Category Archives: Meaning of Life – Objective

Commentary on the Idea of an Objective Meaning of Life

(This post summarizes and comments on the posts of the last two weeks. For further details please consult those posts.)

Ellin’s suggestion that the moral life provides meaning is fruitful, as is Thomson’s suggestion that we add intellectual and aesthetic value for fully meaningful lives. But Britton’s comment that all these values may be necessary for meaning but not sufficient is telling. We could live virtuous lives and still question life’s meaningfulness. Yet Britton affirms that life is meaningful because there are meaningful relationships, and Eagleton furthers that claim with his emphasis on love of our fellows and the subsequent happiness derived as the meaning of life. Schlick’s emphasis on play adds greatly to our conception of the meaningful life. Such a life does not have to be infused with undo profundity, but with the playful attitude of the child. So truth, goodness, beauty, love, and play provide a nice list of the objective goods that provide meaning.

Wolf combines subjective engagement with the objective values of the moral, intellectual, and artistic domains. It is not enough that there are valuable things in life; one must be engaged in and passionate about their pursuit to fully achieve meaning. Cahn offers a subjectivist account of value against Wolf, but hedges his bet by introducing an objective value—bringing no harm. We might combine Cahn’s view with Wolf’s and say that meaningful lives consist of active engagement in projects that do no harm. Wolf then could grant the no harm clause as a minimum, but add that lives are even more meaningful if engaged in worthwhile projects that help others. To resolve this issue we probably need a resolution to the problem of the objectivity of value, and Wolf admits as much in her follow up lecture. Meaning itself must be some kind of objective value.

Rachels is confident that there are objective values. These values give us reasons to live in certain ways and provide limited meaning and consolation in a universe where we are always haunted by the specter of death and meaninglessness. Flanagan evokes a similar theme, focusing specifically on self-expression and self-transcendence that follow from things like our work and relationships. Frankl’s emphasizes objective ways to find meaning that are becoming familiar—relationships and work. His addition of bearing suffering is a unique contribution to ways of finding meaning in the world. Belshaw reiterates the theme that we find meaning in our lives in objective goods; and we should not ask what meaning objectively good things have, for that involves us in an infinite regress. To all of the above, Belliotti adds that leaving a legacy of our encounter with the meaning-providers of life contributes greatly to our search for meaning. Thagard takes us into new territory, connecting the objective values of love, work, and play to psychology and neurophysiology in order to explain why we experience meaning in these ways. Finally, Metz clarifies the essence of the ideas of most of these thinkers. Life is meaningful because there are good, true, and beautiful things in the world.

When considering these thinkers together we should note the consistency of thinking about the issue of meaning. There is great unanimity that personal relationships, productive work, and enjoyable play are meaningful activities. They are meaningful precisely because in each we may discover or create goodness, beauty, and truth. Enduring suffering nobly, self-expression, and leaving a legacy also exemplify specific activities that allow us to participate in truth, beauty, and goodness Together these thinkers disclose a universal theme. People find meaning in life by their involvement with, connection to, and engagement in, the good, the true, and the beautiful. We should be satisfied.

Yet we are not. There is another voice within, another perspective that cannot be stilled. After Gandhi, after Beethoven, after Einstein; after helping the unfortunate, playing our games, loving our family, bearing our suffering, and leaving our legacy—it still asks: is that all there is? Perhaps this is a voice that should be silenced, but if these meaningful things are themselves ephemeral, we cannot help but wonder if they really give meaning. The voice within cannot and should not be quieted. We can accept that these good things exist—and want more. There may be good things in the world, and we may add to that value by our creation, but that is not enough. And the reason that these good things are not enough is that there is a specter that accompanies us always. Everywhere we go, every thought we have, every happiness, every joy, every triumph—it is always with us. There to intrude on every meaningful moment, tainting the truth, the beauty, and the goodness that we experience. It is to the specter of death that we now turn.

Thaddeus Metz: “The good, the true, and the beautiful: toward a unified account of great meaning in life”

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, January 13, 2106.)

Thaddeus Metz is Head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. He grew up in Iowa and received his PhD from Cornell University in 1997. After teaching at the University of Missouri-St. Louis for a number of years, he relocated to South Africa in 2004. He is probably the most prolific and thoughtful scholar working today on an analytic approach to the meaning of life, publishing more than a dozen articles on the subject including the entry on the meaning of life in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Metz most recent and summative statement on the topic is found in his 2010 essay: “The good, the true, and the beautiful: toward a unified account of great meaning in life.” Of the good, true, and beautiful, Metz begins by asserting: “I aim to make headway on the grand Enlightenment project of ascertaining what, if anything, they have in common.”[i] Metz asks if there is some single property which makes the moral, the intellectual, and the aesthetic worth admiring or striving for. Put as a question: is there something that the lives of a Gandhi, Darwin, or Beethoven might share that are admirable and worthwhile and which thereby confer great meaning to their lives?

In his search for “a unification of moral achievement, intellectual reflection, and aesthetic creation,”[ii] Metz does not explore that a god’s purposes unify the triad, or that the long term consequences of the triad give meaning to life for a simple reason—we are more justified in thinking that one of the triad gives life meaning than we are in thinking that a god exists or that moral, intellectual or aesthetic activity will have good long-term consequences. Given this disparity in our epistemic confidence, we should not hold that our triad is grounded in the gods or consequences.

Instead Metz focuses on a “non-consequentialist naturalism, the view that the good, the true, and the beautiful confer great meaning on life (at least partly) insofar as they are physical properties that have a superlative final value obtaining independently of their long-term results.”[iii] In other words, ethical, intellectual, and aesthetic actions lead to certain accomplishments that are intrinsically worthwhile. And the reason is that such actions make it possible for individuals to transcend themselves. But how do moral, intellectual, and artistic activities allow for self-transcendence and, simultaneously, give meaning? Metz answers by distinguishing seven consequentialist, naturalistic theories of self-transcendence that account for how it is that moral achievement, intellectual reflection, and aesthetic creation provide meaning. He lists them from weakest to strongest and explains why each fails. He then proceeds to present his own account.

The first and weakest self-transcendent account of meaning is captivation by an object. According to this view, the good, true and the beautiful confer meaning by shifting the focus from ourselves to something else. One’s total absorption in artistic feeling, moral goodness, or intellectual inquiry is self-transcendence. Yet this account fails for it is not necessary to be absorbed or captivated by an activity for it to be one of moral achievement—working in a soup kitchen—nor is it sufficient since one may be captivated by something trivial or imaginary—like video games.

This leads to second form of self-transcendence, close attention to the real. According to this view, the good, true and the beautiful confer meaning by shifting the focus from ourselves to some real natural object. The essence of the good, true, and beautiful is found in captivation by the real, physical, and natural. Metz objects, citing that absorption on the navel, for example, does not provide meaning. Perhaps then we need to be absorbed with real objects which are also valuable.

This consideration leads to third form of self-transcendence, connection with organic unity. Here the good, true and the beautiful confer meaning by shifting the focus from ourselves to a relationship with a whole that is beyond us. Metz thinks this partially explains the value of helping others, and of having children and relationships, because persons are valuable insofar as they are organic unities. Art also unifies content, form, and technique into a single object. But this account does not explain much of the true. The importance of metaphysics and the natural sciences are not well explained this way either. For example, developing a theory of quarks may give meaning to one’s life, but so could developing a theory about anything trivial.  Intrinsic value then—the conditions constitutive of meaning—does not seem to reduce to organic unity.

This consideration leads to fourth form of self-transcendence, advancement of valuable open-ended goals. Here the good, true and the beautiful confer meaning to the extent that we make progress toward worthwhile states of affair that cannot otherwise be realized because our knowledge of these states changes as we try to achieve them. The ends of meaningful activities cannot ultimately be achieved precisely because, as the activities evolve, so too do the ends.

Metz is willing to grant that the pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness are open-ended, but he rejects that this open-endedness confers meaning upon them. Ending racial discrimination, painting the Mona Lisa, or discovering biological evolution confer meaning not because they are open-ended pursuits, but because they are closed-ended as it were. They each accomplished something even though justice, beauty, and truth are still open-ended pursuits. Furthermore, to say that moral achievement, intellectual reflection, or aesthetic creation confer meaning because they progress toward valuable goals begs the question. We want to know what makes such things meaningful, so it does no good to simply state that they are valuable. We want to know how the good, true, and beautiful confer meaning.

These considerations lead to the fifth form of self-transcendence, using reason to meet standards of excellence.  According to this form of self-transcendence the good, the true, and the beautiful confer meaning in life when we transcend our animal nature with our rational nature to meet certain objective criteria. And we must exercise our reason in exemplary ways to gain meaning. But what are these standards of excellence? What rational activities using reason satisfy the criteria? Why not exercise reason for fiendish ends, as in criminal pursuits?

These questions lead to the sixth form of self-transcendence, using reason in creative ways. Here the good, the true, and the beautiful confer meaning in life insofar as we transcend our animal nature with our rational nature in creative ways. Life is redeemed through the creative power of artists and thinkers who bring new values into the world. Yet this theory has trouble accounting for the apparent meaninglessness of the creative criminal. It also cannot account for moral virtue, which often has nothing to do with creativity.

These questions lead to the seventh form of self-transcendence, using reason according to a universal perspective. According to this view the good, the true, and the beautiful give meaning to life when we our reason transcends our animal nature to realize states of affairs that would be appreciated from a universal perspective. Art, scientific theories, and moral deeds all satisfy this criterion. Great art reveals universal themes; great science discovers universal laws; and great moral deeds take everyone’s interests into account and are approved of from an impartial perspective. Metz considers this the best account of a self-transcendent theory of meaning. Yet it is inadequate because much that could be approved of from this universal perspective would be trivial, and not the source of great meaning—writing a novel about dust or distributing implements for toenail cutting.

Having surveyed various naturalistic and non-consequentialist theories that tried to capture how the good, true, and beautiful give meaning to life, and having found them wanting, Metz proposes his own theory of self-transcendence: “The good, the true, and the beautiful confer great meaning on life insofar as we transcend our animal nature by positively orienting our rational nature in a substantial way toward conditions of human existence that are largely responsible for many of its other conditions.”[iv]

Metz explains this focus on fundamental conditions by considering the difference between a well-planned crime and moral achievements such as providing medical care or freeing persons from tyranny. The latter actions respect personal autonomy, support other’s choices and confer meaning. Intellectual reflection that gives meaning explains many other facts and conditions about human nature or reality. Knowledge of human nature tells us about aspects of ourselves, as scientific knowledge about the world explains reality. Similarly great art is about facets of human experience—love, death, war, peace—which are themselves responsible for so much else about us. In each case meaning derives when the true, good, and beautiful address fundamental issues.

One might object that reading trashy fiction or pondering that 2 + 2 = 4 involve reason and focus on fundamental conditions, but don’t confer meaning. Metz replies that substantial effort is necessary to fully meet his standard, and that is missing in the above examples. In addition, we might add that significant advancement over the past is also necessary for meaning. Not simply doing, knowing, or making what was done, known, or made before, but the bringing forth of something new. All of this leads to his conclusion: that we can transcend ourselves and obtain great meaning in the good, the true, and the beautiful “by substantially orienting one’s rational nature in a positive way toward fundamental objects and perhaps thereby making an advancement.”[v] 

Summary – Meaning is found by transcending oneself through moral achievement, intellectual reflection, and artistic creation.

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[i] Thaddeus Metz, “The Good, the True and the Beautiful: Toward a Unified Account of Great Meaning in Life.” DOI: 10.1017/S0034412510000569. 1. Cambridge Online 2010, 1.
[ii] Metz, “The Good, the True and the Beautiful: Toward a Unified Account of Great Meaning in Life.” 2.
[iii] Metz, “The Good, the True and the Beautiful: Toward a Unified Account of Great Meaning in Life.” 3.
[iv] Metz, “The Good, the True and the Beautiful: Toward a Unified Account of Great Meaning in Life.” 13.
[v] Metz, “The Good, the True and the Beautiful: Toward a Unified Account of Great Meaning in Life.” 19.

 

Summary of Raymond Belliotti’s, What is the Meaning of Human Life?

Raymond Angelo Belliotti is Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy SUNY Fredonia. He holds a PhD in philosophy from the University of Miami and a J.D. from Harvard University.

Belliotti’s book What Is The Meaning Of Human Life? (2001) advances an objective naturalist approach to meaning.  He begins by addressing the bearing of theistic belief for meaning and concludes that for those who truly believe doubts vanish and the meaning of life is clear. “Charitably interpreted, theism can fulfill the deepest human yearnings.”[i] The problem is that belief is hard to maintain and doubt hard to swallow. In short, belief requires a leap of faith that many will resist. Yet he finds nihilism even less compelling. It is just not true that life is pointless. Meaning is possible, and the process of creating it satisfies most of us at least some of the time. Still, the question of life’s meaning continually intrudes, becoming most acute in times of psychological crisis. As for subjective accounts of meaning, they are deflationary, providing a starting point in the search for meaning but not the robust meaning that most desire. Believing one’s life has meaning does not make it so.

These considerations lead to a kind of philosophical paralysis, especially when our lives our viewed from the cosmic perspective. Adopting the cosmic perspective we might conclude that the cosmos and our lives lack meaning, that we are limited, insignificant, and impermanent. In response numerous strategies are available. One would be to accept that meaningful lives don’t require significance from a cosmic perspective but only from a human perspective. One could lower the bar that needs to be reached in order to call a life meaningful. Another might use the cosmic perspective to help put things in perspective, to take ourselves less seriously, and to view our sufferings as less grave. Used creatively the cosmic perspective can help us. Thus we should oscillate between perspectives, using whichever one aided us at the moment. If we want to feel vibrant in the moment, savoring our current achievements, we could adopt the personal perspective. If we want to reflect on our situation from afar, we could adopt the cosmic perspective. So we can maximize happiness and minimize suffering by deftly switching perspectives.

This discussion of perspectives shows that meaning is connected with consciousness, freedom, and creativity. The more these attributes adhere to a being, the greater the possibility of meaning. Thus meaning is not out there waiting to be discovered, the individual must contribute to its creation. Still, we cannot create meaning out of nothing, but only from our interaction with objects of value. This takes us back to the familiar discussion of objective values. Belliotti argues that engaged lives concerned with freely chosen trivial values count as minimally meaningful. Thus a meaningful life does not have to be significant or important, but fully meaningful lives are both—significant because they influence other people, and important because they made a difference in the world. And to be valuable a life must produce moral, intellectual, aesthetic, or religious value. Value is the most important attribute of meaningful lives. Of course most of us don’t live robustly meaningful lives because our lives are not valuable as thus defined, but they can be meaningful to a lesser extent by being important or significant.

Talk of valuable lives leads Belliotti to the idea of leaving historical footprints or legacies. For example, we think of Picasso’s life as valuable and robustly meaningful for the reason that it left a legacy of artwork independent of whatever moral shortcoming he may had. A legacy does not grant us immortality but it does give meaning to our lives by tying us to something beyond ourselves. Dedicated service to our community or commitment to rearing children are classic examples of intense labor that points beyond ourselves and gives so many lives meaning. We can always bemoan our insignificance from a cosmic perspective, but why should we? Meaning is found by standing in relationship to things and people of value, importance, and significance. In simple terms by having fulfilling relationships and appreciating music, literature, and philosophy, as opposed to watching television or engaging in small talk.

In the end we must love life and the world; we must love the valuable things of this world to find meaning in it. Often our habits and the diversions of life obscure our search for meaning, but we can come back to it. With joyous engagement in and relationship to valuable things and people of this world, we can live meaningful lives, and leave some trace of that encounter as our legacy.

Summary – We find meaning in relationship with persons and the objective values of this world, and leaving a legacy if possible.

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[i] Raymond Belliotti, What is the Meaning of Human Life? (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001), 29.

Christopher Belshaw’s, 10 Good Questions about Life and Death

Christopher Belshaw is a Senior Lecturer in philosophy at the Open University. He received his PhD from the University of California-Santa Barbara. In his 2005 book, 10 Good Questions About Life And Death, he devotes a chapter to the question “Is It All Meaningless?”

Belshaw argues that those who seek meaning are concerned that life does not have one. They think either that their own life or all life lacks a point, purpose or significance. Some reasons we might think life meaningless include: a) the brevity of our lives; b) the smallness of life compared with the vastness of the universe; c) the pain and suffering of life; or d) that there are no gods with a master plan.

But are these good reasons to think life meaningless?  Belshaw thinks not. The last argument only follows if there are no gods, and lots of people believe the opposite. As for the claim that life is full of suffering, we might retort that it is full of satisfaction as well. It is hard to challenge the fact that we are small and the universe vast, but is that really significant? Why would life be more meaningful if the universe were smaller or we were bigger? And why would it make a difference for meaning that humans continue to exist forever? These replies lead Belshaw to believe that we don’t want meaning per se, such as fitting into something else’s scheme, but our own meaning and purpose. He suggests we change the focus of our question from the meaning of life in general to that of our individual lives. And he rejects a singular answer in favor of considering various things as giving life meaning. In this way we can make progress in answering our question.

Now the first suggestion is that meaning is up to you; meaning is entirely subjective. Belshaw dismisses this with a thought experiment. If someone claims they live a meaningful life by trying to make their plants sing then, though they may be happy, they are living a pointless and foolish life. You cannot make a life meaningful simply by believing it to be. After all plants don’t sing! Or you might be happy as a drug addict, but we would still judge your life to be a waste.

If the subjective approach  work, what about the objective approach? Belshaw says that the things that matter are relationships, projects, and morally good living. If we really love others, share their pleasures and pains, their hopes and aspirations, it is hard to believe that our lives are insignificant. If we have a project that means something to us—to build a house, write a book, see the world—this fits poorly with the notion that our lives are meaningless. And if we seek to help others and make the world a better place, such a life such will not seem meaningless. Moreover, these points are connected. Involvement with others gives rise to projects, and projects involve you with other people. Living a moral life does something similar. All of these activities are held together by giving our temporal lives a constructive, creative, and ultimately meaningful dimension.

But on reflection the objective approach  seem to work either. Our moral lives and our projects don’t seem to be meaningful if we are not engaged in them. So your attitude, although not sufficient to meaning, does seem necessary.

But even if there are ways to live which are better than others, does it matter in the end? Belshaw counters that the fate of the universe is independent of whether it matters that people suffer, and likewise for the more mundane matters in our lives. Things matter to us and the fate of the universe is irrelevant. You might object that such things don’t really matter but this is no different than plain mattering. If something matters, then it does. The idea of ultimately mattering does not really make sense. Once you ask for the meaning of the meaning, you are involved in an infinite regress—there will be no way to end the search for the ultimate meaning. And yet, although we can view our lives as meaningful from the inside, the external perspective continually reappears. Should we just accept our lives as absurd then? Belshaw says no. The ordinary things in our lives are important even if they don’t change the history of the universe, and there is no inconsistency in this recognition. Life is not absurd.

Should we then be concerned with meaning? Many in the past have not been concerned about it, and Belshaw argues that our current concern emanates from the twentieth century existentialists. The question is not necessarily one of perennial concern. If we consider the life of a typical person that works, gets married, raises a family, and has a little fun, it is not especially meaningful but it is not meaningless either. Such a person may not be very moral, or have any satisfying relationships or work, but if they find their lives worth living we should let the matter rest there. After all too much about life may not be much help, and a simple life of limited meaning and contemplation is probably best.

Our lives differ by degree in terms of their meaning. The meaning of a life differs depending on what the life is like and what the subject living it thinks about it. As for the meaning of the universe we can say that it probably has no meaning, but Belshaw says this does not matter, since we cannot imagine how the universe could have meaning. Thus we don’t lack anything real when we lack ultimate meaning. Belshaw concludes: “Even if we decide that we can see that, really, there is nothing that it’s all about, that’s alright as well.”[i]

Summary – Relationships, projects, and moral lives are the objectively good things that give our subjective lives meaning. And that is enough, as concerns about the ultimate meaning of everything are unfounded.

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[i] Christopher Belshaw, 10 good questions about life and death (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), 128.

Summary of Victor Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Emil Frankl M.D., PhD. (1905 – 1997) was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. Frankl was the founder of logotherapy, a form of Existential Analysis, and best-selling author of Man’s Search for Meaning, which belongs on any list of the most influential books in last half-century—it has sold over 12 million copies! (According to a survey conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club, it is one of “the ten most influential books in America.” New York Times, November 20, 1991)

The first part of the book tells the story of his life in the concentration camps—needless to say it is not for the faint of heart. Although Frankl survived, his parents, brother, and pregnant wife all perished. (There is no good substitute for a close reading of the book to convey the unrelenting misery of the situation, or to appreciate Frankl’s reflections on it. The record of his personal experience and observations of concentration camp life is a priceless cultural legacy.)

Frankl’s philosophical views that emanate from his experience begin by quoting Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” Whether we live to return to our loved ones or to finish our book, if we have a meaning to live for, then we have a reason to survive no matter how miserable the conditions of our lives. This desire to live, what Frankl calls “the will to meaning,” is the primary motive of human life. Putting these ideas together we are driven by the desires to survive, exist, and find meaning.

Frankl believes that a large part of meaning is subjective. It is not what we expect from life but what it expects from us that will provide meaning. We are free and we are responsible for how we live our lives. In this way Frankl sounds like an existentialist and subjectivist, extolling us to create our own meaning. But we classify him as an objectivist, for in the end there are objective values, there are things in this world that can provide meaning for anyone. The three objective sources of meaning are: 1) the experience of goodness or beauty, or of loving others; 2) creative deeds or work; and 3) the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. It is easy to see that love or work could give life meaning. If others whom we love depend upon us, or if we have some noble work to finish, we have a meaning for our lives; we have a why for which to bear any how.

But how is the attitude we take toward suffering a potential source of meaning? Frankl says first that we reveal our inner freedom in the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering; and secondly, like the Stoics said, we can see our suffering as a task that we can bear nobly. Thus our suffering can be an achievement in which tragedy has been transformed into triumph. Frankl observed that prisoners who changed their attitudes toward suffering in this way were the ones who had the best chance of surviving.

Here is an example of Frankl’s description of finding meaning while working in the harsh conditions of the Auschwitz concentration camp:

… We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”

That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory….”

In the end Frankl makes a case for what he calls “tragic optimism.” Life may be tragic, but we should remain optimistic that it meaningful nonetheless—life even in its most tragic manifestations provides ways to make life meaningful.

Summary – Meaning in life is found in productive work, loving relationships, and enduring suffering nobly.