Category Archives: Book Reviews-Meaning of Life

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.

____________________________________________________________________

[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.

______________________________________________________________________

[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.

Review of Julian Baggini’s: What’s It All About: Philosophy & The Meaning of Life

Julian Baggini (1968 – ) is a British philosopher, author of several books about philosophy written for a general audience, and co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Philosophers’ Magazine. He was awarded his PhD in 1996 from University College London. His recent book, What’s It All About?: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life, is a secular and non-hubristic inquiry into the question of the meaning of life. Baggini presupposes that we can’t know if religion is true and that there is no secret answer to the question of the meaning of life, for were there such an answer we would probably have discovered it by now. Baggini begins by looking at some of the proposed answers.

Can living life forward give life meaning? Why not look to some future goal, like avenging your brother’s death for meaning? The problem with this answer is that we can always ask of this future, or any future, why bring it about? And that question leads to the quest for some final end. In short any why/because series can be extended infinitely into either the past or future and never definitively puts an end to our questions. Other problems with looking to the future include: 1) we might die before we reach our goal; 2) even if we are immortal this does not solve our problem since meaning would always be in our future; and 3) if we do reach our goal, then what?

The main problem with a future-oriented life is that it locates meaning in a specific moment in time. This raises an obvious question: shouldn’t we expect some meaning from the present too? It seems then that meaning involves something enduring, something about which no further why questions need be asked, and this something must exist now. In other words, the key to meaning must be found in something that is an end in itself.

Baggini now turns to the notion that gods or an afterlife give life meaning. While believing in a god is no answer to the question of the meaning of life, we could stop worrying and accept that the gods provide meaning. However this is to give up the search for meaning. In this case you don’t know the meaning of life, you just stop asking the question. As for an afterlife, is there such a thing? The evidence suggests there is no afterlife, and even if there were what would be the meaning of it? The more important question is whether life can be meaningful without this assumption.

To fully answer our question we need to find a way that life can be meaningful that is not derived from the gods, or the past or the future, but from within us now. Baggini proceeds to investigate six ways (helping others, serving humanity, being happy, becoming successful, enjoying each day, and freeing your mind) that might provide life with meaning. He concludes that all of them may be part of a good or meaningful life, but they aren’t all of it. They don’t guarantee that our lives are meaningful because, of any of them, we can still ask: is such a life meaningful?

What all this means is that we are threatened with meaninglessness. It seems we must choose among the following: 1) life is meaningless; 2) the question is meaningless; or 3) meaning is impossible to discover. Regarding 1—while life is not meaningful in an objective sense, it can still be subjectively meaningful. Regarding 2—while the question may be meaningless, life can still have meaning for the person living it. Regarding 3—although we can’t know the meaning of life with certainty, we can still find our lives meaningful by living them. One might say that such a life isn’t sufficiently examined and thus not worth living, but that is mere intellectual snobbery. Unexamined lives can be worth living if the people living them find them worthwhile. So a life can be subjectively meaningful despite the lack of any objective meaning.

Baggini admits, “This kind of rationalistic-humanistic approach leaves many unsatisfied.”[i] A fundamental objection to such an approach is that it separates morality from meaning. Can human values really be enough to ground value? In response Baggini says: 1) we might say that certain people have meaningful but immoral lives; or 2) we could say that subjective meaning is a necessary but not sufficient condition for meaningful life—the life must also be moral. He prefers this second option. As to the charge that this second response is ad hoc, Baggini reminds the reader that life is meaningful only if it is worth living. All humans have an equal claim to a good life, and to make someone’s life go worse is a moral wrong. Still simply because life has to have value in itself and for the person living it “does not … mean that the only person able to judge the value is the person living the life…”[ii] Individuals may be mistaken about the value of their lives.

Another objection to a humanistic account of meaning says that we should accept and be attuned to the mystery in life, and that the rationalistic humanistic account doesn’t do this. Baggini responds that this is merely a plea from those who like mystery. He has not said that there are no gods, or that people can’t get meaning from them; he just doesn’t think there are good reasons to believe in gods, and he finds his meaning elsewhere. Furthermore, there is plenty of mystery about how to have meaningful lives; discovering what is meaningful is mysterious. Being attuned to the fact that we are alive at all is a to be in touch with the mystery. In fact this is a more noble kind of mystery than believing in the mystery of gods or afterlife, for fear motivates the latter beliefs.

The tragedy and fragility of life suggests that love, a topic on which philosophers are notoriously silent, is the answer to the problem of human existence. The desire to do good things is motivated, not by reason, but by love. What then of love and happiness? They are connected but they aren’t identical. Love persists thru unhappiness, and its object is the beloved. Love shows the value we place in authenticity, since we want to be loved for who we are. Love provides insight into true success, the kind that makes life meaningful. Love requires us to seize the day, otherwise we might let it pass us by. Love shows that we can have meaningful lives without philosophy, without a careful examination of our lives.

Philosophy is not good at examining love or the non-rational components of human life. The rational-humanistic approach is not misguided however; rather, it shows the limits of our ability to understand life, and it reveals the limit and fragility of love. “Sadly, it is not true that all you need is love. Love, like life, is valuable, but fragile and subject to no guarantees. It is fraught with risk and disappointment, as well as being the source of great elation and joy.”[iii] In the end the humanist accepts that morality, mystery, meaning, and love exist without transcendental support. This is a sign of one’s ability to confront and accept the limits of life. “The transcendentalist’s desire for something more is understandable, but the humanist’s refusal to succumb is, I believe, a sign of her ability to confront and accept the limits of human understanding and, ultimately, human existence.”[iv]

Baggini concludes his deflationary account of meaning by saying that the meaning of life is available to all, not only to the guardians who claim a monopoly on it. His view challenges the power of those who would control us, and gives us the responsibility of determining meaning for ourselves. But knowing about the meaning of life doesn’t provide a recipe for living it. It is hard to live meaningfully, it is an ongoing project, and one is never finished with the task. Baggini concedes that his is not the last word on the subject, that we need more than philosophers to work the problem out, and that no book is ever the final word on the subject. Also people are different, so we cannot offer an instruction manual for all—we can only suggest a framework within which persons might live meaningfully.

In the end the meaning of life is not that mysterious, it is something within our grasp, and we can live meaningfully. Hope rather than despair is called for, since there are many ways to live meaningful lives. We can recognize all the good and bad things in life, and still see that there are many ways to live meaningful lives. To find meaning then,

We can see the value of happiness … We can learn to appreciate the pleasures of life … We can see the value of success … We can see the value of seizing the day … We can appreciate the value in helping others lead meaningful lives … And finally, we can recognize the value of love, as perhaps the most powerful motivator to do anything at all.[v]

Summary – We can give our lives meaning by doing meaningful things and recognizing the value of love.

______________________________________________________________________

[i] Julian Baggini, What’s It All About: Philosophy & The Meaning of Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 174.
[ii] Baggini, What’s It All About: Philosophy & The Meaning of Life, 177-78.
[iii] Baggini, What’s It All About: Philosophy & The Meaning of Life, 184.
[iv] Baggini, What’s It All About: Philosophy & The Meaning of Life, 184.
[v] Baggini, What’s It All About: Philosophy & The Meaning of Life, 188.

Summary David Lund’s, Making Sense Of It All

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.