I recently received this query from a thoughtful reader:
can doubts about our ability to know–really know–anything be a legitimate source of life’s meaninglessness? Bryan Magee‘s just published Ultimate Questions is a meditation about just that. I suppose this is the Kant phenomenon/noumenon thing—albeit taken to a sophisticated level with Magee’s elegantly reasoned arguments … If our senses, however carefully filtered by reason, together with the limitations of a necessarily subjective vantage point, cannot provide sure knowledge of the “thing-in-itself,” how does it even make sense to discuss the meaning of anything? This would seem to be the kind of thing you’d have to get out-of-the-way before even wrestling with the merits of the arguments for the many forms of intrinsic and extrinsic meaning you’ve been addressing in recent weeks in your blog.
In my view our inability to know the truth about many things may be part of what makes life meaningless, although you could maintain life was meaningful even given our ignorance. Our inability to know things certainly seems to make life less satisfying, although if the truth is really terrible perhaps it is good we don’t know it.
I would disagree that our inability to know the meaning of life implies that it doesn’t make sense to think about our discuss the issue. As I say in my book about the meaning of life, we cannot demand precision about such issues, but that hardly means it’s worthless to discuss them.
I do agree that we can’t really discuss metaphysics with any precision until we know the answer to epistemological questions. John Locke made a similar point about religion. Before we can have productive discussions about religion, we need to ask whether we possess the intellectual wherewithal to really understand the subject. This line of thought eventually led the British Empiricism to Hume’s skepticism, and Kant’s rejection of metaphysics in the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics.
The problem is you can’t really get epistemology out of the way. The epistemological turn in philosophy has led to centuries of dispute about what we can know. The main problem is that we must investigate our cognitive faculties with those same cognitive faculties, so we can’t be any more sure of our thoughts about epistemology than we can about metaphysics. Again I address this in my book on the meaning of life by claiming that we will do the best we can to try to answer urgent questions about life’s meaning, with the caveat that we can’t achieve much precision in this area. Still there is value in reflecting about life’s meaning because doing so may aid our understanding and help us live better. If the effort does that, it is worth it.