A Meaningless Question and Valuable Lives
Kai Nielsen (1926- ) is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Calgary. Before moving to Canada, Nielsen taught for many years at New York University (NYU). He is a prolific writer, the author of more than 30 books and 400 articles.
In his 1964 article, “Linguistic Philosophy and The Meaning of Life” Nielsen begins by agreeing with Ayer that the purpose of life is the end at which all things aim. The trouble with this answer, as Ayer pointed, is that it only explains existence—but we want more. We want the end to be something we chose, not something dictated from the outside. In short when we ask what the meaning of life is we don’t want an explanation of how things are; we want a justification of why things are. And no matter how completely we explain the facts about the world that does not tell us how we should live and die, it never tells us the meaning of it all.
Nielsen offers the example of discovering all sorts of facts about yourself. If after all this discovering you decide to continue to live as you had before, who can justifiably say that you are mistaken? No one is justified in saying that because all of these facts don’t imply any values about how to live.
Now suppose we add a god. Even if we assume there are gods, that they have purposes for us, and that we know these purposes, this still does not provide meaning for our lives. Why? Because either we have to be part of that plan or we don’t. If we have to be part of some god’s plan then these purposes would be the god’s purposes, not ours, since the gods chose them and we did not. But if we do not have to be part of some god’s purpose then we must judge if a god’s plans are valuable, we must be the judge of whether to conform to the plan or not. So when we ask “what is the meaning of life?” we are not asking what our purpose is as a divine artifact. We don’t want to know what we were made for, or that we were constructed for something which may or may not have value. We want to know if there is something in our lives that gives us purpose, we want to know why we should live one way instead of another. And whether there are gods with plans for us or whether there are some ends built into us by nature, these facts don’t tell us how to live and die, they don’t tell us the meaning of it all. Only we can decide this for ourselves.
So far Nielsen agrees with Ayer’s analysis. But while Ayer concluded that we cannot reason about how to live, that value judgments are subjective, Nielsen argues that we can and do reason about morality—we do give reasons for saying one ought to do x or that x is good. But more importantly, Nielsen suggests that when we ask about meaning we really are asking for more than an answer to questions about what we ought to do or seek or value. Instead, we are asking whether what we do matters at all. We are asking “Does anything matter?” But how do we answer such a question? If I say that love, conversation, and hiking are worthwhile to me, that they matter to me, I don’t seem to really have answered the question. We want to know if these things are really worthwhile, that they ever really matter in some ultimate way.
But does it make sense to ask if anything is really worthwhile? For this question to be intelligible we need some standard of worthiness outside of our subjective preferences. Suppose for example that the standard for a worthwhile life is whether or not that life brings about the elimination of all human suffering. In that case, one might legitimately say that life is worthless since nothing one does will likely achieve that goal. Such a criterion for worthiness is unrealistic. In contrast, Nielsen argues that something is worthwhile not only if it ought to be achieved, but also that it can be achieved. If the goal cannot be achieved—eliminating all human suffering—one is bound to be frustrated, which means that one has set the bar too high. Instead, we should set the bar more realistically by making our purpose, for example, to “help alleviate the sum total of human suffering.”[i] This realistic goal is more conducive to our finding meaning. Often the frustration one feels from not being able to do more leads to questions about meaning. In this case, we can probably not understand all suffering much less eliminate it, but we can find meaning by fighting against it. In short, Nielsen counsels us to adopt the attitude that some things are valuable.
So what things are of value? Going to art museums or on fishing trips is valuable if you like art and fishing. And to say that such things are not eternal does not detract from their meaning. In fact, it might add to it, since an eternity of doing these things would be boring. If we seek a more general answer to the question of why anything is worthwhile we might answer that people’s preferences, desires, and interests are the cause of them finding certain things worthwhile. The reason certain things are worthwhile depends on the thing in question. So questions about the meaning of life do ultimately reduce to questions about ends that are worthwhile—we do find worthwhile what we desire, approve of, or admire. This may seem unsatisfactory, but all we can do is show that questions about what is meaningful or worthwhile are intelligible; they are amenable to general answers. If we value things, they are worthwhile to us.
But what if someone still wants an objective answer to the meaning of life question, an answer that is independent of a particular person’s values? Nielsen argues that this question cannot be answered. There simply cannot logically be something that gives meaning to everything else but which is independent of human values. One way of understanding this point is to consider questions like “how hot is blue?” or “what holds the universe up?” These have the grammatical form of intelligible questions, but they are not intelligible. We can answer why certain things are valuable but the question of why things as a whole are valuable is non-sensible. Nielsen argues that if you continue to ask the meaning of life question after you have been told about subjective values, you will never be satisfied and something may be psychologically wrong with you. You may simply be expressing your own anxiety or insecurity.
Summary – We cannot know the answer to the question, why anything. As for the meaning of life, it is more than a question about what is valuable; it asks whether anything is valuable or anything matters. We might say that nothing matters since our efforts to effect change come to so little, but we should find meaning in the little we can do. Thus meaning reduces to subjective ends that we find worthwhile.
[i] Kai Nielsen, “Linguistic” Philosophy and “The Meaning of Life,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 211.