Monthly Archives: December 2014

Scientific Facts and Meaning

Our last post argued that facts are relevant to the meaning of our lives. Scientific facts are especially germane, since you can’t have a coherent picture of the world without some understanding of modern science. Why? Because science is the only cognitive authority in the world today. Yes, there are things that science has not or cannot discover and scientific theories are always provisional. Still the well established truths of science should be the starting point for serious inquiry into the human condition—theoretical musings are no substitute for empirical evidence. To understand the world and our place within it, we must begin with the knowledge of modern science.[i]

But which parts of science are most relevant to the meaning of life? The problem is that the scientific areas most relevant to our inquiry—anthropology, psychology, sociology, and history—are imprecise sciences; and those least relevant to our concerns—mathematics, physics, and chemistry—are the most precise. If a science is to help our search for meaning, it must be both precise and relevant to our concerns. Are there such areas of science?

Cosmology and biology would be those sciences. Both are precise and both have important things to say about the meaning of life. Cosmology, broadly conceived as referring to the current state of the universe as well as to it origin and fate, is obviously applicable. Biology is also important; it tells us what human nature is. To understand the question of the meaning of life we need to understand the origin and fate of both the universe and ourselves. must have a basic understanding of these sciences.


[i] I would argue that science, not philosophy discovers truth. Philosophy should concern itself with values and meaning. For more see Jean Piaget’s The Insights and Illusions of Philosophy (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977).

Facts and Meaning

Facts and meaning are related. We infer the meaning of our lives from facts about ourselves and the world, mindful that the conclusions we draw from facts are provisional. Yet modern philosophers hesitate to draw philosophical conclusions—especially about values—from facts. In the early twentieth-century many philosophers charged those who drew such conclusions with committing the naturalistic fallacy—inferring what ought to be the case from what is the case. For example, it may be a fact that humans are innately aggressive, but nothing follows from that about whether they should be. We cannot derive values from facts or get ought from is if the naturalistic fallacy is valid.

While it is generally agreed that we cannot deduce facts from values, facts are still relevant to values. From that fact of our humanity we infer that some things are good for us—like food, health, knowledge, and friendship. We also assume that some things are bad for us— like pain, starvation, ignorance, and loneliness. If our nature were different, our values would be too. If we were angels, we would not need food; if we were rocks, we would not need friends. The fact that projectiles can pierce our brains doesn’t by itself imply that shooting someone is immoral, but if projectiles hitting our brains made us feel good rather than harming us, then the moral prohibition against shooting projectiles at human brains would disappear. Facts tell us tell us something values.

Facts are also relevant to meaning. When modern science uncovered new facts—that the earth was not at the center of the solar system or natural selection rather than the gods made us—our confidence in meaning was shaken. New facts challenge our conception of meaning. Whether I am an angel, a modified monkey, or live in a computer simulation matters, whether I die or am immortal, are all facts that matter in evaluating the meaning of life. There can be no understanding of the meaning of life unless we consider known truths about ourselves and the universe. In our next post we will discuss why the truths revealed by modern science are especially relevant in our search for the meaning of life.

Death and the Meaning of Life

A painting of an autopsy, by Rembrandt, entitled "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp"

Death causes many to doubt life’s meaning. It isn’t surprising that the meaninglessness of life consumes Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, or that death figures prominently in the world’s literature about the meaning of life. Consider these haunting lines from James Baldwin:

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.[i]

Something binds the topics of death and meaning. The thought of oblivion arouses even the non-philosophical among us. What is the relationship between death and meaning?Death is variously said to:

  1. render life meaningless;
  2. detract from life’s meaning;
  3. add to life’s meaning;
  4. render life meaningful.

Death has always been inevitable, but the idea that science will eventually conquer death has taken root—achieved through some combination of future technologies like nanotechnology, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and robotics. Some think the possibility of technological immortality renders human life meaningless, others that life can only attain its full meaning if death is overcome.

But whatever view one takes about the relationship between death and meaning, the two are joined. If we had three arms or six fingers, our analysis of the meaning of life wouldn’t change; but if we didn’t die our analysis would be vastly different. If our concerns with annihilation vanished, a good part of what seems to undermine meaning would disappear. To understand the issue of the meaning of life, we must think about death. Pascal’s words echo across the centuries:

Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition.

Can we find meaning in this picture?


[i] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage, 1992).

Do We Ask About Meaning Because We Are Sick, Decadent, or Unhappy?

Do We Ask Because We’re Sick? – Freud may have been right when he claimed: “The moment a [person] questions the meaning of life, [they are] sick …”[i] No doubt the question of life’s  meaning arises more often when things go badly than when they go well, but the question can arise anytime. Even if you ask the question continually, thinking about an important question is not necessarily detrimental to mental health. You might enjoy constantly thinking about the question as others enjoy their daily walk. Despite Freud’s claims , we will assume that he is wrong—asking questions about the meaning of life does not reveal mentally illness. On the contrary, posing deep questions may be a marker of psychological health, the truest expression of humanity.

Do We Ask Because We’re Decadent? – Only those whose basic needs are met have time for philosophical contemplation. So isn’t it decadent for the well-off to pose these questions, especially when many others barely survive? Isn’t it disingenuous when the well-fed muse over the worthiness of their lives? I don’t think so. Perhaps the people posing the questions are decadent, but that doesn’t mean the questions themselves are trivial. A desire for truth,  not self-indulgence, may motivate questions. And good might come from thinking about non-trivial questions—maybe the contemplative will become kinder or more generous as a result. To search for meaning is not corrupt.

Do We Ask Because We’re Unhappy? – If we were happy, would we still wonder about the meaning of life? And if not, does that mean that happiness is the meaning of life? Aristotle thought that happiness was the goal of life, although it is not clear that he thought the happy life and the meaningful one were coextensive. We generally think less about meaning when we are happy, but even then questions about meaning arise. We may, for example, be disturbed that our happiness will not last. And most philosophers do not think that happiness and meaning are synonymous, even though both are goods.[ii] Here is why.

Meaning and Happiness – It is easy to imagine a happy life that isn’t meaningful. You could be happy connected to a futuristic happiness machine, but we would hesitate to call such lives meaningful. Alternatively, one’s life might be meaningful but unhappy—some people are unhappy when doing their duty. Maybe then the moral life is the meaningful one. But that does not seem right either, inasmuch as lives can be meaningful without reference to morality. I may find meaning collecting coins or rooting for a sports team, but neither are moral actions. Perhaps then lives are more meaningful if they are also happy or moral. Perhaps. But this does not mean that happiness, morality and meaning are the same. Meaning seems distinct from both happiness and morality. Meaning is sui generis.


[i] Sigmund Freud, The Letters of Sigmund Freud (New York: Basic Books, 1960), 436.

[ii] Thaddeus Metz, “Happiness and Meaningfulness: Some Key Differences,” in Philosophy and Happiness, ed. Lisa Bortolotti (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

Emotions and the Meaning of Life

Do emotions influence your view of the meaning of life more than rational considerations?If so then our thinking about meaning isn’t neutral but thoroughly infused with prejudices. In fact it is probably impossible to separate our reason and emotion from each other, and recent research suggests that emotions play an important part in our reasoning.[i] Our philosophy may simply reflect our personality.

Yet there is evidence that reason and emotion lead to different results when applied to philosophical issues. For instance, consider the “trolley problem,” where a runaway train approaches a fork in the track with one person tied to the track on one side, and five persons tied to a track on the other. People are more likely to recommend flipping a switch diverting a train to kill one person rather than five, than they are to recommend pushing a single individual in the train’s path to divert it—even though the outcome of the actions is the same. The typical explanation of this discrepancy is that flipping the switch is a more neutral action that elicits a cognitive response whereas pushing the person elicits a more emotional response.[ii]

We don’t know how or if our brain fuses its rational and emotional components to make philosophical decisions. It could be that reasoning leads to conclusions about meaning, but that our emotions resist them; or it could be that a unitary brain decides. We just don’t know. (It is doubtful whether talk of rational and emotional brains makes sense.) Given this uncertainty as to the role reasons, feelings, and attitudes play in the evaluative process, as well as whether our models adequately describe brains, we should be skeptical of our philosophical conclusions. If we really want to know what is true, we should continually reevaluate all of our tentative conclusions. We should remain fallibilists.


[i] Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (New York: Harper Perennial, 1995).

[ii] Joshua D. Greene, “The Secret Joke of Kant’s soul,” in Moral Psychology, Vol. 3: The Neuroscience of Morality, ed. W. Sinnott-Armstrong (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008).