book, 10 Good Questions About Life And Death, he devotes a chapter to the question “Is It All Meaningless?”
Belshaw argues that those who seek meaning are concerned that life does not have one. They think either that their own life or all life lacks a point, purpose or significance. Some reasons we might think life meaningless include: a) the brevity of our lives; b) the smallness of life compared with the vastness of the universe; c) the pain and suffering of life; or d) that there are no gods with a master plan.
But are these good reasons to think life meaningless? Belshaw thinks not. The last argument only follows if there are no gods, and lots of people believe the opposite. As for the claim that life is full of suffering, we might retort that it is full of satisfaction as well. It is hard to challenge the fact that we are small and the universe vast, but is that really significant? Why would life be more meaningful if the universe were smaller or we were bigger? And why would it make a difference for meaning that humans continue to exist forever? These replies lead Belshaw to believe that we don’t want meaning per se, such as fitting into something else’s scheme, but our own meaning and purpose. He suggests we change the focus of our question from the meaning of life in general to that of our individual lives. And he rejects a singular answer in favor of considering various things as giving life meaning. In this way we can make progress in answering our question.
Now the first suggestion is that meaning is up to you; meaning is entirely subjective. Belshaw dismisses this with a thought experiment. If someone claims they live a meaningful life by trying to make their plants sing then, though they may be happy, they are living a pointless and foolish life. You cannot make a life meaningful simply by believing it to be. After all plants don’t sing! Or you might be happy as a drug addict, but we would still judge your life to be a waste.
If the subjective approach work, what about the objective approach? Belshaw says that the things that matter are relationships, projects, and morally good living. If we really love others, share their pleasures and pains, their hopes and aspirations, it is hard to believe that our lives are insignificant. If we have a project that means something to us—to build a house, write a book, see the world—this fits poorly with the notion that our lives are meaningless. And if we seek to help others and make the world a better place, such a life such will not seem meaningless. Moreover, these points are connected. Involvement with others gives rise to projects, and projects involve you with other people. Living a moral life does something similar. All of these activities are held together by giving our temporal lives a constructive, creative, and ultimately meaningful dimension.
But on reflection the objective approach seem to work either. Our moral lives and our projects don’t seem to be meaningful if we are not engaged in them. So your attitude, although not sufficient to meaning, does seem necessary.
But even if there are ways to live which are better than others, does it matter in the end? Belshaw counters that the fate of the universe is independent of whether it matters that people suffer, and likewise for the more mundane matters in our lives. Things matter to us and the fate of the universe is irrelevant. You might object that such things don’t really matter but this is no different than plain mattering. If something matters, then it does. The idea of ultimately mattering does not really make sense. Once you ask for the meaning of the meaning, you are involved in an infinite regress—there will be no way to end the search for the ultimate meaning. And yet, although we can view our lives as meaningful from the inside, the external perspective continually reappears. Should we just accept our lives as absurd then? Belshaw says no. The ordinary things in our lives are important even if they don’t change the history of the universe, and there is no inconsistency in this recognition. Life is not absurd.
Should we then be concerned with meaning? Many in the past have not been concerned about it, and Belshaw argues that our current concern emanates from the twentieth century existentialists. The question is not necessarily one of perennial concern. If we consider the life of a typical person that works, gets married, raises a family, and has a little fun, it is not especially meaningful but it is not meaningless either. Such a person may not be very moral, or have any satisfying relationships or work, but if they find their lives worth living we should let the matter rest there. After all too much about life may not be much help, and a simple life of limited meaning and contemplation is probably best.
Our lives differ by degree in terms of their meaning. The meaning of a life differs depending on what the life is like and what the subject living it thinks about it. As for the meaning of the universe we can say that it probably has no meaning, but Belshaw says this does not matter, since we cannot imagine how the universe could have meaning. Thus we don’t lack anything real when we lack ultimate meaning. Belshaw concludes: “Even if we decide that we can see that, really, there is nothing that it’s all about, that’s alright as well.”[i]
Summary – Relationships, projects, and moral lives are the objectively good things that give our subjective lives meaning. And that is enough, as concerns about the ultimate meaning of everything are unfounded.
[i] Christopher Belshaw, 10 good questions about life and death (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), 128.