Le Penseur in the Musée Rodin in Paris
Raymond Belliotti is Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy SUNY Fredonia. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Miami and a J.D. from Harvard University.
Belliotti’s book What Is The Meaning Of Human Life? (2001) advances an objective naturalist approach to meaning. He begins by addressing the bearing of theistic belief for meaning and concludes that for those who truly believe doubts vanish and the meaning of life is clear. “Charitably interpreted, theism can fulfill the deepest human yearnings.”[i] The problem is that belief is hard to maintain and doubt hard to swallow. In short, belief requires a leap of faith that many will resist. Yet he finds nihilism even less compelling. It is just not true that life is pointless. Meaning is possible, and the process of creating it satisfies most of us at least some of the time. Still, the question of life’s meaning continually intrudes, becoming most acute in times of psychological crisis. As for subjective accounts of meaning, they are deflationary, providing a starting point in the search for meaning but not the robust meaning that most desire. Believing one’s life has meaning does not make it so.
These considerations lead to a kind of philosophical paralysis, especially when our lives our viewed from the cosmic perspective. Adopting the cosmic perspective we might conclude that the cosmos and our lives lack meaning, that we are limited, insignificant, and impermanent. In response numerous strategies are available. One would be to accept that meaningful lives don’t require significance from a cosmic perspective but only from a human perspective. One could lower the bar that needs to be reached in order to call a life meaningful. Another might use the cosmic perspective to help put things in perspective, to take ourselves less seriously, and to view our sufferings as less grave. Used creatively the cosmic perspective can help us.
Thus we should oscillate between perspectives, using whichever one aided us at the moment. If we want to feel vibrant in the moment, savoring our current achievements, we could adopt the personal perspective. If we want to reflect on our situation from afar, we could adopt the cosmic perspective. So we can maximize happiness and minimize suffering by deftly switching perspectives.
This discussion of perspectives shows that meaning is connected with consciousness, freedom, and creativity. The more these attributes adhere to a being, the greater the possibility of meaning. Thus meaning is not out there waiting to be discovered, the individual must contribute to its creation. Still, we cannot create meaning out of nothing, but only from our interaction with objects of value. This takes us back to the familiar discussion of objective values. Belliotti argues that engaged lives concerned with freely chosen trivial values count as minimally meaningful.
Thus a meaningful life does not have to be significant or important, but fully meaningful lives are both—significant because they influence other people, and important because they made a difference in the world. And to be valuable a life must produce moral, intellectual, aesthetic, or religious value. Value is the most important attribute of meaningful lives. Of course most of us don’t live robustly meaningful lives because our lives are not valuable as thus defined, but they can be meaningful to a lesser extent by being important or significant.
Talk of valuable lives leads Belliotti to the idea of leaving historical footprints or legacies. For example, we think of Picasso’s life as valuable and robustly meaningful for the reason that it left a legacy of artwork independent of whatever moral shortcoming he may had. A legacy does not grant us immortality but it does give meaning to our lives by tying us to something beyond ourselves. Dedicated service to our community or commitment to rearing children are classic examples of intense labor that points beyond ourselves and gives so many lives meaning. We can always bemoan our insignificance from a cosmic perspective, but why should we? Meaning is found by standing in relationship to things and people of value, importance, and significance. In simple terms by having fulfilling relationships and appreciating music, literature, and philosophy, as opposed to watching television or engaging in small talk.
In the end we must love life and the world; we must love the valuable things of this world to find meaning in it. Often our habits and the diversions of life obscure our search for meaning, but we can come back to it. With joyous engagement in and relationship to valuable things and people of this world, we can live meaningful lives, and leave some trace of that encounter as our legacy.
Summary – We find meaning in relationship with persons and the objective values of this world, and leaving a legacy if possible.
[i] Raymond Belliotti, What is the Meaning of Human Life? (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001), 29.