A Meaningful Question: A Meaningless Life
W.D. Joske (1928- 2006) was a professor of philosophy at the University of Tasmania in Australia. In his 1974 article “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life,” he notes that ordinary people often assume that philosophers think deeply about the meaning of life and related problems. Consequently, they fear philosophy because they think it leads to the conclusion that life is meaningless. A typical response from professional philosophers is that this fear is unfounded since life “cannot be shown to be either significant or insignificant by philosophy.”[i] But Joske argues that this view is mistaken and that one should indeed be afraid of philosophy. It may have something disconcerting to say about the meaning of life after all.
Joske claims that the question of the meaning of life is both vague (its meaning is unclear) and ambiguous (it has many meanings.) The questioner may be asking the meaning of: 1) all life; 2) human life; or 3) an individual life. Joske addresses this second issue only, not concerning himself with questions about the significance of history of Homo sapiens, but rather with the question of “whether or not the typical human lifestyle can be given significance.”[ii] And what makes an activity significant or meaningful? Meaningful activities are ones with significance and that significance can be either intrinsic—from the activity itself—or derivative—from the end toward which that activity leads. Individuals want their activities to have both kinds of significance.[iii]
Yet, Joske argues, even if there is an objective end for humans that end will have meaning for us only if we make it our own. It follows that the meaning of life is not to be discovered in an indifferent world, but must be provided or created by individuals. People who seek meaning in objective facts about the world are confused. The world is unsympathetic to us; it is neither meaningful nor meaningless—it just is. Yet Joske rejects this solution as facile and unsatisfying. The question of the meaning of life is a deep and real one which the simple injunction to create meaning does not adequately answer.
Joske proceeds to claim “that life may be meaningless for reasons other than that it does not contribute to a worthwhile goal so that the failure to find meaning in life can be due to the nature of the world and not simply to failure of adequate commitment by an agent.”[iv] In other words, as opposed to the view of the optimists, the world may be intrinsically and deeply meaningless. Life may be like an activity but its significance can be challenged on many grounds. Joske labels four elements of meaninglessness: worthlessness, pointlessness, triviality, and futility. Activities can be: 1) worthless—lack intrinsic merit as in mere drudgery; 2) pointless—not directed toward any end; 3) trivial—have an insignificant end; or 4) futile—the end cannot be achieved. So activities lack meaning if they are worthless, pointless, trivial, or futile. At one extreme activities are fully meaningful if they lack none of these, that is, if they are intrinsically valuable, directed toward a non-trivial end, and not futile. At the other extreme, actions are fully valueless or meaningless if the lack all four elements of meaning. In between are activities that are partially valuable. Joske says that most of us can never rid ourselves of the view that everything may be futile; and the few who do not think about this are lucky.
Joske now turns to showing how commonly held views lead to the conclusion that life is futile. To explain he clarifies what he means by “the typical human lifestyle.” While there is much diversity of human cultures and people, humans share certain traits such as being rationally reflective and having biological dispositions. So he wonders if we can assess the typical human lifestyle like we can assess activities. The main difference between them is that this core human nature is a given whereas we make choices about our activities. Notwithstanding this Joske thinks there are enough similarities so that we can assess the meaning of life by using the same criteria of judgment we use for activities. Judgments about pointlessness, futility, triviality, and worthiness are applicable to lives. Are there then any commonly held views about the world which would then lead us to view life as meaningless? Joske thinks there are.
CASE 1 – The Naked Ape – Many of our most supposedly noble endeavors are reducible to biology. Much of what we think we choose has been determined by our evolutionary history.
CASE 2 – Moral Subjectivism – Many of our moral choices are futile in the face of the world. With no objective moral reality, much of what we do is futile.
CASE 3 – Ultimate Contingency– The reason for the laws of nature themselves is without reason, they are ultimately coincidences. There is no reason for what we call laws of nature; reality is not rational.
CASE 4 – Atheism– The gods have been thought to ground objective morality. Joske objects that gods and morality cannot be adequately connected, given Plato’s famous question. (Is something right because the gods command it; or do the gods command it because it’s right?)
Moreover, the purpose of the gods does not seem to give our lives meaning unless they become our own; and many find the idea that they can only find meaning in a god’s plan degrading as if man is an instrument for someone else’s amusement. Nonetheless, many still feel that life without gods is meaningless. This is partly because people are indoctrinated to think this, yet Joske concedes that non-belief opens up another level of absurdity. While religious belief denies that life is futile, the non-believer has no such guarantee.
The point of all this is to show that philosophy is not neutral on the question of the meaning of life. It is also to show that there are analogies between futile activities—digging ditches and then filling them—and many things that people actually do as part of a human life. Examples of such futility include: Thinking our actions are noble when they are biologically motivated; dying for a cause which is ultimately unimportant; acting as if things are rational when in fact they are not; believing the gods give meaning when they do not do so or do not exist.
So what now? First Joske says that although we should not reject philosophical views that challenge our view of meaning, we may still question those views since the reasoning which led to them may have been unsound. Second “the futility of human life does not warrant too profound a pessimism. An activity may be valuable even though not fully meaningful…”[v] Although life may be futile—our ultimate ends cannot be achieved—we can still value them and give them our own meaning. However, this is not enough for Joske. If we cannot really be fulfilled, if our ultimate ends cannot really be achieved, life becomes grim. “A philosopher, even though he enjoys living, is entitled to feel some resentment towards a world in which the goals that he must seek are forever unattainable.”[vi]
Summary –The question of the meaning of life is both meaningful and dangerous. It is hard to rid ourselves of the view that life may be meaningless because of considerations related to biology, moral subjectivism, and a contingent, irrational and non-theistic metaphysics. We can try to value our lives, but we are justified in being dissatisfied with a life which might ultimately be futile and meaningless.
[i] W.D. Joske, “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 283.
[ii] Joske, “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life,” 284.
[iii] An activity could be intrinsically worthwhile—drinking beer—but not worthwhile considering the end to which it might lead—alcoholism. An activity could be intrinsically worthless—running in circles around a track—but worthwhile considering the end to which it leads—cardiovascular fitness. We desire an activity which is intrinsically significant and significant considering the end toward which it leads—say loving our spouse which brings happiness.
[iv] Joske, “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life,” 286.
[v] Joske, “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life,” 293-94.
[vi] Joske, “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life,” 294.