Category Archives: Meaning of Life – Agnostic

Agnosticism Regarding the Meaning of Life

(This essay was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, December 10, 2015)

For the past ten days I have discussed various thinkers whom I’d classify as agnostic on the question of life’s meaning. I’d like to summarize and reflect on all of the now.

Edwards, Ayer, and Nielsen all advance the most basic reason to be skeptical of an answer to the question of the meaning of life—there cannot logically be an answer to it, insofar as there cannot be anything outside of everything to give life meaning. In response we pose two questions: 1) should we be confident that the ultimate why question cannot be answered; and 2) should we be confident that we need to answer this question? I propose that the answer to both is no.

Regarding the first question, the first reason to reject these authors’ conclusion is that we simply do not know whether the question is meaningless or meaningful, answerable or unanswerable. I am skeptical of the capacity of our minds to wrap themselves around this ultimate question, as our minds did not evolve to answer it. These authors may be correct that if it were impossible to answer a question then the question would be meaningless. But how can we know that it is impossible to answer the question? We cannot rule out all possible answers beforehand; we cannot even know all the possible answers. Thus we should draw no conclusions whatsoever about answers to the ultimate why question; in other words, we should be skeptical of skepticism.

A second reason to reject the view that the question is meaningless is found in the essay by Wisdom. His argument that the question is meaningful as well as possibly answerable is a strong one. I think he is correct; the question is meaningful. It is a relatively straightforward question even if we cannot answer it. There is nothing outrageous about asking what the whole thing means, with the caveat that that answer cannot come from outside of everything but must come from within everything.

A third reason to reject the claim that the question is meaningless has to do with our intuition. It is philosophically problematic to appeal in this way, but there would be something very strange and irrational about the world if such a universal question turned out to be baseless. Of course the nihilists will draw this exact conclusion but the counter-intuitive nature of the claim that the question is meaningless counts slightly against the claim. Putting all these reasons together, we have not been given sufficient rationale for concluding that our question is meaningless.

Turning to our second question—do we need to answer the question—Ayer’s claim that we can reduce our big question to littler ones is instructive. Perhaps we don’t need to answer the super ultimate why question; perhaps we need mostly concern ourselves with how we should live. After all we can know something about how to live without knowing everything about the universe. We may not know why there is something rather than nothing, but we know many things—what makes us happy or what we find worthwhile. In short this second question is more manageable. So we can say something about the meaning of life—how we should live given what we know about ourselves and the world—without having to say everything about the meaning of life.

Nielsen agrees that we cannot answer the ultimate why question and he also agrees with Ayer that the meaning question reduces to the question of what we find valuable. But he goes a bit further than Ayer’s appeal to subjective values, claiming that we can at least give reasons why we value one thing or another. Nevertheless, we cannot answer the question: what gives value to all things that is independent of human choices and attitudes? Thus we cannot ultimately ground value objectively outside of ourselves. Furthermore, if our values ultimately come from us asking for objective value or meaning invites despair and reveals our insecurity. We should be content with finding reasons for doing one thing rather than another, even if such a distinction is not based on objective values.

Given the above considerations it is not surprising that so many of our thinkers will turn to subjective value. For example Hepburn argues that the question is likely to be both meaningless and unanswerable objectively, forcing him to turn to subjective values as the only source of meaning. Like many of the thinkers we have examined, he sheds serious doubt that meaning can be grounded on some metaphysical or theological concerns. Thus Hepburn must reduce the abstract question of universal meaning to more concrete issues concerning subjective values. Nozick also rejects external meaning from the gods, leaving meaning to be found in subjective values. But Nozick goes further than Hepburn or Nielsen by considering that creating meaning may not really be enough. He asks: How can meaning exist at all, in any form? How can meaning, by itself, just shine? He hints that the answer to both questions is—it cannot. If he is correct we are left forlorn.

The pessimism hinted at by Nozick is picked up by Joske. While he agrees with Wisdom that the question is meaningful, there are multiple reasons why life is probably meaningless. What a depressing thought. No wonder that Joske thinks that philosophy is dangerous; it effectively removes all our moorings. If we combine Nozick’s concern that subjective values are not enough to satisfy our thirst for meaning with Joske’s radical skepticism about meaning in life, we are left with a skeptical cynicism regarding the very possibility of living a meaningful life. Hanfling suggests putting these questions out of our minds and just pretending or playing at life. But could we really sustain such an outlook? Would not existential concerns intrude in our merriment? Perhaps such questions motivate Wittgenstein to conclude that we might as well remain silent; remain skeptics; remain agnostics.

Since we cannot say that our question is definitely meaningless or unanswerable, we ought to be skeptical of those conclusions. Yet even if there cannot be an answer or we cannot know an answer to our big question, we can meaningful ask and propose answers to the queries: How should we live? And, what should we value? These questions are not overwhelming or unsolvable. Still, we remain deeply disturbed by Nozick’s insinuation that answers to these questions may not be enough, and by Joske’s implication that all may be for naught. And nothing Hanfling or Wittgenstein says comforts either. We don’t want to deceive ourselves and we don’t want to remain silent. In the end then it is not agnosticism that disturbs us, but the indication that it hints at something worse—at nihilism. What terrifies us is not that there is no answer or that we don’t know it. What terrifies is that there is an answer and that answer is that life is meaningless. It is to nihilism that we will now turn.

Wittgenstein on the Meaning of Life

photograph

Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein (1889 –1951) was an Austrian philosopher who held the professorship in philosophy at the University of Cambridge from 1939 until 1947. He first went to Cambridge in 1911 to study with Bertrand Russell who described him as: “the most perfect example I have known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.” Wittgenstein inspired two of the century’s primary philosophical movements, logical positivism and ordinary language philosophy, and is generally regarded as one of the two or three most important philosophers of the twentieth century.

Given his stature as a 20th century giant of philosophy, we would be remiss if we did not mention Wittgenstein’s doubt regarding the sensibility of the question of life’s meaning, with the caveat that his positions are notoriously difficult to pin down and that we cannot, in this short space, due justice to the depth of his thought. To get the briefest handle on his thought on the question of the meaning of life, we will ruminate briefly upon the haunting lines that conclude his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

For an answer which cannot be expressed the question too cannot be expressed. The riddle does not exist. If a question can be put at all, then it can also be answered. Skepticism is not irrefutable, but palpably senseless, if it would doubt where a question cannot be asked. For doubt can only exist where there is a question; a question only where there is an answer, and this only where something can be said. We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer. The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem.(Is not this the reason why men to whom after long doubting the sense of life became clear, could not then say wherein this sense consisted?) There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical …Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.[i]

One problem with these famous lines is that they are open to at least two different interpretations. On one interpretation the question of the meaning of life lacks meaning; hence there is no answer to a meaningless question. Worries about the question end when we forget it and start living, but this is not the same as learning an answer—there is no answer to a meaningless question. On the other interpretation there is an answer to the question but we cannot say what it is—the answer is ineffable. If we take the question in the first way, then we no longer have to worry about it since there is nothing to know. If we take the question the second way, then we are somewhat comforted by the existence of a truth which cannot be spoken.

The problem is the tension between these two interpretations. How do we reconcile the claim that the question is meaningless with the claim that there is an ineffable answer? (One way to reconcile the two might be to say that the inexpressible only reveals itself after the question has disappeared.) However we interpret Wittgenstein’s enigmatic remarks, we can say this. If the question is senseless, then we waste our time trying to answer it; and if the answer is ineffable, then we waste our time trying to verbalize it. Either way there is nothing to say. Thus we probably ought to follow Wittgenstein’s advice and simply “be silent.” (l  have obviously not follow his advice.)

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[i] Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922, trans. C.K. Ogden (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul). Originally published as “Logisch-Philosophische Abhandlung”, in Annalen der Naturphilosophische, XIV (3/4), 1921.

Summary of Oswald Hanfling’s, The Quest for Meaning

Harmless Self-Deception

Oswald Hanfling (1927-2005) was born in Berlin but when his parents had their business vandalized on Kristallnacht in 1938, he was sent to England to live with a foster family. He left school at the age of 14 and for the next 25 years worked as a businessman. Bored, he returned to school eventually earning a PhD in 1971. Hanfling was appointed as a lecturer at the Open University in 1970 and worked there until retiring as a professor in 1993.

Hanfling’s book-length text, The Quest for Meaning (1987), begins by suggesting that our profound sounding question may admit of no answer. It is simply not clear what kind of answer we seek when we ask what the meaning of life or grass or an ocean is. A similar difficulty arises if we ask what purpose of life is.

Despite these worries Hanfling acknowledges that the notions of meaning and purpose regarding life arise in familiar ways. Depressed persons may say that their lives lack meaning, while others may say their lives are full of meaning. In either case we have a clear idea of what such persons mean. If someone says their life is meaningless they are telling us that something is wrong with it, that it is unsatisfactory, that it is somehow lacking. In addition people worry about the meaning of life as a whole too.

Hanfling devotes the first part of his book to aspects of life that may render it meaningless—general difficulties with the possibility of purpose, suffering, and death. He finds no conclusive argument that life is meaningless, but neither can he show that worries about meaninglessness are unfounded. The second part of the book considers the value of life and the possibility of finding meaning through self-realization. He is skeptical of the claim that life is valuable or that certain values are self-evident. Moreover, none of the arguments for self-realization are convincing, and no general prescription for the good life is available. The problem with trying to realize our nature is that we don’t know what our nature is or even if one, as Sartre and other existentialists suggest.

One possible solution is to put all these questions out of our minds by devoting ourselves to our jobs, social roles, or other prescriptions of our traditions. However, radical questioning may return and destroy this stasis by undermining our uncritical acceptance of our traditions. In response we might hold on tighter to our traditions by keeping questions out of our minds. But is putting these questions out of our minds self-deception? When a waiter plays the role of a waiter is that self-deception? How about actors who lose themselves in their roles? Hanfling argues that we are better off if we play at being a waiter, actor, or philosophy professor. This may be self-deception, but it is of the benign kind.

These considerations lead Hanfling to consider that just as being rational, social, intellectual, aesthetic, or moral may lead to self-realization, so too may play. Hanfling has in mind an attitude opposed to seriousness, the free expression in an activity of what we are. (We will see this echoed later in the piece by Schlick.) We play by treating supposedly serious concerns with a playful outlook. All of this leads to Hanfling’s conclusion:

The human propensity for playing, for finding meaning in play and for projecting the spirit of play into all kinds of activities, is a remedy for the existentialist’s anguish, and for the lack of an ultimate purpose of life or prescription for living. If we can deduce such prescriptions neither from a natural nor from a supernatural source … we can still help ourselves through the spirit of play, finding fulfillment in the playing of a role or in regarding what we do as a kind of game. This is a kind of self-deception, but it is not irrational or morally wrong. We are, rather, taking advantage of certain properties of man, of Homo ludens, which make life more satisfying than it would otherwise be.[i]

Summary – While the question of the meaning of life may not make sense and there are no general answers, we will live better if we benignly deceive ourselves and play as if there is meaning to our lives.

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[i] Oswald Hanfling, A Quest for Meaning (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), 214.

Summary of W.D. Joske’s, “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life”

A Meaningful Question: A Meaningless Life

W.D. Joske (1928- 2006) was a professor of philosophy at the University of Tasmania in Australia. In his 1974 article “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life,” he notes that ordinary people often assume that philosophers think deeply about the meaning of life and related problems. Consequently they fear philosophy because they think it leads to the conclusion that life is meaningless. A typical response from professional philosophers is that this fear is unfounded since life “cannot be shown to be either significant or insignificant by philosophy.”[i] But Joske argues that this view is mistaken and that one should indeed be afraid of philosophy. It may have something disconcerting to say about the meaning of life after all.

Joske claims that the question of the meaning of life is both vague (its meaning is unclear) and ambiguous (it has many meanings.) The questioner may be asking the meaning of: 1) all life; 2) human life; or 3) an individual life. Joske addresses this second issue only, not concerning himself with questions about the significance of history of Homo sapiens, but rather with the question of “whether or not the typical human life style can be given significance.”[ii] And what makes an activity significant or meaningful? Meaningful activities are ones with significance and that significance can be either intrinsic—from the activity itself—or derivative—from the end toward which that activity leads. Individuals want their activities to have both kinds of significance.[iii]

Yet, Joske argues, even if there is an objective end for humans that end will have meaning for us only if we make it our own. It follows that the meaning of life is not to be discovered in an indifferent world, but must be provided or created by individuals. People who seek meaning in objective facts about the world are confused. The world is unsympathetic to us; it is neither meaningful nor meaningless—it just is. Yet Joske rejects this solution as facile and unsatisfying. The question of the meaning of life is a deep and real one which the simple injunction to create meaning does not adequately answer.

Joske proceeds to claim “that life may be meaningless for reasons other than that it does not contribute to a worthwhile goal, so that the failure to find meaning in life can be due to the nature of the world and not simply to failure of adequate commitment by an agent.”[iv] In other words, as opposed to the view of the optimists, the world may be intrinsically and deeply meaningless. Life may be like an activity but its significance can be challenged on many grounds. Joske labels four elements of meaninglessness: worthlessness, pointlessness, triviality, and futility. Activities can be: 1) worthless—lack intrinsic merit as in mere drudgery; 2) pointless—not directed toward any end; 3) trivial—have an insignificant end; or 4) futile—the end cannot be achieved. So activities lack meaning if they are worthless, pointless, trivial, or futile. At one extreme activities are fully meaningful if they lack none of these, that is, if they are intrinsically valuable, directed toward a non-trivial end, and not futile. At the other extreme, actions are fully valueless or meaningless if the lack all four element of meaning. In between are activities that are partially valuable. Joske says that most of us can never rid ourselves of the view that everything may be futile; and the few who do not think about this are lucky.

Joske now turns to showing how commonly held views lead to the conclusion that life is futile. To explain he clarifies what he means by “the typical human life style.” While there is much diversity among human cultures and peoples, humans share certain traits such as being rationally reflective and having biological dispositions. So he wonders if we can assess the typical human lifestyle like we can assess activities. The main difference between them is that this core human nature is a given whereas we make choices about our activities. Notwithstanding this Joske thinks there are enough similarities so that we can assess the meaning of life by using the same criteria of judgment we use for activities. Judgments about pointlessness, futility, triviality, and worthiness are applicable to lives. Are there then any commonly held views about the world which would then lead us to view life as meaningless? Joske thinks there are.

CASE 1 – The Naked Ape – Many of our most supposedly noble endeavors are reducible to biology. Much of what we think we choose has been determined by our evolutionary history.

CASE 2 – Moral Subjectivism – Many of our moral choices are futile in the face of the world. With no objective moral reality much of what we do is futile.

CASE 3 – Ultimate Contingency– The reason for the laws of nature themselves is without reason, they are ultimately coincidences. There is no reason for what we call laws of nature; reality is not rational.

CASE 4 – Atheism– The gods have been thought to ground objective morality. Joske objects that gods and morality cannot be adequately connected, given Plato’s famous question. (Is something right because the gods command it; or do the gods command it because it’s right?)

Moreover, the purpose of the gods does not seem to give our lives meaning unless they become our own; and many find the idea that they can only find meaning in a god’s plan degrading, as if man is an instrument for someone else’s amusement. Nonetheless, many still feel that life without gods is meaningless. This is partly because people are indoctrinated to think this, yet Joske concedes that non-belief opens up another level of absurdity. While religious belief denies that life is futile, the non-believer has no such guarantee.

The point of all this is to show that philosophy is not neutral on the question of the meaning of life. It is also to show that there are analogies between futile activities—digging ditches and then filling them—and many things that people actually do as part of a human life.  Examples of such futility include: Thinking our actions are noble when they are biologically motivated; dying for a cause which is ultimately unimportant; acting as if things are rational when in fact they are not; believing the gods give meaning when they do not do so or do not exist.

So what now? First Joske says that although we should not reject philosophical views that challenge our view of meaning, we may still question those views since the reasoning which led to them may have been unsound. Second “the futility of human life does not warrant too profound a pessimism. An activity may be valuable even though not fully meaningful…”[v] Although life may be futile—our ultimate ends cannot be achieved—we can still value them and give them our own meaning. However, this is not enough for Joske. If we cannot really be fulfilled, if our ultimate ends cannot really be achieved, life becomes grim. “A philosopher, even though he enjoys living, is entitled to feel some resentment towards a world in which the goals that he must seek are forever unattainable.”[vi]

Summary –The question of the meaning of life is both meaningful and dangerous. It is hard to rid ourselves of the view that life may be meaningless because of considerations related to biology, moral subjectivism, and a contingent, irrational and non-theistic metaphysics. We can try to value our lives, but we are justified in being dissatisfied with a life which might ultimately be futile and meaningless.

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[i] W.D. Joske, “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 283.
[ii] Joske, “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life,” 284.
[iii] An activity could be intrinsically worthwhile—drinking beer—but not worthwhile considering the end to which it might lead—alcoholism. An activity could be intrinsically worthless—running in circles around a track—but worthwhile considering the end to which it leads—cardiovascular fitness. We desire an activity which is intrinsically significant and significant considering the end toward which it leads—say loving our spouse which brings happiness.
[iv] Joske, “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life,” 286.
[v] Joske, “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life,” 293-94.
[vi] Joske, “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life,” 294.

Robert Nozick on the Meaning of Life

How Can Anything Glow Meaning?

Robert Nozick (1938 – 2002) was an American political philosopher and professor at Harvard University. He is best known for his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, a libertarian answer to John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice . In chapter six of his 1981 book, Philosophical Explanations, Nozick addresses the question of the meaning of life.

“The question of what meaning our life has, or can have, is of utmost significance to us.”[i] Yet we try to hide our concern about the question by making jokes about it. So what do we seek when asking this question? Basically we want to know how to live in order to achieve meaning. We may choose to continue our present life in the suburbs, change our lives completely by moving to a cave and meditating daily, or opt for a number of other possibilities. But how is one to know which life is really most meaningful from an infinite number of choices? “Could any formula answer the question satisfactorily?”[ii]

A formula might be the meaning of life: seek union with a god, be productive, search for meaning, find love, etc. Nozick finds none of the proposed formulas satisfactory. Do we then seek some secret verbal formula or doctrine? Suppose there were a secret formula possessed by the sages. Would they give it to you? Would you be able to understand it? Maybe the sage will give you a ridiculous answer just to get you thinking. Perhaps it is not words at all but the physical presence of the sage that will convey the truth the questioner seeks. By being in their presence over time you may come to understand the meaning of life even if meaning transcends verbal formulas. Nozick doubts all of this.

Now what about the idea that the meaning of life is connected with a god’s will, design or plan? In this case the meaning of life is to fulfill the role the gods have fashioned for us. If we were designed and created for a purpose connected to a plan then that is what we are for—our purpose would be to fulfill that plan. Different theological variants of your purpose might be to merge with the gods or enjoy eternal bliss in their presence.

Now let us suppose there are gods, that they have created us for a purpose, and that we can know that purpose. The question is, even knowing that all of the above is true, how does this provide meaning for our lives? Suppose for example that our role in the divine plan was trivial. Say it was to provide CO2 for plants. Would that be enough? No, you probably think your role needs to be more important than that. Not just any role will do, especially not a trivial one.

Moreover, we want our role to “be positive, perhaps even exalted.”[iii] We don’t want our role to be providing food for space aliens, however good we taste to them. Instead we want our role to focus on important aspects of ourselves like our intelligence or morality. But even supposing that we were to aid the space aliens by exercising our intelligence and morality that would not give us meaning if there was no point to us helping them. We want there to be a point to the whole thing.

Nozick argues that there are two ways we could be part of or fulfill a god’s plan: 1) by acting in a certain way; or 2) by acting in any way whatsoever. Concerning the first we may wonder why we should fulfill the plan, and about both we may wonder how being a part of the plan gives our lives meaning. It may be good from the god’s perspective that we carry out their plans, but how does that show it is good for us, since we might be sacrificed for some greater good? And even if it were good for us to fulfill their plan how does that provide us meaning? We might think it good to say help our neighbors and still doubt that life has meaning. So again how do the god’s purposes give our lives meaning? Merely playing a role or fulfilling a purpose in someone else’s plan does not give your life meaning. If that were the case your parent’s plan for you would be enough to give your life meaning. So in addition to having a purpose, the purpose must be meaningful. And how do a god’s purposes guarantee meaning? Nozick does not see how they could.

Accordingly you can: 1) accept meaninglessness, and either go on with your life or end it; 2) discover meaning; or 3) create meaning. Nozick claims 1 has limited appeal, 2 is impossible, so we are left with 3. You can create meaning by fitting into some larger purpose but, if you do not think there is any such purpose, you can seek meaning in some creative activity that you find intrinsically valuable. Engaged in such creative work, worries about meaninglessness might evaporate. But soon concerns about meaning return, when you wonder whether your creative activity has purpose. Might even the exercise of my powers be ultimately pointless? (This sends a chill through someone writing a book.)

Now suppose my creation, for example a book on the meaning of life, fits into my larger plan, to share my discoveries with others or leave something to my children. Does this give my creative activity meaning? Nozick doubts this solution will work since the argument is circular. That is, my creative activity is given meaning by my larger plan which in turn has meaning because of my creative activity. Moreover, what is the point of the larger plan? It was only chosen to give a meaning to life, but that does not show us what the plan is or what it should be.

This all brings Nozick back to the question of how our meaning connects to a god’s purposes. If it is important that our lives have meaning, then maybe the god’s lives are made meaningful by providing our lives with meaning, and our lives made meaningful by fitting into the god’s plans. But if we and the gods can find meaning together, then why can’t two people find it similarly? And if we can find meaning in human relationships, then we do not need gods for meaning. Nor does it help to say that knowing the god’s plan will give life meaning. First of all many religions say it impossible to know a god’s plans, and even if we did know the plan this still does not show that the plan is meaningful. Just because a god created the world does not mean the purpose for creating it was meaningful, anymore than animals created by scientists in the future would necessarily have meaningful lives. It might be that directly experiencing a god would resolve all doubts about meaning. But still how can a god ground meaning?  How can we encounter meaning? How can all questions about meaning end? “How, in the world (or out of it) can there be something whose nature contains meaning, something which just glows meaning?”[iv]

Summary – A god’s purposes do not guarantee that your life is meaningful. So rather than accept meaninglessness or try to discover meaning, Nozick counsels us to create meaning. Still, this might not be enough to really give our lives meaning. In the end, does anything emanate meaning? Can anything glow meaning? Nozick is skeptical.

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[i] Robert Nozick, “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 224.
[ii] Nozick, “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life,” 225.
[iii] Nozick, “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life,” 227.
[iv] Nozick, “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life,” 230.