Tom Morris: Blaise Pascal and the Meaning of Life

Tom Morris (1952 – ) is a former Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and founder of the Morris Institute of Human Values.  His 1992 book, Making Sense of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life, puts forth the case for a Christian answer to the question of life’s meaning based on the philosophy of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662).[i]

Morris begins by summarizing Tolstoy’s argument, which he also finds used by many characters in Woody Allen films: 1) Everything in the world, including my life, will end; so 2) All the consequences of my life will end; thus 3) my life and everything else is meaningless. Morris immediately wonders about the connection drawn here between finitude and meaninglessness. Immortality does not render the question of meaning irrelevant, as we can still ask the meaning of immortal lives. Thus no necessary connection between finitude and meaning should be drawn.

To understand the connection between death and meaning we need not then suppose that the absence of death implies the existence of meaning. To better understand this connection between death and meaning, Morris proposes a general thesis of meaning he calls “the endowment thesis.” It states that: “something has meaning if and only if it is endowed with meaning or significance by a purposive agent or group of agents.”[ii] For example, consider human language. Words do not have intrinsic or essential meaning; the word water does not intrinsically mean liquid H20 anymore than the words “aqua” or “wasser” do. Rather, words are endowed with meaning by linguistic convention, they get their meaning extrinsically. Thus meaning is derivative, it is never intrinsic.

At this point, many philosophers conclude that life has subjective meaning—the subjective endowment thesis—meaning that derives from activities we value and enjoy. Morris grants this argument may block one from committing suicide, but it does little else. One problem, if meaning is entirely subjective, is that we can find meaning from compulsive stamp collecting or by being the world’s best torturer of innocent children. But don’t the goals or purposes around which we center our lives matter? Doesn’t it make some difference what activities we orient our lives around? Surely the answer to both questions is yes, and yet a subjective theory of meaning seems to have to answer no to both questions.

Another problem with the endowment thesis is that we must have control over things to endow them with meaning. Morris calls this the control thesis: “we can endow with meaning only those things over which we have the requisite control.”[iii] The problem is that we have little or no control over those things most significant to meaning like our birth, life, suffering, or death. And without this control we cannot, at least to a large extent, make our lives meaningful.

Morris concludes that if meaning is a matter of endowment, then either there is no objective meaning or some purposive agent, power or plan gives our lives meaning. The failure of subjective endowment combined with the endowment thesis of meaning leads to objective endowment as the only answer. And that is why Morris says that Tolstoy turned to faith in God, and why so many characters in Woody Allen’s films talk about god. Death then does not eliminate meaning, rather it is a sign of our ultimate lack of control over our lives. Thus questions about meaning lead to the search for some ultimate, objective reality to make sense out of them.

The remainder of Morris’ book attempts to repudiate skepticism, explain the hiddenness of God, defend Pascal’s wager, and shield Christian belief against the skeptics. In the end, Morris’ analysis relies on the notion of grace, that we have freely received the favor of God. “It is only by the grace of God that faith, reason, and the meaning of life can finally come together in mutual fulfillment.”[iv] (I disagree wholeheartedly.) As for the relationship between reason and faith, perhaps Pascal said it best: “the heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.”

Summary – Meaning must be endowed. But we cannot endow our own lives with meaning because we do not have control over our lives and deaths. Meaning must, therefore, be endowed by an external purposive agent like a god.


[i] Thomas V. Morris, Making Sense of it All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life (Grand Rapids: William E. Eardman’s Publishing Company, 1992).
[ii] Morris, Making Sense of it all: Pascal and the Meaning of Life, 56.
[iii] Morris, Making Sense of it all: Pascal and the Meaning of Life, 59.
[iv] Morris, Making Sense of it all: Pascal and the Meaning of Life, 212.

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