Daily Archives: November 4, 2018

A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 3 – Philosophy, Science, and Meaning

continued from a previous entry

  1. Western Philosophy and Meaning in Life

Western philosophers typically ignore the question of the meaning of life for one or more of the following reasons: 1) they reject supernaturalism; 2) they are uncertain the question makes sense; or 3) they doubt that we possess the cognitive wherewithal to answer the question. I too reject supernaturalism, although I think we can make reasonable inferences about the meaning of life if they are drawn from our best scientific knowledge. I’ll return to this later.

Regarding meaning in life, contemporary Western philosophers typically adopt one of three basic approaches—objective naturalism, subjective naturalism, or nihilism.

Objective naturalists reject supernaturalism and state that meaning can be found in the natural world by connecting with mind-independent, objective, intrinsic goods like truth, beauty, joy, justice, and love. According to these naturalists, we must want and choose objectively good things in order for our lives to be meaningful, so merely wanting and choosing arbitrarily is insufficient for a meaningful life. On this view, a life counting paper clips or memorizing long lists of phone numbers is not meaningful. Instead, paradigms of meaningful lives include those that search for truth, create beauty, act morally, or help others. The main problem with this view is that objective goodness might be illusory or, even if real, unable to provide sufficient meaning.

Subjective naturalists reject supernaturalism and argue that meaning is created by getting what we want or achieving our goals. On this view, meaning varies from person to person and can be found in any subjective desire. It doesn’t matter if we find meaning collecting coins, writing philosophy books, helping the homeless, or torturing innocent children. The main problem with this account is it permits us to find meaning by doing anything we want—including the immoral or trivial. This gives us a strong reason to reject a subjective approach to meaning.

Some philosophers combine these two approaches, arguing that meaning arises when we subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness. The idea is that while our lives are meaningless if we care about worthless or immoral projects, they are also meaningless if we don’t care about worthwhile or objectively good projects. Thus, the meaningful life is one that cares about the right things.

Nihilists argue that neither the cosmos nor individual lives have meaning because nothing has value, nothing matters, and all is futile. Some believe this because a god would be necessary for meaning and no god exists, and some argue that life would be meaningless even if a god was real. Others maintain that life is too boring, unsatisfactory or ephemeral to be meaningful, or that there is no universal morality to give life meaning.

But none of these answers fully satisfies. Nihilism haunts us and no amount of philosophizing is palliative in its wake, but why accept such a depressing conclusion if we can’t know that it’s true? Subjectivism provides a more promising response—we can live meaningfully without accepting religious or objectivist provisos—but we want more than subjective meaning; we want our lives to matter objectively. But even if objective values exist we can still ask, is that all there is? There may be good, true, and beautiful things but does that really matter in the end?

Tentatively, I’d say that by directing subjective desires toward (apparently) objectively good things, we can find meaning in life. But does science support such a conclusion?

    9. Science and Meaning in Life

Positive psychology studies what makes life good, fulfilling, or meaningful. This research has found that we experience meaning and life satisfaction by: 1) fully engaging in activities; 2) mastering challenging tasks; 3) increasing our understanding; 4) enjoying satisfying relationships and social connections; 5) experiencing mindfulness; 6) having a sense of purpose; 7) being optimistic; and 8) feeling concern with something larger than the self—nature, family, social groups, progress, belief systems, political causes, cosmic evolution, etc. Research also shows that having meaning and purpose in our lives predicts better physical and mental health outcomes.

Notably, research on wellbeing and meaning reveals that they aren’t related to age, sex, gender, physical attractiveness, educational level, climate, or money (after one’s basic needs are met). Furthermore, the research strongly suggests that having many material possessions and excess wealth are not related to happiness, well-being, or meaning.

These results overlap with what philosophers have said for millennia—that certain universal human goods provide the deepest fulfillment and meaning. These goods include knowledge, friendship, health, skill, love, autonomy, fulfilling work, and aesthetic enjoyment. Such goods benefit us independently of whether we desire them because they fulfill our biological, psychological and social nature. The idea that good, happy, and meaningful lives involve universal human goods and that wealth and material possessions are but a small part of such lives goes back at least to Aristotle. So modern research largely confirms ancient wisdom.  

Putting this all together gives us a basic conception of good, happy, or meaningful lives. They are lives in which our fundamental needs for food, clothing, shelter, parental love, education, health-care, and physical safety are met; we are not obsessed with material possessions or wealth; we engage in productive work of our own choosing that allows for autonomy, mastery, and purpose; we care for and love both ourselves and others; and we show concern for the best things in life-like truth, beauty, goodness, justice, joy, and love. We might even say that by living a meaningful life we experience a kind of self-transcendence—by living them we transcend the ego.

So it isn’t too hard to find meaning in life—assuming our basic needs are met—what’s hard is choosing between the many different ways that life can be meaningful. Nonetheless, some claim that life is meaningless. Maybe such people are ignorant about what truly gives life meaning, or perhaps they lack life’s necessities, meaningful work, loving relationships, personal freedom, or physical and mental health. Many obstacles exist to finding meaning in life and if we find it we are indeed fortunate.

  1. Is Meaning in Life Enough?

But should we be satisfied with the meaning available in life or should we want more? Here’s my answer. On the one hand, if we have too few desires we will be too easily satisfied with our lives and the current state of the world. On the other hand, if we have too many desires we will be too easily dissatisfied with our lives and the current state of the world. So we should be content enough to experience the meaning life offers while discontent enough to want there to be more meaning. Still, I admit that it is hard to find the best way to balance our outrage at suffering, injustice, and meaninglessness with equanimity, acceptance, and serenity.

Again, we should be grateful to be the kinds of beings who can live meaningful lives. If that is all life can give, we should be satisfied. Still, we can imagine that the meaning in our lives prefigures some larger meaning. We can envisage—and we desire—that there is a meaning of life.

For if everything we love, know, create, and care about ultimately vanishes, then the meaning we find and create in life is ephemeral. Against the backdrop of eternal oblivion, meaning in life is too shallow and fleeting to satisfy our hunger for cosmic meaning. We may find truth, create beauty, attain moral virtue, have a loving family and engaging work, but so what? How does this matter if everything evaporates into nothingness? What we really want then is a connection with some larger cosmic meaning and that seemingly demands that something is eternal.

Part 4 – Death and Meaning