Category Archives: Book Reviews-Meaning of Life

Review of Dreyfus and Kelly’s, All Things Shining: Reading the Western to Find Meaning in a Secular Age

The late Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly‘s book, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, addresses the question of finding meaning in the contemporary world. Here is a brief recap with some reflections to follow.

The preface sets out the book’s project:

The world doesn’t matter to us the way it used to. The intense and meaningful lives of Homer’s Greeks, and the grand hierarchy of meaning that structured Dante’s medieval Christian world, both stand in stark contrast to our secular age. The world used to be, in its various forms, a world of sacred, shining things. The shining things now seem far away. This book is intended to bring them close once more. (xi)

The first chapter, entitled “Our Contemporary Nihilism,” focuses on the angst caused by the many choices we now have compared to previous generations. In response people typically adopt a self-confident persona to mask their insecurity, or they become paralyzed by their obsessions and addictions. But neither mollifies our existential anguish, as anxiety pervades western civilization, as our former religious moorings have been lost. In the Middle Ages, for better or worse, nearly everyone believed that God created them and determined their fate. One could choose to turn away from God and sin in medieval times, but being an atheist or rejecting religious ethics altogether wasn’t an available choice. But today ethical prescriptions are tenuous, and nihilism is a viable option. The faith that once comforted does so no longer—today even fervent believers face existential questions.

Chapter 2, “David Foster Wallace’s Nihilism,” discusses Wallace’s sense that something is amiss for millennials in American today:

There’s something sad about it, something that doesn’t have very much to do with physical circumstances, or the economy, or any of the stuff that gets talked about in the news. It’s more like a stomach-level sadness. I see it in myself and my friends in different ways. It manifests itself as a kind of lostness. (24)

While the authors grant that Wallace’s depression informs his views, they also think he offers perceptive insights. Perhaps his depression makes him uniquely sensitive to the vacuity of our culture, and his lesson is that if we pay attention to life we can find in it something sacred and meaningful. But Wallace’s thinking manifests the sense in which the twentieth century forces us to respond to the death of God, and the shared virtues and values this once implied. So we live in a time when God’s existence and all that entails is problematic. Wallace accepts that God is dead, and that our only hope for meaning is found in our individual’s will.

For Wallace we can find some meaning by creating value in a mundane world—creating something that substitutes for the sense of the sacred we have lost. But the authors don’t think this suggestions helps ameliorate our nihilism, for creating our own meaning is too demanding. Yet we can any longer passively accept meaning from God. So then, is there something between the individual creating meaning, or receiving it from the divine?

Chapter 3, “Homer’s Polytheism,” begins with a discussion of Helen of Troy’s affair with Paris that ignited the Trojan War. The authors note that Homer admires Helen, although modern commentators typically argue that Homer didn’t understand the immorality of Helen’s adultery. But what if Homer had a more profound understanding of the situation—that Helen’s eroticism was an admirable human excellence to be valued independent of moral concerns. In other words, Helen is admirable as a “shining example of the sacred erotic dimension of existence.”(62)

The authors then turn to the issue of fortune or luck. For Homer good luck means the Gods favor you, which implies life’s meaningfulness. We should be grateful to the Gods, as fate is no mere statistical aberration. This contrasts harshly with the contemporary view that life is meaningless and ruled by randomness. Moreover, we live better when we think of ourselves, not as agents responsible for our own actions, but as vehicles through which the Gods or fate work. “The Greek’s of Homer’s era lived intense and meaningful lives, constantly open to being overwhelmed by the shining presence of the Olympian gods. As happy polytheists their world … was filled … with wonder and gratitude …” (88)

Chapter 4, “From Aeschylus to Augustine: Monotheism on the Rise,” traces the descent from Homer’s enchanted world to our disenchanted one. It isn’t that progress has left wonder behind, nor that wonder existed only in a long ago past, but that we have lost touch with the wonder that still surrounds us. The story of losing touch with wonder is a long one, but it begins with the Christianity’s emphasis on faith and religious experience, and continues with Augustine’s increasing emphasis on reason and our inner lives. This emphasis on the inner life will lay dormant until the philosophies of Descartes and Kant.

In Chapter 5, “From Dante to Kant: The Attractions and Dangers of Autonomy,” the authors argue that Dante and Aquinas’ attempt to reconcile Aristotle with Christianity moves us closer to nihilism. The key is that the emphasis on the self implies that it must be the sole source of meaning. So Descartes “established our Modern World in which we understand ourselves as self-sufficient subjects standing over against self-sufficient objects. (137) And, given our self-sufficiency, Kant argued that we must take responsiblity for our own actions, and (largely) be the our own source of meaning. Nihilism beckons.

The main thesis of Chapter 6, “Fanaticism, Polytheism, and Melville’s ‘Evil Art’,” is that Herman Melville saw clearly both that nihilism results from the death of Christianity, and a way out. For Melville there is no meaning hidden behind the surface of life, behind the quest for his whale. But this is enough for us, and we can still find meaning in a godless world. However the authors reject this solution, for them this doesn’t seem to be enough.

The final chapter, “Lives Worth Living in a Secular Age,” suggests that we can still get in touch with the sacred through such diverse shining things as an insightful speech, athletic excellence, or scientific breakthroughs. Everything in the world doesn’t shine, but its shining beauty can be found for those who look. “All things aren’t shining, but all the shining things are.” (224)

Reflections – Nihilism haunts our modern world in a way it didn’t haunt ancient Greece or medieval Christendom. Something has been lost between those times and our own. But I don’t share the authors regret about this, and I certainly have no desire to return to these previous epochs. Our history represents (hopefully), a maturing of the Western mind. We have left the gods behind and must create our own meaning in the context of what we know about ourselves and our current place in the universe.

No, all things don’t shine. And we shouldn’t focus exclusively on only the shining things, thereby ignoring all the world’s ills. Instead I’d say that we should appreciate the shining things and try to polish the dull things. But this project will only be successful if we recognize the good and evil, and the knowledge and ignorance, that are inside us all.

Review of E.O. Wilson’s: The Meaning of Human Existence

People … yearn to have a purpose larger than themselves. We are obliged by the deepest drives of the human spirit to make ourselves more than animated dust, and we must have a story to tell about where we came from, and why we are here. ~ E. O. Wilson

Eighty-five year old E. O. Wilson, one of the world’s most important living scientists, has written another wonderful book. I have just finished reading it, and recommend it highly.

The Meaning of Human Existence

Wilson begins by telling us that if we truly understand our evolutionary history, we will realize that:

We are not predestined to reach any goal, nor are we answerable to any power but our own. Only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us. There will be no redemption or second chance vouchsafed to us from above. We have only this planet to inhabit and this one meaning to unfold.  (15-16)

We must choose where we are to go as a species, nothing else will choose for us. Wilson thus reiterates a theme which goes all the way back to the opening pages of his Pulitzer prize-winning book, On Human Nature. He makes a similar point a few pages later.

Demons and gods do not vie for our allegiance. Instead, we are self-made, independent, alone, and fragile, a biological species adapted to live in a biological world. What counts for our long-term survival is intelligent self-understanding, based on a greater independence of thought than that tolerated today even in our most advanced democratic societies. (26)

Wilson proceeds to tell the story of human evolution as only a great biologist and prose stylist could. Self-understanding requires that we accept, once and for all, our biological roots—an animality. Without this truth we deceive ourselves and expedite our extinction. We are thoroughly mammalian; we are connected to the ecosystem. This is the truth, and we reject it at our peril.

Yet reject it we do, for “the evolutionary innovations that made us dominant over the rest of life also left us sensory cripples. It rendered us largely unaware of almost all the life in the biosphere that we have been so heedlessly destroying.” (90) That may not have made much difference when we were small in number, but today it makes a great difference. We are destroying our only home.

Wilson continues to take us on a fascinating journey, telling us about ants, microbes, and ETs. His impassioned plea for our attention to collapse of biodiversity is perhaps the most moving section of all. We are destroying life because of habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, population growth, and overharvesting. When you read these heartfelt sentiments from a wise sage like Wilson, it is hard not to contrast them with the short-sighted, self-interested, ignorance of most politicians.

Our choice will be a profoundly moral one. Its fulfillment depends on knowledge still lacking and as sense of common decency still not felt. We alone among all species have grasped the reality of the living world, seen the beauty of nature, and given value to the individual. We alone have measured the quality of mercy among our own kind. Might we now extend the same concern to the living world that gave us birth? (131-132)

In the penultimate chapter, “Idols of the Mind,” Wilson uses his biological expertise to explain why human life is so mysterious and how we might solve that mystery. The key to understanding the mystery is to accept that our minds are products of natural selection, and thus instruments of survival. Our minds are a curious mix of reason and emotions, influenced by instincts and environment, by nature and by nurture. We typically fear snakes, and like music. “Human nature is the ensemble of heredity regularities in mental development that bias cultural evolution in one direction as opposed to others and thus connect genes to culture in the brain of every person.” (143)

Music releases dopamine, as does food, sex, and religion. In fact, the neurosciences suggest strongly that religion is largely instinctual; it is hard-wired. Of course religion has evolved beyond its biological roots. Today religion typically postulates a deity, hopes for eternal life, provides an extended community and more. The deity “is the final and forever alpha male, or She is the alpha female. Being supernatural and infinitely powerful, the deity can perform miracles beyond the reach of human understanding.”  (149)

For most of history the gods explained natural phenomena, but with the coming of modern science better explanations became available. Still the instinctive appeal of religion remained, as does the comfort it provides to so many. But the cost of religion is staggering.

They are impediments to the grasp of reality needed to solve most social problems in the real world. Their exquisitely human flaw is tribalism. The instinctual force of tribalism in the genesis of religiosity is far stronger than the yearning for spirituality. People deeply need membership in a group, whether religious or secular. From a lifetime of emotional experience, they know that happiness, and indeed survival itself, require that they bond with others who share some amount of genetic kinship, language, moral beliefs, geographical location, social purpose, and dress code… It is tribalism, not the moral tenets and humanitarian thought of pure religion, that makes good people do bad things. ( 150-151)

Moreover religious groups define themselves in large part by their creation myths, which assure them that they are favored by the gods. These myths also put them in conflict with other religious tribes. Accepting the myths and miracles constitutes faith, which is “biologically understandable as a Darwinian device for survival and increased reproduction.” (151) Religious conflicts “were widespread through the Paleolithic Era and have continued unabated to the present time. In more secular societies faith tends to be transmuted into religionlike political ideologies.” (152)

Despite all the suffering it causes, religion offers psychological benefits. It gives people an explanation for existence, tells them they are loved and protected by the gods, binds them with other members of the tribe, gives them rules of conduct, and provides meaning to their lives. If the faith is lost, the tribe disintegrates, so myths must be set in stone and dissidents punished. Scientists are generally cautious about religion, so as not to offend. But sometimes they can’t help themselves. When a distinguished scientist heard the 1950 edict by Pope Pius XII that the Virgin Mary ascended bodily into heaven. he replied “that he couldn’t be sure because he wasn’t there, but of one thing he was certain, that she passed out at thirty thousand feet.” (153)

Wilson thinks this is all very important because tribalism causes so much evil in the world today. “The principal driving force of mass murders … is tribalism, and the central rationale for lethal tribalism is sectarian religion—in particular the conflict between those faithful to different myths.” (154) Tribalism, of which religion and religionlike ideologies are expressions, is the real culprit.

Nowhere do people tolerate attacks on their person, their family, their country—or their creation myth. In America … it is possible in most places to openly debate different views on religious spirituality … But it forbidden to question closely, if at all, the creation myth—the faith—of another person or group, no matter how absurd. To disparage anything in someone else’s sacred creation myth is “religious bigotry.” It is taken as the equivalent of a personal threat. (154-155)

Wilson says “that faith has hijacked religious spirituality.” (155) Religions have come to be dominated by myths, rituals, and gods who oppose homosexuality, contraception, female clergy, abortion, evolution, etc. The founding fathers of the United States recognized that tribal religious conflict was abhorrent. But today politicians must profess a religious faith, almost always Christianity, however little they actually believe in it or how ridiculous that faith is.

Serious Christian thinkers don’t accept creation myth or miracles literally, but tend to think of them as insightful myths nonetheless.

Intellectual compromisers one and all, they include liberal theologians of the Niebuhr school, philosophers battling on learned ambiguity, literary admirers of C.S. Lewis, and other persuaded, after deep thought, that there must be Something Out There. They tend to be unconscious of prehistory and the biological evolution of human instinct, both of which beg to shed light on this very important subject. (156-157)

But all Christian compromisers face what Kierkegaard called the Absolute Paradox—that the infinite, eternal truth could become finite in time. (Other religions face a similar paradox.) For how can a perfect deity have human-like emotions like “pleasure, love, generosity, vindictiveness, and a consistent and puzzling lack of concern for the horrific Earth-dwellers endure under the deity’s rule. To explain that ‘God is testing our faith’ and ‘God moves in mysterious ways’ doesn’t cut it.” (157-158)

Wilson is doubtful the religious problem can be solved, it can only be outgrown.

The problem is not in the nature or even in the existence of God. It is in the biological origins of human existence and in the nature of the human mind, and what made us the evolutionary pinnacle of the biosphere. The best way to live in this real world is to free ourselves of demons and tribal gods. (158)

Wilson next tackles free will. He doubts that free will exists in an absolute sense, but admits that our ability to explain consciousness is limited. This allows many to go on believing in free will which, he says, “is a very fortunate Darwinian circumstance. Confidence in free will is biologically adaptive. Without it the conscious mind, at best a fragile dark window on the real world, would be cursed by fatalism.” (170) A belief in free will seems necessary for our sanity.

In Wilson’ final chapter, “Alone and Free in the Universe,” he brings his beautiful book together. What is the story of our species, he asks? It is the story, not of divine creation, but of biological evolution. And what is the meaning of our lives? Wilson tell us: “… it is the epic of the species, begun in biological evolution and prehistory, passed into recorded history, and urgently now, day by day, faster and faster into the indefinite future, it is also what we will choose to become.” (174)

Wilson proceeds to tell the story with vigor. We are a single lineage of Old World primates, who easily could have been something else, or not been at all. Humans are not necessarily wicked, but they are dysfunctional.

We are hampered by the Paleolithic Curse: genetic adaptations that worked very well for millions of years of hunter-gatherer existence but are increasingly a hindrance in a globally urban and technoscientific society. We seem unable to stabilize either economic policies or the means of governance higher than the level of a village. Further, the great majority of people worldwide remain in the thrall of tribal organized religions, led by men who claim supernatural power in order to compete for obedience and resources of the faithful. We are addicted to tribal conflict, which is harmless and entertaining if sublimated into team sports, but deadly when expressed as real-world ethnic, religious, and ideological struggles.  (176-177)

And there is more—we destroy the environment at an alarming rate. People, including our so-called leaders, care mostly about themselves or their own family or tribe. Few speak for the species or the environment. The cause of all this is that our brains are poorly wired, infected with mental parasites. A creation myth is a mental parasite, but it is hard to dislodge. Believers fight challenges to their mythology, although Wilson hopes that we might one day put the dignity of the believers above the dignity of the beliefs.

In an especially prescient passage Wilson says: “It might eventually be possible to hold seminars on the historical Jesus in evangelical churches, and even to publish images of Muhammad without risking death. That would be a true cry of freedom.” (182) And the argument applies to dogmatic political ideologies as well.

The same practice might be adopted for dogmatic political ideologies … The reasoning behind these secular religions is always the same, a proposition considered to be logically true followed by top-down explanation and a handpicked checklist of evidence asserted to be supportive. Zealots and dictators alike would feel their strength diminished if they were asked to explain their assumptions (“speak clearly, please”) and verify their core beliefs. (182)

Religious opposition to evolution is a particularly virulent parasite. Such ignorance is:

a triumph of blind religious faith over carefully tested fact. It is not a conception of reality forged by evidence and logical judgment. Instead, it is part of the price of admission to a religious tribe … The cost to society as a whole of the bowed head has been enormous. Evolution is a fundamental process of the Universe … Its analysis is vital to biology, including medicine, microbiology, and agronomy. Furthermore psychology, anthropology, and even the history of religion itself make no sense without evolution … The explicit denial of evolution … is an outright falsehood, the adult equivalent of plugging one’s ears … ” (184)

Still science doesn’t explain everything; we also need the humanities. “If the heuristic and analytic power of science can be joined with the introspective creativity of the humanities, human existence will rise to an infinitely more productive and interesting meaning.” (187) I would summarize Wilson like this. We must grow up, and accept our role as the protagonists of the evolutionary epic. Making life more meaningful is the meaning of our lives.

Review of Paul Thagard’s, The Brain and the Meaning of Life

Paul Thagard (1950 – ) is professor of philosophy, psychology, and computer science and director of the cognitive science program at the University of Waterloo in Canada. His recent book, The Brain and the Meaning of Life (2010), is the first book length study of the implications of brain science for the philosophical question of the meaning of life.

Thagard admits that he long ago lost faith in his childhood Catholicism, but that he still finds life meaningful. Like most of us, love, work, and play provide him with reasons to live. Moreover, he supports the claim that persons find meaning this way with evidence from psychology and neuroscience. (He is our first writer to do this explicitly.) Thus his approach is naturalistic and empirical as opposed to a priori and rationalistic. He defends his approach by noting that thousands of years of philosophizing have not yielded undisputed rational truths, and thus we must seek empirical evidence to ground our beliefs.

While neurophysiology does not tell us what to value, it does explain how we value—we value things if our brains associate them with positive feelings. Love, work, and play fit this bill because they are the source of the goals that give us satisfaction and meaning. To support these claims, Thagard notes that evidence supports the claim that personal relationships are a major source of well-being and are also brain changing. Similarly work also provides satisfaction for many, not merely because of income and status, but for reasons related to the neural activity of problem solving. Finally, play arouses the pleasures centers of the brain thereby providing immense psychological satisfaction. Sports, reading, humor, exercise, and music all stimulate the brain in positive ways and provide meaning.

Thagard summarizes his findings as follows: “People’s lives have meaning to the extent that love, work, and play provide coherent and valuable goals that they can strive for and at least partially accomplish, yielding brain-based emotional consciousness of satisfaction and happiness.”[i]

To further explain why love, work, and play provide meaning, Thagard shows how they are connected with psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Our need for competence explains why work provides meaning, and why menial work generally provides less of it. It also explains why skillful playing gives meaning. The love of friends and family is the major way to satisfy our need for relatedness, but play and work may do so as well. As for autonomy, work, play, and relationships are more satisfying when self-chosen. Thus our most vital psychological needs are fulfilled by precisely the things that give us the most meaning—precisely what we would expect.

Thagard believes he has connected his empirical claim the people do value love, work, and play with the normative claim that people should value them because these activities fulfill basic psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Our psychological needs when fulfilled are experienced as meaning.

Summary – Love, work, and play are our brains way of satisfying our basic needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. In the process of engaging in these activities, we find meaning.

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[i] Paul Thagard, The Brain and the Meaning of Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 165.

Summary of Terry Eagleton’s, The Meaning of Life

Terence Francis Eagleton (1943 – ) is a British literary theorist widely regarded as Britain’s most influential living literary critic. He currently serves as Distinguished Professor of English Literature at the University of Lancaster. Formerly he was Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford (1992–2001) and John Edward Taylor Professor of English Literature at the University of Manchester until 2008. His 2007 book, The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction, begins with this perceptive comment:

If you were to ask what provides some meaning in life nowadays for a great many people, especially men, you could do worse than reply ‘football.’ Not many of them perhaps would be willing to admit as much; but sport stands in for all those noble causes—religious faith, national sovereignty, personal honor, ethnic identity—for which, over the centuries, people have been prepared to go to their deaths. It is sport, not religion, which is now the opium of the people.[i]

Eagleton continues by probing much deeper. He answers the question of the meaning of life without appealing to either gods or subjective meaning but to certain objective values in the natural world. He notes the false dichotomy of arguing that either there are gods that give meaning or life is meaningless:

The cosmos may not have been consciously designed, and is almost certainly not struggling to say something, but it is not just chaotic, either. On the contrary, its underlying laws reveal a beauty, symmetry, and economy that are capable of moving scientists to tears. The idea that the world is either given meaning by God, or is utterly random and absurd, is a false antithesis.[ii]

But he rejects the claims of postmodernists and constructivists who say the meaning of life is subjective—that life means whatever we say it means. “Meaning, to be sure, is something people do; but they do it in dialogue with a determinate world whose laws they did not invent, and if their meanings are to be valid, they must respect this world’s grain and texture.”[iii]

When it comes time for Eagleton to answer his question he turns to the idea of happiness as the end and purpose of human life. “The meaning of life is not a solution to a problem, but a matter of living in a certain way. It is not metaphysical, but ethical.”[iv] But how should we act in order to achieve meaning and happiness? The key is to disconnect happiness from selfishness and ally it with a love of humanity—agapeistic love is the central notion of a meaningful life. When we support each other in this manner we find the key to our own fulfillment: “For love means creating for another the space in which he might flourish, at the same time as he does this for you. The fulfillment of each becomes the ground for the fulfillment of the other. When we realize our nature in this way, we are at our best.”[v]

In the end then happiness and love coincide. “If happiness is seen in the Aristotelian terms as the free flourishing of our faculties, and if love is the kind of reciprocity that allows this to happen, there is no final conflict between them.”[vi] Interestingly, true reciprocity is only possible among equals, so societies with great inequality are ultimately in nobody’s self-interest. Eagleton’s final metaphor compares the good and meaningful life to a jazz ensemble. The musicians improvise and do their own thing, but they also are inspired and cooperate with the other members to form a greater whole. The meaning of life consists of individuals collectively engaged in finding happiness through love and concern for each other. It turns out that for Eagleton, as for Aristotle, individual and collective well-being, happiness, and meaning are all closely related.

Summary – Happiness and love are the meaning of life. We should create a world where they can thrive.

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[i] Terence Francis Eagleton, The Meaning of Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 45.
[ii] Eagleton, The Meaning of Life, 76-77.
[iii] Eagleton, The Meaning of Life, 124.
[iv] Eagleton, The Meaning of Life, 164.
[v] Eagleton, The Meaning of Life, 168.
[vi] Eagleton, The Meaning of Life, 168.

Summary of Garrett Thomson: On the Meaning of Life

Image result for Garrett Thomson, Professor of Philosophy at the College of Wooster in Ohio

Garrett Thomson, who received his PhD from Oxford University in 1984, is the Elias Compton Professor of Philosophy at the College of Wooster in Ohio. His 2003 book, On the Meaning of Life, begins by contrasting the medieval worldview with the modern scientific one. The medieval worldview is more easily reconciled with the belief that life is meaningful because the modern one implies that “because everything is made of matter, we have no immaterial soul and so, very soon, each one of us shall die. There is probably no God … just inert matter.”[i] The question of the meaning of life is now an urgent one “partly because the modern scientific view has largely replaced the medieval view…”[ii]

The main point of his first chapter is to clarify the meaning of the question. He carefully distinguishes, as we did in our opening chapter, between unanswerable questions, unknowable answers, and there being no universal answers to the question. In sorting out the various ways to understand the question he comes to one basic conclusion “An understanding of the meaning of life must have some practical implications for the way that we conduct our lives.”[iii] The question of meaning is not asking for a piece of information but for some guidance in living and, if it cannot give such guidance, the advice is basically useless.

Thomson proceeds to investigate nine different mistakes that people make in thinking about the meaning of life. The first assumes that meaning depends upon the existence of and our relationship with a god. He replies that the mere fact that a god has a purpose for human life does not entail that we honor that purpose. The second is that the meaning of life is some goal or purpose, whether it was planted in us by a god or evolution, or whether it refers to our spiritual development. But if we regard our lives as meaningful merely as a means to some end or goal, we invariably miss life’s intrinsic meaning. The third is that meaning is the same as pleasure or desire. This is contradicted by the fact that something would be lacking in a pleasure machine. The fourth mistake is that meaning must be invented or is subjective. In contrast he argues that activities are meaningful because of the real value associated with them. The fifth is that there can be no meaning given materialism. Thomson replies that values may be properties of material things; that material things may give rise to values; or that material things can be described as valuable. The sixth is that the value judgments are nothing more than reasons for actions. Thomson argues that there are values and meanings of which we are unaware, just like we are ignorant of some facts, and these have nothing to do with guiding actions. This implies the seventh mistake; that meaning cannot extend beyond our experiences. The eighth mistake is to assume only linguistic items can have meaning, and a ninth, that meaning is living in accord with a self-determined plan.

What all this leads to are the positive lessons of Thomson’s book. Foremost among these is that meaning is found in everyday life because that is where we reside. Individuals have intrinsic value as do the processes that constitute those lives. These processes are themselves comprised of experiences and activities that constitute a life, hence meaningful lives consist of the most valuable and meaningful activities. Life can be made more meaningful by increasing our attention and appreciation of these valuable activities, as well as becoming more aware of values in the world that we have previously not appreciated.

However, we should try to make the world and our lives better. How do we do this? Not by acting in accord with every want or desire we have but by acting in accord with our interests, with what is intrinsically good for us. This leads to a conception of value that is neither absolute nor relative. The appreciation of value implies they can be recognized, they are in some sense out there, but values are not absolute since they depend on our interests. The meanings of life are determined by our interest in valuable things like beauty and friendship. This latter value is especially important, since our meaning depends on recognizing the non-instrumental value of other persons. When we do recognize the value of others we transcend the limitations of our own lives.

We can also find meaning by connecting to values like goodness, beauty, and truth. Part of the value of our lives is found in things beyond ourselves so that the search for meaning attempts to transcend particular actions. If life has what is called spiritual significance, it is not because there is a transcendent state which denies the immanent meaning of life, but because we can appreciate the immanent values in life. Thomson’s states his conclusion regarding the meaning and significance of life as follows:

It must consist in the process of development, not according to an externally imposed divine plan or purpose, nor as a personally invented one, but rather in accordance with the fundamental nature of our interests. It should be conceived, in part, as the process of our reaching out to values beyond ourselves with our attention and actions.[iv]

 

Summary – The meanings of life are found in everyday life in objective values that include friendship, goodness, beauty, and truth, all of which both appeal to our nature and allow us to go beyond ourselves.

[i] Garrett Thomson, On the Meaning of Life (Belmont CA: Wadsworth, 2003), 3.

[ii] Thomson, On the Meaning of Life, 4.

[iii] Thomson, On the Meaning of Life, 10.

[iv] Thomson, On the Meaning of Life, 157.