Robert Nozick on the Meaning of Life

Robert Nozick 1977 Libertarian Review cover.jpg

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 of creating it was meaningful, any more 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.


[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.

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