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

18 thoughts on “A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 3 – Philosophy, Science, and Meaning

  1. Love, needs,satisfaction, happiness seems to be the driving force. My conscious state offers morality without explanation, which offers instinctual intelligence passed through our genetic makeup or basic foundation. I could be wrong, although through observation I have noted different perspectives or inclinations from parents, relatives, and others of our culture. Or is it only freedom of choice through experiences, albeit learning?
    My objective nature necessitates everything in it’s place. I admire those who find a place for everything. My natural instinct also dictates cleverness, or looking for simplicity. One never seems t really know when life ends or how. Does that mean life is but an illsion on one plain that we each can recognize??

  2. “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?”

    Yeah, this certainly seems to be the case for me. I deal with this by logically reminding myself there is no way for me to know with any certainty if any meaning exists. Then I use my fantasies to create the best meaning I can come up with and try to ignore as much of my actual experience as possible. It’s the same thing that creators of our favorite movies do. The great thing about doing it in your head is you can constantly change details and beginnings or endings.

    I wonder how much our culture influences these fantasies? Mine often have your basic Hollywood story line with me the hero or antihero and even a few superpowers from time to time. I do try for more depth often but even Hollywood gets there on occasion. Are these my stories or are they my cultures and I’m just along for the ride? I think Becker would say the latter.

  3. “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”

    Probably having too few desires is the way to go: there might not be any way we can discover, as of yet, how to attain a balance between too few desires and too many. However it may be less difficult to find the best way to balance our outrage at suffering, injustice, and meaninglessness with equanimity, acceptance, and serenity.

    Meaning and purpose on one hand. On the other hand is the frequent problem when people go beyond meaning/purpose, and expect redemption; a genuine reckoning. Religionists aren’t satisfied with equanimity, acceptance, and serenity. Heaven to reward the chosen, and Hell to punish those not chosen, is what religionists believe in.

    If they sense that everything they love, know, create, and care about ultimately vanishes, then the intensely mystical meaning they find and create in life is ephemeral. Such is unbearable to them.

  4. If you accept the simplistic science in “Brave New World,” Huxley actually crafted a workable utopia. Most people are force-multipliers for an intellectual minority, and everyone is comfortable in their niche.
    I reject the description of this novel’s setting as a dystopia. There is far less suffering in this world than our own.
    If “meaning” entails perpetual self-discovery and emotional growth, for everyone … well, that’s how you get an overheated planet with acidic oceans full of plastic.
    We need more people satisfied with less, until we figure out how to digitize our brains or prosper in space.

  5. I more or less agree about your take on Huxley’s utopia. And I always thought that Skinner’s utopia in Walden Two, which we look at with horror, would have been very pleasant to those living in it. Very deep questions. JGM

  6. Certainly Huxley’s utopia is preferable to Trump’s dystopia.

    “If ‘meaning’ entails perpetual self-discovery and emotional growth, for everyone … well, that’s how you get an overheated planet with acidic oceans full of plastic.”

    That’s it. In the process of attempting to save the world, people destroy it. Holding onto the effluvia of the past can and does destroy the present and future. Deus ex machine is adherents waiting for some mystical/secular deity to save humanity. Marxists hoping the Marxgeist will save humanity, yet ‘Laws of History’ is a mirage.
    Libertarians probably only increase the size and scope of government: the more government is violently opposed, the more powerful it becomes.
    Conventional spirituality is frequently self-referential. (And we are talking billions of people.) My dear deity. My God, by God! Naturally, such is why they are conventional.. like-minded persons convene in implying: I am out for myself as a sinner. I do not love you, but do love my deity. Thus I can do what I want because ultimately is does not matter what is done to [my] substrate. [My] soul and [my] deity are what counts.

    “until we figure out how to digitize our brains or prosper in space.”

    Perhaps the two go together? Advanced beings containing digitized brains– or beyond what we define as brains– could very well prosper in space. ‘Course, that would not be relatable to us today, any more than hominids two million years ago are relatable to the humans of 2018.

  7. Mr. Brooks:
    Yes, I almost wrote “and/or” in that final sentence. Should have.

    The Road to Immortal Contentment
    1. Fire
    2. Electricity
    3. ???
    4. Digital life in a Dyson cloud

    🙂

  8. Missing piece of the puzzle was learning a several years ago how important SF is to science. Had thought SF was nothing more than entertainment… it is in fact entertainment- but also a bit more. Long before Wernher von Braun there was Jules Verne.
    Sad though that the techno-future is not relatable to what/who we are and how we live today. The future will be real, but not ‘the’ reality we know. Technically the future doesn’t need us– not as we are. An amiable spiritualist can say “come as you are, god will accept you.” That is not what the future is saying. And that segues into:

    “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”

    Meaning may be fleeting, but not necessarily shallow at all. The meaning one gets from loved ones is not shallow albeit is 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?”

    Truth, beauty, moral virtue, engaging work are “so what.” However loving family is not “so what” to anyone. The negative is,

    *If ‘meaning’ entails perpetual self-discovery and emotional growth, for everyone … well, that’s how you get an overheated planet with acidic oceans full of plastic*
    —————————————————————-
    “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.”

    Something may be eternal; but not the Now reality of loved ones, home, trees, etc. Don’t put much store in Jeremy Rifkin’s tomes, yet something at the very end of the book ‘Algeny’ sticks in my mind. The last three words of the book are: “the Cosmos wails.”

    We do gain the world and lose our ‘souls’. Why deny it any longer?

  9. Rather than my usual longwinded posts, here’s a hypothetical:

    Say in the future a thoroughly reputable corporation says to you that they will transport you to Mars to start a new life. Plus they guarantee you will live to age 140– and afterwards they’ll give you a new body. The catch is you have to leave behind everyone you know. But physically, materially, it is a good deal.

    Personally, wouldn’t go for it. Don’t exactly know why. Fear would not be the reason to reject the idea of moving to Mars.. the reason would be more like a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. More than that: wouldn’t want to leave trees and so forth behind even if trees, etc. were planted on a terraformed Mars.
    If someone says, we can give you a very realistic robot wife, but you have to divorce your human wife. The robot wife, though, will never nag you. [Ha ha]
    The majority of husbands would not want to give up their wives for a bot– save for those who were already thinking of divorcing the wife anyway.

    Now to revised paragraph 9.

    “knowledge, friendship, health, skill, love, autonomy, fulfilling work, and aesthetic enjoyment”

    IMO friendship, love, aesthetic enjoyment are being degraded as time goes on. Even Marx recognized how industrialism ruined the most ecstatic religious and romantic reveries with “naked self-interest.”
    Super-industrialism, it is now quite evident, goes further. Satisfying relationships and social connections become as corruptible as all else. The details remain to be seen.
    I accept (acceptance being defined here as allowing something into one’s life) the future– but do not have to appreciate it. One can completely accept going to the dentist without liking it whatsoever. Perhaps an adolescent can better appreciate the disorienting backing and filling of increasingly radical change.

  10. “I just added 3 missing paragraphs from section 9”

    Thank you! I had been puzzling about the title and content of section 9 for three days. Those added three paragraphs make all the difference! The fog in my brain has lifted (at least temporarily, until some new conundrum comes along).

    Along with your mentioning of Aristotle, you could add a link to your essay “Aristotle on the Good Life”. That particular essay was one of the first ones I read on your site and it remains one of my favorites. It seems that the modern developers of Positive Psychology as a scientific discipline must have read a lot of Aristotle.

  11. thanks Jim. Aristotle and the Stoics were the inspiration for a lot of contemporary psychology — especially Maslow and cogntive behavioral therapy.

  12. Btw, am interested in your explanation of Wittgenstein’s work. Can grasp Philosophy, but retain little of it. Formal Philosophy blends in my mind, so that one philosopher soon becomes indistinguishable from another.

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